Not so long ago I read the “new” Suzuki Roshi book, Not Always So (published in 2003.) I thought, wow, these guys did a great job, it’s exactly like Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind! But when I picked up that book I saw the chapters (talks) were longer and the type was denser. I read Ed Brown’s introduction or afterword and the methodology seemed sound, lots of smart people had spent a lot of time thinking about this and working hard on it, and the editors were at many if not all of the talks. Anyway, read it, it’s great. You can buy it here. I wasn’t at Tricycle in 2003 but I figured we must have excerpted something when the book came out and we did: Brown Rice is Just Right. The text appears just as it does in the book (where it’s the shortest chapter.) You can also find transcripts of Suzuki Roshi’s actual talks on San Francisco Zen Center’s beautiful, meticulous site. Here’s the one for Brown Rice: Morning Sesshin Lecture, Sunday, February 1, 1970. Read them side by side and see how different they are. The transcript is probably five times as long as the chapter in the book. Lots of factors contribute to this: Suzuki Roshi was not a native English speaker and had an idiosyncratic speaking style (Ed Brown discusses the reasons for preserving Roshi’s wonderful phrase things as it is in the introduction) and more generally, speaking is different from writing, or if you like, listening is a different activity than reading. At Tricycle we come across this all the time in transcriptions of our Online Retreats and various audio/video items. You listen to something and think, Wow, amazing! Then you see it paper and it seems to mean something different. You see points that perhaps you missed while listening, or you hear things in the talk that you don’t get from the words onscreen or on paper. (In school there was some theory that some kids learned by reading and others by listening, which was the excuse for having to read a chapter and then hear the teacher describe what you read as you dozed in your chair. I don’t know if this idea still has any currency.) Here are the two passages side by side, first the transcript:

How do you-how do you like zazen? [Laughs, laughter.] And maybe-maybe better to ask you how do you like brown rice? [Laughs, laughter.] I think this is better question, you know. Zazen is too much. [Laughs, laughter.] Brown rice, I think, just right. [Laughter.] But actually not much difference. [Laughter.] Zazen has strong f- [partial word]-zazen is strong food like brown rice. And I was very much interested in the way you eat brown rice. [Laughs.] I’m-I’m very much impressed, you know, the way you eat brown rice.

Here’s the edit:

How do you like zazen? I think it may be better to ask, how do you like brown rice? Zazen is too big a topic. Brown rice is just right. Actually, there is not much difference.

(Investigate this thoroughly. These are the words of a fully realized master—you should certainly not neglect them.) There’s no denying that to the ears, or eyes of English-speakers the second one is better, and reading Suzuki Roshi is always a pleasure. But wouldn’t you rather have sat and listened to him on February 1st, 1970? You can buy Not Always So (and lots of other stuff) from the SFZC Bookstore.

Dharma to your inbox

Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters