Here is a great book, picked up in a flea market: “Zen and Japanese Culture,” a classic which has been through hundreds of printings in hundreds of languages. It is an easy book to value, because it has never not been pricey in the market since its first printing in 1938.
J.S.’s copy is from 1959 – the author Daisetz Suzuki writes in his preface that he begs the reader’s indulgence for not rewriting the book after many years. The book’s first title in 1939 was “Zen Buddhism and its Influence on Japanese Culture” (pub. Eastern Buddhist Society of Otani Buddhist University at Kyoto). Instead of rewriting the book, he explains, he includes three new chapters integral to understanding Zen: Swordsmanship, The Art of Tea and The Haiku. That’s because in the 1959 edition, Suzuki had become, as he says, enamored of the relationship between those topics and Zen, which he fits into a section which includes the Japanese love of nature.
The 1959 edition is lavishly illustrated with ‘tipped in’ plates; photos of rock gardens; paintings from the 600’s on up; photos of shrines; and one amazing undocumented painting of the Buddha entering Nirvana under the trees, where we see his mother Queen Maya with medicine and his disciple Mahakasyapa, both arriving too late. All of nature, human and non-human, mourns as the trees burst into flower. This is from the early 18th century
This book has been an enduring classic mainly because of the way language is used to illustrate Zen; a first edition, 1938, will set you back $800. Even the Princeton paperback sells used for $40, because the book has been so readable for 84 years. The language is befittingly both simple and poetic as it describes 2,500 years of Buddhist history and relationship to Zen.
Mr. Suzuki illustrates the concept of Zen with stories, such as this from Goso Hoyen (d 1104): “If you must ask what Zen is like, I will say it is like learning the art of burglary; The son of an aging burglar asks to learn the art. Thus, the father takes the son on a burglary, and in the night, locks his son into a large trunk, awakens the household, and leaves, unnoticed, to return home. The son lay in the trunk hating his father. He thought to make rat sounds; he was discovered, and fled, hoisting a huge stone into the well in the courtyard. In pursuit, the household flock around the well, looking deep into the dark waters for the drowning burglar. Returning to his father’s house, he accosted his father, who said, “Son, don’t be offended, just tell me how you got out of it.” Which the son did, and then the father said: “There you are. You have learned the art.””
Mr. Suzuki comments on this parable: Satori (enlightenment) must be an outgrowth of one’s inner life, and not brought from the outside.
Why use art to illustrate Zen? Mr. Suzuki says: “the artist’s work is of free creation from intuitions directly … unhampered by senses and intellect. He creates forms and sounds out of formlessness and soundlessness.” And then the author makes the case that Zen is unique because Zen influences every part of life, not just the spiritual.
The 1959 book is published by Bolligen Foundation, responsible for publishing books, like this one, which have had tremendous impacts upon culture since 1940, when it was founded by a husband and wife team. Over many years, the Foundation awarded Fellowships and gave an annual prize for poetry. The Foundation published 275 titles, its last one in 2002.
Notable individual titles include the Wilhelm/Baynes translation of the “I Ching,” or “Book of Changes”; D. T. Suzuki’s “Zen and Japanese Culture”; Vladimir Nabokov’s translation of Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin”; Erich Neumann’s “The Origins and History of Consciousness”; Mircea Eliade’s “The Myth of the Eternal Return”; Isaiah Berlin’s “The Origins of Romanticism”; Gershom Scholem’s “Sabbati Ṣevi”; E. H. Gombrich’s “Art and Illusion”; and Kenneth Clark’s “The Nude.”
There’s a lovely little delicate, beautifully penned inscription from a friend named Shirley on the flyleaf of J.S.’ book: “To Ann: If your eyes see,/ and ears hear,/ not a doubt you’ll cherish/ How naturally the rain drips from the leaves!”
Throughout the book, Suzuki elegantly analyzes haiku such as this, and here is my favorite, a symphony in simple green after a rainfall: “A solitary frog drenched in rain/Rides on a Basho leaf,/ Unsteadily.”
The value of the flea market treasure is $100.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.