In 1970 the sixty-six-year-old Japanese Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, the first Japanese Zen teacher to establish a center in the West, saw the publication of a compilation of his talks given to American students. That book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind—the first and only book by Suzuki to appear in his lifetime—became the best-selling and best-loved Zen book ever written. Still in print, and still yearly outselling most other Zen books, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind is quoted extensively by Zen and non-Zen people alike, the phrase “beginner’s mind” itself having become a contemporary cultural term. The book’s straightforward, honest, and deceptively simple words somehow speak eloquently to our current condition.
Now, almost forty-five years later, Tim Burkett, abbot of the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center, and one of Suzuki’s earliest American disciples, is publishing his first book on Zen. Like Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Nothing Holy about It is also the fruit of a lifetime of practice with others. Like Suzuki Roshi, Tim isn’t a writer. Both these Zen men spent their lives working with students, doing what they could to help make the practice clear—steadily, locally, quietly, day by day. Neither had interest in nor time for writing, traveling, or public speaking. But in both cases, devoted students, appreciating the beneficial power of their words and wanting to share those words more widely, spent years of painstaking work transcribing, honing, distilling, until finally they produced texts worthy of the sincere and heartfelt teachings of their teachers. So, many years ago Trudy Dixon, and today Wanda Isle, have birthed lovely and helpful texts—so that you can now hold in your hands a text that is more than another book on Zen—it is a life.
Another similarity between Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and this book is that they both manage, somehow, to speak simultaneously to beginners and to experienced Zen students—a trick not easy to accomplish. When I first read Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, the year it came out, I learned many useful things for my then brand-new practice, but at the same time, I could feel depths I was only dimly aware of. Rereading it over the years, I have been amazed by how many Buddhist teachings and philosophies Suzuki Roshi was referencing, in the simplest of ways, easily and gracefully—and with no sacrifice of depth. This is also true of Nothing Holy about It. The reader new to Zen will appreciate Tim’s effortless ability to explain things about Zen practice that are usually left unexplained or poorly explained—especially psychological teachings that every contemporary student needs to know—and to do this with grandfatherly generosity and understanding (possibly because Tim, as he often mentions in the book, actually is a grandfather). The experienced Zen student will enjoy and learn from Tim’s many teaching innovations that are sometimes entirely original and sometimes surprising reformulations of traditional teachings. I myself, in reading the text, was often startled by his useful descriptions of various stages of practice and listings of practice factors that I had never seen before—Tim’s unique down-to-earth teachings.
You can tell a teacher by his or her students and by the environment for practice the teacher has fostered. A visit to the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center, on Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis, tells you a lot about who Tim Burkett is. The place is modest and simple (just an old, though very well kept-up, Midwestern house); the students earnest, hardworking, serious. An atmosphere of friendliness and care pervades.
Tim himself is like this, steady, dedicated, ordinary—and full of fun. He loves to tell stories (as you will soon see), and when he does he smiles broadly, his sparkling blue eyes all but disappearing into his head behind bushy eyebrows. And he laughs a lot. My visits to his house have featured long evenings of quiet storytelling, with laughter and a sweet feeling of friendship—evenings that could have gone on forever.
Not that Tim’s life has been entirely easygoing. Having had a stormy youth, and two siblings with mental illness, Tim has spent a full career in the mental-health field, work he’s done simultaneously with his Zen practice and as an expression of it. For some years he has been CEO of People Incorporated, one of the largest and most successful mental-health nonprofit organizations in Minnesota.
As you read Nothing Holy about It, you’ll notice three distinct themes. First, Tim’s heart and teachings. Second Tim’s life, beginning with his Stanford days—a life whose shape, influenced by many years of Zen practice, is now clear. And third, a portrait of Tim’s teacher, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, who was, during the time Tim knew him, not the legendary Zen master he is today but an ordinary Japanese Zen priest, Rev. Suzuki. As a member myself of Suzuki Roshi’s lineage, I have heard many stories about our old teacher, but I have never heard these wonderfully simple and very personal anecdotes of the very earliest days.
Recently a friend told me that when he practiced Zen in Japan he met a powerful Zen master who declared to him that the future of Zen was in the West. “But,” the master added, “ the West lacks the true spirit of Zen.” “What is the true spirit of Zen?” my friend asked. “Modesty,” he said.
So enjoy this wonderful, useful, profound yet modest book that expresses the true spirit of Zen. It and its warmhearted author are blessings for the world, and I am honored and very pleased to introduce them to you.