D. T. Suzuki
Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki (October 18, 1870 – July 22, 1966; standard transliteration: Suzuki Daisetsu, 鈴木大拙) was a Japanese Buddhist scholar and philosopher, who pioneered bridging the Far Eastern world and the West by introducing Zen Buddhism and other Far Eastern religious thought to the West. He published more than one hundred books, including translations. He articulated Zen concepts and teachings that explicitly denied linguistic articulation and conceptual comprehension. Suzuki explicated them for Western audiences who had little or no familiarity with Far Eastern thought.
Suzuki presented Zen and other Far Eastern religious thought, not as a mysterious esoteric teaching which only provokes curiosity, but as a profound religious thought, based upon his own interpretive scrutiny, that was attractive to Western intellectuals. His analyses of Far Eastern tradition also helped Asians to recapture the values of their religious heritage, which were in decline due to rapid modernization and the hasty import of Western culture. Suzuki’s efforts in pioneering a bridge between the East and the West were a manifestation of his commitment to the religious thought that he taught. Without his contribution, the lack of understanding between these two worlds might have been as wide and deep as the Pacific Ocean.
D. T. Suzuki was born as Teitarō Suzuki in Honda-machi, Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, the fourth son of physician Ryojun Suzuki (he later changed his given name on becoming a Zen monk). Although his birthplace no longer exists, a monument marks its location. The Samurai class into which Suzuki was born declined with the fall of feudalism, which forced Suzuki's mother to raise him in impoverished circumstances after his father died. When he became old enough to reflect on his fate in being born into this situation, he began to look for answers in various forms of religion. His naturally sharp and philosophical intellect found difficulty in accepting some of the cosmologies to which he was exposed.
His brother, a lawyer, financed his education in Tokyo at Waseda University. During this time (1891), he also entered spiritual studies at Engaku-ji in Kamakura, initially under Kosen Roshi; then, after Kosen's death, with Soyen Shaku. Soyen was an exceptional Zen monk. In his youth, Kosen and others recognized him to be naturally advantaged. Three years after he had received "Dharma transmission" from Kosen at age 25, Soyen took the unique step of traveling to Ceylon to study Pāli and Theravada Buddhism and live the alien life of the bhikkhu for three years.
Suzuki left Waseda University and shifted his focus to Zen practices. His friend Kitaro Nishida invited him to study philosophy at Tokyo University. While Suzuki continued Zen practices, he studied Western philosophy intensely for three years.
Under Soyen Shaku, Suzuki's studies were essentially internal and non-verbal, including long periods of sitting meditation (zazen). The task involved what Suzuki described as four years of mental, physical, moral, and intellectual struggle.
During training periods at Engaku-ji, Suzuki lived a monk's life. He described this life and his own experience at Kamakura in his book The Training of the Zen Buddhist Monk. Suzuki was invited by Soyen Shaku to visit the United States in the 1890s. Suzuki acted as English-language translator for a book written by him in (1906). Though Suzuki had, by this point, translated some ancient Asian texts into English, his role in translating and ghostwriting aspects of this book marked the beginning of Suzuki's career as a writer in English.
While he was young, Suzuki had set about acquiring knowledge of Chinese, Sanskrit, Pali, and several European languages. Soyen Shaku was one of the invited speakers at the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893. When a German scholar who had set up residence in Illinois, Dr. Paul Carus, approached Soyen Shaku to request his help in translating and preparing Oriental spiritual literature for publication in the West, the latter instead recommended his disciple Suzuki for the job. Suzuki lived at Dr. Carus’s home and worked with him, initially in translating the classic Tao Te Ching from ancient Chinese. In Illinois, Suzuki began his early work Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism.
Carus himself had written a book offering an insight into and overview of Buddhism, titled The Gospel of Buddha. Soyen Shaku wrote an introduction for it, and Suzuki translated the book into Japanese. At this time, around the turn of the century, quite a number of Westerners and Asians (Carus, Soyen, and Suzuki included) were involved in the worldwide Buddhist revival that had begun slowly in the 1880s.
Besides living in the United States, Suzuki traveled through Europe before taking up a professorship back in Japan. Suzuki married Beatrice Erskine Lane in 1911, a Theosophist and Radcliffe College graduate. Dedicating themselves to spreading an understanding of Mahayana Buddhism, they lived in a cottage on the Engaku-ji grounds until 1919, then moved to Kyoto, where Suzuki began professorship at Otani University in 1921. While he was in Kyoto, he visited Dr. Hoseki Shinichi Hisamatsu, a famous Zen Buddhist scholar, and discussed Zen Buddhism with him at Shunkoin temple in the Myoshinji temple complex.
In the same year he joined Otani University, he and his wife, Beatrice, founded the Eastern Buddhist Society; the Society is focused on Mahayana Buddhism and offers lectures and seminars, and publishes a scholarly journal, The Eastern Buddhist. Suzuki maintained connections in the West and, for instance, delivered a paper at the World Congress of Faiths in 1936, at the University of London (he was an exchange professor during that year).
Besides teaching about Zen practice and the history of Zen (or Ch'an) Buddhism, Suzuki was an expert scholar on the related philosophy called, in Japanese, Kegon; which he thought of as the intellectual explication of Zen experience.
Still a professor of Buddhist philosophy in the middle decades of the twentieth century, Suzuki wrote some of the most celebrated introductions to and overall examinations of Buddhism, and particularly of its Chinese Chan school (though he usually referred to this sect by the term "Zen," which is the Japanese pronunciation of its name). He went on a lecture tour of American universities in 1951, and taught at Columbia University from 1952-57.
Suzuki was especially interested in the formative centuries of this Buddhist tradition in China. Many of Suzuki's writings in English concern themselves with translations and discussions of bits of the Chan texts the Biyan Lu (Blue Cliff Record) and the Wumenguan (Gateless Passage), which record the teaching styles and words of the classical Chinese masters. He was also interested in how this tradition, once imported into Japan, had influenced Japanese character and history, and wrote about it in English in Zen and Japanese Culture. Suzuki's reputation was secured in England before he became well known in the U.S.
In addition to his popularly oriented works, Suzuki wrote a translation of the Lankavatara Sutra and a commentary on its Sanskrit terminology. Later in his life he was a visiting professor at Columbia University. He looked in on the efforts of Saburo Hasegawa, Judith Tyberg, Alan Watts and the others who worked in the California Academy of Asian Studies (now known as the California Institute of Integral Studies), in San Francisco in the 1950s.
Suzuki is often linked to the Kyoto School of philosophy, but he is not considered one of its official members. Suzuki took an interest in other traditions besides Zen. His book Zen and Japanese Buddhism delved into the history and scope of interest of all the major Japanese Buddhist sects. He also wrote a small volume about Shin Buddhism, and he took an interest in Christian mysticism and some of the noted mystics of the West.
Suzuki's books have been widely read and commented on by many important figures. A notable example is An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, which includes a thirty page commentary by famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung. Other works include Essays in Zen Buddhism (three volumes), Studies in Zen Buddhism, and Manual of Zen Buddhism. Additionally, Willam Barrett has compiled many of Suzuki's articles and essays concerning Zen into a volume entitled Studies in Zen.
Suzuki's Zen master, Soyen Shaku, who also wrote a book published in the United States (an English translation by Suzuki), that emphasized the Mahayana Buddhist outlook of the Zen tradition. Contrasting with this, to a degree, was Suzuki's own view that in its centuries of development in China, Zen (or Ch'an) had absorbed much from indigenous Chinese Taoism. Suzuki believed that, generally speaking, Far Eastern peoples had a sensitivity or attunement to nature that was acute by comparison with either the people of Europe or the people of Northern India.
Suzuki subscribed to the idea that religions are each a sort of organism, an organism that is (through time) subject to "irritation" - hence, showing the capacity to change or evolve.
It was Suzuki's contention that a Zen satori (awakening) was the goal of the tradition's training, but that what distinguished the tradition as it developed through the centuries in China was a way of life radically different from that of Indian Buddhists. In India, the tradition of the mendicant (holy beggar, bhikku in Pali) prevailed, but in China social circumstances led to the development of a temple and training-center system in which the abbot and the monks all performed mundane tasks. These included gardening or farming, carpentry, architecture, housekeeping, administration (or community direction), and the practice of folk medicine. Consequently, the enlightenment sought in Zen had to stand up well to the demands and potential frustrations of everyday life.
Suzuki received numerous honors, including Japan's National Cultural Medal. Suzuki was a distinguished Zen scholar in his own right. His published works in Japanese and English numbered over 100 volumes and included studies on Zen, Pure Land, other Buddhist classics, Lao-tzu, and others.
Suzuki and Swedenborg
Suzuki pioneered Swedenborg studies in Japan. Suzuki first encountered Swedenborg during the 1890s. While Suzuki was assisting Paul Carus, he collaborated with Albert Edmund, a British Swedenborgian, on the English translation and publication of Hokkukyo by the publisher Open Court. Edmund gave a copy of Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell to Suzuki. The British Swedenborg Society found Suzuki through Edmund and contacted him while he was visiting London. In 1908 Suzuki translated Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell (written in Latin) from its English edition, in consultation with German and French editions, into Japanese. Suzuki went on to translate Swedenborg’s Divine Love and Wisdom, The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrines, and others into Japanese. Suzuki also wrote and published his own Life of Swedenborg in Japan.
Bridging the East and the West
Suzuki played a key role in developing scholarly communication between the East and the West. He presented the teachings of Zen, Pure Land, and Taoism together with their cultural manifestations, which constituted the background of Far Eastern thought and culture, not as esoteric religious teachings but as systems of philosophical thought. He explicated Buddhist teachings while relating them to Western thought and tradition.
Suzuki had to overcome two obstacles to carry out this task. First he had to articulate in conceptual vocabularies something that innately resisted conceptualization and linguistic articulation (Zen tradition explicitly denies conceptual and linguistic discourses as a path for the enlightenment; non-conceptual and non-linguistic orientation also exists in Taoism and even Confucianism). Secondly, he had to explicate those ideas within the cultural context of the West, whose presuppositions and implicit assumptions were quite different from those of the East. With full awareness of the issues of incommensurability involved in these two challenges, where ideas are intricately intertwined between the rational and the intuitive, the experiential and the theoretical, the linguistic and the non-linguistic, the analytic and the synthetic, the conceptual and the embodying, Suzuki articulated ideas of Far Eastern thought to Western audiences. Suzuki was not merely a translator or a preacher of Buddhism; his presentation was profound and sophisticated enough to attract Western intellectuals.
Suzuki defined contrasts between the characteristics of Eastern and Western thought such as the intuitive and the conceptual, the synthetic and the dualistic, and others.
Suzuki was also a pioneer of international marriage. In an era when international marriage with a Westerner was rare in Japan, Suzuki married Beatrice Erskine Lane, an American woman. They met while Suzuki was living in the United States. Beatrice came to Japan and they married in Yokohama in 1911. Beatrice was credited for assisting Suzuki in translating and publishing works in English. Beatrice also published her own work, Mahayana Buddhism, with a foreword by Christmas Humphreys.
Selective Philosophical Insights
Suzuki’s insights range over diverse issues and areas, and an exhaustive listing is difficult. The following are highlights of Suzuki’s selective philosophical insights.
Spirituality and the Duality of Mind and Body
Suzuki was convinced of the existence of some original realm (which he called “Spirituality”: Reisei in Japanese) out of which the duality of the spiritual and the material, the mental and the physical, and the mind and the body emerges. The interactions of interdependent duality are, he explained, the works of this “Spirituality.” From his perspective, existence can be better explained as the interactive unity of dual elements. The realm of “Spirituality” is a unified dimension, which lies underneath mind and body, spirit and matter, and sustains their interactive unity.
Since this is the essential area of the self, cultivation of the self basically means nurturing and cultivating this realm. From his perspective, conceptual discourse is insufficient to develop this area. Religious training is indispensable to this development. Suzuki conceived the essence of Far Eastern religious thought as the intuitive grasp of this dimension.
Suzuki applied this perspective to his analyses of Japanese culture. Culture declines when the realm of “Spirituality” becomes weak. He warned that the modernization of Japan by uncritical massive imports of Western culture would entail the loss and negligence of Far Eastern religious tradition that nurtured and sustained the “Spirituality” of Japan’s people and its culture.
Suzuki published his message of warning in Japanese Spirituality (Nihon teki Reisei in Japanese) in 1944. This was during the period of World War II and his message was misinterpreted as a defense of nationalism. Some critics still cite this work as Suzuki’s defense of nationalism, but his message had nothing to do with nationalism and was directed instead at the universal religious and philosophical realm.
Love and Give-and-Take action
Buddhist ontology generally conceives interdependency of beings as one of its essential principles. All beings exist within a matrix of interdependent reciprocal relationships. Interdependent beings mutually affect each other.
Suzuki interpreted the essence of these give-and-receive actions among interdependent beings as love. One is sustained by others and one exists to sustain others. Suzuki interpreted Buddhist ontology as a principle of love and he actively practiced it. From Suzuki’s perspective, the entire teachings of Buddhism are encapsulated in two teachings: Zen and Pure Land. Zen has an abstract depth and Pure Land is the teaching of love. Suzuki integrated these two streams of thought and his interpretation probably arose from this integration.
Individual Self and Transcendent Being
Suzuki saw Zen as “an attempt of discovering the transcendent being within the self,” and Pure Land as that of “finding the self within the transcendent being.” In other words, Zen tries to find eternal, unchanging Buddha by rigorous self-examination, and Pure Land teaches to find the self in the benevolent Buddha. In Zen practice, one ultimately finds Buddha in oneself. Pure Land teaches one to leave oneself to the benevolence of Buddha. Suzuki conceived these two paths between the self and Buddha, one from the self to Buddha, another from Buddha to the self, as mutually interdependent synthetic elements.
In some literatures of transpersonal psychology, Suzuki’s insights on this point are also cited.
These essays were influential when they came out, making Zen more widely known in the West.
- Essays in Zen Buddhism: First Series., New York: Grove Press.
- Essays in Zen Buddhism: Second Series. New York: Samuel Wieser, Inc. 1953-1971. Edited by Christmas Humphreys.
- Essays in Zen Buddhism: Third Series. York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, Inc, 1953. Edited by Christmas Humphreys.
- An Introduction to Zen Buddhism. Kyoto: Eastern Buddhism Soc., 1934. An introductory volume roughly covering the same material as Essays: First Series.
- The Zen Doctrine of No-Mind, York Beach, ME: Red Wheel/Weiser, 1972. ISBN 0877281823.
- Barrett, William (ed.). Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings of D.T. Suzuki. New York: Doubleday, 1956.
- Living by Zen
- Manual of Zen Buddhism, New York: Grove Press, 1960. A collection of Buddhist texts, images,including the "ten ox-herding pictures".
- translation of Lankavatara Sutra from the Sanskrit. Boulder, CO: Prajña Press, 1978. ISBN 0877737029. First published by Routledge, Kegan Paul, 1932.
- Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist: The Eastern and Western Way, Macmillan, 1957. "A study of the qualities Meister Eckhart shares with Zen and Shin Buddhism".
- Swedenborg: Buddha of the North, West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 1996. Trans. by Andrew Bernstein of Swedenborugu, 1913.
All links retrieved January 12, 2024.
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