Sunday, June 24, 2012

D.T. Suzuki

"No amount of reading, no amount of teaching, 
no amount of contemplation will ever make one a Zen master. 
Life itself must be grasped in the midst of its flow; 
to stop it for examination and analysis is to kill it, 
leaving its cold corpse to be embraced."
(An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, p.102)

Born in Japan in 1870, Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki (鈴木 大拙 貞太郎is the man often credited
as introducing the West to Zen Buddhism, through his many books and essays,
written in both Japanese and English. He also wrote on Shin Buddhism and Christian
mysticism, as well as translating major Mahayana Buddhist and Daoist scriptures into
English for the first time. As a professor, he lectured in many universities around the
world and resided at Otani University in Kyoto, Japan for many years. He tirelessly
promoted Buddhism in both Japan & the West until his death in 1966. His legacy
still lives on through those people that he met and influenced through his work.
Here's an example of his skill in writing of Zen, a notoriously difficult subject to put into

"Zen in its essence is the art of seeing into the nature of one's own being, 
and it points the way from bondage to freedom. 
By making us drink right from the fountain of life, 
it liberates us from all the yokes under which we finite beings 
are usually suffering in this world. 
We can say that Zen liberates all the energies properly and naturally 
stored in each of us, which are in ordinary circumstances 
cramped and distorted so that they find no adequate channel for activity." 
(Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings of D.T. Suzuki, p.3)

Daisetz (大拙) - sometimes written Daisetsu, although the 'u' is silent - was not Suzuki's
birth name. It was his Dharma name given him by his Zen master Soen Shaku. It means
'Great Humility' or 'Great Simplicity,' although it can also be read 'Greatly Clumsy' - it's
even been rendered 'Great Stupidity!' Suzuki displayed many qualities during his long life,
but clumsiness & stupidity were surely not amongst them; he was, however, a great
propagator of Buddhism. Whilst studying with Soen Shaku, Suzuki experienced satori
(enlightenment) whilst walking up a temple staircase. This came after a long period working
with a koan (a kind of Zen riddle), a practice he describes in great detail in his books, and
which has helped many readers to have similar experiences to himself. Suzuki writes:

"Ko-an literally means 'a public document' or 'authoritative statute' - 
a term coming into vogue toward the end of the T'ang dynasty. 
It now denotes some anecdote of an ancient master, 
or a dialogue between a master and monks, or a statement or question 
put forward by a teacher, all of which are used as the means for opening 
one's mind to the truth of Zen. In the beginning, of course, there was no 
koan as we understand it now; it is a kind of artificial instrument devised out of 
the fullness of heart by later Zen masters, who by this means would force the 
evolution of Zen consciousness in the minds of their less endowed disciples."
(An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, p.72)

The above quote displays Suzuki's skill at explaining Zen in terms that modern western
minds would be able to grasp, at least superficially enough to gain their interest. The actual comprehension of Zen itself is another matter, but even here Suzuki possessed an unusual
talent, as will be explored below. The first major work of Suzuki's was Outlines of Mahayana 
Buddhism, and he also translated the Lankavatara Sutra into English, as well as a series of
talks by Soen Shaku called Sermons of a Buddhist Abbot. Some of his 'biggest hits' have
been Essays in Zen Buddhism (three volumes), Manual of Zen Buddhism, and An Introduction 
to Zen Buddhism. It was the last of these that inspired this author's initial awakening: 

Many, many moons ago, as I sat reading An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, something
peculiar and wonderful happened: 'I' saw what Suzuki was getting at. i put the first-person
singular in apostrophes here because at the heart of that experience there was no 'I' present.
there was the book, my hands grasping it, the room that I was sat in, but no 'I.' Sunlight
poured through the white net curtains, but it wasn't this that gave an illumined quality to
the room, it was the light of satori that shone so bright. In that moment - which is this moment - awareness was one with the room, the book, and with the long-deceased D.T. Suzuki.
(For the full article, click here: Daisetz Suzuki, Satori, & 'I')

As already mentioned, D.T.Suzuki did not only write about Zen, he also wrote extensively
about another form of Japanese Buddhism - Shin Buddhism. This type of Buddhism is very
populate in Japan, more popular than Zen, in fact. It is a peculiarly Japanese form of Pure
Land Buddhism, in which the worship of Amida Buddha (Amitabha in Sanskrit) is practiced, incorporating the recitation of the mantra Namu Amida Butsu ('Hail to Amitabha Buddha').
This form of Buddhism was the religion of Suzuki's mother, and he himself returned to study
& write on it later in life, describing it thus: "Of all the developments that Mahayana
Buddhism has achieved in East Asia, the most remarkable one is the Shin teaching of Pure
Land Buddhism." (Buddha of Infinite Light, p22.) Of Shin, he further writes:

"We find our inner self when NAMU-AMIDA-BUTSU is pronounced once and for all. 
My conclusion is that Amida is our inmost self, and when that inmost self is found, 
we are born in the Pure Land. The kind of Pure Land located elsewhere, 
besides where we are, is most undesirable. What is the use of lingering in the 
Pure Land, enjoying ourselves and doing nothing? 
Most people don't think about that, and it's a good thing. 
If they thought about it they would become dissatisfied with themselves 
and get themselves into trouble. It is better not to think of those things."
(Ibid. pp.41-43)

All of the books mentioned in this article are still in print, and some are available for free 
download as PDFs from the following links:

Related posts & web pages:

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