D.T. Suzuki

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  • Patrick
    • Jul 2011
    • 30

    D.T. Suzuki

    Hi !

    I just received the Essays in Zen Buddhism by D.T. Suzuki. I would like to know what you think of these books. Thanks !
    Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien. -Voltaire
    The better is the enemy of the good. -Voltaire
  • Jundo
    Treeleaf Founder and Priest
    • Apr 2006
    • 39450


    I still love and appreciate all the D.T. Suzuki books (not to be confused with Shunryu Suzuki, the Soto priest of "Zen Mind, Beginners Mind"). However, I believe that many have come to see D.T. as presenting a certain highly philosophical (to make Zen tenets resonate with Western intellectuals) and rather idealized, one dimensional view of Zen/Zen Masters/Enlightenment that was typical of many of the early books introducing Zen to the West in the 1950s (the "he was suddenly enlightened, and lived happily ever after" view). Also, he was coming from a Rinzai/Koan Zazen background, and barely even mentions Soto/Dogen/Shikantaza and the like in his writings. Even so, surprisingly, he rarely emphasizes the need to actually sit Zazen in his writings (although I understand that he did so when teaching college courses).

    If you keep that in mind, I think they are still treasure houses of information about out Tradition and well worth reading by serious Zen Students (although perhaps not among the first books I would recommend to beginners).

    This essay has a good summary of the debate on D.T.'s presentation of Zen ...

    All Buddhists owe a tremendous debt to Daisetz Suzuki who, almost single handed, brought Japanese Zen to the West making a major impact on major contributors to the intellectual scene and thereby bringing a new found faith to many otherwise alienated from religious experience and thought. Among those touched by Suzuki were Thomas Merton, whose respect for the Japanese savant aided the emergence of a so-called Christian Zen, Christmas Humphreys, the London judge who was later to teach Zen himself, Carl. Gustav Jung (in spite of some resistance), Erich Fromm and Aldous Huxley. Arthur Koestler devoted a somewhat intemperate book to a trenchant criticism of Suzuki's approach and, in the post war years of "beat" Zen in California, Kerouac, Ginsberg and Watts based their inspirations upon his writings. Arnold Toynbee is said to have remarked that Suzuki's introduction of Zen to the West would later be compared to the discovery of nuclear energy! The philosopher Heidegger, caught reading one of Suzuki's books is said to have remarked, "If I have understood this man correctly, this is what I have been trying to say in all my writings." (Barrett, 1956). Be that as it may, Suzuki's influence and parallelism with some contemporary trends in Western thought can certainly be said to have been profound. Yet, upon mature reflection resulting largely from a better acquaintance with forms of Zen other than those espoused by Suzuki together with the advent of scholarly, historical study and textual criticism, it emerges that it was his undoubted charisma, open hearted friendship and lovability, as much as his views, that accounted for Suzuki's fame.

    Daisetz Suzuki was a great scholar capable of original research in Sanskrit, Chinese and Japanese ancient literature and a subtle commentator on such works. His width of knowledge was great but his appreciation of Zen and Buddhism shifted during his long career from a profound antinomianism to a greater appreciation of the range of Zen experience and its historical transmission. It was however his early presentation that made such a great impact in the West. His later reservations have left little mark.

    Suzuki's early view of Zen was lop-sided, favouring a presentation of Japanese Rinzai emphasising spontaneity of responses and the sudden and direct apprehension of reality (subitism). As Faure's detailed critique demonstrates (1993: 52-88), Suzuki interpreted Zen experience as the timeless, ahistorical, context free, basis of mystical experience and hence the very root of religion, of which Zen was thus the purest form (Suzuki 1949-53, 1: 73, 265, 270-272, 2: 304). The experience of enlightenment (kensho) was interpreted as a supreme individual achievement attained through heroic efforts but open to all irrespective of race, nationality or creed. "Because Zen is supposedly free from all ties with any specific religious or philosophical tradition, Suzuki argues it can be practised by Christians and Buddhist alike. -- Suzuki's view of Zen's "oceanic nature" reveals the extent of the exorbitant privilege that he confers on his own interpretation." (Faure 1993: 62).

    Reading between the lines, his critics see in Suzuki's work a skilled apologia relating an increasingly triumphalist Japan of the post Meiji era to the Western world. In spite of living in the United States and marrying an American, Suzuki, in the end, is considered by some to have been a Japanese chauvinist who tolerated the militarism of his country leading to the Pacific war in WW2, did not condemn the use of Zen in military training and argued that the war itself was a consequence of Western intellectualism and lack of respect for nature (Faure 1993; 70. Victoria 1997; 22-25 etc). His work has been described as "militant comparativism"; comparative study in order to press home one's own case. And yet it is necessary to place the wartime Suzuki in context. To a degree the Japanese police were suspicious of him due to his prolonged visits to the West and his marriage to an American. He lived in seclusion in his home in Kamakura and recognised that Japan could not possibly win a war against the USA. While his post-war writings accepted a link between Zen and the state, after the war, although he wrote several times on the war responsibility of Japan and accepted that Zen practitioners had been at fault, he mainly blamed Shinto for the disaster (Victoria 1997 147 et seq). As an adopted Westerner, were he alive today, Suzuki would doubtless be greatly surprised by being read in this negative way as indeed are some of his ardent followers.

    Suzuki understood very well the spiritual vacuum in the West of the first half of this century, the aridity of scientific materialism and the alienation arising from the general collapse of Christian beliefs before the impact of scientific knowledge. In seeking to go beyond the mere rationalism of the Western 'enlightenment', not only was science itself then an expression of Western romanticism, a seeking for ultimate knowledge outside social and historical experience, but the extreme individualism of Western culture meant that personal cultivation leading to so high a credential as Zen "Enlightenment" based in a heroic, inner adventure was alluringly attractive (Wright 1998).

    In reading Suzuki it is not always easy to distinguish between the early antinomian radical and the later more cautious and more orthodox Buddhist writer. Suzuki's tendency is to emphasise the spontaneity and radical nature of Zen. Thus after providing an entirely orthodox account of Zen Buddhist origins in Japan he goes on "Zen undertakes to awaken Prajna found generally slumbering in us under the thick clouds of ignorance and karma. Ignorance and karma come from our unconditioned surrender to the intellect; Zen revolts against this state of affairs..... Zen disdains logic and remains speechless when it is asked to express itself. The worth of the intellect is only appreciated after the essence of things is grasped. This means that Zen wants to reverse the ordinary course of knowledge and resort to its own specific methods of training our minds in the awakening of transcendental wisdom." (Suzuki. 1938. p5).

    But what is this 'Zen' to which his use of the word applies - a person, a system, a belief, a form of yoga? Later, in referring to the way in which a master answer questions, he says: " --- the answering mind does not stop anywhere but responds straightaway without giving any thought to the felicity of the answer. This "non-stopping" mind remains immovable as it is never carried away by the things of relativity. It is the substance of things, it is God --- the ultimate secret -". (p80). In these moods Suzuki appears to forget pratitya samutpada, the interconnectedness of things and the identity of opposites completely. While the intimations that arise in meditative practice may be psychologically transcendent, the world within which they happen is far from so - the everyday grind of monastic living. Can one distance 'Zen' from this supporting context? Doing so has become the root of many confusions.

    Yet Suzuki did not go unchallenged. In 1953 Dr Hu-shih, a one time President of the National Peking University, tackled him on his views concerning the non-historicity of Zen and its being beyond intellectual understanding. He gives a detailed account of the history of Chan and proposed historical reasons for the development of the idiosyncrasies apparent in Zen transmission which in his eyes had a rational, social if obscure basis. Suzuki's rebuttal is trenchant. "Hu-shih does not seem to understand the real significance of the 'sudden awakening or enlightenment' in its historical setting..... All the schools of Buddhism... owe their origin to the Buddha's enlightenment experience... no other than a 'sudden enlightenment'." He goes on to argue that this Zen "way of looking at life may be judged to be a kind of naturalism, even an animalistic libertinism." Quoting Spinoza, he argues "this kind of intuition is absolutely certain and infallible and, in contrast to ratio, produces the highest peace and virtue of mind." .... "History deals with time and so does Zen, but with this difference: While history knows nothing of timelessness, perhaps disposing of it as a 'fabrication', Zen takes time along with timelessness - that is to say, time in timelessness and timelessness in time." Zen is thus seen by Suzuki to be apart from its historical setting.

    Yet Hu-shih and Suzuki seem to be at cross-purposes. Suzuki is speaking of experience, Hu-shih of context. They do not seem to be able to fit these together. Suzuki always felt that his version of Rinzai Zen provided an ultimate vision beyond history. His indeterminate status between monk and layman, between scholar and popularist, between practitioner and missionary, between Japan and America, led to a view in which all things remotely resembling Zen could be assimilated into one vision; and everything else rejected. The Kyoto School of Philosophy created by Suzuki's friend Nishida has largely followed this line. The result has been a kind of Suzuki monism closed to the usual forms of academic criticism through a direct appeal to an absolutism of the non-historical.

    From the same basis Suzuki argued strongly against 'gradualism' which he saw as inherent in the Soto tradition (Tsao-tung) of 'just sitting' or 'Silent Illumination'. He backs Ta-hui in his ancient confrontation with Hung-chih (1091-1157) on this issue and emerges therefore as strongly partisan in his interpretation of practice and its meaning in Chan. Leighton and Yi Wu (1991) have however shown that these two great contemporaries were actually friends who co-operated as teaching colleagues sending students to one another. Ta-hui's criticisms were not at Hung-chih personally but at those who used the "just sitting" methods without appropriate mindfulness. He himself also "sat" and was aware that koans too have defects, leading in some cases to intellectually obsessive worrying over old stories. Suzuki also ignores Dogen who warmly approved of both these old antagonists while favouring Hung-chih as the founder of his own practice. Not surprisingly Suzuki's lop sided Zen has produced strange effects creating a certain bias in the transmission of Zen to European shores.

    Last edited by Jundo; 09-06-2012, 06:01 AM.


    • Mp

      Thanks for this share Jundo. :-)


      Sent from my Nexus 7 using Tapatalk 2


      • Onken
        • Jun 2011
        • 104

        Excellent post Jundo. Thank you for that!


        • Heisoku
          • Jun 2010
          • 1338

          It was such a shame that I did not have someone to help me understand his ' introduction to Zen Buddhism' when I was 17! Still, I kept trying on and off and here I am 40 years later still trying but with a lot of help from some friends.
          Heisoku 平 息
          Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home. (Basho)