December 18 marks the 144th anniversary of the birth of D. T. Suzuki, Japanese teacher, author, translator, and at one time the most famous Zen Buddhist in the world. The importance of Suzuki’s role in introducing Westerners to Zen, and Buddha-dharma in general, cannot be overstated.
Yet, the bright sheen that his image once radiated has lost some of its luster in recent years. Brian Victoria in his book Zen at War has accused Suzuki of complicity with Japanese nationalism during World War ll. Victoria has himself suffered some slings and arrows as the quality and methodology of his scholarship has been questioned by many and Kemmyo Taira Sato in “D. T. Suzuki and the Question of War”, among others, has refuted Victoria’s account of Suzuki’s views on militarism.
Suzuki was not only an influential figure of his time, but a unique one, in that he was not an ordained Buddhist priest, but rather a professor of Buddhist philosophy. As a result, while he had great influence outside the Zen tradition, his secular standing limited his influence within the tradition. And by taking a more secular approach, eschewing some of the more metaphysical and ritualistic elements of Zen, and emphasizing the meditative aspect as well as the “special transmission” with “no dependence on words and letters,” he likely did more to shape the still-present form of Zen in the West than anyone else.
Suzuki Daisetsu Teitaro was born in 1870, into a samurai family. It was the era of the Meiji Restoration when the samurai class lost its privilege in Japanese society. His father, a physician, died when he was six, leaving his mother, a Jodo Shinshu believer, to raise him amid impoverished circumstances. By the time she passed away in 1890, Suzuki was already very interested in spirituality, gravitating toward Zen.
Suzuki attended the University of Tokyo, where he studied Chinese, Sanskrit, Pali, several European languages, and of course, philosophy and religion. It was around this time that he also began Zen training at Engaku-ji in Kamakura, where he eventually became a disciple of Shaku Soen, a great Zen master. Shaku Soen invited Suzuki to accompany him to the Parliament of Religions at the 1897 World Fair in Chicago and act as his translator. There he met Paul Carus and began to translate into Japanese Carus’ work The Gospel of Buddha. Suzuki lived in the United States and worked for Carus’ publishing company for ten years. It was here that he also met and married Beatrice Erskine Lane, a Radcliffe graduate and Theosophist.
Suzuki took up a professorship back in Japan, at Otani University in 1921.
Following the death in 1939 of his wife, Suzuki went into seclusion until the end of World War II. When he emerged in 1949, he went to Honolulu to attend the Second East-West Philosopher’s Conference and taught for a year at the University of Hawaii. He spent a year in California, then in 1951 he moved to New York and began teaching on Zen at Columbia University. Some of the notable people who were his students at that time included psychoanalysts Erich Fromm and Karen Horney and the composer John Cage.
Suzuki retired from Columbia in 1957 and traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he taught and helped found the Cambridge Buddhist Society. Suzuki’s influence was perhaps most profound on those figures of the time who also wielded considerable influence, people such as Carl Jung, Thomas Merton, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, and British dharma enthusiast Christmas Humphries, founder of the Buddhist Society.
While he is credited mostly with spreading Zen in the West, during the latter half of his life Sukuki was actually more interested in Jodo (Pure Land).
This is merely a snapshot of Suzuki’s life. For those who would like to learn more, I invite you to read A Zen Life: D.T. Suzuki Remembered by Masao Abe. There is also a documentary available called A Zen Life. And I recommend the books by Suzuki himself: An Introduction to Zen Buddhism (with foreward by Carl Jung), Manual of Zen Buddhism, and Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist, to mention just three.
The latter work is one of the Suzuki books in my library. I am not sure I am agreement with him on every point he makes, yet at the same time it would be rather vain on my part to think that I know more about it than he did. Here is a short passage from the book:
A few more remarks about “Emptiness.”
Relativity [pratitya-samutpada or dependent arising] is an aspect of Reality and not Reality itself. Relativity is possible somewhere between two or more things, for this is the way that makes one get related to another.
A similar argument applies to movement. Movement is possible in time; without the concept of time there cannot be a movement of any sort. For a movement means an object going out of itself and becoming something else which is not itself. Without the background of time this becoming is unthinkable.
Therefore, Buddhist philosophy states that all these concepts, movement and relativity, must have their field of operation, and this field is designated by Buddhist philosophers as Emptiness (sunyata).
When Buddha talks about all things being transient, impermanent, and constantly changing, and therefore teaches that there is nothing in this world which is absolutely dependable and worth clinging to as the ultimate seat of security, he means that we must look somewhere else for things permanent (jo), bliss-imparting (raku), autonomous (ga), and absolutely free from defilements (jo). According to the Nirvana Sutra (of the Mahayana school), these four (jo-raku-ga-jo) are the qualities of Nirvana, and Nirvana is attained when we have knowledge, when the mind is freed from thirst (tanha), cravings (asava), and conditionality (sankhara). While Nirvana is often thought to be a negativistic idea the Mahayana followers have quite a different interpretation. For they include autonomy (ga, atman) as one of its qualities (guna), and autonomy is free will, something dynamic. Nirvana is another name for the Emptiness.
The term “emptiness” is apt to be misunderstood for various reasons. The hare or rabbit has no horns, the turtle has no hair growing on its back. This is one form of emptiness. The Buddhist sunyata does not mean absence.
A fire has been burning until now and there is no more of it. This is another kind of emptiness. Buddhist sunyata does not mean extinction.
The wall screens the room: on this side there is a table, and on the other side there is nothing, space is unoccupied. Buddhist sunyata does not mean vacancy.
D.T Suzuki died in 1966 in Tokyo at age 95.
Gary Snyder said he was “probably the most culturally significant Japanese person in international terms, in all of history.”