A Buddhist Life

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-2014Suzuki 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.”



The 9th chapter, “Transcendent Wisdom,” in Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life that I referenced in my Sept. 8th post, begins with these words:

Wisdom is the only true final antidote to all suffering (the whole path aims at this).”

The Sanskrit word for wisdom is prajna, which is syllabified as praj, meaning “higher,” and na or “consciousness.” But higher consciousness should not be taken to mean that wisdom some sort of mystical state. It is more like the difference between viewing a landscape from the ground or atop a mountain. The higher one’s vantage point then the more one is able to see.

Dharmic wisdom has many shades and hues. Wisdom obtained by study is what the sutras call “literary prajna.” Prajna-paramita, or Transcendent Wisdom, is the coupling of compassion with emptiness-knowledge. Prajna-Dhyana is the non-duality of wisdom and meditation. But none of these constitute the highest form of wisdom.

“The Way is your everyday mind,” is a saying attributed to Huang Po, a Ch’an master during the Tang Dynasty. He means there is no wisdom that is detached from daily life.

You can go off in search of higher states of consciousness, but the state of mind that is most important is the one rooted in the everyday world. Through understanding daily life, we can understand the whole of life.

I don’t know how many of readers consider yourself Buddhists. It’s not important. Being a Buddhist is nothing special in the long run. It’s just being an ordinary person. Doing ordinary things. However, because most Buddhist engage in some sort of meditative practice, ordinary things are done with a bit more awareness, and one hopes, tranquility.

The ancient Ch’an/Zen tradition seemed to understand this very well. There’s old story from the school that illustrates the point, with the usual dash of paradox, of course:

Someone asked the Zen master three questions, What is Buddha? What is Dharma? What is Sangha? And the master answered each question with the same words, “Go and drink tea.”

In other words, you practice, and you do your daily life. That’s wisdom. That’s true Buddhism.


Who is it that hears, sees and understands?

Bassui Tokusho Zenji was born on this day in 1327. He was a priest in the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism whose teachings attracted a large number of followers despite his eccentric lifestyle.

When Bassui was young, he was concerned with such questions as “What is this thing called a soul?” and “Who is it that hears, sees and understands?” At age twenty he began training at Jifukuji Temple where he studied with a Zen master named Oko. He was ordained as a priest some nine years later, although he had reservations about taking that step. Bassui was not comfortable with the formal and ritualistic aspect of Zen. For much of his life he traveled from hermitage to hermitage, preferring the life of a wanderer to that of residing in a monastery.

He earned such a reputation as a great teacher that during the last ten years of his life, it was not possible for him to live as he liked. He settled in one place, Enzan, and founded the temple Kogaku-an, where he stayed for the remainder of his life.

It’s said that when he died, Bassui was sitting in meditation with his students and he turned to them at the last moment and shouted, “Look directly! What is this? Look in this manner and you won’t be fooled.”

Arthur Braverman, who has translated Bassui’s dharma talks, Enzanwadeigassui-shu (“A Collection of Mud and Water from Enzan”, or simply Mud And Water), tells us that “According to Bassui, all the teachings [Bassui’s] can be reduced to a single precept: Seeing into one’s original nature is Buddhahood.

Here are excerpts from Bassui’s dharma talk on “One Mind”:

“If you would free yourself of the sufferings of the Six Realms, you must learn the direct way to become a Buddha. This way is no other than the realization of your own Mind. Now what is this Mind? It is the true nature of all sentient beings, that which existed before our parents were born and hence before our own birth, and which presently exists, unchangeable and eternal. So it is called one’s Face before one’s parents were born. This Mind is intrinsically pure. When we are born it is not newly created, and when we die it does not perish. It has no distinction of male or female, nor has it any coloration of good or bad. It cannot be compared with anything, so it is called Buddha-nature. Yet countless thoughts issue from this Self-nature as waves arise in the ocean or as images are reflected in a mirror . . .

What is termed Zazen [meditation] is no more than looking into one’s own mind. It is better to search your own mind devotedly than to read and recite innumerable sutras and dharani every day for countless years. Such endeavors, which are but formalities, produce some merit, but this merit expires and again you must experience the suffering of the Three Evil Paths. Because searching one’s own mind leads ultimately to enlightenment, this practice is a prerequisite to becoming a Buddha. No matter whether you have committed either the ten evil deeds or the five deadly sins, still if you turn back your mind and enlighten yourself, you are a Buddha instantly. But do not commit sins and expect to be saved by enlightenment. [Neither enlightenment] nor a Buddha nor a Patriarch can save a person who, deluding himself, goes down evil ways . . .

[One] who realizes that his own Mind is Buddha frees himself instantly from the sufferings arising from [ignorance of the law of] ceaseless change of birth-and-death. If a Buddha could prevent it, do you think he would allow even one sentient being to fall into hell? Without Self-Realization one cannot understand such things as these . . .

What kind of master is it that this very moment sees colors with the eyes and hears voices with the ears, that now raises the hands and moves the feet? We know these are functions of our own mind, but no one knows precisely how they are performed. It may be asserted that behind these actions there is no entity, yet it is obvious they are being performed spontaneously. Conversely, it may be maintained that these are the acts of some entity; still the entity is invisible. If one regards this question as unfathomable, all attempts to reason [out an answer] will cease and one will be at a loss to know what to do. In this propitious state deepen and deepen the yearning, tirelessly, to the extreme. When the profound questioning penetrates to the very bottom, and that bottom is broken open, not the slightest doubt will remain that your own Mind is itself Buddha, the Void-universe. There will then be no anxiety about life or death, no truth to search for.

In a dream you may stray and lose your way home. You ask someone to show you how to return or you pray to God or Buddhas to help you, but still you can’t get home. Once you rouse yourself from your dream-state, however, you find that you are in your own bed and realize that the only way you could have gotten home was to awaken yourself. This (kind of spiritual awakening] is called “return to the origin” or “rebirth in paradise.” It is the kind of inner realization that can be achieved with some training. Virtually all who like Zazen and make an effort in practice, be they laymen or monks, can experience to this degree. But even such [partial] awakening cannot be attained except through the practice of Zazen. You would be making a serious error, however, were you to assume that this was true enlightenment in which there is no doubt about the nature of reality. You would be like a man who having found copper gives up the desire for gold.

Upon such realization question yourself even more intensely in this wise: “My body is like a phantom, like bubbles on a stream. My mind, looking into itself, is as formless as empty-space, yet somewhere within sounds are perceived. Who is hearing?” Should you question yourself in this wise with profound absorption, never slackening the intensity of your effort, your rational mind eventually will exhaust itself and only questioning at the deepest level will remain. Finally you will lose awareness of your own body. Your long-held conceptions and notions will perish, after absolute questioning, in the way that every drop of water vanishes from a tub broken open at the bottom, and perfect enlightenment will follow like flowers suddenly blooming on withered trees.

With such realization you achieve true emancipation . . .

If you don’t come to realization in this present life, when will you? Once you have died you won’t be able to avoid a long period of suffering in the Three Evil Paths. What is obstructing realization? Nothing but your own half-hearted desire for truth. Think of this and exert yourself to the utmost.”


Toni Packer: “Dropped Away”

You won’t find her obituary at the LA Times, nor at the NY Times, the Washington Post, Huffington Post, or at CNN. You will find one for Julie Harris, the great actress who passed away Saturday, of course. And for Charles Pollock, the designer of the popular office chair. And there’s one for Sheila Walsh, an activist nun who lobbied for the needy. But scour the Internet and you’ll find very few mentions of the passing of a pioneer woman author and meditation teacher named Toni Packer.

She died August 23rd at the age of 86.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at the slight, if that’s the word for it, but given the high profile Buddhism has these days and the growing interest in meditation, I do find it rather odd. Toni Packer truly was a pioneer and that is important.

tonipackerShe got involved with Zen Buddhism in the late sixties, studying under Philip Kapleau, one of the “founding fathers” of American Zen. By the early eighties, however, disenchanted with the Japanese formalism in Zen, and inspired by the writings of J. Krishnamurti, she set out to forge a new path, one that in her words centered on “the work of this moment.”

In 1981, she established the Genesee Valley Zen Center. Four years later, most of the Zen aspects were laid aside and the name was changed to Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry & Retreats. As the Shambhala Sun noted, in one of the few notices about her death I’ve found, “Toni called herself a friend rather than a teacher.” In a 1996 Tricycle interview, she said, “When I do say that I’m not a teacher, I mean something very simple: I do not have that teacher image of myself. It dropped away quietly.”

Somehow I feel that “dropped away” is apropos to describe her passing. For some time, she had been living in a hospice, bedridden due to a number of medical conditions. I have no knowledge of her final days, but I suspect that she “dropped away quietly,” peacefully, with no fear and no illusions.

I didn’t know Toni Packer, but I know that she was a remarkable woman. I never heard her speak but I’ve read her words and they have resonated with me. I am not as soured on Asian forms as she; however, I am very much aware that forms are empty.

I did think it was important to say a few words on this blog about her presence and her passing. I invite you to learn the details of her life here at Wikipedia, visit the website for Springwater Center, and to read this touching remembrance of her by Seth Zuiho Segall.

This is an excerpt from a talk given by Toni Packer at a February 2006 retreat:

Can we throw out all of our previous ideas of attainment and watch freshly whether there is something we wish to attain, today, this instant? Listening from moment-to-moment, without knowing ahead of time. If you know something ahead of time, like Faust anticipating gaining land from the sea, that wouldn’t count! That is already living in the realm of fantasy, and we’re trying to see whether we can live actually, this moment, concretely, not in fantasy. Can this anticipating, wanting, or striving toward attainment come into awareness by itself? I can’t speak for you, but is it possible for each one of us to turn awareness inward?

Awareness does not really know inward and outward — whatever is going on this instant simply appears. And what is going on? . . . In fully observing what is going on here this instant — is there a noticeable slowing down? Awaring the franticness often results in slowing down. It is a seeming paradox. And the more slowing down of thoughts, the clearer the vision. In hecticness there is very little that can be seen clearly. But as soon as everything slows down, we see in much more subtle detail what is happening. Not what we want to see — let’s be very careful because there is great power in our desire to shape things — hectic wanting can produce mirages — but what’s here, actually. If we urgently need to see clearly, then there is a good likelihood that we will.”


Grasses and Trees

“The appearance of pain in grasses and trees is no different from the countenance of suffering among human beings. When they are watered and the like, they grow and appear happy. When they are cut and fall, the withering of their leaves is no different from the death of a human being.

Their pain and sadness are not known to human beings. And when grasses and trees look at the sadness of human beings, it is just like human beings looking at them, and they probably think we have no pain and sadness either. Simply, it seems that we do not know the affairs of grasses and trees, nor do they know ours.”

Zen Master Takuan Soho (1573-1645)

From “The Clear Sound of Jewels” translated by William Scott Wilson, The Unfettered Mind, Kodansha International, 2002