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Suzuki, D T

Category: Philosopher

If the western world knows anything about Zen Buddhism, it is down to the efforts of D T Suzuki.  Born Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, (1870 – 1966) in Japan, Suzuki was the author of books and essays on Buddhism, Zen and Shin that were instrumental in spreading interest in both Zen and Shin (and Far Eastern philosophy in general) to the West.

Suzuki spent several lengthy stretches teaching or lecturing at Western universities, and devoted many years to a professorship in a Japanese Buddhist university, Otani.

The 27 year old scholar first visited the west in 1897, and over the course of the next 70 years became one of the world’s leading authority on Zen. Suzuki was also a prolific translator of Chinese, Japanese, and Sanskrit literature.

Merton and D.T. Suzuki, 94, in New York, 1964.

His ‘radical and penetrating’ insights earned him many admirers from Carl Gustav Jung to Allen Ginsberg, and from Thomas Merton to John Cage.  For example:

Thomas Merton
Though perhaps less universally known than such figures as Einstein or Gandhi (who became symbols of our time) Daisetz Suzuki was no less remarkable a man than these. And though his work may not have had such resounding and public effect, he contributed no little to the spiritual and intellectual revolution of our time.

and

Carl Jung:
Suzuki's works on Zen Buddhism are among the best contributions to the knowledge of living Buddhism… We cannot be sufficiently grateful to the author, first for the fact of his having brought Zen closer to Western understanding, and secondly for the manner in which he has achieved this task.

Suzuki’s spiritual influences are varied and fascinating. 

 

The Samurai class into which Suzuki was born declined with the fall of feudalism, which forced Suzuki's mother, a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist, 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.

Suzuki studied at Tokyo University and simultaneously took up Zen practice at Engakuji in Kamakura studying with Soyen Shaku. 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 seemed adept at working in any language – Japanese, Chinese and English.  For example, Suzuki worked with Dr Paul Carus to translate the classic Tao Te Ching from ancient Chinese into English.  Suzuki also translated Carus’s book The Gospel of Buddha into Japanese.  Suzuki acted as English-language translator for a book written by Soyen Shaku (1906) and translated some ancient Asian texts into English (e.g. Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana).  Suzuki also wrote a translation of the Lankavatara Sutra and a commentary on its Sanskrit terminology, and also produced an incomplete English translation of the Kyogyoshinsho, the magnum opus of Shinran, founder of the Jodo Shinshu school. The translations brought him into contact with numerous other philosophies and religions.

 

His other spiritual influence was his wife Beatrice Erskine Lane, a Theosophist, and his multiple contacts with the Bahá'í Faith.  Later Suzuki himself joined the Theosophical Society Adyar and was an active Theosophist.

Besides teaching about Zen practice and the history of Zen (or Chan) Buddhism, Suzuki was an expert scholar on the related philosophy called, in Japanese, Kegon – which he thought of as the intellectual explanation of Zen experience.

Suzuki was especially interested in the formative centuries of the Buddhist tradition, in China. A lot 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.

Observations

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