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D. T. Suzuki in Hungarian


鈴木 大拙 貞太郎 Suzuki Daisetsu Teitarō (1870-1966)
[Suzuki Daisetz Teitaro; D. T. Suzuki]

Gary Snyder calls D.T. Suzuki
"probably the most culturally significant Japanese person in international terms, in all of history."


Zen Lineage
鈴木 大拙 貞太郎 Suzuki Daisetsu Teitarō, scholar and lay student of Shaku Sōen, Rinzai school; 釈 宗演 Shaku Sōen (1860-1919), heir of 今北 洪川 Imakita Kōsen (1816-1892), Rinzai school.


大拙 Dai-setsu by Kōgaku Sōen
Suzuki received his religious name "Daisetz" (Great Simplicity) from Kōgaku Sōen (Sōen Shaku) (1859-1919), abbot of Engaku-ji Temple. The precise date Suzuki received this name is unknown. However, Sōen wrote in December 1894, "Mr. Suzuki Daisetz, my disciple," indicating that the scroll had likely been written before this date. This panel was written by Sōen.

A ZEN LIFE - D.T. Suzuki



『鈴木大拙全集』 Collected Works of Suzuki Daisetz, 40 volumes, third edition (1999-2003)


Japanese translation of Paul Carus, The Gospel of Buddha 『仏陀の福音』


New Religious Theory 『新宗教論』

1898 Japanese translation of Paul Carus, Karma 『因果の小車』
1900 Açvaghosha's Discourse on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana (English translation)
Sermons of a Buddhist Abbot by Sōen Shaku (English trans.)
Treatise of the Exalted One on Response and Retribution (English tr. with P. Carus)
The Tract of the Quiet Way (English tr. with P. Carus)
1907 Outlines of Mahāyāna Buddhism
1910 Japanese translation of Emanuel Swedenborg, Heaven and its Wonders and Hell 『天界と地獄』
1913 Swedenborg – Buddha of the North 『スエデンボルグ』
1916 『禅の研究』 Studies in Zen Buddhism
1927 Essays in Zen Buddhism, First Series (Second Series 1933, Third Series 1934)
1930 Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra
1932 The Lankavatara Sutra (translation)
An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, Foreword by C.G. Jung, 1948
The Training of the Zen Buddhist Monk
Manual of Zen Buddhism > PDF
The Gandavyuha Sutra (translation)
Zen Buddhism and its Influence on Japanese Culture
The Zen Doctrine of No-Mind
『日本的霊性』 Nihonteki reisei Tr. by Norman Waddell as Japanese Spirituality, 1972
The Essence of Buddhism
『東洋と西洋』 Tōyō to Seiyō
Living by Zen
Studies in Zen
Zen Buddhism
Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist
Zen and Japanese Buddhism
Zen and Japanese Culture (Revision of Zen Buddhism and its Influence on Japanese Culture)
Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis, Erich Fromm, D. T. Suzuki, and De Martino (excerpts)
The Essentials of Zen Buddhism
『東洋的な見方』 Tōyōteki na Mikata
『東洋の心』 Tōyō no Kokoro
On Indian Mahayana Buddhism
『鈴木大拙全集』 Collected Works of Suzuki Daisetz, 30 volumes, first edition (1968-1971)
The Field of Zen: Contributions to the Middle Way, the Journal of the Buddhist Society
Shin Buddhism

Sengai, The Zen Master
Shinran's Kyōgyōshinshō
『鈴木大拙全集』 Collected Works of Suzuki Daisetz, 32 volumes, second edition (1980-1983)
The Zen Koan as a Means of Attaining Enlightenment, originally in Essays in Zen Buddhism, 2nd series, pp. 18-226.
『鈴木大拙全集』 Collected Works of Suzuki Daisetz, 40 volumes, third edition (1999-2003)

*Reference: Collected Works of Suzuki Daisetz, vol. 40, Iwanami Shoten, 2003
※ 参考文献:『鈴木大拙全集〔増補新版〕第 40 巻』岩波書店 2003 年




1870 Born in Shimohonda (now Honda-machi 3-chome), Kanazawa on October 18th. (born "Teitaro Suzuki")
1875 (Age 5) Entered Honda-machi Elementary School (now Shintate-machi Elementary School).
1888 (Age 18) Entered Fourth High School (the predecessor of Kanazawa University).
1891 (Age 21) Went to Tokyo and entered the Imperial University, Faculty of Philosophy (now the University of Tokyo) the following year.
1894 (Age 24) Conferred the name "Daisetz".
1897 (Age 27) Went to the United States and worked for Open Court Publishing Company in La Salle, Illinois as an editor for 11 years where he undertook translation and interpretation.
1909 (Age 39) Returned to Japan. Became lecturer at Gakushuin (now Gakushuin University) and Tokyo Imperial University (now the University of Tokyo), and became professor at Gakushuin the following year.
1911 (Age 41) Married Beatrice Erskine Lane.
1921 (Age 51) Became professor at Shinshu Otani University (now Otani University) and worked for the university until the age of 89 (1960).
1936 (Age 66) Gave lectures at the University of Cambridge, Harvard University, among others.
1945 (Age 75) Established Matsugaoka Bunko in Kamakura.
1949 (Age 79) Went to the United States and gave lectures at the University of Hawaii. Became a member of the Japan Academy and received Order of Culture.
1950 (Age 80) Gave lectures at Princeton University, New York University, among others.
Lived in New York.
1952 (Age 82) Began giving lectures at Columbia University.
1954 (Age 84) Gave lectures in UK, Germany, Switzerland, among other countries.
1958 (Age 88) Returned to Japan. Spent days as a researcher at Matsugaoka Bunko the following year.
1961 (Age 91) Completed English translation of Kyogyo-shinsho .
1966 Died at St. Luke's International Hospital on July 12th, aged 95.



An ambassador of enlightenment - The man who brought Zen to the West
by Eric Prideaux

Poisoned Pen Letters? D.T. Suzuki's Communication of Zen to the West
by Dharmachāri Nāgapriya

Swedenborg's Influence on Suzuki

Daisetz T. Suzuki. Zen and Pragmatism--A Reply (Comment and Disussion)
Philosophy East and West 4, no. 2, JULY 1954. p. 167-174.

The Lankavatara Sutra: A Mahayana Text
Translated for the first time from the original Sanskrit by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki

A Critical Examintion of Suzuki's Understanding of Ch'an (Zen) Buddhism
by Chai Shin Yu
Thesis, McMaster University, October 1969

Merton's Dialogue with Zen: Pioneering or Passé?
by John D. Dadosky
Fu Jen International Religious Studies Vol. 2 No. 1 (N. Summer 2008), pp. 53-75

Openness and Fidelity: Thomas Merton's Dialogue with D. T. Suzuki, and Self-transcendence
by Joseph Quinn Raab
Thesis, University of St. Michael's College, 2000, pp. 1-227

Suzuki Daisetz as Regional Ontologist: Critical Remarks on Reading Suzuki's Japanese Spirituality
by David A. Dilworth, Philosophy East and West V. 28. pp. 99-110

D. T. Suzuki, “Suzuki Zen,” and the American Reception of Zen Buddhism
by Carl T. Jackson
In: American Buddhism as a Way of Life, State University of New York Press, Albany, 2010, pp- 39-56.

PDF: 守屋友江 MoriyaTomoe (1968-). Social Ethics of “New Buddhists” at the Turn of the Twentieth Century: A Comparative Study of Suzuki Daisetsu and Inoue Shūten
Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 32/2: 283–304 © 2005 Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture



Dr. D. T. Suzuki, London 1937


Excerpted from the article by D.T. Suzuki, “Self the Unattainable”

This self, therefore, emptied of all its so-called psychological contents is not an “emptiness,” as that word is generally understood. No such empty self exists. The emptied self is simply the psychological self cleansed of its egocentric imagination. It is just as rich in content as before; indeed it is richer than before, because it now contains the whole world in itself instead of having the world stand opposed to it. Not only that, it enjoys the state of being true to itself. It is free in the real sense of the word because it is master of itself, absolutely independent, self-reliant, authentic, and autonomous. This Self—with a capital S—is the Buddha who declared at his birth: “I alone am the most honored one in heaven and on earth.”

This way of understanding the self, that is, the Self, requires a great deal of explanation. When left to itself, Zen explains itself and no words are needed. But I have already committed myself to talking about it and hence have to do my best, however briefly, to make my description more comprehensible for the reader.

We all know that the self we ordinarily talk about is psychological, or rather logical and dualistic. It is set against a not-self; it is a subject opposing an object or objects. It is full of contents and very complex. Therefore, when this complexity is dissected and its component factors are set aside as not belonging to it, it is reduced, we think, to a nothing or an emptiness. And it is for this reason that Buddhism upholds the doctrine of anâtman , egolessness, which means that there is no psychological substratum corresponding to the word self ( âtman ), as there is, for example, when we say “table” and have something substantial answering to this sound, “table.” “Ego,” in other words, useful as it may be for our daily intercourse as social beings, is an empty phonetic symbol.

We refer to the ego or self by using the pronoun I when we are introspective and bifurcate ourselves into subject and object. But this process of self-introspective bifurcation, which is part of our attempt to orient the self, is endless and can never lead us to a terminating abode where “the self” comes comfortably to rest. The “self,” we may conclude, is after all nonexistent. But at the same time we can never get rid of this self—we somehow always stumble over it—which is very annoying, as it interferes with our sense of freedom. The annoyance we feel, consciously or unconsciously, is in fact the cause of our mental uneasiness. How does or how can this nonexistent “self”—that which can never be taken hold of on the rationalistic, dualistic plane of our existence—interfere in various ways with our innate feeling of freedom and authenticity? Can this ego be really such a ghostly existence, an empty nothing, a zero like the shadow of the moon in the water? If it is really such a nonexistent existence, how does it ever get into our consciousness or imagination? Even an airy nothing has something substantial behind. A memory always has some real basis, be it in some unknown and altogether forgotten past, or even beyond our individual experience.

The self then is not a nothing or an emptiness incapable of producing work. It is very much alive in our innate sense of freedom and authenticity. When it is stripped of all its trappings, moral and psychological, and when we imagine it to be a void, it is not really so; it is not “negativistic.” There must be something absolute in it. It must not be a mere zero symbolizing the negation of all dualistically conceived objects. It is, on the contrary, an absolute existence that exists in its own right. Relatively or dualistically, it is true, the self is “the unattainable” ( anupalabdha ), but this “unattainable” is not to be understood at the level of our ordinary dichotomous thinking.

The Unattainable, so termed, subsists in its absolute right and must still be taken hold of in a way hitherto unsuspected in our intellectual pursuit of reality. The intellect is to be left aside for a while, in spite of a certain sense of intellectual discomfort, so that we may plunge into that nothingness beyond the intellect, as if into a threatening abyss opening up at our feet. The Unattainable is attained as such in its just-so-ness, and the strange thing is that when this takes place the intellectual doubts that made us so uncomfortable are dissolved. One feels free, independent, one's own master. Experiences at the level of intellection are restrictive and conditioning, but the “inner” self feels the way God felt when he uttered, “Let there be light.” This is where zero identifies itself with infinity and infinity with zero—if we recall that both zero and infinity are not negative concepts, but utterly positive.

As a positive concept, infinity is not, as I said before, to be conceived serially as something taking place in time where things succeed or precede one another endlessly in all directions. It is the idea of a wholeness that can never be totalized or summed up as a whole. It is a circle whose circumference knows no boundaries. It is what makes us sense or feel that the world in which we live is limited and finite, and yet does not allow us to be taken as limited and finite. From our ordinary point of view, such a conception is inadmissible, impossible, and irrational. And yet there is something there that compels us to accept it. And once we accept it, all impossibilities and irrationalities vanish, regardless of the intellectual discomfort we may feel. In fact, this kind of discomfort arises out of our failure to accept the ultimate “irrationality” totally and unconditionally.

This failure on our part is precisely what Zen tries to do away with. To understand Zen, therefore, means to be “comfortable” in every possible way. This state of mind is known as the “pacification of mind” or “making mind restful and comfortable” ( anjin or anhsin ). It takes place when the impossible—or, in Zen terminology, “the Unattainable” is experienced as such. The word experience is used here in its most specific sense as a sort of inner sense that becomes manifest on the individualized plane of sense-experience as a totalistic response of one's being. It is an immediate and altogether personal response, one that makes the total experience appear like a sense perception; but in actuality the total experience takes place simultaneously with the sense experience. The sense experience is partitive and stops at the periphery of consciousness, whereas the total experience springs from the being itself and makes one feel or perceive that it has come to the Unattainable itself.



Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki 1870-1966
Japanese nonfiction writer, translator, and teacher.


Suzuki is given credit for introducing the concept of Zen Buddhism to the West. His English translations of Buddhist texts and explanations of Zen philosophy gained the attention of and exerted influence over a wide range of Westerners: academics, such as Thomas Merton and Alan Watts; psychotherapists, such as Eric Fromm and Carl Jung; and writers and artists, especially those of the “beat generation” of the 1950s, such as Jack Kerouac and John Cage. Although he never took disciples and did not consider himself to be a roshi, or master, many Westerners and Asians revered him as both an academic and spiritual teacher (among them Robert Aitken and Shokin Furuta). Adept in languages from an early age, Suzuki's translations of Buddhist texts have become classics, and his explanations of the concepts and teachings of Zen Buddhism have become the bedrock of understanding for Westerners interested in Zen both as philosophy and as a spiritual practice.

Biographical Information

Born in the small rural town of Kanagawa in northern Japan, Suzuki originally was expected to follow the traditional profession of his samurai family and become a doctor. However, when his father died the family was unable to afford the required education, so Suzuki became an English teacher instead. After his mother's death, he moved to Tokyo where he attended Tokyo Imperial University and began to study Zen Buddhism with Shaku Soen, who gave him the name Daisetz, meaning Great Humility.

Recognizing Suzuki's talent for languages, Shaku Soen recommended him to Paul Carus, an American editor and philosopher interested in Eastern religions, for the position of translator. Suzuki moved to Chicago, Illinois, and worked for Carus's firm, Open Court Publishing, for eleven years, from 1897 to 1908. During this time he translated several classic Chinese Buddhist texts and wrote his first full-length publication, Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism (1907). This work established Suzuki's reputation as both translator and scholar.

Before returning to Japan in 1909, Suzuki spent a year in Europe as a translator where he was introduced to, and impressed by, the works of Emmanuel Swendenborg, which he translated into Japanese. In 1911 he married an American woman, Beatrice Erskine Lane, a graduate of Radcliffe and an advocate of Theosophy. They moved to Tokyo where Suzuki taught at Otani University in Kyoto, a chair that allowed him considerable academic freedom. His reputation as a Zen scholar and interpreter of Zen for Westerners grew steadily through the 1920s and 1930s, and together with his wife he founded and edited an English journal called Eastern Buddhist, to which he contributed many articles on Zen. Beatrice died in 1938, and Suzuki retired from Otani University in 1940, but it was an active retirement during which he continued to write.

During the Second World War he took a stand for pacifism and criticized Japan's militaristic approach. This earned him the distrust of the Japanese government, and he was kept under police surveillance. Nonetheless, in 1949 he became a member of the Japanese Academy and received the Cultural Medal from the emperor. In that year, at the age of 80, he began another career in America as a traveling lecturer at universities all over the United States, a role he continued until 1958. In 1959 he founded the Cambridge Buddhist Association in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and served as its first president before returning to Japan later that year. Although he expected to go into retirement, true to his Zen principles he continued to work until his death in 1966 at the age of 96.

Major Works

Suzuki's career followed several stages of development. During the early years he concentrated on scholarly Buddhist works, translating and expounding upon classic texts. His first, Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism,was a study of the mystical Buddhist Mahayana sect, quite different from Zen. Other technical works were An Index to the Lankavatara Sutra(1933) and The Gandavyuha Sutra (1934).

In 1927–34 he wrote his first major publication about Zen, Essays in Zen Buddhism, a three-volume series, followed by An Introduction to Zen Buddhism in 1934, The Training of a Zen Buddhist Monk in 1934, andManual of Zen Buddhism in 1935. These books were all addressed to Westerners in an attempt to interpret Zen for those from a radically different culture than the one in which Zen was nurtured. Suzuki contended that Zen must be understood on its own terms as an experience, not through Western concepts of philosophy, science, religion, or mysticism. Suzuki's admirers and critics all agree that his pre-war writings, steeped in Chinese and Japanese tradition, carried a strong psychological emphasis on Zen as an experience, supported by Zen expression and Zen consciousness.

After the war, Suzuki's focus began to change as he became more interested in metaphysical and philosophical issues. Some critics contend that he read the existentialists primarily to refute their work from a Zen perspective, but his later work such as The Essence of Buddhism(1947), Studies in Zen (1955), Zen Buddhism (1956), and The Essentials of Zen Buddhism (1962) focused more on identifying kono-mama and sono-mama, the Zen perspective of reality in which everything exists by its own right and does not point to any reality other than itself certainly a more metaphysical emphasis than seen in his pre-war writings.

Critical Reception

There is some controversy about Suzuki's scholarship and about his interpretation of Zen. Some critics think that he focused too narrowly on the Rinzai Zen tradition, neglecting the equally important Soto (Ts'ao-tung) tradition. Others thought his lack of emphasis on meditation showed a deficit in his explanation of Zen practice. Still others disliked his presentation of Zen as open to personal interpretation with little importance given to historical and traditional Buddhist thought, giving rise to seemingly bizarre cultural interpretations. All agree, however, on Suzuki's success in bringing Zen to the consciousness and appreciation of the West, and on the deep cultural influences his work has had on artistic, psychological, and religious thought.


Wesley Britton: Zen Buddhism by D. T. Suzuki


Zen Buddhism shares with other philosophies and faiths that stress intuition and awareness the ironic condition of desiring to communicate what cannot be communicated. Like the theologies of the Middle Ages, it urges an understanding of true being by a kind of direct insight into one’s own being, but it disdains any intellectual or formalistic methods of achieving that insight. The profession of conviction, then, is largely negative; the emphasis, insofar as discourse is concerned, is not on what can be said but on that on which we must be silent. Zen masters are not lecturers; they are directors who turn the attention of disciples to some natural fact that, properly apprehended, reveals everything. Of those who have made the effort to explain Zen Buddhism, few have been more successful than the Japanese philosopher and professor, D. T. Suzuki, whose Essays in Zen Buddhism (1927, 1933, 1934), The Zen Doctrine of No-Mind (1949), and Studies in Zen (1955) provide the selections collected and edited by William Barrett under the title Zen Buddhism. This volume provides a good introduction to Suzuki’s work and to Zen Buddhism; it deals with the meaning of Zen Buddhism, its historical background, its techniques, its philosophy, and its relation to Japanese culture.

The Origin of Zen

According to the legendary account of Zen, given by Suzuki, Zen originated in India, and the first to practice the Zen method was Sākyamuni, the Buddha. He is reputed to have held a bouquet of flowers before his disciples without saying a word. Only the venerable Mahakasyapa understood the “silent but eloquent teaching on the part of the Enlightened One.” Consequently, Mahakasyapa inherited the spiritual treasure of Buddhism.

According to historical accounts, however, Zen Buddhism originated in China in 520 c.e. with the arrival of Bodhi-Dharma from India (the twenty-eighth in the line of patriarchs of Zen, according to the orthodox followers). The message brought by Bodhi-Dharma became the four-phrase summation of the Zen principles: “A special transmission outside the scriptures; No dependence upon words and letters; Direct pointing at the soul of man; Seeing into one’s nature and the attainment of Buddhahood.” These are not the words of Bodhi- Dharma, but of later disciples who formulated his teachings. The method of “direct pointing,” of referring to some natural thing or event as the focal point of meditation, preparatory to an instantaneous enlightenment, continues to be the most characteristic method of Zen Buddhism.

Dharma came to be known as the biguan Brahman, or the “Wall-contemplating Brahman,” because of his practice of contemplating a monastery wall—reputedly for nine years. One of the most familiar stories of his teaching has to do with the persistent seeker after truth, the monk Shen Guang, described in legend as having stood in the snow until he was buried to his knees and as having cut off his arm in order to show the sincerity of his desire to learn. Finally, gaining audience with Dharma, he said, “My soul is not yet pacified. Pray, master, pacify it.” Dharma replied, “Bring your soul here, and I will have it pacified.” Suzuki finishes the story: Guang hesitated for a moment but finally said, “I have sought it these many years and am still unable to get hold of it!” “There! It is pacified once for all.” This was Dharma’s sentence.

The Chinese founder of Zen, Suzuki reports, was Huineng (638- 713), who was so deeply touched by a recitation of the Diamond Sutra (Vajracchedikasutra) that he made a monthlong journey to beg the patriarch Hongren to allow him to study under him. Hongren recognized Huineng’s spiritual quality and transferred the patriarchal robes to him. (The account may not be accurate, having been composed by the followers of Huineng.)

It was Huineng who taught that Zen is the “seeing into one’s own Nature.” According to Suzuki, “This is the most significant phrase ever coined in the development of Zen Buddhism.” Allied with this idea was the “abrupt doctrine” of the Southern School of Huineng. According to the Platform Sutra, “When the abrupt doctrine is understood there is no need of disciplining oneself in things external. Only let a man always have a right view within his own mind, no desires, no external objects will ever defile him. . . . The ignorant will grow wise if they abruptly get an understanding and open their hearts to the truth.” In opposition to the view that enlightenment can be achieved by passive or quiet meditation, Huineng emphasized apprehending the nature of the self while the self is in the midst of action. Huineng began the Zen tradition of getting at the truth directly, intuitively, not intellectually. “When the monk Ming came to him and asked for instruction,” Suzuki recounts, “[Huineng] said, Show me your original face before you were born.’” Suzuki comments: “Is not the statement quite to the point? No philosophic discourse, no elaborate reasoning, no mystic imagery, but a direct unequivocal dictum.”

Seeing into the Nature of One’s Being

Suzuki’s essay “The Sense of Zen,” the first chapter in Zen Buddhism, states at the outset that Zen is “the art of seeing into the nature of one’s own being.” He argues that Zen Buddhism contains the essence of Buddhism, although it differs from other forms of Buddhism because it does not stress rules, scriptures, authorities, and the intellectual approach to the truth. Zen Buddhism assents to the Buddha’s Fourfold Noble Truth, which is built on the basic claim that life is suffering and that to escape suffering one must overcome desire and find truth. There is a struggle in the individual between the finite and the infinite, so that the nature of one’s being, which provides a clue to the resolution of the conflict within the self, must be directly grasped. However, books are of no help nor is the intellect; the only way to Buddhahood is through a “direct pointing to the soul of man,” as one of the four statements claims. “For this reason,” Suzuki writes, “Zen never explains but indicates. . . . It always deals with facts, concrete and tangible.” Suffering is the result of ignorance, and ignorance “is wrought of nothing else but the intellect and sensuous infatuation.”

Direct teaching or pointing is sometimes a silent reference, as with the Buddha’s flower. However, it may appear in the use of an apparently irrelevant, even ridiculous, or apparently senseless remark. To appreciate the method of direct pointing, Suzuki cautions, one must regard the attempt to learn as no mere pastime. For Zen Buddhists, Zen is an ethical discipline, an attempt to elevate one’s spiritual powers to their ideal limits. The brief answers of the masters to their students’ questions were never intended to be intellectual riddles or symbolic utterances. To talk by the use of metaphorical imagery would not be to point directly. Perhaps one can say that although some of the statements attributed to the masters appear to be symbolic in import, there may very well be more direct meanings that are the significant meanings of the statements. Suzuki gives some illustrations of the Zen practice of uttering a few words and demonstrating with action: “What is Zen?” The master: “Boiling oil over a blazing fire.” “What kind of man is he who does not keep company with any thing?” The master (Baso): “I will tell you when you have swallowed up in one draught all the waters in the West River.”

There is perhaps no more difficult point to make than that such answers from the Zen masters are important not as charming and archaic riddles or irrelevancies but as “direct pointings” to the truth. The tendency of the Western mind is to go at these remarks intellectually, to make sense out of them. However, Suzuki argues with convincing sincerity that for the Zen Buddhist, such remarks are instruments of enlightenment that can be comprehended simply and naturally with the “opening of a third eye,” the sudden enlightenment by which one sees into the nature of one’s own being. The name for the moment of enlightenment or awakening is “satori,” and the means to it is meditation of the proper sort. The term “Zen” comes from the Japanese word zazen, which means “to sit or meditate,” and is equivalent to the Chinese chan and the Indian Dhyana. The distinctive feature of Zen is that meditation and action are one. Suzuki said, “Zen has its own way of practicing meditation. Zen has nothing to do with mere quietism or losing oneself in a trance.”


To achieve satori, or enlightenment, involves “meditating on those utterances or actions that are directly poured out from the inner region undimmed by the intellect or the imagination.” Again, Suzuki offers examples from the masters to suggest the direct method of Zen. Referring to his staff, Zen master Yeryo said, “When one knows what that staff is, one’s life study of Zen comes to an end.” Ye-sei said, “When you have a staff, I will give you one; when you have none, I will take it away from you.”

Some suggestive remarks by Suzuki put the Zen method into a perspective accessible to Western minds. If one considers that the direct method is possible for the Zen masters because any point of meditation, properly caught in the fullness of its being, is infinitely illuminating, one can come to appreciate the pertinence of apparently irrelevant and abrupt remarks. If one’s study of Zen ends with knowledge of the master’s staff, it may be that it also ends, as Suzuki suggests, with knowledge of the flower in the crannied wall. The poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s image may have much the same significance as the Zen master’s image.

Referring to the Buddhist scriptures, Suzuki argues that “enlightenment and darkness are substantially one,” that “the finite is the infinite, and vice versa,” and that “the mistake consists in our splitting into two what is really and absolutely one.” All of this is reminiscent of the philosophy of the metaphysical mystics; there is a close resemblance to the views of such men as Nicholas of Cusa and Giordano Bruno. Suddenly to appreciate the unity of all being and to recognize that unity in an illuminating moment of knowing one’s own nature to be the nature of all being, and therefore the nature of whatever it is to which the master’s abrupt remark calls attention, is surely not an act of intellect. For intellect to “work it out” would be to spoil the whole effect, as if one were to try to embrace the quality of a rug as a whole by tracing out its separate threads and their relationships to other threads. Satori, if it occurs, has to be a moment of “grasping,” of knowing “all at once,” and it is not at all surprising that the masters of Zen have come to rely on the abrupt remark as a sudden direct pointing.

In the essay, “Satori, or Enlightenment,” Suzuki defines satori as “an intuitive looking into the nature of things in contradistinction to the analytical or logical understanding of it.” It involves a new view, a new way of looking at the universe. The emphasis of the Zen masters, as with the patriarch Huineng, is not on direction or on instruction but on seeing into one’s own nature in order to see the nature of all, to achieve Buddhahood, and to escape the cycle of birth and death.

Here again Suzuki emphasizes the masters’ methods of bringing the seekers of enlightenment abruptly to satori. “A monk asked Joshu . . . to be instructed in Zen. Said the master, Have you had your breakfast or not?’ Yes, master, I have,’ answered the monk. If so, have your dishes washed,’ was an immediate response, which, it is said, at once opened the monk’s mind to the truth of Zen.” Such remarks are like the strokes and blows, or the twisting of noses, which the masters sometimes resorted to, as if suddenly to make the disciple aware of himself and of the obscuring tendencies of his old perspectives. By referring to commonplace matters in the context of a desire to know all, the masters somehow refer to all. By being apparently irrelevant, they show the relevance of everything.

The chief characteristics of satori, Suzuki writes, are irrationality, the nonlogical leap of the will; intuitive insight, or mystic knowledge; authoritativeness, the finality of personal perception; affirmation, the acceptance of all things; a sense of the beyond, the loss of the sense of self together with the sense of all; an impersonal tone, the absence of any feeling of love or “supersensuality”; a feeling of exaltation, the contentment of being unrestricted and independent; and momentariness, an abruptness of experience, a sudden realization of “a new angle of observation.”

Zen Methods

In “Practical Methods of Zen Instruction,” Suzuki discusses methods for arriving at the realization of the absolute oneness of things. A proper appreciation of these methods, even in outline, depends on unabridged explanations and examples, but the methods can be mentioned. Zen sometimes utilizes paradox, but by concrete images, not by abstract conceptions. Another method is to attempt to think the truth without using the ordinary logic of affirmation and denial; it is the method of “going beyond the opposites.” The third method is the method of contradiction, the method of denying what has already been asserted or taken for granted. The method of affirmation is the method frequently referred to: stating almost blithely some commonplace matter of fact in answer to an abstruse and apparently unrelated question. Repetition serves to return the self to what it has already seen and not recognized. Exclamation, particularly when used as the only answer and when the sound is meaningless, is sometimes used; and even the method of silence has provoked satori. However, of all the methods, the direct method of illuminating action—even though the action be commonplace or almost violent, such as a blow on the cheek of a questioner—is most characteristic of Zen, perhaps because it is the action of everything to which Zen directs attention.

The koan exercise is the Zen method of teaching the uninitiated by referring them to answers made by Zen masters. The student is either enlightened or encouraged to “search and contrive” in order to understand the state of mind of the master whose koan he is considering. Suzuki devotes an interesting chapter to a discussion of the koan exercise, and he offers several examples.

Zen Principles

The basic principles of Zen, particularly as related to the teachings of Huineng, are examined anew in the essay, “The Zen Doctrine of No-Mind,” in which the emphasis on the no- mind, the unconscious, brings out the essential concern with active, nondiscursive, intuitive insight. By avoiding the conscious effort to understand intellectually and by participating in ordinary action, one prepares oneself for the moment of enlightenment.

Zen differs from pragmatism, Suzuki maintains, in that pragmatism emphasizes the practical usefulness of concepts, while Zen emphasizes purposelessness or “being detached from teleological consciousness.” Suzuki describes Zen as life; it is entirely consistent with the nonintellectualism of Zen that Zen has implications for action in every sphere of human life. However, Zen is concerned not so much with the quality or direction of action as with the perspective of the actor. The emphasis is on “knowing and seeing.” Like existentialism, Zen recognizes the antinomy of the finite and the infinite and the possibilities that relation of apparent opposition opens up; but unlike existentialism, Zen does not involve any conception of an absolute opposition and, consequently, does not entail any “unbearable responsibility,” or nausea in the face of the necessity for action. Once the division of finite and infinite, individual and other, is seen to be the consequence of intellectual analysis so that the idea of individuality is succeeded by the idea of oneness, there is no fear of plunging into the abyss.

In his discussion of Zen and Japanese culture, Suzuki shows how sumi-e painting (ink sketching on fragile paper, with no corrections possible), swordsmanship, and the tea ceremony are expressions of Zen principles.

Suzuki’s essays on Zen Buddhism contribute immeasurably to an appreciation of Asian religion and philosophy. They also may shed light on the intuitive mysticism that runs through Western metaphysics despite its prevailing realistic and pragmatic directions and diminish the sense of opposition between realism and mysticism.

Additional Reading

Abe, Masao, ed. A Zen Life: D. T. Suzuki Remembered. New York: Weatherhill, 1986. This indispensable anthology contains a bibliography of D. T. Suzuki’s complete works and biographical accounts published through the copyright date. Many insights into Suzuki’s life and works appear in more than twenty articles by Japanese and Western writers with an emphasis on Suzuki’s literature about Shin Buddhism.

Eastern Buddhist New Series, no. 2. (August, 1967). This memorial issue of the magazine Suzuki founded contains accounts of various phases of Suzuki’s life by friends and fellow masters.

Fields, Rick. How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America. Boulder: Shambhala, 1981. This account of how Buddhism came to the West includes numerous lengthy passages on Suzuki and his family, particularly on his youth, motivations, training, and his early days in La Salle, Illinois, while he worked for Open Court Publishing. Fields also recounts anecdotes about Suzuki’s lectures in New York City. Includes photographs of Suzuki and friends. This study is highly recommended as the best, most readily available full-length text on Suzuki.

Merton, Thomas. Mystics and Zen Masters. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1961. Immersing himself in the study of Zen from the perspective of a Catholic Trappist monk, Father Merton relies heavily on Suzuki and refers to him frequently. In this work, Merton compares Suzuki with Greek philosophers and discusses Suzuki’s comments on the training of Zen monks and monasticism.

Merton, Thomas. Zen and the Birds of Appetite. New York: New Directions, 1968. In this work, Trappist monk Merton devotes one chapter to Suzuki, discussing personal conversations between the two religious leaders, including twenty pages of letters.

Snelling, John. The Buddhist Handbook: A Complete Guide to Buddhist Schools, Teaching, Practice, and History. Rochester: Inner Traditions International, 1991. Throughout this comprehensive study of Buddhist history and practice, Snelling points to Suzuki’s connections to and interpretations of a number of Buddhist schools of thought and Suzuki’s influence on psychotherapy. Snelling praises Suzuki for making Buddhist scriptures available in the West and recounts anecdotes of Suzuki’s public appearances.

Switzer, Irwin. D. T. Suzuki: A Biography. London: The Buddhist Society, 1985. This first account of Suzuki’s life is short but authoritative. Contains a useful chronology and was compiled from a manuscript left by the author with Christmas Humphreys, president of the Buddhist Society and a personal friend of Suzuki. The text was augmented with material from Peter Fields’s How the Swans Came to the Lake.

Wu, John C. H. The Golden Age of Zen. New York: Doubleday, 1996. Strongly influenced by Suzuki’s writings and letters as well as a personal acquaintance with Suzuki, Wu discusses Suzuki’s teachings on parallels between mystical Catholicism and Buddhism, summarizing and noting the key points in Suzuki’s Mysticism: Christianity and Buddhism. Wu discusses Suzuki’s opinions on Confucianism and Daoism. Includes anecdotes and reminiscences of Suzuki and reprints of letters between Wu and Suzuki.


A review of Outlines of Mahâyâna Buddhism,
in The Monist,Vol. 18, 1908, pp. 477-78.

[Outlines of Mahâyâna Buddhism] is the first book ever written on Mahâyâna Buddhism which makes any claim to a systematic presentation of the subject. Hitherto European scholars of Buddhism were wont to treat Mahâyânism as a mere degenerated form of “Primitive Buddhism,” which is to-day represented by the Buddhism prevailing in Ceylon, Burma, Siam, and other Asiatic countries, and which is designated by the followers of Mahâyânism as Hinayâna Buddhism. Such authors as Beal, Edkin, Wassiljew and others tried to expound the fundamental ideas of Mahâyânism in their treatment of Chinese and Japanese Buddhism; but their method was not strictly systematic. Besides they had no synthetic knowledge of the subject, for their information was gained through not very authentic sources, or through some Mahâyâna books which they picked out of the Chinese Tripitaka at their pleasure. Kern, Burnouf, Poussin, Lévi, Max Müller, Mitra, and other Sanskrit scholars have attempted to describe the essential characteristics of Mahâyânism through the Sanskrit Buddhist texts found in Nepal; and we must admit that some of them have been fairly successful in the attempt.

But, as we know, these Sanskrit documents of Buddhism are merely a small portion of the vast amount of Mahâyâna literature preserved in China, Japan and Tibet; and it is clearly evident that our correct knowledge of Mahâyânism as it is believed to-day by millions of Asiatic people, as well as its historical development in India, China and Japan, cannot be gained until the Chinese and Tibetan Tripitaka has been thoroughly investigated. Csoma de Körös, Nanjo, Schiefner and others have done much towards this end, but every Mahâyâna student knows well that a rich harvest is waiting for the laborers.

What Mr. Suzuki has accomplished here is not a strictly scholarly work, for, as he says in his preface, it has also been his intention to provide a popular exposition of Mahâyâna Buddhism which has very frequently been grossly misunderstood, and hence misinterpreted, by less informed writers of the West. Mr. Suzuki is a Japanese Buddhist, but liberal and impartial; he proceeds systematically in his presentation of the subject. What makes this book most valuable to European scholars is its numerous allusions to the Chinese Tripitaka, which mainly on account of the linguistic difficulties has not been explored as it ought to, but with which our author is perfectly at home.

This book is divided into three parts: I. Introductory, II. Speculative Mahâyânism, and III. Practical Mahâyânism. In the Introductory part the author treats of the distinction between Mahâyâna and Hinayâna Buddhism, the historical significance of Mahâyânism, the general characteristics of Buddhism, and the historical characterization of Mahâyânism, in which are quoted such Hindu Buddhist philosophers as Sthivamati, Asanga, Nâgârjuna, Açvaghosha, Aryadwa, etc. “Speculative Mahâyânism” contains chapters on Practice and Speculation, Classification of Knowledge, Bhûtatathâtâ (Suchness), The Tathâgata-Garbha and the Alaya-vijñâna, The Theory of the Non-Atman and Karma. Under “Practical Mahâyânism,” Mr. Suzuki includes the Dharmakâya, The Doctrine of Nikâya, The Bodhisattva, The Ten Stages of Bodhisattvahood, and Nirvana. As an Appendix the book contains some Hymns of the Mahâyâna faith, which are taken from various Mahâyâna sutras existing in Chinese translations.

These Outlines serve as a very good introduction to a more comprehensive treatise of the subject, which, it is hoped, our author will attempt in the future when his extensive knowledge of Chinese Buddhist literature is further supplemented with that of the Sanskrit, however fragmentary the latter may be.


G. Bownas
A review of Studies in Zen,

in Philosophy, Vol. XXXIII, No. 117, April, 1956, pp. 188-89.

Studies in Zen is a collection of seven originally separate articles, the first of which was written in 1906, and the last in 1953; there is, inevitably, a certain degree of repetition, but, on the whole, the essays combine to give a fairly broad picture of Professor Suzuki's interpretations of Zen.

The book begins with a history of the school of Zen—sectarian history being a subject very near to the heart of the majority of Japanese Buddhist scholars. But we soon pass beyond this aspect of the approach, and do not return to it. Zen was admirably suited to the Chinese temperament, and to the existing, and potential rival, systems of thought. It had its breath of Taoism, and it appealed to the love of formalism and ritual on which Confucius had built: it was, in fact, so elastic, as to be adaptable to almost any environment. The stress on intuition, and the neglect of the intellect was and is ideally fitted to the thinking processes of both Chinese and Japanese: it is by no means rare to find what seems to be an intuitive feel for what one suspects is the correct answer to some problem, followed by (to satisfy the demands of western reasoning) a series of logical proofs which lead to anywhere but the same answer.

Zen is “a special transmission outside the scriptures, not depending on the letter, but pointing directly to the Mind.” Zen masters have not demanded of their pupils extensive studies of the sutras, and Professor Suzuki maintains that the attainment of the desired end is by an act of will, plus intuition, which moves over an intellectual impasse. It is at this point that he begins to run into difficulties. The Zen experience is “beyond the ken of intellectual painting, or dialectical delineation,” he admits,—yet these are his only means of explaining it to us. The paradox, or the mere repeat of the pupil's question in the reply of the master, which is part of the peculiar technique of the Zen master, must then remain unintelligible to one who has not experienced the enlightenment which comes of the act of intuition and will combined—and this Professor Suzuki cannot induce in his reader. The most that he can do is to aver, from the inside, that “when looked at from the inside, … there looms up the big character Zen, which is the key to all the mysteries.” One feels some sympathy with Hu Shih, when he complains (in an article to which one of the seven essays is a somewhat unconvincing reply), that according to Suzuki Zen is illogical, irrational and therefore beyond our intellectual understanding. The best he can do is to tell the world that Zen is Zen and altogether beyond our logical comprehension.

The editing of the essays has been undertaken by Mr. Christmas Humphreys and the London Buddhist Society: as they extend over a period of almost fifty years, it must have posed many problems. The printing of both Chinese and Japanese versions of technical terms is useful; but there are many cases where a Chinese is referred to by the Japanese reading of his name. There is a constant misunderstanding of the function of the hyphen in a Chinese proper name—Dr. Hu Shih, for example, appears as Hu-Shih, the equivalent of Humphreys-Christmas. It might also have been possible to indicate the long vowel in Japanese—and most publishing houses seem equal to the task—by means of a bar placed above the relevant vowel; thus, mondō, or bushidō. The word katsu or kwatsu (p. 45) appears elsewhere as kwatz (p. 144), or Katz (p. 184), and neither of the latter instances is listed in the index. And if the reader is keen enough to consult the Index, he will be faced with contradictions the like of the following (which is not an isolated instance); p. 184—Tokusan (Teh-shan, 790-865), and Index—Tokusan (Te-shan) (779-865). This sample of errors I have treated at some length, for they will cause as much bewilderment to the novice, as they must do exasperation to the expert.


Gerald Doherty
“The World That Shines and Sounds: W. B. Yeats and Daisetz Suzuki,”

in Irish Renaissance Annual, Vol. IV, 1983, pp. 57-75.

Yeats's fascination with Japan and its culture had its origins in his study of the Noh drama under the auspices of Ezra Pound during the winter of 1913-14. Thereafter, references to the “noble plays” of Japan and to Japanese art float casually into his essays, often to highlight some contrast between such plays and the Western predilection for social realism and the intimate personal mode of the theater. From 1927 onwards, however, there is a distinct shift of emphasis; the range of reference widens to include appreciative comments on Zen Buddhism both as a method of meditation and as a dynamic approach to art and life. The source of this new enthusiasm was clearly the first volume of Daisetz Suzuki's Essays in Zen Buddhism [hereafter abbreviated asEZB], which Yeats read shortly after its publication in 1927, and praised as “an admirable and exciting book” (V 215).1 Much of the material of theEssays appeared simultaneously in the Japanese philosophical journalThe Eastern Buddhist, edited by Suzuki himself, copies of which Yeats received regularly.2 There also Yeats could have read the first translation into English, made by Suzuki, of a text which contains almost all the fundamental tenets of Zen Buddhist teaching, The Lankavatara Sutra.

Yeats was much taken not only by the Zen methods of meditation but also by its mondos, those abrupt dramatic dialogues between Zen master and disciple. These exchanges vividly portrayed the moment of “enlightenment” (Satori) which seemed often to have been precipitated by harsh or even combative encounters. Legends of the Zen monks and their sudden “enlightenment” form part of that remarkable patchwork of meditative reverie and tough comment which goes to make up the substance of the later Yeats essays. The legends themselves are evoked with a deliberate informality and in a number of fairly predictable contexts where the contrast between Eastern and Western modes and attitudes requires it.

Yeats's fine attunement to Zen and his acute penetration to the core of its significance are indeed impressive (this was in sharp contrast to most of his own contemporaries, students of the Japanese scene, who instinctively slotted Zen into a Neoplatonic framework, or who, like Sir George Sansom, mistook it for a cult of “eternal tranquillity,” and whom Suzuki had occasion to castigate3). Yeats immediately intuited that Zen was not still another manifestation of a religious idealism coupled to acontemptus mundi, but a radical vindication of the world in concreto. He was also attracted by its rejection of all abstract and systematic formulations in favor of a vital apprehension, life crystallized in a single gesture or action. All of this came as a powerful counterweight to the perpetual lure of the abstract, “the sun-dried skeletons of birds” as he once called it, which haunted his imagination and caused him to turn back “in terror” to the incarnate world and to the beauty of human embodiment (V 214; M 37). In this sense Zen reinforced the concrete pole of the Yeatsian dialectic. But it was also the portent of a more ultimate hope, that of exploding all antinomies in a sudden and final precipitation of insight, the hope that underscores his own koan-like deathbed comment, “Man can embody truth but he cannot know it” (L922). It was an embodiment which he anticipated might be as simple as a glance or a touch.

In this article I should like to explore those aspects of Zen which Yeats appropriated from Suzuki, and more especially Zen's confirmation of that drive towards extreme simplicity and of those electrifying intimations of unified being which characterize the later poems. Much of their violence, barely contained, their rhetorical intensity and gnomic utterance, their aura of frustrated questing, have immediate parallels in Suzuki's presentation of his approaches to Satori. We can examine the more general parallels and convergencies first of all.

At its simplest, Suzuki's designation of those qualities of mind most congenial to the flowering of Zen as “aloofness, romanticism, a certain practical temperament” would have attracted Yeats as a flattering mirror-image of his own disposition (EZB 173). Its rather elitist pretensions as well as its suitability only for those consumed with an exalted energy and purpose, as Suzuki presents it, would have served to intensify the attraction (EZB 27-29). More specifically, his delineation of Zen as an heroic and neo-Nietzschean drama of the will, of the kind of “indomitable will” which the Buddha exemplified, matched one of the more habitual masks of Yeats's later years (EZB 126). Suzuki's Buddha beat upon the wall of truth, then penetrated to the “very basis of creation,” the “original abode,” and finally proclaimed the wisdom of resolved conflict (EZB 130-31). Likewise Yeats's “eagle mind” with its protean range of voices aspires to master the ultimate source through the assaults of an exultant energy. As a corollary, Suzuki's emphasis on Zen self-power, the radical “reconstruction of one's entire personality” through one's own efforts, corresponds to the ambitious master-plan and labor of Yeats's old age (EZB 67). Both the Zen and the Yeatsian drive is towards an exalted freedom beyond the antinomies of the personal self, towards the transformation of anxiety into celebratory joy. For Zen, this achievement is through the attainment of Satori, for Yeats through the expansion power of art to dissolve the boundaries of good and evil, the transvaluation of values through the pure inner act of the agent.4

These are suggestions of a convergence of drive and purpose. The challenge of Zen, however, was to Yeats's lifelong predilection for conflict as the generator of energy. As Suzuki expansively records it, the path to Satori was mined with doubt and internal division, but its attainment marked the dissolution of all dualisms, the cessation of conflict. Yeats was fascinated by Zen's claim to go beyond what seemed to him perhaps the ultimate and irresolvable dualism, that of “the One and the Self with reality” as portrayed in the Upanishads and in Patanjali's Aphorisms of Yoga.5 This occurred in a triumphant act of enlightenment in which all such conventional opposites as spirit/matter, sacred/profane, God/creature were resolved and transcended. The consequence was a luminous expansion of the senses in a new coalescence of energies, and the abrupt disclosure of a restored universe in the irruption of supreme joy. This, Zen held out, not as a future attainment or a postponed reward, but as a now-possibility. This was the challenge and the promise for Yeats. Yet the Last Poems along with the essays and letters reveal an old man, dedicated to combat and confrontation, deliberately provoking them as a catalyst for the making of poems. Thus each act of creation is, at best, a little Satori, a miniature trial of the “unity of being,” after which the poet relapses into an excited anticipation of fresh rants and rages. In the context of the poetry, the fascination of Zen for Yeats was primarily in its methods, its precipitation of Satori often by sudden shock or violence, that flash of apparent “madness,” without which, Suzuki hints, “no great work has ever been accomplished.”6 The parallel with Yeats's own mode of creation is striking, that act of incandescent intensity which completes the “partial mind,” after which the poet (unlike the Zen saint who remains permanently whole) fragments into “the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast” (E&I509).

The details of Yeats's appropriation of Zen teaching reveal at once how selective he was, how exclusively indebted to Suzuki, and ultimately how compelled he was by the exigencies of his own quest. Perhaps the single most significant point of attraction for Yeats to Zen was Suzuki's insistence on Zen's “radical empiricism,” the apprehension of the world in the state of Satori as pulsating and energized matter. This involves no less than the “enlargement of the senses” (Yeats's own phrase) in a vitalized extension of seeing (EZB 139-46). Suzuki characterizes this “empiricism” in a variety of ways: as the celebration of the “concrete and tangible,” as salvation through the finite since “there is nothing infinite apart from finite things,” as the living of life in concreto beyond “concepts” or “images,” and as the attunement of the “work of creation” without the corresponding urge to interview the creator (EZB 20, 25, 105, 263). Here the resonances with Yeats's own final philosophical stance, the romantic and passionate empiricism of his old age, are consistent and close. At its simplest, he declares that “the concrete alone is loved.” Thus, as he conceives it, the drama of his last years must revolve on the “struggle to exalt and overcome concrete realities perceived not with mind only but as with the roots of my hair” (E 400, 302). It was an orientation which, he felt, had been lost to the Western world, but which was still vibrant in Japan. There, he suggests, men still feel the “keen delight in what we have” (L 759). He discovered an identical orientation in the luminaries of his Irish pantheon, in the Berkeley of theCommonplace Book, in the Goldsmith who wrote The Deserted Village, in the Burke who savaged “mathematical democracy,” and in its newly discovered carriers, the Zen masters of Japan. It was Berkeley, he declares, who envisaged a philosophy so concrete that it would be accessible to all, the revelation of “a world like that of a Zen priest in Japan or in China” (E 304). It was Berkeley too who, amid the bland indifference of his contemporaries, “was fumbling his way backward to some simple age,” an age which already had come to fulfillment in the contemplative activity of the Zen monk and in the “powerful rhythm” of the Zen painter (E&I 410). Most revealing of all is Yeats's identification of Berkeley's “restored world” with that of one of Suzuki's Zen masters whosaw the world in a new way “when his mental eye was first opened” (EZB249):

Descartes, Locke, and Newton took away the world and gave us its excrement instead. Berkeley restored the world. I think of the Nirvana Song of the Japanese monk: ‘I sit on the mountain side and look up at the little farm—I say to the old farmer: “How many times have you mortgaged your land and paid off the mortgage?” I take pleasure in the sound of the reeds.’

[E 325]

How closely this “radical empiricism” and the restored physicality of the world were associated in Yeats's mind with Zen teaching may be seen by examining one of the short sections of A Vision (V 214-15). There in a well-known passage he first of all affirms that all conflict must be ultimately resolved in the revelation of a world which is “concrete, sensuous, bodily,” the basic biological cycle of energy whose model is “the living bird … (that) signifies truth when it eats, evacuates, builds its nest. …” He immediately reinforces his point by recalling four Zen anecdotes borrowed directly from Suzuki's Essays, all of which highlight one or other aspect of Zen “empiricism.” The first repeats the “Nirvana Song” of the monk (quoted above); the second portrays a young man who celebrates his attainment of Satori with friends and “flute-players”; the third offers a vivid demonstration of Zen's “empirical” methods; and the fourth symbolizes both the suddenness and the radiance of this new mode of perception. The passage, which is rarely quoted, is as follows:

“No more does the young man come from behind the embroidered curtain amid the sweet clouds of incense; he goes among his friends, he goes among the flute-players; something very nice has happened to the young man, but he can only tell it to his sweetheart.” “You ask me what is my religion and I hit you upon the mouth.” “Ah! Ah! The lightning crosses the heavens, it passes from end to end of the heavens. Ah! Ah!”

[V 215]7

This drive towards a radical empiricism surges through the later poetry, ambiguously rendered, and often with a painful intensity. Paradoxically, however, there the concrete world seldom manifests itself in its “shining and sounding,” the envied “suchness” of things which was the domain of the Zen masters. Rather from “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” onwards, the concrete is marked down as the extreme antithesis to the state of enlightenment, as a physical embrace violently inflicted and violently endured. Its sole virtue lies in its possession of the kind of resistance and gall which generate poetry. In “A Dialogue,” for example, it has nothing of the elegance and fertility of the biological cycle, incarnate in the “living bird,” but emerges instead as an image of revolting fecundity, autochthonic aggression, and fruitless human suffering:

I am content to live it all again
And yet again, if it be life to pitch
Into the frog-spawn of a blind man's ditch,
A blind man battering blind men;
Or into that most fecund ditch of all,
The folly that man does
Or must suffer, if he woos
A proud woman not kindred of his soul.

[CP 267]

Here the concrete is disclosed as the original thrown-ness of existence which must be confronted and purged away with each new incarnation. Throughout the later poems, its keyword is “desolation,” whether it be the “desolate source” from which both life and love spring (CP 298), or the “desolation of reality” which confronts European man (by contrast to the Mount Meru hermits who are contemplatively attuned to ice and snow) when his “ravening, raging, and uprooting” of the world have run their course (CP 333-34). It is the lot of “The Wild Old Wicked Man,” who, rejecting the “lightning stream” which eradicates suffering (the favorite analogue of the Zen masters for Satori), chooses instead a moment of orgasmic oblivion, as brief as it is “second-best”:

‘That some stream of lightning
From the old man in the skies
Can burn out that suffering
No right-taught man denies.
But a coarse old man am I,
I choose the second-best,
I forget it all awhile
Upon a woman's breast.’

[CP 358]

The ultimate instance occurs in “The Circus Animals' Desertion,” where in the final stanza, the concrete is disclosed, not in its numinous “suchness,” but as the detritus of mythmaking, the dejecta membra which the lure of dreams and allegories shut out from view:

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder's gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

[CP 392]

No one knew better than Yeats himself that this was not the “concrete” of Berkeley's aspiration, nor of the Zen masters' attainment. Rather it is the kind of “desolation” which intrudes when the dialectical dream collapses, irretrievably dualistic in form, the gross product of the contradiction between the “painted stage” and the “excrement” of the world which it briefly occludes.

Suzuki consistently stressed the fact that the (Rinzai) Zen route to Satoriwas never gradual, the result, for example, of the meticulous cleansing of the “soul's mirror” through meditative practice. Satori was, in fact, an abrupt annunciation, the sudden irruption of hitherto unplumbed energies, a translation of the “whole man” into continuous seeing,“Nirvana reached while yet in the flesh” (EZB 63, 215). To delineate it, he exploits the traditional range of nature metaphors, the cataclysm, the earthquake, the shattering rocks, the lightning flash, to evoke its intensity. The sudden annunciatory flash which electrifies the whole being is the hallmark of Zen, as the mondos which Suzuki records abundantly show (EZB 229, 258). This was an aspect of Zen which lodged in Yeats's memory, and it came as a welcome reinforcement and confirmation of his own aspirations in old age.

As far back as his Golden Dawn days, the metaphorical “lightning flash” had symbolized Yeats's anticipation of a radical access to vision and to ultimate insight. However, it seems that in practice, and as the poetry reveals, these images of transformation “came slowly, there was not that sudden miracle as if the darkness had been cut with a knife.”8 They were types of the hieratic processional figures which appeared to him in trance or in reverie. Zen, by contrast, brought with it the late and revived possibility of the violent precipitation of vision, the lightning strike in the flesh. This, for example, is how Yeats interprets the forehead mark on certain Indian, Chinese, and Japanese images of the Buddha; it is the mark of the “strike,” the physical sign of the opening of the “third eye” in the “mind's direct apprehension of the truth, above all antinomies” (E&I436-37). Similarly his characterization of the Indian mystic, Bhagwān Shri Hamsa's enlightenment bears a striking resemblance to the enlightenment drama and the “indomitable will” of Suzuki's Buddha (EZB126): “(Shri Hamsa) strained his heroic will to the utmost, … but the Self has brought the event, the supreme drama, out of its freedom, and this revelation, because the work of unlimited power, has been sudden” (E&I480). For Yeats, the Zen masters were to become the exemplars, those who raised the method of sudden precipitation to the level of art. He had almost certainly this in mind when he declared that it seemed to him “of late (1934) that the sense of spiritual reality comes whether to the individual or to crowds from some violent shock” (E 399). This was the abrupt method of enlightenment which, he declares, he had sought for in vain in “encyclopedias and histories,” to come upon it at last in “the Scriptures and the legends of Zen Buddhism.” By way of illustrating this escape “from all that intellect holds true” through the technique of the violent precipitation “by shock,” he recounts one of the most celebrated of Zen instances, known as “Gutei's onefinger Zen.” Yeats's version is as follows:

A young monk said to the Abbot, ‘I have noticed that when anybody has asked about Nirwāna you merely raise your right hand and lower it again, and now when I am asked I answer in the same way.’ The Abbot seized his hand and cut off a finger. The young monk ran away screaming, then stopped and looked back. The Abbot raised his hand and lowered it, and at that moment the young monk attained the supreme joy.9

The Last Poems themselves are littered with such moments of violent physical annunciation and transmutation. In the apocalyptic theater of “Lapis Lazuli,” for example, Hamlet and Lear experience precisely such an abrupt and unheralded irruption of joy. It is this which transforms them from being creatures of contingency, mere puppets of the apocalypse, into ecstatic and enlightened figures in an extreme drama, transcending the universal and “desolate” reality which threatens to engulf them:

They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
All men have aimed at, found and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.

[CP 358]

In “An Acre of Grass,” the old man at last confronts the limits of the dialectical quest. Neither the endless projections of “loose imagination” nor the repetitive grapplings of the mind with the empirical world (“its rag and bone”) can precipitate the ultimate truth. The alternative which the poem offers—the beating upon the wall of truth, “the reconstruction of one's entire personality,” and “the remaking of life itself” (EZB 67,231) in an act of ecstatic enlightenment, whose European exemplars are Timon, Lear, and Blake—is an exact equivalent of the mode of Suzuki's Buddha:

Grant me an old man's frenzy,
Myself must I remake
Till I am Timon and Lear
Or that William Blake
Who best upon the wall
Till Truth obeyed his call.

[CP 347]

The most extreme and dubious instance of such radical transmutations occurs in “Under Ben Bulben.” There Yeats promotes Suzuki's suggestion of the incidental and occasional “violence” of Zen and its methods10 to the status of an ontological dogma. Beyond the limits of language, the poem asserts, every man confronts his destiny, transcends all dualisms and attains the ultimate joy and tranquility through an act of violence:

Know that when all words are said
And a man is fighting mad,
Something drops from eyes long blind,
He completes his partial mind,
For an instant stands at ease,
Laughs aloud, his heart at peace.
Even the wisest man grows tense
With some sort of violence
Before he can accomplish fate,
Know his work or choose his mate.

[CP 398-99]

The shadow of Nietzsche (whom Yeats reread in 1936-37) rather than that of Suzuki falls darkly across these lines.

Of course, such violence was never gratuitous, a crude display of bad temper. Rather it heralded the trauma which initiated the return to the “original home” (Suzuki), the unification of the man with his archetype (Yeats). Suzuki employs a diversity of Zen metaphors (many of them identical with Yeatsian ones) to encompass this attainment of wholeness: it is your own “original face … prior to thy own birth,” the unity of dancer and the dance, “pure water poured into pure water,” the ultimate act in which actor and action, thinker and thought, the knower and the known are consumed away (EZB 210, 155, 125, 58, 68). Both Yeats and Suzuki agree that these are mere metaphors, shadows of the “formless,” imprints of the “deep truth” which is finally “imageless.”

The Yeatsian task in old age was to complete his “partial mind,” to unite with his own archetype. His earlier enthrallment had been to elaborate symbols and images, often emerging in sleep, and exfoliating into magnificent structures, which threatened to engulf him. Now (1932), he declares, the ultimate source is “always an action, never a system of thought.” It is this which sets a man free from “a multitude of opinions” and permits him to attend to “the whole drama of life, simplicities, banalities, intoxications” (E&I 423). It is precisely this urge to unknow, to reduce his mind to “a single energy” which tempts him “to go to Japan, China, or India for my philosophy” (Balzac alone among Europeans pulls him back to the comic confusion and mess of humanity) (E&I 448).

The sole European artist who embarked on an identical quest for unknowing was Goethe. It was he who made his Faust proclaim that “In the beginning was the Act” rather than the orthodox “In the beginning was the Word.” And Yeats applauds Gentile, who found “in those words of Faust a conviction that ultimate reality is the Pure Act, the actor and the thing acted upon, the puncher and the punching-ball, consumed away.” Yet, Yeats maintains, Goethe failed. Even he lacked the “science or philosophy” that would have precipitated a “different level of consciousness,” and so exchanged the “white heat” of enlightenment for the “cold iron” of opinions and of intellectual knowledge. Indeed Yeats declares that it was precisely because there was “no Zen Buddhism, no Yogi practice, no Neo-Platonic discipline” that Europe lost the power to remake itself, and so sank into the toils of “mechanical science.”11 In the same context, and in a remarkable and idiosyncratic historiography, Yeats fabricates a Europe, already devolved through its earlier periods of absorption in Christian myth and of commitment to rational humanism, but now lacking the dynamics of Yoga or Zen which would rescue it from the shipwreck of absolute science. Viewed in this light, the Last Poemsthemselves are trials in the explosive dynamics of art, the last urgent effort by the last romantic to transmute the consciousness of Europe through the assaults of a rhetorical intensity which is now within his control.

There is a noticeable shift in the poetry from the earlier tragic endeavor to create symbols of power and permanence in a destructive world, typical of The Tower poems, towards a “joyful” (if sometimes hysterical) drive towards individual wholeness. This strain is already marked in the “Crazy Jane” cycle of poems, those “mad songs” which, as one critic put it, utter “the wisdom of a more radical wholeness than reason, nature, and society combine to permit us.”12 Each short poem pushes towards a single act or gesture, an encounter with the “timeless individuality” shadowed in the sexual archetype, a unity which the dichotomized human lovers struggle to attain. Perhaps the most extreme and memorable version occurs in Poem VI, “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop,” where the traditional antinomies of sacred and profane, formal courtship and sexual assault, the romantic and the excremental vision are collapsed and transcended in a single savage “rending” out of which wholeness is realized:

‘A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.’

[CP 295]

Other love poems also record this quest for individual wholeness under a variety of metaphorical guises. It is crystallized in the young woman's search for her “original face” in “Before the World was Made” (C 308). It appears as the “single root” of love in “The Three Bushes” (CP 341-43), as the whole “substance” of love in the Lady's three songs (CP 343-45), each of these poems pushing beyond the traditional antinomies of body and soul towards the experience of an energized matter, radiating a sexual vitality, orgasmic and total.

This drive towards wholeness takes on the status of a personal manifesto in “A Prayer for Old Age,” where the mind as ceaseless generator of dualisms is rejected in favor of the “marrow-bone” with its connotation of some indivisible substance or material (CP 326).13 As an attainment, however, Yeats reserves it exclusively for his Eastern adepts. Thus, in the poetry, only the hermits of Mount Meru (CP 333-34) and the Chinese ascetics of “Lapis Lazuli” (CP 338-39) truly embody this wholeness. In so doing, they appear in stark contrast to European man, perpetually roused to frenzy by the power of the archetype, yet doomed in his attempt to subdue it by obsessive thinking and acting (his “ravening, raging, and uprooting”) instead of uniting with it in joy. Thus too, even when such wholeness manifests itself in “The Apparitions” as the essence of that embodied joy which floods the aging Yeats, it functions mainly as a defense against those discarnate terrors which A Vision so harrowingly portrays:

When a man grows old his joy
Grows more deep day after day,
His empty heart is full at length,
But he has need of all that strength
Because of the increasing Night
That opens her mystery and fright.

[CP 387]

Of necessity such single-minded questing for unity of being has direct implications for the process of artistic creation itself. In this area, also, a remarkable convergence is evident between the Zen theory of art, as Suzuki presents it, and Yeats's own final convictions. For Yeats, Suzuki's analysis of the act of artistic creation came as another long-sought-after proof of the existence in Japan of a tradition and of a style of art which had foundered in Europe. The Zen artist puts forth “his whole being” in action, and without reserve. In the act of creation he is possessed by the archetype, by “somebody else.” Each brush stroke beats with “the pulsation of a living being.” Thus the creative act is neither mimetic nor symbolic. For example, the birds the Zen artist paints are birds of “his own creation,” as vital in their justified existence as the living creatures. Thus too, Suzuki claims, the gulf between artist and saint dissolves, the man-artist becoming “divinely human … not a manifestation but Reality itself … the very thing.”14 The Zen-man transforms “his life into a work of creation” in exactly the same manner as the sculptor chisels a figure out of “inert matter.”15 Ultimately the creative process involves a radical act of evacuation of all that Yeats calls “passion, ambition, desire or phantasy,” and the emergence of that spirit of poverty (wabi), which implicates the work of art in its loneliness and peace, its final sunyata(void-ness).16 In this sense, the way of the artist is the way of death, the ridding of all that is not attentive to the moment of creation. Thus the fulfillment of art and the bringing of life to its completion in death coincide.

Here was a marvelous reinforcement of Yeats's own intuitions, and soon he wove Suzuki's ideas into the fabric of his final theories about art. In a single paragraph of a late essay, he associates Berkeley's Heaven of “physical pleasure” and Blake's “enlarged and numerous senses” with the Zen monk's Satori triggered by “an odour of unknown flowers,” and with the Zen painter who gathers “into the same powerful rhythm all those things that in the work of his predecessor stood so solidly as themselves.” The climax of art and that of contemplative activity coincides in the “pure indivisible act” of the whole man (E&I 410). He elaborates such correspondences in another late essay where he discusses Patanjali's Aphorisms of Yoga and the four stages of deep contemplation Samādhi). The fourth stage is one beyond art where all “objects are lost in complete light”; the third, however, Yeats characterizes as the phase of supernormal sense-perception, where “the man has disappeared as the sculptor in his statue, the musician in his music.” And he immediately calls on “the Japanese philosopher” (presumably Suzuki) for confirmation: “One remembers the Japanese philosopher's saying, ‘What the artist perceives through a medium, the saint perceives immediately.’” (E&I 462-63). In one of his last letters Yeats indentifies Zen art with “the concordance of achievement and death,” that ultimate “poverty” in which the utmost accomplishment in art coincides with the final extinction of the ego. For this reason Zen painters are able to evoke “peace and loneliness by some single object or by a few strokes of the brush” (L 917).

Yeats also associated this methodological asceticism, this generation of maximum intensity through minimal gesture, with another celebrated aspect of Zen, which Suzuki records. This was the legendary occasion of the transmission of Zen when the Buddha, without speaking, held up a flower to his disciples. Only one of them understood it as the total communication of the “Formless” in a single significant gesture; and he smiled in reply (EZB 60). This, Yeats relates, was also how his friend, Shri Purohit Swāmi, received his “vision of the formless” by a simple glance from his master (E&I 433). More significantly, however, Yeats links this Zen transmission with the possibility of imprinting the power of the archetype through a sexual glance or a touch. Recalling in a letter the Buddha's holding up of the flower, he continues, “One feels at moments as if one could with a touch convey a vision—that the mystic way and sexual love use the same means—opposed yet parallel existences” (L 715).

The prototypal instance of such a total transmission in the poetry occurs in “Ribh at the Tomb of Baile and Aillinn.” For the dead lovers, now attuned to the ultimate source, communication by touch has modulated into the conflagration of pure vision, the flesh transmuted into mystical orgasmic energy:

The miracle that gave them such a death
Transfigured to pure substance what had once
Been bone and sinew; when such bodies join
There is no touching here, nor touching there,
Nor straining joy, but whole is joined to whole;
For the intercourse of angels is a light
Where for its moment both seem lost, consumed.

[CP 328]

This is a glimpse of transcendent “blessedness” in death. The other versions of that state, which punctuate the prophetic frenzy of the later poetry, are at once more personal and more empirically Zen-like in their contexts.

Here again the Yeatsian and Suzukian versions coincide. For Suzuki, “blessedness” has three connotations: it is the state of joy attendant on the cessation of “seeking” (“when seeking ceases you are blessed”); it involves the opening of “the third eye,” the disclosure of the ultimate source; and it is the revelation of the concrete world in its numinous power, the blessedness of life discovered in the living of it (EZB 13-14, 182). Although for Yeats, transcendent “blessedness” is reserved for those few who attain to the fourth stage of contemplation, that state “beyond generation” described both by Patanjali and The Mandukya Upanishad (E&I 476-77), or for the dead themselves, at last “obedient to the source,” nevertheless the poems occasionally offer renderings of humbler epiphanies. These are actualized instances of Berkeley's dream of a concrete and radiant world, or of the Zen manifestation of a universe “that only exists because it shines and sounds.”

The poem “Demon and Beast” (written before Yeats had read Suzuki, but whose central experience is thoroughly Zen-like) is built around an unheralded revelation of radical innocence in the natural world. Consequent on the resolution of conflict (“my hatred and desire”) comes first of all an upsurge of “aimless joy,” followed immediately by the disclosure of the sheer physicality of the “living birds” in St. Stephen's Green park (CP 209-10). As the poem subsequently confirms, this is at best a miniature Satori, a brief epiphany, which flowers for half a day before fading. The poem “Vacillation (IV)” offers a parallel instance of the “blessedness” of the ordinary. Here the “blazing” out of a usual London shop and street is attendant on a new way of seeing, the abrupt enlargement of the physical senses, which heralds the onset of a brief benediction:

While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessèd and could bless.

[CP 283-84]

Both these epiphanies are “aimless,” unprepared for and unsought after. The other type, coincident with the successful, penetration of the “source” through self-questioning and final self-mastery, Yeats broaches only on one occasion in the poetry. In “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” “blessedness” is revealed as the outcome of the bitter acceptance and assimilation of the “curse” of existence, and of the blind violence and sexual humiliation which constitute the doom of each incarnation. It is precisely such purging and emptying which ultimately enables the poet and the concrete world to sink in upon one another in an embrace of “blessedness,” which “sounds” out in laughter and song:

I am content to follow to its source
Every event in action or in thought;
Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.

[CP 267]

The obsession with “remorse” and “forgiveness” is of course an aspect of Yeats's Western inheritance, and is quite alien to Suzuki's presentation of Zen. Nevertheless the attainment of “blessedness” itself resembles many such instances as portrayed by Suzuki. There too, at the onset of Satori, the adept's voice rings out with the kind of laughter and joy, which shorn of all personal nuance, reverberate to the music of the “original source” (EZB 257, 376).


1. Yeats's works are cited parenthetically in my text by abbreviated titles and by page numbers in the following editions:

CP: The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (London: Macmillan, 1958).

E: Explorations (London: Macmillan, 1962).

E&I: Essays and Introductions (London: Macmillan, 1961).

L: The Letters of W. B. Yeats, ed. Allan Wade (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1954).

M: Memoirs, ed. Denis Donoghue (London: Macmillan, 1972).

V: A Vision (London: Macmillan, 1969).

2. Daisetz Suzuki (1869-1966) was the foremost interpreter of Zen Buddhism to the Western world. He was Professor of Buddhist Philosophy at the University of Otani, Kyoto, and also taught at a number of American and European universities. In collaboration with his wife he edited The Eastern Buddhist journal and published up to twenty books in English on the subject of Zen Buddhism. His most substantial work in English is the three volumes of Essays in Zen Buddhism, published between 1927 and 1934.

Yeats's contact with Zen Buddhism started when Professor Yano of the Tokyo Metropolitan University visited him in Ireland in 1927, and presented him with the first volume of Suzuki's Essays. Thereafter, Yano relates, copies of The Eastern Buddhist were sent to Yeats, twice yearly, up to the year of his death in 1939. See Naitō Shirō, “Yeats and Zen Buddhism,” The Eastern Buddhist 5 (1972): 171.

Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki's Essays in Zen Buddhism (First Series)(London: Rider and Company, 1975) will be cited parenthetically in my text by the abbreviation EZB and the page number(s).

3. Daisetz Suzuki, “Zen Buddhism and the Japanese Love of Nature,”The Eastern Buddhist 7 (1936): 85-86.

4. At least some aspects of Suzuki's presentation of Zen would have served to reinforce Yeats's attraction to Nietzsche. Both Suzuki's Zen and Nietzsche, for example, have in common a certain elitist emphasis, a hostility to the merely conceptual, a celebration of willpower and the life-force, a concern with concrete physical existence, a drive towards the transvaluation of all moral positions, and a fascination with sudden enlightenment.

5. Bhagwān Shree Patanjali, Aphorisms of Yoga, trans. Shree Purohit Swāmi with an introduction by W. B. Yeats (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), pp. 16-17.

6. Daisetz Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture (1938; London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1959), p. 70.

7. Suzuki's version of these anecdotes may be found in EZB 249, 245.

8. Quoted from Laurence W. Fennelly, “W. B. Yeats and S. L. MacGregor Mathers,” in Yeats and The Occult, ed. George Mills Harper (London: Macmillan, 1976), p. 295. See also George Mills Harper, Yeats's Golden Dawn (London: Macmillan, 1974), pp. 76, 181-82.

9. See Patanjali, Aphorisms of Yoga, pp. 16-17. Suzuki's version of this anecdote may be found in EZB 36.

10. Suzuki makes this point plainly in EZB 301: “The direct method is thus not always the violent assertion of life-force, but a gentle movement of the body, the responding to a call, the listening to a murmuring stream, or to a singing bird, or any of our most ordinary everyday assertions of life.”

11. See Patanjali, Aphorisms of Yoga, pp. 16-19.

12. Harold Bloom, Yeats (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 400.

13. One of Yeats's sources for the “marrow-bone“metaphor may well have been Suzuki (EZB 191), where the marrow is said to connote the deepest intuitive level of perception “in which there is neither unity nor multiplicity and which can never be adequately expressed in words.”

14. Daisetz Suzuki, “Zen Buddhism and the Japanese Love of Nature,”The Eastern Buddhist 7 (1936): 78-79.

15. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture, p. 17.

16. Daisetz Suzuki, “Buddhism and Japanese Culture,” The Eastern Buddhist 6 (1935): 128-29.


Masao Abe
“The Influence of D. T. Suzuki in the West,”

in A Zen Life: D. T. Suzuki Remembered, edited by Masao Abe, John Weatherhill, Inc., 1986, pp. 109-17.

In the West, as well as in Japan, Suzuki Sensei has often been regarded exclusively as an exponent of Zen in the twentieth century. He was, however, a many-sided individual and a thinker of consummate synthesis rarely found in our times. One of his earliest books in English is entitledOutlines of Mahayana Buddhism, and the significance of Mahayana Buddhism was his major concern from the outset. He carefully studied the Lankavatara Sutra, and published a translation, index, and exegesis of the Sutra. The Gandavyuha Sutra and Huayen [Hua-yen] Buddhism also were subjects of persistent interest and research throughout his life. In addition, he was deeply involved in Pure Land Buddhism and produced invaluable studies and translations of its literature. Still another concern and achievement was his introduction and new interpretation of Japanese culture to the West. All of these fields, including Zen, were grasped by Suzuki Sensei from the perspective of “religious experience” which can be universally realized by human beings. Thus he often compared Zen and Pure Land Buddhism with Christianity, particularly Christian mysticism. When I comment on Suzuki Sensei's influence in the West I should refer to all of his major works, but it is far beyond the scope of the present essay to do so. I will remark, therefore, primarily on the subject of his influence in the West focusing on his contribution to Zen, while touching on other aspects of his work only tangentially.

It is worthy of note that the twelve years between 1897 and 1909, that is, the period between Suzuki Sensei's twenty-seventh and thirty-ninth years, were of fundamental importance in making possible his eminent later activities, which had such a profound effect on the Western intellectual world. Though he spent the last fourteen months of this period in England and on the Continent, most of this time he lived in the United States, where he resided with Paul Carus in La Salle, Illinois. There, while translating Açvaghosha's Discourse on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana, Suzuki Sensei was deeply involved in a study of Western psychology and religious thought, particularly that of William James. In England, he was engaged in translating Swedenborg's Heaven and Hell into Japanese. During the thirty years or so after this period, that is, during the period ending just a few years before the beginning of the Pacific War, the three volumes of Essays in Zen Buddhism, the English translation of the Lankavatara Sutra, and the companion volume expounding the Sutra, and his other important works in English, were successively published.

Dr. Margaret H. Dornish, a scholar in religious studies who is currently lecturing on Eastern religions at Pomona College in Claremont, California, wrote her doctoral dissertation nearly twenty years ago about the early period of D. T. Suzuki. Her research can be regarded as the first step in Western study of Suzuki Sensei's thought. In recent years, Dr. Larry A. Fader, Professor of Religion at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and Dr. William LaFleur, Professor of Japanese Literature and Buddhism at the University of California at Los Angeles have also been studying D. T. Suzuki and his early contacts with Western thinkers. Since Suzuki Sensei's early period abroad and his works of this period are relatively little known in Japan, it will also be necessary there to undertake research into this period of his life, in order to comprehensively understand Suzuki Sensei's thought and, in particular, in order to clarify the nature of his effect on Western thinkers. These early English writings became the driving force of his ultimately widespread intellectual influence on the West.

It was not until some years after World War II, however, that Zen thought—as expounded by Suzuki Sensei—came to exercise such a remarkable influence on broad segments of American and European society. Before the war, his various books had been highly regarded in the West by only a small number of people of spiritual vision and by some philosophical thinkers, but the books had not truly been disseminated to the broad intellectual community. So it was, in the midst of the waves of sudden change in world history, with the order of Western society so shaken to its roots by the war, that the luminous body of Zen—which Suzuki Sensei had deeply immersed Western society in before the war—began to emit its own original light. In those days, when many people in Europe and America were seized with anxiety, doubt, and despair over the failure of their traditional system of values, Zen emerged to suddenly impress a large segment of the intellectual community, and began to provide new hope for people's broken spirit. Many individuals sensed in Zen the light of an entirely new life, and set out determinedly to grope toward this vision. Suzuki Sensei's unflagging round of lectures and speeches after the war, at universities in America and in various parts of Europe, played an important role in spurring on this movement, as did his activities as an author in English, which continued to be prolific well after the war.

A strong interest in Zen thus developed in the West, not only among scholars and thinkers, but among a widely diverse group of people. The movement was most notable in the United States, where a broad variety of Zen-influenced experiments were happening in painting, music, dance, and the literary arts, especially in poetry and in the novel. A so-called Zen Boom unfolded across the spectrum of the intellectual world especially in the 1950s. In addition to Suzuki Sensei's writings, his free and buoyant Zen personality almost invariably caught up those who came in contact with him, functioning as a force transcending words, opening people's eyes to the true nature of Zen Buddhism. It reached a point in the United States where publications from the New York Times to popular magazines were running pictures and interviews featuring D. T. Suzuki.

The effect of Zen was all-pervasive. Investigation and analysis of these Zen influences is not only important to our understanding the relationship between Zen and the spiritual life of Western man—or the problems of prior modes of contact, exchange, metamorphosis, and synthesis of Eastern and Western thought—it is also necessary from the standpoint of the future exchange of ideas between East and West. To take up these matters here, however, is not possible, since it is beyond the scope of this essay. But even if we restrict our view of Suzuki Sensei's influence to the sphere of scholars and thinkers, an event at the Second East-West Philosophers' Conference in 1949 illustrates how highly regarded Suzuki was in intellectual circles. At the conference, Dr. Gregg A. Sinclair, former president of the University of Hawaii, divided the attending scholars into two groups according to whether or not they were familiar with the works of D. T. Suzuki. That this could happen at all during an international academic conference notwithstanding, this episode suggests just how significant Suzuki's thought was, and is, from the perspective of exchange of ideas between East and West, and it foreshadowed the immeasurable influence his thought is likely to exercise in the future.

The “Zen boom” however, is over. Instead, a more quiet and serious interest in Zen has been gradually penetrating Western, and especially American, soil. On the one hand, careful historical studies of Zen and its doctrinal background, and translations of original Zen literature are being conducted. On the other hand, increasing numbers of serious zazenpractitioners have been gathering at Zen centers which are emerging at many locations in the West.

In the West as well as in Japan, however, Suzuki Sensei's works have not escaped criticism. For example: Suzuki presented only Rinzai Zen, neglecting the important stream of Soto Zen, including its remarkable Japanese promulgator, Dogen. Suzuki characterized Japanese culture as if it has been nourished only by Zen, overlooking other religious influences such as Shingon, Tendai Pure Land, and Shinto; Suzuki's approach was generally subjective, not based on careful historical and textual studies. To some extent, these criticisms are undeniably correct. I think, however, that, before hastening to make a definitive evaluation of Suzuki Sensei's significance upon intellectual history we must consider at least two points.

First, a comprehensive and integral evaluation of his writings should include the entire corpus of nearly ninety titles originally published in Japanese and nearly thirty volumes originally published in English. Just as many Japanese students are unfamiliar with D. T. Suzuki's English writings as most Westerners, including scholars, are not acquainted with D. T. Suzuki's works in Japanese—his careful studies of the Dunhuang [Tun-huang] manuscripts of Chan [Ch'an] and publication of critical editions of important Zen texts, for example.

Second, a penetrating examination of the inner motivation underlying Suzuki Sensei's activities over a long lifetime is needed. Was he motivated primarily by an academic spirit of inquiry, or by a missionary attachment to Zen Buddhism, or by a broader desire to generally introduce Oriental thought to the West?

To help resolve these issues and to try to understand the real significance of Suzuki Sensei in intellectual history, I want, rather, to consider for a moment D. T. Suzuki's “image” as he was perceived by Westerners.

It is natural that Suzuki Sensei's activities in the West, spanning a period of more than half a century, should have evoked many different reactions. As I mentioned before, he was lauded as well as criticized in diverse ways, and the most conspicuous reactions might be summarized in the following three ways.

First, there are people, and not just a few, who understand Suzuki Sensei to have been a Buddhist missionary, or Zen evangelist, working to spread Buddhism in the Western world. When they say “evangelist,” they are not using the term in an occupational sense, and, in most cases, their viewpoint includes an attitude of respect. Nevertheless, those who are unshakeably fixed in their Christian beliefs may, in judging Suzuki Sensei to have been an evangelist for Buddhism and Zen, view his activities and his wide influence with caution, or sometimes react against him. There are even those who label his activities a Zen “missionary attack” on the Western intellectual class, or a Buddhist “invasion” of the Christian world.

Second, among scholars of East Asian studies, Buddhism, and religion, certain individuals, while acknowledging the great role of Suzuki Sensei in introducing Eastern ideas to the West, criticize his interpretation of Buddhism and Zen as having been subjective and unscholarly. They say that D. T. Suzuki was a popularizer but not a scholar. Those who subscribe to this view, are, of course, speaking from their own perspective concerning the meaning of “scholarship” and “scholar.” In most cases, it is historical research and textual scholarship, or, put broadly, an “impartiality,” as prescribed by the positivistic method, which constitute the standard of judgment.

Third, other people say that D. T. Suzuki, in his writings and speeches, presented the marvelous quality of satori—Zen enlightenment, or “awakening”—but did not lend particular weight to the importance ofzazen practice (seated meditation). Suzuki, they claim, was a Zen thinker, but not a roshi (Zen master). This is a point of view found among those who have gone to Japan and to some extent dedicated themselves to Zen practice, or those who have practiced zazen at Zen centers, or similar facilities, in other countries.

Naturally the three preceding issues are not an exhaustive description of the ways in which Westerners have responded to D. T. Suzuki. Yet it is unquestionably the case that his activities have been perceived, and his work evaluated and criticized, from the three perspectives I have mentioned. What then was the true meaning of D. T. Suzuki for the West? And what was it that truly provided him with the internal motivation to undertake his life's work?

Between 1955 and 1957, while studying at Columbia University, I was able to sit in on the lectures presented by Suzuki Sensei every week. He was there at that time as a visiting professor. I was also blessed with the good fortune to have the opportunity to visit him frequently at his residence at the Okamuras' house on Ninety-fourth Street. There he would give me personal instruction and I could listen to him talk in a more informal atmosphere. On these occasions Suzuki Sensei would tell me from time to time something about his personal motivations.

He would say that many people of the Christian religion go to foreign lands, where they strive to propagate their faith despite enduring numerous hardships. In Buddhism, however, though there have been those who have risked their lives to travel to India or China seeking the Buddhist Dharma, very few have risked their lives to transmit the Dharma. In the future, he would say, this must change. When I heard Suzuki Sensei himself make these statements—there in New York, in a far corner of America—it was as if a thousand-pound weight had been brought to bear on my chest.

There was, without question, a strong sense of mission behind Suzuki Sensei's efforts to transmit Buddhism, and Zen, to the West. I also believe that he never lost the feeling, as an Asian, that it was indeed the religious legacy of Buddhism and Zen in Asian civilization which Asians could most significantly contribute to the rest of the world. His encounters with Westerners were all grounded in this state of mind.

It was nevertheless not merely a sense of mission, or pride as an Asian, or even scholarly drive, which provided Suzuki Sensei with his real internal motivation. I believe that behind his activities there resided a religious Awakening. As a youth, under the guidance of Zen Master Shaku Soen, he had become deeply realized through penetrating into the root-source of the universe of life-and-death. His “motivation” derived from no other than this realization. It was what he later referred to in his writings variously as “No-Mind,” “prajna-intuition,” “cosmic unconsciousness,” “spiritual perception,” nin (true Man) or myo (wonder). This awakening functioned within Suzuki Sensei as an overwhelming Buddhist spirit of “vow,” aimed at bringing everyone to awaken to this same Reality. In this quest, there was no distinction between East and West. His scholarly study of Buddhism was undertaken in order to further this work; it was not the other way around. His efforts to introduce Zen to the West also derived from this commitment; he was not simply trying to increase the exposure of Zen teachings. His awareness of himself as an Asian was due to his having found, within the Asian tradition, this “Root-Awakening,” which is not ultimately something confined to East or West.

In this sense, Suzuki Sensei was more than anything else a citizen of the world. He was a citizen of the world who intensively lived the first of the Four Buddhist Vows: “However innumerable living beings, I vow to save them all.” His repeated criticisms of the dualistic way of thinking and the tendency toward seeking power and control, especially evident in the West, were also due to this commitment to bringing others to Awakening. In the light of such compassionate devotion, to characterize him with a narrow missionary consciousness or scholarly impartiality misses the mark. His frequent talks about satori are certainly explicable in the same terms. He did in fact talk at times about Zen monastic life, but he did not stress the necessity of zazen in particular. Furthermore, he did not himself act as a teacher of zazen or koan practice for those Westerners who gathered about him as seekers of Zen. I think it was probably his feeling that duties of this kind should be entrusted to those who were properly qualified to fulfill them. It seems that Suzuki Sensei wanted to behave thoroughly in keeping with his own proper sphere, and not to exceed its boundaries. However, in situations such as the question-and-answer periods after his lectures or in his bearing in daily conversations, there was vividly apparent an unimpeded freedom of response that concealed a combative sharpness. This was a characteristic of such depth that it often caused those who came in contact with him to realize suddenly that they were, fundamentally, caught up in their own attachments.

At the Fourth East-West Philosophers' Conference in 1964, sponsored by the Philosophy Department of the University of Hawaii in Honolulu (this was to be the last East-West Philosophers' Conference that he would attend), Suzuki Sensei introduced, in the course of a public lecture, the Zen story of Kwasan beating the drum. Then he said that if he were asked “Well, why is it that you brought yourself all the way across the Pacific to come here?” he would answer, “I'll show you why in my own way [emphasis added].” He next pounded on the rostrum with his fist. In this way he was attempting to engage each one of the hundreds of people in the overflowing audience at the Kennedy Theater in an authentic Zen dialogue.

For Suzuki Sensei, it was not necessary to undertake Zen dialogue in a private room, in the prescribed manner that a roshi would employ in a Zen monastery. And he did not hold that zazen was absolutely necessary for the attainment of enlightenment. Clearly, to Suzuki Sensei, Zen is not a system of dhyana (meditation). He thus emphasized the awakening toprajna-intuition which is originally functioning in us, even apart fromzazen.

The number of people pursuing zazen practice in North America and Europe has grown progressively larger in recent years. There is a movement away from Zen as an intellectual pursuit to Zen as a practice. This is an important transformation if Zen is to take root in the West. Nevertheless, zazen practice will have little to do with what Suzuki Sensei spoke of as prajna-intuition if zazen is something pursued as a quietude that stands in opposition to the uproar of modern culture, or if it ends at mere “meditation.” To simply view Suzuki Sensei as a Zen thinker who did not expound on religious practice is to fail to appreciate that force which most deeply motivated his life—in the same sense that one would fail to understand that force by simply viewing Suzuki Sensei as a Zen missionary to the Christian world. Behind the dedicated activity that characterized Suzuki Sensei's long life, something was indeed at work which cannot be neatly categorized under a heading such as the one used here: “The Influence of D. T. Suzuki in the West.”

Upon reflection, I think that we must not stop at merely cherishing the memory of Suzuki and praising the great strides that he took. Nor should we simply criticize or reject him just by pointing out the bias innate in his approach. Those who have been involved with him personally or with his writings—positively or negatively—must come to appreciate that what motivated D. T. Suzuki was the spirit of the vow to attain, together with one's self and all others, “Awakening”—and thereby open up a new spiritual vista in which Easterner and Westerner can work hand in hand to fulfill humanity. It is important for us, too, to share that spirit of “vow” and try to materialize it in our own way.


Larry A. Fader
“D. T. Suzuki's Contribution to the West,”

in A Zen Life: D. T. Suzuki Remembered, edited by Masao Abe, John Weatherhill, Inc., 1986, pp. 95–108.

Buddhism and Zen were introduced to the West during the episode of interreligious, intercultural encounter that started at the end of the nineteenth century. This time of sharing is unusual in the history of such contact insofar as it was accomplished more through genuine dialogue than by economic hegemony, political expansion, or displays of military might. Consequently, the West was able to consider Eastern teachings openly, exploring how Buddhism and Zen either contradict or concur with more familiar approaches to life.

D. T. Suzuki was a towering figure during this period of discovery. Indeed, even to describe him now as “the man who introduced Zen to the West” is to rehearse a truism. Despite our general familiarity with Suzuki's role as promulgator of Zen, there is yet a need to survey the many aspects of Western culture which were profoundly influenced by this extraordinary man and his teachings. In the following discussion, Suzuki's contribution to the West is presented together with some of the significant responses it engendered.

Suzuki was many things to many people. To some, he was a curiosity: soft-spoken, slight, an Asian living in a hemisphere still unaccustomed to Easterners. To others, he was a teacher with a particular talent for expressing difficult concepts in clear language and appropriate metaphor. He was seen as scholar and translator, religious thinker, philosophical psychologist, spiritual mentor, aesthetician and popularizer.

Suzuki brandished no sword. Indeed, he followed his teacher, Abbot Shaku Soen, in this respect. In 1893, with the world arming for military conflict, Shaku Soen—the first Zen master to venture to the West—warned delegates to the Chicago World's Parliament of Religions that the times dictated mutual respect instead of belligerence. Similarly, Suzuki presented his ideas in the forums of intellectual discourse where internal coherence and applicability determine persuasiveness. Although the Japanese scholar never avoided the differences between, for example, Buddhism and Christianity, neither was conquest his objective.

On the other hand, Suzuki faced a difficult task. He attempted to teach of “emptiness,” “non-rationality,” and “ego-death,” to a culture which, on the whole, places priority on the struggle between good and evil. Suzuki's interpretation of Zen was couched in language that defied the paradigms to which the West had long since grown used to; he professed “intuition” (although specifically defined) within a world-view nurtured by technology and the “ratiocination” of Aristotelian logic.

Intellectual challenges, no matter how graciously they are presented, seldom remain on the level of intellect alone. Since the categories through which we know and order the world are also the bases of our feelings of security, to call these into question—even just by offering intellectual alternatives—is to produce an “existential” effect, to “shake the foundations.” Thus, Suzuki's interpretation of Zen was an implicit invitation for the West to conjure up its own presuppositions and reassess its very identity.

This fundamental questioning may be seen in terms of the West's definition of “religion.” Historically, the dominance of the monotheistic traditions—Christianity, Judaism, Islam—in Euro-American civilization has been almost complete. Although Westerners had glimpses into the existence of “non-Western” traditions prior to the twentieth century, it was not really until the Chicago Parliament that Eastern religions were accepted into the arenas of religious discourse. But prying open the categories meant in turn questioning the basic assumption that religions are by definition “theistic,” (i.e., they maintain the existence of a “Father” God who is Creator of the world). Minus this concept, a tradition was previously considered pagan or heathen, and was not treated as a religion at all. Western theological debate was therefore usually confined to questions of which sect or theology best explains God and His relation to the human realm.

But Buddhism, Zen, Daoism [Taoism], (and, some would argue, even the “theism” of Hinduism) do not precisely fit into Western theological categories. Buddhism has no “Father” God, and wherever it does select a “theological” form of expression, it is referring to something conceptually different than the Western God. Since Suzuki was such a major figure in the introduction of Buddhism and Zen, we may infer that he contributed to a basic paradigm change in the West.

There were of course many who attempted to dismiss Buddhism and Zen from the outset. One need only look at the controversies which ensued from the Chicago Parliament to realize how threatening Eastern religious philosophies were to traditional clergy and theologians. On the other side of the ledger, however, the number of important religionists who accepted the challenge of Suzuki's “new” ideas is remarkable.

Earliest among these was Paul Carus. Noted author, publisher, and editor of The Monist and The Open Court—two of the most influential journals around the turn of the century—Carus arranged and financed Suzuki's initial stay in the United States. Paul Carus was devoted to the task of making Eastern religious texts available to the West. Thus, immediately upon Suzuki's arrival in 1897, the young Japanese scholar's expertise was applied to translating and interpreting Buddhist and Daoist manuscripts. Much of the material published under Carus' name from 1897 until the Chicago publisher's death bears the unmistakable mark of Suzuki's influence.

W. T. Stace attempted to argue that mysticism transcends the bounds of particular cultural and historical contingencies. But in his early volume,Time and Eternity (1952), there is virtually no mention of non-Western cultures. Clearly, the narrow scope of Stace's data severely weakens the book's main thesis. Mysticism and Philosophy (1960) is far more complete, however. In it, Stace attempts to organize various different mystical positions, including Buddhism and Zen, into a coherent whole in order to analyze “mystical experience.”

This change can be attributed to Stace's exposure to Suzuki's books and articles. In Mysticism and Philosophy, all references to Zen are from Suzuki, whom he labels a “Zen mystic.” Stace further points to Suzuki as the model for any mystic who wants to use religious language consistently. In the West, Stace argues, mystics feebly attempt to defend their claims rationally, explaining away apparent inconsistencies. They therefore often miss the paradoxical nature of reality which mysticism unlocks. Suzuki's use of logic, on the other hand, is not apologetic. The Japanese scholar does not hesitate to employ paradoxical statements while attempting at the same time to make sense of them by pointing to “intuitive experience.” Suzuki “speaks with only one voice, whereas the Western mystic is double-voiced.”

Fr. Thomas Merton's influence on modern Christianity is well known. What is less acknowledged, however, is the extent to which Father Merton underwent a profound change toward the end of his life as a result of his study of Eastern thought. D. T. Suzuki was a primary catalyst in that process.

Merton's approach to Eastern religions was open-minded. He seriously entertained the possibility of uniting his belief in Christianity with Truths gleaned from Buddhist, Daoist, and Zen philosophy and literature. Merton's rendition of The Way of Chuang Tzu as well as his Asian Journals, Mystics and Zen Masters, and Zen and the Birds of Appetiterepresent a whole-hearted attempt to understand the essence of Eastern thought and to make it his own.

Perhaps the most extraordinary of these writings is the dialogue with Suzuki which Merton includes in Zen and the Birds of Appetite. In this series of letters, one perceives both Father Merton's intense yearning for spiritual enlightenment and his personal difficulties sustaining belief in Christian theological myths. Suzuki suggests that Merton may find an answer by focusing on the latter's own concept of Godhead—a notion that points beyond the symbols and ideas which have ensnared the Christian author's spirit. One also perceives Merton tenaciously clinging to the personal aspect of Grace, which, according to Suzuki, prevents him from plunging into the abyss out of which emerges freedom.

Although Suzuki was a lay monk as a youth in Japan, he deviated from the traditional Zen path, studying both Eastern and Western philosophy and becoming comfortable with the methodological rigors of objective scholarship. Included among his academic contributions to the West are a prodigious output of interpretive books and articles; translations from Chinese, Japanese, Sanskrit and Pali, and three journals, Zendo, The Eastern Buddhist, and The Cultural East (edited in conjunction with R. H. Blyth).

Given Suzuki's academic approach, it is understandable that his influence would be felt strongly in Western Buddhist scholarship. Not only did he translate Buddhist and Zen materials into English, but he also had a significant effect on such other translators as Paul Carus (already mentioned), Dwight Goddard, Edward Conze and R. H. Blyth. His interpretation of Zen aroused a great deal of controversy among such scholars as Heinrich Dumoulin and Hu Shi over the importance of viewing Eastern philosophy in its historical and cultural contexts. Finally, Suzuki inspired many other scholars to present Zen in a systematic, discursive manner.

The late Professor Charles A. Moore of the University of Hawaii indicates the significance of Suzuki's “academic” interpretation of Zen: “Suzuki in his later years was not just a reporter of Zen, not just an expositor, but a significant contributor to the development of Zen and to its enrichment. … A great man, a great scholar,” he continues, “does not merely repeat the past; he develops and enriches the past by bringing to it the new insights of his own genius.”

Dr. Suzuki's earliest English-language translations were done in collaboration with Carus. They worked together on Laozi's [Lao Tzu's]Tao Te Ching, Amida Butsu, T'ai-Shang Kan-Ying P'ien, and Yin Chin Wen. Despite the difficulty of these projects, Suzuki had time to pursue his own studies as well. In 1900, just three years after coming to America and at thirty years of age, he published a translation from the Chinese ofAçvaghosha's Discourse on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana.This project required expert linguistic and dialectical skills; and the many variations among available manuscripts demanded impeccable scholarly method. Once published, this translation established the youthful Suzuki's scholarly reputation.

During the same period, Suzuki made a careful study of the Dunhuang [Tun-huang] manuscripts, especially The Gandavyuha (another philosophical text), and translated lectures given by Shaku Soen during the latter's tour of the United States. Shaku Soen's talks were also edited and published as The Sermons of a Buddhist Abbot.

Although English renditions of the sayings of Zen masters frequently appear in all of Suzuki's writings, his next important translations were not published until the 1930s. The most significant of these include The Lankavatara Sutra (1932) and a commentary on this text entitled Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra (1930). His translation of The Gandavyuha Sutra was published in 1934, and in 1935 the first edition of his influentialManual of Zen Buddhism was completed.

Thus, by the mid-1930s Suzuki had made a sizeable amount of Zen material available to Westerners who could not deal with Buddhist texts in their original languages. That this was significant to the Western understanding of Zen is clear from the response of Mrs. Rhys Davids, then a leading scholar in the field of Buddhism. In A Manual of Buddhism(1932), she attests to the importance of Suzuki's Lankavatara Sutra: “D. T. Suzuki has recently published an English translation of the Lankavatara Sutra. … It is chiefly on this Sutra that what is known as Zen Buddhism is based.” Similarly, Edward Conze, another respected scholar of the Mahayana school of Buddhism, attests to the importance of Suzuki's contributions: “In the thirties D. T. Suzuki put Ch'an, or rather Zen, on the map, and for long he was the only source of what we in the West believe we know about Zen.”

With the publication of Manual of Zen Buddhism, Suzuki believed that he had brought to the West a set of materials necessary for a well-rounded understanding of Zen. The Manual was intended to complement his earlier Introduction to Zen Buddhism in which the essential teachings of Zen are discussed philosophically and The Training of a Zen Monk in which monastic rituals and practices are described.

Suzuki's scholarly respectability gained him access to audiences which might otherwise have turned a deaf ear. On the other hand, some Westerners for whom Zen meant sitting cross-legged or koan study (Philip Kapleau, or the followers of Shaku Sokatsu, Sokei-an Sasaki and Nyogen Senzaki, for example) rejected Suzuki's intellectual approach offhand.

Suzuki used logic to bring his readers or listeners to the point where reason does not avail. To some—most notably journalist, novelist, and philosopher Arthur Koestler—this was untenable, a contradiction in terms. In 1960, Koestler published The Lotus and the Robot and a series of articles in which he derides Suzuki's philosophy as “ambiguous,” “vague,” “at best an existential hoax, at worst a web of solemn absurdities.”

D. T. Suzuki's contribution to the West penetrated far beyond the areas of religious dialogue and Buddhist scholarship. The fields of psychology and psychotherapy also benefitted from his teachings. In particular, Suzuki had a profound influence on psychoanalysts Carl Jung, Erich Fromm, and Karen Horney.

Carl Gustav Jung is perhaps the most influential figure in the realm of psychology to have drawn from D. T. Suzuki's interpretation of Zen. Jung authored the Foreword to Heinrich Zimmer's 1939 German translation of Suzuki's An Introduction to Zen Buddhism (originally published in English in 1934), met Suzuki during the 1953 “Eranos meetings” in Zurich, invited the Zen scholar to lecture at the psychoanalytic institute in Switzerland, and entered into a heated argument with Suzuki's critic, Arthur Koestler, in Encounter magazine.

Jung disagreed with some aspects of Zen Buddhism. He nevertheless found it an important source for clarifying some obscure psychoanalytic concepts and for guiding his patients in their understanding of analysis. Jung therefore wrote to Suzuki, “Zen is a true goldmine for the needs of the Western psychologist.” Once, confronted by a patient who was having difficulty responding to psychoanalysis, Jung advised the man to read “something about Zen Buddhism” in order to understand Jungian psychological thought and “what you're up against.” Quite a prescription coming from a psychologist of Jung's stature!

The central Zen concept of “making whole” or, to use Jung's phrase, “psychic healing” exercised the psychotherapist. Jung stressed that Zen is more important to Westerners than Hinduism because it is free from the highly technical terminology and physical techniques of Indian religious practice which divert one from the true goal of attaining egolessness. Rather, “The attainment of wholeness requires one to stake one's whole being. Nothing less will do; there can be no easier conditions, no substitutes, no compromises.”

Jung emphasized the difficulty (if not the impossibility) of Westerners' attempts to understand the Oriental religious approach. He cautions that we are dependent on the structure of logic and science, and warns that our primary task is to build up “our own Western culture, which sickens with a thousand ills.” On the other hand, he also admits that the “satori experience” has its parallels in “those few Christian mystics whose paradoxical statements skirt the edge of heterodoxy or actually overstep it.” With the exception of these Christian mystics, Jung asserts, there is nothing in the West which approaches the profundity of satori in Zen: “If we discount the sayings of our Western mystics, a superficial glance discloses nothing that could be likened to it even in the faintest degree.”

In contrast to Jung's approach is the humanistic psychology of Erich Fromm. Fromm was also influenced by Suzuki, but in different ways. Whereas Jung dealt with Zen Buddhism as an aspect of his psychological thought, Suzuki's influence touches closer to the core of Fromm's thought. Fromm organized an influential workshop on Zen Buddhism and psychoanalysis in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and incorporated many concepts which resemble Suzuki's interpretation of Zen into his psychoanalytic writings.

The Cuernavaca workshop of 1957, held at Fromm's Mexico home, brought together eminent psychologists expressly for the purpose of exploring Zen Buddhism and psychoanalysis. As such, it marks an important point of contact between thinkers in the field of psychology and D. T. Suzuki's interpretation of Zen. Suzuki addressed the gathering, and his speeches were later published as “Lectures in Zen Buddhism” together with Fromm's address entitled “Psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism” and that of Richard DeMartino entitled “The Human Situation and Zen Buddhism,” in a volume which Fromm edited and called Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis.

Fromm organized the Mexico meeting and issued the invitations to its participants as a result of his feeling that psychotherapists—and in particular, psychoanalysts—were at that time “not just interested, but deeply concerned” with Zen. This “concern,” Fromm believed, was a new and potentially important development in the attitude of psychologists. His own address to the workshop, reformulated, as he says, because of “the stimulation of the conference,” includes language and ideas that may be traced to Dr. Suzuki's Cuernavaca lectures.

Erich Fromm first learned of Zen Buddhism through Suzuki's writings, and later, by attending Suzuki's lectures at Columbia University during the 1950's. Fromm considered himself Suzuki's student in the traditional sense that he read the latter's writings and attended classes. Fromm also saw himself as Suzuki's student in the more subtle sense that he learned about Zen merely by being in the Japanese scholar's presence. Of the effect that Suzuki had on his and his wife's Zen studies, Fromm writes: “Sometimes we thought we had understood—only to find later that we had not. Yet eventually we believed that the worst misunderstandings had been overcome and that we had understood as much as one can with the limited experience which is our lot. But undoubtedly whatever understanding of Zen we acquired was helped not only by what Dr. Suzuki said or wrote, but by his being.”

Psychoanalyst Karen Horney is an important yet elusive case in the Western response to Suzuki's interpretation of Zen. For, although her interest in Suzuki's thought was great, her sudden death in December of 1952 leaves us with little documentation of her reactions after studying his works and traveling with him to Japan.

Dr. Horney's interest in Zen grew out of her early disillusionment with Western religious forms, according to Dr. Jack Rubins. Horney was also close friends with Paul Tillich who was becoming interested in Zen at that time. She often attended Tillich's sermons at St. John the Divine, in New York City. By the end of the 1940s, Horney had read Aldous Huxley'sThe Perennial Philosophy and Eugene Herrigel's Zen in the Art of Archery, and was heavily influenced by Eastern thought. It is therefore not surprising to find that her formulation of psychoanalysis contains many interesting parallels to Asian religion in general, and, specifically, to Zen.

In addition, it is possible to extrapolate from Horney's last writings and the accounts of those who knew her that she was changing the fundamental direction of her thought as a result of her studies of Zen, and her association with D. T. Suzuki. The beginnings of this change may be seen in a paper Horney delivered in February of 1952 (shortly before her trip with Suzuki and others to Japan), entitled “The Paucity of Inner Experiences.” Here, Horney stresses the need for each individual to be in touch with an inner, non-objectified “whole self.” The loss of one's inner orientation forces a person to defend himself by substituting external rules, intellectualization, and other external dependencies. These in turn further obscure the inner experiences, leading one to a state of unfulfillment, anxiety, and feelings of the futility of life.

In the same article, Horney also experiments with terminology found in Suzuki's writing, especially the notion of “emptiness” or “nothingness.” For her, “the unawareness of inner experiences gives a person a feeling of emptiness or nothingness which in itself may or may not be conscious. But whether this feeling is conscious or not, it is in any case frightening.”

It was in Japan that Zen took on an aspect of crucial personal importance for her, according to her travelling companion, Richard DeMartino. Horney stayed overnight at a Zen monastery, conversed with psychiatrists interested in Morita therapy, visited temples and gardens, purchased Japanese art, and met Zen master Shin'ichi Hisamatsu. Suzuki arranged most of her itinerary. Her attitude toward Zen at the beginning of the trip was casual, according to DeMartino; but by the time she left Japan in August she had been convinced of its great importance and set out to create a new psychotherapeutic form which would take its teachings into account.

Zen is associated with many traditional cultural forms in Japan. Yet another of Suzuki's contributions was to make some of these—haiku, Zen painting, calligraphy, photographs and descriptions of flower arranging, translations of noh and kabuki drama, swordsmanship and an understanding of the Way of Tea—more accessible to the West. Although his books and articles were laced with stories and examples from the arts, Suzuki's major work on the topic is Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture.

Just as the philosophical formulation of Zen inspired a re-examination of Western thought-patterns, so these artistic forms—new to the Occident—changed the way many Westerners conceive of aesthetics. Novelists, painters, musicians, and poets drew both from Zen cultural forms and from the philosophy which are their underpinning.

Perhaps the most radical artistic transformations of all were spearheaded by composer John Cage (a founder of the Avant-garde movement) and potter Bernard Leach (who altered the direction of modern ceramics). In both cases, Suzuki's contribution is significant.

Cage is among the most controversial and influential figures in the Western music world. During 1945-46 he “first became seriously aware of Oriental philosophy” through the writings of Ananda Coomaraswamy, Aldous Huxley, and Sri Ramakrishna. This concern expressed itself inSonatas and Interludes in which the “permanent emotions” of Indian thought were probed. Although subsequent works display this generalized interest in the Orient, Cage eventually became more interested in Zen.

Cage first studied Zen with D. T. Suzuki during the late 1940s, visiting the scholar in Japan three times. Although he also attended lectures by Nancy Wilson Ross and Alan Watts, it is primarily from Suzuki and Suzuki's writings that he learned about Zen. Cage's numerous publications are punctuated with stories of the Zen masters taken from Suzuki, and often include reminiscences of personal encounters with the Japanese scholar.

Many of the concepts central to Cage's aesthetic are rooted in the composer's understanding of Suzuki's writings. Cage himself attests “without my engagement with Zen (attendance at lectures by Alan Watts and D. T. Suzuki, reading of the literature) I doubt whether I would have done what I have done.”

Bernard Leach, generally considered the father of modern ceramics in the West, made an intensive study of the pottery of China, Korea, and Japan as well as Eastern thought. Although Leach came under the direct influence of Soetsu Yanagi and Hamada Shoji, D. T. Suzuki's teachings were instrumental in reshaping the aesthetics on which his pottery is based.

Leach writes of Suzuki: “I knew him profoundly. He, as much as any man, introduced me not only to Zen, but also to Jodo Shinshu Buddhism.” The artist further states his gratitude to Suzuki for contributing to his ability to use pottery as a form “of adoration of the essence of life,” and for helping him express through ceramics “a quietude of form or quiet seeking of Truth.”

Suzuki's contribution permeated Western culture on the popular level as well. Especially during the 1950s, Zen was being read and discussed by a broad spectrum of the population in the United States and Europe. Although distinctions arose between “beat” and “square” Zen, even the leaders among the popularizers paid allegiance to Suzuki.

Buddhist meditation and study groups sprang up throughout the West. In particular, the Buddhist Society—a British organization loosely associated with the earlier Buddhist Society of Great Britain and Ireland and the Buddhist Lodge—attracted several individuals who became significant contributors to Zen's popularity.

Among American groups, Suzuki was most closely associated with the Cambridge Buddhist Association. Although he was revered by members of this organization, his own choice was to remain a teacher and scholar rather than assume the posture of a “Zen Master.”

Suzuki's influence on the Buddhist society increased as the group expanded. His writings were published in the society's original Buddhist Review as well as the later Buddhism in England and the still currentMiddle Way. In 1936, Suzuki was a featured participant in the World Congress of Faiths, held in London and organized by the Buddhist Society's leadership. According to Christmas Humphreys, founder of the Buddhist Lodge, and a prolific author of books and articles on Buddhism, Suzuki was “judged by many to be the most popular figure at the Congress.” Eventually the Society changed the focus of its meditation group from “Buddhist meditation to Zen meditation.” The basis for this change was, in Humphreys' words, “Dr. D. T. Suzuki, whose name is all but coterminus with Zen as known and practised in the West.”

Such personalities as Humphreys, Alan Watts, A. C. March, H.P. Blavatsky, and Edward Conze came under Suzuki's influence through the British group. The Buddhist Society, in turn, became an important publishing outlet for Suzuki's articles and books, with Humphreys as their editor.

Among the popularizers of Zen in the West, Alan Watts deserves special mention because of the many people who came under his influence. Watts studied D. T. Suzuki's interpretation of Zen extensively, and viewed himself as continuing within the framework of Suzuki's teachings. During the 1950s, when Zen was at the height of its popularity, Watts' name was virtually synonymous with the “beat” culture associated with Zen.

Watts claims never to have had “a formal teacher (guru or roshi) in the spiritual life—only an exemplar whose example I have not really followed because no sensitive person likes to be mimicked. That exemplar was Suzuki Daisetz—at once the subtlest and simplest person I have known.”

While a teenager in England, Watts became active in the Buddhist Lodge of the Cambridge branch of the Theosophical Society, and in 1930, Humphreys introduced the young Watts to Suzuki's writings. Watts consequently wrote, The Spirit of Zen to “clarify and popularize” Suzuki's “enigmatic thoughts.” In the Preface to the first edition, Suzuki's contribution is affirmed: “It is to him that we of the West owe almost all of our knowledge of Zen.” The Spirit of Zen draws heavily from Suzuki's translations and other material contained in the three series of Essays in Zen Buddhism.

Watts first met Suzuki in 1936 while the latter was in London for the World Congress of Faiths. Watts describes Suzuki as “unofficial lay master of Zen Buddhism, humorous off beat scholar, and about the most gentle and enlightened person I have ever known; for he combined the most complex learning with utter simplicity. He was versed in Japanese, English, Chinese, Sanskrit, Tibetan, French, Pali, and German, but while attending a meeting of the Buddhist Lodge he would play with a kitten, looking right into its Buddha-nature.” Again, Watts refers to Suzuki as a “naive intellectual—wisely foolish, gently disciplined, and simply profound.”

Watts published over twenty full-length books, ranging in scope from Zen to Christian theology and practice, to comparative psychotherapy. He produced and performed radio broadcasts on the West Coast devoted to religious and philosophical questions and was involved in the founding of the Esalen Institute—a retreat devoted to alternate means of achieving personal wholeness and well-being.

Watts also helped inspire an entire generation of “beat” poets and writers, including, for example, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Gary Snyder and Neal Cassady. These writers perceived themselves as following the path of Zen masters Han Shan and Shi Teh [Shih Teh] in search of freedom. The book which epitomized the “beat” movement, Kerouac's Dharma Bums, chronicles events in their lives and their experiments with Buddhist ideas.

Ginsberg, who was also directly influenced by Suzuki, writes about a visit to Suzuki's home on the very day that The Dharma Bums was published: “On the way to the publisher's party, Kerouac, myself and Orlovsky visited D. T. Suzuki at his house in New York on a spur-of-the-moment phone call, sat in his study, composed haikus on a Sesshu print on his wall, and drank green tea with him that he prepared—he saw us downstairs to bid adieux from his door opened on the front stoop, waving goodbye, saying to us ‘Don't forget the green tea.’”

Suzuki believed that the Beat Generation, also called the “San Francisco Renaissance Group” had misunderstood his interpretation of Zen. “Spontaneity,” wrote Suzuki, “is not everything, it must be ‘rooted’.” Indeed, the Japanese scholar was aware that while Zen was entering into the vernacular of Western culture, it was also being watered down and misrepresented. In the same article he states, “Zen is at present evoking unexpected echoes in various fields of Western culture: music, painting, literature, semantics, religious philosophy, and psychoanalysis. But as it is in many cases grossly misrepresented or misinterpreted, I undertake here to explain most briefly, as far as language permits, what Zen aims at and what significance it has in the modern world, hoping that Zen will be saved from being too absurdly caricatured.”

Suzuki did not attempt to win larger audiences by diluting concepts or compromising his intellectual integrity. But neither did he write or speak in technical terms meant only for the seasoned scholar. As a result, lay readers and some of the West's most rigorous thinkers found his presentation of Zen palatable.

One can hardly begin to catalog the names of the significant Western personalities who reaped the fruits of Suzuki's contribution. Add to those discussed above, for example, thinkers of the stature of Martin Heidegger, James Bisset Pratt and Arnold Toynbee; writers and artists like Jackson Pollack, Herbert Read, Rudolf Ray, J. D. Salinger, Merce Cunningham, Jackson MacLow or Dizzy Gillespie; philosophers of religion such as John Cobb, Richard DeMartino or Huston Smith. Then include the many people who were influenced ephemerally, indirectly, or as part of the larger movement of Western culture in general. In one way or other, Suzuki touched them all.

Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki was first and foremost a master teacher—one who could accurately assess his readers or listeners and then respond to them with complete appropriateness. Perhaps herein lies the reason why this diminutive scholar from Japan could make a profound contribution in so many areas of Western culture. “Emptiness” was his message as well as his medium. To the question, “How many varieties of garlands can skilled hands fashion with the same flowers?” we may well respond, “What is the meaning of Suzuki's coming from East to West?”


Torataro Shimomura
“D. T. Suzuki's Place in the History of Human Thought,”

in A Zen Life: D. T. Suzuki Remembered, edited by Masao Abe, John Weatherhill, Inc., 1986, pp. 65–80.

I think that one of D. T. Suzuki's great achievements, historically speaking, was the opening up of a path to the essential spirit of Mahayana Buddhist and especially Zen thought for the intellectual world of the West. In Oriental thought, especially in Buddhism, there is something which would have remained completely closed off to those Western scholars who know of no other approach to understand it except through linguistic or philological study. This is because in Oriental thought there is something beyond verbal expression, denying conceptual understanding; moreover, this is precisely the case with its most crucial essence. Therefore, I must say that the way to an understanding of Oriental thought had remained fundamentally closed off to the West. And it must be said that it was D. T. Suzuki, through his own deep Zen Awakening and training, together with his understanding of Western languages and thought, who was first able to open up a path by which Westerners could enter into the thinking of the Orient. Even if someone else had such qualifications it is not likely that they could have gone as far as he did.

D. T. Suzuki's work was not simply a matter of introducing Zen thought to the West. It seems that not enough attention is paid to this. If one does not deeply consider the problem involved in conveying Zen thought in Western terms and the importance of that problem, then one cannot comprehend the greatness of D. T. Suzuki's achievements. It must be understood that this is not merely a matter of the history of Japanese thought, but of world thought. The so-called introduction of Zen thought to the West by D. T. Suzuki actually involved the task of building a bridge to span the gulf between Eastern and Western thought, which are not only different in their traditions but are even mutually conflicting and contradictory.

For there is, in fact, a fundamental difference between East and West concerning the most serious problems of being human, our ultimate problem. For instance, regarding such things as life, death, and God, the viewpoints of East and West fundamentally oppose each other. In the West, death is simply the end of life, so life is always the only problem—how to live well is the only problem. But in the East life-and-death is always the problem; even in our everyday language, “attaining rebirth” (ojo) means death. In the West, God is thought of as absolute Existence, but in the East, God is thought of rather as absolute Nothingness (mu). In the West, religious faith transcends the intellect, but in Buddhism that transcendence takes place through “Satori” or “Awakening”; to that extent, religious transcendence is a matter of a special kind of intellect. There is the question of what the nature of this special kind of intellect is, of course, but it is at any rate still a problem of the intellect [and not faith].

We must consider how it is possible to find a path between such fundamentally opposing thought. There is no common standard between East and West. Usually the generally accepted procedure is to make an interpretation of the Oriental thought based on some specific philosophical system of the West, or to attempt an extremely superficial identification by means of finding some external similarities between the two. By doing this, however, the originality of Zen thought is utterly lost.

D. T. Suzuki did away with such approaches once and for all and instead, emphasized the fundamental difference and distinction. He did away with the Western tendency to give as rational an interpretation as possible, of trying to approximate the Western way of thinking and offer a consistent method. Instead, he put emphasis on the fact that Zen thought is, in opposition to the Western rational way of thinking, an irrational, non-rational way of thinking. This is an important first step in gaining a basic understanding of the true Zen thought of the Orient. To explain Oriental thought on the basis of Western thought or by borrowing Western ideas—that is a Western interpretation. This is possible so long as there is some common ground, but insofar as there is a fundamental difference such an approach will entail distortion and misunderstanding.

First of all it is necessary to break away from the Occidental standpoint in order to understand the originality of Oriental thought. At the same time it is not possible to convey Oriental thought to the West, which is different in nature, simply from the Oriental standpoint. It is necessary to liberate Zen thought from the distinctly Oriental standpoint and to open up for Zen a universal, worldwide basis. Put simply, we must take a philosophical standpoint. Actually, such a problem and process is often encountered in the history of philosophy.

For example, a similar problem can be found in the relation between Greek and Christian thought. When they encountered each other, the Greeks attempted to understand the Christian religion as “the philosophy of Christ.” Philosophy became the avenue of approach. However, Christianity negates and denies philosophy, particularly Greek philosophy which is based on “reason.” Because of this there was a long history of confrontation and discord; not until the thirteenth century was Thomas Aquinas able to establish a system which brought them into harmony. Here Christian philosophy reached a kind of completion. But then, such a meeting and reconciliation can be said to have been easy in comparison with our present case in the Orient. This is because Christianity had been established in the realm of Hellenistic culture. St. Paul, the first Christian systematic thinker, grew up surrounded by Hellenistic culture and was educated in it. Remembering this alone it should be sufficient to understand why I speak of it as being easier than in our case.

East and West, however, are completely separated by their respective geographical, ethnic, and historical traditions. There is a real gap between the two. Western thought, which began in Greece, recognizes the highest manifestation of reason in verbal expression, while we in the Orient recognize the highest wisdom through the negating and transcending of all statements. Just considering this one point, I think the difference between the two and the extreme difficulty of bringing them together in any form becomes sufficiently clear.

Let us consider a bit more concretely how the thought of an incongruous tradition has been understood, with an example from the history of Western thought. In this instance the necessity of a fundamentalconversion in the way of thinking can be seen. In Greek thought existence is finite. The Greeks thought of all existence as possessing form, as “Idea.” Everything that had form was finite. For the Greeks everything without exception was finite. Time as well as space, humans of course, and even the gods were finite. Therefore, for the Greeks the infinite did not exist. As that which was not limited and thus without determination, the infinite was less than existence, prior to existence. Such an “infinite” could not be thought of as positive in any way but only as something negative.

In Christianity, however, God as the Creator is infinite Being, absolute Being. The Greek gods were not creators but simply “form-givers.” The Creator creates being out of nothingness, but the Greek gods which form beings merely give order to chaos; for them matter is already there and cannot be created. The redemption of the sinner, which is the core of the Christian faith, being the salvation of one who from the first is not worthy of salvation, is accomplished solely through God's love. Salvation has nothing whatsoever to do with human collaboration, effort, or works. God as Savior is almighty and must be an infinite Being. Such an “infinite Being” which is the basis of Christian thought could not be understood at all according to Greek thought; it is irrational. How can this infinite Being be comprehended?—Western thinkers have struggled for a long time with this.

The first and most basic problem is to realize the fundamental distinction between the finite and the infinite. As long as we try to understand the infinite by means of an analogy with the finite we cannot help turning it into something finite. No matter how we may extend or enlarge that which is finite, it remains finite. The very great is not the infinitely great. That which is without end, the endless (endlos) also is not the infinite. No matter how endless it is, no matter how far you take it, the thing itself is still finite—it does not go beyond being finite even though it is without end.

The truly infinite is not the extension of the finite, it is the negation of the finite (unendlich). When this is realized the first step toward a positive understanding of the infinite can be taken. This realization is that the infinite cannot be understood. Without such a realization the infinite will never be understood, i.e., realizing that the infinite cannot be understood actually becomes the first step toward a positive understanding of the infinite and can serve as a basis. This is extremely paradoxical. However, if this paradox is not broken through it is impossible to understand the infinite.

Westerners must pass through the same kind of paradox to understand Oriental and especially Zen thought. Before anything else we all must realize the existence of a basic difference, or rather opposition, in our respective ways of thinking. It is necessary to clarify how irrational Oriental thought is and how difficult it is to understand by means of Western thought. And then one must grasp that Mind (shin sho) which considers the irrational as rational. D. T. Suzuki's approach, and what most of his efforts were directed toward, was an extolment of this character of the Oriental mind. For this reason, even when he described Zen Mind he did not in the least interpret or explain Zen psychologically; rather he emphasized that such an approach was meaningless. This emphasis on the meaninglessness of the psychological approach opened up a path to a positive understanding of Zen. The presentation of scholars prior to D. T. Suzuki, and even his contemporaries—not just Westerners but Japanese scholars as well—were mistaken or at least not thorough-going in this respect.

To show that Zen thought cannot be understood according to Western rational thought clarifies at the same time the restrictions and limitations of Western thought. With the above-mentioned problem of the infinite, I suggested that realizing the infinite cannot be understood becomes the first step to an understanding of it. That the infinite cannot be understood means that it cannot be understood according to the logic of the finite. What is contradictory in the realm of the finite is not contradictory in the realm of the infinite. That what is contradictory in the realm of the finite is not contradictory in the realm of the infinite, in fact, constitutes nothing other than the essence of the infinite. For example, with finitude it is a contradiction for whole and part to be equal, but it is of the essence of the infinite that whole and part are equal. It is a contradiction for a finite circle to have numerous centers, but that precisely is the essence of an infinite circle. The logic of the finite is not the only logic; there exists a logic of the infinite—this simply cannot be understood without a breaking out of, or a conversion from, the finite way of thinking, by realizing the restricting boundaries of finite logic.

A similar problem can also be said to exist concerning the relation between Western and Eastern thought. And it should be said that with the realization of this basic conflict and distinction, for the first time a path can be blazed between them. For this reason it is not possible to introduce Zen thought to the West simply because one is versed in Western culture and has Zen Awakening. A basic confrontation must be made, and through devoting ourselves to the basic distinctions, for the first time a bridge can be built. This is nothing but a worldwide standpoint transcending both East and West, a philosophical standpoint in its true sense. For this reason D. T. Suzuki's work can be called philosophical and he himself a philosopher.

Philosophy originally arose in Greece and developed in the West, but if it is simply limited to this, it is not true “philosophy.” When we have a universality transcending all particularity, something worldwide transcending East and West, then for the first time we have “philosophy.” So-called Western and Eastern philosophy express nothing more than a difference in the character of philosophical thought; two kinds of philosophy do not exist.

Philosophy was first given form by the Greeks. To that extent it is Greek philosophy. However, because it had a worldwide nature, it was philosophy. Because no other philosophy existed at that time except for Greek philosophy, it was the philosophy (Die Philosophie). However, as soon as a philosophy based on Christian thought emerged, Greek philosophy was no longer “the philosophy” (Die Philosophie). Greek (Augustinian and Thomastic) philosophy had to admit its own limitations. Then Christian philosophy, which transcended and included Greek philosophy, became philosophy. This was, indeed, a development of philosophy. Through its encounter with Christian thought, philosophy turned increasingly inward and deepened. Historically this first took the form of an interpretation of Christian thought according to Greek philosophy. But Christian thought includes something in its essence which cannot be rationalized, something irrational according to Greek thought. If a rationale is forced upon it, the originality of Christian thought will be lost. To establish a true Christian philosophy after the basic distinction between Greek philosophy and Christian thought was realized, a philosophy had to be established which tried to rationalize what had been considered irrational according to Greek philosophy. But for this to be “philosophy” it had to become a universal, worldwide philosophy in which not only Christian but Greek philosophy are included. In later ages this came to be called Christian philosophy, but at that time it was simply “philosophy.” What is limited to so-called Christian philosophy must not be designated the philosophy (Die Philosophie), even if, as a historical fact, Christian philosophy must have represented “philosophy” at that time.

Our problem now is analogous. For us—we who come out of the tradition of Oriental thought—Western philosophy including both Greek and Christian philosophy is not the philosophy (Die Philosophie). If it does not include our Oriental thought as well, it is not our “philosophy.” Following ancient Greek and then medieval and modern Christian-toned European philosophy, the formation of the next stage of philosophy can be said to be our new philosophical task. This is nothing other than “philosophy” being formed as Greek philosophy, then developing into Christian philosophy, and now trying to evolve again anew. But then again, if this is merely our Oriental philosophy, it is not yet “philosophy.” As Christian philosophy was formed through the mediation of Greek philosophy, this next stage of ours must be formed through the mediation of the previous two. This will be our philosophy and yet not simply a philosophy peculiar to the Orient. A particularistic philosophy is not philosophy; it must be a universal philosophy of the whole world (the philosophy, DiePhilosophie). As mentioned above, Greek philosophy was not simply the philosophy of Greece; at the time it was philosophy. That it came to be called Greek philosophy meant that it had already ceased being philosophy as such. If our philosophy is to be a philosophy with the Zen thought of the Orient as its core, then it will first become philosophy when it is understood by the world. And it must become world philosophy (DiePhilosophie), not just Oriental philosophy.

This is our task, our mission. To do this we must establish a more comprehensive philosophy in which the irrational according to Greek and Christian philosophy becomes rational, just as Christian philosophy had been considered irrational according to Greek philosophy, but then established a comprehensive philosophy which tried to make the irrational elements of Christianity rational. D. T. Suzuki's work must be said to be the basis for such efforts. Needless to say, his work was not limited simply to introducing Zen thought to the West.

From this vantage point, D. T. Suzuki's work was not just a matter concerning the history of Oriental thought but the history of world thought. His task became a matter of giving Zen thought a philosophical form. Of course, he himself never claimed to be a philosopher and he probably never thought of himself as philosophizing Zen thought; but whether he had that intention or not, objectively and historically speaking his work had such a significance. Several years ago I attended a philosophers' conference in England. When the philosophy professors there spoke about Japanese philosophy, D. T. Suzuki's name came up, and I saw firsthand how he was regarded as a leading Japanese philosopher. And he was in close contact with the philosophical efforts of representative philosophers of modern Japan, such as Kitaro Nishida (1870-1945) and Hajime Tanabe (1885-1962). Yet this problem is not a task solely for Japanese philosophers; it really is a task for philosophers all over the world today. The recent so-called “Zen boom” in the West is not merely a passing fad or superficial phenomenon; it is indicative of a deep demand in the modern world. The fact that it has become such a popular phenomenon suggests this. Philosophers such as Heidegger, who genuinely think about the source of traditional philosophy, are aiming at the task mentioned above from the domain of the problem of philosophy itself. While such philosophers cannot of course be said to be intentionally directing themselves toward Zen thought, they are nevertheless heading in that direction.

What I have said above deals with the historical significance of D. T. Suzuki's labor, but what about the significance for the history of our Oriental thought?

A century has already passed since Japan opened its doors to the West after a long period of isolation. The questions what and how much of Japanese thought were accepted by the West during that time are important for measuring the present status of Japanese thought in the world today. Of course, the true value of Japanese thought cannot be determined through what is known or accepted by the West or how it is evaluated. What has true value in itself cannot be dependent upon the West's evaluation. That which has true value, however, must not limit itself to some geographical specificity, but must be capable of being evaluated on a worldwide basis and also able to stand up to such an evaluation. To accomplish this we must take our stand in the common world arena. A path to worldwide understanding must be opened.

Here music and the arts are a most advantageous expedient. Through this avenue of immediate sense experience, music and the arts can have a worldwide immediacy. Actually, for we Japanese as well, the arts were what could be most quickly and widely understood. Perhaps ukiyo-e has served as a forerunner here. As is already well-known, among the French impressionists such pictures were not only understood but actually exerted a great influence on them. The West's evaluation of ukiyo-e even motivated the Japanese themselves to re-evaluate it.

However, ukiyo-e is not really a legitimate and serious form of painting within our art history; rather it is a “light” or “shallow” art, so it would not be acceptable if the true value of our art were to be judged by ukiyo-e. I do not think our legitimate and orthodox paintings can be understood as simply as our ukiyo-e can. Especially Chinese and Japanese traditional, legitimate painting cannot be truly appreciated by the West merely through immediate sense experience because Western paintings are generally realistic whereas Oriental paintings have a metaphysical and symbolic character and a “thought” behind them.

Ukiyo-e does not have such a character; it possesses a much more common or popular entertaining quality, and the colors, lines and composition introduce a wealth of refinement, delicacy and lyricism. While possessing a specifically Japanese quality, it can at the same time be immediately and universally understood. Not only that, ukiyo-e, being evaluated highly as art in this way was largely dependent on historical circumstances, in which it evoked a strong and sympathetic response during the period of “impressionism.” This should be called a historical “encounter,” the good fortune of historical coincidence, because it is questionable whether ukiyo-e would have received the same response had it been introduced to the West earlier or later than it was. Certainly the excellence and originality of ukiyo-e, which is a result of our painting tradition, would not have been possible without this background. In this sense ukiyo-e is a satisfactory embodiment of the character of our art, but no one would agree to our art being evaluated with ukiyo-e as an exemplar nor, I think, would we want that.

And if even the immediacy and sensitivity of our art other than ukiyo-e is not easy to understand, then certainly an understanding of our thought, which is accessible merely through the medium of a language belonging to a completely foreign system, is difficult for the Westerner. And on top of this, our finest thought is inexpressible through language; verbal expression is itself negated. For these reasons an understanding of Oriental thought is extremely difficult. Concerning our philosophical thought, it could even be said that right up until recent years its very existence was unknown to the West.

But do we really have some kind of philosophy for which we can ask and expect Westerners' understanding? Here our concept of “philosophy” becomes the problem. In the strict sense of the term, “philosophy” for us meant that academic study which entered our country beginning at the start of the Meiji era (1868-1912). In fact, for we Japanese “philosophy” meant “Western philosophy.” And the situation has in essence remained unchanged even today. As soon as the philosophical thought fashionable in the West was introduced into Japan, we accepted it as it was, with almost no thought to asking our own philosophical questions. Our philosophical study consisted mainly of learning Western philosophy. Even today in our universities, what is studied and lectured on under the name of “philosophy” is Western philosophy; when Oriental philosophy is meant, a qualifying term is added, such as Chinese philosophy or Indian philosophy.

Further, the Oriental philosophy that is thus studied amounts merely to a historical and philological study of the texts of the past; actual philosophical problems in the authentic sense are not even considered. In this sense it is not yet Oriental philosophy in its authentic sense. Not only that, because “philosophy” originally did not exist in the Orient, in the strict sense our study of Oriental thought is not even a study of the history of Oriental philosophy; so-called Oriental philosophy is nothing but a mere attempt to re-interpret Oriental thought as “philosophy.” Such a situation has been basically limited by the fact that “philosophy” was for us an entirely new and foreign enterprise. Actually “philosophy” arose in Greece and then developed in the Western tradition. What we today call Oriental philosophy is nothing but a re-interpretation of the Oriental thought from this standpoint of Western philosophy.

The problems of “philosophy” are the ultimate problems concerning human beings, the world, and God. In the Orient as well the speculation upon such problems is, of course, not at all lacking; on the contrary, speculation about these problems in the Orient has been even deeper than in the West. Nevertheless, it was not “philosophy.” In the Orient these kinds of problems were always dealt with from the standpoint of religion and ethics, not as an independent, pure academic discipline. As mentioned, the study of “philosophy,” even the concept of it, really did not even exist. The Japanese term tetsugaku was coined in the beginning of the Meiji era as a translation for the Western term “philosophy.” In China also, this Japanese term coined in written characters was introduced and is used there.

Japanese scholars spent the entire Meiji era endeavoring to understand the logic and method of this newly introduced “philosophy.” A philosophy of the Japanese people, i.e., giving philosophical form to the problem of one's own self based on the actual experience of the Japanese, was not something to be expected at once. Therefore, philosophy for us at that time was merely an academic study, not anything more than a kind of critique of the formal, logical conformity in the thought of Western philosophers. The first Japanese person that could be said to have had his own philosophy was, as is common knowledge, Kitaro Nishida; other than him we have had very few “philosophical” thinkers.

However, such a situation, such a process, is not limited to Japan alone; the same thing has also occurred in the West. When the Romans took up Greek philosophy, when Christianity tried to develop its own philosophy, and again in modern times when various peoples tried to develop their own philosophies—all involved a similar process. But these cases are far simpler than ours in the Orient because there is some continuity. In our case not only the historical tradition, but the race, language, customs, religion and ethics are all entirely foreign and without continuity. In the beginning of the Meiji era, “philosophy” was new to Japanese thinkers and they approached it with fresh curiosity and accepted it as one integral part of “Western civilization and enlightenment.” We cannot imagine how difficult it must have been to understand the thought of a completely different linguistic and conceptual system. In comparison with this, natural science, which deals with matter, was relatively easy to comprehend; but the difficulty in the understanding of something of a completely conceptual basis, like philosophy, which has to be grasped solely through the medium of language with all its historical and traditional implications, cannot for a moment be compared, for example, with the translation of A Primer on Anatomy. And further, the two-thousand-year-old philosophical tradition in the West is different from science. The entire Meiji era was spent just trying to understand all this, and the formulation of a positive Japanese philosophy was possible only after mastering it.

Philosophy naturally poses the ultimate problem of man and sets it up according to precise concepts and logic, but it is not just objective knowledge; philosophy is subjective, existential thought through which we can live. We must develop our own philosophy or we have no right to call it “philosophy.” The understanding of Western philosophy has so far remained an objective understanding, not a subjective understanding which is a philosophy of the subjective self. The traditional thought of man, world, and God as it is experienced in the Orient cannot possibly be systematized with the concepts or logic formulated in Western philosophy. This is similar to when Christianity encountered Greek philosophy, and yet our case is even more foreign.

Our philosophical task was first to understand the “philosophy” which had completely eluded our grasp and then make it our own. We also have made modern Western thought more or less our own through “Western civilization and enlightenment,” and yet underneath the surface we possess an ancient cultural tradition rooted in Buddhist and Confucian thought with a profundity and greatness in no way inferior to Greek thought or Christianity. But this originally was not “philosophy.” Creating a philosophy out of these various experiences was our philosophical task. And our new contribution to philosophy, to world philosophy, will be our next philosophical task. Greek philosophy upon encountering Christianity accomplished Aufhebung, a “self-negation-preservation,” and thus philosophy was deepened. In modern times this philosophy, through its encounter with the thought of the Orient, should proceed anew to the next stage.

Through the encounter with Oriental thought, the new problem which we are entrusted with in philosophy is the thought of Nothingness. Up until now this concept has been lacking in Western philosophy. In Greek philosophy the infinite was merely a negative concept and something without limitation; as such it is not anything at all. Likewise, whether in Greek or Christian philosophy—in Western philosophy as a whole—Nothingness was merely nonexistent. On rare occasions mystics have considered it, but only as a fragmentary idea within mysticism. Neither Greek nor Christian philosophy had the logic or methodology to understand Nothingness—absolute Nothingness—positively. This is why the original, next stage of philosophy must be established with motives and questions different from those of Greek and Christian philosophy.

But the difficulty in doing this will be even greater than the evolution from Greek to Christian philosophy. This is because in such thought of Nothingness all concepts, language, and logic are ultimately denied. Generally speaking, religious thought takes the ultimate to be beyond verbal expression. But in Christianity it has been clearly stated that “In the beginning was the Word … the Word of God.” However, in Buddhism the ultimate teaching is always conveyed “wordlessly,” as in “Shakyamuni's twirling a flower and Kashyapa's smiling.” Moreover, in the Orient absolute Nothingness is not merely expounded in religion, but is living in all life and in all thought. The basis of existence is Nothingness. And existence is the manifestation of Nothingness. In Western philosophy God or infinite Being exists; the basis of existence is existence. In the Orient the truly infinite or absolute is absolute Nothingness. Ultimate truth is established where all language and concepts are negated. Thus, if “philosophy” must be conceptual knowledge, and if it must be conceptually and logically expressed, it is only natural that our traditional thought has not developed into philosophy but rather has negated it.

For all that, to try to develop our philosophy from this point of view is to attempt the impossible; so is it meaningless? After all, Buddhism with its principle of Nothingness has produced many, many scrolls of tripitaka,the “Three Baskets” of the Buddhist canon consisting of sutras, regulations and discourses; as a matter of fact, Zen, with its doctrine of “No dependence on words or letters” has left behind a large amount of Zen literature. As is well-known, the paradox that “all people have the Buddha-nature and yet we all must undergo hard practice,” constitutes the fundamental doubt of Buddhists. If the philosophy of Nothingness is our philosophy and if without it we would have none, then should we give up philosophy? If we think it is impossible or meaningless to try and develop the philosophy of Nothingness, that means we recognize only established Western philosophy as legitimate; from that standpoint then, it really would be impossible and meaningless. Is a philosophy which makes the irrational rational and the meaningless meaningful the new philosophy? Nishida initiated this new philosophy and provided a foundation for it. At least he was able to make a start. Whether he intended it or not, his philosophy must be recognized as an epoch in our history of thought.

The fruit of D. T. Suzuki's labors also is of such a range, as is the profound historical significance of his thought. His achievements as a Buddhist scholar also are undoubtedly great, but if we limit his achievements to that he would not necessarily stand out as a singularly unique scholar. D. T. Suzuki's greatest contribution was not just as a Buddhist scholar but as a philosopher who transcended Buddhism. This meant considering Buddhism from a standpoint which transcended Buddhism. It involved thinking about Buddhism in a worldwide, universal manner. On this point his efforts were similar to the philosophical efforts of Kitaro Nishida and Hajime Tanabe. The reason D. T. Suzuki was a world citizen lies not merely in such things as his living abroad for a long time and authoring works in Western languages, or in his being known and respected abroad. It was due to the fact that he opened up Zen thought to the world through those works. Westerners really are indebted mainly to D. T. Suzuki for opening up this path to an understanding of Mahayana Buddhism, and especially Zen which is its essence. What is it that distinguishes his accomplishments as a philosopher—if I may presume to call him that—from those of Nishida and Tanabe? Perhaps it is, put simply, that while the efforts of Nishida and Tanabe were directed toward Zen logic, D. T. Suzuki's efforts were directed toward Zen mind.

This is not something that a philologist could do; it is not even in his repertoire. Needless to say, the mind is something living, not at all abstract, and it absolutely cannot be grasped outside one's own actual experience. It is the same as being able to express or convey the beauty of music only through written words and literature without listening to it for oneself. Zen, particularly, is based entirely on the actual fact of one's actual Awakening. Zen thought, as well, is not based on any intellectual understanding but on one's actual Awakening. Because of this, trying to explain Zen other than as an expression and unfolding of one's own Awakening is utterly meaningless.

D. T. Suzuki's emphasis on elucidating Zen Mind rather than Zen logic was something that had to wait for him to be done, and it was valuable and necessary. Without an elucidation of Zen Mind, Zen would be merely empty paradox, devoid of meaning. “Philosophy” has still been accepted in Japan as something merely formal and abstract, fit only as subject matter for lectures because we lack a philosophical mind which is its basis, or womb, and depend only on logic from beginning to end. For this reason no positive, concrete philosophical accomplishment has come out of Japan.

However, D. T. Suzuki's explication of Zen Mind is not, as already mentioned above, a psychological interpretation of Zen. He was trying to show Zen Mind itself, not give a psychological interpretation of it. And that is a completely different matter. He himself thoroughly abandoned psychological interpretation. Zen is Mind which has eradicated all reason. It is due to the essence of Zen that he elucidated Zen Mind itself and did not merely give a psychological explanation of Zen. Zen Awakening itself has no relation to the psychological approach toward it; the very meaning of process in this context can only be clarified through Zen Awakening. The thorough denial of a psychological interpretation is due to the fact that the Zen Mind itself fundamentally denies any psychological interpretation and any mind which is explained in such a manner. It was because of this that D. T. Suzuki repeatedly emphasized that the Zen koan is only a paradox for rational thought, and is a method of breaking through such rational thought. It is the presentation of consciousness prior to [the breakup into subject and object of reflective] consciousness. This is not merely the unconscious. Unconsciousness is that which has not yet been made conscious. Consciousness prior to consciousness is that consciousness which has negated consciousness. It is consciousness which is no longer conscious. Conscious without being conscious, it is an absolutely negating consciousness. It could also be spoken of as unrestricted consciousness.

It was precisely Nishida's philosophy that dealt with that which was presented by D. T. Suzuki as Zen Mind in terms of Zen logic. I think it can be said that with Suzuki, Nishida, and Tanabe, Japanese philosophy genuinely became Japanese philosophy.

The Zen logic of Nishida's philosophy, likewise is not a logical interpretation of Zen. It is not at all interpreting Zen according to some established logic, such as Hegelian dialectical logic. It is the formation of a logic of Zen Awakening itself, the formation of a logic springing forth from the Zen Awakening. This is a completely new formation of logic. It is formed not by a logic which developed out of previous philosophy, but aims at a logic transcending all logic, and including it as well.

After a preparatory stage of understanding Western philosophy (which entered Japan during the Meiji era) and mastering its methods, the development of a Japanese philosophy must be said to have been initiated by the Zen Mind of D. T. Suzuki and the Zen logic of Nishida and Tanabe. But this Japanese philosophy is based on the Oriental mind and experience, and must still be established as a worldwide philosophy. And if we, who already know about the existence of philosophy from ancient to modern, by confronting and connecting with this philosophy, do not include as much of it as possible, what we develop will not be appropriate for a contemporary philosophy. Our philosophy is not simply Oriental philosophy; it must be a world philosophy which has transcended Oriental philosophy.

Whenever we read D. T. Suzuki's works we should think deeply about where that refreshing source which we constantly perceive comes from. It is not a mere impression. The events he narrates are concerned with ancient thought, and yet one feels a freshness because that thought is alive and that means new. And we, who have been exposed to Western thought and thus are not merely Oriental people, feel something alive and fresh in his writings. This shows that his writings are of a worldwide nature.

Buddhist concepts have already become a dead language. Being understood only as technical terms of the specialist, completely unconnected with our own present thoughts and feelings—they certainly are a dead language. That we can feel a freshness from and sympathize with D. T. Suzuki's narrative is because there they really are no longer Buddhist terms but become, so to speak, an international language. That we now can sympathize with his words and thoughts is because he expressed them in an international language.

We are now modern, and “modern man” has the character of a world citizen. That an interest in Zen now exists in the West means that it is possible for Zen both to gain worldwide understanding, which transcends the Orient, and to possess universality.

Long ago, Xuanzang [Hsüan-tsang] (602-64), a Chinese scholar-monk, traveled to India at the risk of his life to obtain the Dharma. In the twentieth century this Dharma spread to the West through D. T. Suzuki.



Robert Aitken
“Openness and Engagement: Memories of Dr. D. T. Suzuki,”

in Original Dwelling Place: Zen Buddhist Essays, Counterpoint, 1996, pp. 27-31.

[Robert Baker Dairyu Chotan Aitken Roshi (June 19, 1917 – August 5, 2010) was a Zen teacher in the Harada-Yasutani lineage. He co-founded the Honolulu Diamond Sangha in 1959 together with his wife. Aitken received Dharma transmission from Koun Yamada in 1985 but decided to live as a layperson.]

I first encountered Dr. Suzuki's name in R. H. Blyth's Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, which I read in an internment camp in Kobe, Japan, in the winter of 1942-43. Later on when our camps were combined, I met Professor Blyth in person, and he told me about his first conversation with Suzuki Sensei:

Blyth: I have just come from Korea, where I studied Zen with Kayama Taigi Rōshi of Myōshinji Betsuin.

Suzuki: Is that so? Tell me, what is Zen?

Blyth: As I understand it, there is no such thing.

Suzuki: I can see you know something of Zen.

If there was challenge in Sensei's words, it was of the mildest sort. His fundamental purpose was to encourage. Many scholars and students of Zen can tell similar stories—I think especially of Richard DeMartino, Philip Kapleau, and Chang Chung-yüan.

My own first meeting with Sensei was in 1949 at the Second East-West Philosophers' Conference at the University of Hawai‘i. That was a wonderful summer. There were many stars at the conference, particularly from India, but Sensei by his manner (for few could understand him) stole the show. It was just after F. S. C. Northrop had published The Meeting of East and West.1 Everyone was uncomfortable with the conceptual formulations in this work, but only Sensei could pinpoint the problem. I remember the chuckles of amusement among the scholars when he remarked, “The trouble with the ‘undifferentiated aesthetic continuum’ is that it's too differentiated.”

I was part of a clique of graduate students who attached themselves to Sensei, and we attended (or crashed) many dinners and receptions that were given for him by University of Hawai‘i dignitaries and by Japanese American organizations in the Honolulu community. Richard DeMartino was his secretary and companion at that time and had purchased a Model A Ford for their transportation. Those were the days when the Model A was just an old car, not a precious antique, and I remember the endearing sight of Sensei rattling up to distinguished gatherings in that aged clunker, full of dignity and good humor. I wanted to continue my study of Zen and asked Sensei's advice: “Should I return to Los Angeles and study with Nyogen Senzaki, or should I go to Japan?” “Go to Japan,” he said, and he wrote the letters I needed for my visa.

In the summer of 1951, I called at the Matsugaoka Library in Kitakamakura, where Sensei had just returned from his two years in the United States. I was ill from the rigors of monastic living, and Sensei insisted that I stay with him and recuperate. I remained with him for two weeks, as I recall. Sensei saw that I was well cared for by his staff, and he included me in all of the gatherings at the library; I remember particularly a memorial service for Beatrice Lane Suzuki, attended by his old friends.

We had many conversations about religion in the United States. Sensei had been inspired by his experiences at Columbia University, and I wish now that I had kept a record of his words about the scholars he had met. I do recall him saying that he felt more affinity with anthropologists than with Protestant theologians.

Thereafter, down through the years until his death, we kept in touch. When he visited Hawai‘i or when Anne Aitken and I visited Japan, we always had tea or a meal together. Anne recalls a dinner given for him by the Young Buddhist Association of Honolulu in 1959. We were standing around afterward, waiting for the dishes to be cleared away, and she noticed Sensei browsing among the tables, picking parsley off the plates and eating it. Catching her eye, he grinned like a little boy and said, “People don't eat their parsley, and it is so good for them.” She was moved by his sensitive expression of responsibility for others, including the parsley that would otherwise be sacrificed for nothing.

The most memorable of those later meetings took place during his last trip to Hawai‘i in the summer of 1964. He spoke to a packed house at the Koko An Zendō, and in the question period, a student asked, “Is zazen necessary?”

Sensei replied, “Zazen is absolutely not necessary.” This created quite a stir among the Koko An members.

The next year, Professor Masao Abe visited the East-West Center, where I was on the staff. We met on the steps of Jefferson Hall and greeted each other.

“Mr. Aitken,” said Professor Abe, “I hear that Suzuki Sensei spoke at Koko An last year. Is that correct?”

“Yes,” I said, “it is.”

“I hear,” continued Professor Abe, “that he said zazen is not necessary. Is that correct?”

“Yes,” I replied, “he said zazen is absolutely not necessary.”

“Oh,” said Professor Abe, “he meant zazen is relatively necessary.”

Now that was very clever of Professor Abe, and it served to highlight Sensei's unorthodoxy. He knew very well, but seldom said, that zazen is relatively necessary. He was, however, critical of Alan Watts and others who dismissed zazen as unimportant.

Comparing notes about our old teacher, Anne Aitken and I find that we both asked him, at different times, about the interpretation that Mr. Watts gave to a story about Nan-yüeh and Ma-tsu. Nan-yüeh found Ma-tsu doing zazen and asked him what he was trying to do. Ma-tsu said that he was trying to become a Buddha. Nan-yüeh thereupon picked up a piece of roofing tile and began rubbing it with a stone. When Ma-tsu asked him what he was doing, Nan-yüeh said he was making a mirror out of the tile. “No matter how you rub that tile,” said Ma-tsu, “it will never become a mirror.” Nan-yüeh replied, “No matter how much you do zazen, you will never become a Buddha.”2

Mr. Watts remarks somewhere in his books that this dialogue showed how T'ang period Zen people disapproved of zazen. Dr. Suzuki said to both Anne and me, “I regret to say that Mr. Watts did not understand that story.”

Still, Sensei hardly ever mentioned zazen in his writings. Even The Training of the Zen Buddhist Monk barely touches on this fundamental aspect of Zen life.3 Now that I am more intimately involved in Zen practice, I would like to talk with him about zazen and other matters. It would be a long conversation. I would want to take up the nature of the kōan, the place of prajñā and the mind, the function of words, and the writings of Dōgen Zenji.

He would listen—he always did. Once, in a class at the University of Hawai'i, I asked him about a version of Chiyo-ni's haiku, “The Morning Glory,” that he had written on the blackboard. In transliterated Japanese, this verse reads:

Asagao ni
tsurube torarete
morai mizu

It is usually translated:

The morning glory
has taken the well bucket;
I must ask elsewhere for water.(4)

However, Sensei had written “Asagao ya …” on the blackboard. The substitution of ya, a cutting word that might best be translated with a colon or an exclamation mark, for ni, a postposition indicating an agent, would make the translation:

The morning glory!
It has taken the well bucket;
I must ask elsewhere for water.

This changes a rather precious poem about someone who finds that the morning glory has entwined the bucket and does not want to disturb it into a Zenlike poem about someone who is struck by the beauty of the morning glory and can only exclaim, “The morning glory!”—and then, as an afterthought, considers borrowing water from the neighbors.

Anyway, I knew the conventional version, and I suspected that Sensei with his Zen attitude had inadvertently imposed his own revision. He listened to me, and wrote to scholars in Japan and learned that indeed there was some speculation that ya was the original particle in the first line. He did not stop there but went on to discuss the matter in class and then to write his cogent essay, “The Morning Glory.”5 Incidentally, this essay contains Sensei's clearest presentation of a concern that preoccupied him during his later years—world peace. Clearly, he felt that people are not sensitive to flowers or to the sacrifice of parsley, and so we have nations threatening each other with nuclear weapons.

The development of that essay is an example of Sensei's creative process generally—openness and engagement. He would listen or read with an open mind, and then involve himself in considering the matter, and finally come forth with his own unique response.

Openness and engagement show in his face in these sensitive portraits by Francis Haar, the purity and wisdom of a very old man who has devoted his life to the Tao. They evoke his inspiring presence and remind me that I need not wait for some kind of miraculous logistical arrangement for our conversation.

“Now, about the importance of zazen, Sensei …”


1. Filmer S. C. Northrop, The Meeting of East and West: An Inquiry Concerning World Understanding (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1946).

2. Thomas Cleary and J. C. Cleary, trans., The Blue Cliff Record(Boston: Shambhala, 1992), 566-67.

3. Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, The Training of the Zen Buddhist Monk(Kyoto: The Eastern Buddhist Society, 1934; Rutland, Vt.: Charles Tuttle, 1994).

4. Cf. Asataro Miyamori, trans., An Anthology of Haiku, Ancient and Modern (Tokyo: Maruzen, 1932), 425.

5. Daisetz T. Suzuki, “The Morning Glory,” The Way 2, no. 6 (November 1950): 3; and 3, no. 1 (January 1951): 10. Published by The Los Angeles Higashi Hongwanji Young Buddhist Association.