D. T. Suzuki

Daisetsu Suzuki (1870-1966)
Daisetsu Suzuki (1870-1966)

1. D. T. Suzuki

Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki (11 November 1870 – 12 July 1966), was a Japanese-American Buddhist monk, essayist, philosopher, religious scholar, translator, and writer.

He was a scholar and author of books and essays on Buddhism, Zen and Shin that were instrumental in spreading interest in both Zen and Shin (and Far Eastern philosophy in general) to the West.

Suzuki was also a prolific translator of Chinese, Japanese, and Sanskrit literature.

Suzuki spent several lengthy stretches teaching or lecturing at Western universities, and devoted many years to a professorship at Ōtani University, a Japanese Buddhist school.

He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1963

2. Biography

Early life

D. T. Suzuki was born Teitarō Suzuki in Honda-machi, Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, the 4th son of physician Ryojun Suzuki.

The Buddhist name Daisetsu, meaning Great Humility was given to him by his Zen master Soyen Shaku (1860 -1919).

Although his birthplace no longer exists, a humble monument marks its location (a tree with a rock at its base).

The samurai class into which Suzuki was born declined with the fall of feudalism, which forced Suzuki's mother, a Jōdo Shinshū Buddhist, to raise him in impoverished circumstances after his father died.

When he became old enough to reflect on his fate in being born into this situation, he began to look for answers in various forms of religion.

His naturally sharp and philosophical intellect found difficulty in accepting some of the cosmologies to which he was exposed.


Suzuki studied at Waseda University and University of Tokyo.

Suzuki studied the knowledge of Chinese, Sanskrit, Pāḷi, and several European languages.

During his student years at Tokyo University, Suzuki took up Zen practice at Engaku-ji in Kamakura.

Suzuki lived and studied several years with the German-American scholar Paul Carus:

Suzuki was introduced to Carus by Soyen Shaku, who met him at the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893.

Carus, who had set up residence in LaSalle, Illinois, approached Soyen Shaku to request his help in translating and preparing Eastern spiritual literature for publication in the West.

Soyen Shaku instead recommended his student Suzuki for the job.

Suzuki lived at Dr. Carus's home, the Hegeler Carus Mansion, and worked with him, initially in translating the classic Tao Te Ching from ancient Chinese.

In Illinois, Suzuki began his early work Outlines of Mahāyāna Buddhism.

Carus himself had written a book offering an insight into, and overview of, Buddhism, titled The Gospel of Buddha.

Soyen Shaku wrote the introduction, and Suzuki translated the book into Japanese.

At this time, around the turn of the century, quite a number of Westerners and Asians were involved in the worldwide Buddhist revival that had begun slowly in the 1880s.


In 1911, Suzuki married Beatrice Erskine Lane, a Radcliffe graduate and Theosophist with multiple contacts with the Baha’i Faith both in America and in Japan.

Later Suzuki himself joined the Theosophical Society and was an active Theosophist.

3. Career

Professor of Buddhist philosophies

Besides living in the United States, Suzuki travelled through Europe before taking up a professorship back in Japan.

In 1909, Suzuki became an Assistant Professor at Gakushūin University and at the Tokyo University.

Suzuki and his wife dedicated themselves to spreading an understanding of Mahāyāna Buddhism.

Until 1919 they lived in a cottage on the Engaku-ji grounds, then moved to Kyoto, where Suzuki began professorship at Ōtani University in 1921.

While he was in Kyoto, he visited Dr. Hoseki Shin'ichi Hisamatsu, a Zen Buddhist scholar, and they discussed Zen Buddhism together at Shunkō-in temple in the Myōshin-ji temple complex.

In 1921, the year he joined Ōtani University, he and his wife founded the Eastern Buddhist Society:

The Society is focused on Mahāyāna Buddhism and offers lectures and seminars, and publishes a scholarly journal, The Eastern Buddhist.

Suzuki maintained connections in the West and, for instance, delivered a paper at the World Congress of Faiths in 1936, at the University of London (he was an exchange professor during this year).

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

Suzuki received numerous honours, including Japan's National Medal of Culture.

4. Studies

A professor of Buddhist philosophy in the middle decades of the 20th century, Suzuki wrote introductions and overall examinations of Buddhism, and particularly of the Zen school.

He went on a lecture tour of American universities in 1951, and taught at Columbia University from 1952 to 1957.

Suzuki was especially interested in the formative centuries of this Buddhist tradition in China:

A lot of Suzuki's writings in English concern themselves with translations and discussions of bits of the Chan texts the Biyan Lu (Blue Cliff Record) and the Wumenguan (The Gateless Barrier), which record the teaching styles and words of the classical Chinese masters.

He was also interested in how this tradition, once imported into Japan, had influenced Japanese character and history, and wrote about it in English in Zen and Japanese Culture.

In addition to his popularly oriented works, Suzuki wrote a translation of the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra and a commentary on its Sanskrit terminology.

He looked in on the efforts of Saburō Hasegawa, Judith Tyberg, Alan Watts and the others who worked in the California Academy of Asian Studies (now known as the California Institute of Integral Studies), in San Francisco in the 1950s.

In his later years, he began to explore the Jōdo Shinshū faith of his mother's upbringing, and gave guest lectures on Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism at the Buddhist Churches of America.

Suzuki produced an incomplete English translation of the Kyōgyōshinshō, the magnum opus of Shinran, founder of the Jōdo Shinshū school.

However, Suzuki did not attempt to popularize the Shin doctrine in the West, as he believed Zen was better suited to the Western preference for Eastern mysticism,

though he is quoted as saying that Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism is the most remarkable development of Mahāyāna Buddhism ever achieved in East Asia .

Suzuki also took an interest in Christian mysticism and in some of the most significant mystics of the West, for example, Meister Eckhart, whom he compared with the Jōdo Shinshū followers called Myōkōnin.

Suzuki was among the first to bring research on the Myōkōnin to audiences outside Japan as well.

Other works include Essays in Zen Buddhism (3 volumes), Studies in Zen Buddhism, and Manual of Zen Buddhism.

American philosopher William Barrett compiled many of Suzuki's articles and essays concerning Zen into a 1956 anthology entitled Zen Buddhism.

5. Zen training

While studying at Tokyo University Suzuki took up Zen practice at Engaku-ji, one of Kamakura's Five Mountains, first studying with Imakita Kōsen (1816-1892).

After Kōsen's 1892 passing, Suzuki continued with Kōsen’s successor at Engaku-ji, Soyen Shaku.

Under Rōshi Soyen, the 1st master to teach Zen Buddhism in America, Suzuki's studies were essentially internal and non-verbal, including long periods of sitting meditation.

The task involved what Suzuki described as 4 years of mental, physical, moral, and intellectual struggle.

During training periods at Engaku-ji, Suzuki lived a monk's life. He described this life and his own experience at Kamakura in his book The Training of the Zen Buddhist Monk.

Suzuki characterized the facets of the training as: a life of humility; a life of labour; a life of service; a life of prayer and gratitude; and a life of meditation.

Suzuki was invited by Shaku to visit the United States in the 1890s, and Suzuki acted as English-language translator for a book by Shaku (1906).

Though Suzuki had by this point translated some ancient Asian texts into English (e.g. Awakening of Faith in the Mahāyāna), his role in translating and ghost-writing aspects of Soyen Shaku's book was more the beginning of Suzuki's career as a writer in English.

Later in life, Suzuki was, on a personal level, more inclined to Jodō Shin (True Pure Land) practice, seeing in the doctrine of Tariki, or other power as opposed to self-power, an abandonment of self that is entirely complementary to Zen practice and yet to his mind even less wilful than traditional Zen.

In his book Buddha of Infinite Light (2002), (originally titled, Shin Buddhism) Suzuki declared:

Of all the developments that Mahāyāna Buddhism has achieved in East Asia, the most remarkable one is the Shin teaching of Pure Land Buddhism.

6. Spread of Zen in the West


Suzuki spread Zen in the West.

Philosopher Charles A. Moore said:

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.

Buddhist modernism

As Suzuki portrayed it, Zen Buddhism was a highly practical religion whose emphasis on direct experience made it particularly comparable to forms of mysticism that scholars such as William James had emphasized as the fountainhead of all religious sentiment.

It is this idea of a common essence that made Suzuki's ideas recognizable to a Western audience, who could identify with the Western esotericism concealed in it, disguised as eastern metaphysics.

Suzuki presents a version of Zen that can be described as de-traditionalized and essentialized:

This resemblance is not coincidental, since Suzuki was also influenced by Western esotericism, and even joined the Theosophical Society.

Several scholars have identified Suzuki as a Buddhist Modernist.

As scholar David McMahan describes it, Buddhist Modernism consists of

forms of Buddhism that have emerged out of an engagement with the dominant cultural and intellectual forces of modernity.

/McMahan, David (2008), The Making of Buddhist Modernism/

Most scholars agree that the influence of Protestant and Enlightenment values have largely defined some of the more conspicuous attributes of Buddhist Modernism.

McMahan cites western monotheism; rationalism and scientific naturalism; and Romantic expressivism as influences.

Buddhist Modernist traditions often consist of a deliberate de-emphasis of the ritual and metaphysical elements of the religion, as these elements are seen as incommensurate with the discourses of modernity.

Buddhist Modernist traditions have also been characterized as being de-traditionalized, often being presented in a way that occludes their historical construction.

Instead, Buddhist Modernists often employ an essentialized description of their tradition, where key tenets are described as universal and of its own kind.

It was this form of Zen that has been popularized in the West:

The popular lay image of Zen, notably the notion that Zen refers not to a specific school of Buddhism but rather to a mystical or spiritual gnosis that transcends sectarian boundaries, is largely a 20th-century construct:

Beginning with the persecution of Buddhism in the early Meiji Period in Japan, Zen apologists have been forced to respond to secular and empiricist critiques of religion in general, and to Japanese nativist critiques of Buddhism as a foreign funerary cult in particular.

In response, partisans of Zen drew upon Western philosophical and theological strategies in their attempt to adapt their faith to the Modern Age.

/Sharf, Robert H. (1995), Whose Zen? Zen Nationalism Revisited/


Suzuki has been criticized for his essentialist approach. As early as 1951, Hu Shih criticized Suzuki for presenting an idealist picture of Zen.

McMahan states:

In his discussion of humanity and nature, Suzuki takes Zen literature out of its social, ritual, and ethical contexts and reframes it in terms of a language of metaphysics derived from German Romantic idealism, English romanticism, and American transcendentalism.

/McMahan, David (2008), The Making of Buddhist Modernism/

Suzuki's approach has been marked as incomprehensible :

... D. T. Suzuki, whose most cherished methodology seems to have been to describe some aspect of Zen as beyond ordinary explanation, then offer a suitably incomprehensible story or two by way of illustration.

Obviously, Suzuki's approach captured the imaginations of generations of readers.

However, while this approach substantiated Suzuki's authority as one with insider access to the profound truths of the tradition, another result was to increase the confusion in reader's minds.

To question such accounts was to admit one did not get it , to distance oneself even further from the goal of achieving what Suzuki termed the Zen enlightenment experience .

/McRae, John (2003), Seeing Through Zen /

7. New Buddhism

At the onset of modernization in the Meiji period, in 1868, when Japan entered the international community, Buddhism was briefly persecuted in Japan:

as a corrupt, decadent, anti-social, parasitic, and superstitious creed, inimical to Japan's need for scientific and technological advancement .

The Japanese government intended to eradicate the tradition, which was seen as a foreign other , incapable of fostering the nativist sentiments that would be vital for national, ideological cohesion.

In addition to this, industrialization led to the breakdown of the parishioner system that had funded Buddhist monasteries for centuries.

However, a group of modern Buddhist leaders emerged to argue for the Buddhist cause:

These leaders stood in agreement with the government persecution of Buddhism, accepting the notion of a corrupt Buddhist institution in need of revitalization.

As a response to the modernisation of Japan and the persecution of Buddhism, the Shin bukkyo, or New Buddhism , came into existence:

It was led by university-educated intellectuals who had been exposed to a vast body of Western intellectual literature.

Advocates of New Buddhism, like Suzuki's teachers Kōsen and his successor Soyen Shaku, saw this movement as a defence of Buddhism against government persecution, and also saw it as a way to bring their nation into the modern world as a competitive cultural force.

Many scholars have argued that the breed of Japanese Zen that was propagated by New Buddhism ideologues, such as Imakita Kōsen and Soyen Shaku, was not typical of Japanese Zen during their time, nor is it typical of Japanese Zen now.

Its importance lies especially within Western Zen:

Suffice it to say that, just as the writings of Suzuki and Hisamatsu are not representative of traditional (i.e., pre-Meiji) Zen exegetics,

the style of Zen training most familiar to Western Zen practitioners can be traced to relatively recent and sociologically marginal Japanese lay movements which have neither the sanction nor the respect of the modern Rinzai or Sōtō monastic orthodoxies.

Indeed, the one feature shared by virtually all of the figures responsible for the Western interest in Zen is their relatively marginal status within the Japanese Zen establishment.

While Suzuki, Nishida, and their intellectual heirs may have shaped the manner in which Westerners have come to think of Zen, the influence of these Japanese intellectuals on the established Zen sects in Japan has been negligible.

At this point, it is necessary to affirm that Japanese Zen monasticism is indeed still alive, despite the shrill invectives of some expatriate Zen missionaries who insist that authentic Zen can no longer be found in Japan.

/Sharf, Robert H. (August 1993), The Zen of Japanese Nationalism /

The traditional form of Zen has been greatly altered by the Meiji Restoration, but Japanese Zen still flourishes as a monastic tradition.

The Zen tradition in Japan, in its customary form, required a great deal of time and discipline from monks that laity would have difficulty finding:

Zen monks were often expected to have spent several years in intensive doctrinal study, memorizing sūtras and poring over commentaries, before even entering the monastery to undergo Kōan practice in private interview with a Zen master.

The fact that Suzuki himself was able to do so (as a layman) was largely the invention of New Buddhism.