D. T. Suzuki Biography

Biography (Survey of World Philosophers)

0111207246-Suzuki.jpgD. T. Suzuki (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Through his teaching, lectures, writings, and translations, Suzuki is credited with bringing Buddhism to the Western world. Emphasizing the unity of spiritual thought and synthesizing Eastern and Western religions, he defined the nature of Buddhism in Western philosophy and widened the influence of Zen Buddhism internationally.

Early Life

Raised in a region of Japan and by a family steeped in Shin Buddhism, in 1875 Teitaro Suzuki (who later added the Buddhist name of Daisetz to become Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki) entered primary school shortly before the death of his physician father. In 1883, he entered middle school but was forced to temporarily abandon his formal studies in 1889 when he began teaching English first at Noto Peninsula and at Ishikawa in 1890 when his mother died.

In 1891, he entered Tokyo Senmon Gakko (Waseda University), and later he studied at Tokyo Imperial University. There he began his formal studies in Buddhism under the mentorship of Imagita Kosen Roshi, who died in 1892. Suzuki continued his Buddhist studies under Soyen Shaku and American publisher Paul Carus, who took Suzuki with him to La Salle, Illinois, in 1897, where Suzuki acted as translator for Shaku. Suzuki translated works on Eastern religion for Open Court Publishing. Fluent in English, German, French, Chinese and Japanese, trained in religious philosophy, and skilled in oral and written communications, Suzuki was uniquely prepared to become an important spokesperson for Eastern thought in the twentieth century.

Life’s Work

From the first publication of his essays on Zen Buddhism in 1927 until his death in 1966, Suzuki was known as one of the most knowledgeable exponents of Zen, although from the outset of his writing career, he clearly wanted to demonstrate the unity of all spiritual thought, including Mahayana, Shin, Tibetan, and Zen Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, and Western mystical Christianity. This desire to link modern religious faiths was first revealed in 1907, when he delivered a series of lectures in Maine that resulted in the publication of the first of his 125 books and articles in English, Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism. However, his name became closely associated with Japanese Zen because of the popularity of his three-part series, Essays in Zen Buddhism.

Suzuki’s career was motivated by his determination to synthesize what he saw as single spiritual truths in the Buddhist state of satori. Satori, as described by Siddhārtha Gautama (known as the first Buddha), is one moment of heightened opening of consciousness, an awareness of the essential spirit of all religions and philosophies that comes to enlightened seekers. Suzuki believed that spiritual longing could be addressed beyond the limitations of logic and reason. He repeatedly wrote that spiritual matters cannot be dissected by the intellect, claiming Western reliance on empirical science can be equated with using standardized fishing nets that will catch only what fits into preestablished, inflexible systems of thought.

For both Western and Eastern audiences, Suzuki defined the notion of Buddhist Prajna intuition, a metaphysical state in which one can perceive things as they actually are rather than distorted in the mental layers of personal and cultural experience that yield unhealthy attachments for earthly matters. He taught the Buddhist principle that enlightenment is a final psychic fact that takes place when religious consciousness is expanded to extremity. This Buddha-conscious state clarifies thought and ends self-centered mental illusions created by subject-verb-object distinctions of duality or polarity.

Believing in the elements of “truth, progress, and life,” which he championed despite the negative influences of the two world wars, Suzuki claimed progress began with one single significant intuitive moment that must follow a period of inner anguish. This moment is rekindled over and over in a person’s life as the individual responds to life’s demands in a state of moment-to-moment awareness of what is actually happening. Suzuki defined this day-to-day practice of “mindfulness” as “suchness” or “as-it-is-ness.” Restating the ancient teachings of Buddhism, Suzuki wrote and spoke of affirming life primarily through the Great Compassion, or Oya-sama, for all living things.

Although none of these ideas was originated by Suzuki, he was the first to convey them to the Western world in understandable language, and he was the first Eastern spiritual leader to devote his life to successfully spreading these essentials of Buddhist thought to a largely non-Eastern audience. In this endeavor, Suzuki was aided by his studies in Western thought, notably his reading of the works of the American philosopher and innovator in psychology, William James. Because of the breadth of his scholarship and his appreciation for varying approaches to spirituality, Suzuki was more than a spokesperson for his primary religion. By encompassing the long history of Buddhist thought and his synthesis of international religious schools, he was the one of the important interpreters of Buddhism in modern times and largely shaped how Buddhism would be received in the West.

Suzuki’s long involvement in academic, religious, and cultural projects focused on three major tasks. First, he set out to introduce Mahayana Buddhism to the Western world using Zen teachings as a tool to open understanding. Second, he sought to unify and ally the various schools of Buddhism in Japan, ending the sectarian...

(The entire section is 2300 words.)