Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki Essay - Critical Essays

Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro


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, and Manual 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.

Principal Works

Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism (nonfiction) 1907

Essays in Zen Buddhism 3 vols. (essays) 1927-1934

The Lankavatara Sutra (translation) 1932

An Introduction to Zen Buddhism (nonfiction) 1934

The Gandavyuha Sutra (translation) 1934

The Training of a Zen Buddhist Monk (nonfiction) 1934

Manual of Zen Buddhism (nonfiction) 1935

Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture (nonfiction) 1938

The Essence of Buddhism (nonfiction) 1947

Studies in Zen (nonfiction) 1955

Zen Buddhism (nonfiction) 1956

The Essentials of Zen Buddhism (nonfiction) 1962

On Indian Mahayana Buddhism (nonfiction) 1968


The Monist (review date 1908)

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

[In the following review, the critic finds Outlines of Mahâyâna Buddhism to be a “very good introduction to a more comprehensive treatise of the subject.”]

[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...

(The entire section is 668 words.)

William Barrett (essay date 1956)

SOURCE: “Zen for the West,” in Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings of D. T. Suzuki, edited by William Barrett, Doubleday, 1956, pp. vii-xx.

[In his introduction to Suzuki's Zen Buddhism, originally published in 1956, Barrett describes the relationship between Zen Buddhist philosophy and the philosophies of the West.]

Zen Buddhism1 presents a surface so bizarre and irrational, yet so colorful and striking, that some Westerners who approach it for the first time fail to make sense of it, while others, attracted by this surface, take it up in a purely frivolous and superficial spirit. Either response would be unfortunate. The fact is that Zen, as Dr....

(The entire section is 4971 words.)

G. Bownas (review date 1956)

SOURCE: A review of Studies in Zen, in Philosophy, Vol. XXXIII, No. 117, April, 1956, pp. 188-89.

[In the following review, Bownas finds Studies in Zen to be a “fairly broad picture of Suzuki's interpretations of Zen.”]

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 entire section is 717 words.)

Gerald Doherty (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “The World That Shines and Sounds: W. B. Yeats and Daisetz Suzuki,” in Irish Renaissance Annual, Vol. IV, 1983, pp. 57-75.

[In this essay, Doherty discusses the influence of Zen Buddhism on the works of W. B. Yeats with particular emphasis on Suzuki's interpretations.]

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...

(The entire section is 6440 words.)

Masao Abe (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “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 following essay, Abe examines the influence Suzuki's interpretation of Zen Buddhism had on the West.]

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 entitled Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism, and the significance of Mahayana Buddhism was his major concern from the outset....

(The entire section is 3251 words.)

Larry A. Fader (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “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.

[In the following essay, Fader discusses the influence Suzuki had on Western thought and art.]

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...

(The entire section is 5125 words.)

Torataro Shimomura (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “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.

[In the following essay, Shimomura discusses the cultural thought patterns that make Zen Buddhist concepts difficult for Westerners, and Suzuki's importance in bridging that understanding.]

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...

(The entire section is 6440 words.)

Robert Aitkin (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Openness and Engagement: Memories of Dr. D. T. Suzuki,” in Original Dwelling Place: Zen Buddhist Essays, Counterpoint, 1996, pp. 27-31.

[In the following essay, Aitkin—a student of Suzuki—reminisces about his personal encounters with his teacher.]

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...

(The entire section is 1628 words.)

Further Reading


De Martino, Richard J. “Karen Horney, Daisetz T. Suzuki, and Zen Buddhism.” The American Journal of Psychoanalysis 51, No. 3 (September, 1991): 267-83.

Explores Horney's ideas about the relationship between psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhist philosophy, as taught to her by Suzuki, and includes the author's commentary on Horney's interpretations.

Dumoulin, Heinrich. A History of Zen Buddhism. Boston: Beacon Press, 1969, 335 p.

Includes a discussion of Suzuki's place in the history of Zen Buddhism.

Additional coverage of Suzuki's life and career is contained in the following sources...

(The entire section is 96 words.)