Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.