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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

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According to the legendary account of Zen, given by Suzuki, Zen originated in India, and the first to practice the Zen method was Skyamuni, 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

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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.”


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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

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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

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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.


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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.

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