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

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...

(The entire section is 613 words.)

Seeing into the Nature of One’s Being

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,...

(The entire section is 594 words.)


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...

(The entire section is 716 words.)

Zen Methods

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

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...

(The entire section is 317 words.)


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....

(The entire section is 492 words.)