Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki

Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki (1870-1966) was a Japanese translator, teacher, and constructive interpreter of Zen Buddhist thought to the West.

Teitaro Suzuki was born in Kanazawa in western Japan on October 18, 1870. His ancestors as well as his father, grandfather, and great grandfather were physicians of the samurai class. Suzuki was expected to follow in their footsteps, but with the death of his father while he was six his family was unable to bear the expense of a medical education. At about 17, he said, he began to contemplate the misfortunes of his family as manifested in the early deaths of his father, grandfather, and great grandfather. He turned to the Rinzai temple where his family was registered. Upon graduation from secondary school he became an English teacher in Takojima, a fishing village on the Noto peninsula, and later at Mikawa, a town near Kanazawa. From 1888 to 1889 he studied at Ishikawa College. Relocating in Tokyo, he occasionally studied at Imperial University (1891-1892) but gradually grew more interested in undergoing the discipline of a novitiate at the Engakuji Rinzai Zen monastery in Kamakura (1892-1897) where his master gave him his Buddhist name, Daisetz, meaning "great humility."

Suzuki exhibited a strong linguistic ability and as early as 1893 translated into English the speech of Shaku Soyen, the successor of his first Zen master, Imagita Kosen, entitled "The Law of Cause and Effect, as Taught by Buddha" for the World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago. In Chicago Shaku Soyen met Paul Carus and recommended Suzuki as a translator in Carus' firm, Open Court Publishing Company of La Salle, Illinois. From 1897 to 1909 Suzuki lived in the United States and translated Sanskrit, Pali, Chinese, and Japanese texts for Open Court. In 1907 he published Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism, which began his interpretation of the variety of Buddhist traditions as if they were one and essentially Rinzai Zen. In 1911 he married a college teacher interested in Oriental religion, Beatrice Lane, who died in 1938. During his stay in the United States he travelled to Europe and there translated the writings of the Swedish thinker Emanuel Swedenborg into Japanese.

Suzuki returned to Japan in 1909 as lecturer of English at Imperial University and professor of English at Gakushuin (Peers' School). In 1921 he left these posts to become professor of English and Buddhist philosophy at Otani University, Kyoto, where he received an honorary D.Litt. In the same year he founded the journal The Eastern Buddhist. While at Otani University he became known in the West through a variety of publications, including the three volume Essays in Zen Buddhism (1927-1934) and The Training of the Zen Buddhist Monk (1934), but especially his translation of the Lankavatara Sutra (1932) and his book Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture (1938).

He remained at Otani University until he began an active retirement in 1940. During World War II he was under suspicion of the Japanese government for his opposition to militarism, but in 1949 he was made a member of the Japanese Academy and decorated by the emperor with the Cultural Medal. Following the war 20 of his works on Zen and Buddhism were published in England and the United States, consisting of monographs and collections of essays. He travelled and lectured at universities in the United States and Europe during the 1950s and died in Kamakura on July 12, 1966, leaving numerous unpublished manuscripts.

Suzuki's writings were not descriptive studies of Buddhism or Zen. He was a constructive thinker who wrote out of his own experience and who treated Buddhism as if it had an unchanging essence which was mystical and irrational or transrational. He intended to introduce Zen to the West as a nonhistorical paradox beyond all categories of rational thought. Though his writings often include metaphysical discussions, Suzuki denied all theoretical moorings. Since Zen has historically emphasized technique more than philosophy (zenmeans "meditation"), Suzuki's emphasis was not unfounded. He spoke of his own enlightenment, satori, as the end of the separateness of the self and objects of thought. It was precipitated by breaking through the well-known Zen problem without rational solution, or koan, his master had given him, Mu. But enlightenment, he continually emphasized, did not end with a meditational breaking through the limitations of thought. It required a return to the world with a radically new understanding of it: "When I came out of that state … I said, 'I see. This is it."'

To make Zen comprehensible, Suzuki adopted categories of American psychology of religion. He borrowed the four characteristics of mystical experience of William James and then set forth eight characteristics of satori: irrationality, intuitive insight, authoritativeness, affirmation, a sense of the beyond, a feeling of exaltation, momentariness, and an impersonal tone. Attaching primary importance to the last, he spoke of it as that characteristic which distinguishes satori from Christian mysticism, whose mystics emphasize "the personal and frequently sexual feelings." Using the term "unconscious" to describe the potential enlightenment within all beings, called the "Buddha-nature, " Suzuki opened the door for the use of Zen by modern depth psychology. On the basis of Suzuki's interpretation Carl Jung presented the experience of Zen as the liberation of the unconscious.


Further Reading on Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki

For a historical treatment of Zen which includes discussion of Suzuki's place see Heinrich Dumoulin, A History of Zen Buddhism (1963). Suzuki's many writings are available in numerous popular paperback editions, any of them a good place to begin: for example, Essays in Zen Buddhism (1961), Introduction to Zen Buddhism (1964), Manual of Zen Buddhism (1960), and Zen and Japanese Culture (1959), a revised version of his Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture (1938).

Additional Biography Sources

Switzer, A. Irwin, D.T. Suzuki: a biography, London: The Buddhist Society, 1985.

A Zen life: D.T. Suzuki remembered, New York: Weatherhill, 1986.