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D. T. Suzuki
circa 1953
circa 1953
Born (1870-10-18)18 October 1870
Honda-machi, Kanazawa, Japan
Died 12 July 1966(1966-07-12) (aged 95)
Kamakura, Japan
Occupation Buddhist monk, university professor, essayist, philosopher, religious scholar, translator, writer
Notable awards National Medal of Culture

Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki (鈴木 大拙 貞太郎, Suzuki Daisetsu Teitarō, 18 October 1870 – 12 July 1966), self-rendered in 1894 as "Daisetz", was a Japanese-American Buddhist monk, essayist, philosopher, religious scholar, translator, and writer. He was a scholar and author of books and essays on Buddhism, Zen and Shin that were instrumental in spreading interest in both Zen and Shin (and Far Eastern philosophy in general) to the West. Suzuki was also a prolific translator of Chinese, Japanese, and Sanskrit literature. Suzuki spent several lengthy stretches teaching or lecturing at Western universities, and devoted many years to a professorship at Ōtani University, a Japanese Buddhist school.

He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1963.


Early life

Daisetsu Teitarō Suzuki da giovane
His student days

D. T. Suzuki was born Teitarō Suzuki in Honda-machi, Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, the fourth son of physician Ryojun Suzuki. The Buddhist name Daisetsu, meaning "Great Humility", the kanji of which can also mean "Greatly Clumsy", was given to him by his Zen master Soen (or Soyen) Shaku. Although his birthplace no longer exists, a humble monument marks its location (a tree with a rock at its base). The samurai class into which Suzuki was born declined with the fall of feudalism, which forced Suzuki's mother, a Jōdo Shinshū Buddhist, to raise him in impoverished circumstances after his father died. When he became old enough to reflect on his fate in being born into this situation, he began to look for answers in various forms of religion. His naturally sharp and philosophical intellect found difficulty in accepting some of the cosmologies to which he was exposed.


Suzuki studied at Waseda University and University of Tokyo. Suzuki set about acquiring knowledge of Chinese, Sanskrit, Pali, and several European languages. During his student years at Tokyo University, Suzuki took up Zen practice at Engaku-ji in Kamakura.

Suzuki lived and studied several years with the scholar Paul Carus. Suzuki was introduced to Carus by Soyen Shaku (or Soen Shaku), who met him at the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893. Carus, who had set up residence in LaSalle, Illinois, approached Soyen Shaku to request his help in translating and preparing Eastern spiritual literature for publication in the West. Soyen Shaku instead recommended his student Suzuki for the job. Suzuki lived at Dr. Carus's home, the Hegeler Carus Mansion, and worked with him, initially in translating the classic Tao Te Ching from ancient Chinese. In Illinois, Suzuki began his early work Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism.

Beatrice Lane
Beatrice Erskine Lane (1878–1939)

Carus himself had written a book offering an insight into, and overview of, Buddhism, titled The Gospel of Buddha. Soyen Shaku wrote the introduction, and Suzuki translated the book into Japanese. At this time, around the turn of the century, quite a number of Westerners and Asians (Carus, Soyen, and Suzuki included) were involved in the worldwide Buddhist revival that had begun slowly in the 1880s.


In 1911, Suzuki married Beatrice Erskine Lane Suzuki, a Radcliffe graduate and theosophist with multiple contacts with the Baháʼí Faith both in America and in Japan. Later Suzuki himself joined the Theosophical Society Adyar and was an active theosophist.


Hu Shih and D. T. Suzuki
Hu Shih and DT Suzuki during his visit to China in 1934

Professor of Buddhist philosophies

Besides living in the United States, Suzuki traveled through Europe before taking up a professorship back in Japan. In 1909, Suzuki became an assistant professor at Gakushuin University and at the Tokyo University. Suzuki and his wife dedicated themselves to spreading an understanding of Mahayana Buddhism. Until 1919 they lived in a cottage on the Engaku-ji grounds, then moved to Kyoto, where Suzuki began professorship at Ōtani University in 1921. While he was in Kyoto, he visited Dr. Hoseki Shin'ichi Hisamatsu, a Zen Buddhist scholar, and they discussed Zen Buddhism together at Shunkō-in temple in the Myōshin-ji temple complex.

In 1921, the year he joined Ōtani University, he and his wife founded the Eastern Buddhist Society. The Society is focused on Mahayana Buddhism and offers lectures and seminars, and publishes a scholarly journal, The Eastern Buddhist. Suzuki maintained connections in the West and, for instance, delivered a paper at the World Congress of Faiths in 1936, at the University of London (he was an exchange professor during this year).

Besides teaching about Zen practice and the history of Zen (Chan) Buddhism, Suzuki was an expert scholar on the related philosophy called, in Japanese, Kegon, which he thought of as the intellectual explication of Zen experience.

Suzuki received numerous honors, including Japan's National Medal of Culture.


A professor of Buddhist philosophy in the middle decades of the 20th century, Suzuki wrote introductions and overall examinations of Buddhism, and particularly of the Zen school. He went on a lecture tour of American universities in 1951, and taught at Columbia University from 1952 to 1957.

Suzuki was especially interested in the formative centuries of this Buddhist tradition in China. A lot of Suzuki's writings in English concern themselves with translations and discussions of bits of the Chan texts the Biyan Lu (Blue Cliff Record) and the Wumenguan (Mumonkan/Gateless Passage), which record the teaching styles and words of the classical Chinese masters. He was also interested in how this tradition, once imported into Japan, had influenced Japanese character and history, and wrote about it in English in Zen and Japanese Culture. Suzuki's reputation was secured in England prior to the U.S.

In addition to his popularly oriented works, Suzuki wrote a translation of the Lankavatara Sutra and a commentary on its Sanskrit terminology. He looked in on the efforts of Saburō Hasegawa, Judith Tyberg, Alan Watts and the others who worked in the California Academy of Asian Studies (now known as the California Institute of Integral Studies), in San Francisco in the 1950s. In his later years, he began to explore the Jōdo Shinshū faith of his mother's upbringing, and gave guest lectures on Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism at the Buddhist Churches of America.

Suzuki produced an incomplete English translation of the Kyogyoshinsho, the magnum opus of Shinran, founder of the Jōdo Shinshū school. However, Suzuki did not attempt to popularize the Shin doctrine in the West, as he believed Zen was better suited to the Western preference for Eastern mysticism, though he is quoted as saying that Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism is the "most remarkable development of Mahayana Buddhism ever achieved in East Asia". Suzuki also took an interest in Christian mysticism and in some of the most significant mystics of the West, for example, Meister Eckhart, whom he compared with the Jōdo Shinshū followers called Myokonin. Suzuki was among the first to bring research on the Myokonin to audiences outside Japan as well.

Other works include Essays in Zen Buddhism (three volumes), Studies in Zen Buddhism, and Manual of Zen Buddhism. American philosopher William Barrett compiled many of Suzuki's articles and essays concerning Zen into a 1956 anthology entitled Zen Buddhism.

Scholarly opinions

Suzuki's Zen master, Soyen Shaku, who also wrote a book published in the United States (English translation by Suzuki), had emphasized the Mahayana Buddhist roots of the Zen tradition. Suzuki's contrasting view was that, in its centuries of development in China, Zen (or Chan) had absorbed much from indigenous Chinese Taoism. Suzuki believed that the Far Eastern peoples were more sensitive, or attuned, to nature than either the people of Europe or those of Northern India.

Suzuki subscribed to the idea that religions are each a sort of organism, which is (through time) subject to "irritation" and having a capacity to change or evolve.

It was Suzuki's contention that a Zen "awakening" was the goal of the tradition's training, but that what distinguished the tradition as it developed through the centuries in China was a way of life radically different from that of Indian Buddhists. In India, the tradition of the holy beggar prevailed, but in China, social circumstances led to the development of a temple-and-training center system in which the abbot and the monks all performed mundane tasks. These included food gardening or farming, carpentry, architecture, housekeeping, administration (or community direction), and the practice of folk medicine. Consequently, the enlightenment sought in Zen had to stand up well to the demands and potential frustrations of everyday life.

Suzuki is often linked to the Kyoto School of philosophy, but he is not considered one of its official members. Suzuki took an interest in other traditions besides Zen. His book Zen and Japanese Buddhism delved into the history and scope of interest of all the major Japanese Buddhist sects.

Zen training

While studying at Tokyo University Suzuki took up Zen practice at Engaku-ji, one of Kamakura's Five Mountains, first studying with Kosen Roshi. After Kosen's 1892 passing, Suzuki continued with Kosen's successor at Engaku-ji, Soyen Shaku.

Under Rōshi Soyen, the first master to teach zen Buddhism in America, Suzuki's studies were essentially internal and non-verbal, including long periods of sitting meditation. The task involved what Suzuki described as four years of mental, physical, moral, and intellectual struggle. During training periods at Engaku-ji, Suzuki lived a monk's life. He described this life and his own experience at Kamakura in his book The Training of the Zen Buddhist Monk. Suzuki characterized the facets of the training as: a life of humility; a life of labor; a life of service; a life of prayer and gratitude; and a life of meditation.

Suzuki was invited by Shaku to visit the United States in the 1890s, and Suzuki acted as English-language translator for a book by Shaku (1906). Though Suzuki had by this point translated some ancient Asian texts into English (e.g. Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana), his role in translating and ghost-writing aspects of Soyen Shaku's book was more the beginning of Suzuki's career as a writer in English.

Later in life, Suzuki was, on a personal level, more inclined to Jodo Shin (True Pure Land) practice, seeing in the doctrine of Tariki, or other power as opposed to self-power, an abandonment of self that is entirely complementary to Zen practice and yet to his mind even less willful than traditional Zen. In his book Buddha of Infinite Light (2002), (originally titled, Shin Buddhism) Suzuki declared that, "Of all the developments that Mahayana Buddhism has achieved in East Asia, the most remarkable one is the Shin teaching of Pure Land Buddhism." (p. 22)

Spread of Zen in the West


Suzuki spread Zen in the West.

Buddhist modernism

As Suzuki portrayed it, Zen Buddhism was a highly practical religion whose emphasis on direct experience made it particularly comparable to forms of mysticism that scholars such as William James had emphasized as the fountainhead of all religious sentiment. It is this idea of a common essence that made Suzuki's ideas recognizable to a Western audience, who could identify with the Western esotericism concealed in it, disguised as eastern metaphysics. Suzuki presents a version of Zen that can be described as detraditionalized and essentialized. This resemblance is not coincidental, since Suzuki was also influenced by Western esotericism, and even joined the Theosophical Society.

Several scholars have identified Suzuki as a Buddhist modernist. Most scholars agree that the influence of Protestant and Enlightenment values have largely defined some of the more conspicuous attributes of Buddhist modernism. Buddhist modernist traditions often consist of a deliberate de-emphasis of the ritual and metaphysical elements of the religion, as these elements are seen as incommensurate with the discourses of modernity. Buddhist modernist traditions have also been characterized as being "detraditionalized," often being presented in a way that occludes their historical construction. Instead, Buddhist modernists often employ an essentialized description of their tradition, where key tenets are described as universal and sui generis.


Suzuki has been criticized for his essentialist approach. As early as 1951, Hu Shih criticized Suzuki for presenting an idealist picture of Zen.

Involvement with Japanese nationalism

According to Sharf and Victoria, Suzuki was associated with Japanese nationalism and its propagation via the appraisal of Japanese Zen. He has been criticised for defending the Japanese war-efforts, though Suzuki's thoughts on these have also been placed in the context of western supremacy in the first half of the 20th century, and the reaction against this supremacy in Asian countries.

View on Nazism and anti-Semitism

Brian Victoria delivered lectures in Germany in 2012 in which he revealed evidence of Suzuki's sympathy for the Nazi regime. Victoria writes,

"D. T. Suzuki left a record of his early view of the Nazi movement that was included in a series of articles published in the Japanese Buddhist newspaper, Chūgai Nippō, on 3, 4, 6, 11 and 13 October 1936." In this Suzuki expresses his agreement with Hitler's policies as explained to him by a relative living in Germany.

"While they don't know much about politics, they have never enjoyed greater peace of mind than they have now. For this alone, they want to cheer Hitler on. This is what my relative told me. It is quite understandable, and I am in agreement with him." He also expresses agreement with Hitler's expulsion of the Jews from Germany.

"Changing the topic to Hitler's expulsion of the Jews, it appears that in this, too, there are a lot of reasons for his actions. While it is a very cruel policy, when looked at from the point of view of the current and future happiness of the entire German people, it may be that, for a time, some sort of extreme action is necessary in order to preserve the nation."

Suzuki expressed sympathy with individual Jews. "As regards individuals, this is truly a regrettable situation."

Suzuki was a friend of Karlfried Graf von Dürckheim. Dürckheim, also a noted expounder of Japanese Zen philosophy in the West, was a committed Nazi and worked for the German Foreign Office in Tokyo during the war. He helped his friend Suzuki introduce Zen Buddhism to the West.

Yet perhaps this information, by itself, comprises no appropriate nuance when considering Suzuki’s attitudes, and may be counterpoised by the quotation from Kemmyō Taira Satō given in the section below ("Japanese nationalism").

New Buddhism

At the onset of modernization in the Meiji period, in 1868, when Japan entered the international community, Buddhism was briefly persecuted in Japan as "a corrupt, decadent, anti-social, parasitic, and superstitious creed, inimical to Japan's need for scientific and technological advancement". The Japanese government intended to eradicate the tradition, which was seen as a foreign "other", incapable of fostering the nativist sentiments that would be vital for national, ideological cohesion. In addition to this, industrialization led to the breakdown of the parishioner system that had funded Buddhist monasteries for centuries. However, a group of modern Buddhist leaders emerged to argue for the Buddhist cause. These leaders stood in agreement with the government persecution of Buddhism, accepting the notion of a corrupt Buddhist institution in need of revitalization.

As a response to the modernisation of Japan and the persecution of Buddhism, the shin bukkyo, or "New Buddhism", came into existence. It was led by university-educated intellectuals who had been exposed to a vast body of Western intellectual literature. Advocates of New Buddhism, like Suzuki's teachers Kosen and his successor Soyen Shaku, saw this movement as a defense of Buddhism against government persecution, and also saw it as a way to bring their nation into the modern world as a competitive cultural force.

Scholars such as Martin Verhoeven and Robert Sharf, as well as Japanese Zen monk G. Victor Sogen Hori, have argued that the breed of Japanese Zen that was propagated by New Buddhism ideologues, such as Imakita Kosen and Soyen Shaku, was not typical of Japanese Zen during their time, nor is it typical of Japanese Zen now.

The traditional form of Zen has been greatly altered by the Meiji restoration, but Japanese Zen still flourishes as a monastic tradition. The Zen tradition in Japan, in its customary form, required a great deal of time and discipline from monks that laity would have difficulty finding. Zen monks were often expected to have spent several years in intensive doctrinal study, memorizing sutras and poring over commentaries, before even entering the monastery to undergo kōan practice in sanzen with a Zen master. The fact that Suzuki himself was able to do so (as a layman) was largely the invention of New Buddhism.

Japanese nationalism

During the Meiji restoration the Nihonjinron philosophy took prevalence. It emphasizes the uniqueness of the Japanese people. This uniqueness has been attributed to many different factors. Suzuki attributed it to Zen. In his view, Zen embodies the ultimate essence of all philosophy and religion. He pictured Zen as a unique expression of Asian spirituality, which was considered to be superior to the western ways of thinking.

Praise of Suzuki's work

Suzuki's books have been widely read and commented on. But Jung was also critical, warning against an uncritical borrowing from Asian spirituality.

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki para niños

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