The Samurai class
into which Suzuki was born having declined with the fall of feudalism
in Japan, and his physician father having died, Suzuki was raised in
impoverished circumstances by his mother. 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.
His brother, a
lawyer, financed his life and education in Tokyo at Waseda University.
During this time (1891), he also entered spiritual studies at Engaku-ji
in Kamakura initially under Kosen Roshi, then after Kosen’s death,
with Soyen Shaku. Soyen was an exceptional Zen monk. In his youth, his
master, Kosen, and others had recognized him to be naturally advantaged.
Three years after he had received “Dharma transmission”
from Kosen at age 25, Soyen took the unique step of traveling to Ceylon
to study Pali and Theravada Buddhism and live the alien life of the
bhikkhu for three years.
Under Soyen Shaku,
Suzuki's studies were essentially internal and non-verbal, including
long periods of sitting meditation (zazen). The task involved what Suzuki
described as four years of mental, physical, moral, and intellectual
periods at Engaku-ji, Suzuki lived the monk's life. He described this
life and his own experience at Kamakura in his book The Training of
the Zen Buddhist Monk. Suzuki was invited by Soyen Shaku to visit the
United States in the 1890s. Suzuki acted as English-language translator
for a book written by him (1906). Though Suzuki had by this point done
some translation into English of ancient Asian texts, his role in translating
and ghost-writing aspects of this book was more the beginning of Suzuki's
career as a writer in English.
While he was young,
Suzuki had set about acquiring knowledge of Chinese, Sanskrit, Pali,
and several European languages. Soyen Shaku was one of the invited speakers
at the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893. When a
German scholar who had set up residence in Illinois, Dr. Paul Carus,
approached Soyen Shaku to request his help in translating and preparing
Oriental spiritual literature for publication in the West, the latter
instead recommended his disciple Suzuki for the job. Suzuki lived at
Dr. Carus’s home 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.
Carus himself had
written a book offering an insight into, and overview of, Buddhism,
titled The Gospel of Buddha. Soyen Shaku wrote an introduction for it,
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 the United States, Suzuki traveled through Europe before taking up
a professorship back in Japan. Suzuki married Beatrice Erskine Lane,
a Theosophist and Radcliffe graduate, in 1911. Dedicating themselves
to spreading an understanding of Mahayana Buddhism, they lived in a
cottage on the Engaku-ji grounds until 1919, then moved to Kyoto, where
Suzuki began professorship at Otani University in 1921. While he was
in Kyoto, he visted Dr. Hoseki Shinichi Hisamatsu, a famous Zen Buddhist
scholar, and discussed Zen Buddhism together at Shunkoin temple in the
Myoshinji temple complex.
In the same year
he joined Otani University, he and his wife, Beatrice, 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
Still a professor
of Buddhist philosophy in the middle decades of the twentieth century,
Suzuki wrote some of the most celebrated introductions and overall examinations
of Buddhism, and particularly of its Chinese Chan school (though he
usually referred to this sect by the term "Zen," which is
the Japanese pronunciation of its name). 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 (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. Later in his life
he was a visiting professor at Columbia University. He looked in on
the efforts of Saburo Hasegawa, Judith Tyberg, Alan Watts and the others
who worked in the California Academy of Asian Studies in San Francisco
in the 1950s.
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. He also
wrote a small volume about Shin Buddhism. And he took an interest in
Christian mysticism and some of the noted off-beat mystics of the West.
D.T. Suzuki's books
have been widely read and commented on by many important figures. A
notable example is An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, which includes a
thirty page commentary by famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung. Other works
include Essays in Zen Buddhism (three volumes), Studies in Zen Buddhism,
and Manual of Zen Buddhism. Additionally, Willam Barrett has compiled
many of Suzuki's articles and essays concerning Zen into a volume entitled
Studies in Zen.
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 outlook
of the Zen tradition. Contrasting with this, to a degree, was Suzuki's
own view that in its centuries of development in China, Zen (or Ch'an)
had absorbed much from indigenous Chinese Taoism. Suzuki believed that
the Far-Eastern peoples had a sensitivity or attunement to nature that
was acute, by comparison with either the people of Europe or the people
of Northern India, generally speaking.
to the idea that religions are each a sort of organism, an organism
that is (through time) subject to "irritation" - hence, showing
the capacity to change or evolve.
It was Suzuki's
contention that a Zen satori (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 mendicant
(holy beggar, bhikku in Pali) 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.
pioneering efforts, today he is sometimes considered a marginal figure,
who was neither a formal Zen monk nor a serious historian. This may
be a somewhat harsh view, since some clearly credible Western scholars,
such as Heinrich Dumoulin, have acknowledged some degree of debt to
Suzuki's published work. Nevertheless, Suzuki's view of Zen Buddhism,
today judged to be an idealized portrayal, as well as his ambivalent
position toward Japanese imperialism in the interwar years, have both
come under much scrutiny.