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D. T. Suzuki

(1870—1966)


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(1870–1966).

Daisetsu (usually rendered Daisetz) Teitarō Suzuki, a Japanese scholar of zen Buddhism who was instrumental in bringing Zen to Europe andAmerica in the first half of the 20th century. He was born in Kanazawa, and his father died while he was 6, leaving his mother to raise him in very difficult circumstances. He entered the Tokyo Semmon Gakkō at the age of 21, but left there to undertake Zen training at the Engaku Temple (Engakuji) under Imakita Kōsen. When the latter died in 1892, Suzuki continued study under his successor, Shaku Sōen (1859–1919). He undertook five years of training, and is said to have attained an awakening in 1895. At the same time, he was studying as a non-degree student at Tokyo Imperial University on the recommendation of his friend, the Kyoto school Zen philosopher Nishida Kitarō (1870–1945). Also during this time, he made the acquaintance of Paul Carus, editor of Open Court Press in Chicago. He went with Carus to the USA, and lived in his basement for eleven years, polishing his English and producing translations of various east Asian religious works. At the age of 41, he married Beatrice Lane. He went to work in academia, first as an English professor at the Gakushūin in Tokyo, and, after 1919, as professor of Buddhist philosophy at Ōtani University in Kyoto. In this position, he began to publish extensively, both in English and Japanese, on Zen and Pure Land thought. He also founded the English journal Eastern Buddhist during this period. In his publications he remained concerned with Zen philosophy (in which he was greatly influenced by the work of his friend Nishida), and the interaction of Zen and Japanese culture. He explored other areas as well, such as scriptural studies, and he produced translations and studies of the Laṇkāvatāra Sūtra and other classic works.

Suzuki's academic career in Japan was quite successful, but he suffered some criticism after the Second World War on two counts. First, some cited his limited vision of Buddhism in Japanese culture, in particular, the complete omission of Nichiren Buddhism from his account of the interaction of Buddhism with Japanese spirituality. Second, after the war, he recanted some of the things he had written prior to and during the war that, implicitly at least, defended Japanese militarism. Many young men had taken his books as their inspiration into battle; his post-war disavowal of his previous writings, and his claim that he had always known Japan would lose but feared that his works would be banned if he spoke his mind, dismayed those young men, and provoked a backlash against him. His influence in the English-speaking world which knew nothing of these criticisms was unaffected. His fluency in English, his willingness to speak of Zen enlightenment (satori) in theoretical terms, and his deep familiarity with the wide scope of Zen traditions, made him a primary channel for the West to learn about Zen. He served as Shaku Sōen's translator when the latter came to America, and his three volumes of Essays in Zen Buddhism, published by Rider, secured his reputation in England. He became a media presence in both England and America, with profiles in the New Yorker and Vogue, and many sought his company, from Thomas Merton to Christmas Humphreys and Alan Watts. He went to work at Columbia University until his retirement in 1957. His longevity (he died at age 95) and prolific scholarship (over 100 books, many in an informal and accessible style suited to the general reader) made him a major force in the dissemination of Zen to the West.

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Subjects: Buddhism.


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