Buddhism D. T. Suzuki
by
James Dobbins
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0257

Introduction

D. T. Suzuki (Daisetz [Daisetsu] Teitarō Suzuki, b. 1870–d. 1966) was a Japanese scholar of Buddhism who published extensively in both Japanese and English and who emerged as a famous thinker and public intellectual in the 1950s and 1960s. Born in the Meiji period (1868–1912) when Japan was rapidly modernizing, Suzuki was one of many young intellectuals who sought to revitalize and reinterpret Buddhism for the modern age. He excelled in English and studied Western thought at Tokyo Imperial University in the early 1890s, but at the same time dedicated himself to Zen practice at Engakuji monastery in nearby Kamakura, an experience that made an indelible mark on his thinking. In 1897 Suzuki traveled to America to become a translator and editorial assistant at Open Court Publishing in LaSalle, Illinois. He spent eleven years there working, studying, and publishing on Buddhism and other Asian topics. Upon returning to Japan in 1909, he became an English professor in the preparatory division of the Peers School, Gakushūin, in Tokyo for twelve years. In 1911, Suzuki married Beatrice Lane (b. 1875–d. 1939, previously thought to be born in 1878), a highly educated American with an abiding interest in Asian religions whom he had met overseas and who subsequently assisted him with his English publications. In 1921 Suzuki became a professor of Buddhist studies at Otani University in Kyoto and there launched the journal The Eastern Buddhist with his wife as coeditor. During his long career at Otani, Suzuki published many of his most important works on Zen, Mahāyāna, and Pure Land Buddhism. After his wife’s death in 1939 and throughout the war years, Suzuki lived in semi-retirement in Kamakura, continuing to write and publish. During the American occupation of Japan after the war, Suzuki gained prominence because of his familiarity with America and his efforts to articulate a postwar vision for the country. In 1949, when Suzuki was almost eighty, he had an opportunity to live in America again—first in Honolulu, then Los Angeles, and finally New York. Working as a traveling lecturer and guest professor, he remained in America until 1958 (except for brief visits back to Japan). During this period, there was burgeoning interest in Buddhism in the West, and Suzuki was perfectly poised to answer this demand. His earlier English writings were republished, and he emerged as a Buddhist authority in the eyes of Western scholars, artists, psychoanalysts, and the reading public. When Suzuki returned to Japan in 1958, he was arguably the most prominent spokesman for Buddhism in the West. During his remaining years he was in high demand for publications, translations, interviews, and lectures, and when he died in 1966 he was celebrated as one of Japan’s foremost Buddhist thinkers. In the years after his death, there was widespread respect and appreciation for Suzuki’s works. But in the 1990s a strong critique of Suzuki appeared in Western scholarship. He was identified as a Japanese nationalist who supported the war effort, and was also criticized for presenting Buddhism inaccurately to the West—weaving Western ideas into it while at the same time aggrandizing Japan as spiritually superior. These criticisms provoked rebuttals by Suzuki’s defenders, and the controversies over him continue even today. Suzuki might best be seen not as an unbiased transmitter of Buddhism to the West, but as a modern interpreter of it for both Japan and the West—sometimes explaining its ideas conventionally and other times subjectively and idiosyncratically.

General Overviews

There is no single, simple introduction to Suzuki’s life and thought. Moreover, various introductions target different audiences and contain different scholarly assumptions. The works listed here are representative of this range of perspectives and variety of audiences. Jaffe’s introduction to the new edition of Zen and Japanese Culture (Jaffe 2010) is a scholarly but readable essay that takes into account competing viewpoints. The essays found in both Abe 1986 and The Eastern Buddhist 1967 are sympathetic to Suzuki, written mostly by people who knew him directly. Sharf 2005 is an encyclopedia entry that contains a more critical edge in its overview of Suzuki’s life and ideas. Sargeant 1957 in the New Yorker reflects the mass-media fascination with Suzuki as he rose to fame in the 1950s. Goldberg 2006, a documentary video, is an appreciation of Suzuki produced in the wake of the controversies of the 1990s. Akizuki 1967 is a sympathetic presentation of Suzuki’s life and ideas by one of his devoted personal followers.

  • Abe, Masao, ed. A Zen Life: D. T. Suzuki Remembered. New York: Weatherhill, 1986.

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    A collection of remembrances and tributes to Suzuki published twenty years after his death. Included are a few brief autobiographical sketches from Suzuki himself. Almost all the pieces were published previously and then collected in this volume.

  • Akizuki Ryōmin 秋月龍珉. Suzuki Daisetsu 鈴木大拙. 1967.

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    A record of biographical vignettes and religious reflections that Suzuki personally told late in life to a devoted young disciple. A rich, but not authoritative, source on his life and ideas. Written in Japanese. Reprint Tokyo: Kōdansha, 2004.

  • Goldberg, Michael, producer and director. A Zen Life: D.T. Suzuki [DVD]. Tokyo: Japan Inter-Culture Foundation, 2006.

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    A documentary film celebrating the life and ideas of Suzuki and containing interviews with many people who knew him. The portrayal of Suzuki is sympathetic and steers clear of the controversies that emerged around him.

  • Jaffe, Richard M. “Introduction.” In Zen and Japanese Culture. By Daizetz T. Suzuki, vii–xxviii. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.

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    A short, well-balanced introduction to Suzuki’s life and religious thought as refracted through his widely popular study of Japanese culture. It touches on the Meiji-period origins of Suzuki’s thinking, Western influences, rising nationalism, cultural essentialism, criticisms of Suzuki, and his distinctive vision of Zen in the 20th century.

  • Sargeant, Winthrop. “Great Simplicity.” New Yorker (31 August 1957): 34–53.

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    A personal profile of Suzuki published for a wide and general readership just as the “Zen boom” spread throughout America. This account—sometimes thoughtful, but other times exoticizing—contributed greatly to Suzuki’s celebrity status in the 1950s.

  • Sharf, Robert H. “D. T. Suzuki.” In Encyclopedia of Religion. 2d ed. Edited by Lindsey Jones, 13: 8884–8887. Detroit: Macmillan Reference, 2005.

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    A concise overview of Suzuki’s life, thought, and influences published in the most comprehensive encyclopedia of religion currently available, written by an important critic of Suzuki.

  • Nishitani, Keiji, and Hiroshi Sakamoto, eds. Special Issue: In Memoriam: Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, 1870–1966. The Eastern Buddhist (New Series) 2.1 (1967).

    E-mail Citation »

    A large collection of essays eulogizing Suzuki published a year after his death in The Eastern Buddhist, the journal that Suzuki launched early in his career. It includes contributions not only by specialists of Buddhism but also by important philosophers, psychologists, writers, religious figures, and personal acquaintances worldwide. Several pieces are republished in Abe 1986.

  • Switzer III, A. Irwin. D. T. Suzuki: A Biography by A. Irwin Switzer III. Edited and enlarged by John Snelling. London: Buddhist Society, 1985.

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    A brief, hard-to-find biography of Suzuki that covers the entire arc of his life. Based primarily on previously published English-language sources, it is largely accurate, though some details are at odds with information now available in Suzuki’s expanded collection of published letters and diaries. It is an appreciative biography recounting inspirational vignettes from Suzuki’s life.

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