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Daisetsu Suzuki (1870-1966) | Issue 151


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Brief Lives

Brian Morris contemplates the ‘ultimate reality’ of a Zen Buddhist philosopher.

According to Christmas Humphreys, the founder in 1924 of the Buddhist Society in London, Zen Buddhism is the ‘apotheosis’ – the divine culmination – of Buddhism. Humphreys on to describe Zen as a practical, non-intellectual method of directly experiencing ‘ultimate reality’. If so, then Zen should be of interest to phenomenologists, Kantians and all the other Western philosophers who have argued about our ability to apprehend reality. But was he right?

Humphreys derived most of his ideas about Zen from his friend, the Japanese scholar Daisetsu T. Suzuki (1870-1966), who has been well described as the man who brought Zen to the West.

Perhaps the best-known Japanese philosopher of the twentieth century, Suzuki was born into a Samurai family in Northern Japan in 1870. After a brief period studying at what is now Waseda University in Tokyo, Suzuki became a disciple of Zen master Shaku Soen (1859-1919), and spent five years undergoing Rinzai Zen training at the famous Engakuji Monastery in Kamakura. He is said to have become enlightened in 1895.

In 1893 Suzuki accompanied Shaku Soen to the renowned World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago. Four years later he was invited to the United States to work as a translator for the philosopher and publisher Paul Carus. What is of interest is that Carus had been a student of Schopenhauer, whose ethics features many Buddhist ideas, and was also an early advocate of panpsychism (which means ‘mind everywhere’), which is currently fashionable in academic philosophy of mind.

Suzuki spent eleven years in the United States, between 1897-1908, and developed a deep interest in Western philosophy, Christian mysticism, and comparative religion. He came to write important studies of the German Neoplatonist Meister Eckhart, and the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, emphasizing the close affinities between Christian mysticism and Mahayana Buddhism (of which Zen is a branch).

In 1921 Suzuki accepted a chair in Buddhist philosophy at Otani University in Kyoto, and began to publish extensively in both English and Japanese on Zen and Pure Land Buddhism, as well as on comparative religion. He was a prolific writer and wrote a classical study on Zen and Japanese culture.

After the Second World War Suzuki became something of a globe-trotting Buddhist intellectual, and spent another extended period in the United States, teaching at Columbia University in New York from 1951 until his retirement in 1957 aged eighty-seven. He had an important influence on the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm (1900-1980), as well as on the Beat Generation of the 1960s, including writers and poets as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Alan Watts. Suzuki died in Tokyo in 1966, aged ninety-six.


Aisetsu Suzuki © Shigeru Tamura 1953 Creative Commons

Suzuki & Zen

Suzuki described Zen as a product of the Chinese mind after its contact with the Mahayana branch of Buddhism. The Japanese term Zen is derived from the Chinese Ch’an, itself derived from the Sanskrit term dhyana, meaning ‘deep meditation’. Suzuki emphasizes that as a historical tradition, Zen never lost touch with the ‘plurality of things’, in other words, the practical dimension of social life. He wrote that Zen is deeply imbued with a pragmatic spirit, and even implies that this was a revolt of the Chinese mind against the more speculative metaphysics of the Indian Mahayana school.

Although Zen Buddhism clearly has its own mystical metaphysics, Suzuki fervently denies that Zen is either a philosophy or a religion. As he informs us, Zen has no sacred books, no ceremonial rituals, no doctrines, and no teaching. It also has ‘no god, no soul, no nothing’. But, he says, nor does it actually deny the existence of any deity, for this would be to engage in ‘dualistic thinking’, which is anathema to Zen. According to Suzuki, even to recognize a frog jumping into a pond is to engage in dualistic thinking (out of the water, in the water), and so contrary to Zen.

But Suzuki also suggests that Zen has ‘nothing to do with meditation’, in the sense understood by Hindu Sannyasins and early Buddhism, with its focus on ascetic practices and contemplation (Samadhi). Rather, Suzuki explicitly equates Zen with transcendental wisdom or mystical intuition. It is through mystical intuition, according to Suzuki, that a person attains or experiences ‘ultimate reality’, this experience being synonymous with enlightenment.

The particular Zen philosophy Suzuki consistently expressed seems to focus around three basic concepts or topics; namely, his metaphysics of the Absolute Mind (sunyata); his advocacy of transcendental or mystical intuition (prajna); and his re-affirmation of the Vedic concept of an absolute self (atman). I will briefly discuss each of these aspects in turn.

Absolute Mind or Emptiness (Sunyata)

Following Hindu Advaita Vedanta and Indian Mahayana Buddhist thinking, Suzuki informs us that the world of material things we experience is an ‘illusion’. Things may exist in a relative sense – as an organic being with subjective agency, Suzuki could hardly think otherwise – but they have no ultimate or independent reality. Thus the objective world of material things, Suzuki claims, is an illusion, as are all the distinctions we make between things – between hot and cold, between the seasons, and indeed between everything else material and complex – for they are all merely ‘constructions’ of the mind or intellect. Indeed, he writes that only when we name things do they come into existence.

What then is real for Suzuki is not the observable material world. Instead, ultimate reality is only experienced through mystical intuition, while in a state of enlightened meditation. This reality is described by Suzuki and other Zen scholars using a variety of terms: as the ‘absolute oneness’ of things; as the ‘divine mind’ or a ‘cosmic consciousness’ that saturates and infuses everything with a spiritual significance; as ‘undifferentiated reality’; as ‘absolute nothingness or emptiness’; and, finally, as ‘ no-mind’ or ‘no-dual consciousness’. So, following the Mahayana tradition, Suzuki and the other Zen philosophers transform ‘emptiness’ (Sunyata) from being an ethical concept, as it was in early Buddhism, into a metaphysical absolute. Suzuki himself virtually equates this concept (along with other formulations of it, such as ‘absolute mind’ and ‘Buddha-Nature’) with concepts from other religions such as God, the absolute (or world) spirit, atman, and the Dao. Indeed, he asserts that the ultimate reality, the absolute mind, of Zen experience is the basis or core of all religious traditions.

Common-Sense Realism Vs Mystical Intuition

Whereas Gotanna (Gautama Siddhartha) the Buddha, and the Dalai Lama emphasize a form of perspectivism – recognizing that we can view the world of material things from many different and often conflicting perspectives – Suzuki holds (ironically, in a dualistic fashion) that there are only two ways of understanding the material world. These are a ‘dualistic mode of thought’ and ‘mystical intuition’ (or transcendental wisdom).

Under the general heading ‘dualistic thought’ Suzuki includes our everyday thoughts and perceptions, formal logic, all theistic beliefs, morality (such as the distinction between hatred and compassion), common sense realism (which for instance recognises a distinction between an organism and its environment), and the empirical sciences in all their diversity. Here he seems quite oblivious to the fact that common-sense realism, as lived, for example, by readers of this magazine, as well as by subsistence farmers in Africa, and the natural sciences, are neither ‘dualistic’, nor mystical modes of thought. They are, rather, relational, and reflect an empiricist epistemology. In other words, we base our idea of what’s in the world on what we experience through our senses.

In contrast to ‘dualistic thought’, ‘mystical intuition’ transcends conceptual thought and empirical knowledge, whether everyday or scientific, and allows us, Suzuki contends, to experience the reality of things, the intuition or realisation of the ‘absolute mind’ as ‘ultimate reality’ – empty, void, formless.

It is hardly surprising that because of this dichotomy in ways of thinking that Suzuki, like the Hindu philosopher Radhakrishnan, should promote the myth of ‘Asian spirituality’, himself setting up a radical dualism between Western and Eastern thought. For Suzuki, Western thought is characterized by analysis, conceptual knowledge, scientific understanding, a utilitarian outlook, individualism, philosophical materialism, and an ethic of control and domination; whilst Eastern thought is characterized by synthesis, spiritualism, mystical intuition, an aesthetic outlook, sociability, and an ethic of co-operation.

This differentiation is misleading if not completely facile, since it not only ignores the analytical psychology of the Abhidharma, the sceptical and materialist philosophies of ancient India (such as Lokayata, Samkhya and Vaisesika), and the scientific traditions of both India and China – did not the Chinese invent gunpowder and the magnetic compass? – but equally ignores the philosophical aesthetics, the democratic vision, the social philosophies, and the mystical and spiritual dimensions (on which Suzuki himself draws for comparative purposes) of so-called ‘Western’ thought. It is also worth noting that many of the iconic figures of Western philosophy were essentially religious thinkers, not evolutionary naturalists or materialists. These include Socrates, Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, and Whitehead, for example.

It is worth asking here, what exactly is experienced when someone is enlightened through Zen meditation into what is often said to be an ineffable state of pure consciousness? In a well-known book The Three Pillars of Zen (compiled by Philip Kapleau, 1980), several devotees of Zen master Hakuun Yasutani gave descriptions of their enlightenment state (satori). They don’t describe it as simply ‘enjoying the present moment’, nor as ‘going with the flow’ of events. Rather they describe it as: a mystical experience of ‘oneness’ or ‘Buddha Nature’; as the emptiness of all thoughts and images; as a strange dream; as a blissful state; or simply as the feeling of being in a trance state. For Suzuki, however, Zen enlightenment is the experience through mystical intuition of the absolute mind which is identified with ultimate reality.

Absolute Self (Atman)

Although it is debatable whether the historical Buddha ever denied the ultimate reality of the material world or of an embodied self with moral agency, many Buddhists have interpreted his teachings as implying a rejection of both the embodied self of everyday life and the permanent, eternal, absolute self or soul (atman) of the Hindu Vedic tradition. Yet surprisingly, Suzuki, following both Radhakrishnan and Coomaraswamy, strongly affirms that while Zen denies the ‘relative’ self of everyday life, this is only to affirm the reality of an Absolute Self. Enlightenment thus, according to Suzuki, enables people to become ‘cognizant of the Absolute Self’, which, in opposition to empirical ideas of the self, leads to the experience of the Absolute Mind, the ultimate reality. In this sense, as a form of idealist or mind-based mystical monism, Suzuki’s philosophy seems to have close affinities with the Christian mysticism of Eckhart, the Advaita Vedanta of Samkara, and the kind of mystical ideas perennially extolled by such figures as Coomaraswamy, Aldous Huxley, and Alan Watts. But although Suzuki sees Zen as the mystical ‘essence’ of all religious traditions, it is nevertheless quite detached from both morality and politics. Even a fascist, it seems, can become a devotee of Zen.

In his rather romanticized conception of Buddhism, and in portraying Zen as a mystical and timeless truth severed from its socio-cultural moorings, Suzuki’s writings on Zen philosophy have in recent years been subjected to a great deal of scrutiny and harsh criticism. Many scholars have questioned whether Suzuki’s Zen can even truly be described as Buddhist. Given the close historical association between Zen and the Samurai class, he has even been judged a supporter of Japanese militarism. But few can deny Suzuki’s immense scholarship and his importance in introducing Zen philosophy to the West. Even so, you will rarely find his name in a Western dictionary of philosophy.

© Brian Morris 2022

Brian Morris is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Goldsmiths College, University of London. His books include Religion and Anthropology (Cambridge), and Anthropology and the Human Subject (Trafford).

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