Zen Again: Reconsidering D.T. Suzuki

By George LazopoulosFebruary 16, 2015

Selected Works of D.T. Suzuki by Richard M. Jaffe and Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki

D.T. SUZUKI (1870–1966), writes Richard M. Jaffe, was “one of the most culturally influential Asians of the twentieth century.”[i] Suzuki certainly has the track record to back up that statement. In a seven-decade globe-trotting career, Suzuki almost single-handedly introduced Zen to the West while promoting the preservation of Buddhism in Asia. He became the world’s foremost authority on the subject, the most identifiable representative of Japanese culture, and even a spokesperson for Asians generally in the Western, white male-dominated world of intellectuals. Then in 1956, pocket-sized paperback editions of his English-language writings brought the 86-year-old Suzuki celebrity status among the spiritually restless culture-savvy middlebrow. With Martin Heidegger, Carl Jung, John Cage, and the Beats among the countless artists, scholars, and seekers who admired him, Suzuki had a truly massive impact on 20th-century global thought.

The University of California Press is republishing many of Suzuki’s English-language essays in a uniform edition titled Selected Works of D.T. Suzuki (UC Press, 2014–15).[ii] The four-volume series edited by Jaffe, a scholar of Japanese religions at Duke University, contains a glossary, standardized romanizations of Japanese, Chinese, Pali, and Sanskrit, and editorial updates of the essays, all of which make it a valuable scholarly resource. Hopefully, Selected Works will invite a badly needed critical reappraisal of Suzuki’s monumental oeuvre by scholars across disciplines. It may not, however, be the reappraisal that the series’ publishers are hoping for. Published in cooperation with the Buddhist Society Trust and the Matsugaoka Bunko Foundation, which “controls the copyright to Suzuki’s literary estate,” Selected Works presents a portrait of Suzuki calculated to neutralize the criticisms that, since the 1990s, have destabilized his heroic image as a custodian of Asian tradition.

Criticisms of Suzuki center on a concept of his called satori, which, he explains, is an experience in which one bypasses the rational constructs of the mind and directly experiences pure, unfiltered reality. We normally experience the world, he argues, in a detached way, because we see it from the viewpoint of the ego: a rational subject that analyzes the world as its external object. Through Zen practice, one can learn to suspend the subject-object perspective of the ego and “drink right from the fountain of life.”[iii]

At the height of his postwar fame, Suzuki appeared to Westerners as a holy messenger from the East bearing premodern solutions to modern Western problems. As one perceptive reviewer of Suzuki’s 1956 Zen Buddhism predicted, “we can certainly anticipate a great many educated people — teachers, doctors, artists, poets, and students — becoming more and more familiar with mondōs and kōans, zazen and satori as possible techniques of insight, adjustment, illumination, and tranquility in this age of Western dislocation, anxiety, and spiritual striving. Surely it is to such an audience that the present volume is directed.”[iv] A 1966 New York Times Magazine article said it all: a field report of an American’s experience at a Zen monastery in Japan, the article included a picture of Suzuki with the caption “Sage.”[v] Poet and critic Herbert Read called him “a legendary figure in Europe, the typical wise man of the East, remote, serene, far removed from our materialistic civilization and material philosophy.”[vi] Such sentiments characterize the earnest but naïvely Orientalist postwar Western interest in Buddhism. For them, the still-ancient Orient existed outside history, and Suzuki was a transmitter of its cultural essence.

Suzuki’s ahistorical notion of satori has come under heavy criticism since the discrediting of such concepts as “cultural essences” and the “timeless East.” Scholars now view Suzuki as a historical actor and modern thinker, and see his Zen as philosophically more modern and Western than traditional and Asian. Pointing out how much his signature concept of satori owes to modern Western philosophers, especially William James’s thinking on religious experience, many see Suzuki as a self-Orientalizing Asian who dressed Western ideas in Japanese exotica. More troubling, scholars argue that Suzuki’s characterization of Japanese culture as a marriage of Zen and the martial spirit of the samurai is congruent with the ideology of Japanese imperialism and chauvinistic nationalism. In this view, the conflation of Zen, violence, and Japan indirectly facilitated the state’s wartime mobilization. In short, the discovery of nationalism and modernity in Suzuki’s Zen has led scholars to dismiss it as not “really” Buddhism.

Jaffe defends Suzuki against these charges in his general introduction and chapter introductions for volume one of Selected Works. His Suzuki is not overly Westernized, but a committed lay Buddhist whose work was “an outgrowth of his lifelong immersion in and commitment to Rinzai Zen practice. “Suzuki,” he writes, “remained steadily connected to Rinzai practice and institutions,” and he put Zen into Western philosophical categories only to ensure its dissemination.[vii] Suzuki was not a chauvinistic nationalist. He merely “sought to valorize that which he saw as the best aspects of Japanese culture in the face of the onslaught of Westernization,” and his “passive support” for Japan’s imperial expansion was characteristic of his generation and thus, presumably, forgivable.[viii]

Either/or debates regarding Suzuki’s nationalism and Buddhist “authenticity” distract from unlocking the full significance of the essays in Selected Works. They reify the artificial “modern West/traditional East” binary, and overlook the key point: Suzuki came of age in an already-modern Japan, and should be considered primarily as an interpreter of modernity in a non-Western society.

Suzuki was a participant in a much larger Japanese cultural discourse that marshaled the philosophical and historical vocabulary of Buddhism in a critique of modernity. This critique originated among Buddhist clerics of the True Pure Land (Jōdo shinshū) tradition, such as Kiyozawa Manshi and Murakami Senshō, around the turn of the 20th century. At that time, the Japanese state had pronounced Shintō, or the worship of Japan’s “native gods” embodied in the Emperor, to be the basis of Japan’s national code of ethics. Buddhism was relegated to the newly created legal sphere of “freedom of religion.” Buddhism’s role as a critique of modernity in Japan began with its antagonism toward the state. By reinventing Buddhism as a truth higher than conventional morality, revealed in the personal experience of non-duality, critics asserted that Buddhism was “beyond good and evil,” i.e., beyond the state’s Shintō-based moral ideology. Buddhist philosophy retained this ambivalence toward the modern state throughout the 20th century.

Though Suzuki had been practicing Zen since the 1890s, much of his scholarly work until World War I was on True Pure Land thought. It wasn’t until World War I that non-clerics like Suzuki, Nishida Kitarō, and Watsuji Tetsurō shifted the focus to Zen. In the interwar years, they developed the notion of Zen experience as the key to true existence, to Japanese cultural authenticity, and as the historical complement to Japanese warrior culture. By the early 1930s, Marxist critic Tosaka Jun identified such Buddhistic cultural thought as the “bourgeois ideology of Japan,” arguing that it promised to resolve the contradictions of capitalism in a bogus realm of spiritualized culture. Tosaka's analysis foreshadows Adorno’s critique of Heidegger’s existentialism in The Jargon of Authenticity, and points to the broadly parallel histories of Japanese Buddhist thought and Western existentialism in the 20th century. Like existentialism, Zen was a spiritual alternative to Marxism’s materialist critique of modernity that had politically conservative implications.

In this sense, Suzuki’s global influence should be read as a Japanese contribution to the global culture of modernity, rather than as the propagation of Japanese tradition. The insistence that we see Suzuki as either a benign transmitter of Buddhism or as an overly Westernized fraud prevents scholars from seeing the richness and importance of Suzuki — as well as his Japanese contemporaries — as an interpreter of the modern experience in a non-Western society.

The reluctance to see Suzuki this way is symptomatic of larger issues regarding historical memory in Japan. The government of Japan is still denying responsibility for war crimes and is describing its war in China as a righteous war of Asian liberation, not of imperialist aggression. Just this past September, pictures surfaced of a current and a former Japanese cabinet member with the head of Japan’s Nazi party. It is difficult to imagine such an event in Germany (or anywhere) resulting in anything less than swift punitive action. But in Japan the scandal came and went without consequence. The Japanese government’s failure to adequately take responsibility for and renounce the war has cast widespread distortions on historical memory. A full appreciation of Suzuki’s work may have to wait for a new Japanese Prime Minister.


[i] Richard M. Jaffe, “Introduction” in Selected Works of D.T. Suzuki, Volume I: Zen, ed. Richard M. Jaffe (Oakland: University of California Press, 2014)

[ii] D.T. Suzuki, Selected Works of D.T. Suzuki. 4 Vols. Ed. Richard M. Jaffe (Oakland: University of California Press, 2014)

[iii] D.T. Suzuki, “The Sense of Zen” in Essays in Zen Buddhism, First Series (London: Luzac and Co., 1927)

[iv] Harold E. McCarthy, Review of D.T. Suzuki, Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings of D.T. Suzuki in Philosophy East and West, Vol. 7 No. 1/2 Apr-Jul 1957

[v] Philip Kapleau, “Report from a Zen Monastery: ‘All is One, One is None, None is All,’” The New York Times Magazine, March 6, 1966

[vi] Quoted in William McGuire, Bollingen: An Adventure in Collecting the Past (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), p. 157

[vii] Jaffe, “Introduction”

[viii] Jaffe, “Introduction”


George Lazopoulos is a writer living in Washington, DC. He holds a PhD in history from UC Berkeley.

LARB Contributor

George Lazopoulos is a writer living in Washington, DC. He holds a PhD in history from UC Berkeley.


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