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May 08, 2023


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Brian, I really hadn’t wanted to revisit the Zen topic on here, after that last comment of mine. But since you’ve taken the trouble to write a whole post around this, perhaps I should venture a response.

Clearly you respect Suzuki, maybe for old time’s sake. And of course, it isn’t as if he was actually a con man, or anything like that! Instead of just speed-typing my first thoughts around that article, I guess I might have taken care to tone down the tenor of my criticism, even if not the content of it. Agreed, my delivery was kind of over the top, given the abstract nature of the discussion, and given that I’ve nothing to do with Suzuki. Apologies if I’ve hurt your feelings! What I wrote was entirely impersonal, and entirely basis what I read of him here.


“What particularly caught my eye was Appreciative Reader's contention that Suzuki was a charlatan who came to the West to make money and a name for himself. That struck me as an odd thing to say, even if someone was deeply familiar with Suzuki and his writings. To just assert that without any evidence struck me as an insult to Suzuki and his legacy.”

Agreed, Brian, that was “odd”, and unwarranted.

But then, in my defense, I didn’t actually claim that as fact. I said that that was the impression that my limited reading of his work conveyed to me.

And I did explain my reasons clearly enough. Suzuki’s completely unwarranted broad-brushing of Chinese people as a whole as nondescript “gray” “plodders” incapable of soaring vision. That was odd, as well, wasn’t it. Like I said, I’m not by any means a fan of China myself; but I found that broad-brushing of an entire nation …well, I’ll go with “odd”.

Also, Suzuki’s conspicuously petty denigration of other schools of Buddhism, that caught my eye as well, given that that was clearly dishonest --- or at any rate mistaken. While it is a fact that much superstition has grown around Buddhism, and indeed I’ll go further than Suzuki and state my view that there was lots of superstition implied in what the Buddha himself preached; but it is a fact that the core practice of Buddhism is vibrantly alive across traditions. In some traditions in straight unbroken line from around the time of Buddha himself. I don’t say Zen isn’t worthy to be included in that company of thriving Buddhistic traditions; but it is Suzuki who claimed that Zen stood head and shoulders over the rest of Buddhism, and that all else had withered away into dead superstition. Which is factually incorrect, and therefore bespeaks either colossal ignorance on the part of Suzuki, who should have known better than to pass such remarks without first clearly acknowledging his own lack of knowledge of those traditions; or else it was disingenuous of him.

And it was this very odd propagation of a factually incorrect view about Buddhist practice, to a an audience completely ignorant of all of this, that again did not speak well of him. He couldn’t possibly have got away with saying these things to people who actually know about Buddhism; he couldn’t have got away with saying all of this in the US today. But back in his time, whatever he chose to propagate, people swallowed, since they knew no better; and he Suzuki seemed to make full use of this situation to spread his …own version of the history of Buddhistic practice.

Also, note how he --- intentionally? inadvertently through sloppy thinking? --- conflates practice with superstition. All denominations of Buddhism, be it the many Theravadin traditions, or the many Mahayanic schools, or the whole sideshow of Vajrayanic Tantra, will have essentially three aspects: (a) the core meditation practice; (b) the theorizing and the analyses; and (c) the superstitions that grew up around the core practice. With the exception of the woo-woo Pure Land Buddhism, that I don’t really know about, the rigorous meditation practice is the vibrant core of all of these types of Buddhism --- not just of Zen, as Suzuki clearly claims here. What Suzuki does is, he takes apples with oranges, he compares the theoretical analyses and the superstitions in Mahayana, with the core meditation practice of Zen. That’s either egregiously sloppy reasoning, or else it is simply disingenuous. What he should have done was to have compared the core meditation practice of Zen, with the equally vibrant core mediation practice in Theravada and Mahayana and Tantra. Instead, he looks to the mediation core of Zen, and compares that with the intellectual analyses as well as superstitions grown around Mahayana.

That’s …completely wrong, transparently wrong. Whether that error owes to deliberate misrepresentation, or to an odd combination of ignorance and faulty reasoning and confident preaching despite these lacks (confidence bordering on hubris, apparently), that I wouldn’t know.

And it did seem plausible, it still seems plausible to me, that one explanation for this very odd conduct might be the pursuit of fame and fortune.


“So I'm requesting that Appreciative Reader read some information about the life of D.T. Suzuki, and consider whether he may be mistaken about him. There's an informative biographical summary of Suzuki on the Association for Asian Studies web site.”

Thanks for the link, Brian. I did read it, just now.

Clearly Suzuki wasn’t just some nobody with no background who simply tried to make good in a foreign land. Although he wasn’t quite an expert, that is to say not an ordained monk; but still, clearly he was a bona fide representative of his particular school.

But then there is this (taken from that very link of yours): “Because Suzuki was really the only popular interpreter of East Asian culture for the greater part of a century, it was easy for his legion of disciples to simply accept his assumptions about Zen, religion, and culture. Among these assumptions, besides the preferential treatment of Rinzai Zen as the Zen—and Zen as the Buddhism—was an entrenched cultural nationalism that led him to imply the truth of such informal and unspecified equivalencies as “Zen is Japanese culture” and “Japanese culture is Asian culture.” Suzuki’s cultural chauvinism, considered innocently and acceptably exotic by Western devotees, was arguably part of a modern consciousness of Japanese uniqueness and superiority that helped foster Imperial Japan’s self-appointed mission to “save” Asia from the West. It was only revealed decades after Suzuki’s death that his body of work in Japanese contained a great number of jingoist, even racist, writings.”

None of these criticisms I’d been aware of before reading your link; but they kind of reflect what I saw and criticized in his writing, don’t they?

And again, Suzuki’s eminence derived entirely from the success he achieved in the West. Back home he was nobody, nothing, not even an ordained monk, and not someone looked up to as an expert even in his own Rinzai Zen school. Might his misrepresentations have merely been borne of ignorance and faulty reasoning and hubris, or might a deliberate seeking of the name and fame and fortune that he did achieve have something to do with it?


Brian, I still don’t know anything about the man. For all I know, what I criticized in him might have been anomalies not representative of his larger work. But that is something I can comment on only if I read a large cross-section of his work.

I think it isn’t unfair to clearly point out what I found amiss in his work, while also clearly qualifying that with an admission of ignorance of his larger body of work. Nothing I’ve seen so far suggests to me that that criticism of his writings was misplaced. Indeed, this link kind of bears out some of it.

That said, I do agree, the part where I attributed these shortcomings in Suzuki’s writings to his seeking of fame and fortune in a foreign land ignorant of what he was talking about, while that does remain a plausible possibility, but that is a Bulverism that I should have avoided. While what I see in your link does not rule out that possibility, but I agree, in making such a suggestion, the burden of proof ends up vesting on me to support that claim, and not on the supporters of Suzuki to prove that he wasn’t after name and fame. Therefore, I retract that suggestion.


Again, I’ve nothing against Suzuki as a person, why would I. Nor anything against Zen per se, why on earth would I. But Suzuki does come across as either very sloppy in how he thinks and writes, or else as disingenuous --- unless of course those short extracts from him that I referenced here are merely anomalies, and not representative of his larger work.

That said, he was well versed in his Rinzai Zen of his particular school, and although he didn’t start out as an ordained monk or an expert, but no doubt over a lifetime of teaching it he did attain to actual expertise in it. Therefore I have no doubt at all that we could find much of real worth in his writing as far as the teachings of his Rinzai Zen. (Although I continue to remain entirely skeptical, and indeed dismissive, of his somewhat wild views on the intellectual stature of the Chinese nation as a whole, and of the superstition-ridden moribund state of all of Buddhism other than Zen.)


Again, Brian, apologies if that descent into the personal, in terms of speculating about the man’s motives for having committed the errors that he did, hurt you. I agree, that was a completely uncalled for piece of Bulverism. While I don’t see that as implausible, but I’ve no evidence based of which to be making such a claim; and in any case there’s no need to be making such personal comments at all in the first place; and like I said, I’m happy to retract that part.


Heh, that thing of Suzuki’s, where he keeps pouring coffee into his critic’s overflowing cup, that’s kind of apposite here. Because after all the main part that one might take away from him is what he had to say about the actual methods and techniques of Zen. And of that I've imbibed nothing at all so far, and I continue to remain as ignorant about it now as I had been awhile back, despite this flurry of thinking and reading and writing on my part!

Do please go ahead and write more about Suzuki, and particularly his actual teachings about his own tradition of Rinzai Zen, Brian --- if you have a mind to, that is. I’ll be very happy to learn what I can from it. Like I said, I know little enough about the details of Zen.

I looked to see what AR wrote, and I guess the gist is he calls out Suzuki as :a complete charlatan, for trying to sell Zen by deriding other schools of Buddhism. Just contrast that with someone like Thich Nhat Hanh, who draws so plentifully from Theravada, and Mahayana, and from Zen as well."

"Complete charlatan" seems a bit much for a number of reasons. One of them being that all schools of Zen are criticisms of other schools of Buddhism. That's not a slam on Zen, as founders of any sect invariably justify their new movement as a much needed reform of the status quo. Dogen criticized the Zen ancestors in Shobogenzo. Dogen critiqued Rinzai as well.

Does there exist a pure school of Zen, a Zen sect that's objectively 100% orthodox and to which all Zen enthusiasts must hew to? There's no such thing in Zen or elsewhere in the Buddhist world. All the sects are the product of social evolution, including both ardent practitioners and those who made stuff up along the way. Ever try to read Shobogenzo? Tell me which that is. Same question goes for Sar Bachan.

As Bart Ehrman jokingly says when asked about what's authentically orthodox: "my doxy is orthodoxy and your doxy is heterodoxy." Most people in the religious world think this way, whether they realize it or not.

I think it's OK to be a popularizer, certainly so in the way DT Suzuki wrote his books. I don't see the harm. He was no Carlos Castaneda (a great writer by the way, but even gullible me knew as a teenager his books were fiction). I also think it's OK to write with an objective point of view, to argue for something. Arguing for something ineluctably requires that one argue against something else.

Did DT get basic historical facts wrong? I haven't looked deeply into that, but who hasn't? DT was like most Japanese of his time, in that he believed what he'd been told about the West. When you're raised your entire life in a culture that tells you only certain things, then the obvious happens. And so there's no doubt that DT erred in some of his assumptions. A lot of Zen teachers did the same, which either proves they were all terrible people or, gosh, they are examples of what I'm talking about re the influence of culture and closed systems of information.

I can name a boat load of religious charlatans, but DT Suzuki isn't one of them.

“Zen practice is to open up our small mind. So concentrating is just an aid to help you realize the “big mind”, or the mind that is everything.”
— Shunryu Suzuki

"In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few"
-Shunryu Suzuki

Shunryu has been confused with D. T. Suzuki... But they are different.

D. T. Suzuki was a true academic scholar.

Shunryu was a Zen master.

Both popularized Zen thought in the West. And both made contributions to Western understanding.

Some of D. T. Suzuki's more touching and famous quotes..

"Emptiness which is conceptually liable to be mistaken for sheer nothingness is in fact the reservoir of infinite possibilities."

"Who would then deny that when I am sipping tea in my tearoom I am swallowing the whole universe with it and that this very moment of my lifting the bowl to my lips is eternity itself transcending time and space?"

"Without a certain amount of mysticism there is no appreciation for the feeling of reverence, and, along with it, for the spiritual significance of humility. Science and scientific technique have done a great deal for humanity; but as far as our spiritual welfare is concerned we have not made any advances over that attained by our forefathers. In fact we are suffering at present the worst kind of unrest all over the world."

" Taking it all in all, Zen is emphatically a matter of personal experience; if anything can be called radically empirical, it is Zen. No amount of reading, no amount of teaching, no amount of contemplation will ever make one a Zen master. Life itself must be grasped in the midst of its flow; to stop it for examination and analysis is to kill it, leaving its cold corpse to be embraced."

" The basic idea of Zen is to come in touch with the inner workings of our being, and to do so in the most direct way possible, without resorting to anything external or superadded."

" No amount of wordy explanations will ever lead us into the nature of our own selves. The more you explain, the further it runs away from you. It is like trying to get hold of your own shadow. You run after it and it runs with you at the identical rate of speed."

" Zen professes itself to be the spirit of Buddhism, but in fact it is the spirit of all religions and philosophies. When Zen is thoroughly understood, absolute peace of mind is attained, and a man lives as he ought to live."

" In Zen there must be satori; there must be a general mental upheaval which destroys the old accumulations of intellection and lays down the foundation for a new life; there must be the awakening of a new sense which will review the old things from a hitherto undreamed-of angle of observation."

" Is satori something that is not at all capable of intellectual analysis? Yes, it is an experience which no amount of explanation or argument can make communicable to others unless the latter themselves had it previously. If satori is amenable to analysis in the sense that by so doing it becomes perfectly clear to another who has never had it, that satori will be no satori. For a satori turned into a concept ceases to be itself; and there will no more be a Zen experience."

"The beginner sees many possibilities

"Satori is the raison d'être of Zen, without which Zen is not Zen. Therefore every contrivance, disciplinary and doctrinal, is directed towards satori."
D. T. Suzuki

"Tokusan was a great scholar of the Diamond Sutra. Learning that there was such a thing as Zen, ignoring all the written scriptures and directly laying hands on one's soul, he went to Ryutan to be instructed in the teaching. One day Tokusan was sitting outside tr\'ing to look into the mystery of Zen. Ryutan said, "Why don't you come in?" Replied Tokusan, "It is pitch dark." A candle was lighted and held out to Tokusan. When he was at the point of taking it Ryutan suddenly blew out the light, whereupon the mind of Tokusan was opened."
- from ‘An Introduction to Zen Buddhism’ by D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966)

My mother and her father’s family are very dark skinned (compared to whites) and they were all born with jet black hair. My dad’s side were more Germanic/French/IDK.

But my mom’s side of the family were the beautiful ones. They all seemed to be born with perfect biological symmetry. They were truly beautiful and astonishingly charming by character to match.

So, I always wished I could be more like my mother. Unfortunately, I didn’t inherit those traits.

Tell me, in this day and age are we really that stupendously prejudiced???

I’m dumbstruck.

The need to be more special or “better” than everyone else, might just be the root to all evil.

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