« D.T. Suzuki on the Zen Doctrine of No-Mind | Main | A defense of D.T. Suzuki »

May 06, 2023


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The strengths and weaknesses of the Hindu version, the Chinese version, the Japanese version, the Western version, the version of yesterday and the ones of tomorrow are in reference to how we view these, how we connect with them, how well we learn about the Practice we resonate to, how well we practice, and how well that helps us raise our awareness and thinking.

One is better than the others, but that is relative only to each of us, and we are each different, from different cultures and experiences.

And as our cultures continue to change, our community, the mythos of teachings, which is a mental conception, well change to make the Practices accessible.

Brian quotes from Suzuci: - “So Suzuki argues that the simple essence of the Buddha's teachings got covered up by a mass of supernaturalism, dogmatism, and theology. Zen seeks to re-cover the lost spirit of Buddhism.”

I guess what attracts me to Zen (Chan) is the way that it resonated with the grandeur and reality of nature. In ‘After Buddhism’ Stephen Batchelor refers to ‘The Everyday Sublime’; generally pointing out that nature is excessive in its wonder yet where we crave security, certainty and consolation the sublime is banished and forgotten. Exactly so: if I’m honest with myself then it becomes apparent that my perceptions of the natural world (and of my mental world) are predicated upon by my varied desires, hopes, beliefs, fears and insecurities. When such mentation is in abeyance, then the world appears in all its awe-inspiring reality or, as it is.

I also like the little aphorisms Suzuki quoted such as: - ‘When Joshu was asked what Zen was, he answered, "It is cloudy today and I won't answer." And: - A monk asked Hsiang-nien: "What is your eye that does not deceive others?" The master responded right away, saying: "Look, look, winter is approaching."

So much of Zen practice and ‘teaching’ brings the student into the present moment, to what is happening in the real world at the moment and perhaps to help him/her perceive what is appearing in reality rather than through the projections of the conditioned mind. Sadly, many other religions have become established in cloaking the realities of life with beliefs that pander to the desires and insecurities of the fragile self-structure.

One of the ‘points’ of a Zen koan is said that it is not to be answered but to get to exhaust the analytic and egoic mind in order to reveal the more intuitive no-mind. No-mind is said to be a mind not fixed or occupied by thought or emotion and thus open to everything.

At one time in his life DT Suzuki practiced Zen Buddhism, but in later life he switched to Jodo Shinshu, Pure Land Buddhism. Namu amida butsu, Buddha, I can't help myself so you help me.

Most of Japan favors Shin Buddhism by a wide margin over Zen Buddhism. And throughout SE Asia, Buddhists overwhelmingly tend to favor prayer (surrender to a greater Power) over rigorous meditation attempts to self-engineer enlightenment by discerning impermanence and subverting the entanglements of dependent origination.

What are we to make of this? Does the lack of popularity of Zen Buddhism indicate it's another futile project of self transcendence? Or is there perhaps something in the Shin approach that is actually superior to Zen.

SantMat64, most people in the world believe in some form of supernatural religion. So it isn't a surprise that Pure Land Buddhism is so popular. All you have to do is repeat namu amida butsu and you head off to the heavenly Pure Land after death. No meditation or any other work required. Just like Christianity, where all you have to do is believe in Jesus and your salvation is assured. People love easy answers. That's why both financial fraud and religious fraud is so common. Promise people an easy reward and many will jump at the chance, even if it is a fantasy.

Brian, I do hate to keep on disagreeing with you, and after this one last comment now, I’ll cease airing my thoughts about Zen; but I have to say, for now, that I’m afraid I was none too impressed with this piece. I mean, it’s not really a question of arguing about whether Zen is good or Zen is bad. Who cares for that, about whether some tradition gets the label of “good”, or not. Thing is, there’s stuff there that I don’t get, and I don’t see those things addressed here. For instance, their absurd propensity to endlessly speak in riddles, when the same thing might be explained far more easily and a infinitely more clearly in a few short sentences of prose. And also, to take another specific from there, and basis that kitchen-boy verse thing, their leap from “There is no *abiding* self”, to “There is no self at all”. And, unlike Theravadin Sutras or Mahayanic commentary, where everything is discussed clearly so that one might oneself test the reasoning and the logic, and arrive at one’s conclusion, whether in agreement with them or in disagreement; what one sees here are ex cathedra pronouncements, couched in unnecessarily cryptic and faux-wise riddles. (Again, I’m going merely by what I’ve seen here, and what little I’ve read of Zen elsewhere. I’m none too informed on Zen, and if it turns out there’s vast amounts of stuff from Zen masters where they clearly discuss where they’re coming from, and if turns out the endless riddling isn’t representative of the entire tradition, well then I’m fully prepared to stand corrected on that impression of mine, and to retract this criticism of mine.)

And what’s more, as far as this Suzuki character, I’m afraid my spider sense is starting to go from tingle to jangle. (Again, basis only what I’ve seen here; and again, I’m fully ready to correct my impression, and retract my criciticsm, if it turns out that this isn’t representative of his larger work, and that I’m taking what little I know of him out of context.)


To begin with: His absurd generalizations about Chinese and Indians. Suzuki’s a Japanese name, and the Japanese have been none too fond of the Chinese the last few centuries (and vice versa), and I suspect that has something to do with his broad-brush characterization of the Chinese. Let me clarify, I myself am no admirer of China. I think they’re complete scum, the Chinese, especially what they did with Tibet, and also their present politics as far as Ukraine, and their imperial pretensions and general warmongering. But that’s the Chinese government, and has nothing to do with the Chinese people at large. Without a doubt it is the people of China that are the primary victims of the repressive government that they’ve been saddled with. And it’s silly to claim that all Chinese are “gray and somber” plodders incapable to visionary thoughts.

Likewise, Suzuki’s broad flowery compliments about Indians and Indian thought. I’ve no doubt he means well, maybe he actually believes what he says; but, while I’ve the deepest admiration for all of the sublime thought that has come out of India, but Indians in general aren’t, and Indian thought in general isn’t, either visionary or whatever lofty thing he imagines it is. Like all other people, some Chinese and some Indians are capable of visionary leaps of imaginations, and others of plodding mediocrity, and the vast majority of both Chinese and Indians probably don’t bother thinking about any of this.


You say Suzuki doesn’t “mince words”; but he’s not being direct and straightforward, he’s merely very cunningly poisoning the well as far as those who might question Zen, when he says things like “(T)here is something in Zen so bizarre and even irrational as to frighten the pious literary followers of the so-called primitive Buddhism.” All would-be critics of Zen are “frightened”, and “pious literary followers”, and all Buddhism other than Zen is “primitive” --- really? That’s pathetic, that sentence. No sincere person would even stoop to saying or writing anything as crafty and disingenuous as that. No honest spiritual seeker could have written that sentence, nor any honest scholar. Without knowing anything more about Suzuki, and basis that sentence alone, I brand the man a charlatan. (And sure, I’m prepared to take that back unreservedly, should it turn out that that sentence is an atypical anomaly, and the rest of his work, that I don’t know about, is all above board. But that is a sentence that any honest scholar would have been ashamed to have written, a sentiment that any honest man would be ashamed of having expressed.)


And look at this: “The claim of the Zen followers that they are transmitting the essence of Buddhism is based on their belief that Zen takes hold of the enlivening spirit of the Buddha, stripped of all its historical and doctrinal garments.” What the hell does that even mean?

Wait, let me take a minute here to clarify that I’m not trying to defend traditional Buddhism here. I’ve no dog in the race myself, even though one of the three systems I myself follow is Theravadin. I’ve no issues with actual lacks in Theravada being pointed out substantively, God knows I’ve done that myself often enough. But I take strong exception to this content-free vilification and this crafty and underhanded well-poisoning and this apparently disingenuous advocacy of his own “school” by this Suzuki person.

Let’s go back to that absurd sentence in there. Just read that bilge, just read it. That’s just a bunch of nonsensical platitudes, a slimy second-hand car salesman reciting his empty spiel.

And why would Zen be “heir” to what the Buddha taught? What the Buddha taught isn’t dead and gone! It’s still very much alive, what he taught. By all means wipe away the superstitions that caught up with Buddhism in the late Mahayanic period, and the completely woo-woo Pure Land version; but that has nothing to do with the core practice of Buddhim, that lives and thrives in Theravadin traditions across many different countries; and indeed in Mahayanic practice as well (practice, as opposed to analyses); and also, albeit with some modifications, in Vajrayanic Tantra --- including Dzogchen, that you’ve so often written about here. And also, I’ve no doubt, in Zen as well; but only a charlatan of a salesman would claim that only his particular tradition has monopoly over this wisdom, and none of the rest do, and what’s more put forward this claim as some kind of ex cathedra ipse-dixistism, without actually explaining any of the specifics of this alleged superiority in Zen.

Once again, I’ve no doubt Zen contains as much of wisdom as any other branch of Buddhism, be it Theravadin, or Mahayanic, or Tantric. But I call bull shit on this sales spiel of claiming that only Zen is somehow the “true heir” of Buddhistic thought, and that anyone who might criticize Zen, and presumably criticize Suzuki, is a pious frightened prig. That absurd bombast of Suzuki’s, that’s transparent charlatanry, right there.

Then Suzuki apparently “argues that the simple essence of the Buddha's teachings got covered up by a mass of supernaturalism, dogmatism, and theology. Zen seeks to recover the lost spirit of Buddhism.” And that’s a lie. A transparent lie. Across the centuries and millennia, while it is true that lots of superstitions did get stuck on to the Buddha’s teachings --- and not to forget the superstitions that the Buddha himself began with himself --- but the core of his teachings, that practice, that “spirit”, has never ever died, and has lived on, in unbroken tradition, in Theravadin traditions in many different countries. I’ve no doubt it thrives in Zen practice as well, but only a venal salesman would claim --- an apparently unsupported claim, in the form of unevidenced ex cathedra proncouncements --- that the product he’s shilling is the only one that’s of worth.


Suzuki isn’t comparing apples with apples here, when he contrasts Zen practice with Mahayanic commentary. There’s two elements to Buddhism. There’s the core meditation practice, that all serious Buddist practitioners swear by, be they Theravadin, be they Mahayanic, or be the Tantric. And, I’ve no doubt, Zen-ic as well.

Once again, I call 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.

If you wish to compare the *practice* of Buddhism across different traditions, then you need to compare the actual meditation practice of these traditions. And if you wish to compare the theory, the analyses, then compare analysis with analysis. Suzuki isn’t comparing like with like here. He’s seen the unparalleled subtlety of Mahayanic analyses; and, faced with the apparent lack of such in Zen, is dishonestly trying to put it down by comparing it with Zen-ic practice --- forgetting that other traditions, like Theravada, and certainly Vajrayana, and yes Mahayana as well, also have very rigorous practices. It isn’t as if Nagarjuna was a sterile scholar who’d never ever meditated in his life.

Suzuki was the guy who introduced Zen to the West, wasn’t he? I suspect he was a charlatan who strove to arrive at fame and fortune by peddling his “system” to the West, to an audience that at that time was largely ignorant of these things, and tried to sell to them a concocted narrative that anyone actually aware of the history of Buddhistic practice would have recognized immediately for the lie it was. I expect he got away with it only because his intended audience at that time was largely innocent of all of this.


Woof. Lots lots lots of words. Lots of emotion as well, I confess I find myself quite incensed with this transparent charlatanry.

Sorry. Promise, not one more comment out of me about Zen after this --- at least not in the immediate term, not over the next month say, promise!

Again, all of this was said with minimal broader reading of Zen and of Suzuki. I base all of this only on what I’ve seen here. Should that turn out to not be representative, and should it turn out that I’ve taken them outside of their broader context within the complete framework (of Suzuki, and/or Zen), well then I’m fully willing to correct myself, and to retract all of this.

And nor do I intend this as any kind of defense of Theravada against Zen. I say this, because I freely admit that one of the traditions I follow is Theravadin. But I’ve no dog in the race, nevertheless, and I don’t have a problem with Zen practice. But Suzuki? Like I said, the man sets my spider sense all abuzz, and I’d take him with a huge shaker-full of salt.

And finally, I stand by my earlier criticism of the willful obscurantism in Zen, I mean those ridiculously convoluted and “clever” riddles, whose actual meaning a single simply constructed sentence of prose might clearly present so much more easily. I can accept that their koans are a particular technique they follow, and I can see the sense in that; but that can be no defense for the endless deep-and-mysterious-sounding obscurantist bull shit that seems to pop out every time they open their venerable mouths. I call BS on that as well. (And again, like I'm said I've not read much of Zen, and I’m fully willing to unreservedly take that last criticism back should it turn out that only some Zen types did the riddle thing, and many others were given to clearly and lucidly explaining their meaning.)


Right, over and out from me, as far as Zen I mean to say, and for the present.

Sorry for having ended up hogging so much of comment space on here, Brian! Kind of got carried away, as you can probably tell. Charlatanry in things spiritual, that tends to trigger me majorly, I’ve found. And I do strongly smell exactly that here, as far as Suzuki. And also as far as “clever” Zen-ic riddle-me-a-riddles (outside of the koans designed specifically for novices and students, that is to say, which I appreciate is one of their techniques).

Appreciative Reader, I just wrote a blog post in defense of D.T. Suzuki. I hope you'll read a biography of him by an Asian Studies scholar that I shared in the post and consider whether Suzuki really was the charlatan that you view him as.


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