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“A Zen Life: D.T. Suzuki” (DVD)

A Zen LifeAvant-garde musician John Cage; Catholic mystic Thomas Merton; Beat writers Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac; psychotherapists Carl Jung and Erich Fromm; Zen teachers Robert Aitken and Philip Kapleau, philosophers Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger: 20th century giants all, and all have one thing in common — they were deeply influenced by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, a gentle scholar-practitioner from Japan.

This litany of names is merely suggestive of the massive impact that D. T. Suzuki had on western culture — an influence that is documented in a new film, A Zen Life — because so far we haven’t mentioned the 100 or so books that have found their way (by now) into the hands of millions of people throughout the world: works that include classics such as A Manual of Zen Buddhism, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, and The Essence of Buddhism. Simply put, the Buddhist world would be very different today had D. T. Suzuki not come to the west. Suzuki was in fact a “kalyana mitra” (spiritual friend / teacher) to an entire generation.

A Zen Life offers a blow-by-blow account of Suzuki’s life. Suzuki was born shortly after the Meiji restoration. After centuries of self-imposed isolation from the outside world and the adulation of the medieval Samurai warrior code, Japan was forced to open up by an encounter with US warships, eager for new lands to colonize. The Japanese reaction was, on the whole, to embrace modernity and to import (and improve upon) western technology. Before long, Japan took on a western superpower (Russia) and was victorious in war. But this was a time of internal turmoil within Japan as well. The deposed samurai class was becoming increasingly irrelevant and had lost its grip on power.

Suzuki was born in 1870 into a samurai family just as his father lost the patronage that he had formerly enjoyed. The father died when Suzuki was only six, and a brother died shortly afterward. Teitaro, who taught himself English, experienced further loss when, in his 20th year, his mother also passed away. This seems to have been the last straw, propelling the young Suzuki to explore Zen Buddhism.

He became a disciple of Shaku Soen, an enlightened master who recognized Suzuki’s worth as a translator, and who had him translate the talk he gave at the Parliament of Religions at the 1897 World Fair in Chicago. The Parliament represented a new openness on the part of the West to learning from Eastern traditions. It was under Soen that Suzuki was given the Dharma name, Daisetz, meaning “Absolute Simplicity.”

Shaku Soen asked Suzuki to translate The Gospel of Buddha into Japanese, and the work was well-received. The writer, editor, and student of comparative religion, Paul Carus, invited Suzuki to move to the US and work at the Open Court publishing house, but Suzuki was concerned that he had not yet had a satori experience, and repeatedly deferred his move overseas. At last his satori happened while he was ascending a tree-lined staircase at a temple, and Suzuki experienced a sense of oneness: “I was the trees,” he later said. At the age of 27, in 1897, he was free to move to the West.

Suzuki worked for Carus’ Open Court publishing company for ten years, and he began his own writings. His life’s work of introducing the West to Zen had begun.

Suzuki moved back to Japan in 1909, and took up teaching, both at a university and in an aristocratic high school, where he influenced those who were to become the finest movers and shakers of that generation. Beatrice Erskine Lane, who had fallen in love with Suzuki in the US, followed him to Japan and the two were married and then adopted a half-Scottish, half-Japanese boy, at a time when mixed-race children were looked upon with great suspicion in Japanese society. The couple also started an animal shelter, much to the consternation of their neighbors. Both taught at a Shin Buddhist-associated university.

Suzuki visited London in 1936 and met Christmas Humphries, the founder of The Buddhist Society who went on to republish many of Suzuki’s works, and Alan Watts, who under the influence of Buddhism, abandoned his position as an Episcopalian minister to become a proponent of Zen.

Beatrice died in 1938, and Suzuki abruptly stopped teaching and founded a library in Tokeiji temple. And then war broke out, as Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, determined to clear out US influence from the Pacific so that it could establish its own sphere of influence.

Suzuki has, quite inappropriately I believe, been accused of being pro-war, or at least not sufficiently anti-war (a criticism that perhaps is easy to make when one is at a safe distance from a repressive and fanatical dictatorship). In fact he is on record as saying that a war between the two countries he loved was ridiculous, and at a “going away” ceremony for students at Otani University he said, “What reason is there for young Americans and young Japanese to kill each other?” He urged them to stay alive at all costs, even if it meant becoming prisoners of war (a shocking thing to say at that time). He told them that after the war, “young people like you will have to rebuild the world” and that they must “come back alive.” His confidence in the eventual end of the war was absolute, and he continued to write in Japanese for eventual publication in English.

At the war’s end, Westerners started turning up on his doorstep in, it would seem, droves, including the renowned Philip Kapleau.

Suzuki’s travels began once again, and in 1947 he attended the second East West Philosophers’ Conference, having missed the first because of the illness that led to his wife’s death. Suzuki stayed on in Hawai’i for a few months to teach at the university there. (Roshi to-be) Robert Aitken recalls not understanding a word Suzuki was saying!

From ’51 to ’53 he gave a famous series of Open Lectures at Columbia University, where he deeply influenced John Cage. Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg tried to impress Suzuki, but Suzuki was not impressed by them in turn. According to Roshi Aitken, the only one of the beats who really understood what Suzuki was about was Gary Snyder; the rest used Suzuki’s teachings as a springboard to do their own thing.

At the Eranos Conference in Switzerland in 1953-4, Suzuki met and influenced Jung, Heidegger, and Jaspers.

Later Suzuki lived in Boston, and because so many people were equating LSD experiences and satori, decided — at the age of 85 — to experiment with drugs. Suzuki’s conclusion? The two experiences are quite different.

After retiring from Columbia Suzuki returned finally to Japan, although he would still travel to conferences in the west. He kept fit into his 90s by walking. He complained that it was harder to concentrate, and that he could only work on a writing project for two hours (!) at a time without taking a break. Therefore he had to work on three projects simultaneously and he would switch to a new project when his mind began to flag.

Just before his 96th birthday he suffered from a strangulated intestine, and he died the next day. His secretary, a Japanese-American woman called Mihoko Okamura, said that there was “no demarcation line” between his life and his death: an appropriate comment given that Suzuki repeatedly pointed out that death is an illusion.

Suzuki was never an ordained monk, and he was not a historian of Buddhism in an academic sense. Nevertheless he was a significant contributor — perhaps the single most significant modern contributor — to Zen Buddhism and to Western Buddhism generally.

I was struck by the sheer age of most of the talking heads in A Zen Life. Many appeared to be in their 80s (at least) and it’s hard to imagine that many of them will be around in another ten years. These are cultural figures from another age — our teachers’ teachers — showing perhaps just how deeply embedded is the influence of D. T. Suzuki in the Western Buddhist world.

A Zen Life does an excellent job of outlining the wealth of connections that Suzuki established with prominent figures in western arts, psychology, and even within the Catholic church, and brings home the sheer depth of this gentle man’s influence. There is rare and remarkable footage and audio of Suzuki and his followers. From time to time the chronology skips around, and section titles would have helped maintain a sense of the main themes being covered, but these are minor reservations and I would recommend that anyone interested in this fascinating and seminal figure watch this video.

“A ZEN LIFE – D.T. Suzuki” (DVD: 77 minutes), Michael Goldberg, Executive Producer / Director, can be ordered at: www.martygrossfilms.com

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