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Simple Lessons In Zen From Master D. T. Suzuki


Zen results from the observation of our own natures and finding the freedom inherent within them.

Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki was one of the greatest exponents of Eastern thought in the West. Born the fourth son to a Samurai caste family, his family lost their privileges in the late 19th century. As a result, he pursued a more philosophical view of life studying at Japanese universities, and later at multiple monasteries. His presence can be felt in the first English translations of Eastern classics like the Tao Te King and works of Mahayana Buddhism which established his reputation in the United States by 1897. He resumed his Zen studies at Kamakura in 1909, reaching satori (illumination) under the tutelage of the great master, Soyen Shaku.

During World War II, many of his books were destroyed and became difficult to find amidst a world at total war. At the end of the conflict, though, Christmas Humphreys, President of the Buddhist Society of London, traveled to Japan to work with Suzuki on the translation of his new manuscripts and the reprinting of his book, Essays on Zen Buddhism. It was here that artists and thinkers such as Alan Watts and John Cage discovered the repository of wisdom which would later have a deep impact on Western culture.

Written in a simple and straightforward style, Suzuki’s essays are a wonderful introduction to the practice of Zen. Not properly a religion, Zen is a path which practitioners follow at their own pace – even as the goal is often confused with the starting point. Suzuki’s thinking is especially fruitful in the modern context of the West as it radically questions consumerist and materialistic lifestyles: “Zen in its essence is the art of seeing into the nature of one’s own being, and it points the way from bondage to freedom.”


Suzuki also places emphasis on the dangers of being trapped in the intellect through selfish and limiting ideas, and on the reevaluation of adolescence as a period for the building of strong foundations:

We are too ego-centered. The ego-shell in which we live is the hardest thing to outgrow… We are, however, given many chances to break through this shell, and the first and greatest of them is when we reach adolescence.

The sad, violent experience of youth in our own time (of school shootings and irrationally early demands) come from the need to define ourselves socially: to choose a profession, a lifestyle, and a way of inserting ourselves in the working world of adults. This abandons the development of the personality and the spiritual life. But through this internal struggle, the character can be strengthened. In fact, according to Suzuki, this suffering is indispensable to the breaking of the ego-shell of preconceived ideas about what a human being ought to be:

The more you suffer, the deeper grows your character, and with the deepening of your character, you read the more penetratingly into the secrets of life. All great artists, all great religious leaders, and all great social reformers have come out of the intensest struggles which they fought bravely, quite frequently in tears and with bleeding hearts.

Is this a vindication of the suffering of the Christian sacrifice, offered in the present for a future good? Not necessarily. Suffering simply shows us that the difficulties of life – and to which we’re all prone – aren’t solved via an intellectual path. (Suzuki’s work equates such a path to destructive work, in the sense that “analyzing” something seeks to undo it, often rendering it even more complicated rather than more simple.)

For the intellect has a peculiarly disquieting quality in it. Though it raises questions enough to disturb the serenity of the mind, it is too frequently unable to give satisfactory answers to them.

It’s not a matter of denying the ability of thought to pose questions, but a matter of denying obsessive thoughts the possibility of blocking our life flow and our direct relationship with that flow:

Zen proposes its solution by directly appealing to facts of personal experience and not to book-knowledge. […] Zen must be directly and personally experienced by each of us in his inner spirit. Just as two stainless mirrors reflect each other, the fact and our own spirits must stand facing each other with no intervening agents. When this is done, we are able to seize upon the living, pulsating fact itself. Freedom is an empty word until then.

To meet the meaning of the word freedom is, paradoxically, to empty everything that interferes with the direct experience of the world and our own natures. Accumulating knowledge and producing and developing concepts, can be parts of a rich intellectual life only to the extent that our spirit is freed from limiting beliefs when we enter into our own deep natures.

*Images: Public Domain

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