An Introduction to Zen Buddhism

I have written previously of the profound influence the Dhammapada had on me when I read it at about the age of eighteen.  That resulted for me being for a considerable time what I’ve described elsewhere as a “pseudo-Buddhist“.  During that period, I read pretty much anything about Buddhism I could get my hands on.  This was actually much less than you might think.  Because of immigration from China and Japan, there had been Buddhists in the United States as far back as the mid-19th Century.  Pioneers such as Nyogen Senzaki had even begun to teach Buddhist practices, particularly meditation, to non-Asians by the turn of the 20th Century.  Still, it wasn’t until the post-World War II era that relatively large numbers of Americans began to study Buddhism in earnest.

As these early adopters of Buddhism gradually completed their studies, becoming ordained in some cases, and setting up schools of their own, a trickle of books started to become available in the 60’s and 70’s.  It wasn’t really until the late 80’s and early 90’s, though, with the increased visibility of and interest in Buddhism, partly because of awareness of the plight of Tibet and high profile advocacy by celebrities such as Richard Gere, that the trickle of books became a flood.  One can find Buddhist books and magazines even in bookstores in relatively small towns these days.  Back in the 80’s, even though I lived in a fairly large urban area, the pickings were much slimmer.

My initial interest, for reasons I’ve explained before, was in Theravada, the tradition of Buddhism of Sri Lanka and Thailand.  As noted, though, the pickings were slim, and most of what was available at that time dealt with Zen.  Philip Kapleau’s classic The Three Pillars of Zen was all over the place.  I tried to read it more than once, but I never could get very far in it.  It struck me as boring and irrelevant, and didn’t answer specific questions I had.  I actually bought a used copy of it a couple of years ago and tried to read it again.  Thirty years later, I still found it pretty much as unreadable as I had as a twenty-something, and I passed the book along.  In any case, at some point in the mid-80’s–probably around ’84, though I’m not sure–I came across An Introduction to Zen Buddhism by the famed Japanese scholar of Buddhism D. T. Suzuki.  That book clicked with me immediately, and I reread it time and again.

Daisetz* Teitaro Suzuki was the single most important popularizer of Zen in the west during the mid-20th Century.  During his long life of ninety-five years, Suzuki learned Sanskrit, Pali, and Chinese in order to study Buddhism deeply, wrote many scholarly works on Buddhist thought, taught in various universities, spent many years in the United States, wrote many books on Zen in English, and was even nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1963 (coincidentally, the year of my birth).  He was fluent in English, and his books are masterpieces of vigorous clarity and excellent prose style.  From the 50’s to the late 80’s, probably every native English speaker with an interest in Zen came to it at least in part through Suzuki’s works, especially An Introduction to Zen Buddhism.  It was certainly my first in-depth introduction to Zen.

The book consists of a series of essays originally published by Suzuki in the Japanese Journal New East in the 1920’s.  The first edition was published in 1934, and the book was later reprinted in 1949 with a preface by C. G. Jung.  It was popular among the Beat Generation, and began to reach a wider audience in the 60’s and 70’s.  As of this writing, it is still in print.  The essays deal with the history of Zen, descriptions of life in a zendo (a Zen practice hall), discussion of Zen metaphysics, and an examination of the use of koans in Zen, among other things.  One comes away from the book with a general picture of Japanese Zen in theory and practice.

I do have to say that of all the books in this series on my personal canon, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism is thus far the one regarding which I have the most ambivalence now.  Even when I first read it in my early 20’s, I was frustrated that Suzuki often seemed to tease or tantalize.  He discussed the importance of zazen (Zen meditation), but never described how it’s actually done, nor did he suggest resources for learning it.  In his discussion of koans, he seems at times to be obfuscating.  That’s probably an occupational hazard of discussing koans at all, to be honest; but it gets a bit irritating at times the way Suzuki presents them.

Another issue is Suzuki’s bias.  His training was in the Rinzai tradition of Zen.  Rinzai and Soto are the two major branches (or denominations) of Zen in Japan, with Obaku forming a smaller branch.  The differences in doctrine and approach are not something I have space to go into here, beyond noting that Rinzai makes greater use of koans and emphasizes sudden insight, whereas Soto emphasizes gradual insight and the form of meditation known as shikantaza (“just sitting”).  In An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, Suzuki is quite critical of Soto, going so far as to say that only Rinzai has preserved Zen in purity and vigor, where as Soto is decadent and stagnant.  As a matter of actual fact, Soto is much larger in number of adherents and temples than is Rinzai (put together, they would still be a vanishingly small proportion of the Japanese population at large) and doesn’t seem to be doing worse, on the whole.  Zen temples in general are closing at a rapid rate in Japan, and there seems no reason to think Rinzai is doing better than any of the others (this article doesn’t disaggregate the various Zen schools, but it does paint the overall picture).

In any case, the biggest influence on Zen in America, the Sanbo Kyodan organization, was in fact derived from the Soto school, and most Zen lineages in the United States derive either from it or from other branches of the Soto school.  Pure Rinzai lineages are few and far between.  Thus, Suzuki’s cheer-leading for Rinzai aside, it seems markedly lacking in vigor both in Japan and in America.

A more substantive criticism of Suzuki relates to the extent of Suzuki’s involvement with Japanese nationalism in the pre-war period.  In fairness, he seems to have had much less involvement with the pre-war Japanese regime and its less-savory aspects than other Zen practitioners of the time.  In any case, an individual’s personal life does need to be kept at a certain distance from his works.  While they are not entirely separable, one does not necessarily invalidate the other.  I, for one, am willing to give Suzuki a pass in this area, at least.

In my mind, the more significant question is how authentic his presentation of Zen, even in its Rinzai form, actually is in the first place.  As I’ve discussed before, there was a strong tendency among 19th Century Indologists, particularly in Germany, to view Buddhism through the lens of Protestant, rationalistic biases.  Attracted to Buddhism but averse to “superstition”, Western scholars began to portray Buddhism as not so much a religion as a philosophy aimed at improving human life in the here-and-now.  This was the beginning of Buddhist modernism, aspects of which have come to be common in Western Buddhist circles to this day.  Thus there was a preference for the Theravada Buddhism of Sri Lanka and Thailand–the colorful and complex rituals typical of the Mahayana Buddhism of East Asia were thought to be late additions and corruptions of the original purity of the Buddha’s message.

Zen, though a Mahayana school itself, was an exception.  The austere aesthetic of Zen coupled with its antinomian streak and its emphasis on mediation was quick to catch the attention and admiration of Westerners.  One such Westerner was Paul Carus, a German-American scholar, author of The Gospel of the Buddha.  This book is a selection of Buddhist texts from various sources, arranged–or to be less charitable, slanted–to present Buddhism as Carus viewed it:  a philosophy shorn of the supernatural and compatible in all ways with modern science.  In the late 1800’s, in response to a request from Carus for assistance in translating and editing material for his book, D. T. Suzuki came to the United States and spent several years working with Carus.

Scholars have speculated that Carus was a significant influence on Suzuki.  It is certainly true that in Suzuki’s writings, he always makes a point of downplaying the ritual and more traditionally “religious” aspects of Zen (study of the sutras, bowing, chanting, offering incense to the Buddha, and so on), preferring to emphasize mediation and the psychological aspects of Zen.  He also takes pains to emphasize the compatibility of Zen with Western science, ignoring or touching very lightly on issues such as the paranormal phenomena reported in some Zen scriptures, reincarnation, and the gods and demons characteristic of Mahayana Buddhism.  Critics have questioned whether Suzuki went beyond merely targeting his writing towards his audience–white, Protestant, educated Westerners–to misrepresenting Buddhism outright.

Since the hacyon days of my youth, I have read many, many more books on Buddhism in general and Zen in particular, and have practiced various forms of Buddhist meditation, including zazen.  From my perspective now, while I wouldn’t say that Suzuki distorted Zen, I definitely think he packaged it for a secular, rationalistic Western audience.  If I were recommending a book on Zen for a beginner now, I don’t think I would recommend An Introduction to Zen Buddhism in particular or Suzuki’s books in general.

All that said, I am in no way trashing Suzuki or his oeuvre.  While his books are definitely slanted towards Buddhist modernism and the expectations of secular 20th Century Westerners, they nevertheless were an invaluable source of information on Japanese Zen for nearly three generations of Americans.  An Introduction to Zen Buddhism inspired me to read more widely, and this led me to a deeper understanding of Zen and what it has to offer.  While I have moved beyond it, it is still only fair that I give it its rightful place in my personal canon.

*In the standard Hepburn Romanization of Japanese, this would be “Daisetsu”.  However, in accordance with Japanese pronunciation, the final “u” is silent.  Therefore, Suzuki chose to spell his Dharma name (the name given to a person who has been formally initiated into Zen practice) phonetically as “Daisetz”.

Part of the series, “Your Own Personal Canon“.

Also part of the series, “Buddhism“.

Posted on 04/07/2019, in books, Buddhism, canon, religion and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

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