Sunday Reprise: The Mysticism of D.T. Suzuki
Dr. D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966), a professor at Imperial University, Tokyo, and Otani, Kyoto, is the man best remembered for introducing Zen to the West, but whose life and work extended far beyond that.
He was an occasional guest at the famed Buddhist Society in Ecclestone Square, London, especially when the Buddhist Judge Christmas Humphries was its President. He also worked with Carl Jung and many other western luminaries during his long life. His work had an enormous influence on 1960s America and was widely promoted at the time.
It is strange that he is barely remembered now, although Routledge has brought out a selection of his books in a smart 21st-century edition.
We are fortunate to have Suzuki’s description of his own enlightenment. After a period of intense concentration and samadhi — a peaceful state of awareness of the present moment — Suzuki attains satori: “…this samadhi alone is not enough. You must come out of that state, be awakened from it, and that awakening is prajna [transcendental consciousness]. That moment of coming out of samadhi, and seeing it for what it is, that is satori. When I came out of that state of samadhi I said, ‘I see. This is it.’ ”
The next day, after the enlightenment was approved by his master, he walked home and saw the trees in the moonlight. “They looked transparent, and I was transparent too.” This is the state of “seeing into self nature” or, the nature of reality. From that moment he was able to answer the apparently nonsensical questions of his master out of a profound insight.
Later still, working on the records of Bankei — a 17th-century Japanese Zen master — he felt a huge mass of stones “that I had piled up through many years fall away in a moment. I found myself in the unconditionally restful state of mind of as-it-is-ness [Contentment of Soul].”
He compared the human viewpoint with a geometrical point where three dimensions intersect: physical-natural, intellectual-moral, and spiritual. Very roughly, the outer world, the inner personal world, and the world where concepts of “outer” and “inner” have vanished.
We are usually conscious of only two of these lines, but not to the same extent. In the West, the intellectual-moral is given emphasis over the spiritual. This results in an inability fully to grasp the spiritual side of life — religious doubt arises here, as does the “God is dead” tendency of 19th-century materialism and its modern equivalent, militant atheism.
The intellectual-moral line delivers a dualistic view of life. It carves its way into the soft substance of existence, setting up categories and divisions as a sharp stone shatters a car windscreen: the whole view disappears and one is only aware of a network of frosty fragments. However, despite this, there is a “persistent urge impelling the intellect to transcend itself.”
For the intellect to leave its own line and transfer to the spiritual is a kind of suicide, a “losing of life in order to gain it.” Suzuki stresses that there is no gradation here. It is a leap, a letting go — as Carl Jung discovered — for the moment one jumps from the intellectual, one finds oneself on the spiritual.
This is the point at which one becomes aware that, “what is before you is [how it really is!]” For westerners, the leap has to be made from the intellect instantly to the spiritual; that is the moment of enlightenment. For people of the East, who live more in the physical-natural (the vegetable body), that jump is easier. In fact, it’s hardly a jump at all.
From then on the spiritual world lights up the physical-natural with a numinous glow that transforms everything.
Suzuki wrote: “The idea is to express the unconscious working of the mind, but this unconscious is not to be interpreted psychologically, but on the spiritual plane where all traces of discursive or analytical understanding vanish.” He uses “psychological” to describe objects of rational thinking — all else, by implication, is metaphysical.
Suzuki’s mysticism had a huge influence on 1960s America and beyond. Writers, such as Jack Kerouac and Erich Fromm, waxed lyrical over his books, as well they might.
Perhaps the best introduction to his works is the 1957 title, Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist, in which he compares the writings of the 13th-century Catholic mystic Meister Eckhart with the ideas of Buddhism — a gem.
Another Catholic mystic, the monk Thomas Merton who was part of that Sixties upsurge in spirituality wrote: “In meeting him one seemed to meet that ‘True Man of No Title’ that Chuang Tzu and the Zen Masters speak of. And of course this is the man that one truly wants to meet. Who else is there? In meeting Dr Suzuki and drinking a cup of tea with him I felt I had met this one man. It was like finally arriving at one’s home town.”
No doubt reflecting the horrors of the 1942-45 Japan-U.S. war, Suzuki eventually came to expound a “world culture,” not of politics, law, institutions or technology as we have today, but resting on spiritual values. He quotes the great German mystic Meister Eckhart:
“When God made man, he put into the soul his equal, his active, everlasting masterpiece. It was so great a work that it could not be otherwise than the soul and the soul could not be otherwise than the work of God. God’s nature, his being, and the Godhead all depend on his work in the soul and that he loves his work! That work is love and love is God. God loves himself and his own nature, being and Godhead, and in the love he has for himself he loves all creatures, not as creatures but as God. The love God bears himself contains his love for the whole world.”
Eckhart was persecuted by the ecclesiastical authorities of his time for his anti-authoritarian stance, as all mystics eventually are. Small, frightened men in power become dictators who see them as dangers to their rule. It is a dichotomy that has lasted down the ages.
For the same reason, Suzuki’s world culture has yet to materialise. Instead we have warring blocs and corrupt international institutions. The European Union is a disgrace to democracy and truth, and refuses to allow mystical religion to have any place within its constitutional dispensation.
The writings of D.T. Suzuki are from another and better world. Perhaps it’s not too late to find it.
First published here on May 1st, 2011.
… who is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.
Mystics in the Modern World is coming soon.
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