D.T.Suzuki: Zen Pilgrim to the West

No one did more to promote Zen philosophy in the West than D.T. Suzuki. Among those influenced by him were Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, John Cage and a host of writers and poets from the Beat Generation.

Rachael Kohn: He was the exponent of Zen Buddhism to the West, a Japanese gentleman in a suit and bowler hat.

Hello, I'm Rachael Kohn and this is The Ark on ABC Radio National.

Born in 1870 in Kanazawa, Japan, D.T. Suzuki first visited America in the late 19th century. For more than 60 years he expounded Zen philosophy, which he called 'a floating cloud not attached to Buddhism.' He influenced many people, including Alan Watts, who popularised the slogan 'Be here now,' psychoanalyst Carl Jung, mythologist Joseph Campbell and composer John Cage.

Canadian-born Michael Goldberg, who lives in Tokyo, has made a film of his life.

Michael Goldberg: D.T. Suzuki's father was a physician in the Chinese tradition, to a feudal lord, and two years before Suzuki was born, the Samurai class was abolished. That meant the family lost the stipends that they'd been receiving, and couldn't afford to send Teitaro, as he was called, to school. So it had a very direct effect on the family and on Suzuki himself.

His father died when he was six, and his mother died when he was 20. An elder brother as well died after his father. So he had a difficult time when he was young, and that might have been part of the impetus for moving towards his ultimate experience with Zen.

Rachael Kohn: Yes, well he was destined to become the most influential Zen Buddhist in the West, and perhaps even in the modern period generally. What prompted him to take up the Buddhist path in the first place?

Michael Goldberg: I can only recount what he said, that he was in university, which was the precursor to Tokyo University, and couldn't concentrate on his studies, and played hooky; he absented himself he says, and went to a temple in Kitakamakura. Basically he ended up under one Zen master who was at that time one of the first to go overseas after Japan opened up from several centuries of isolation. Shaku Soen was his master's name. He stayed with that master until he died.

Rachael Kohn: Is his master going overseas the reason why Suzuki first went to America?

Michael Goldberg: Yes, there's a direct link. Shaku Soen was invited with three or four other Japanese clerics to the first World Parliament of Religions, which was part of the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. Suzuki had a talent, an innate talent, for English. After his father died and he had to stop going to school, he studied English on his own, and ended up teaching it in local grade schools. He himself says that once he got to the States, he realised how mistaken his English was. It improved immensely after that, but it was already quite good.

Shaku Soen knew that Teitaro Suzuki was very good at English and asked him to translate the talk he was to give at the World Parliament of Religions. At that gathering, a fellow called Paul Carus - who had a publishing house in La Salle, Illinois, in America - was greatly impressed by what Shaku Soen said about Buddhism and Zen. He asked the master to find someone who could translate a book that he subsequently edited, called The Gospel of Buddha, which is a very Western first view of Buddhism - it was also the first gathering of thoughts that had been translated into English of a number of Buddhist traditions - and that person was D.T. Suzuki. In the end, he invited Suzuki to travel and stay with him in Lasalle, Illinois, where he worked under Paul Carus in the publishing house for ten or eleven years after that, starting in 1897.

Rachael Kohn: So had Suzuki begun to make a name for himself even then as a translator, as a name that would appear in all these publications?

Michael Goldberg: While Suzuki was with Open Court Publishing, he translated for Paul Carus. It appeared under Carus' name but Suzuki is given credit. He also started publishing his own writings, first in the Open Court periodical, and then books that were published in England. By the 1930s he was already well-known.

Two books that he wrote in the 1930s, A Manual of Zen Buddhism and An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, are still on the bookshelves. The second book interested Carl Jung, who wrote the preface to it for the German edition, and that is now available in the English edition as well.

Rachael Kohn: Well there was that interregnum, a period where Suzuki went back to Japan, having stayed in the US for ten years, till 1908. He went back to Japan for a while. Do you think he had already become something of a Westernised Japanese gentleman?

Michael Goldberg: Very definitely. In Lasalle, he lived in a house with four rambunctious young ladies, and wrote back to Japan that he wondered if he'd ever marry. But he met an American woman, Beatrice Erskine Lane, a Radcliffe graduate, in the year before he went back to Japan, and the two developed a very deep relationship, fell in love, I guess is the word, and after Suzuki moved back to Japan, she moved there and they got married. Their language at home was English.

Rachael Kohn: And they published a journal that's still in the press today, Eastern Buddhist. When Suzuki returned to the US in 1927, he was there for another sojourn. Now that was a time that he started to publish very important books, as you mention, The Manual of Zen Buddhism and Introduction to Zen Buddhism. Was he conscious, do you think, of being the exponent of Zen to the West, the person who would introduce this tradition to the West?

Michael Goldberg: I don't know if he was aware of how much of an impact he would ultimately have, but he did choose writing about Zen and Buddhism over his other interest, which was photography. He thought he could make a go of it as a photographer. But ultimately he did become the person most well-known for sparking what was - in the '50s and '60s - called the Zen Boom.

Rachael Kohn: Indeed. Well what's amazing about his writing is that he managed to use Western concepts to convey unusual ideas, such as Satori. Do you think that was his real achievement, that he was so comfortable in Western concepts that he could employ them?

Michael Goldberg: I would say that D.T. Suzuki managed to convey - not the actual meaning - You can only point in the direction; Zen is not something explainable, although much is written and talked about it - in Western terms, starting with Christian terms, and Western philosophical terms, and later on his life in psychoanalytical terms, because psychoanalysts were drawn to Suzuki's writings about the concept of the ego in Buddhism. I think he was saying the same thing over and over. He didn't repeat himself, very rarely.

I've heard many of his lectures on audiotapes that have not been released, and he was saying the same thing in different ways, trying to get people to understand things in those terms to gain some insight into something that's not easily grasped. I don't think he got them to "understand" it, he says so himself. But he did pique their interest, and that opened up the West to Buddhism and to Zen I think.

Rachael Kohn: Well as you mentioned, psychologists were particularly drawn to Suzuki and to Zen, I suppose because Zen is so interested in the mind. But there were also theologians and academics and even artists. Can you talk about some of the famous people who were drawn to Suzuki?

Michael Goldberg: When I started this project four years ago, (I've been working on it pretty well full-time since then) one of the problems was the fact that so many of the very well known - great people as we might say - who knew Suzuki well and studied under him or befriended him, were close to him, are gone. I decided that I had better start recording and documenting with my TV camera the people who are left. There are those who are no longer with us, such as Father Thomas Merton or Eric Fromm. I could only search for remnants if you will, like an archaeologist, trying to find old recordings, old films, old TV programs.

There are people of that stature who were very close to Suzuki and very strongly influenced by him. Those who are still alive - actually five of those I interviewed have now gone, just in the last few years. One was 103, when I interviewed him, Paul Carus' son Alwin. Among them are Gary Snyder for example, who has a very interesting take, viewpoint and way of explaining concepts; I really enjoyed him.

Rachael Kohn: The great poet?

Michael Goldberg: Yes, and environmentalist.

Rachael Kohn: I guess Alan Watts, too, I mean he was one of the really popular figures of the '60s, an Episcopalian Minister who then got converted to Zen. So many. And they all appear in your wonderful film called A Zen Life, - D.T. Suzuki.

But there's a period, I suppose the absolute apex of Suzuki's career in the West was when he was a very old man, and that was when he gave those public lectures at Columbia University. Now I reckon he would have reached thousands of people, including the Beat generation.

Michael Goldberg: He reached the Beat generation but the Beat generation didn't reach him.

There's a whole ripple effect from Suzuki's writings and lectures. He gave many, many talks to overflowing crowds. As you mentioned, at Columbia University, the classes that he gave for five, six years, every year, were filled to capacity with people who subsequently became very, very well known. Gary Snyder, who is one of the prime inspirations for Jack Kerouac's book On the Road, is one of the few, according to several people, who went back to Zen roots and actually studied it profoundly, meditated, and still meditates to this day.

But some of his friends in the Beat movement, if we can call it that, Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg, visited Suzuki, the two of them specifically, quite drunk one day on the spur of the moment, and went through a whole song and dance trying to impress Suzuki with what they understood. He wasn't impressed. But the fact is that Suzuki's writings and lectures had a ripple effect on the arts, on psychoanalysis - an incredible effect throughout Western culture I would say.

Rachael Kohn: What about Suzuki's impact on Zen in Japan.

Michael Goldberg: Suzuki Sensei is revered in Japan, to the point that it's almost taboo to say anything negative at all. He was a great man. But in Japanese, his speaking and his writing is really complex, whereas his writing in English was for an audience that had very little or absolutely no knowledge of Eastern way of thinking and being. English, too, is very direct, as you may know, compared to Japanese language. So his writings in English were easily approachable.

Rachael Kohn: Didn't Suzuki lecture the Emperor?

Michael Goldberg: Two years after the war ended, Suzuki was invited to give two lectures to the Emperor, who's now deceased, about Buddhism. Obviously the Emperor didn't know a lot about Buddhism; he had renounced his status as a Shinto god only two years earlier. Those lectures turned into a book. He told stories of ancient Chinese emperors and Zen masters. In one of them the Emperor says to the Master - they're setting on the same platform - 'Isn't it interesting that a Zen Master can be sitting on the same level as an Emperor?' And the Zen Master says, 'Isn't it interesting that an Emperor can be sitting on the same level as a Zen Master."

Rachael Kohn: Touche. Well how did Suzuki die; when did he die?

Michael Goldberg: Suzuki was in excellent health except for being hard of hearing and having high blood pressure. Just before his 96th birthday, he had what's called a strangulation of the intestine, an intestinal blockage, and he died the next day, very, very peacefully. Dr Hinohara - who's very well known in Japan and now 94, 95 - was Suzuki's personal physician. He wasn't in the room the moment that Daisetz Suzuki died, but Suzuki's secretary, Mihoko Okamura, was with him, and she told the doctor when asked that she didn't notice when he died. Usually you can tell when a person's passed over that threshold. Dr. Hinohara, whose father weas a Christian missionary, said that Dr Suzuki lived his life as he preached it - there was no transition from life to death. But for Okamura-san, who now lives in Kyoto, she's American-Japanese, from a Buddhist point of view there is no difference between life and death. When one is alive, one is already dead, and when one is dead, one is still alive. There is no differenciation; they are both one and the same.

Rachael Kohn: Michael Goldberg's film is called A Zen Life, - D.T. Suzuki, and it's being shown at international film festivals and soon to be a DVD. Details will be on our website.

Next week, The Nativity Story of Christmas. Is it history or legend? That's on The Ark, with me, Rachael Kohn.


Michael Goldberg has been active in video art and production for 40 years, 25 of them in Japan. Educated in Montreal, Canada (McGill University and Ecole des beaux arts), he moved to Vancouver in 1971, and co-founded the 'Video In' artists' centre. He is Executive Producer and Director of A Zen Life - D.T. Suzuki.

After publishing the first of seven 'International Video Exchange Directories', he visited Japan in 1972, where he helped organize Tokyo's first video art exhibition, 'Video Communication' at the Sony Building in Ginza. He was the first Video Officer of the Canada Council (1977~79), and has written extensively about video, including The Accessible Portapack Manual, (1976) and Video In & Out, (in Japanese, 1989). Freelancing as a TV cameraman & editor, he founded International Videoworks, Inc. in 1990.


Rachael Kohn


Geoff Wood and Rachael Kohn