D.T. Suzuki (18 Oct. 1870-12 July 1966), the foremost exponent of Zen Buddhism in the West, was born Teitar? Suzuki, the son of Ryojun Suzuki, a physician, and his wife, Masu (full name unknown), in what is now the city of Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan. He was the youngest of five children. Suzuki’s grandfather and great-grandfather were also physicians. The deaths of Suzuki’s father, shortly after Suzuki’s sixth birthday, and an older brother, the following year, influenced Suzuki’s gravitation toward religious and philosophical study. As a teenager he sought out both Zen monks and Christian missionaries and engaged them in philosophical discussions. Suzuki’s high school mathematics teacher, who had a strong interest in Zen and had studied with K?sen Imagita, one of the great Zen masters of the time, intensified the youth’s curiosity about Zen through discussion and distribution of literature on the subject.
After leaving high school because of family financial difficulties, Suzuki continued to pursue his interest in Zen while working as a teacher of English. In 1891, the year after his mother’s death, one of Suzuki’s brothers, who was working as a lawyer, sent him to Tokyo, where he enrolled in classes at what is now Waseda University and also at Tokyo Imperial University. But soon after arriving in Tokyo Suzuki began commuting to nearby Kamakura, the site of Engakuji, an important Zen temple, to study with K?sen Imagita. K?sen died in early 1892, and Suzuki continued his studies at the temple–eventually taking up residence there–with K?sen’s successor, S?en Shaku. In 1893 Suzuki translated into English the address S?en was to give at the World Parliament of Religions. (S?seki Natsume, one of Japan’s greatest modern novelists, checked Suzuki’s translation.)
Held in Chicago that year as part of the World’s Columbian Exposition, the World Parliament of Religions was a milestone in the introduction of Buddhism to the United States. At the conference, S?en met Paul Carus, an author and editor with a strong interest in Eastern religions. Carus was editor of Open Court, a journal focusing on ethical and religious issues, and was instrumental in the founding of an eclectic philosophical publishing company of the same name. S?en spent the week following the conference visiting Carus at his home in LaSalle, Illinois. As a result of this visit, Carus wrote The Gospel of Buddha, which Suzuki translated into Japanese at Engakuji while continuing to study Zen as a lay-disciple.
During his four years at Engakuji, Suzuki struggled fruitlessly with the k?an he had been given by S?en–until it was resolved that in 1897 he would travel to the United States to assist Carus with his translation of the Taoist classic Tao te ching. The winter before his departure, Suzuki finally achieved enlightenment and became able to answer the monk’s questions about the k?an. At this time S?en gave him the name Daisetsu, meaning “Great Simplicity.” Suzuki is known as Suzuki Daisetsu in Japan; Daisetsu is often spelled Daisetz in English.
After assisting Carus with the Tao translation, Suzuki remained at Open Court, studying Chinese and Sanskrit and working on a variety of projects, including translations of important early Buddhist texts. In 1905 he served as S?en’s interpreter during the latter’s tour of the United States. His increasingly strong belief that westerners needed a lot of assistance in their attempts to understand Buddhism led Suzuki to publish his first original book in English, Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism, in 1907.
In 1908 Suzuki left LaSalle, traveling to New York and in Europe before his return to Japan in April of the following year. In Paris he spent time at the Bibliothèque Nationale copying, photographing, and studying ancient Chinese manuscript copies of sutras, and in London he translated Emanuel Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell into Japanese for the Swedenborg Society. (In 1912 the society would invite him back to London to translate several other works by Swedenborg.)
On his return to Japan in 1909, Suzuki became a lecturer at Gakush?in University and Tokyo Imperial University. The following year he was appointed professor at Gakush?in. Suzuki married Beatrice Lane, a Radcliffe graduate and Theosophist, in Japan in 1911. The Suzukis lived at Engakuji until the death of S?en in 1919. They then moved to Kyoto, where Suzuki became a lecturer, and later a professor, at ?tani University. In 1921 the couple began publishing The Eastern Buddhist, an English-language quarterly largely intended for westerners. The first series of his Essays in Zen Buddhism, published in London in 1927, and the succeeding two series, published in 1933 and 1934, firmly established Suzuki’s reputation in England; some of the essays first appeared in The Eastern Buddhist. In April 1936, Suzuki was invited to London to speak at the World Congress of Faiths. His encounter there with the twenty-year-old Alan Watts resulted in the publication, later the same year, of Watts’s first book, The Spirit of Zen.
After the death in 1939 of his wife, who was his close collaborator throughout their marriage, Suzuki went into seclusion in Kamakura, remaining there for the duration of World War II. He emerged in 1949 to travel to Honolulu to attend the Second East-West Philosopher’s Conference and taught at the University of Hawaii the following year. After spending the next year in California, he moved to New York in 1951, where he began teaching a series of seminars on Zen at Columbia University. Among his students at that time were the psychoanalysts Erich Fromm and Karen Horney and the composer John Cage. Cage, who attended Suzuki’s seminars for two years in lieu of the psychoanalysis recommended by his friends, was profoundly influenced by them. Although Horney died shortly after a Suzuki-led tour of Zen monasteries in Japan in 1952, her final writings bear evidence of her association with him. Fromm in 1957 organized a groundbreaking workshop on Zen and psychoanalysis at his home in Cuernavaca, Mexico, at which Suzuki was the featured speaker. The long list of other Western intellectuals and artists on whom Suzuki is known to have had an influence includes Carl Jung, Thomas Merton, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, and potter Bernard Leach.
In 1953 Mihoko Okamura, a second-generation Japanese American student in his class at Columbia, became Suzuki’s personal secretary and editor. At this time Suzuki took up residence at the home of Okamura, her parents, and her sister on West Ninety-fourth Street in Manhattan. Okamura remained his secretary, and he continued to live with her family–when not traveling–for the rest of his life.
After his retirement from Columbia in June 1957 and the subsequent summer in Cuernavaca, Suzuki traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he lectured and helped found the Cambridge Buddhist Society. Until his death in Tokyo at age ninety-five, Suzuki continued to travel widely, lecturing, attending conferences, and receiving a variety of honors.
In addition to playing a key role in the popularization of Buddhism in the Western world, Suzuki, who never formally graduated from any of the schools he attended, also made significant contributions to Buddhist scholarship, particularly to modern understanding of the Gandavy?ha and Lank?vat?ra sutras. In addition, his work resulted in a reawakening of interest in Buddhism in Japan after a period during which the study of Shinto had dominated Japanese religious scholarship.
Suzuki’s collected complete works in Japanese occupy thirty-two volumes. The more than thirty titles he published in English include An Introduction to Zen Buddhism (first published in 1934) and Zen and Japanese Culture (1959).
Suzuki’s last words were “Don’t worry. Thank you! Thank you!”