D. T. Suzuki (1870–1966)

by Richard Lang

All-knowledge is what constitutes the essence of Buddhahood. It does not mean that the Buddha knows every individual thing, but that he has grasped the fundamental principle of existence and that he has penetrated deep down into the centre of his own being. D.T. Suzuki.

Daisetsu Suzuki can rightly be called the man who first brought Zen Buddhism from Japan to the West. During his long life he spent a great deal of time living, travelling and teaching in both the United States and Europe. A fluent English speaker, he wrote many articles and books introducing Zen to the Western mind.

Suzuki's own realisation of who he really was, his grasping of 'the fundamental principle of existence' came when he was 26. He had been studying Zen for some years but without much success. In 1896, however, he was selected by his teacher, Soyen Shaku, to go to North America to help translate the Tao Te Ching. The pressure of his imminent departure happened to be what was needed. He realised that the Zen retreat scheduled for just before he was due to leave Japan might be his last opportunity, in the immediate future at least, of solving the koan he was working on. (A koan is a Zen riddle whose solution is the simultaneous awakening to the secret of Zen - one's own true nature.) He therefore threw all his energies into one final effort.

'Up until then he had been conscious of 'Mu' [the koan] in his mind. But to be conscious of Mu is to be separate from it. Towards the end of that sesshin [Zen retreat], on about the fifth day, he ceased to be conscious of Mu - "I was one with Mu, identified with Mu, so that there was no longer the separateness implied by being conscious of Mu."

'That was samadhi; but samadhi is not enough: "You must come out of that state, be awakened from it, and that awakening is Prajna. [Wisdom.] That moment of coming out of the samadhi and seeing it for what it is - that is satori." His first words as he was awakened from that state of deep samadhi by the sound of a small hand bell being struck were: "I see. This is it." '

[Extract from D.T. Suzuki. A Biography by A.Irwin Switzer. Published by The Buddhist Society, London. 1985.)

Penetrating deep down into the centre of one's own being one finds a nameless transparency, an awake space filled by all the world, from one's own thoughts and feelings and body to the stars in the heavens. This still, spacious no-thingness is the heart of everyone's being. Thus to find this no-thingness is to see that one is fundamentally united with all beings. At root there is only one - the One.

Awakening to the One is primarily a matter of actual seeing, of bare attention, rather than intellectual understanding - vital as understanding is. As Suzuki said, "I see. This is it." This seeing is not yet another state of mind that comes and goes. It is awake No-mind, the ground of being that underlies and is the source of all states of mind, including samadhi. The contents of mind come and go in No-mind.

Seeing who you really are does not mean that you now know what everyone is thinking, or what is going to happen next year. You don't necessarily develop special powers. (They can be both confusing and a distraction.) Realisation is simpler and more available than this. What is given in the present moment - given not to a separate person but arising within the edgeless space of awareness - is seen to be enough for that moment.

But one glimpse of one's true nature is not enough. We need to stabilise awareness (which means to continue attending to who we really are, whose nature is already and always stable). Awakening more deeply to our fundamental Steadyness, we realise we have never been rooted in any other place. Deepening this awareness involves all our energies, yet at the same time it is simply being natural. Growing into adulthood we became profoundly identified with our self-image. The discovery that this image is not our fundamental nature takes time to get used to. But this is a letting go rather than an accumulation of more information. We come to realise, again and again, that there is at root nothing to achieve, nowhere to go, nothing to be. As we keep re-awakening to our Original Face as Zen puts it, to our no-face, our imageless, still Centre - present in the very midst of our busy lives - we discover this is a natural and effective way of living. Though we discover there is nothing to do at centre, and no-one there to do it, we find plenty of activity issuing forth from this inactivity, this stillness, this absence.

Gradually, each in our own way we discover that living from the Source - which often feels like living from Not-knowing - has an uncanny wisdom about it. It can be trusted. Suzuki's lay Buddhist name, "Daisetsu", means "Great Simplicity". In later years, however, Suzuki joked that it really meant "Great Stupidity". But this isn't only a joke. It is similar to the idea of the holy fool. It is what the English philosopher Douglas Harding calls 'alert idiocy'. Grasping the fundamental principle of existence is recognising that deep down one knows nothing, yet paradoxically this no-thingness is the infinitely wise (and loving and dynamic) source of all things.

Years ago I was in Berkeley, California, and whilst there briefly met a Korean Zen master whose teaching revolves around the idea of living from 'not-knowing'. My friend introduced me by saying "This is Richard - he knows about not-knowing." The teacher replied: "Don't say you know about not-knowing. I don't know about not-knowing!"

D.T. Suzuki lived to the ripe old age of 96. He was well-known for his industriousness, right up to the end of his life. He was also known for his deep-rooted warmth and optimism.

Suzuki's last words on his deathbed were: "Don't worry. Thank you. Thank you."
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