Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki (1870-1966), the great roshi, (teacher), prolific author of a variety of texts, including the hugely-influential An Introduction to Zen Buddhism (1934) and Zen and Japanese Culture (1959), subject of Michael Goldberg’s extraordinary film, A Zen Life (2006), is universally credited with introducing Zen (Japanese Buddhism) to the West. Gary Snyder, in the film, calls him “probably the most culturally significant Japanese person in international terms, in all of history”. Carl Jung had earlier written, “Suzuki’s works on Zen Buddhism are among the best contributions to the knowledge of living Buddhism…We cannot be sufficiently grateful to the author, first for the fact of his having brought Zen closer to Western understanding, and secondly for the manner in which he has achieved this task.” – Some kudos! And further acclaim and respect come in from multiple sources in Masao Abe’s A Zen Life – D.T.Suzuki Remembered (1995). Thomas Merton, John Cage, and the psychologist Erich Fromm, alongside Snyder, and among many others, were among Suzuki’s contemporary devotees. If a slightly revisionist, contrarian, note has slipped in in recent years (see, for example, Robert Sharf‘s “The Zen of Japanese Nationalism” (1993), or Dharmachari Nagapriya‘s account in the Western Buddhist Review), the singularity of his contribution to the transmission of the dharma, the significance of his work (its extraordinary effect), remains undiminished. Today is his birthday. We pause to remember the man.
Beat culture played (and continues to play) an important part in that transmission. And, alongside Snyder, Jack Kerouac (Dharma Bums, Some of the Dharma, Wake Up) is, perhaps, the central Beat. But, despite Kerouac’s avowedly prescient early interest, it was actually Allen who turned on Jack, who turned on, etc, etc, etc…
Allen Ginsberg, in San Francisco, to Jack Kerouac, in February 1955 – “Suzuki may be teaching NOW at Columbia [yes, he was]. He’s very great. His books are (the) only collections of (primary) documents and intelligent, in fact uncanny, comments on them beside Goddard” [Dwight Goddard’s A Buddhist Bible (1932) was Kerouac’s other primary source].
Regrettably, Ginsberg and Kerouac, in a meeting with him several years later, didn’t entirely hit it off. Here’s Ellis Amburn’s account (from his book Subterranean Kerouac – The Hidden Life of Jack Kerouac):
“Kerouac thought that perhaps the famous Zen interpreter, Dr. D.T. Suzuki could help him, and he visited the venerable sage on October 15, 1958 in Manhattan. A small man, Suzuki lived in book-lined rooms with wood paneling on West Ninety-fourth Street. Having carefully arranged three chairs for Jack and his companions, Suzuki sat behind a table, quietly studying them. Jack noticed that Suzuki’s eyelashes were very long, which somehow made him think about a saying about the Dharma – that it took root very gradually but could never be dislodged. Suzuki asked his guests to speak distinctly, explaining that he was partially deaf. Almost shouting, Jack asked Dr. Suzuki why Bodhidharma came from the west. Dr Suzuki, at once realized that Kerouac’s problem was alcohol, and told him to switch to green tea. Then he advised Jack and his friends to “sit here quietly, Jack recalled…and in a few minutes…came back and served “thick and soupy” green tea in fragile, battered and chipped bowls. Shortly (after) Suzuki showed them to the door, admonishing Jack to stick to green tea. On the sidewalk, Jack looked back and saw Suzuki standing in the doorway. Speaking from his heart, Jack said he wanted to move in with (him) and spend the rest of his days with him. “Sometime”, Suzuki said, raising a finger and giggling.”
Eric Prideaux in the Japan Times, quoting University of Pennsylvania Professor, Dr Albert Stunkard, in the film: “”Obviously they were trying to impress him with what they understood”..He breaks off into a thoughtful pause before resuming, “And he wasn’t impressed”.
More reviews of Goldberg’s film can be accessed here (including a useful commentary by Goldberg with Rachael Kohn on ABC (Australian National radio).
Here’s the trailer for the film
and here’s a “bonus extra”