The various contributions of Daisetz Teitaro (D.T.) Suzuki (1870-1966) still resonate today in Western Buddhist communities and, indeed, in the area of Buddhist studies. Rossa Ó Muireartaigh, a specialist in Japanese philosophy, lucidly conveys the life and thought of Suzuki in his book The Zen Buddhist Philosophy of D.T. Suzuki: Strengths, Foibles, Intrigues, and Precision. Given Suzuki’s legendary but complex status, opinions on him vary widely—some see him as a modern-day Bodhidharma who brought Zen to the West, while others view him as a talented-but-misinformed academic posing as a Zen master—this is no easy task. Ultimately, Ó Muireartaigh locates Suzuki in the middle of those extremes, never hesitant to criticize or praise his positions when necessary. As a result, this volume is a welcome, accessible, and informative addition to discourse on Suzuki, be it among specialists or undergraduates.
The introduction begins with a helpful, brief biography of Suzuki, which appropriately contextualizes him alongside his Japanese and Western peers (namely, Shaku Soyen [1860-1919] and Paul Carus [1852-1919]), all of whom contributed to the project of “Buddhist Modernism,” discussed by David McMahan (The Making of Buddhist Modernism, Oxford University Press, 2008). Ó Muireartaigh then wrestles with writing about the philosophy of Suzuki, who claimed that Zen has no philosophy, and that to assert one only demonstrates miscomprehension. Despite Suzuki’s dismissive attitude of philosophy, Ó Muireartaigh argues that Suzuki recognized its inevitability: the unmediated experience of satori (awakening) would necessarily be discussed and theorized. Relying on Nishitani Keiji, Ó Muireartaigh identifies three core ideas of Suzuki’s philosophy—phenomenological empiricism, arationalism, and Zen universalism—which respectively correspond to ideas of self, knowledge, and world, each the basis for the subsequent three chapters.
The first chapter begins with Ó Muireartaigh reviewing conventional views of the self, before turning to the deconstruction of the self using Buddhist philosophical ideas. He skillfully sprinkles excerpts of Suzuki’s writings throughout, keeping the reader engaged with the philosophical discussion and Suzuki’s voice at the same time. However, I will raise a slight critique here, which is that at times it is unclear whether the thoughts expressed belong to Suzuki, Ó Muireartaigh, someone else, or some combination. To his credit, Ó Muireartaigh usually does make this clear, but there are points of disorientation. Inversely, I was particularly impressed with the first half of the chapter and Ó Muireartaigh’s discussion of (no)self, and plan to include it in course readings. The second half of the chapter turns to psychoanalysis and the occult. While this at first feels like a detour, the reader soon learns that Suzuki wrote and discussed these topics in conjunction with Zen in an effort to make it empirical and compatible with the emerging science of his day. Arguably, Suzuki (and others) were successful in this effort, at least in the eyes of the public, but Ó Muireartaigh nimbly demonstrates that Suzuki’s reliance on concepts like cosmic prajñā (wisdom) and karuṇā (compassion) aligns better with religion than science.
The next chapter examines knowledge, and Ó Muireartaigh begins with an introduction to dualism, monism, and the question of where knowledge comes from in relation to the subject-object binary. But Suzuki argued that true knowledge emerges only once the subject-object division has dissolved, an experience of satori. Ó Muireartaigh discusses traditional Zen concepts kōans (questions and declarations used to entangle the mind) and soku-hi logic (for example, A is not A and is therefore A) before an interesting discussion of Linji’s “true person” (an embodied enlightened individual capable of seeing beyond subject-object distinction) in comparison to Suzuki. Although the concept of “true person” was demonstrably significant to Suzuki, Ó Muireartaigh rightly points out that, despite his reputation to some, Suzuki himself did not qualify as one, especially due to his “shallow stereotyping” of Westerners and criticism of philosophical and scientific modes of knowledge (73). In other words, Suzuki was not capable of seeing beyond subject-object when it came to the West.
The final chapter of the book is also its finest, and certainly one that would produce intriguing discussion in the classroom. Ó Muireartaigh turns his attention to Zen culture, which has become ubiquitous throughout the West, even among those who know little to nothing about Zen. Suzuki’s writings on Zen’s influence of Japanese culture guide the discussion, and again lead Ó Muireartaigh to observe that Suzuki’s clear Japanese ethno-nationalism disqualifies him as the archetypal Zen true person. Ó Muireartaigh then asks, if Zen is truly emptiness and formless, why is it that only certain activities qualify as “Zen,” instead of every activity? He grapples with this question, pointing out specific ideologies important to Suzuki which range from naïve to outright troubling. For example, Ó Muireartaigh critiques Suzuki’s naturalist morality that romanticizes nature while willfully ignoring the brutality present in it. This romantic view overlaps with Suzuki’s discussion of samurai and bushido (moral code of the samurai), in which he again omits or even justifies the murderous violence inherent to the lifestyle. He ends the chapter cautioning against any idea of a cosmic, timeless Zen, where its philosophy and culture are unified to create a useless (or dangerous) narrative. This is where Suzuki failed, after all. Instead, Zen culture emerges due to specific but happenstance chronological and geographical reasons.
Ó Muireartaigh concludes the book discussing Suzuki’s legacy. As demonstrated throughout the chapters, there are a host of reasons to criticize Suzuki. However, Ó Muireartaigh argues that Suzuki’s writings still offer value, and he provides two new translations as evidence. The book ends with Suzuki’s essays “The Place of Peace in Our Heart” (1894) and “Religion and Science” (1949). Suzuki argues in the two essays that science cannot reach pure knowledge, and that religion provides multiple paths toward it. Both essays exhibit Ó Muireartaigh’s point that, despite his flaws, Suzuki still proves an interesting voice worthy of investigation and discussion. Or, to put it another way, Suzuki is not Suzuki, and is therefore Suzuki.
Kendall Marchman is an assistant professor of religion at the University of Georgia.
Date Of Review:
July 29, 2023
Rossa Ó Muireartaigh is currently Associate Professor at the School of Foreign Studies, Aichi Prefectural University, Japan. He is author of Begotten, not Made: Explorations in the Philosophy and Sociology of Religious Translation (2015).
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