While he was young, Suzuki had set about acquiring knowledge of Chinese, Sanskrit, Pali, and several European languages. Soyen Shaku was one of the invited speakers at the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893. When a German scholar who had set up residence in Illinois, Dr. Paul Carus,
approached Soyen Shaku to request his help in translating and preparing
Oriental spiritual literature for publication in the West, the latter
instead recommended his disciple Suzuki for the job. Suzuki lived at
Dr. Carus’s home and worked with him, initially in translating the
classic Tao Te Ching from ancient Chinese. In Illinois, Suzuki began his early work Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism.
Carus himself had written a book offering an insight into, and overview of, Buddhism, titled The Gospel of Buddha.
Soyen Shaku wrote an introduction for it, and Suzuki translated the
book into Japanese. At this time, around the turn of the century, quite
a number of Westerners and Asians (Carus, Soyen, and Suzuki included)
were involved in the worldwide Buddhist revival that had begun slowly
in the 1880s.
Besides living in the United States, Suzuki traveled through Europe before taking up a professorship back in Japan. Suzuki married Beatrice Erskine Lane, a Theosophist and Radcliffe
graduate, in 1911. Dedicating themselves to spreading an understanding
of Mahayana Buddhism, they lived in a cottage on the Engaku-ji grounds
until 1919, then moved to Kyoto, where Suzuki began professorship at Otani University in 1921. While he was in Kyoto, he visted Dr. Hoseki Shinichi Hisamatsu, a famous Zen Buddhist scholar, and discussed Zen Buddhism together at Shunkoin temple in the Myoshinji temple complex.
In the same year he joined Otani University, he and his wife,
Beatrice, founded the Eastern Buddhist Society; the Society is focused
on Mahayana Buddhism and offers lectures and seminars, and publishes a scholarly journal, The Eastern Buddhist.
Suzuki maintained connections in the West and, for instance, delivered
a paper at the World Congress of Faiths in 1936, at the University of London (he was an exchange professor during this year).
Besides teaching about Zen practice and the history of Zen (or
Ch'an) Buddhism, Suzuki was an expert scholar on the related philosophy
called, in Japanese, Kegon – which he thought of as the intellectual explication of Zen experience.
Still a professor of Buddhist philosophy in the middle decades of the twentieth century, Suzuki wrote some of the most celebrated introductions and overall examinations of Buddhism, and particularly of its Chinese Chan
school (though he usually referred to this sect by the term "Zen,"
which is the Japanese pronunciation of its name). He went on a lecture
tour of American universities in 1951, and taught at Columbia University from 1952-57.
Suzuki was especially interested in the formative centuries of this
Buddhist tradition, in China. A lot of Suzuki's writings in English
concern themselves with translations and discussions of bits of the
Chan texts the Biyan Lu (Blue Cliff Record) and the Wumenguan
(Gateless Passage), which record the teaching styles and words of the
classical Chinese masters. He was also interested in how this
tradition, once imported into Japan, had influenced Japanese character
and history, and wrote about it in English in Zen and Japanese Culture. Suzuki's reputation was secured in England prior to the U.S.
In addition to his popularly oriented works, Suzuki wrote a translation of the Lankavatara Sutra and a commentary on its Sanskrit terminology. Later in his life he was a visiting professor at Columbia University. He looked in on the efforts of Saburo Hasegawa, Judith Tyberg, Alan Watts and the others who worked in the California Academy of Asian Studies (now known as the California Institute of Integral Studies), in San Francisco in the 1950s.
Suzuki is often linked to the Kyoto School
of philosophy, but he is not considered one of its official members.
Suzuki took an interest in other traditions besides Zen. His book Zen and Japanese Buddhism delved into the history and scope of interest of all the major Japanese Buddhist sects. He also wrote a small volume about Shin Buddhism. And he took an interest in Christian mysticism and some of most significant mystics of the West, specially Meister Eckhart.
D.T. Suzuki's books have been widely read and commented on by many important figures. A notable example is An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, which includes a thirty page commentary by famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung. Other works include Essays in Zen Buddhism (three volumes), Studies in Zen Buddhism, and Manual of Zen Buddhism. Additionally, Willam Barrett has compiled many of Suzuki's articles and essays concerning Zen into a volume entitled Studies in Zen.
Suzuki's Zen master, Soyen Shaku, who also wrote a book published in
the United States (English translation by Suzuki), had emphasized the Mahayana Buddhist
outlook of the Zen tradition. Contrasting with this, to a degree, was
Suzuki's own view that in its centuries of development in China, Zen
(or Ch'an) had absorbed much from indigenous Chinese Taoism.
Suzuki believed that the Far-Eastern peoples had a sensitivity or
attunement to nature that was acute, by comparison with either the
people of Europe or the people of Northern India, generally speaking.
Suzuki subscribed to the idea that religions are each a sort of
organism, an organism that is (through time) subject to "irritation" -
hence, showing the capacity to change or evolve.
It was Suzuki's contention that a Zen satori (awakening) was the
goal of the tradition's training, but that what distinguished the
tradition as it developed through the centuries in China was a way of
life radically different from that of Indian Buddhists. In India, the
tradition of the mendicant (holy beggar, bhikku in Pali)
prevailed, but in China social circumstances led to the development of
a temple and training-center system in which the abbot and the monks
all performed mundane tasks. These included food gardening or farming,
carpentry, architecture, housekeeping, administration (or community
direction), and the practice of folk medicine. Consequently, the
enlightenment sought in Zen had to stand up well to the demands and
potential frustrations of everyday life.
D. T. Suzuki received numerous honors, including Japan's national Cultural Medal.
Despite Suzuki's pioneering efforts, he was sometimes criticized by
some, on the grounds that (1)he was not an ordained Zen monk (2) he was
not an academic historian working whithin an academic institution. This
may be a somewhat harsh view; some clearly credible Western scholars,
such as Heinrich Dumoulin,
have acknowledged some degree of debt to Suzuki's published work, and,
most significantly, some of the most important figures of the twentieth
century have praised him unreservedly (see below---"About D. T.
Suzuki") Nevertheless, Suzuki's view of Zen Buddhism is certainly his
very own; as philosopher Charles A. Moore said: "Suzuki in his later
years was not just a reporter of Zen, not just an expositor, but a
significant contributor to the development of Zen and to its
enrichment". This is echoed by Nishitani Keiji,
who declared: "...in Dr. Suzuki's activities, Buddhism came to posses a
forward-moving direction with a frontier spirit...This involved
shouldering the task of rethinking, restating and redoing traditional
Buddhism to transmit it to Westerners as well as Easterners...To
accomplish this task it is necessary to be deeply engrossed in the
tradition, and at the same time to grasp the longing and the way of
thinking whithin the hearts of Westerners. From there, new
possibilities should open up in the study of the Buddha Dharma
which have yet to be found in Buddhist history...Up to now this new
Buddhist path has been blazed almost single-handedly by Dr. Suzuki. He
did it on behalf of the whole Buddhist world".