D. T. Suzuki: A Biography
D. T. Suzuki: A Biography
- James C. DobbinsJames C. DobbinsDepartment of Religion, Oberlin College
D. T. Suzuki (1870–1966) was a renowned scholar, proponent, and popularizer of Buddhism in the 20th century. He grew up in modest circumstances in Kanazawa, Japan, and was a strong student in primary and secondary school. Though he was forced to withdraw before graduation, he managed to enter Tokyo Imperial University in 1892 as a special student and received instruction in Western philosophy and literature. At the same time, Suzuki began intensive Zen training as a lay practitioner at Engakuji monastery in nearby Kamakura. His master, Shaku Sōen, who had international connections, later recommended him to Open Court Publishing in the United States to assist in its projects on Asian religions. Suzuki lived in Illinois for eleven years, working mostly in translation, editing, and proofreading while also absorbing Western scholarship on religion and philosophy. During this time he began publishing his own works on Buddhism and Asian religions. He returned to Japan in 1909 and took a position as an English professor in the preparatory division of Gakushūin in Tokyo. He also resumed Zen practice with Shaku Sōen in Kamakura and collaborated with him on Japanese publications on Zen. By this time Suzuki had produced an array of works on Buddhism in English and Japanese.
In 1921 Suzuki was appointed professor of English and Buddhist studies at Ōtani University in Kyoto. There he launched the journal The Eastern Buddhism, co-edited with his American wife Beatrice Lane Suzuki (1875–1939), which became an important international venue for scholarship on Mahayana Buddhism. Over the next twenty years Suzuki published some of his most influential books in English, many of which introduced Europeans and Americans to Zen. He also produced important works on Mahayana and Pure Land Buddhism. After his wife died in 1939, he went into semi-retirement in Kamakura and spent the war years publishing in Japanese on Zen, Pure Land, and Japan’s spirituality.
After World War II, Suzuki emerged as a public figure in Japan. This was also the time when Western interest in Buddhism increased dramatically. In 1949 Suzuki went overseas again and spent almost a decade in the United States, primarily on the faculty of Columbia University. During this period he gave countless lectures and talks in the United States and Europe, and met frequently with prominent Western thinkers. Suzuki quickly rose to fame as a celebrity intellectual. After retiring to Japan in 1958, he continued to write and make appearances throughout his remaining years. When he died in 1966 at the age of ninety-five, Suzuki was acclaimed worldwide as the foremost proponent of Zen and as an authority on Buddhism.