Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Religion. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 01 October 2022

D. T. Suzuki: A Biographyfree

D. T. Suzuki: A Biographyfree

  • 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.


  • Buddhism

Suzuki’s Childhood and Youth

Suzuki Daisetsu [Daisetz] Teitarō 鈴木大拙貞太郎‎ (1870–1966), more commonly known as D. T. Suzuki, was born as the youngest of five children into an educated family in the regional city of Kanazawa 金沢‎ in Japan. His father had been a member of the samurai class before the Meiji 明治‎ Restoration of 1868, serving as a physician to the ruling samurai house of the Kaga 加賀‎ domain. The Suzuki family was nominally affiliated with a local Rinzai Zen 臨済禅‎ temple, but his father was attracted more to the Chinese classics, Confucian thought, and Western learning than to Buddhism. When Suzuki was only six years old, his father passed away, and a year later one of his brothers died. From that time he and his mother lived in financial straits. Soon afterward his mother joined a small, insular group of Pure Land Buddhists that espoused “secret teachings” (hiji bōmon 秘事法門‎), which was not officially recognized by the Jōdo Shinshū 浄土真宗‎, or Shin Buddhist, ecclesiastical authorities. Suzuki too was initiated into this group when he was seven or eight years old. His earliest personal experience of Buddhism was thus with Pure Land rather than Zen.1

Though lacking financial resources, Suzuki was bright and industrious and excelled at school. He was accepted into the elite middle and upper level schools in Kanazawa and exposed to Japan’s new style of education based on Western models, emphasizing math, science, foreign languages, and Western approaches to history, literature, philosophy, and society. There, he was a classmate of Nishida Kitarō 西田幾多郎‎ (1870–1945), the future philosopher, who would become a lifelong friend. Suzuki distinguished himself in English in a way that few other Japanese of his generation did. Notwithstanding his success in school, in 1888 he was forced for financial reasons to withdraw before graduating and to take a job as an English teaching assistant at an elementary school on the remote Noto 能登‎ peninsula and, later, in the town of Mikawa 美川‎ near Kanazawa. In 1890, however, Suzuki’s mother died, which was a great blow to him. But in the wake of this tragedy, he turned his attention once more to pursuing higher education, this time far from his hometown.2

University Study and Zen Training

With modest support from his second brother, Suzuki enrolled first at Waseda University in Tokyo in 1891 and then transferred the following year to Tokyo Imperial University as a special student. There he was exposed to a broad range of Western subjects. During this period he also took up Zen meditation, inspired by his math teacher in Kanazawa who had practiced meditation at the Engakuji 円覚寺‎ monastery in Kamakura 鎌倉‎. Suzuki first visited the monastery two months after arriving in Tokyo, and in 1892, when Shaku Sōen 釈宗演‎ (1860–1919) was installed as the new abbot, Suzuki came under his instruction. Over the next three years, he spent so much time there that he withdrew from university altogether in 1895. Sōen, though a fully certified Rinzai Zen master, was an internationally minded Buddhist cleric who had lived in Sri Lanka as a Theravada monk from 1887 to 1889 and who attended the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. Suzuki, as a lay Zen disciple, became Sōen’s close and devoted protégé, both in religious training and in the development of a new, Pan-Asian understanding of Buddhism that would have credibility not only in modern Japan but also in the West. Suzuki was well suited to this enterprise because his English was excellent (better than Sōen’s, who asked him to translate his address for the Parliament of Religions) and because Suzuki was well read in Western philosophy, Transcendentalist literature, psychology, and religious theory.3

At the Engakuji, Suzuki divided his time between Zen monastic training (including meditation and koan—specifically, the Nothingness, or Mu ‎, koan, which Sōen assigned to him) and scholarly activities to promote Buddhism, making reference to Western concepts where apt. He also served as the English correspondent in Sōen’s behalf with Paul Carus (1852–1919), who had befriended Sōen in the United States at the Parliament. Carus was the editor-in-chief at Open Court Publishing in LaSalle, Illinois, and an important scholar of religion with a particular interest in Buddhism. Suzuki was recruited to produce a Japanese translation of Carus’s popular work, The Gospel of Buddha (Budda no fukuin 仏陀‎の福音‎), which appeared in 1895.4 The following year Suzuki published his own extensive theoretical work on religion, Shin Shūkyō ron 新宗教論‎ (A New Interpretation of Religion), influenced in part by Carus’s ideas.5 These activities demonstrate the international scope of Suzuki’s thinking at this early stage in his life, even as he undertook fairly traditional Rinzai Zen training at the Engakuji.

Through Sōen’s connection to Carus, Suzuki was offered the opportunity to travel to the United States and assist him with an English translation project. But before departing, Suzuki redoubled his efforts in monastic practice in the hope of experiencing his first Zen awakening or satori ‎り. After months of effort, during Engakuji’s intensive meditation retreat of December 1896, and only two months before he sailed for the United States, Suzuki finally had that satori. His account of it several years later did not focus on his engagement with the koan but rather described a feeling of being inseparable from the trees all around him as he walked from the meditation hall back to his quarters in the moonlight. That experience made a lasting impression on Suzuki and became a personal reference point for him throughout his life.6

Life in the United States

When Suzuki departed Japan in 1897, little did he know he would spend twelve years abroad, eleven in the United States and one in Europe. Ostensibly, the reason for this trip was to assist Carus in a translation of the Daoist classic, Daodejing 道徳経‎ (published as The Canon of Reason and Virtue in 1898). But once in the United States, Suzuki looked for other ways to extend his stay. As it turned out, few opportunities presented themselves, but assignments at Open Court Publishing, one after another, came his way so that he was able to piece together a living by translating, proofreading, editing, writing, answering correspondence, and doing many other tasks, both important and menial. Open Court produced a wide variety of publications that focused on philosophy and religion. The entire operation was financed by Paul Carus’s father-in-law, Edward Hegeler (1835–1910), a wealthy industrialist who had an interest in monistic philosophy. In addition to books and translations of foreign texts, it published two well-respected journals: The Open Court, which featured high-quality and popularly accessible articles written by experts, and The Monist, which contained more specialized philosophical studies. Working at Open Court was a great boon to Suzuki, for it exposed him to the latest scholarship in the West on philosophy and religion.7 Perhaps the most influential work that he encountered at this stage of his life was The Varieties of Religious Experience by the well-known psychologist and philosopher William James (1842–1910). It inspired Suzuki to explain Buddhism and especially Zen in terms of religious experience in all his subsequent writings.8 This on-the-job education at Open Court endowed Suzuki with a vocabulary and a conceptual framework that became invaluable to him in interpreting Buddhism to the West.

During his long residency in the United States, Suzuki began to publish articles, translations, and books in English as he came to understand what topics Westerners were interested in and how they comprehended Asian religions. Some of his works were on Chinese philosophy, written mostly in response to the demands of the intellectual marketplace. But Suzuki’s primary concern was to present the Mahayana Buddhism of East Asia in the best possible light.9 There was a widespread assumption among Western readers that Theravada was the original and authentic Buddhism of Asia and that Mahayana was a later and inferior form. Suzuki strove to reverse this impression and to portray the Buddhism of Japan and China as a more advanced understanding of the religion. His translation of Aśvaghoṣa’s Discourse on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana (1900) and his book Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism (1907) were both produced with this goal in mind.10 It is noteworthy that during his long stay in the United States, Suzuki published very few works in English about Zen. It became the focus of his writings mostly in the middle of his career and the post–World War II years. At this early stage, the defense of Mahayana in East Asia was Suzuki’s primary objective.

Though based somewhat remotely in LaSalle, Illinois, Suzuki developed contacts with a wide variety of people in the United States who influenced his thinking. For instance, he became acquainted with Albert J. Edmunds (1857–1941), the cataloger of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, who was a strong promoter of Swedenborgianism, the 19th-century theological and mystical movement inspired by Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772). Suzuki was attracted to this non-mainstream spiritual movement because of its universalism and its acknowledgment of the truth of various religions, and he subsequently published translations of Swedenborg’s major works in Japan.11 Suzuki also spent ten months between 1905 and 1906 as the personal interpreter and guide of Shaku Sōen, his Zen master, who was invited to give lectures and talks in the United States. This tour not only deepened Suzuki’s relationship with Sōen but also exposed him to influential groups and spiritually curious Westerners who were open to Buddhism. Among them was Beatrice Erskine Lane (1875–1939), a brilliant and highly educated individual who would later become Suzuki’s wife. She attended a lecture by Sōen in New York in April 1906 and afterward developed an enthusiastic correspondence with Suzuki while he was editing Sōen’s talks, published in 1906 as Sermons of a Buddhist Abbot. In the following year Suzuki visited her and her mother for several weeks in Connecticut, about the time he gave talks on Buddhism at the annual Greenacre summer religious retreat in Eliot, Maine. After Suzuki finally departed the United States in February 1908, he spent a year in Europe, mostly in London, sponsored by the Swedenborg Society, translating Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell into Japanese.12

New Career in Tokyo

When Suzuki arrived back in Japan in April 1909, he did not have any means of support, and he was not well positioned to seek a teaching job, since he lacked the credential of a university degree. But he did have twelve years of experience living abroad and a strong command of English. Moreover, he had published high-level scholarship in both Japanese and English. With the recommendation of a former Kanazawa classmate who taught Japanese literature at Tokyo Imperial University, Suzuki managed to get a position as an English professor in the preparatory division of Gakushūin 学習院‎, the Peers School, in Tokyo.13 At this early point in his career, he was recognized more for his English expertise than for his knowledge of Buddhism. Gakushūin became a good setting for Suzuki to embed himself in Japan’s academic network, providing him with financial security in Japan even as he remained engaged with scholarship in the United States and Europe.

During his twelve years in Tokyo, Suzuki developed as a scholar in a variety of ways. First, he continued his writing and research on Emanuel Swedenborg, publishing four book-length Japanese translations of his works, producing an intellectual biography of him, and presenting a paper, “Swedenborg in Japan,” at the annual Swedenborg conference in London in 1912.14 His marriage to Beatrice Lane, who joined him in Japan in 1911, reinforced his interest in popular religious movements in the West, though she was attracted more to Theosophy, Hinduism, New Thought, Bahá’í, and Buddhism than to Swedenborgianism. Second, Suzuki became interested in Pure Land Buddhist thought after meeting Sasaki Gesshō ‎々木月樵‎ (1875–1926), a professor at Shinshū 真宗‎ University in Tokyo (which was later renamed Ōtani 大谷‎ University after its move to Kyoto). Though earlier Suzuki was somewhat disdainful of Pure Land, through Sasaki he was exposed to modern interpretations that appealed to him, as he assisted Sasaki with English translations of two Pure Land works in 1910. These activities foreshadowed Suzuki’s new interpretations of Pure Land in later decades.15 Third, Suzuki re-immersed himself in Zen from the time he arrived back in Japan until the death of his master, Shaku Sōen, in 1919. Tokyo, where Suzuki worked, was only a short train ride away from Kamakura, so he would retreat there on weekends and school breaks and stay at the Shōden’an 正伝庵‎ cottage in the Engakuji monastic complex. He not only practiced meditation and koan training but also resumed his study of Zen’s vast textual corpus, all under Sōen’s direction. Together they launched a monthly journal entitled Zendō 禅道‎, or “Zen Way,” in 1910, aimed at a general readership in which Suzuki published about sixty short articles over the next decade.16 This period of intense study and training, more than his earlier practice at Engakuji, equipped Suzuki to become a world-class authority on Zen.

Professorship at Ōtani University

In 1921 Suzuki resigned his position at Gakushūin to accept an appointment at Ōtani University in Kyoto as professor of English and Buddhist studies. This was the first position Suzuki held in Buddhist studies per se, even though he was already fifty years old. Sasaki Gesshō, who would become Ōtani’s president in 1924, was the motivating force behind this appointment, and Suzuki’s close friend Nishida Kitarō, who by then was a professor of philosophy at Kyoto Imperial University, also encouraged him to accept it. At Ōtani, Suzuki’s prolific scholarly activities over the next two decades earned him a national and international reputation. One important venue in which he published many of his famous essays was the English journal The Eastern Buddhist, which Suzuki established at Ōtani in 1921 with the financial support of the Higashi Honganji 東本願寺‎ denomination of Shin Buddhism.17 His publications in this period ranged across many topics in Mahayana, Zen, and Pure Land, delineating themes that he would continue to elucidate in later years. Some of his most famous books in English were written at this time.

One person who contributed to Suzuki’s success was his wife, Beatrice Lane Suzuki. She had academic degrees from top institutions in the United States—Radcliffe College (the women’s school affiliated with Harvard) and Columbia University. She was widely read and proficient in classical and modern European languages and had worked as a journalist, writer, and teacher. Hence, when Suzuki was appointed at Ōtani, she was simultaneously offered a position as an instructor of English in its preparatory division. Beatrice was also named co-editor of The Eastern Buddhist where her erudition and writing skills no doubt enhanced the quality of the journal. Most of Suzuki’s English publications were reviewed, polished, and edited by her, up to the time of her death in 1939. She produced her own publications as well: articles, essays, and a few books on Japanese literature, culture, and Buddhism aimed mostly at general readers.18 She was also a great proponent of animal welfare and became a relentless rescuer of stray cats and dogs in Japan, a commitment that spread to Suzuki resulting in their establishment of a Buddhist animal shelter.19 Also, in 1916, early in their marriage, they adopted a baby, Alan Masaru Suzuki (1916–1971), in whom they had high hopes. But he became a problem child in his teenage years and ultimately gravitated toward Japan’s glittering entertainment and music industry and away from their world of scholarship.20 Nonetheless, together Suzuki and Beatrice formed a powerful and productive partnership that successfully spread Buddhism to the English-reading public.

Another long-term contributor to Suzuki’s success was his friend and fellow Kanazawa native, Ataka Yakichi 安宅弥吉‎ (1873–1949), a wealthy entrepreneur in the import-export business. They originally met in Tokyo when both were lowly students, but once Ataka became rich he emerged as Suzuki’s most generous, long-term patron. He provided subventions for Suzuki’s English publications, produced in London and distributed worldwide. He also built a grand residence for Suzuki and his family near Ōtani University. And he was the primary donor for the construction of Suzuki’s research library, Matsugaoka Bunko ‎ヶ岡文庫‎, in Kamakura in the 1940s. Without Ataka’s aid, it is doubtful that Suzuki could have attained such renown or undertaken as many projects as he did.21

During his two decades of active teaching at Ōtani, Suzuki published widely in both Japanese and English, mainly in three areas: Mahayana, Zen, and Pure Land. His best-known publications on Mahayana were his study, translation, and index of the Lankavatara Sutra (1930–1934), for which Suzuki was granted the Doctor of Letters degree in 1934, the first advanced degree that he ever received. On Zen, he published his three-volume classic, Essays in Zen Buddhism (1927–1934), followed by perhaps his most famous book, Introduction to Zen Buddhism (1934), all of which elevated Zen in the minds of Western readers. On Pure Land, he wrote a variety of innovative articles that appeared in The Eastern Buddhist, the longest of which was his monograph-length work, “The Shin Sect of Buddhism” (1939). Ōtani was a Shin Buddhist university with many progressive scholars. Suzuki sympathized with their this-worldly interpretation of Pure Land Buddhism, which from this time became a recurring topic of Suzuki’s research and writing. Based on all these activities Suzuki gained recognition both in Japan and abroad, especially after his participation in the World Congress of Faiths in London in 1936.22

Wartime and Postwar Years in Japan

After Suzuki’s wife Beatrice died in 1939, he largely curtailed his teaching at Ōtani and began living in semi-retirement at Engakuji’s Shōden’an cottage in Kamakura. Publication of The Eastern Buddhist was suspended (perhaps indicating Beatrice’s crucial editorial role) and did not resume fully until 1965. While living in Kamakura, Suzuki remained a productive scholar over the next decade even though he was in his seventies. During the war years, almost all of his publications were written in Japanese, since he was largely cut off from his English readership. But he explored new topics, including the idea of “unborn Zen” (fushō Zen 不生禅‎) of the little-known master Bankei 盤珪‎ (1622–1693) and the Pure Land teachings of Shinran 親鸞‎ (1173–1262), the founder of Shin Buddhism, in his Tannishō 歎異抄‎ collection of aphorisms and his magnum opus Kyōgyōshinshō 教行信証‎. Suzuki also published Nihon teki reisei 日本的霊性‎ (Japanese Spirituality) in 1944, a major work in which he extolled Japan’s religious consciousness, particularly that of Zen and Shin Buddhism.23 Such cultural aggrandizement of Japan seemed compatible with wartime nationalism though Suzuki considered others responsible for the war.24 Nonetheless, his views on Japanese imperialism during this period became a point of controversy in later decades, pitting critics and defenders of Suzuki against each other.25

After World War II ended, when Suzuki was seventy-five years old, he emerged during the American occupation of Japan with a higher public profile than before, perhaps because of his newly voiced criticisms of Japan’s war effort and his longstanding ties to the West. He was frequently treated as a spokesman for a new Japan, and in several publications he recast his idea of “Japanese Spirituality” into a symbol of this new consciousness. Suzuki also became aware of the burgeoning interest in Zen among Americans and Europeans who were posted to Japan during the occupation—some of whom visited him frequently in Kamakura for Buddhist guidance—and he produced a new introductory text for their benefit, Living By Zen (1949). In addition, Suzuki’s ideas gained renewed attention overseas after Christmas Humphreys (1901–1983), a well-known British barrister and Buddhist convert who headed the Buddhist Society of London, received permission to republish Suzuki’s earlier books on Zen. Under these circumstances he began to look for opportunities to go abroad.26

Rise to Fame in the United States

In June, 1949, Suzuki traveled to Honolulu to attend the Second East-West Philosophers’ Conference and to teach a one-semester course at the University of Hawai‘i. This was the beginning of a series of appointments that resulted in his living in the United States until 1958. Most of the time he was affiliated with universities: Hawai‘i, Claremont Graduate School in southern California, and, most prominently, Columbia University in New York. The 1950s were precisely the period when interest in Buddhism, and especially Zen, skyrocketed in the United States and Europe. Suzuki was the right person to respond to this demand. He gave public lectures widely, offered university courses, and produced new publications, many aimed at general readers. In this context Suzuki quickly rose to fame as a public intellectual and popularizer of Buddhism. He was invited to the Eranos Conferences of 1953 and 1954, an annual summer gathering of world-class thinkers in Ascona, Switzerland, and he was a featured speaker at the Brussels World’s Fair in Belgium in May 1958. Suzuki also became well known beyond elite circles, as he appeared in popular magazines—The New Yorker, Vogue, Time, Mademoiselle, and Harper’s Weekly—and even in an NBC television series. All of these helped make him a celebrity intellectual. He was seen as the preeminent transmitter of Zen to the West and an expert on Buddhism.27

The major works that Suzuki wrote while in the United States were Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist (1957), Zen and Japanese Culture (1959, a revised and expanded version of his 1938 book on this topic), and Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis (1960, co-authored with Erich Fromm and Richard DeMartino). All were written in response to requests from various publishers, scholars, and foundations in the West. Apart from them, Suzuki’s greatest hope and goal was to produce authoritative works on Zen philosophy and English translations of Chinese classics in order to place Zen on solid footing in the English-reading world. To support him in this effort, the multimillionaire Cornelius Crane (1905–1962), who was fascinated by Zen and became Suzuki’s new patron, provided funds for the creation of the so-called Zen Studies Society, which guaranteed Suzuki a handsome salary for five years, thereby allowing him to step down from his Columbia University faculty position in 1957. Despite this support it was difficult for Suzuki to bring his proposed Zen publications to completion because of the incessant requests for public talks and popular writings and because of his advanced age. By this time Suzuki was well into his eighties and was receiving the help of a young Japanese-American woman, Mihoko Okamura (b. 1935), as his personal assistant. It was in these circumstances, amid Suzuki’s meteoric rise to fame and his many projects on Zen, that he decided to return to Japan.28

Old Age in Japan

When Suzuki arrived back in Japan in November 1958, accompanied by Okamura, he was eighty-eight years old. With renown in the United States came renown in Japan. He was showered with attention surpassing anything he had experienced previously and was inundated with requests for writings, interviews, and public appearances. Instead of returning to the Shōden’an cottage at the Engakuji, Suzuki took up residence at his Matsugaoka Bunko research library across the road from the monastery after the living facilities had been expanded. There he was cared for by Okamura and by his grandniece, Hayashida Kumino 林田久美野‎ (1918–2011), and her family, who were all in residence. The research library was in an inconvenient location for a person his age: at the top of a hill with a long stone stairway, without access by car. Nonetheless, with research materials, work space, living quarters, and caretakers all close at hand, he had everything he needed to proceed with his projects. Whenever he had invitations for appearances or other commitments in nearby Tokyo or in other parts of Japan, he would often group them together, traveling with the assistance of Okamura and staying in hotels along the way. Otherwise, scholars, journalists, and all manner of visitors would come to him, climbing the hill at Matsugaoka to meet him.29

During his years back in Japan, Suzuki organized various projects to continue his work on translations and foundational studies of Zen, just as he had planned in the United States. He recruited younger Japanese scholars, such as Furuta Shōkin 古田紹欽‎ (1911–2001) and Akizuki Ryōmin 秋月龍珉‎ (1921–1999), to collaborate with him on textual studies, and he enlisted younger English-speaking scholars, such as Richard DeMartino (1922–2013), to assist with translations. Despite his plans, his work was constantly interrupted by requests. The most noteworthy one was to translate the Pure Land classic Kyōgyōshinshō by Shinran, at the behest of the Higashi Honganji. Suzuki dedicated many months to it between 1959 and 1961 and continued to polish it until the time of his death. The translation was eventually published posthumously, in 1973.30 Another project that Suzuki spent considerable time on was an illustrated and annotated edition of the simple, playful ink drawings by the Zen priest Sengai 仙厓‎ (1750–1837), at the behest of Idemitsu Sazō 出光佐三‎ (1885–1981). Idemitsu, who was a wealthy businessman in the petroleum industry, became a new benefactor of Suzuki after he returned to Japan and would regularly offer him his mountain villa at Karuizawa 軽井沢‎ in the summer to escape the city heat. He owned an extensive collection of Sengai’s original drawings, which Suzuki admired, and urged Suzuki to write a book providing insights into the pictures—which was also published posthumously, in 1971.31 These projects, while worthwhile, disrupted Suzuki’s primary agenda to produce major, authoritative works on Zen. In the end he was able to publish only a few of the ones that he had planned.

In Suzuki’s twilight years, he managed to make three more trips overseas. The first one was to Honolulu for two months in the summer of 1959, to attend the Third East-West Philosophers’ Conference at the University Hawai‘i. He was recognized as a leading figure at these conferences and was awarded an honorary doctorate degree by the university. The second trip was to India for four weeks in December 1960 and January 1961. There, Suzuki was received as a state guest by Vice President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888–1975), who had previously served as Professor of Eastern Religion and Ethics at Oxford University. As part of the trip he visited important Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India, fulfilling a lifelong dream. The third trip was in the summer of 1964, first to New York where Suzuki renewed acquaintances and had a now-famous meeting and intellectual exchange with the well-known Catholic monk and theologian Thomas Merton (1915–1968) and then to Honolulu for three weeks to join the Fourth East-West Philosophers’ Conference (though his failing hearing limited his participation). This was his last trip abroad, at the age of ninety-three.32

In the last year of Suzuki’s long life, he continued to work on projects—the Kyōgyōshinshō translation, the book on Sengai, and various Zen texts—and to give talks and interviews on occasion. He was surprisingly energetic for a nonagenarian, and his known health problems—high blood pressure, vitamin deficiency, and worsening eyesight and hearing—seemed to be managed adequately. But in July 1966, on the morning when he was scheduled to leave for his annual summer retreat at the mountain villa of Idemitsu Sazō, Suzuki fell acutely ill. Doctors were called in and, after examining him, decided to transfer Suzuki by ambulance to St. Luke’s Hospital in Tokyo. After an arduous journey from Kamakura, he arrived about 5:00 p.m. and was immediately admitted to the hospital. His doctors surmised that Suzuki was suffering from an intestinal stricture or obstruction of some type, but they were hesitant to perform surgery in his state. Throughout the night, Mihoko Okamura and Hayashida Kumino attended to him. At the same time, a large number of friends, colleagues, acquaintances, protégés, and relatives gathered at the hospital in a vigil of sorts, as word of his grave condition spread. Finally, the next morning between 5:00 and 5:30 a.m., July 12, Suzuki quietly passed away. He was ninety-five years old. After his death a grand funeral was held at the Tōkeiji 東慶寺‎ Zen temple adjacent to Matsugaoka, and the next week a huge memorial service was organized by the Higashi Honganji and Ōtani University at the Asakusa Honganji 浅草本願寺‎ temple in Tokyo. Suzuki’s ashes were divided into three parts and interred alongside Beatrice’s at the Tōkeiji cemetery, at the Suzuki family gravesite in Kanazawa, and at the Okunoin 奥之院‎ cemetery on Mount Kōya 高野‎.33 In death, Suzuki was celebrated as one of Japan’s greatest Buddhist thinkers, and an aura of adulation settled around him. Though some scholars in later decades have raised questions about his portrayal of Buddhism, Suzuki still ranks as a seminal figure in the emergence of Buddhism worldwide during the 20th century.

Review of the Literature

There is no comprehensive biography of Suzuki in English. Moreover, the vast majority of important sources are written in Japanese. These include Suzuki’s own writings, the most extensive collection of which is his so-called “Complete Works,” Suzuki Daisetsu zenshū, comprising forty volumes. Four of these volumes contain letters by Suzuki written in both Japanese and English, providing insight into his activities, acquaintances, and influences. But the “Complete Works” does not include any of his major English writings. Those are published elsewhere in a wide variety of formats, outlets, and venues, some of which are out of print. One convenient English collection is the four-volume Selected Works of D. T. Suzuki, edited by Richard M. Jaffe. Concerning Suzuki’s daily life and activities, the tersely written but richest source of information, in addition to his letters, is “D. T. Suzuki’s English Diaries,” covering the period from 1920 to 1962 (with a few years missing).

The great majority of the secondary literature on Suzuki is likewise written in Japanese. An invaluable resource is Kirita Kiyohide, Suzuki Daisetsu kenkyū kiso shiryō, which contains a comprehensive chronology of Suzuki’s life and a near-exhaustive list of his publications. More than one hundred brief remembrances and tributes to Suzuki—written by colleagues, former students, friends, relatives, and acquaintances—are assembled in Suzuki Daisetsu: Hito to shisō, by Hisamatsu Shin’ichi, all in Japanese. Two parallel collections of tributes in English are found in Nishitani Keiji and Hiroshi Sakamoto, Special Issue: In Memoriam—Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, 1870–1966; and Masao Abe, A Zen Life: D. T. Suzuki Remembered. The most noteworthy accounts of Suzuki’s life, all in Japanese, are the works by Nishimura, Okamura and Ueda, Hayashida, and Akizuki. In English, Winthrop Sargeant’s “Great Simplicity” offers a popular profile of Suzuki during the Zen boom of the 1950s. Michael Goldberg’s documentary video, A Zen Life: D. T. Suzuki, presents him sympathetically and appreciatively through interviews with people who knew him.

Primary Sources

  • Suzuki, Daisetz (Daisetsu) Teitarō 鈴木大拙貞太郎‎. Essays in Zen Buddhism: First, Second, and Third Series. London: Rider, 1949–1953.
  • Suzuki, Daisetsu (Daisetz) Teitarō. Suzuki Daisetsu zenshū 鈴木大拙全集‎. 40 vols. Edited by Hisamatsu Shin’ichi 久松真一‎, Yamaguchi Susumu 山口益‎, and Furuta Shōkin 古田紹欽‎. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1999–2003.
  • Suzuki, Daisetsu (Daisetz) Teitarō. “D. T. Suzuki’s English Diaries.” In Matsugaoka Bunko kenkyū nenpō. Edited by Kirita Kiyohide, 19–29, 2005–2015.
  • Suzuki, Daisetz (Daisetsu) Teitarō. Selected Works of D. T. Suzuki. 4 vols. Edited by Richard M. Jaffe. Oakland: University of California Press, 2014–2021.
Research Resources
  • Abe, Masao, ed. A Zen Life: D. T. Suzuki Remembered. New York and Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1986.
  • Hisamatsu Shin’ichi 久松真一‎, Yamaguchi Susumu 山口益‎, and Furuta Shōkin 古田紹欽‎, eds. Suzuki Daisetsu: Hito to shisō 鈴木大拙‎: 人と思想‎. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1971.
  • Kirita Kiyohide 桐田清秀‎, comp. Suzuki Daisetsu kenkyū kiso shiryō 鈴木大拙研究基礎資料‎. Kamakura: Matsugaoka Bunko, 2005.
  • Nishitani, Keiji, and Hiroshi Sakamoto, eds. Special Issue: In Memoriam—Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, 1870–1966. Eastern Buddhist (New Series) 2, no. 1 (1967).
Secondary Sources
  • Akizuki Ryōmin 秋月龍珉‎. Suzuki Daisetsu 鈴木大拙‎. Tokyo: Kōdansha, 2004.
  • Hayashida Kumino 林田久美野‎. Ōoji Suzuki Daisetsu kara no tegami 大叔父鈴木大拙からの手紙‎. Kyoto: Hōzōkan, 1995.
  • Iwakura Masaji 岩倉政治‎. Shinnin Suzuki Daisetsu 真人鈴木大拙‎. Kyoto: Hōzōkan, 1986.
  • Nishimura Eshin 西村恵信‎. Suzuki Daisetsu no genfūkei 鈴木大拙の原風景‎. Tokyo: Daitō Shuppan, 1993.
  • Okamura Mihoko 岡村美穂子‎ and Ueda Shizuteru 上田閑照‎. Daisetsu no fūkei: Suzuki Daisetsu to wa dare ka 大拙の風景‎: 鈴木大拙とは誰か‎. Kyoto: Tōeisha, 1999.
  • Okamura Mihoko and Ueda Shizuteru. Omoide no kobako kara: Suzuki Daisetsu no koto 思い出の小箱から‎: 鈴木大拙のこと‎. Kyoto: Tōeisha, 1997.
  • Yamada Shōji 山田奨治‎. Tōkyō bugiugi to Suzuki Daisetsu 東京ブギウギと鈴木大拙‎. Kyoto: Jinbun Shoin, 2015.

Further Readings

  • Breen, John, Sueki Fumihiko, and Yamada Shōji, eds. Beyond Zen: D. T. Suzuki and the Modern Transformation of Buddhism. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2022.
  • Dobbins, James C. “D. T. Suzuki: A Brief Account of His Life.” Eastern Buddhist (Third Series) 2, no. 2 (2022).
  • Dobbins, James C. “D. T. Suzuki in Transition, 1949–53.” Matsugaoka Bunko kenkyū nenpō 30 (2016): 47–61.
  • Dobbins, James C.Oxford Bibliographies.” In Buddhism. Edited by Courtney Bruntz. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.
  • Dobbins, James C. “The Life of Emma Erskine Lane Hahn: D. T. Suzuki’s Mother-in-Law.” Matsugaoka Bunko kenkyū nenpō 35 (2021): 11–65.
  • Henderson, Harold. Catalyst for Controversy: Paul Carus of Open Court. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993.
  • Hu Shih. “Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism in China: Its History and Method.” Philosophy East and West 3, no. 1 (1953): 3–24.
  • Jaffe, Richard M. “D. T. Suzuki and the Two Cranes: American Philanthropy and Suzuki’s Global Agenda.” Matsugaoka Bunko kenkyū nenpō 32 (2018): 29–58.
  • Jaffe, Richard M. “Introduction to the 2010 Edition.” In Zen and Japanese Culture. By Daisetz T. Suzuki, vii–xxviii. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.
  • Mohr, Michel. “The Use of Traps and Snares: Shaku Sōen Revisited.” In Zen Masters. Edited by Steven Heine and Dale Wright, 183–216. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Moriya Tomoe. “‘A Note from A Rural Town in America’: The Young Suzuki Daisetsu and the Significance of Religious Experience.” Eastern Buddhist (New Series) 38, nos. 1–2 (2007): 58–68.
  • Moriya Tomoe. “Social Ethics of ‘New Buddhists’ at the Turn of the Twentieth Century: A Comparative Study of Suzuki Daisetsu and Inoue Shūten.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 32, no. 2 (2005): 283–304.
  • Sargeant, Winthrop. “Great Simplicity.” New Yorker, August 31, 1957, 34–53.
  • Satō, Kemmyō Taira. “D. T. Suzuki and the Question of War.” Eastern Buddhist (New Series) 39, no. 1 (2008): 61–120.
  • Sharf, Robert H. “The Zen of Japanese Nationalism.” In Curators of the Buddha. Edited by Donald S. Lopez Jr., 107–160. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
  • Snodgrass, Judith. Presenting Japanese Buddhism to the West: Orientalism, Occidentalism, and the Columbian Exposition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
  • Stunkard, Albert. “Suzuki Daisetz: An Appreciation.” Eastern Buddhist (New Series) 36, nos. 1–2 (2004): 192–228.
  • Suzuki, Daisetz T., Erich Fromm, and Richard DeMartino. Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis. New York: Harper, 1960.
  • Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro. Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism. London: Luzac, 1907.
  • Suzuki, Daisetz T. Sengai: The Zen of Ink and Paper. Boston and London: Shambhala, 1999.
  • Suzuki, Daisetz Teitarō, trans. Shinran’s Kyōgyōshinshō: The Collection of Passages Expounding the True Teaching, Living, Faith, and Realizing of the Pure Land. Edited by The Center for Shin Buddhist Studies. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  • Suzuki, Daisetz T. Swedenborg, Buddha of the North. Translated by Andrew Bernstein. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 1996.
  • Suzuki, Daisetz T. Zen and Japanese Culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.
  • Suzuki, Teitaro, trans., Aśvaghoṣa’s Discourse on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana. Chicago: Open Court, 1900.
  • Switzer, A. Irwin, III. D. T. Suzuki: A Biography. Edited and enlarged by John Snelling. London: Buddhist Society, 1985.
  • Tweed, Thomas A. “American Occultism and Japanese Buddhism: Albert J. Edmunds, D. T. Suzuki, and Translocative History.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 32, no. 2 (2005): 249–281.
  • Victoria, Brian. Zen at War. 2nd ed. Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006.
  • Yoshinaga Shin’ichi. “Suzuki Daisetsu and Swedenborg: A Historical Background.” In Modern Buddhism in Japan. Edited by Hayashi Makoto, Ōtani Eiichi, and Paul L. Swanson, 112–143. Nagoya: Nanzan Institute of Religion and Culture, 2014.
  • Yusa, Michiko. Zen and Philosophy: An Intellectual Biography of Nishida Kitarō. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2002.
  • Goldberg, Michael, prod. and dir. A Zen Life: D. T. Suzuki. DVD. Tokyo: Japan Inter-Culture Foundation, 2006.