My Encounter with D. T. Suzuki

My Encounter with D. T. Suzuki
At the 74th Anniv. of the Buddhist Society

Mr. Christmas Humphreys, the founder of the Buddhist Society, was one of the best friends of my own teacher, Daisetz T. Suzuki. In the aftermath of the Second World War Mr Humphreys worked in Japan as one of the judges at the war crimes trials and it was through his encounter with D. T. Suzuki at this time that he became convinced of the truth at the heart of Mahayana Buddhism.

With this historical background in mind I would like to give a talk about my own experience of living with D. T. Suzuki.

D.T. Suzuki has been called many things by many people: the greatest Zen man in the world, a great Buddhist philosopher, a brilliant religious thinker, an eminent speaker on Eastern philosophy and so forth. For me, however, none of these epithets truly describe him. They just reveal how he appeared to his audience, each title standing for a part of what he was. D. T. Suzuki was a human being without a title. His radiant personality, ever present to me even now, was firmly rooted in his own self as a human being. He was quite simply himself, nothing more and nothing less.

D. T. Suzuki is, however, too great a figure for me to try and talk about. So it is not my intention to describe him objectively. What I would like to talk about today is my own personal encounter with D. T. Suzuki, or, more accurately, about some fragments of all that I received through my experience of living with him for the last three years of his life.

Before embarking on my main subject, “My Encounter with D. T. Suzuki”, perhaps by way of introduction, I would like to explain my present situation and then introduce myself, focusing on how I became a Buddhist.

I now live in London where I am the Director of Three Wheels, a Buddhist centre in Acton, the parent body of which is Shogyoji Temple, a Shin Buddhist temple in Japan. At the same time I am a professorial research associate of the Department of Religious Studies at SOAS, London University. For over twenty years I have also been a member of the editorial staff of an English Buddhist journal, The Eastern Buddhist.

In actual fact I was born in a temple. The temple in question is located in the southernmost island of Japan where my father was a priest. This may sound somewhat startling to you. But there is a school of Buddhism in Japan in which priests are allowed to marry. So I was brought up in that temple. When I was a junior high school boy, however, I wanted to become a scientist rather than a priest. This was partly, I suppose, because I was very interested in mathematics, physics and chemistry. And I really hated the idea of having been born in a temple! At that time I couldn’t find any of what I would call living, dynamic Buddhism around me. The priests all seemed to be absorbed in rituals such as funerals or anniversaries of the dead, or else they only seemed to be interested in philosophy or the theological systems of their own particular schools. It was a hopeless situation for me.

Then one day, when I was 14 years old, I experienced an immense spiritual transformation in my immediate family. This transformation was brought about by my parents’ encounter with a wonderful Buddhist master. They underwent a great change, and became fervent followers of this master. The master was in fact an old lady. I was surprised and pleased. So I too went to see her. She was a really enlightened person. She brought Buddhism alive for me. I made up my mind there and then to change the whole direction of my life and decided to study Buddhism, the teaching of Buddha.

Thus it was that I entered Kyoto University to study Buddhism. While making a personal study of traditional Buddhism, I first studied Western philosophy for 6 years, because I considered modern Japanese to have been much influenced by Western culture and thought, especially by modern science. In order to know myself I felt I should study Western ways of thinking. At the end of this period of study I found myself faced with a very serious dilemma: should I become a priest or a scholar ? I wrote to my master Ekai-san, and she told me to go to see D. T. Suzuki.

Accompanied by Mr Masami Ishida, my present master Venerable Chimyo Takehara’s father, I first met D. T. Suzuki at his residence on a hill in Kamakura, in February 1962. I asked D. T. Suzuki to allow me to study Buddhism under his instruction. For the next whole hour, however, D. T. Suzuki just carried on talking joyfully about Pure Land Buddhism with Mr Ishida and showed us one of the poet Asahara Saichi’s notebooks, containing pages full of Namuamidabutsu. Then, just before I left his house D. T. Suzuki told me that because I had presumably already studied theories of religion and philosophy, all I needed now was to attain pure faith in the Buddha, to become myself Namuamidabutsu.

I spoke of this on the phone to my master, Ekai-san, and she immediately asked me whether I had suggested to D. T. Suzuki that my coming to him was in fulfilment of the great working of Namuamidabutsu. But no, I had not. Both of these matters were really big questions for me to consider.

How to become Namuamidabutsu, how to realise the great working of Namuamidabutsu, these were the questions that weighed upon me as I studied Buddhist philosophy under D. T. Suzuki for the last three years of his life. Indeed I remained with him right up until his death, sometimes working in D.T. Suzuki’s garden, sometimes reading books in his library, sometimes making copies of his hand-written drafts for publishers’ use, sometimes helping him edit a book on Pure Land Buddhism.

Two months before his sudden death, D. T. Suzuki told me to attend a lecture he was to give at a temple very close to his home. In the course of his talk, he said he was not a politician, nor an economist, nor a scholar, nor a philosopher, nor even a religious thinker. He rejected everything, every title. And so I came to ask myself just where it was this old man stood. For he was now 95 years old. In actual fact, however, the question was aimed far more at myself. I began wondering whether I had not simply been seeking for an outward form which I could depend on. Indeed yes, I had. And I was wrong. Whatever that outward form might be, whether that of scholar or priest, what I was seeking was a title, a worldly state. When I realised this, when I saw there was nothing I could ultimately depend on, I instantly took refuge in the Buddha. Recalling a famous phrase from The Diamond Sutra (Chinese version): “If you find nowhere to dwell it will give rise to the mind (of Enlightenment),” I called the Buddha’s name with my whole being. It was a truly wonderful experience that I had during his lecture. My questions were answered and all at once I found a shining new world.

So next morning I went to D. T. Suzuki to express my deep-felt gratitude. When I came to him he was sitting before a round Japanese fireplace (charcoal brazier), raking the ash with a little rake. While doing so, he listened to me. After I had finished speaking, he asked me what I would do next. I answered at once that I was going to become a scholar. I had never expected to say this. D. T. Suzuki was very pleased and encouraging. His question had enabled me to understand that, if one didn’t depend on any form, one could take on any form. In other words, if you have no form which you are attached to, you can assume any form. Then, gazing at me with tears in his eyes, he said that I had just started out on a new path. Soon after this, he passed away.

There were several little expressions D. T. Suzuki would often use in daily life. Two of them in particular stick in my memory. One of them was “It’s interesting (omoshiroi)” and the other “So grateful for it (arigataizo), thank you (arigato)”. The phrase “It’s interesting” demonstrates Suzuki’s innate, untiring curiosity, the inspirational source of all his voluminous writings. Before ever meeting him I had already noticed his fondness for the little phrase “It’s interesting,” through my reading his dialogues with other prominent scholars. When I first came to live with him, D. T. Suzuki was ninety-three years old and I was twenty-four. Despite such a huge gap in our ages his “It’s interesting” always sounded so lively and provocative to me.

The phrase “It’s interesting” has something Zen-like about it whilst “I am so grateful for it” is closer to Shin Buddhist feeling. In daily life, however, I found to my surprise that D. T. Suzuki would say “So grateful for it” rather more often than “It’s interesting.” Indeed the words I most frequently heard from him were “So grateful for it. Thank you.” He would always look into my eyes as he pronounced these words, usually after I had done some little task for him, however trivial. And he behaved the same way to all the other people who were around him. The reason I mention this is that it serves so well to show his relationship with people and things around him. Always deeply grateful for everything to everyone, he lived his life step by step.

I like this expression “step by step,” because it immediately reminds me of an interesting remark on longevity that D. T. Suzuki once made. On the same day as he gave his last talk mentioned above, someone asked him after the lecture if he had any secret to account for his longevity. He answered: “Nothing special, just walking on step by step. See!” he said, “To return home from this temple I have to climb up some one hundred and thirty stone steps through the bamboo forest. Just looking up to the top from the bottom will be enough to make me feel tired. But if I walk up step by step, only concentrating on my next step, it will be quite easy, not difficult. The same is true of life”.

Among all the many other aspects of his life there is at least one other important aspect that has not drawn much attention from the Western world— namely how deeply interested he was in Pure Land Buddhism, especially in Shin Buddhism. Because his introduction of Zen to the West is so vigorous and impressive, his appreciation of Pure Land philosophy is often overlooked.

Living with D. T. Suzuki during his last days, how often I witnessed him enjoying Pure Land documents, especially articles written by Shinran (1173-1262), the founder of Shin Buddhism, and a great number of poems composed by Saichi Asahara (1850-1932), one of the Shin Buddhist devotees that we call the Myokonin. D. T. Suzuki was given by Reverend E. Teramoto, one of Saichi’s friends, twenty-seven original notebooks of poems written by Saichi himself and D. T. Suzuki frequently enjoyed reading and rereading those notebooks.

When introducing Japanese spirituality to the West, D. T. Suzuki placed great emphasis on the dynamic figures of Zen tradition. Japan has, however, another tradition of deep spirituality, the Shin Buddhist tradition of the Myokonin, the “wondrous good people.” It was not a Shin Buddhist scholar but D. T. Suzuki himself who first started the study of the Myokonin, introducing them to his contemporaries both in the East and the West. Writings on the Myokonin in English in fact have been largely confined to a number of articles by D. T. Suzuki, who tells us:

“They are distinguished generally by their good-heartedness, unworldliness, piousness, and lastly by their illiteracy, that is, their not being learned in the lore of their religion and not being at all argumentative about what they believe …. they are not intellectually demonstrative, they just go on practising what they have innerly experienced. When they express themselves at all, they are unaffected, their words come directly from their innermost hearts and refer directly to the truth of their faith.”

The simplicity and ‘illiteracy’ of the Myokonin meant, of course, that they seldom attained positions of religious leadership and rarely left records of their spiritual insights. Even within Shin Buddhism their position has been largely peripheral. Writings on them began to reach the general public only with the work of D. T. Suzuki, who viewed the Myokonin as representing one of the purest forms of Japanese spirituality.

A number of biographies of the Myokonin did exist prior to this. Such late Edo Period publications as the Biographies of the Myokonin and Further Biographies of the Myokonin record the words and deeds of some 150 Myokonin, men and women alike, who lived during that era. Other biographies appeared later, principally in the form of booklets devoted to particular Myokonin, such as The Record of Shoma’s Life As It Was (Shoma Arinomama no Ki) and The Collection of Sayings of Monodane Kichibe (Monodane Kichibe Goroku).

These works were compiled by Shin Buddhist priests on the basis of interviews and secondary reports: they invariably take the form of narratives in the third person, with the compiler’s own commentary and interpretation comprising the greater part of the text. This makes it hard to achieve any kind of contact with the living personalities of the Myokonin themselves.

For this reason the diaries of Saichi Asahara are of particular value, providing a record of the spiritual insights of one steeped in this tradition. Saichi was a woodworker who lived in the village of Kobama in Iwami Province, present-day Shimane Prefecture. He was a shipwright until his early fifties, when he changed trades and became a maker of geta (Japanese wooden clogs), a job he continued until his death aged 83.

As Saichi sat carving his geta he would note down verses on shavings and scraps of wood. They are artless expressions of his inner, spiritual life; his very lack of erudition made them, if anything, all the more direct and alive. As these verses accumulated Saichi copied them into grade school notebooks, and they eventually amounted to quite a large collection. Written down over a period of seventeen years, from the spring of 1915 until his death early in 1932, they are estimated to number upward of ten thousand, that means an average of two a day.

When I went to study with D. T. Suzuki I was surprised, even though I had read quite a lot of his books, to find quite how much enjoyment he derived in his daily life from reading Pure Land texts, very often the poems of Saichi. It was perhaps because I still thought of him primarily as a Zen scholar. One day Miss Mihoko Okamura, D. T. Suzuki’s secretary, told me how much she had enjoyed his translation of The Kyogyoshinsho ( Shinran’s main writing ). When D. T. Suzuki was engaged in translating this massive and deeply philosophical work, he was observed from time to time murmuring to himself “Shinran-san! Wakaruzo wakaruzo (I understand, I undestand!).” If you read the essays he wrote in his last days, especially those compiled together as Toyo no Kokoro or Daisetsu Tsurezuregusa, you can easily recognise his deep spiritual involvement in Pure Land Buddhism and tell how much he loved Saichi’s poems.

It is intriguing to speculate on the exact contents of Saichi’s first notebook, for it would shed much light on the earliest phase of Saichi’s religious transformation. Unfortunately Saichi’s first notebook has been lost but some of its contents have come down to us through quotation found in Reverend Teramoto’s biography of Saichi. Judging from those entries, the poems are not as polished as those of his later years, but they vividly convey to us Saichi’s state of mind around the time that he embarked on his spiritual journey into the world of faith. Among the entries is a poem of unusual length and humility, of which this is one part:

Numberless the ranks of evil men
Yet of all people in the world
My heart is the worst of all.
Though I may not have actually said it in words,
In my heart I wished my father dead.
I wondered why he didn’t die.
It’s amazing the earth hasn’t yet cracked open under me,
This mass of monstrously evil karma….

A sorrowful tone of confession is detected in these lines. As revealed in another poem of his, Saichi had accepted his father’s spiritual bequest, Namuamidabutsu, and made efforts to practise the Namuamidabutsu single-mindedly, but he had failed to realise that his desire to see his father dead tainted him, however remotely, with the guilt of patricide. Till then his reliance on self, his attachment to self-power, had confined him to the ignorance of an ego-centred world of subjective discrimination, and he had remained unaware of his own profound guilt. Without the light that pierces the shroud of ignorance, he could never have realised that he was “this mass of monstrously evil karma.”

When and from where did this light issue? It had always been present. The light shining upon Saichi was none other than the Namuamidabutsu into which he had poured his whole life. As the light of Dharma, the light of Other Power, penetrated the very core of his existence, Saichi became aware of the monstrously evil karma of one who had wished the death of his own father. With this new-found insight into the true nature of his helplessness, Saichi realised the futility of his reliance on self-power, enabling the absolute compassion of Other Power to manifest itself. Thus his encounter with Other Power coincided with his encounter with his own true self. Or in other words at the moment of encounter both Self and Other Power were fully discovered.

The Japanese word for encounter is deai. Literally it means “to come out” (de) and “to meet” (ai) and aptly expresses the idea that “meeting” can only occur with “coming out” (ekstasis), in the sense that true encounter can only take place when one comes out of the little world centred around the self. We encounter the true man or the true Dharma only when we forsake our little world of ego-centred discrimination, the subjective conceptualisation of “self” and “Dharma.”

Thus in the true encounter with self, ego-centred duality is left behind and the self becomes self-as-it-is. At the moment of full realisation of self-as-it-is, the separation between self and Dharma disappears.

“Meeting” (ai) carries with it the connotation of coming together in unity. At the same time ‘encounter with self’ is the absolute unification of self and Dharma, transcending the duality of ego consciousness. In the encounter of this self with Dharma, the primordial unity of self and Dharma is realised.

This encounter with self brought Saichi to realise his own “monstrously evil karma.” In Shin Buddhism this is the realisation of “the evil man who entrusts himself to Other Power ( in Chapter 3 of The Tannisho),” a term which implies a turning away from the self-centred performance of good, replacing it with complete dependence on Other Power. Saichi says:

In Other Power
There is no self-power, no Other Power.
All around is Other Power.
Namuamidabutsu, Namuamidabutsu.

“Other Power” in the first line is Saichi’s experience of absolute Other Power. In the second line he alludes to the relative, dualised “Other Power” that stands opposed to “self-power.” The true experience of Other Power is the experience of absolute Other Power that transcends our conceptual thinking and in which there is no conceptual discrimination between self and other. “The evil man who entrusts himself to Other Power” discovers his true self in the midst of Other Power, as expressed in the third line, “All around is Other Power.”

The whole of the first three lines of the poem could easily have been written by any religious philosopher, for it is simply the result of Saichi’s reflection on his own experience of Other Power. However, as D. T. Suzuki says, “The essence of the poem lies in the last line: ‘Namuamidabutsu Namuamidabutsu.’ Having enjoyed giving expression to his own personal experience, Saichi is simply returning to Amida Buddha by pronouncing the nembutsu, ‘Namuamidabutsu Namuamidabutsu’. This is the living Other Power working through the poet.”

Let me quote another poem written by Saichi as an aid to expressing my own deepest gratitude to Amida Buddha and to all my friends who have been helping me travel to Amida’s Pure Land, the Land of Infinite Light.

Suffering in heart, are you doubtful of Amida’s compassion?
That would truly be a great misunderstanding.
The suffering of this evil man becomes a great treasure.
Please understand the point of this teaching.
Namuamidabutsu is truly mysterious.
What is mysterious is that
Sea, mountains, food, lumber for building houses,
And everything else related to the life of an ordinary man,
All these are an embodiment of Namuamidabutsu.
Everyone, please understand this well.
This is the compassion of the Parent (Amida Buddha).
Such kindness fills me with joy!
Namuamidabutsu, Namuamidabutsu!
The [Amida] Tathagata possesses a truly mysterious power:
The means to turn Saichi into a Buddha.
Namuamidabutsu, Namuamidabutsu.

Based on my present master Venerable Chimyo Takehara’s prayer for harmony within diversity, my good friends both English and Japanese have established an international Buddhist centre, Three Wheels, here in London. As you know, they have also made a beautiful Zen garden there under the leadership of Professor John White, former Pro-Provost of University College London. Both the Buddhist centre and the Zen garden are open to the public. I will remain at the Buddhist centre until the very end of my life, or at least for as long as I can be of use in this country. If you are interested please do come down to Three Wheels. You will be most welcome at the centre, but most importantly we would ask you to give us a phone call in advance of your visit.

Thank you.
Kemmyo Taira Sato