When I was a teenager living in New York some 20 years ago, I bought a tiny introduction to Zen Buddhism from a bookstore in midtown Manhattan. A $1 clearance-sale copy, it was so small that I could slip it into my back pocket.
But that little book changed my life.
Following its instructions, I began sitting in a quiet spot every day to breathe. Just that: Breathe. With my mind’s eye, I “watched” the air travel through my nostrils and into my lungs. The air seemed like a golden tide, arriving and departing in soothing waves.
One benefit to doing all this was that I learned to ride that tide out to a place of oceanic calm — a helpful skill for a kid in the emotional throes of adolescence. There was also the sense of direction provided by my new pursuit of spiritual awakening, known in Zen as satori (enlightenment).
But never was it clear to me exactly how such an alien system of thought — more accurately, “non-thought” — had found its way to the shores of my native America. Until, that is, just the other day, when I previewed the documentary “A Zen Life — D.T. Suzuki,” an eye-opening and beautifully crafted exploration of how the Japanese Buddhist scholar Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki devoted himself to transmitting Zen to the West through numerous books and essays and countless lectures until his death in 1966. In so doing, he left a deep imprint on the West: Some commentators say Suzuki helped midwife the birth of the Beat Generation in the States in the 1950s and, indirectly, the antiwar movement of the following decade. One has even compared Suzuki’s influence with that of Albert Einstein and Mahatma Gandhi.
In his film, independent director and producer Michael Goldberg, a 61-year-old native of Canada and longtime Tokyo resident, creates a portrait of Suzuki using vintage footage of the man himself and interviews with more than a dozen people who knew him closely. Many are themselves familiar interpreters of Japanese culture, for example the American Zen master Robert Aitken, whose writing on Zen I read in college, and author Donald Richie, the leading Western authority on Japanese film and a longtime contributor to this newspaper.
Delivering the opening assessment of Suzuki’s work in the documentary is Pulitzer prize-winning poet and one-time Zen initiate Gary Snyder. “He’s probably the most culturally significant Japanese person, in international terms, in all of history,” says Snyder, who spent many years in Japan, starting in the 1950s, as a Zen adept. To that, eminent U.S. religious scholar and student of Zen Huston Smith adds, “(Suzuki) . . . made Buddhism burst like a bomb on America.”
What is Zen? During Zen sitting meditation, called zazen, practitioners sit in lotus position, half-lotus or the Japanese kneeling position called seiza. Some schools of Zen emphasize “just-sitting” meditation without any particular goal, while others focus on the breath and the contemplation of paradoxical riddles called koan.
The late American pioneer of Zen, Philip Kapleau, who had studied under Suzuki at Columbia University in New York before being ordained as a teacher of the spiritual practice himself, wrote in his widely read book “The Three Pillars of Zen” that, “At its profoundest level, Zen, like every other great religion, transcends its own teachings and practices, yet at the same time there is no Zen apart from these practices.”
But let us listen to Suzuki himself, who comments on the question in the documentary.
“Zen denies everything we do, everything we say, everything we write. But at the same time, Zen writes, Zen speaks. Zen acts — does all kinds of things,” he tells a listener. In another clip: “What distinguishes Zen from all the rest of religious teachings, or from the rest of Buddhist teachings, perhaps, is this: psychologically speaking, to become conscious of the unconscious; morally, to be attached and not attached.”
Teitaro Suzuki was born the last of five children in Kanazawa City, Ishikawa Prefecture, in 1870. It was two years after the advent of the Meiji Restoration, and Suzuki’s father, who had been a physician to a feudal lord, fell upon hard times following moves to dismantle the samurai class. He died when the boy was 6.
Suzuki went on to study English, and then taught it at local elementary schools. His intellectual prowess gained him entry to Tokyo Imperial University (forerunner of the University of Tokyo), but following his mother’s death, when he was 20, Suzuki lost his emotional bearings and neglected his studies.
“I did not devote myself very much to the regular curriculum they gave to students,” Suzuki relates in the film. “I absented myself — was a kind of delinquent, I suppose — and shut myself up in a monastery.”
That Zen monastery was Engakuji in historic Kita-Kamakura, south of Tokyo, where Suzuki struggled to attain enlightenment. At first, it did not go well for him, and the film displays letters from Suzuki to a correspondent in the West in which he describes feelings of desperation at his initial failure to reach satori. In 1897, though, he finally had his spiritual awakening while climbing a staircase at the temple complex, as we hear from Albert Stunkard, professor emeritus in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, who spent time with Suzuki and appears throughout the film.
Recalled Stunkard: “He said, ‘I had the conviction that I was the same as the trees on the side of the stairs. And it wasn’t that I had stopped being myself, but I was the trees.’ “
Enlightenment would form one pillar of Suzuki’s rise to prominence in the West; his mastery of English and ability to write would be the others.
Four years before that flash of illumination on the staircase, Suzuki’s teacher at Engakuji, Soen Shaku, had asked Suzuki to accompany him as translator to the World Parliament of Religions that convened at the 1893 World Fair in Chicago. This overseas exposure led Suzuki to work for an American religious publisher named Paul Carus, and in 1897 Suzuki moved to La Salle, Ill. to work as Carus’ assistant.
Suzuki translated numerous Eastern religious and philosophical works into English, including several on Mahayana Buddhism, the later of the two great schools of Buddhism dominant in China, Tibet and Japan (the earlier was Theravadin Buddhism).
Suzuki returned to Japan, where in 1911 he married Beatrice Lane, an American woman whom he had met during his travels and with whom he shared a fascination with religion. He began churning out writings on Buddhism in English — academic papers and books that would over time be devoured by such influential Westerners as British philosopher and disseminator of Asian thought Alan Wilson Watts (1915-73) and another Briton, the noted legal authority, scholar and convert to Buddhism Christmas Humphreys (1901-83) who founded the Buddhist Society in London in 1924. Though there were a few other Japanese teaching Zen in the West, Suzuki’s efforts would eventually establish him as the foremost authority abroad.
During the 1930s, while Suzuki continued earnestly penning his thoughts on such themes as the Lankavatara Sutra and Zen Buddhism’s influence on Japanese culture, the world began moving slowly but surely toward war. A shrill form of nationalism had overtaken Japan; and in a bid to assert its independence from Western influence, the country took an increasingly antagonistic attitude toward the United States, which, ironically enough, was just becoming an eager consumer of Suzuki’s prose. According to the documentary, the political situation worried the philosopher deeply.
“He had been opposed to the war from the start, saying it was ridiculous to fight against the United States,” remembers Buddhist priest Zenjo Inoue, who was at Tokeiji Temple in Kamakura with Suzuki around 1940. Hostilities with the U.S., of course, flared up notwithstanding, and millions were to perish on both sides.
In its own strange way, the great destroyer that is war also serves as a caldron for the blending of cultures. And so, even as the world was still suffering the aftereffects of the conflict, Suzuki was forming long-lasting friendships with key cultural figures from the West.
One was Donald Richie, who first came to Japan in 1947 as a civilian typist for the U.S. Occupation forces. A restless 22-year-old hungry for intellectual and spiritual nourishment, he sought out Suzuki and was given a koan. As Richie recalls the episode: “I was to go away and think about that. Or not think about that.”
Also, Zen master Robert Aitken, who had spent the war interned in Japan after capture in Guam in 1941, encountered Suzuki during the scholar’s visit to Hawaii in 1949. “I remember sitting there in the audience, listening to this gentle, kindly old man up there on the podium, not understanding a word he was saying. Not a word,” Aitken recalls in the film.
Suzuki’s exotic message, after all, wasn’t easy for a Western mind — or any mind, for that matter — to grasp. But then, Western society, until that time so locked into its Christian beliefs that it made little room for other spiritual perspectives, was undergoing a peculiar transformation. Its doors of perception were opening.
Some of those doors were in the hallways of academe, and one mid-1950s incident recounted in the film vividly illustrates both how difficult, yet ultimately fruitful, encounters between East and West could be.
In the episode, renowned German-American psychoanalyst and author Erich Fromm (1900-80) sharply questioned Suzuki about the relationship between Zen and the use of weapons in martial arts. For Fromm, a Jew who had fled Nazi terror in the early 1930s, any link between philosophy and aggression may well have seemed suspect — whether or not the philosophy in reality advocated violence.
While adherents of such practices as Japanese archery or iaido, the art of drawing a samurai sword, have no doubt always been attracted to the asceticism of Zen, in recent decades they have tended to regard their weapons more as objects of mental focus than as killing tools. Suzuki, for his part, also inveighed against the misappropriation of spirituality in his writing.
Whatever the case, according to Suzuki’s then-assistant Mihoko Okamura, Suzuki responded to the query not with a lofty explanation but, rather, with another question, namely, “Who are you who asks that question?”
Suzuki’s words may at first have sounded like some huffy retort. But it appears that he was, in fact, posing these quintessentially Zen questions: “Who is the ‘you’ who harbors concerns, who asks questions? Where does that ‘you’ reside?” — questions that would fascinate any psychoanalyst in the mid-20th century.
After pondering Suzuki’s response for a time — it kept him awake at night — Fromm eagerly resumed his dialogue with the Zen teacher and in 1960 the two would team up to write the influential book “Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis.” (Zen enthusiast Richard DeMartino was another coauthor.)
Suzuki’s effect on other Western thinkers — enhanced in part by his presence at the 1959 Third East-West Philosophers Conference — was no less significant.
Suzuki’s teachings so inspired founder of analytical psychology Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) that he wrote the forward to the 1964 edition of Suzuki’s book “An Introduction to Zen Buddhism.” The letter exchanges, starting in 1959, between Suzuki and prolific author, social critic and Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968) have entered into the annals of theological history. German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), meanwhile, is said to have remarked after reading Suzuki that, “If I understand this man correctly, this is what I have been trying to say in all my writings.”
Zen would find a receptive audience outside the ivory tower, too. During the 1950s, a counterculture opposed to the prevailing conservatism of American society began taking shape, dedicated to such values as pacifism, racial integration, and nonconformity. And the Beat Generation, as those who identified with this movement called themselves, wanted to shed the predictability of tradition — with its stains of war and (some felt) oppressive religious dogma — in favor of the spontaneity of a Kilroy-was-here graffiti scribble, a bebop jazz riff . . .
. . . Or a Zen haiku. Around this time, Suzuki was beginning to attract a broader audience that included a certain struggling novelist named Jack Kerouac (1922-69).
“I have always wanted to write epics and sagas of great beauty and mystic meaning,” a young Kerouac wrote in an early 1943 letter that revealed his spiritual ambitions. Kerouac, of course, would go on to establish himself as a gravitational center in the Beat movement and, later, one of the most influential writers in the American canon. And Zen would fuel his creative impulses.
According to Ben Giamo’s book “Kerouac, the Word and the Way: Prose Artist as Spiritual Quester,” a despondent Kerouac discovered Buddhism in late 1953. “Miracle of miracles,” wrote Kerouac, “sadly walking across the railyards by the full sad yellow moon, I went to the library to pick up books on Oriental philosophy and came up, idly, with Asvhaghosha’s ‘Career of Buddha,’ or ‘Buddha-Charita,’ which I read with heavy heart getting lighter every hour, rushing back to the library for more Buddhism.”
Six years later, in 1959, Kerouac’s novel “The Dharma Bums” offered readers a glimpse of how Zen was being embraced by a small American youth subculture, mostly around California.
In Goldberg’s documentary, poet Snyder — a close associate of Kerouac before the novelist’s death from alcoholism, and a model for one of the characters in “The Dharma Bums” — credits the Beat Generation as being an early disseminator of Buddhism. Other observers see a connection between the life-affirming values of Buddhism — Suzuki’s brand, included — and the resistance to the Vietnam War.
Yet, several interviewees in the film dispute any notion that many Beatniks — Kerouac included — attained any significant understanding of Zen. A meeting in New York between Kerouac, his Beat-poet friend Allen Ginsberg, and Suzuki is said to have produced no sparks.
“Obviously, they were trying to impress (Suzuki) with what they understood,” says University of Pennsylvania’s Stunkard. He breaks off into a thoughtful pause before resuming: “And he wasn’t impressed.”
Subsequent appropriations of Zen would prove equally questionable. Robert M. Pirsig, author of the best-selling 1974 book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” acknowledged in his author’s note that, “(The book) should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles, either.”
On a recent afternoon, I sat down with director Goldberg to ask him about the making of the film. Numerous difficulties had to be overcome, he said, before the project could be brought to fruition. One challenge was making his film accessible to those unfamiliar with Japanese culture.
“Zen is not something that one understands in the English sense of the word,” Goldberg remarked. “So I tried to make it clear to the viewers that they don’t have to understand everything.”
But perhaps the largest hurdle was financing all the traveling required to interview people across Japan and the United States who had known Suzuki.
“I’m totally in debt,” the husband and father of two confessed with a chuckle, explaining that he had to dip into his family’s savings to meet the costs of the documentary. “It’s a nonprofit project. Boy, is it a nonprofit project!”
A native of Montreal who speaks in considered tones and sports an unruly beard, Goldberg says he has no desire to proselytize.
“I’m not a religious person,” he explains. “I’m not a Zen adept. I’m not a Buddhist, per se. I was raised in Orthodox Judaism, but I left it behind. I have a healthy respect for people who are truly, truly religious in the sense that they are understanding and open to all humanity. That, to me, is true religion. But I’m not trying to get people into Zen or into Buddhism. Just respect it and understand it a bit.”
Signs are that the audience does, indeed, want to understand. The documentary has been accepted in the Boulder Asian Film Festival, the Hawaii International Film Festival and the Vancouver International Film Festival, where it played to full crowds. It also won a Chris Award — the top honor — in the religion category at the Columbus International Film & Video Festival in Ohio, Goldberg said, adding that he is co-producing a Japanese-language version for planned broadcast on NHK next year. He hopes some of the buzz leads to DVD distribution.
However the film goes down in history, and despite the sacrifices he has made during its production, Goldberg is happy simply to have touched the life of a fascinating figure like Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki — and broadcast his light to a wider audience. “You can only do small things in your life and hope it’ll have some kind of effect. That’s as much as I aspire to.”
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5