“The ego-shell in which we live is the hardest thing to outgrow.”
By Maria Popova
Alan Watts may be credited with popularizing Eastern philosophy in the West, but he owes the entire trajectory of his life and legacy to a single encounter with the Zen Buddhist sage D.T. Suzuki (October 18, 1870–July 12, 1966) — one of humanity’s greatest and most influential stewards of Zen philosophy. At the age of twenty-one, Watts attended a lecture by Suzuki in London, which so enthralled the young man that he spent the remainder of his life studying, propagating, and building upon Suzuki’s teachings. Legendary composer John Cage had a similar encounter with Suzuki, which profoundly shaped his life and music.
In the early 1920s, spurred by the concern that Zen masters are “unable to present their understanding in the light of modern thought,” Suzuki undertook “a tentative experiment to present Zen from our common-sense point of view” — a rather humble formulation of what he actually accomplished, which was nothing less than giving ancient Eastern philosophy a second life in the West and planting the seed for a new culture of secularized spirituality.
But by 1940, all of his books had gone out of print in war-torn England, and all remaining copies in Japan were destroyed in the great fire of 1945, which consumed three quarters of Tokyo. In 1946, Christmas Humphreys, president of London’s Buddhist Society, set out to undo the damage and traveled to Tokyo, where he began working with Suzuki on translating his new manuscripts and reprinting what remained of the old. The result was the timeless classic Essays in Zen Buddhism (public library), originally published in 1927 — a collection of Suzuki’s foundational texts introducing the principles of Zen into secular life as a discipline concerned first and foremost with what he called “the reconstruction of character.” As Suzuki observed, “Our ordinary life only touches the fringe of personality, it does not cause a commotion in the deepest parts of the soul.” His essays became, and remain, a moral toolkit for modern living, delivered through a grounding yet elevating perspective on secular spirituality.
Suzuki begins at the beginning, laying out the promise of Zen in our everyday lives:
Zen in its essence is the art of seeing into the nature of one’s own being, and it points the way from bondage to freedom. By making us drink right from the fountain of life, it liberates us from all the yokes under which we finite beings are usually suffering in this world.
This body of ours is something like an electric battery in which a mysterious power latently lies. When this power is not properly brought into operation, it either grows mouldy and withers away or is warped and expresses itself abnormally. It is the object of Zen, therefore, to save us from going crazy or being crippled. This is what I mean by freedom, giving free play to all the creative and benevolent impulses inherently lying in our hearts. Generally, we are blind to this fact, that we are in possession of all the necessary faculties that will make us happy and loving towards one another. All the struggles that we see around us come from this ignorance… When the cloud of ignorance disappears… we see for the first time into the nature of our own being.
One of Suzuki’s most overlooked yet essential points — and one particularly prescient in the context of what modern developmental psychology has found in the decades since — has to do with the crucial role of adolescence as a pivotal point in moral development. The teenage years, he argues, are when we begin “deeply delving into the mysteries of life” and when we are “asked to choose between the ‘Everlasting No’ and the ‘Everlasting Yea’” — a notion young Nietzsche intuited half a century earlier when he resolved, “I wish to be at any time hereafter only a yea-sayer!” At this fork in the road of existence, Suzuki insists, mastering the principles of Zen can make the critical difference in leading us toward a meaningful and fulfilling life. He writes:
Life is after all a form of affirmation… However insistently the blind may deny the existence of the sun, they cannot annihilate it.
Much of that blindness, he admonishes, comes from our attachment to the ego. Paradoxical as it may sound to any parent or teacher of a teenager, Suzuki suggests that adolescence is the time most fruitful for the dissolution of the ego:
We are too ego-centered. The ego-shell in which we live is the hardest thing to outgrow… We are, however, given many chances to break through this shell, and the first and greatest of them is when we reach adolescence.
And yet the “loss of the mental equilibrium” produced by the polar pull of “Everlasting No” and “Everlasting Yea,” which causes “so many cases of nervous prostration reported during adolescence,” can also derail and anguish us at any point in life. In a sentiment that once again calls to mind Nietzsche and his beliefs about the constructive role of suffering, Suzuki writes:
The more you suffer the deeper grows your character, and with the deepening of your character you read the more penetratingly into the secrets of life. All great artists, all great religious leaders, and all great social reformers have come out of the intensest struggles which they fought bravely, quite frequently in tears and with bleeding hearts.
Those ego-stripping struggles, Suzuki points out, can be of the intimate, most nonmaterial kind — the kind Rilke had articulated so beautifully two decades earlier in his letter on the burdens and blessings of love. Suzuki writes:
Love makes the ego lose itself in the object it loves, and yet at the same time it wants to have the object as its own… The greatest bulk of literature ever produced in this world is but the harping on the same string of love, and we never seem to grow weary of it. But… through the awakening of love we get a glimpse into the infinity of things… When the ego-shell is broken and the ‘other’ is taken into its own body, we can say that the ego has denied itself or that the ego has taken its first steps towards the infinite.
Although he takes care to note the invaluable role of the intellect in day-to-day life, Suzuki argues that the intellect is what keeps us from the infinite:
Zen proposes its solution by directly appealing to facts of personal experience and not to book-knowledge. The nature of one’s own being where apparently rages the struggle between the finite and the infinite is to be grasped by a higher faculty than the intellect… For the intellect has a peculiarly disquieting quality in it. Though it raises questions enough to disturb the serenity of the mind, it is too frequently unable to give satisfactory answers to them. It upsets the blissful peace of ignorance and yet it does not restore the former state of things by offering something else. Because it points out ignorance, it is often considered illuminating, whereas the fact is that it disturbs, not necessarily always bringing light on its path.
How poignant the latter remark is in the context of contemporary intellectual life. So much of our higher education is premised on the spirit of tearing things down rather than building things up — on how intelligently a student can criticize and counter an argument — which has, unsurprisingly, permeated the fabric of public discourse at large. We have a culture of criticism in which critics, professional and self-appointed, measure their merit by how intelligently they can eviscerate an idea, a work of art, or, increasingly and alarmingly, a person. We seem to have forgotten how to acquire what Bertrand Russell called, just a year before Suzuki’s essays were published, “a high degree of intellectual culture without emotional atrophy” in his magnificent meditation on why construction is more difficult yet more rewarding than destruction.
Similarly, Suzuki’s point is that the intellect is best at pointing out what doesn’t work, and as such can be a force of destruction, but when it comes to what does work, to the art of moral construction, we must rely on a wholly different faculty of the human spirit. He points to the lineage of philosophy — a discipline that continues to rely heavily on Descartes’s ultimate slogan for the intellect, cogito ergo sum — as evidence of the intellect’s insufficient powers in illuminating the path:
The history of thought proves that each new structure raised by a man of extraordinary intellect is sure to be pulled down by the succeeding ones. This constant pulling down and building up is all right as far as philosophy itself is concerned; for the inherent nature of the intellect, as I take it, demands it and we cannot put a stop to the progress of philosophical inquiries any more than to our breathing. But when it comes to the question of life itself we cannot wait for the ultimate solution to be offered by the intellect, even if it could do so. We cannot suspend even for a moment our life-activity for philosophy to unravel its mysteries. Let the mysteries remain as they are, but live we must… Zen therefore does not rely on the intellect for the solution of its deepest problems.
While the intellect may portend to fight illusion, Suzuki argues, it often does the opposite, creating different illusions that take us further from the truth of life rather than closer to it. He writes:
As nature abhors a vacuum, Zen abhors anything coming between the fact and ourselves. According to Zen there is no struggle in the fact itself such as between the finite and the infinite, between the flesh and the spirit. These are idle distinctions fictitiously designed by the intellect for its own interest. Those who take them too seriously or those who try to read them into the very fact of life are those who take the finger for the moon.
For anyone who has ever experienced the soul-squeezing sense of not-enoughness — and in a consumerist culture, most of us have, for the task of consumerism is to rob us of our sense of having enough and sell it back to us at the price of the product, over and over — Suzuki’s words resonate with particular poignancy:
Life as it is lived suffices. It is only when the disquieting intellect steps in and tries to murder it that we stop to live and imagine ourselves to be short of or in something. Let the intellect alone, it has its usefulness in its proper sphere, but let it not interfere with the flowing of the life-stream. If you are at all tempted to look into it, do so while letting it flow. The fact of flowing must under no circumstances be arrested or meddled with…
The great fact of life itself … flows altogether outside of these vain exercises of the intellect or of the imagination.
No amount of wordy explanations will ever lead us into the nature of our own selves. The more you explain, the further it runs away from you. It is like trying to get hold of your own shadow.
What Zen offers, Suzuki suggests, is a gateway into precisely that elusive nature of the self:
Zen … must be directly and personally experienced by each of us in his inner spirit. Just as two stainless mirrors reflect each other, the fact and our own spirits must stand facing each other with no intervening agents. When this is done we are able to seize upon the living, pulsating fact itself. Freedom is an empty word until then.
In a sentiment that the wise and wonderful Parker Palmer would come to echo decades later in his courageous call for “inner wholeness,” Suzuki adds:
The ultimate standpoint of Zen, therefore, is that we have been led astray through ignorance to find a split in our own being, that there was from the very beginning no need for a struggle between the finite and the infinite, that the peace we are seeking so eagerly after has been there all the time.
More than a century before Alan Lightman so elegantly assuaged our yearning for permanence in a universe of constant change, Suzuki writes:
We are all finite, we cannot live out of time and space; inasmuch as we are earth-created, there is no way to grasp the infinite, how can we deliver ourselves from the limitations of existence? … Salvation must be sought in the finite itself, there is nothing infinite apart from finite things; if you seek something transcendental, that will cut you off from this world of relativity, which is the same thing as the annihilation of yourself. You do not want salvation at the cost of your own existence… Whether you understand or not, just the same go on living in the finite, with the finite; for you die if you stop eating and keeping yourself warm on account of your aspiration for the infinite… Therefore the finite is the infinite, and vice versa. These are not two separate things, though we are compelled to conceive them so, intellectually.
Suzuki argues that the ultimate essence of Zen lies in its promise, both practical and profound, to “deliver us from the oppression and tyranny of these intellectual accumulations” and to offer, instead, a foundation of character at once solid and transcendent:
Zen may be considered a discipline aiming at the reconstruction of character. Our ordinary life only touches the fringe of personality, it does not cause a commotion in the deepest parts of the soul… We are … made to live on the superficiality of things. We may be clever, bright, and all that, but what we produce lacks depth, sincerity, and does not appeal to the inmost feelings… A deep spiritual experience is bound to effect a change in the moral structure of one’s personality.
And yet this “reconstruction of character”” is no cosmetic tweak:
Being so long accustomed to the oppression [of the intellect], the mental inertia becomes hard to remove. In fact it has gone down deep into the roots of our own being, and the whole structure of personality is to be overturned. The process of reconstruction is stained with tears and blood… It is no pastime but the most serious task in life; no idlers will ever dare attempt it.
Zen goes straight down to the foundations of personality.
In the remainder of Essays in Zen Buddhism, Suzuki goes on to equip us with the necessary tools of character and spirit for undertaking this task of a lifetime. Complement it with Alan Watts on life, reality, and becoming who you really are and the story of what John Cage’s journey into Buddhism reveals about the inner life of artists.