The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Search results for “Suzuki”

D.T. Suzuki on What Freedom Really Means and How Zen Can Help Us Cultivate Our Character

“The ego-shell in which we live is the hardest thing to outgrow.”

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.

D.T. Suzuki. (Photograph: Shigeru Tamura)

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.

Illustration by Andrea Dezsö for a special edition of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm.

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.

Illustration by Lizi Boyd from Flashlight.

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.

John Cage visits ninety-two-year-old Suzuki in 1962, from Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists

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.

Illustration by Taro Yashima from Umbrella.

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.

BP

“A Wrinkle in Time” Author Madeleine L’Engle on Self-Consciousness and the Wellspring of Creativity

“When we can play with the unself-conscious concentration of a child, this is: art: prayer: love.”

“A Wrinkle in Time” Author Madeleine L’Engle on Self-Consciousness and the Wellspring of Creativity

“Art like prayer is a hand outstretched in the darkness, seeking for some touch of grace which will transform it into a hand that bestows gifts,” Franz Kafka told a young friend ambivalent about pursuing a creative life. This prayerful quality of art and the free-flowing generosity it presupposes can only arise from a certain self-transcendence, from a place untrammeled by ego and untrapped in a static, contracted self. “The creative self,” the poet Jane Hirshfield wrote in her beautiful case for the liminal, “[asks] the surrender of ordinary conceptions of identity and will for a broader kind of intimacy and allegiance.”

That delicate relationship between self-consciousness and creativity is what A Wrinkle in Time author Madeleine L’Engle (November 29, 1918–September 6, 2007), a woman of abiding wisdom on the creative life, contemplates in Glimpses of Grace: Daily Thoughts and Reflections (public library) — a collection of meditations drawn from L’Engle’s beloved books and personal writings, arranged like Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom and Joanna Macy’s A Year with Rilke, with a short reflection allotted to each day of the year.

Madeleine L’Engle (Photograph: Sigrid Estrada)

In a series of reflections chosen for the last stretch of June, L’Engle echoes the Buddhist admonition against clinging to the “ego-shell” and examines how letting go of the illusion of a static, solid self uncorks creativity:

When we are self-conscious, we cannot be wholly aware; we must throw ourselves out first. This throwing ourselves away is the act of creativity. So, when we wholly concentrate, like a child in play, or an artist at work, then we share in the act of creating. We not only escape time, we also escape our self-conscious selves.

A most perilous malignancy of self-consciousness is pride — something Bruce Lee knew when he observed that “the core of pride is self-rejection,” and Agnes Martin knew when she cautioned that pride destroys freedom, joy, and creativity. With a kindred awareness, L’Engle adds:

The Greeks had a word for ultimate self-consciousness which I find illuminating: hubris: pride: pride in the sense of putting oneself in the center of the universe. The strange and terrible thing is that this kind of total self-consciousness invariably ends in self-annihilation. The great tragedians have always understood this, from Sophocles to Shakespeare. We witness it in history in such people as Tiberius, Eva Perón, Hitler.

Creativity, she argues, is the work of absolute unselfconsciousness, for it requires nonjudgmental observation and discovery, with an element of what Jeanette Winterson has so memorably termed “active surrender.” L’Engle writes:

Creativity is an act of discovering. The very small child, the baby, is still unself-conscious enough to take joy in discovering himself: he discovers his fingers; he gives them his complete, unself-conscious concentration.

Writing at a time when psychologists were formalizing this unselfconscious creative state in the concept of flow, L’Engle adds:

The kind of unself-consciousness I’m thinking about becomes clearer to me when I turn to a different discipline: for instance, that of playing a Bach fugue at the piano, precisely because I will never be a good enough pianist to play a Bach fugue as it should be played. But when I am actually sitting at the piano, all there is for me is the music. I am wholly in it, unless I fumble so badly that I perforce become self-conscious. Mostly, no matter how inadequate my playing, the music is all that matters: I am outside time, outside self, in play, in joy. When we can play with the unself-conscious concentration of a child, this is: art: prayer: love.

Art by Olivier Tallec from This Is a Poem That Heals Fish by Jean-Pierre Simeón

Because this sense of being “outside self” is so central to creative flow, at the heart of this generative unselfconsciousness is the discipline of holding the self loosely, as the ever-changing constellation of values, beliefs, and habits that it is — for, as the young Borges observed in his fantastic first essay, “there is no whole self.” Echoing philosopher Jacob Needleman’s insight into the path to self-liberation, L’Engle points to what is problematic about simply giving the growing person a ready-made self-image:

I haven’t defined a self, nor do I want to. A self is not something static, tied up in a pretty parcel and handed to the child, finished and complete. A self is always becoming. Being does mean becoming, but we run so fast that it is only when we seem to stop — as sitting on the rock at the brook — that we are aware of our own isness, of being. But certainly that is not static; for this awareness of being is always a way of moving from the selfish self — the self-image — and towards the real.

Who am I, then? Who are you?

The young Tolstoy considered this very question “the entire essence of life.” The young Emily Dickinson answered it splendidly in a perfect line of verse: “I’m Nobody! Who are you?”

Complement Glimpses of Grace with L’Engle on how to get unstuck and her forgotten Library of Congress lecture on creativity, then revisit Walt Whitman on the paradox of the self and mathematician-turned-physician Israel Rosenfield’s pioneering inquiry into how our sense of self arises.

BP

The Human Mosaic of Beauty and Madness: Young Alan Watts on Inner Sanity Amid Outer Chaos

From the abyss of WWII, an elevating reminder that we each contain a universe within that contributes to the universe without.

The Human Mosaic of Beauty and Madness: Young Alan Watts on Inner Sanity Amid Outer Chaos

“All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up,” John Steinbeck wrote to a friend on the first day of 1941. “It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die.”

Across the country, as WWII was engulfing the world, a young aspiring writer and budding philosopher by the name of Alan Watts (January 6, 1915–November 16, 1973) was making sense of the terror and the tragedy in a kindred manner, striving to maintain what we most need yet most easily relinquish in dark times — the telescopic perspective.

Watts had left his native England for New York City at age twenty-three to begin Zen training — a decision he had made two years earlier, after meeting the great Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki in London. In New York, he toiled to publish his American debut — The Meaning of Happiness, a pathbreaking book bridging modern Western psychology and ancient Eastern philosophy — and set about establishing himself as a public speaker, giving talks about Zen to both adults and children at Riverside Church, Harlem’s mecca of spiritual inquiry. (The year Watts decided to move to New York, an inquisitive little girl from Riverside Church invited Albert Einstein’s wonderful answer to her question about whether scientists pray.) But just as Watts was finding his footing in America, Europe lost ground and plummeted into WWII, dragging the whole of humanity into an unprecedented moral and spiritual abyss.

In a beautiful letter from the spring of 1941, found in the altogether revelatory Collected Letters of Alan Watts (public library), the young philosopher considers the larger meaning of the meaningless terror of war. Addressing his parents as “Dear Mummy & Daddy,” the twenty-five-year-old Watts reflects on how an awareness of the reticulated nature of reality and the interconnectedness of all human experience casts any one experience — even the most terrifying — in a wider frame of reference that makes it somehow more bearable. Decades before he formulated his ideas on how learning not to think in terms of gain or loss enlarges life, Watts tells his parents:

I have faith that something good will come out of this in the end like the phoenix out of the fire. But in the meantime it’s almost impossible to know how to plan for the future. Things here are as good as can be expected, but under such strains you never know when people are going to go crazy! Sometimes I get the queerest feeling that things going on in the world around one, are in some odd way reflections of things happening in the depths of one’s own mind. It is almost as if the world gets calm as you keep calm yourself, and vice versa. Yet it would be absurd to imagine that one could actually control the course of events in that way because this would imply the belief that oneself alone is real and all else a figment of thought. But it convinces me more and more that there is a universe inside one, which contains Hitler and all forms of human madness as well as love and beauty.

Complement The Collected Letters of Alan Watts, lovingly edited by his daughters Joan and Anne, with Watts on how to live with presence, the antidote to loneliness, and what makes us who we are, then revisit Rebecca Solnit on our grounds for hope in the dark and Albert Camus on strength of character through difficult times.

BP

Technology, Wisdom, and the Difficult Art of Civilizational Self-Awareness: Thomas Merton’s Beautiful Letter of Appreciation to Rachel Carson for Catalyzing the Environmental Movement

“Technics and wisdom are not by any means opposed. On the contrary, the duty of our age… is to unite them in a supreme humility which will result in a totally self-forgetful creativity and service.”

Technology, Wisdom, and the Difficult Art of Civilizational Self-Awareness: Thomas Merton’s Beautiful Letter of Appreciation to Rachel Carson for Catalyzing the Environmental Movement

“Knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent,” marine biologist and poet laureate of science Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) wrote to her soul mate, Dorothy, before the release of Silent Spring — Carson’s epoch-making 1962 book that catalyzed the modern environmental movement.

Her courageous and sobering exposé of the assault on nature by the heedless use of chemicals — a dark subject to which she brought her exquisitely luminous prose — disquieted the nation into a major controversy. Despite the propagandist backlash and merciless attacks that government and industry hurled at the author, the popular press sided overwhelmingly with Carson. Her book, soon a record-breaking bestseller, went on to inspire the first-ever Earth Day and led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The avalanche of editorial enthusiasm for the rare miracle of Silent Spring was dwarfed by the thousands of letters Carson received from private citizens commending her on the moral courage of speaking inconvenient truth to power. In the winter of 1963, shortly before her untimely death, this apostle of science received a letter from an improbable admirer — the theologian and Trappist monk Thomas Merton (January 31, 1915–December 10, 1968), who had long admired Carson’s devotion to science as an expression of our spiritual bond with nature. His missive, found in the altogether magnificent Witness to Freedom: The Letters of Thomas Merton in Times of Crisis (public library), is a beautiful testament to how interconnected the deepest truths of existence are, how they transcend all boundaries of discipline and credo to bring us into naked contact with reality itself — and with our responsibility to the web of life.

Reaching out with “every expression of personal esteem” and commending Carson on the “fine, exact, and persuasive book,” Merton writes:

[Silent Spring] is perhaps much more timely even than you or I realize. Though you are treating of just one aspect, and a rather detailed aspect, of our technological civilization, you are, perhaps without altogether realizing, contributing a most valuable and essential piece of evidence for the diagnosis of the ills of our civilization…. Your book makes it clear to me that there is a consistent pattern running through everything that we do, through every aspect of our culture, our thought, our economy, our whole way of life.

Such civilizational self-awareness is indeed Carson’s invaluable gift to posterity — that is, to us — though a gift of which we are yet to make conscientious use. With great foresight, both tragic and hopeful, Merton adds:

It is now the most vitally important thing for all of us, however we may be concerned with our society, to try to arrive at a clear, cogent statement of our ills, so that we may begin to correct them. Otherwise, our efforts will be directed to purely superficial symptoms only, and perhaps not even at things related directly to the illness. On the contrary, it seems that our remedies are instinctively those which aggravate the sickness: the remedies are expressions of the sickness itself.

I would almost dare to say that the sickness is perhaps a very real and very dreadful hatred of life as such, of course subconscious, buried under our pitiful and superficial optimism about ourselves and our affluent society. But I think that the very thought processes of materialistic affluence (and here the same things are found in all the different economic systems that seek affluence for its own sake) are ultimately self-defeating. They contain so many built-in frustrations that they inevitably lead us to despair in the midst of “plenty” and “happiness” and the awful fruit of this despair is indiscriminate, irresponsible destructiveness, hatred of life, carried on in the name of life itself. In order to “survive” we instinctively destroy that on which our survival depends.

Reflecting on his collaboration with the great Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki and humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm on the poetic possibilities behind the notion of original sin, Merton adds:

Technics and wisdom are not by any means opposed. On the contrary, the duty of our age, the “vocation” of modern man is to unite them in a supreme humility which will result in a totally self-forgetful creativity and service.

Complement this portion of Witness to Freedom with Rachel Carson on writing and the loneliness of creative work, her brave, prescient letter against the government’s assault on science and nature, and the 1914 protest poem that emboldened her to write Silent Spring, then revisit other radiant beams of appreciation between great minds: Isaac Asimov’s fan mail to young Carl Sagan, Charles Dickens’s letter of admiration to George Eliot, teenage James Joyce’s expression of gratitude to Ibsen, Baudelaire’s “cry of gratitude” to Wagner, and Darwin’s touching letter of appreciation to his best friend and greatest supporter.

UPDATE: For more on Carson, her epoch-making cultural contribution, and her unusual private life, she is the crowning figure in my book Figuring.

BP

View Full Site

The Marginalian participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from any link on here, I receive a small percentage of its price, which goes straight back into my own colossal biblioexpenses. Privacy policy. (TLDR: You're safe — there are no nefarious "third parties" lurking on my watch or shedding crumbs of the "cookies" the rest of the internet uses.)