Suzuki was obsessed with proving Buddhism as a unified tradition to be scientific and in accordance with modern, universal culture. He calls it “rational” and “positivistic” (1959a, x) and “radical empericism” (1974, 2). “Buddhism is reality, reality is Buddhism” (1970D, 7), it is an “ultimate fact of all philosophy and religion” (1956, 111). Like his Victorian predecessors, he rejected all ritualistic activity as merely symbolic (or as a spiritual gestus towards the unenlightened folk believers). Only meditation (or rituals enacted “meditatively”) is the correct soteriological and spiritual “means of attaining truth” (1970A, 94).
Suzuki often uses the etymological identification between Zen and meditation, justifying Zen practice and the Zen school as being truly spiritual, spirituality being seen as a complementary counterpart to rationality and science. Zen meditation is the symbol of Zen modernity, it is both “scientific” (as a non-ritual technique to “pure experience”) of reality, direct and unmediated) and “spiritual” (what is experienced is beyond language and conceptual knowledge). Zen is therefore also irrational (or anti-rational), and can only be experienced subjectively: “To study Zen means to have Zen experience” (1967, 123).
Emphasizing the “special transmission outside the scriptures”, kyoge betsuden, and the religious experience (keiken) in meditation, koan-practice and satori (kensho), Suzuki thus underlines the “Protestant” anti-ritualism and romanticist anti-intellectualism, while also giving room to a spiritual and “scientific”, subjective and direct perception of psychological, ontological and epistemological “pure” and unmediated truths. (63) Suzuki’s “Zen” is not the Zen of the Zen sect (or school, Zenshu) as an institutional and living religion.
True Zen” is defined through its (classical) texts, taking them at face value to represent (an idealized) reality. Zen becomes a concept, a transcendent essence, underlying Buddhism and all religions in their different manifestations. Zen study therefore is the way to “Zen” (Kirita 1996, 114). Zen is the quitessence of the “religious counsciousness of mankind” (1970A, preface), of “the human spirit” (1970C, 347) and – though Rudolf Otto seems to have been more inspired by Suzuki than the other way round – Zen gets a taste of “The Holy”.
Zen is the ocean, Zen is the air … Zen is man” (1969B, 45), and “the spirit of all religions and philosophies” (ibid. , 44). Suzuki can therefore also find “Zen” in both Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Daoism and Confucianism (1956, 111) and among both Swedenborg, Emerson, Blavatsky, Eckhart and other western mystics. Suzuki found Zen perfectly suitable to modernity. Or rather, he found modernity perfectly suitable to Zen.
But – like the spiritual theosophists, the romanticists, the mystical depth psychologists, the essentialist historians of religion – Suzuki could only sustain this spiritualism by rejecting or complementing modernity and universalism. He also finds a more evolutionary model suitable to envelope Zen, and systematically inverts Orientalist ideas, dichotomies and metaphors. First, Suzuki inverts the western Orientalist idea of the “original”, Southern, canonic and “true” Buddhism, being opposed to a degenerated Mahayana Buddhism. 4)
He regards the first as a “primitive Hinayana”, while Mahayana is seen as not just “the genius of the entire East”, but also as “a great monument of the human soul” waiting to be excavated (1921, 85). But Suzuki goes further. Zen Buddhism represents not just true Buddhism (the “essence of Buddhism” being transmitted without faith and words, 1956, 28) but is the goal of a teleological development, “the culmination of the development of Buddhism” (1970D, 13). This is explained by for instance meditation, both as a concept and as a religious practice.
On the one hand, he distinguishes between “traditional” Buddhist dhyana meditation as a means, a way to enlightenment, as opposed to the more unique Chan/Zen prajna meditation, which is identical with, and an expression of, enlightenment itself. Each and every Zen meditation therefore is a spiritual act expressing the wisdom of Zen and the entire East. On the other hand he distinguishes between – and qualitatively judges – the koan meditation of the Rinzai school and shikantaza meditation of the Soto school, identifying the two approaches with dhyana (shikantaza and Soto) versus prajna (koan and Rinzai).
Soto meditation is seen as quietism and “gradual”, while koan meditation is “sudden” and non-dualistic(65). Both being expressions of Japanese Zen, however, they are also seen as complementary – with “Zen in between” (1969a, 95). Suzuki also later negates the relation between Zen and mysticism, as the concept of mysticism cannot cover the unique Zen spiritual essence (see Faure 1993, 60ff. ), or at least “Zen is a mysticism of its own order” (1969B, 45).
Also a scientific and rational analysis will be mistaken; “our so-called rationalistic way of thinking has apparently no use in evaluating the truth or untruth of Zen” (1930, 20), a critique directed towards the Chinese (Suzuki-critical) Chan/Zen scholar Hu-shih’s historical and objectivist approach. In his “dialogue” with Christianity, he clearly places this western religion below Zen. Christian faith is a dualistic faith in God, while Zen is faith in oneself (1969a, 79), Christians are looking heavenwards, Zen Buddhists are looking within themselves (ibid. , 81).
Zen has neither rituals, ceremonies nor gods (1969B, 39). In many ways, Suzuki’s Zen seems more “Protestant” than the Christianity, with which he (also) describes Zen. Especially in his later works, Suzuki more aggressively explains this religious teleologically closed evolution by differences in culture and mentality. Zen is unique for “the original mind” (1970A, preface), for the “Far Eastern Culture” (1970B, 91), it expresses the “spirit of the East” (1970C, 347), in Zen (though at other times being non-philosophical) “all the philosophy of the East is crystallized” (1969B, 38).
Though Chan/Zen as a distinct school originated in China, the true spirit of Zen is uniquely Japanese. “The Zen life of the Japanese came to full flower in Japanese spirituality” (1972, 18-19), “it has been due to the Japanese that its technique has been completed” (1967, 122). He talks about the “Zen character of Japanese spirituality”, and in his book Zen and Japanese Culture (1959b), he explains everything Japanese – from culture, mentality, personality character, love of nature, to the samurai-spirit – to be “Zen-like”.
In other words, those attributes Zen might have in common with other “Japanese things” by metaphorical association are ascribed an essential quality, revealing a relation of assigned identity. This metaphorical association is transferred to more general differences between “East” and “West”, two essential phenomena and concepts from the discourse of Orientalism, now in an inverted qualitative relationship. To underline the Oriental qualities Suzuki inverts and transforms the traditionally negative stereotypes into positive characteristica. 6)
Thus, “In many ways the East no doubt appears dumb and stupid, as Eastern people are not so discriminate and demonstrative and do not show so many visible, tangible marks of intelligence. They are chaotic and apparently indifferent” (Suzuki et al 1960, 6). The West becomes The Other, being characterized by a “relative ego” versus the “transcendental Ego” of the East (1957, 131), the West uses logic, the East uses intuition (1959b, 219), westerners are alienated towards nature, the Orientals are close to nature (Suzuki et al 1960, 2), and “the idea of conquest (nature) was imported from the West” (1958, 141).
Christianity is an “autocratic, domineering power”, but Buddhism a “religion of peace” (1957, 138). And: “The Western mind is … analytical, discriminative, differential, inductive, individualistic, intellectual, objective, scientific, generalizing, conceptual, schematic, impersonal, legalistic, organizing, power-wielding, self-assertive, disposed to impose its will upon others” (Suzuki et al 1960, 5).
The East is “… nthetic, totalizing, integrative, non-discriminative, deductive, non-systematic, dogmatic, intuitive (rather, affective), nondiscursive, subjective, spiritually individualistic and socially group-minded” (ibid. ). The differences are not of degree but categorical and essential. In an interview with Hisamatsu Shin’ichi Suzuki says that he has neither met nor heard of westerners having understood Zen (Shore 1986, 19-23). “Zen is the keynote of Oriental culture; it is what makes the West frequently fail to fathom exactly the depths of the Oriental mind” (1969B, 35).