Who was Shunryu Suzuki?
Shunryu Suzuki was a famous Japanese monk who played a significant role in introducing Zen Buddhism to the Western world, particularly the United States. Born in Japan in 1904, he decided to follow his father's footsteps and became a Soto Zen priest. The Soto school is one of the main branches of Zen Buddhism, which emphasizes meditation and mindfulness in daily life, as well as the importance of direct observation on the path to enlightenment. He founded the San Francisco Zen Center which is one of the most important Zen centers in the United States.
After years of study and practice in Japan, Suzuki moved to San Francisco in 1959. At this time, interest in Eastern philosophies was growing in the United States. Suzuki opened the doors of the Zen Center in San Francisco and also founded the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, the first Buddhist monastery in the Western world that was open to the public.
Suzuki's teaching style was unique and captivating. He had a knack for breaking down complex Zen concepts into simple, everyday language. His teachings reached a lot of people, including artists, intellectuals, and counterculture enthusiasts.
In the late 60s, Suzuki began compiling his teachings into a book titled "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind." This book was actually one of the first books I read when I began my mental health journey in my late 20s. This book is considered one of the most influential Zen books in the West. Its basic premise is that everyone, regardless of experience, should approach Zen with the fresh perspective of a beginner.
Shunryu Suzuki passed away in 1971, but his influence continues to resonate. His simple yet profound teachings have played a significant role in the widespread interest in and understanding of Zen Buddhism in the Western world. The San Francisco Zen Center continues to be a hub of Zen practice and study, standing as a testament to Suzuki's enduring legacy.
What were his core ideas and contributions?
Shunryu Suzuki made several major contributions to Buddhism, particularly Zen, and his teachings continue to influence many. Here are a few key ideas and contributions:
Introduction of Zen Buddhism to the West: Suzuki was one of the pioneering figures in bringing Zen Buddhism to the West. He not only taught meditation but also the Zen way of life, which had a significant influence on American culture. Suzuki's San Francisco Zen Center became a hub for those seeking spiritual depth beyond the mainstream religious practices of the time.
Establishment of Tassajara Zen Mountain Center: The Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, also established by Suzuki, is the first Soto Zen training monastery in the United States and the West in general. It allowed for intensive Zen practice in a traditional monastic setting, which was previously unavailable outside of Asia.
"Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind": This book is one of Suzuki's most significant contributions. The book is a collection of his talks, centered on the concept of maintaining a "beginner's mind" in Zen practice. The "beginner's mind" is open, eager to learn, and free from preconceptions, unlike the closed and certain mind of an expert. It's like a child exploring the world for the first time, seeing things fresh, as they are, without labels or judgments.
"Big Mind" Concept: Suzuki often spoke of "big mind" or "original mind". This is the mind that is not bound by dualistic thought or limited by personal biases. It's like a vast, clear sky, open and receptive, not clinging to or rejecting anything. By contrast, the "small mind" is our ordinary, discriminating mind, caught up in likes, dislikes, and endless thoughts. About "big mind" he said:
"When you are in difficulty, it means your practice is not good enough. You have big waves in your mind, and your practice is not smooth. But when your practice becomes deeper and stronger, you can sit in the midst of the problems, in the midst of the flames. This is big mind."
Emphasis on Practice: Suzuki placed a strong emphasis on zazen, or seated meditation, as the core of Zen practice. But he also taught that Zen practice is not limited to sitting on a cushion. Every moment of life offers an opportunity for practice. Whether you're washing dishes, driving, or working, that's your practice. It's like if you're cooking, each step, from chopping the vegetables to stirring the pot, is an opportunity to be fully present and engaged.
"When we practice zazen our mind always follows our breathing. When we inhale, the air comes into the inner world. When we exhale, the air goes out to the outer world. The inner world is limitless, and the outer world is also limitless. We say 'inner world' or 'outer world,' but actually there is just one whole world."
Importance of the Here and Now: One of Suzuki's central teachings was about the importance of living fully in the present moment. He taught that the past is gone and the future is not yet here, so all we really have is this moment. It's like listening to music: if you're caught up in thinking about the last note or anticipating the next one, you miss the note that's playing now. The same is true of life.
"To study Buddhism is to study ourselves. To study ourselves is to forget ourselves. To forget ourselves is to be experienced by the myriad things. This is to let our own body and mind, and the body and mind of the external world, fall away."
How might I apply his ideas to myself?
Here's a simple way to understand how to incorporate his teachings into daily life:
1. Cultivate a Beginner's Mind: Suzuki believed that everyone should approach life with the open, eager curiosity of a beginner, no matter how much they already know. In practical terms, this means trying to see each situation as if for the first time, without preconceived judgments. For example, if you've had a disagreement with a coworker, try to approach your next interaction with them as a fresh start, instead of letting past resentment color your perception.
2. Practice Mindfulness: Shunryu also emphasized the importance of being fully present in each moment. This is the heart of mindfulness. Try to pay full attention to whatever you're doing, whether it's washing dishes, walking, working, or listening to someone. If you're washing dishes, for example, focus on the feel of the water, the sound it makes, the weight of the dishes in your hands. Don't let your mind wander off to future worries or past regrets.
3. Make Space for Meditation: Suzuki believed in the power of zazen, or seated meditation. If you can, try to set aside some time each day for this practice. It doesn't have to be long, even a few minutes can make a difference. Just sit quietly, focusing on your breath. If thoughts arise, don't fight them, but don't get caught up in them either. Just let them come and go like clouds in the sky. Watch them pass without judgement, and then return to your breath.
4. Embrace Imperfection: Suzuki taught that nothing is perfect, and that's okay. This idea can relieve a lot of stress and self-judgment. Next time you make a mistake or something doesn't go as planned, instead of beating yourself up, try to accept it as part of life's imperfection. Learn from it and move on. Also, you can apply this to your sense of self. It's easy to get caught up in the notion that you must be perfect and that "self help" is about removing all perceived shortcomings. If you get stuck on the self-improvement treadmill, you'll find that you'll never accept yourself, which is a guaranteed way to remain unhappy.
5. Live the Now: According to Suzuki, the present moment is all we truly have. By worrying about the future or dwelling on the past, we miss out on the richness of now. So, try to fully experience each moment as it comes. For example, if you're spending time with loved ones, don't let your mind be elsewhere - be fully present with them. If you want to explore this concept more, you can also check out The Power of Now from Eckhart Tolle.
6. Express Gratitude: In the Zen tradition, even the simplest acts, like eating a meal or washing your hands, are opportunities to express gratitude. Try to cultivate a sense of gratitude in your daily life. You can start by keeping a gratitude journal, where you write down three things you're grateful for each day. Or, begin each meal with your own gratitude ritual.
These are just a few ways to apply Suzuki's teachings. Remember, it's not about perfection, but practice. The more you practice, the more natural it will become.
Writing, Interviews, Research, and Lectures
The following list includes his most famous works:
- "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" (1970): This book is a collection of Suzuki's informal talks about Zen mind and practice. It's probably his most famous book. It centers around the idea of "beginner's mind" – approaching every aspect of life with the openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions that a beginner would have. This book is an ideal introduction to Zen philosophy and practice.
- "Not Always So: Practicing the True Spirit of Zen" (2002): This book is another collection of Suzuki's talks, compiled and edited by his student Edward Espe Brown after Suzuki's death. The title comes from Suzuki's teaching that we shouldn't be caught in fixed ideas and views ("not always so"), but should keep an open, flexible mind. The book covers various aspects of Zen practice and understanding, including mindfulness, compassion, dealing with difficulties, and the nature of reality.
- "Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness: Zen Talks on the Sandokai" (1999): This book is a collection of talks that Suzuki gave on the Sandokai, a classic Zen poem by Chinese Zen master Sekito Kisen. The Sandokai speaks of the interplay of differences and unity in the universe. Suzuki uses this text to explore Zen's understanding of the oneness of life and the diversity of its expressions. The title comes from a line in the poem which represents the interconnectedness of all things.
- "Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki" (1999): While not written by Suzuki himself, this biography by David Chadwick gives a detailed account of Suzuki's life and teachings. It gives valuable insights into Suzuki's journey, his experiences as a Zen monk in Japan, his move to the U.S., and his work in establishing Zen centers in San Francisco. It includes many of his teachings and anecdotes from his life.
Other figures you may be interested in
Here's a list of other figures similar to Shunryu Suzuki, who have also played significant roles in spreading Zen and Buddhism in the West:
- Thich Nhat Hanh: A Vietnamese Zen monk who is renowned worldwide for his teachings on mindfulness and peace. He is the founder of the Plum Village tradition and community in France. Hanh emphasizes the importance of mindful living in every moment and has written numerous books on mindfulness, meditation, and Buddhism.
- Alan Watts: A British philosopher known for popularizing Eastern philosophy, especially Zen Buddhism, for a Western audience. Watts was not a Buddhist monk, but his writings and talks made profound, complex philosophical ideas accessible and relatable to many.
- D.T. Suzuki: A Japanese author of books and essays on Buddhism, Zen, and Shin that were instrumental in spreading interest in Far Eastern philosophy to the West. D.T. Suzuki was a lay practitioner and academic rather than a monk, and he was not directly related to Shunryu Suzuki.
- Pema Chödrön: An American Tibetan Buddhist nun known for her teachings and writings on meditation, mindfulness, and dealing with difficulties. She has a way of making complex Buddhist teachings very accessible and practical.
- Chögyam Trungpa: A Buddhist meditation master and holder of both the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages, he was one of the key figures in bringing Tibetan Buddhism to the West. Trungpa founded Naropa University and wrote many books on spiritual practice and awareness.
- Robert Aitken: An American Zen master and co-founder of the Honolulu Diamond Sangha, Aitken was one of the first Americans to be fully sanctioned as a Zen master. His teachings made Zen accessible to a Western audience, and his books, such as "Taking the Path of Zen" and "Mind of Clover", are widely read.