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Bodhidharma Came from the East: Evaluating the Legacy of D.T. Suzuki

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Title: Bodhidharma Came from the East: Evaluating the Legacy of D.T. Suzuki
Author: Dooley, Matt
Advisor: Glassman, Hank; McGuire, Anne Marie
Department: Haverford College. Dept. of Religion
Type: Thesis (B.A.)
Issue Date: 2010
Abstract: "Prophecy is rash, but it may well be that the publication of. D.T. Suzuki's first Essays in Zen Buddhism in 1927 will seem in future generations as great an intellectual event as William of Moerbeke's translations of Aristotle in the thirteenth century or Masiglio Ficino's of Plato in the fifteenth. But in Suzuki's case the shell of the Occident has been broken through. More than we dream, we are now governed by the new canon of the globe." So wrote the prominent historian Lynn White, Jr. in 1956, as the West began its brief but intense infatuation with the work of Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki. Carl Jung famously wrote the foreword to Suzuki's Introduction to Zen Buddhism. Students and professors filled up lecture halls and listened intently to every word. Philip Kapleau has acknowledged, "it is mainly the writings of Dr. Suzuki that have shaped the West's intellectual understanding of Zen." It is impossible to begin studying Western attitudes towards Zen without coming across Suzuki's immense influence on the field. Suzuki's insistence that Zen was an experience incomprehensible to the intellect was critical to his success. Suzuki insisted that Zen could only be understood on its own terms. Here, Suzuki said, was an authentic religious tradition that was unconcerned with intellectualization. It was fiercely suspicious of any intellectual doctrine, placing complete faith in the individual's ability to work out his or her own salvation. Here, Suzuki said, was a religion that provided meaning without insisting upon belief. Suzuki's charisma and the simplicity of his message--that Zen is a religion aimed at grasping "the central fact of life as it is lived"--resonated deeply in Western circles. In recent years, scholars have critiqued Suzuki's vision of Zen as a timeless experience of reality. These scholars rightly point out that Suzuki undertook virtually no historical, political, or cultural analysis of Zen, thus creating an idealized version of Zen that glosses over the flaws and contradictions of the tradition. The trend in Zen scholarship today is to take a stance diametrically opposed to Suzuki. Engaging in the same intellectualization that Suzuki abhorred, scholars now critically analyze Zen, and often attempt to reduce Zen's claims to nothing more than a set of historical, political, and cultural factors. For these scholars, Suzuki was nothing more than a Zen apologist whose work should be discounted as a biased rendering of Zen doctrine inconsistent with the historical record of Zen as a social institution steeped in a specific time and place. In this thesis I argue that a middle path should be charted between these opposing stances. There is no reason why using one approach should mandate the exclusion of the other. Rather, both perspectives should be incorporated into a fuller, more inclusive approach to studying Zen. Suzuki's understanding of Zen, while flawed, should not be dismissed outright. The value of Suzuki's writings is that he managed to cogently interpret Zen's claims of an enlightened experience beyond the realm of intellectualization. While not advocating for the supremacy of Zen as Suzuki did, I maintain that his writings provide valuable insights into the tradition. By acknowledging the value of both perspectives, scholars will be able to undertake a more expansive and nuanced approach to studying Zen.
Subject: Zen Buddhism
Subject: Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro, 1870-1966
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Dooley, Matt. "Bodhidharma Came from the East: Evaluating the Legacy of D.T. Suzuki". 2010. Available electronically from

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