D. T. Suzuki: Early Memories


Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki (1870-1966)

Ignorance is departure from home and enlightenment is returning. While wandering, we lead a life full of pain and suffering, and the world wherein we find ourselves is not a very desirable habitat. This is, however, put a stop to by enlightenment, as thus we are enabled once more to get settled at home where reign freedom and peace.

Prepared from interviews with Dr. Suzuki in 1964, when he was 94 years old, and published in the November 1964 issue of The Middle Way. Copied from The Training of the Zen Buddhist Monk (1965).


My family had been physicians for several generations in the town of Kanazawa. My father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all physicians and strangely enough they all died young. Of course, it was no very unusual thing to in those days to die young, but in the case of a physician under the old feudal regime it was doubly unfortunate, since the stipend his family received from his feudal lord was cut down. So my family, although of samurai rank, was already poverty stricken by my father’s time, and after his death, when I was only six years old, we became even poorer owing to all the economic troubles which befell the samurai class after the abolition of the feudal system.

To lose one’s father in those days was perhaps an even greater loss than it is now, for so much depended on him as head of the family – all the important steps in life such as education and finding a position in life afterwards. All this I lost, and by the time I was about seventeen or eighteen these misfortunes made me start thinking about my karma. Why should I have these disadvantages at the very start of life?

My thoughts then started to turn to philosophy and religion, and as my family belonged to the Rinzai sect of Zen it was natural that I should look to Zen for some of the answers to my problems. I remember going to the Rinzai temple where my family was registered – it was the smallest Rinzai temple in Kanazawa – and asking the priest there about Zen. Like many Zen priests in country temples in those days he did not know very much. In fact he had never even read the Hekiganroku, so that my interview with him did not last very long.

. . .

About that time a new teacher came to my school. He taught mathematics, and taught it so well that I began to take an interest in the subject under his guidance. But he was also very interested in Zen, and had been a pupil of Kosen Roshi, one of the great Zen masters of that time. He did his best to make his students interested in Zen, too, and distributed printed copies of Hakuin Zenshi’s Orategama 1 among them. I could not understand much of it, but somehow it interested me so much that in order to find out more about it I decided to visit a Zen master, Setsumon Roshi, who lived in a temple called Kokutaiji, near Takaoka in the province of Etchu. I set off from home not really knowing how to get to the temple at all, except that it was somewhere near Takaoka. I remember travelling in an old horse-drawn omnibus, only big enough to hold five or six people, over the Kurikara Pass through the mountains. Both the road and the carriage were terrible, and my head was always bumping against the ceiling. From Takaoka I suppose I must have walked the rest of the way to the temple.

I arrived without any introduction, but the monks were quite willing to take me in. They told me the Roshi was away, but that I could do zazen in a room in the temple if I liked. They told me how to sit and how to breathe and then left me alone in a little room telling me to go on like that. After a day or two of this the Roshi came back and I was taken to see him. Of course at that time I really knew nothing of Zen and had no idea of the correct etiquette in sanzen. I was just told to come and see the Roshi, so I went, holding my copy of the Orategama.

Most of the Orategama is written in fairly easy language, but there are some difficult Zen terms in it which I could not understand, so I asked the Roshi the meaning of these words. He turned on me angrily and said, “Why do you ask me a stupid question like that?” I was sent back to my room without any instruction and told simply to go on sitting cross-legged. I was left quite alone. No one told me anything. Even the monks who brought me my meals never spoke to me. It was the first time I had ever been away from home and soon I grew very lonely and homesick, and missed my mother very much. So after four or five days I left the temple and went back to my mother again. I remember nothing about my leave-taking with the Roshi, but I do remember how glad I was to be home again. A most ignoble retreat.

Then I started teaching English in a little village called Takojima on the Noto peninsula – that peninsula protruding into the Japan Sea. There was a Shin temple there with a learned priest who showed me a text book of the Yuishiki school called Hyappo Mondo, “Questions and Answers about the Hundred Dharmas.” But it was so remote and abstruse that, though I was eager to learn, I could not understand it at all well.

Then I got another position, teaching in Mikawa, a town about five ri  (15 miles) from our home in Kanazawa. Again I missed my mother very much and every weekend I used to walk all the way back to see her. It took about five hours and it meant my leaving the house at about one o’clock on Monday morning in order to be at the school on time. But I always stayed at home until the last minute as I wanted to see my mother as much as possible.

I might add, by the way, that the English I taught in those days was very strange – so strange that later when I first went to America nobody understood anything I said. We always translated everything absolutely literally, and I remember being very puzzled by the way one says in English “a dog has four legs,” “a cat has a tail.” In Japanese the verb ‘to have’ is not used this way. If you said “I have two hands” it would sound as though you were holding two extra hand in your own. Some time afterwards I developed the idea that this stress in Western thought on possession means a stress on power, dualism, rivalry [opposition?], which is lacking in Eastern thought.

During the six months I spent in Mikawa my Zen study stopped. But then I moved to Kobe, where my brother was working as a lawyer, and soon afterwards he sent me to Tokyo to study, with an allowance of six yen a month. In those days a student’s board and lodging for a month cost about three yen fifty sen. The university I chose to study at was Waseda, but one of the first things I did on arriving in Tokyo was to walk down to Kamakura to study Zen under Kosen Roshi, who was Abbott of Engakuji at that time. I remember that I walked all the way from Tokyo to Kamakura, leaving Tokyo in the evening and arriving in Kamakura early the next morning [thirty miles].

The shika monk, the guestmaster, took me to have my first introduction to the Roshi with ten sen “incense money” wrapped in paper and offered to him on a tray. The guestmaster impressed me very much. He looked just like the pictures of Daruma (Bodhidharma) I had seen, and had very much a Zen air. The Roshi was 76 years old when I first met him. He was a very big man, both in stature and personality, but owing to a recent stroke he had difficulty in walking. He asked me where I came from, and when I told him that I was born in Kanazawa he was pleased and encouraged me to go on with my Zen practice. This was probably because people from the Hokuriku district round Kanazawa were supposed to be particularly patient and steady.

The second time I met him, in a special interview, he gave me the koan Sekishu, “the sound of one hand.” I was not at all prepared to receive a koan at that time. In fact as regards Zen my mind was like a piece of blank paper. Anything could be written on it. Each time I went to sanzen he just put out his left hand towards me without speaking, which puzzled me very much. I remember trying to find reasonable answers to the koan of the sound of one hand, but all these Kosen Roshi naturally rejected, and after going to sanzen a few times I got into a kind of blind alley.

One interview with him impressed me particularly. He was having breakfast on a veranda overlooking a pond, sitting at a table on a rather rough little chair and eating rice gruel which he kept ladling out of an earthenware pot into his bowl. After I had made my three bows to him he told me to sit opposite him on another chair. I remember nothing that was said at that time, but every movement he made—the way he motioned me to sit on the chair, and the way he helped himself to the rice gruel from the pot—struck me with great force. Yes, that is exactly the way a Zen monk must behave, I thought. Everything about him had a directness and simplicity and sincerity and, of course, something more which cannot be specifically described.

The first time I attended his teisho lecture was also unforgettable. It was a solemn business, starting with the monks reciting the Heart Sutra and Muso Kokushi’s last words—“I have three kinds of disciples” and so on—while the Roshi prostrated himself in front of the statue of the Buddha, and then got up on his chair facing the alter, as though he were addressing the Buddha himself rather than the audience. His attendant brought him the reading stand, and by the time the chanting was finished he was about ready to start his lecture.

It was on the 42nd chapter of the Hekiganroku, the one where Layman P’ang Yun visits Yueh-shan, and after the interview Yueh-shan tells ten monks to see him off down the mountain to the temple gate. On the way the following conversation takes place:

“Fine snow falling, flake by flake. Each flake falls in its own proper place.” (See The Recorded Sayings of Layman P’ang)

This struck me as a strange subject for Zen monks to talk about, but the Roshi just read the passage without a word of explanation, reading as though he were entranced and absorbed by the words of the text. I was so impressed by this reading, even though I did not understand a word, that I can still see him sitting in his chair with the text in front of him reading “Fine snow falling flake by flake.”

All this happened in 1891, when he was 76 and I was 21.

I remember that year, too, attending the ceremony of Toji at the winter solstice, when the monks all pound rice to make rice cakes and have a general carousal, which goes on all night. The first of these rice cakes was always offered to the Buddha, and the second to the Roshi. Kosen Roshi was very fond of rice cakes dipped in grated daikon sauce, and in fact he would eat any amount of them. On that occasion he demanded a second helping, which his attendant monk refused to give him, saying that it was not good for him to eat so much. The Roshi replied, “I shall be quite all right if I take some digestive medicine.”

On 16th January of the following year, 1892, the Roshi suddenly died, and as it happened I was present at his death. I was in the anteroom next door to his room with his attendant monk, when suddenly we heard the sound of something heavy falling in the Roshi’s room. The attendant monk rushed in and found him lying unconscious on the floor. Apparently just as he was coming out of the washroom he had a stroke, fell and hit his head on the chest of drawers. That large body falling on the floor made a big noise. A physician was immediately summoned, but when he arrived and felt the Roshi’s pulse he said it was too late. The Roshi was already dead.

Kosen Roshi’s successor as Abbot of Engakuji was Shaku Soen. At the time when Kosen Roshi died, Soen had just come back from a visit to Ceylon to study Theravada Buddhism and was already a rising personality. He was not only very brilliant intellectually but had also received his inka-shomei, or certificate to become a Roshi, while he was still quite young—an unusual thing in those days when it took about fifteen years to reach so advanced a stage. After receiving his inka he went to Keio University to study Western subjects, which was again an unusual thing for a Zen priest to do. Many people criticized him for this step, including Kosen Roshi, who told him that Western studies would be of no use to him at all. But Shaku Soen never took any notice of other people’s criticisms, and just went quietly on in his own way. So altogether he was a remarkable person, with rather unconventional tendencies.

At Kosen Roshi’s funeral he was the chief mourner and performed all the ceremonies, and in the spring of 1892 he was installed as the new Abbot and I started to go to sanzen with him.

He changed my koan to Mu, as I was not getting on very well with the sound of one hand, and he thought I might have my kensho 2 quicker and earlier with Mu. He gave me no help at all with the koan, and after a few sanzen with him I had nothing to say.

There followed for me four years of struggle, a struggle mental, physical, moral and intellectual. I felt it must be ultimately quite simple to understand Mu, but how was I to take hold of this simple thing? It might be in a book, so I read all the books on Zen that I could lay my hands on. The temple where I was living at the time, Butsunichi, had a shrine attached to it dedicated to Hojo Tokimune, and in a room in that shrine all the books and documents belonging to the temple were kept. During the summer I spent nearly all my time in that room reading all the books I could find. My knowledge of Chinese was still limited, so many of the texts I could not understand, but I did my best to find out everything I could about Mu intellectually.

One of the books which interested me particularly was the Zenkan Sakushin, “Whips to drive you through the Zen Barrier,”3 compiled by a Chinese master of the Ming dynasty called Shuko. It was a collection of writings on Zen discipline and of advice given by various masters on how to deal with the koan. One of the examples I found in this book I thought I must try to follow. It said,

When you have enough faith, then you have enough doubt (tai-i). And when you have enough doubt, then you have enough satori. All the knowledge and experience and wonderful phrases and feelings of pride that you accumulated before your study of Zen — all these things you must throw out. Pour all your mental force into solving the koan. Sit up straight regardless of day and night, concentrating your mind on the koan. When you have been doing this for some time you will find yourself in timelessness and spacelessness like a dead man. When you reach that state something starts up within yourself and suddenly it is as though your skull were broken in pieces. The experience that you gain then has not come from outside, but from within yourself.

Then in the way of moral effort I used to spend many nights in a cave at the back of the Shariden building, where the Buddha’s tooth is enshrined. But there was always a weakness of willpower in me, so that often I failed to sit up all night in the cave, finding some excuse to leave, such as the mosquitoes.


I was busy during these four years with various writings, including translating Dr. Carus’s Gospel of Buddha into Japanese, but all the time the koan was worrying at the back of my mind. It was, without any doubt, my chief preoccupation and I remember sitting in a field leaning against a rice stack and thinking that if I could not understand Mu, life had no meaning for me. Nishida Kitaro wrote somewhere in his diary that I often talked about committing suicide at this period, though I have no recollection of doing so myself. After finding that I had nothing more to say about Mu I stopped going to sanzen with Shaku Soen, except for the sosan or compulsory sanzen during a sesshin. And then all that usually happened was that the Roshi hit me.

It often happens that some kind of crisis is necessary in one’s life to make one put forth all one’s strength in solving the koan. This is well illustrated by a story in the book Keikyoku Soden, “Stories of Brambles and Thistles,” compiled by one of Hakuin Zenshi’s disciples, telling of various prickly experiences in practising Zen.

A monk came from Okinawa to study Zen under Suio, one of Hakuin’s great disciples and a rough and strong-minded fellow. It was he who taught Hakuin how to paint. The monk stayed with Suio for three years working on the koan of the sound of one hand. Eventually, when the time for him to go back to Okinawa was fast approaching and he had still not solved his koan, he got very distressed and came to Suio in tears. The Master consoled him, saying, “Don’t worry. Postpone your departure for another week and go on sitting with all your might.” Seven days passed, but still the koan remained unsolved. Again the monk came to Suio, who counselled him to postpone his departure for yet another week. When that week was up and he still had not solved the koan, the Master said, “There are many ancient examples of people who have attained satori after three weeks, so try a third week.” But the third week passed and still the koan was not solved, so the Master said, “Now try five more days.” But the five days passed, and the monk was no nearer solving the koan, so finally the Master said, “This time try three more days and if after three days you have still not solved the koan, then you must die.”

Then, for the first time, the monk decided to devote the whole of whatever life was left to him to solving the koan, and after three days he solved it.

The moral of this story is that one must decide to throw absolutely everything one has into the effort. “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity.” It often happens that just as one reaches the depths of despair and decides to take one’s life then and there that satori comes. I imagine that with many people satori may have come when it was just too late. They were already on their way to death.

Ordinarily there are so many choices one can make, or excuses one can make to oneself. To solve a koan one must be standing at an extremity, with no possibility of choice confronting one. There is just one thing that one must do.

This crisis of extremity came for me when it was finally settled that I should go to America to help Dr. Carus with his translation of the Tao Te Ching. I realized that the Rohatsu sesshin that winter [1896] might be my last chance to go to sesshin and that if I did not solve my koan then I might never be able to do so. I must have put all my spiritual strength into that sesshin.

Up till then I had always been conscious that Mu was in my mind. But so long as I was conscious of Mu it meant that I was somehow separate from Mu, and that is not a true samadhi. But towards the end of that sesshin, about the fifth day, I ceased to be conscious of Mu. I was one with Mu, identified with Mu, so that there was no longer the separateness implied by being conscious of Mu. This is the real state of samadhi.

But this samadhi alone is not enough. You must come out of that state, be awakened from it, and that awakening is Prajna. That moment of coming out of the samadhi and seeing it for what it is – that is satori. When I came out of that state of samadhi during that sesshin I said, “I see. This is it.”

I have no idea how long I was in that state of samadhi, but I was awakened from it by the sound of the bell. I went to sanzen with the Roshi, and he asked me some of the test questions about Mu. I answered all of them except one, which I hesitated over, and at once he sent me out. But the next morning early I went to sanzen again and this time I could answer it. I remember that night as I walked back from the monastery to my quarters in the Kigenin Temple, seeing the trees in the moonlight. They looked transparent and I was transparent too.

I would like to stress the importance of becoming conscious of what it is that one has experienced. After kensho I was still not fully conscious of my experience. I was still in a kind of dream. The greater depth of realization came later while I was in America, when suddenly the Zen phrase hiji soto ni magarazu, “the elbow does not bend outwards,” became clear to me. “The elbow does not bend outwards” might seem to express a kind of necessity, but suddenly I saw that this restriction was really freedom, and I felt that the whole question of free will had been solved for me.

After that I did not find passing koans at all difficult. Of course other koans are needed to clarify kensho, the first experience, but it is the first experience that is the most important. The others simply serve to make it more complete and to enable one to understand it more deeply and clearly.

  1. Orategama: Yampolsky, Philip B. (1971). The Zen Master Hakuin: Selected Writings. New York: Columbia University Press. https://terebess.hu/zen/Orategama.pdf
  2. Kensho: “Seeing into the Self-nature.” Can be described as the first glimpse of satori or enlightenment.
  3. Broughton, Jeffrey L. (2015). The Chan Whip Anthology. New York: Oxford University Press.

With his wife and son, Alan Masaru Suzuki

Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro (1965). The Training of the Zen Buddhist Monk. New York: University Books.

For a summary of the biographical facts of Suzuki’s life, see https://biography.yourdictionary.com/daisetz-teitaro-suzuki


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