Zen and Meditation: D. T. Suzuki

Zen and Meditation

By D. T. Suzuki

Published in the journal The Mahayanist 1, no. 2 (1915).

Those who are not very well acquainted with the method and teaching of Zen are apt to imagine that Zen is another name for meditation or something similar to it. And by meditation they mean a system of mental discipline by concentration of thought. For instance, to keep our minds free from petty daily disturbances, they would advise to think of, or to meditate on, the absolute serenity of Godhead in whom we live and move and have our being. When we get disciplined in this high thinking, the mind will naturally obtain poise or equilibrium. The final result of this discipline will be what is known as realization by those who advocate meditation.

But if Zen is understood in this way, its spirit will be entirely and woefully lost sight of.

In the first place, Zen has nothing to do with dogmatism, it makes no presuppositions or hypotheses, it does not try to give any definite and predetermined statements on which its followers are requested to fix their thought. Indeed, Zen starts with skepticism, or more appropriately, with quite an unpreoccupied, unprepossessed and thoroughly blank mind. There is in it no postulate of an Absolute or Infinite. Whether there is God, all-creating, all-governing, and all-comprehensive, Zen does neither assert nor deny, for assertion and denial are foreign to Zen, at least in its start. When the monk Ming understood the meaning of the question, “What was your original face you had before you were born of your own parents?” set forth by the Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng, Ming asked the Patriarch if there was any other secret to be explored. The answer was, “If there is any, it will be on your own side.”

Therefore, Zen has no propositions to be given away as subjects for meditation. The question of the existence or non-existence of God remains with the students themselves to solve. Whether there is life after death, or whether there is such a thing as ego — all these question await the student’s own solution. What Zen does is to help him to find out a path which is beyond the ordinary passage of the understanding, and which, when really found out, directs him to the comprehension of all the secrets of nature and life.

As the chief object of Zen discipline is to make the students understand by themselves all such problems as concern religion and philosophy, Zen is not an esoteric teaching. Zen refuses to recognize the distinction between exoteric and esoteric, as these terms are commonly interpreted. From the exoteric point of view therefore, if such could be assumed, or when things are looked at as aspects of manifestation, everything is open to our eyes, the whole universe lies before us in its holiday attire for our unstinted admiration. But when we consider it from the esoteric point of view, nothing is open to us, nature is a completely sealed book. Even when the truth is thrust upon us to force our spiritual apprehension of it, we are totally blind. An insignificant piece of stone defies our understanding. A little yellow flower blossoming in front of my window is enough to stagger my intellectual powers. Why should Zen then keep anything away from its students as its deep secrets, which are to be given only to the initiated?

“Ask and you will be given” — this principle holds good with Zen, though there is no giver in Zen other than the one who asks. And this asking must be done with all the sincerity that lies in the heart of the seeker of truth. His whole being must be poured out upon the thing he asks for, when his inner chamber opens and gives out all that is contained therein. What he gets is, after all, what he has possessed in himself from the very beginning of things. But if the asking is not sincere, is not done in tears and in blood, his storehouse of things inestimably precious will forever remain unexplored.

“When you ask for bread, would your heavenly Father give you a stone?” Ask from the bottom of your heart, and your sincerity will surely and most amply be rewarded. Zen knows no favoritism. It deals with us in the most impartial way. if you do not get from it what you wanted, do not blame Zen, rather blame yourself for the lack of courage, earnestness, sincerity, and faith. For in yourself is all that you want to get for yourself. “Men of little faith” would better keep themselves away from Zen. The sun shines on the good as much as on the bad; if you want to bask in it, why do you not come out of that hollow of ignorance and self-conceit?


Suzuki, D. T. (Richard M. Jaffee, editor). Selected Works of D. T. Suzuki, Volume I. Oakland, CA, University of California Press, 2014, pp. 124-125.

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