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Shunryu Suzuki and the Lotus Sutra in American Zen
by Taigen Dan Leighton

Shunryu Suzuki related excerpts on cuke       ------       Taigen Dan Leighton's cuke link page
Excerpts about or mentioning Shunryu Suzuki

Visions of Awakening Space and Time: Dogen and the Lotus Sutra

Taigen Dan Leighton
Oxford University Press, 2007

III. Selected East Asian Interpretations of the Story


Shunryu Suzuki and the Lotus Sutra in American Zen

            One of the most important Japanese teachers in the modern importation of Dogen's lineage to the West is Shunryu Suzuki (1904-1971), a Soto Zen priest who lived in California from 1959 until his death in 1971. During this time he founded the San Francisco Zen Center, including its Tassajara Monastery in the remote mountains of Monterey County, the first Zen monastery in the West. These sites remain as prominent centers of Zen practice in America, and a collection of Suzuki’s informal talks, Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, remains a foremost classic of American Buddhism.[1] 

            Dogen was endeavoring to import Chinese Chan into Japan, already a strongly Buddhist culture. He was introducing his disciples to the vast Chinese koan literature, but his many references to the Lotus Sutra were all very familiar to his students. But Suzuki was introducing Zen Buddhist practice into a culture that had nearly no context of meditation, and had distorted ideas of Buddhism as an exotic oriental philosophy. Moreover, many of Suzuki’s students arrived from the center of the 60s “hippie” counterculture in San Francisco, open to new ideas, but with their own individualist prejudices and strong proclivities for intoxication.

            Given his students’ lack of any Buddhist background, it is striking that Suzuki, along with regular references to Dogen in his talks, gave series of lectures on three texts, and that one of them was the Lotus Sutra. The other two were the Blue Cliff Record, Hekigan Roku, one of the primary Zen koan collections, and the Chinese teaching poem “Harmony of Difference and Sameness,” (Sandokai), a short verse by a Chinese Caodong lineage progenitor, Shitou Xiqian (700-790; Sekito Kisen in Japanese), which is chanted regularly in Soto Zen.[2] These two texts might be expected of a Japanese Soto Zen master introducing his practice to unlearned Americans. But his choice of the Lotus Sutra would remain quite surprising to many American Zen scholars not familiar with Dogen's own connection to the sutra.

            Suzuki gave this series of lectures on the Lotus Sutra from February, 1968 to November, 1969 at Tassajara monastery. Most of his students found these talks “dry and deadly dull.”[3] And yet Suzuki persisted. In these talks he expands to diverse subjects, especially in the discussions with students, but his treatment of the text itself in sequence does not get past chapter two of the sutra (although he gives one reference to the parable at the end of chapter sixteen about the physician who pretends to pass away so that his sons will take their medicine).[4]  

            Suzuki to some extent echoes Zhiyi (whom Suzuki does mention), as he discusses at length the central role of the Sambhogakaya Buddha, who he claims spoke the Lotus Sutra. Suzuki states, “Because this sutra was told by the Sambhogakaya Buddha instead of the historical Buddha, it is valuable.”[5]  Suzuki further says, “The Sambhogakaya Buddha is the original source of the Nirmanakaya Buddha. . . [who] has no eternal life. He is just one of the great heroes in our history. But when we understand Shakyamuni Buddha as a Sambhogakaya Buddha, or a Dharmakaya Buddha, for the first time he has perpetual life.”[6] 

            Of course Shunryu Suzuki was a dedicated student of Dogen, so he naturally expresses the viewpoints we will see from Dogen. This extends even to Dogen's style of rhetorical proclamation from the Lotus Sutra, as described in the previous chapter. Suzuki declares that when we understand that the sutra “was spoken by the Sambhogakaya Buddha, or when we understand that, ‘I am now reading the Lotus Sutra,’ then the Lotus Sutra makes sense to us. . . . I said, ‘I am reading,’ but actually, I meant, ‘I am telling the Lotus Sutra.’”[7] In this way the reader of the sutra himself becomes the Sambhogakaya, and continues the life of Buddha. Suzuki also proclaims the lively, playful hermeneutic required by the sutra. “If you read this sutra literally, you will not understand it properly. This sutra is told in various ways, back and forth; it’s sometimes this way and sometimes the other way. That is why the sutra is valuable. [It] could be very artistic or poetic.”[8]

            Suzuki presents his discussion of the Sambhogakaya Buddha early in the lecture series, indicating the importance to him of how this teaching illuminates the reality of earth and space. He says that this Buddha “is the source of all buddhas, which exist before Buddha. In this sense, Buddha is eternal, perpetual being. . . . The Lotus Sutra is the sutra which describes this kind of reality, the world of tathata in Sanskrit [suchness or thusness].” In terms of this reality of intersubjective awareness as it applies to earth, “When he observes his inside world, as the sun does, he finds himself as earth. That earth nature is universal. This earth is also earth, and the sun is also earth. Everything is earth, so there is no difference between the objective world and the subjective world.” So for the Sambhogakaya Buddha, “His world is limitless. It includes the sun and stars and everything. So his virtue and wisdom are also limitless. He . . . knows everything as being within himself. For him there is nothing outside his being.”[9] Thus Suzuki echoes and expands on the inclusive worldview of earth and space that we will see elucidated by Dogen.

            Suzuki also mentions the implications of this reality and the Buddha’s life-span to a view of time. “Since [his disciples’] adoration for Buddha extended limitlessly, his practice before he attained enlightenment, or Buddhahood, became limitless. It follows that, if Buddha is a limitlessly lofty person, the time he practiced his way must also have been limitlessly long. In this way, the historical Buddha became more and more something like Absolute Being.”[10] In accord with Dogen's temporal perspectives, Suzuki clarifies the multidimensionality of time, saying, “There is no separate past, present, and future. Past and future already exist in this present moment. . . . If you do something good, your future is bound to be good; and that you are good means that your past life was good.”[11] 

Shunryu Suzuki in his Lotus Sutra lectures also said that he was impressed as a boy hearing his mother regularly recite the chant from chapter twenty-five of the Lotus Sutra on the bodhisattva of compassion, Kanzeon (Avalokitesvara), which describes the miraculous saving power available to devotees who call on this bodhisattva when in peril.[12] This is a text only rarely chanted in American Zen centers, as its devotional tone seems strange to many Western sensibilities.[13] That verse text is one of two from the Lotus Sutra chanted daily in Japanese Soto Zen (though still infrequently in the West), the other being the closing verse of the “Life Span of the Tathagata” chapter.[14] The persisting importance of the Lotus Sutra in the Japanese Soto tradition reflects its importance to Dogen. And the relative lack of emphasis of the sutra’s Mahayana perspectives in American Zen studies and practice might signify the latter’s newness and lack of development.

[1]  Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (New York: Weatherhill, 1970). For a biography of Suzuki see David Chadwick, Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki (New York: Broadway Books, 1999).

[2]  For Suzuki’s Sandokai lectures, see Shunryu Suzuki, Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness: Zen Talks on the Sandokai (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999). See also Carl Bielefeldt, Griffith Foulk, Taigen Leighton, and Shohaku Okumura, trans. “Harmony of Difference and Equality,” in Leighton with Wu, Cultivating the Empty Field, pp. 74-75.

[3]  Personal communication with David Chadwick, April,  2005. I have consulted, and quote in what follows, the transcriptions of these approximately twenty-seven lectures transcribed by Brian Fikes and Bill Redican; Shunryu Suzuki, “Lectures on the Lotus Sutra,” 1968-69, unpublished manuscript, San Francisco Zen Center.

[4]  Ibid., Oct. 20, 1969.

[5] Ibid., Oct. 21, 1968.

[6] Ibid., unspecified date from Oct., 1968.

[7]  Ibid., Oct. 21, 1968.

[8] Ibid., unspecified date from Oct., 1968

[9]  Ibid.

[10]  Ibid., Oct. 20, 1968.

[11]  Ibid., unspecified date from Oct., 1968.

[12]  Ibid., Oct. 20, 1969.

[13]  As further anecdotal evidence of the enduring importance of the Lotus Sutra in the Soto tradition that Dogen founded, I recall an incident when I was a new student at Tassajara monastery in fall, 1983. Among the other residents in their first practice period there was a Japanese monk, Gengo Akiba. He had previously spent a number of years and had held a significant training position at Eiheiji, the monastery that Dogen had founded and still one of two headquarters temples of the Japanese Soto school. As of this current writing, Akiba has become the Bishop of the Japanese Soto school in North America. At the end of that intensive three-month practice period I asked him what he missed most at Tassajara from Eiheiji. There were a great many differences he might have cited (such as lack of a monks’ hall where monks sleep as well as do zazen and take meals). But Akiba immediately responded that the one thing he most missed was daily chanting of the verse closing of chapter twenty-five on the saving powers of the bodhisattva of compassion. For more details on the context of that chapter and differences between Tassajara and Eiheiji, see Leighton, Faces of Compassion, pp. 178-181.

[14]  See versions for liturgical use in Soto Zen Text Project, Soto School Scriptures for Daily Services and Practice (Tokyo: Sotoshu Shumucho, 2001), pp. 19-23, 38-41, and for Roman Letter Transliterations of the Japanese, pp. 97-101, 114-117. In an informal survey of the approximately one hundred twenty-five teachers registered in the American Zen Teachers Association in May 2005, only six reported that their centers regularly chant either of these excerpts from the Lotus Sutra.

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