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Approaching the Masters with humility and respect.
on June 3, 2001
MANUAL OF ZEN BUDDHISM by D. T. Suzuki. 192 pp. London : Rider and Company, 1974 (1950) and Reprinted.
Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki was no ordinary man. A Buddhist scholar, and proficient not only in Chinese and Japanese, but also in Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, English, and other languages, after attaining his Enlightenment at the age of twenty-seven he imposed upon himself an extremely difficult task - that of bringing a knowledge of Zen Buddhism to the West, and of somehow trying to get over into English, a language which was quite unprepared to receive them, the ideas and insights of the great Zen Masters.
For over two thousand years, many of Asia's most brilliant intellects have been actively engaged in exploring the mysteries of mind, an exploration which Jung himself was to admit could hardly be said to have yet begun in the West.
Anyone who has looked, for example, in one of the huge collections of Buddhist Scriptures such as the Taisho Tripitaka, or in a comprehensive Sanskrit-Chinese-Japanese Dictionary of Buddhist technical and philosophic terms, will have realized that, Buddhism has developed tens of thousands of words, many of them expressing the finest shades of meaning, for which English has no real equivalents.
This fantastic profusion of ideas and vocabulary, a sort of higher mathematics of thought compared to simple arithmetic, has generated a literature of extraordinary subtlety and sophistication.
One of the fruits of Suzuki sensei's sixty-five years writing, translating, and teaching, is the present book, the object of which, as he states in his Preface, is "to inform the reader of the various literary materials relating to [Zen] monastery life" (page 11). We are, in a sense, being invited into a Zen Monastery, and granted the privilege of viewing a selection of its literary and artistic treasures.
In the case of an actual applicant for admission to a Zen Temple or monastery, no-one would think of simply breezing in and saying : "OK. I'm here. What can you guys offer me?" Applicants, as is well known, are kept waiting at the gate, often for many days, before being allowed the privilege of meeting with the Master.
It's a test, a test of the applicant's humility, respect, and determination. And when the applicant finally does get to see the Master, he is expected to show the same respect, not perhaps so much for the Master as a person as for what he stands for - for the state of enlightenment and for the vast ocean of Buddhist knowledge he represents.
Suzuki sensei, would, I feel sure, have hoped that we ourselves show a similar respect for the contents of the present book - for its Prayers and Invocations; for its selections from the Sutras and from the Zen Masters; and for its fifty interesting plates and illustrations which depict Chinese and Japanese statuary, scroll paintings, woodblocks, etc., of a kind one would find at any Zen Temple in Japan.
All of them are standard Zen and are standard Buddhist fare, but just as at a feast we are not expected to eat everything on the table, readers are free to select whatever most appeals to them, without necessarily being dismissive of items that don't happen to suit their taste.
The more devotionally inclined may be strongly drawn by some of the Prayers. Students of the sutras will be delighted to find one of the key sutras of Zen, the Prajnaparamitahrdaya or Heart Sutra, a sutra one could spend one's life studying (as did Edward Conze), along with extracts from the Lotus, Lankavatara, and the mind-boggling Diamond Sutra, and a useful resume of the Surangama. Those drawn to the early Masters won't be disappointed either.
Personally I was happy to discover Suzuki sensei's fine translation of Seng-ts'an's 'Hsin-hsin-ming' ('On Believing in Mind,' pages 76-82), the very first verse treatise on Zen - which in the original Chinese takes up just two thirds of a page in the more than 100,000 pages of 'Taisho' - a text which embodies the quintessence of Zen and that deserves to be far better known. Here is the first of its thirty-one verses, with my slash marks to indicate line breaks:
"The Perfect Way knows no difficulties / Except that it refuses to make preferences; / Only when freed from hate and love, / It reveals itself fully and without disguise" (page 76).
I don't know how long Suzuki sensei spent on his translations, but I do know that Peter Haskel spent ten years to give us his marvelous translation of Bankei, and I myself, inspired by the version in the present book, spent three years working on a translation of the Hsin-hsin-ming, a text which has yet to yield up its full lode of meaning.
There are many other deep and wonderful texts in this book, including two versions of 'The Ten Oxherding Pictures.' Some of these texts will appeal to one kind of person, others to another. But all will repay careful study by the serious student, and by one who approaches them in an attitude of humility and respect.
Many other Zen anthologies have appeared since Suzuki sensei's pioneering effort, some of them with more 'up-to-date' (though not necessarily superior) translations, but his 'Manual of Zen Buddhism' has always had a special importance for me. After three years spent studying just one of its texts, I wonder how long it will take me to assimilate the rest? And there must have been many in the past, in both China and Japan, who were happy to nibble on much less than the feast provided here.