Ralph Dumain

Revisiting D. T. Suzuki:
Selective reading, memory, & embarrassment


A few points with which to begin:

1. Erich Fromm was one of my teenage intellectual heroes.

2. My thinking underwent a few crucial qualitative changes over the decades; one of them was in 1980, and what I was thinking in the 1970s needs to be reconstructed beyond what I can remember.

3. Interpretations change with one’s personal context, but also, sometimes one extracts something which resonates at the time but whose context fades into the background and is forgotten.

4. I may have balked at some New Agey notions back then, but I was much more tolerant of much nonsense than I subsequently would become.

5. It is possible that I looked at the book in question more than once in the preceding decade, and my interest in Fromm in the subsequent decade before being revived again in the 1990s, but the memory I am addressing implies that I must have read this book in 1978: Zen Buddhism & Psychoanalysis, by D. T. Suzuki, Erich Fromm, and Richard De Martino (New York: Harper, 1960).

As with many things, something I thought I read stuck with me, though I did not remember it accurately. It must have been this:

D. T. Suzuki on Zen Buddhism, theism, belief & experience

. . . particularly this quote:

Who are you to say all these fine things from the conceptual point of view? We like to interview you personally, concretely, or existentially. When you say, So long as I live, I live in contradiction,’ who is this I? When you tell us that the fundamental antinomy of the person is to be taken over by faith, who is the one who takes to this faith? Who is the one who experiences this faith? Behind faith, experience, conflict, and conceptualization there must be a live man who does all this.

But I did not remember even this much. What did I ignore and what did I take away from this and ‘remember’? Though I didn’t necessarily subscribe to various superstitious beliefs in the late 1970s, I was much more tolerant of them and in some cases excessively so, an orientation which would change drastically in 1980, when the force of a society descending into irrationalism hit me. Zen is not superstition in the way conventional religions and occult beliefs are, and while I couldn’t swallow what was being presented whole, I also did not categorically reject it.

This was the age of the counterculture and a more widespread acceptance of New Agey ideas than what preceded and what followed, though one could see who was in charge back then, and the yuppification of that subculture would eventually become complete.

As an amateur, I developed a philosophical orientation which did not fit into the standard intellectual traditions, categories, and terminology, and thus had to be reorganized in the 1980s. Nonetheless, I was on the right track in some areas, despite the vagueness and sketchiness of various aspects of my philosophical orientation. To give examples from 1979: I was interested in Isaac Newton’s thought as a total cultural orientation, in which his physics—which survived him—and his theological and alchemical obsessions—which did not—were part of a total cultural ideological system I wanted to understand. This I still think was a productive way to go. I have more to say about this now, in a more disciplined fashion. Another project: having been an aficionado of William Blake for years, I realized I had to learn more about the context of his time, and about what else was going on in what would subsequently be termed British Romanticism. I became particularly interested in Byron’s Cain, and in the Romantic rewriting of mythology generally.

As a teenager I had discovered Erich Fromm, and read and annotated Escape From Freedom several times. His best-seller The Art of Loving did nothing for me, but his other books were an inspiration, as was a concept of his I learned from an obscure periodical—biophilia, the love of life. I noticed after a time that he tended to be excessively idealistic, in the popular as well as the philosophical sense, particularly with respect to religions or admired religious figures, though he was basically a secular humanist (specifically a psychoanalytical Marxist humanist, also steeped in messianic Judaism) who provided secularized psychoanalytical readings of religious texts. So I thought he was a bit gullible, and I probably thought even in1978 that he was overly uncritical of Zen Buddhism. But I did not react particularly negatively to Suzuki back then. And with time and a shift of interests, Fromm would fade into the background for many years.

Conventional religions never impressed me. Ceding authority to faith and a postulated deity with its attendant institutions compelling subordination was something I opposed. So what did I get out of the quote cited above? The fundamental issue is this: not what do you believe, not what is the religious doctrine you insist is truth, but the fundamental question is one of the inalienable responsibility of the individual: who is the person who believes this, who is the person making these claims?

And I am sure that I repeated this to someone or wrote it down or recorded it on tape at the time. However amateurish my thinking was in other respects (the notion of the vital, critical self as the center within an overall world environment was not adequately formulated with respect to the nature of this totality), this was an inescapable conclusion I had come to, and this is why I mis/remembered what I had read, while forgetting the rest, for decades to come.

I knew I had to revisit the source of that one idea I remembered, and the only source it could be would be Suzuki’s “Lectures on Zen Buddhism” in the aforementioned book. So, a couple months ago I located the book, scrutinized Suzuki’s contribution. . . and I was appalled!

The extract above does not reproduce sufficient context. If you review the larger extract on the indicated web page, you will see that there is a lot more going on, and something dodgy about it I should have paid attention to 42 years ago. The immediately surrounding context, pertaining to Mahayana Buddhism, is an additional factor, but then there is the entire passage, citing the Christian apologist Denis de Rougemont and his notion of the metaphysical duality of Western civilization, a metaphysical duality Suzuki accepts as given and uses as a pretext for contrasting the East he deems superior to the Western tradition. This East-West nonsense was a staple of ideological obscurantism for somewhat over 2/3 of the 20th century, until it was succeeded by postmodernism. Note also that Suzuki has been criticized for Asian chauvinism as well as misrepresentation of the Zen tradition, and as an erstwhile apologist of Japanese imperialism and fascism.  As the leading propagandist of Zen in the West for the better part of a century, Suzuki has a lot to answer for.

Whatever might be said about Zen practices, looking over Suzuki’s entire disquisition, including extensive discussions of doctrines, koans, anecdotes, it is evident that Suzuki is just another academic and nothing more, exhibiting a recurrent behavior pattern of intellectual anti-intellectualism. It is all a doctrinaire magic show. When I think of koans, I think of the sadistic initiation rites of fraternities and military academies. But whatever value there is in any of this can only be in specific practices, the sort of practices one finds in the martial arts and comparable physical disciplines. (I can guess what this might be from my experience of tai chi, which is quite valuable, though I have also experienced bullying from an instructor, which I suppose emanates from the traditional authoritarianism of the social origin of these disciplines, replicated up to the present time.) But whatever this is, which emerged from a pre-industrial, feudal age, cannot possibly supply an adequate total world view for our time.  And so I wash my hands of Suzuki, and I continue to ask, who is the person propagating ideology?


D. T. Suzuki on Zen Buddhism, theism, belief & experience

T.W. Adorno on Zen Buddhism

Socialist Humanism: An International Symposium
edited by Erich Fromm

Occultism, Eastern Mysticism, Fascism, & Countercultures: Selected Bibliography

Holistic Thought, New Age Obscurantism, Occultism, the Sciences, & Fascism

Atheism / Freethought / Humanism / Rationalism / Skepticism / Unbelief /
Secularism / Church-State Separation Web Links

Theodor W. Adorno & Critical Theory Study Guide

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Offsite:

D. T. Suzuki - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Denis de Rougemont - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

On a Foundational Triad of Plinths
by John W. Ragsdale
(Eco-logos, Vol. 25 (No. 92, 1-2,. 1979), pp. 8-12)
[From the Erich Fromm Document Center]

Internationale Erich-Fromm-Gesellschaft e.V. (English version)


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Uploaded 7 May 2020

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