Shunryu Suzuki-roshi

Profiled by Todd Fletcher

If you struggle with what Shunryu Suzuki-roshi calls “gaining ideas” in your spiritual practice—a sense of searching, trying to attain some better future state—then his teachings merit your attention.

Suzuki-roshi (1904-1971) popularized Zen patriarch Dogen-zenji’s teaching on beginner’s mind (Japanese shoshin) in the West. With that teaching, and in his instructions on zazen (Zen-style sitting practice) and many other teachings, he emphasized the power of committing wholeheartedly to pure action in the present moment.

Treat every moment as your last. It is not preparation for something else. —Shunryu Suzuki-roshi

People ask what it means to practice zazen with no gaining idea, what kind of effort is necessary for that kind of practice. The answer is: effort to get rid of something extra from our practice. —Shunryu Suzuki-roshi

Many of Suzuki-roshi’s other teachings, such as on “big mind,” “original mind,” and Buddha nature, depict vividly what we find when we commit ourselves in this way: unbound nondual awareness, abiding in emptiness, devoid of subject and object, and encompassing all phenomena.

The world of thinking is that of our ordinary dualistic mind. The world of pure consciousness or awareness is that of buddha-mind. —Shunryu Suzuki-roshi

Zen practice is to open up our small mind. So concentrating is just an aid to help you realize ‘big mind,’ or the mind that is everything. —Shunryu Suzuki-roshi

Because Suzuki-roshi’s teachings in English so clearly communicate both Soto Zen’s methods and its fruitions, his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (1970) remains by far the single bestselling Japanese Zen book for Western audiences.

Shunryu Suzuki: Brief Biography

Born in Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan, Shunryu Suzuki stood 4 feet 11 inches tall in adulthood. He struggled greatly with absentmindedness: he would habitually lose articles of clothing and other items on trains, and as a priest would forget to attend funeral services he was supposed to be officiating. He and others found this quality painful rather than endearing, as when he slept through the train stop to meet his mother at her deathbed. His idealistic, somewhat hapless quality in his youth led his master So-on to nickname him “Crooked Cucumber.”

Suzuki sought Soto Zen ordination with So-on at age 11, graduated from Komazawa University in Tokyo in 1930 with a major in Buddhist and Zen philosophy and a minor in English, studied as a monk at the two Soto daihozan (“great root monasteries”) Eiheiji and Sojiji, and assumed abbotship of Rinso-in monastery in 1934.

Despite these advancements, he carried a curiosity that his priesthood in Japan never fully satisfied. This led him to travel to occupied Manchuria during the closing months of World War II, to scout possible sites for a branch temple; the occupation collapsed while he was there, and he was lucky to return to Japan alive.

More than a decade later, at age 54, he accepted a position at a temple in San Francisco, at that time a Zen backwater. While his prescribed role was to minister to the traditional Japanese congregation, Suzuki-roshi was educated in English and open-minded in his transmission of Zen to Westerners, and quickly attracted a community of predominantly American students.

This community grew rapidly throughout his 12 years in the United States, expanding to its own Zen Center and then later to a retreat center called Tassajara. Suzuki-roshi initiated his Western students in zazen practice and various elements of Soto Zen discipline, and gave informal spoken Dharma lectures in English.

The transcripts of these teachings form the core of his books, among them the seminal Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice (1970). More than fifty years after its publication, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind remains the most popular book on Japanese Zen among Western readers, due to its strikingly fresh and direct transmission of the heart of Zen wisdom.

Suzuki-roshi lived and taught in California until his death from cancer in 1971.

Suzuki-roshi As His Western Students Experienced Him

By the time of his arrival in the United States, Suzuki-roshi had a clearly perceptible spiritual power. His students describe his presence in different terms, often emphasizing kindness and compassion; a powerful quality of ordinariness; a sense of being unhurried and synchronized in all activities; and perhaps above all an unequaled trustworthiness:

“I think he was the only person I’ve ever believed in my life and he didn’t say anything. There was something about him that I just believed what he said. There was nothing dramatic about what he said but it was impenetrable.”

“What was wonderful about Suzuki Roshi is that he thought I was wonderful. Everyone had that same feeling. You felt he was there just for you… Suzuki Roshi was a great teacher because he could see the Buddha nature in us.”

“He had the feeling of being completely within the activity of the moment. Approaching a chair, he wouldn’t just carelessly sit down—he’d really make contact with it. He harmonized and merged with whatever he met. He was at ease because he wasn’t off balance.”

“There was something about his bearing, a look in his eye that made me feel that whatever he said was something I could trust. He was a rare person.”

Suzuki-roshi was capable of powerfully affecting the minds of his students, creating experiences of miracles (Sanskrit siddhis), as in the following anecdote from his biography Crooked Cucumber:

Ken was carrying incense for Suzuki on the way to zazen. Suzuki crossed the bridge, and Ken followed with the green incense held high, trailing a pleasant thin wisp of smoke behind him. Suzuki went to the edge of the bridge and stood looking at the creek below. Periodically the echoing sound of the mallet on the wooden board would pierce the air—the third and final round. While Suzuki looked down at the creek, Ken saw him disappear, blending totally with the water, wood, and air. A moment later they were walking down the dirt and cobble path and toward the zendo. Ken didn’t know what had happened, or if it had happened to him, to Suzuki, or both. But he had learned one thing: Suzuki’s way was not to latch on to the highs but to accept every moment of life as it comes, step after step. So he walked on and made nothing of it.

A small amount of surviving video shows Suzuki-roshi’s manner and teaching style:

What Suzuki-roshi Taught: Selected Quotes

Suzuki-roshi’s most famous teachings are catalogued in his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice (1970). Produced from transcripts of public talks he gave during the 1960s, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (and, later, his posthumous collection Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness: Zen Talks on the Sandokai) have made a widely acknowledged contribution to both Western Zen and Western Buddhism more broadly.

Suzuki-roshi’s pithy and evocative teachings cover all core topics in Buddhist spirituality, from suffering to mindfulness to nonduality to enlightenment itself, frequently emphasizing the importance of zazen (Soto-style sitting meditation) and the intrinsic Buddha nature within each practitioner.

Below are selected quotes by Shunryu Suzuki-roshi on a variety of spiritual topics, drawing from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness, and additional sources of transcribed teachings.

On Beginner’s Mind

Suzuki-roshi emphasized the Zen patriarch Dogen-zenji’s teaching of “beginner’s mind”: a quality of fresh awareness beyond built-up concepts of progress, improvement, and achievement in one’s practice.

“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”

“In the beginner’s mind there is no thought, ‘I have attained something.’ All self-centered thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something.”

“Instead of gathering knowledge, you should clear your mind. If your mind is clear, true knowledge is already yours.”

“You stick to naturalness too much. When you stick to it, it is not natural any more.”

“The most difficult thing is always to keep your beginner’s mind… Be very very careful about this point. If you start to practice zazen, you will begin to appreciate your beginner’s mind. It is the secret of Zen practice.”

On Suffering

Suzuki-roshi spoke movingly about suffering, including at times in response to his own impending death.

“Hell is not punishment, it’s training.”

“Whatever we see is changing, losing its balance. The reason everything looks beautiful is because it is out of balance, but its background is always in perfect harmony. This is how everything exists in the realm of Buddha nature, losing its balance against a background of perfect balance. So if you see things without realizing the background of Buddha nature, everything appears to be in the form of suffering. But if you understand the background of existence, you realize that suffering itself is how we live, and how we extend our life.”

“I don’t want to die. I don’t know what it’s going to be like when I die. Nobody knows what that’s going to be like. But when I die, I’ll still be a buddha. I may be a buddha in agony, or I may be a buddha in bliss, but I’ll die knowing that this is how it is.”

On Meditation Practice (zazen)

Suzuki-roshi heavily emphasized practicing zazen (Soto Zen sitting meditation) without gaining ideas: simply to do the practice itself, sitting upright and placing one’s attention on the breathing, with wholehearted effort.

“In zazen what you are doing is not for the sake of anything… As long as you think you are
practicing zazen for the sake of something, that is not true practice.”

“How do you practice zazen without expecting something special, without dreaming of something in your mind? Without expecting some special experience you should devote yourself fully to your practice.”

“People ask what it means to practice zazen with no gaining idea, what kind of effort is necessary for that kind of practice. The answer is: effort to get rid of something extra from our practice. If some extra idea comes, you should try to stop it; you should remain in pure practice. That is the point towards which our effort is directed.”

“When you are practicing zazen, do not try to stop your thinking. Let it stop by itself. If something comes into your mind, let it come in, and let it go out. It will not stay long.”

“Zen practice is to get to our True Mind, the mind not accessible to thinking. This mind cannot be consciously known by ordinary efforts. An unusual effort is necessary. This effort is zazen.”

On Mindfulness

Suzuki-roshi’s teachings on mindfulness frequently emphasized an open mind: a mind whose attention is not totally captured by its objects (thoughts, sense perceptions, and so on), even while it engages with them, and which can therefore remain aware of itself.

“Let thoughts come and go. Just don’t serve them tea.”

“One cannot study Zen in the usual manner. The way to study Zen is to be always aware of yourself, to be careful, to be sincere with yourself. Awareness means that when reading, including Zen materials, your mind should not get caught by any idea. It should remain open. Similarly with sights and sounds: don’t allow your mind’s self-awareness to get lost or absorbed. In other words, always remain conscious of what you are doing, of what is going on.”

“The important thing in our understanding is to have a smooth, free-thinking way of observation. We have to think and to observe things without stagnation. We should accept things as they are without difficulty. Our mind should be soft and open enough to understand things as they are. When our thinking is soft, it is called imperturbable thinking. This kind of thinking is always stable. It is called mindfulness.”

“Calmness of mind does not mean you should stop your activity. Real calmness should be found in activity itself. We say, ‘It is easy to have calmness in inactivity, it is hard to have calmness in activity, but calmness in activity is true calmness.'”

“Whether you have an object or not, your mind should be stable and your mind should not be divided.”

On Non-Self (Egolessness, Selflessness)

Suzuki-roshi’s teachings on selflessness often note the paradox that all desires and projects—including to attain selflessness—express the dualistic habits that create the sense of self. Realizing buddha-mind directly is described as the resolution to this paradox.

“Selflessness is very difficult to understand. If you try to be selfless, that is already a selfish idea. Selflessness will be there when you do not try anything. When you are practicing with a good teacher, you will naturally be not so selfish.”

“No matter what god or doctrine you believe in, if you become attached to it, your belief will be based more or less on a self-centered idea.”

“You cannot practice true zazen, because you practice it… When you do it, you create some concrete idea of ‘you’ or ‘I,’ and you create some particular idea of practice or zazen.”

“When there is freedom from self you have absolute freedom.”

On “Big Mind”

Suzuki-roshi coined “big mind” to reference all-encompassing nondual awareness beyond subjectivity and objectivity. It is contrasted to “small mind”—the conventionally experienced mind—which arises within big mind, and which does label phenomena as being “inside” or “outside” itself.

“Zen practice is to open up our small mind. So concentrating is just an aid to help you realize ‘big mind,’ or the mind that is everything.”

“The true understanding is that the mind includes everything; when you think something comes from outside it means only that something appears in your mind.”

“If your mind is not related to anything else, then there is no dualistic understanding in the activity of your mind. You understand activity as just waves of your mind.”

“You yourself make the waves in your mind. If you leave your mind as it is, it will become calm. This mind is called big mind.”

“Big mind experiences everything within itself.”

“When small mind finds its correct place in big mind, there is peace.”

On Nonduality

Suzuki-roshi’s teachings on nonduality emphasize how “big mind” (or “original mind” or “buddha mind”) contains everything within itself, and how all phenomena manifest within this unified space of awareness.

“For Zen students the most important thing is not to be dualistic. Our ‘original mind’ includes everything within itself. It is always rich and sufficient within itself. You should not lose your self-sufficient state of mind.”

“The world of thinking is that of our ordinary dualistic mind. The world of pure consciousness or awareness is that of buddha-mind.”

“To observe things in a flash—that is nonduality.”

“According to Dogen-zenji, every existence is a flashing into the vast phenomenal world. Each existence is another expression of the quality of being itself.”

On Emptiness (Shunyata)

Suzuki-roshi’s teachings on emptiness offer an evocative portrait of formlessness as the birthplace of all.

“It is necessary, absolutely necessary to believe in nothing. We have to believe in something which has no form or no color—something which exists before every form and colors appear. This is a very important point.”

“Emptiness is the garden where you can’t see anything. It is the mother of all.”

“We get no letters from the world of emptiness, but when you see the plant flower, when you hear the sound of bamboo hit by the small stone, that is a letter from the world of emptiness.”

“Unless you get through to emptiness, you are not practicing. But if you stick to the idea of emptiness, you are not a Buddhist yet.”

“Emptiness means everything is always here. One whole being is not an accumulation of everything. It is impossible to divide one whole existence into parts. It is always here and always working. This is enlightenment.”

“When you listen to our teaching with a pure, clear mind, you can accept it as if you were hearing something which you already knew. This is called emptiness, or omnipotent self, or knowing everything.”

On Buddha Nature (Tathagatagarbha)

Suzuki-roshi emphasizes that all occurrences are expressions of Buddha nature, from Zen practice to thoughts to reality itself.

“Doing something is expressing our own nature. We do not exist for the sake of something else. We exist for the sake of ourselves.”

“According to Dogen, practice is just practice-buddha, a bridge is just bridge-buddha, reality is just reality-buddha, an idea is just idea-buddha. There is no problem. When you say, ‘I am a human being,’ that is just another name for buddha—human being-buddha.”

“‘Essence of mind,’ ‘original mind,’ ‘original face,’ ‘Buddha nature,’ ’emptiness’—all these
words mean the absolute calmness of our mind.”

“Phenomena in the world of thinking are constantly being named or labeled by our minds. The world of awareness does not label or name, it only reflects.”

“Buddhism is not any special teaching. It’s our human way.”

“If you think, ‘I practice zazen,’ that is a misunderstanding. Buddha practices zazen, not you. If you think, ‘I practice zazen,’ there will be many troubles. If you think, ‘Buddha practices zazen,’ there will not be trouble. Whether or not your zazen is painful or full of erroneous ideas, it is still Buddha’s activity. There is no way to escape from Buddha’s activity. Thus you must accept yourself and devote yourself to yourself, or to Buddha, or to zazen.”

On Enlightenment

Suzuki-roshi describes enlightenment in terms that undercut gaining ideas about it: enlightenment results from engaging fully with one’s practice in each moment, rather than from finally attaining a sought-after state. At the same time, Suzuki-roshi does describe the experience of enlightenment in specific terms.

“How do you practice zazen without expecting something special, without dreaming of something in your mind? Without expecting some special experience you should devote yourself fully to your practice.”

“Buddhism is not any special teaching, and enlightenment is not any particular stage that you attain. When you understand your life completely, that is enlightenment.”

“It is not the practice that is good or bad, but your understanding makes practice seem good or bad. This is why we say do not seek for some particular enlightenment. You should be satisfied with your practice and practice hard moment after moment. Then there is enlightenment.”

“Almost all people are carrying a big board, so they cannot see the other side. They think they are just the ordinary mind, but if they take the board off they will understand, ‘Oh, I am Buddha, too. How can I be both Buddha and ordinary mind? It is amazing!’ That is enlightenment.”

“If you are enlightened, the whole universe tells the truth to the whole universe.”

Additional Selected Quotes

Suzuki-roshi’s teachings also include many striking statements that stand on their own; below are a few.

“When my master and I were walking in the rain, he would say, ‘Do not walk so fast, the rain is everywhere.'”

“Life is like stepping onto a boat that is about to sail out to sea and sink.”

“As long as you seek for something, you will get the shadow of reality and not reality itself.”

“Establishing Buddhism in a new country is like holding a plant to a stone and waiting for it to take root.”

Shunryu Suzuki-roshi: Personal Challenges and Difficulties

Suzuki’s life was touched by tragedy, most especially in 1952 when his second wife, Chie, was murdered by a mentally ill monk that Suzuki had insisted on keeping at his Rinso-in monastery. Their ten-year-old daughter Omi did not recover from the trauma, and was sent to an insane asylum in 1955, committing suicide there in 1964.

Suzuki struggled to balance the demands of family and the Dharma throughout his life, and he took an at times aloof attitude toward his children, leading his biographer to paraphrase his daughter Yasuko in saying that he “just wasn’t a family man.” For example, he traveled to San Francisco in 1959 against the wishes of his new wife, Mitsu, who was seriously ill at the time, and she remained angry at him for a long time afterward.

Suzuki himself did not want to be remembered in primarily biographical terms, going so far as to cut off an English expatriate he had known in Japan whom he suspected was compiling dates and times for a biography. Looking at his biographical information in 1969, he said:

“There’s nothing interesting in all this. This is just a record, just confusion. My life in Japan was spent fighting, in struggle. Fortunately I knew how to handle the problems most of the time, but fighting just made for more difficulties. I was a very impatient and angry person, and I always started fights because of my impatience. Once I started to fight, I had to become very patient or else I’d lose that fight and it would be endless. I always won the struggles, but that is not the best way. It is better to surrender… If I had known the truth about American life earlier, it would have been sayonara to Japan a long time ago.”

In the same interview, he said “If my life is seen in this way [biographically], everything will be lost.”

Shunryu Suzuki-roshi’s Life: A Detailed Timeline

May 18, 1904: Shunryu Suzuki is born in Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan.
1916: at age 11, Shunryu Suzuki seeks ordination with his master, Gyokujun So-on Suzuki. So-on is the first disciple of Shunryu’s father, who is himself a Soto Zen priest.
May 18, 1917: Shunryu Suzuki is ordained on his 13th birthday.
1925: Shunryu Suzuki enters Komazawa University in Tokyo.
1929: Shunryu Suzuki is installed by So-on as the twenty-eighth abbot of Zoun-in monastery.
1930: Shunryu Suzuki graduates from Komazawa University, with a major in Buddhist and Zen philosophy and a minor in English.
September 1930: Shunryu Suzuki goes to practice as a monk at Eiheiji in Fukui Prefecture, one of two daihozan (“great root monasteries”) of Soto Zen.
September 1931: Shunryu Suzuki goes to practice at the other daihozan, Sojiji in Yokohama.
May 1932: Shunryu Suzuki becomes zuishin of his second teacher, Kishizawa.
Around 1932: Shunryu Suzuki marries. His wife contracts tuberculosis and is unable to recover. The marriage is annulled.
November 1933: Shunryu Suzuki’s father, Sogaku, dies.
May 1934: Shunryu Suzuki’s master, So-on, dies.
1934: Shunryu Suzuki succeeds So-on as abbott of Rinso-in monastery.
February 1935: Shunryu marries Chie Muramatsu, aged twenty-two.
November 11, 1935: Shunryu’s and Chie’s first child is born, a girl named Yasuko.
April 1938: Shunryu Suzuki’s mother Yone dies.
1939: Shunryu and Chie’s second child is born, a son named Hoitsu.
1942: Shunryu and Chie have a daughter, Omi.
1944: Shunryu and Chie have a son named Otohiro.
1941-1945: Rinso-in endures food shortages and other challenges related to the Japanese war effort in World War II.
March 27,1952: Shunryu’s wife, Chie, is murdered by a mentally ill monk. Their daughter Omi does not recover from the trauma, and is sent to an insane asylum in 1955.
1955: Kishizawa dies.
December 1958: Shunryu marries his third wife, Mitsu.
1959: Shunryu Suzuki accepts an invitation to travel to the United States as abbot of Sokoji, San Francisco’s only Soto Zen temple.
May 23, 1959: Shunryu Suzuki arrives in San Francisco.
1959: Shunryu Suzuki begins attracting American students in addition to the Japanese families who had been Sokoji’s patrons.
February 1960: Shunryu Suzuki and his American students hold a first three-day sesshin (zazen retreat).
1961: Shunryu Suzuki meets Richard Baker, later his dharma heir.
June 1961: Mitsu and Otohiro arrive in San Francisco.
1961: Shunryu Suzuki’s Western sangha formally incorporates as Zen Center.
December 1961: Wind Bell newsletter is established. It becomes the first written record of Suzuki-roshi’s public talks.
May 1962: Shunryu Suzuki is installed as the permanent abbot of Sokoji.
August 1963: Shunryu Suzuki ordains Grahame Petchey as a priest, the first American student he ordains.
1964: Shunryu Suzuki’s daughter Omi commits suicide in the mental institution where she has been living for nine years.
1965: Audio recordings begin of the talks that will form Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.
1966: Shunryu Suzuki travels to Japan and installs his son Hoitsu as abbot of Rinso-in.
December 1966: Shunryu Suzuki’s sangha purchases Tassajara, and establish a large retreat center several hours outside of San Francisco.
July 1967: Shunryu Suzuki ordains Richard Baker as a Zen priest.
July 1967: Tassajara opens as Zenshinji (Zen Mountain Center).
1969: Trudy Dixon, who compiled the manuscript of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, dies. Suzuki-roshi recognizes her as one of his greatest disciples, and eulogizes her.
1969: Suzuki-roshi’s sangha leaves Sokoji and relocates to another building, Page Street, later called Beginner’s Mind Temple (Hosshin-ji).
1970: Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind is published.
August 1970: Shunryu Suzuki leaves for Japan, planning to stay for four months.
December 8, 1970: Suzuki-roshi completes the Dharma transmission ceremony with Richard Baker.
March 1971: Shunryu Suzuki is hospitalized and has his gallbladder removed, and is diagnosed with gallbladder cancer, initially believed to have been fully removed during surgery.
October 8, 1971: Shunryu Suzuki is diagnosed with cancer.
November 21, 1971: Richard Baker is installed as chief priest of Zen Center and Suzuki-roshi’s larger sangha.
December 4, 1971: Shunryu Suzuki-roshi dies.

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi: Readings and Resources

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice

Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness: Zen Talks on the Sandokai

Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki by David Chadwick – a large and well-maintained archive of interviews, stories, and other material from Suzuki-roshi’s students and others. – Suzuki Roshi’s page on the San Francisco Zen Center website. – transcripts of talks and other resources. – an interview with David Chadwick, author of Crooked Cucumber.