We’re biologically conditioned to avoid pain, distress and hardship. So why does this Japanese Zen philosopher say that suffering helps you to unlock the secrets of life?
D.T. Suzuki was one of the more well known communicators of Zen philosophy in the twentieth century. In 1927 he published the very influential Essays in Zen Buddhism, which ended up becoming a toolkit for living a life in Zen in modern times.
The book is an incredible formulation of Zen, and we’ve pulled out some of the key points to give a snapshot of his thinking.
The Essence of Zen is Seeing into One’s Being
“Zen in its essence is the art of seeing into the nature of one’s own being, and it points the way from bondage to freedom. By making us drink right from the fountain of life, it liberates us from all the yokes under which we finite beings are usually suffering in this world.”
The Object of Zen is to Save Us From Going Crazy
“This body of ours is something like an electric battery in which a mysterious power latently lies. When this power is not properly brought into operation, it either grows mouldy and withers away or is warped and expresses itself abnormally. It is the object of Zen, therefore, to save us from going crazy or being crippled. This is what I mean by freedom, giving free play to all the creative and benevolent impulses inherently lying in our hearts. Generally, we are blind to this fact, that we are in possession of all the necessary faculties that will make us happy and loving towards one another. All the struggles that we see around us come from this ignorance… When the cloud of ignorance disappears… we see for the first time into the nature of our own being.”
Zen Appeals to Personal Experience and Not Book Knowledge
“Zen proposes its solution by directly appealing to facts of personal experience and not to book-knowledge. The nature of one’s own being where apparently rages the struggle between the finite and the infinite is to be grasped by a higher faculty than the intellect… For the intellect has a peculiarly disquieting quality in it. Though it raises questions enough to disturb the serenity of the mind, it is too frequently unable to give satisfactory answers to them. It upsets the blissful peace of ignorance and yet it does not restore the former state of things by offering something else. Because it points out ignorance, it is often considered illuminating, whereas the fact is that it disturbs, not necessarily always bringing light on its path.”
Nature Abhors a Vacuum
“As nature abhors a vacuum, Zen abhors anything coming between the fact and ourselves. According to Zen there is no struggle in the fact itself such as between the finite and the infinite, between the flesh and the spirit. These are idle distinctions fictitiously designed by the intellect for its own interest. Those who take them too seriously or those who try to read them into the very fact of life are those who take the finger for the moon.”
Suffering Reveals the Secrets of Life
“The more you suffer the deeper grows your character, and with the deepening of your character you read the more penetratingly into the secrets of life. All great artists, all great religious leaders, and all great social reformers have come out of the intensest struggles which they fought bravely, quite frequently in tears and with bleeding hearts.”
Love Helps You Lose the Ego
“Love makes the ego lose itself in the object it loves, and yet at the same time it wants to have the object as its own… The greatest bulk of literature ever produced in this world is but the harping on the same string of love, and we never seem to grow weary of it. But… through the awakening of love we get a glimpse into the infinity of things… When the ego-shell is broken and the ‘other’ is taken into its own body, we can say that the ego has denied itself or that the ego has taken its first steps towards the infinite.”
If you enjoyed this primer to Zen and the meaning to life we get from suffering, you’ll love these articles:
- What Causes Our Suffering, According to Thich Nhat Hanh
- Zen Master Alan Watts Explains Why You Need To Stop Trying To Improve Yourself
- Eckhart Tolle Reveals the Best Way to Overcome Emotional Suffering