Suzuki, Shunryu 1904-1971

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SUZUKI, Shunryu 1904-1971


Born 1904, in United States; died December 4, 1971, in California; son of a Soto Zen priest. Education: Graduated from Komazawa Buddhist University. Religion: Soto Zen Buddhist.


Soto Zen priest in Japan, 1930s; director of two kindergartens in Japan, late 1940s and early 1950s; Sokoji Soto Zen temple, San Francisco, CA, interim director after 1959; Zen Center of San Francisco, founder, mid-1960s; also founder of Zen Mountain Center, Tassajara Springs, CA, 1967.


Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, edited by Trudy Dixon with an introduction by Richard Baker, Walker/Weatherhill (New York, NY), 1970.

Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness: Zen Talks on the Sandokai, edited by Mel Weitsman and Michael Wenger, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1999.

Not Always So: Practicing the True Spirit of Zen, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2002.


Shunryu Suzuki, who died in 1971, provided much of the foundation for the rise in popularity of Zen Buddhism in the late twentieth-century United States as founder of the San Francisco Zen Center. Suzuki was a well-known teacher and religious figure who, as interest in alternative religions was burgeoning inside the Californian counterculture, helped explain the concepts and tenets of this Eastern faith to Western-trained minds.

Born in 1904, Suzuki was the son of a Soto Zen priest in Japan, and followed his father's career choice as a young man. He did not study with his parent, however, as was customary, and during the tense years of World War II and Japanese aggression, became involved in the pacifist movement. In 1959 Suzuki immigrated to the United States after the Japanese-American membership of the Sokoji Soto Zen temple in San Francisco invited him to lead their group.

During the mood of disillusionment and reevaluation that was characteristic of progressive Western intellectual thought in the 1960s, more young people began coming to Suzuki's temple in search of a new form of spiritual fulfillment. In response, he began to hold lecture series and classes for those who wished to pursue Buddhism seriously. Suzuki taught an entire generation of Westerners the core Soto Zen practice of zazen, or meditation. In 1967, he founded the first Zen Buddhist monastery in the United States, the Zen Mountain Center in Tassajara Springs, California.

Suzuki's first book, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, is a collection of speeches he gave at the San Francisco Zen Center. First published in 1970, the book and its contents provide instructions for seekers of spiritual enlightenment in zazen and other key Soto Zen concepts. Throughout the text, Suzuki's talents as a teacher—along with his dry sense of humor—are evident. A quarter-century later, the work remained perennially popular, and was in its thirtieth printings.

Another work authored by Suzuki was published many years after his 1971 death. The 1999 volume Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness: Zen Talks on the Sandokai, edited by Mel Weitsman and Michael Wenger, is a transcript of sessions led by Suzuki at the height of his career. Here, Suzuki discusses the "Sandokai," an eighth-century poem that is the cornerstone of Zen thought; it is recited daily in Buddhist temples. Its twenty-two couplets point out dichotomies in the universe, such as light and dark, and rough and smooth. Suzuki examines the poem line by line, and answers questions from students. "Readers of his precious book will be familiar with his earthy, clear, intense style," noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer.



Chadwick, David, Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu, Suzuki Broadway Books, 19.

Religious Leaders of America: A Biographical Guide to Founders and Leaders of Religious Bodies, Churches, and Spiritual Groups in North America, second edition, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1999, pp. 549-550.


Booklist, October 1, 1999, p. 324.

Library Journal, November 1, 1970, pp. 3783-3784.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 2, 1995, p. 9.

Publishers Weekly, October 11, 1999, p. 69.*