Suzuki Shōsan

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SUZUKI SHŌSAN (15791655) was a Japanese Buddhist monk known for his advocacy of Niō-zazen, a meditative technique drawing upon both Zen and Pure Land methodologies. Shōsan was a bodyguard retainer (hatamoto) of Tokugawa Ieyasu and fought in the crucial battles that gave the Tokugawa family control of all Japan. In 1620, a few years after Ieyasu's death, Shōsan tonsured himself as a Zen monk, favoring the Sōtō sect. Yet he never formally became affiliated with any sect and soon set himself up as the master of a small temple and meditation center called Onshinji some miles out of Okazaki, near Asuke, his birthplace. After six or seven years there, he moved to the Edo (Tokyo) vicinity, where he lived the rest of his life as a semi-itinerant teacher and writer.

Although Shōsan was well known in Zen circles, his influence was negligible for two reasons: He never became an official member of any sect, and his meditational methods and emphasis were nontraditional. He became widely known then and later for his so-called Niō-zazen. This "method" takes its name from Shōsan's use as models for meditation the images of the two fierce warrior-gods (Niō) that guard the entrance of many Buddhist temples in Japan, rather than the quietly seated Nyorai image. He also suggested as a model Fudo, the "angry" Buddha portrayed as wreathed in flames and with sword and lasso in either hand.

The reasons for this advocacy are given clearly by Shōsan. For beginners in meditationand he considered every contemporary, including himself, as suchthe Nyorai model was too passive. It did not embody the fierce energy necessary for successfully engaging in the hand-to-hand combat with one's self-love, which is essential for productive meditation. Hence he recommended setting the back teeth, tightly clenching the fists, scowling with a warrior's fierce glare, and repeating the Pure Land Nembutsu vigorously, all the while thinking, "I am about to die."

Although unique to Shōsan, Niō-zazen was not simply a casual mixture of Pure Land and Zen methodologies, as his detractors in both sects have alleged. Rather, it was a tangible embodiment of his dominant conviction that the Buddhist dharma must be made available to the masses in the most effective form, regardless of sectarian tradition. He was persuaded that Buddhism was being misperceived and bypassed as a passive, other-worldly faith in favor of "practical" and "useful" Confucianism. Niō-zazen was one way of combating this. But even more fundamentally, he sought to integrate Buddhism into the daily life of samurai, farmer, artisan, and merchant. He preached the inherent sanctity of all honest labor as Heaven's appointment for earthly life. By so regarding it, and by combining daily activities with the continual saying of the Nembutsu, one could cut off evil thoughts, accumulate merit, and begin to walk the Buddha's way toward enlightenment. Hence he preached that all work could be made into Buddha work; that is, into genuine religious discipline.

This fusion of the sacred and the secular in daily life, made practical and specific in its form, was Shōsan's most important contribution to Buddhism. It is not to be seen as a mere assertion of the innate sacrality of the secular and the profane, regardless of religious tradition. It is an assertion of the potential sacredness of all human effort and a strong protest against a Buddhism interpreted as otherworldly detachment in the name of a religious transcendence of time and space.


The English-language discussions of Suzuki Shōsan are meager. There is one volume, Selected Writings of Suzuki Shōsan, translated by Royal Tyler (Ithaca, N.Y., 1977), which is a serviceable treatment with substantial footnotes and a brief introductory treatment of Shōsan. Hajime Nakamura has dealt briefly with him in A History of the Development of Japanese Thought, vol. 2, From 592 to 1868 (Tokyo, 1967), and "Suzuki Shōsan, 15791655, and the Spirit of Capitalism in Japanese Buddhism," Monumenta Nipponica 22 (1967): 114. Two essays, "Suzuki Shōsan, Wayfarer" and "Selections from Suzuki Shōsan," translated by Jocelyn and Winston King, appear in the Eastern Buddhist 12 (October 1979). See also my chapter "Practising Dying: The Samurai-Zen Death Techniques of Suzuki Shōsan," in Religious Encounters with Death, edited by Frank E. Reynolds and Earle H. Waugh (University Park, Pa., 1977), pp. 143158, and my Death Was His Kōan: The Samurai-Zen of Suzuki Shōsan (Berkeley, Calif., 1985), which is a substantial treatment of Shōsan's life, thought, meditational method, and embodiment of Tokugawa social and religious values.

New Sources

Braverman, Arthur, trans. and ed. Warrior of Zen: The Diamond-Hard Wisdom Mind of Suzuki Shosan. New York, 1994.

Winston L. King (1987)

Revised Bibliography