The Western fascination with Zen began in the early 20th century, when Zen Buddhist scholar Daisetsu Teitaro (D. T.) Suzuki (1870–1966) set about in his pursuit to interpret Zen Buddhism for the West. Suzuki was born in 1870 in the city of Kanazawa on Japan’s west coast. He left the 16th-century castle city in 1981 to study philosophy at the University of Tokyo, though a shortage of funds ended Suzuki’s formal education soon after he began. Despite his schooling being cut short, Suzuki managed to become a student of the roshi (Zen master) Imakita Kosen (1816–1892) of the temple Engaku Ji in Kamakura. Each week after his classes, without the means to afford train fare, Suzuki would walk all night to arrive at the monastery in time to sit for morning meditation. His withdrawal from university allowed him to immerse himself at Engaku Ji, and he soon became a trusted disciple of Kosen as well as Soen, who succeeded as abbot after Kosen’s death.
Suzuki's explication of the essence of Zen Buddhism for the the West is that all human beings are Buddha, and that all they have to do is to discover that truth for themselves, not by philosophising or rational thought, nor by studying scriptures or partaking in worship, but by intrinsic methods – controlling the mind through meditation. Zen is a practice that often seems paradoxical, necessitating an acute restraint which, when accomplished correctly, emanates a complete spontaneity and ultimate freedom.
In 1897, Suzuki left Japan to spend 13 years in the United States, where he worked across cultural, social, and generational boundaries to contribute to the understanding of Buddhism in Western countries, before returning to Japan to continue his lifelong study of Zen and share his knowledge with a domestic audience.
Suzuki's native Kanazawa became the modern capital of Ishikawa prefecture after Japan’s Meiji Restoration of 1868. During this time the city was celebrated throughout the country for its arts, crafts, and abundant seafood. Today, the city of some 460,000 inhabitants is now also famed for its cool contemporary art scene, of which the D.T. Suzuki Museum – dedicated to the famous philosopher – is of great note.
The museum, designed by Yoshio Taniguchi – best known for his redesign of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City – offers a glimpse into Suzuki's life and works through a collection of photographs, books, and writings from the philosopher. The exhibitions exclude much in the way of explanatory text, inviting visitors to instead contemplate the works through internal musings, thus encouraging an adoption of Zen practices. Within the museum, Taniguchi created the Contemplative Space, a small structure whose roof admits light to illuminate tatami benches placed on a wooden floor looking down upon the museum's Water Mirror Garden. The shallow waters of this reflective pond resemble the rocks and sand of a classical karesansui (dry landscape) garden, expressing grand views of nature in a small space. Surveyed from small windows in the Contemplative Space, the minimalist scenes of the glistening pool stimulate the senses and allow for a tranquil setting in which to share in Suzuki's work – examining one's own soul with an open spirit and a clear mind.
Rachel E T Davies