Meeting D. T. Suzuki
    As Suzuki portrayed it, Zen Buddhism was a highly practical religion whose emphasis on direct experience made it particularly comparable to forms of mysticism that scholars such as William James had emphasized as the fountainhead of all religious sentiment. Suzuki presented a version of Zen that can be described as detraditionalized and essentialized: Zen is the ultimate fact of all philosophy and religion. --- Wikipedia

The moment I began to speak to Dr. Suzuki all my attention rushed back up from my body into my head, which started to spin round and around with words, searching for something appropriate to say. Being still young, and very much stuffed with academic forms of thought, I did not even notice this change of state as such --- and Dr. Suzuki's silence did not help me to understand what was happening in me. Not then, in any case. But only later. Quite a bit later.

I do not remember anything I said during the next ten minutes or so, except for some vague remarks about the Gurdjieff teaching, which I had begun studying a few months before, but without staying with it. I had heard that Suzuki had had contact with some of the teachers in that tradition and I asked him what he thought of it. He said simply that he did not understand what they were trying. That took me aback, but it also gave me the impetus to ask the one question that I had been carefully guarding and that I was sure would open up a challenging discussion with Dr. Suzuki, as well as showing him how serious a thinker I was and how well I understood what was, in general, important.

"What is the self?" I said.

I prepared myself to listen very carefully to his reply in order to carry the discussion further. Crowding the front of my brain, like devoted servants eagerly waiting to be called down to my lips, were Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Socrates, Immanuel Kant and many others.

He smiled slightly with the left side of his mouth; and his bat-wing eyebrows twitched.

"Who is asking the question?"

I looked at him, dumbfounded. Of course, I ought to have been well prepared for such a question. Had I not read hundreds of accounts of just such a question being put by this or that Zen master to one or another monk? But it was suddenly as though I had never read a single book about Zen or even heard of it. As for my good servants Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Socrates, Kant and all their company, they bolted away from the front of my mind like startled birds frightened by a gunshot.

"I am asking it!" I stammered like a fool, even with a shade of annoyance.

"Show me this I," he said.

Never had I felt more helpless. What the hell was he talking about? In fact, I actually felt a bit insulted.

"What do you mean?"

But he said nothing more. He simply sat there, silent, courteous, serious. As though there was nothing at all strange about this conversation. And I could think of nothing more to say, nothing at all. Minutes passed, agonizingly. Silence suffocated me. Eventually, the Japanese woman brought in a tray of tea, and I remember that I did manage to stay a few minutes longer and carry on a conversation. But I have no idea what we spoke about or even how I got out the door.

I was deeply disappointed. On the train back to New Haven I could think of nothing else but my disappointment.

--- From What Is God?
Jacob Needleman
©2009 Tarcher/Penguin
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