Wednesday, June 22, 2011

D.T. Suzuki and “Suedenborugu” the Buddha of the North

By Jeremy K. Finkeldey

D. T. Suzuki (1870-1966)

In a 1954 meeting of religious luminaries, the internationally known 84 year old Buddhist scholar Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki (1870-1966) is reported to have characterized the 18th century Swedish mystic and revelator Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) as the “Buddha of the North.” (Bernstein, 1996, p. xv) Suzuki’s preface to his own 1913 work on Swedenborg (entitled Suedenborugu) includes the following description of the Swedish mystic. Suzuki describes Swedenborg as a:
“Revolutionary in theology, traveler of heaven and hell, champion of the spiritual world, king of the mystical realm, clairvoyant unique in history, scholar of incomparable vigor, scientist of penetrating intellect, gentleman free of worldly taint: all of these combined into one make Swedenborg…” (Suzuki in Bernstein, 1996, p. 3)
Swedenborg (1688-1772)
Suedenborugu is a biography of Emanuel Swedenborg written by Suzuki to accompany his translations into Japanese of four of Swedenborg’s major theological works – Heaven and Hell in 1910 (“Tenkai to Jigoku”), The New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrines in 1914 (“Shin Erusaremu to Sono Kyosetsu”), Divine Love and Wisdom in 1914 (“Shinchi to Shin’ai”), and Divine Providence in 1915 (“Shinryo Ron”). (Tatsuya Nagashima in Bernstein, 1996, p. x)

To most human beings on the planet both Swedenborg and D.T. Suzuki are probably relatively obscure - if they have even been heard of at all. Swedenborg is probably more obscure than Suzuki. So what could possibly be important to the modern world about the views and notions of a dusty old Zen Buddhist scholar and an even dustier and older Swedish mystic and revelator?

There are doubtless many answers to this question but I can only give you mine. The importance of the ideas of these two gentlemen to the modern world can be stated in one word – and that word is “peace.” I am referring both to inner peace and, its counterpart, outer peace. Most of the conflicts today and throughout history can be traced to conflicting belief systems.  Conflicts between differing political, economic, and religious belief systems have always created a profound lack of global unity and frequent outright bloodshed. The ‘holy war’ aspect of today’s global conflicts is not difficult to see and, when you think about it, today’s global conflict is really just a continuation of what has been going on since ancient times.

So this article is going to touch on the notion of peace through religious tolerance. Suzuki and Swedenborg are not just examples of religious tolerance – they are examples of vigorous scholarship, of the sublime revelation of the reality of spiritual unity or oneness, and of selfless service to others. The similarities of paradigm between the two are sometimes astonishing. Awareness of differences often creates conflict while awareness of similarities and commonalities creates a feeling of oneness and the peacefulness that goes with it. If I am another you I am less likely to pursue conflict and controversy – and more likely to seek clarification.

What could be further apart than the two cultural milieus, Asian Buddhism and Biblical Judeo-Christianity, from which Suzuki and Swedenborg respectively emerged? And yet let’s look at a quote from each on spiritual open-mindedness and the universality of true faith. First Suzuki’s interfaith mindset – in his 1913 Introduction to Suedenborugu he wrote:
“Surely religion bears fruit only from within, blooming naturally like a flower. So in response to the religious thirst in people’s hearts, it is necessary to introduce various creeds and philosophies from many places and have people choose according to what speaks to their individual tendencies.” (Suzuki in Bernstein, 1996, pp. 9-10)
This kind of open-mindedness to doctrinal diversity is typical of Suzuki’s approach to scholarship in general. To that end, the inadvisability of dispute over teachings is acknowledged in an 8th century document of Zen Buddhism called the T’an-ching (attributed to Hui-neng) in the Tung-huang Manuscript (paragraph 38) and is cited by Suzuki in his work The Zen Doctrine of No-Mind:
“… those who have the Dharma should devote themselves only to its practice. Disputes arise from the desire for conquest, and these are not in accordance with the Way.” (Suzuki, 1969, p. 10) 
And now from Swedenborg a longer description of the source of much of the conflict among humans in this natural world which is so often characterized by self-centered separateness. Swedenborg describes that source of conflict here in terms of ‘doctrinal dissent’. You will need to forgive the wordiness of Swedenborg in order to take in the whole concept. In his work entitled Secrets of Heaven, regarding the universality of true faith Swedenborg wrote:
“… In the Christian world it is doctrinal matters that distinguish churches; and from them people call themselves Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists, or the Reformed and the Evangelical, and by other names [including Swedenborgians]. It is from what is doctrinal alone that they are so called; which would never be if they would make love to the Lord and charity toward the neighbor the principal of faith. Doctrinal matters would then be only varieties of opinion concerning the mysteries of faith, which truly Christian people would leave to everyone to hold in accordance with his or her conscience, and would say in their hearts that a person is truly a Christian when he or she lives as a Christian, that is, as the Lord teaches. Thus from all the differing churches there would be made one church; and all the dissensions that come forth from doctrine alone would vanish; yea, all hatreds of one against another would be dissipated in a moment, and the Lord's kingdom would come upon the earth.” (Swedenborg, 1965, paragraph 1799:4)
The Lord’s kingdom would come upon the earth? Really?

Now I ask, can you imagine an earth upon which the Lord’s kingdom has come and where individual and group differences are respected? This is a very important visualization. If we cannot envision it, how can it happen? What does it look like? Does such a world, for example, include nuclear weapons, aircraft carriers, cruise missiles, AK-47s, and roadside bombs? Does it include greed-based poverty and starvation? Does the Lord’s kingdom on earth include corporate irresponsibility and environmental destruction? Does it include the fossil fuel-based internal combustion engine? Does it include ANY non-sustainable living practices? Does it include racism, bigotry, and gender-based discrimination and the inequality of opportunity that comes from those? Does it include a criminal justice system which is nothing more than an environment of hopelessness and despair in which criminals can only develop their crime skills? There’s more but you get the picture. Of course it includes none of the above. Why?

Because, those things are all fear-based and conflict-prone, and in the Lord’s kingdom there is nothing to fear or to fight about. Conquest is not in accordance with the Way. If we all are ever able to finally understand that inner peace is the cause of outer peace – and practice it – then the Lord’s kingdom will ‘come upon the earth’. We will have achieved Gandhi’s maxim – “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

So how can these learned and venerable ones help us achieve some inner peace? Let’s compare a few notes.

Suzuki’s studies of Swedenborg revealed to him that the essence of heaven is innocence. He wrote in his 1924 article Suedenborugu: Sono Tenkai to Tarikikan (Swedenborg’s View of Heaven and “Other Power”) that:
“… the essence of heaven is innocence… and… this innocence cannot be achieved through ordinary knowledge, it must be reached through a perfect enlightenment beyond knowledge. What I call enlightenment is the perception that we cannot independently achieve good separate from the Lord God in heaven. Without this perception we cannot attain innocence.” (Suzuki in Bernstein, 1996, p. 81) 
Keeping in mind that one of the common dynamics of Buddhist meditative practice is the silencing of our own thought through various means, please notice the very Buddhist quality of this next excerpt on innocence from the same 1924 Suzuki article. He says:
‎"... innocence... spontaneously floods the inner life when we completely give up our own thoughts. Doing good, we do not think it is good." (Suzuki in Bernstein, 1996, p. 78)
Is there anything in Swedenborg’s writings analogous to Suzuki’s method of silencing self-thought? How about this quote from one of the works of Swedenborg that Suzuki actually translated into Japanese – from Divine Love and Wisdom (“Shinchi to Shin’ai”):
“… when the mind is in affection for understanding, and through that comes into perception of truth, the person is then in the thought of the spirit, which is meditation. This passes, indeed, into the thought of the body, but into silent thought; for it is above bodily thought… real affection for truth is perceived only as a pressure of will from something pleasurable which is interiorly in meditation as its life, and is little noticed.” (Swedenborg, 1999, paragraph 404:8, emphasis added)
So, the non-theistic Buddhist scholar Suzuki has just used the expression that “we cannot independently achieve good separate from the Lord God in heaven.” We should at least note in passing that this in itself is a fairly remarkable thing for a person steeped in a non-theistic culture and formal training to say. Swedenborg takes this idea even further. In another work translated into Japanese by Suzuki, Divine Providence (“Shinryo Ron”), Swedenborg wrote:
"The appearance is that man is led and taught of himself; but the truth is that he is led and taught by the Lord alone.…Those… who confirm in themselves the appearance and also the truth … the Lord raises… up from their proprium which is in the appearance [the term ‘proprium’ means ‘what is a person’s own’]... and He enables them to perceive interiorly that they are not led and taught of themselves, but by Him.” (Swedenborg, 1949, paragraph 154:1-2)
‘Led and taught by the Lord alone’ inspires in me a rhetorical question – to what degree do each of us interiorly perceive this experience of being led and taught by the Lord alone? Swedenborg suggests that we need to ‘confirm’ BOTH the appearance AND the truth in order to be elevated above our selfishness (or proprium) and gain this interior perception. I know, I know… just meditate on it when you get a chance.

And does Swedenborg stop there? An example of the complete intimacy of our connection with God is described by Swedenborg in a section of his work entitled Secrets of Heaven or ‘Arcana Coelestia’ (paragraph number 1954:1-2). It is too long to give here in full but it is worth the read if you can get your hands on it (try here). It’s about the phenomenon of ‘influx’, or inflowing experience from the Lord, as it relates to physical sight. The gist of it is that, as we look around and see things, the experience is totally that we are the ones doing the seeing – and yet that is a total illusion. In fact, it is not we who are doing the seeing at all but the Lord. Here’s part of the citation:
“… it is the Lord who sees through the internal person, and He is the Only One who sees because He is the Only One who lives, and He it is who gives a person the ability to see, and this in such a manner that it appears to him as if he saw of himself. Such is the case with influx.” (Swedenborg, 1965, paragraph 1954:1-2)
This would be a very radical, possibly entirely unacceptable, idea to most people today. To D. T. Suzuki, a calm mind was all that was required to make a scholarly study of Swedenborgian ideas. He wrote:

"Swedenborg’s religious philosophy is unfathomably deep; and since it is fairly difficult to grasp, few people have made a scholarly study of it. However, when you carefully read his seemingly absurd writing with a calm mind, you find that many elements become rather difficult to dismiss.” (Suzuki in Bernstein, 1996, p. 77)
Perhaps the leading authority today on the subject of the similarities between Buddhism and Swedenborgian doctrine is Dr. David R. Loy. Loy, who earned his Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Singapore (and until recently was a professor on the Faculty of International Studies at Bunkyo University in Chigasaki, Japan), has made a dialog between Christian and Buddhist ideas a central facet of his career (Loy, 2000, p. 321). In an article The Dharma of Emanuel Swedenborg: A Buddhist perspective, Loy offers a number of comparisons of Swedenborgian concepts to Buddhist ones (Loy, 1995). The following table illustrates some, but by no means all, of the comparisons Dr. Loy makes between the two traditions.

Comparative Doctrine According to Loy
 (Source is Loy, 1995)
Swedenborgian Concept(s) of:
Related to the Buddhist Concept(s) of:
The Self
No-Self (or anatman) p. 8, and the Five Aggregates (or skandhas), p. 9,
(Unwholesome) Love of Self
The delusion that there is a Separate Self, p. 11,
Use, Love, Faith, and Charity
Motivation by Good [Compassion], p. 12
Innocence of Wisdom
The Unselfconscious giving of a bodhisattva, p. 12
An angel
A bodhisattva, p. 13,
The unknowable Divine in Itself
Emptiness (sunyata), p. 16
The “Grand Man” of heaven
Interdependence and the metaphor of Indra's Net, p. 19
Enlightenment, p. 20
Evil and its self-punishment
Karma and Samskara (or habitual mental tendencies - the vehicles of karma), p. 21-22

The contents of this table is my attempt to summarize Dr. Loy's invaluable comparison of Swedenborgian and Buddhist teachings. These were initially published in 1995 in the journal of the Swedenborg Association entitled Arcana and again as an afterword in Bernstein's 1996 Swedenborg: Buddha of the North. The page numbers in the table are from the Swedenborg Association version of the article. I cannot do justice to Loy's work here so I recommend you take the time to read it for yourself. You can find it online at the link given below in the references section or read it in your copy Bernstein's work.

I would like to briefly look at one of the comparisons here before closing.

Self and No Self

Loy says it well in his article when he describes Swedenborg's notion of 'self' in this way"
“Swedenborg agrees that the self (his Latin term is proprium, literally "what belongs to oneself"…) is an illusion…. For Swedenborg too the self is better understood as an economy of forces, although for him these forces are spiritual, that is, spirits. Good spirits (angels) and bad spirits (demons) are always with us, and their influence accounts for much of what we understand as our mental and emotional life.” (Loy, 1995, p. 8)
The spiritual associations we all have according to Swedenborg are entirely necessary to the existence of the illusion we call 'self.' These spiritual associations change during the course of our life to correspond with our mental and emotional changes of state. As we develop spiritually, we are gradually given what Swedenborg terms a 'heavenly proprium.' In Swedenborg's work Arcana Coelestia or Secrets of Heaven he writes:
In order therefore that a person may receive an Own that is heavenly, he [or she] must do good of himself, and think truth of himself; but still must know, and when reformed must think and believe, that all the good and all the truth are from the Lord, even as to the very least of all (and this because it is so)… Yet a person is allowed to suppose that she acts from herself in order that good and truth may become as if they were her own.” (Swedenborg, 1965, paragraph 2883)
It may only be a translator's distinction (and not in Swedenborg's original Latin) but I still find it interesting that the word 'Own' (which Swedenborg used interchangeably with 'proprium') is capitalized in this quote when associated with 'heavenly.' This is suggestive of the idea that the regenerated or enlightened self is more divine than it was in its former state. Perhaps the most concise Swedenborgian description of this process is in the work on Divine Providence:
“The more closely one is conjoined to the Lord the more distinctly does he seem to himself to be his own, and the more plainly does he recognize that he is the Lord's.” (Swedenborg, 1949, paragraph 42)
So this illusion of self is actually enhanced through the enlightenment or regenerative process rather than dispensed with - and, the enhancement is twofold in opposite 'directions'! Please see the earlier citation above from Divine Providence (paragraph 154) for additional clarification regarding the 'appearance' and the 'truth' about this illusion. 

By 'no self' Buddhists tend to mean 'no separate self' in an acknowledgement of the interconnection of all things. In this, Swedenborg and the Buddhists are in complete agreement. Any Buddhist would doubtless agree that there is something, however illusory and unreal, to which we say "I." Buddhists and Swedenborg agree on the Oneness aspect of interconnection and interdependence. This interconnection of all things speaks to the way in which Swedenborg would describe the Lord's kingdom as a 'kingdom of uses.' The idea of use or useful endeavor is not lost on the Buddhists either. In his work entitled The Zen Doctrine of No-Mind D. T. Suzuki wrote: 
"Hands are no hands, have no existence, until they pick up flowers and offer them to the Buddha; so with legs, they are no legs, non-entities, unless their Use is set to work, and they walk over the bridge, ford the stream, and climb the mountain." (Suzuki, 1969, p. 42)
Suzuki, having translated four major works of Swedenborg into Japanese almost 50 years earlier, was certainly thoroughly familiar with Swedenborg's doctrine of use at the time of his writing The Zen Doctrine of No-Mind. Loy's comparison (Loy, 1995, p. 19) of Swedenborg's "Grand Man" of heaven doctrine (apologies for the gender bias) and the holographic metaphor of "Indra's Net" also illustrates similarities in the notions of interconnection and interdependence. 

Being the Change 

What is the significance of the self/no-self doctrines in Swedenborg and Buddhism? If the interconnection and interdependence of all things is as intimate as Swedenborg and the Buddhists suggest it is, and if outer peace is truly a manifestation of inner peace, then doesn't personal unilateral action for peace make sense? We can, as Gandhi suggested, be the change we would like to see in the world by 'thinking globally' and 'acting locally.' By 'locally' I am referring to our inner 'self'. First, we can accept that validity exists in all of the world's spiritual traditions and we can make it our purpose to seek and find the good in all things. This means and end to contention based on differing teachings and viewpoints. Next, we can stop coming from ego and fear and the sick need to be right and to make others wrong. We can come instead from love and a desire for connection and peace. And finally when others want to seek controversy, argumentation, and conflict, we can go to a quieter place within and practice some simple Buddhist meditative techniques for stilling the mind and calming negative emotion. We can facilitate our own inner peace and model that for others to see.

And what would happen if everybody did it...?


~Bernstein, A. trans. (1996). Swedenborg: Buddha of the north (Including a translation of “Suedenborugu” [Swedenborg] and “Suedenborugu: Sono Tenkai to Tarikikan” [Swedenborg’s View of Heaven and “OtherPower”] by D.T. Suzuki, and, an Afterword: The Dharma of Emanuel Swedenborg: A Buddhist perspective by David Loy). West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation.
~Loy, D. R. (1995). The Dharma of Emanuel Swedenborg: A Buddhist perspective. Arcana (Journal of the Swedenborg Association) 2(1). 5-31. Retrieved 3/28/07 from
~Loy, D. R. (2000). David Loy Interview. Buddhist-Christian Studies 20(1). 321-323. Retrieved 3/28/07 from
~Rojanaphruk, P. (n.d.). Spirits in a Material World: David Loy on Re-evaluating Religion. The Nation. [Electronic version]. Retrieved 3/28/07 from
~Suzuki, D. T. (1935). Manual of Zen Buddhism. Kyoto, Japan: Eastern Buddhist Society. ~Suzuki, D. T. (1949). Essays in Zen Buddhism (First Series). New York, NY: Grove Press.
~Suzuki, D. T. (1956). Zen Buddhism: Selected writings of D. T. Suzuki. (Ed. William Barrett). Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc.
~Suzuki, D. T. (1957). Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers.
~Suzuki, D. T. (1959). Zen and Japanese culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
~Suzuki, D. T. (1963). Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism. New York, NY: Schocken Books.
~Suzuki, D. T. (1964). An introduction to Zen Buddhism (With a foreword by Carl Jung) New York, NY: Grove Press.
~Suzuki, D. T. (1968). On Indian and Mahayana Buddhism. (Ed. Edward Conze). New York, NY: Harper & Row, Publishers.
~Suzuki, D. T. (1969). The Zen doctrine of no-mind: The significance of the sutra of Hui-neng (Wei-lang). (Ed. Christmas Humphreys). York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, Inc.
~Suzuki, D. T. (1972). Living by Zen: A synthesis of the historical and practical aspects of Zen Buddhism. York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, Inc.
~Swedenborg, E. (1949). Divine providence. Wm. Dick & E. J. Pulsford (Trans.). London: The Swedenborg Society. (Original work published 1764)
~Swedenborg, E. (1965). Arcana coelestia (Secrets of heaven). J. F. Potts (Trans.). New York: Swedenborg Foundation. (Original work published c. 1749-1756)
~Swedenborg, E. (1999). Divine love and wisdom. N. B. Rogers (Trans.). Bryn Athyn, PA: General Church of the New Jerusalem. (Original work published 1763)

Copyright @ 2011 Jeremy K. Finkeldey; All rights reserved.