The History and Life of Suzuki Shósan

 by Anthony M. Wen


Suzuki Shósan, a samurai warrior who fought and served under Shogun Towugawa leyasu a well-known army in Japan. Shósan had been enlightened and gave his life up to become a monk, at the age of 41. He had devoted his life to Zen studies because it demanded courage, vitality and death energy and the ability to confront death at any moment. Shósan became a teacher who wanted to teach students the knowledge that they might be confronted with death at any moment. Also to live each day as if it was your last and to be always ready for anything that may confront you.

Suzuki Shósan a former warrior born at the end of Japan’s civil war. This was a time where feudal lords and clans tried to take over countries. These warriors would fight for the land in which they were raised on. Suzuki Shósan became a monk after being enlightened by some deities who claimed to be the Nió, the ones who guard the temple gate. Shósan was born into a family who lived in the province of Misawa (present day Aichi Prefecture) in 1579. He was also a retainer in the army of Tokugawa Ieyasu (1541-1616). Shósan unified the Tokugawas and they ruled Japan for the next 250 years. Shósan fought in the "Battle of Sekigahara" to help unify Japan but there is question whether or not he, himself engaged in the fight (Arthur Braverman 6-8).

Shósan is the eldest of five sons and two daughters. Shósan and his second eldest brother fought in the battle that unified Japan. At the age of twelve Shósan was given the opportunity to join and become a part of the seventy-man horse troop in Hitachi (present day Ibaraki Prefecture). His brother Shigenari became the heir to the Suzuki family and Shósan remained close to him.

Shósan eventually had a son as well as a daughter. Shósan’s brother, Shigernari, had adopted his son. No information was ever known about the whereabouts of the wife or daughter but it is thought that he remarried. Shósan traveled great distances to visit various Zen masters, he often mentioned many names such as Ryoson of Taho hermitage in Shimozuma, Motsuge of Erin monastery, in Utsunomiya, Daigu and Gudo of Myoshinji in Kyoto, and Shósan’s lifelong friend Ban’an (or Man’an) of Kium monastery in Edo. A friend of Shósan named Soto had asked Shósan to compose an instructional manual in 1636-called Fumoto no Kusawake (Parting the Grasses at the foot of the Mountain). The manual explains the Zen traditions and practices. As written in the book Fumoto no Kusawake, Shósan describes the purpose of his manual and writes:



One who seeks to practice the Buddha way enters from the shallow to the deep. He must climb to the top of the mountain by parting the grasses at the foot. It is difficult to reach the top when one’s practices are incomplete. To understand the meaning, you must set your sight on the methods handed down directly by the ancient master…(Braverman 8).

While serving under Shogun, had been enlightened. Soon after his experience he wrote a pamphlet named: called Moanjo (A Staff for the blind). In this phamplet, Suzuki tried to explain the importance of Buddhism over Confucianism and convinced a samurai friend of his of the mistake, in believing that Confucianism was more useful than Buddhism. Soon after his pamphlet he decided to become a monk. When choosing to do so he knew that he was putting his life and the life of his family on the line. The Shogun had felt pity on him and decided to let him go because of his past duties he performed prior in the army.

Typically, when you become a monk you change your name but in the case of Suzuki, the Zen Master Daigu Sochiku decided not to change his name because he felt that it wasn’t necessary to do so. He liked the name and it had fit him very well. Soon after, Shósan wanted to be ordained officially so he left on a journey in search of finding Buddhist places and Shinto shrines.

Shósan explains his move to Chidori Mountains in Misawa and describes his life there:

When I was engaged in Ritsu discipline on Chidori Mountain in the province of Misawa, I lived on nothing but barley gruel and boiled barley with rice. Because of the way I lived, my body was exposed to wind and rain, my stomach and intestines were affected by the raw food, and I became ill. My illness finally grew severe. Though I tried many different remedies, I was unable to make a complete recovery. All of the many doctors I saw simply gave up maybe too, thought I would die…(Braverman 9-10).

Shósan’s brother who was a doctor explained to Shósan that it was important for him to eat meat because it would help him recover.

Shósan moved a little later to a small town near Mikawa, about 14 miles north of Misawa where he gave many talks and was known as a healer to many. People spoke of him as a healer because of the many acts he performed. One person spoke of him healing a women who had worms growing out of her.

Shósan is known for supporting traditional Japan feudal social values. Shósan believes in the four classes of people (samurai, farmers, artisans, and merchants) and also supported many different healing practices. When Shósan had left to see his brother who had been serving under Tokugawa’s government he found out that his brother was executing women who lived with outlaws/lawbreakers. He asked his brother to put and end to this. Then statues of Shósan had been put up to honor him and to remember the people that had already been put to death by Tokugawa’s government.

As Shósan went from city to city he talked to people about how people should live their lives. He feels that governments should be ran like the Buddha’s teaching and he calls this the "True Buddhism". He taught people why they shouldn’t follow the role of becoming a priest and that you don’t need to change your lifestyle/statue to experience the teachings of the Buddha. He feels that…

According to the Buddha’s words, "One who fully enters society lacks little from the Buddha world." This statement means that you can attain Buddhahood through the world’s teaching. This is because the world’s teaching is itself the Buddha Dharma…

… Unless you proceed according to the principle that you can attain Buddhahood through the world’s teaching, you are completely oblivious to the intention of the Buddha…. (Braverman 12)

Later, Shósan traveled from city to city taking followers with him. From 1642-1645 he and his brother decided to build temples and propagate Buddhism. Thirty-two of these temples were built and one was "a Pure Land temple of the Jodo sect. (Braverman 12)." Tablets of honor of Ieyasu and Hidetada were placed in the Jodo temple.

Shósan became very anti-Christian and many missionaries began to come to Japan and converting many of Shósan’s followers to the Christian religion. This is when Shósan began to write "Ha Kirishitan (Christianity Refuted), a forcefully anti-Christian treatise (Braverman 13)." In 1648 Shósan moved permanently to Edo (Tokyo) and began to write Banmin Tokuyu (The Meritorious Practice for All).

Soon after he had lost his close brother Shigenari, his brother protested against high taxes and he had requested for lower assessments. He refused and committed the ritual suicide (Seppuku). That following year, he had lost his close friend and spiritual companion, Ban’an. After having asked the government to change their ways and rule by the laws of the Buddhahood, Shósan pasted away in 1655 at the age of seventy-six years old and had been a monk for thirty-five years (Braverman 15).

Throughout the life of Suzuki Shósan he spoke to many, especially to the four social classes of Feudal Japan. One of the social classes, a farmer explains:

Farming is itself a Buddhist activity. There is no need to seek practice elsewhere. Your body is the Buddha body, your mind the Buddha mind, and your work the work of the Buddha. If you cultivate the land, reciting Namu Aminda Butsu with every movement of the hoe, you will surely reach Buddhahood. Just leave everything to Providence, be honest, and do not arouse personal desires…(Braverman 14-15).

Another important idea that Shósan brought up is the idea of death. Shósan emphasized on "studying death" (shi ni narau). Death was often talked about and Shósan explains it…:

Put everything aside and only study death. Always study death, free
yourself from it, and when death actually comes, you won’t be flustered…(Braverman 16-17).


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