If you like me have turned corners with Zen as sign posts and have come away with less than satisfactory comprehension as to what "it is," you also may find this book helpful. In college years I read "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle, etc." as well as "Zen and the Art of Archery." Both had me wanting to know more about Zen.
That said, I do not know what Zen is. I have now read Suzuki's book and I cannot explain it to my friend who asked me what "it is." It is a concept very different from the Western Philosophical dialectic tradition. I cannot tell you, the reader, what it is.
Suzuki does an exceptional job in presenting the idea framed in terms of Japanese culture. As we learn by comparison, this helps significantly. His scholarship is first rate. He addresses questions such as how Buddhism, a belief that embraces life, can be consistent with kendo, the art of swordsmanship, which obviously must deal with violent death and somehow connect with Zen and the Art of the Tea Ceremony. Moreover, he presents common allegorical tales from eastern texts to illustrate ideas about Zen. This helped me since I had read several of the same or similar tales in various books. (In fact, I suspect some of them may be the same tales, corrupted by time and telling.) One tale, about a Samurai posing as a monk to defeat a kidnapper, appears in one of the first scenes of the movie, "The Seven Samurai." I include this to answer one of the other reviewers who questioned the connection between Zen and Japanese Culture.
How pervasive Zen is in the culture, I have no idea. I am not sophisticated enough in the matter to definitively respond, but I did find, in my limited experience, a connection of significance. Moreover, I do sense that I know more now after having read Suzuki's book than before.
Finally, for those who want to know what Zen is, I would recommend they include this book in their travels. I believe--think is not the appropriate word--that understanding it is a long process. One learns techniques of thinking that inhibit knowing but are necessary. One distances oneself from the techniques for them to become natural. One appreciates the distance and the techniques and becomes entangled in pride. Finally, I believe, one loses all of oneself and is. Now that is what I do not know it is.
Be sure to read the tale of "The Swordman and the Cat" beginning on page 429.
Great book and loaded with information about Zen in Japanese culture. I especially like the little folk tales he adds to enhance the book's overall appeal. Just doesn't get much better than this folks.