Beatrice Lane Suzuki: An American Theosophist in Japan

By Adele S. Algeo

Originally printed in the JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2007 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Algeo, Adele S. "Beatrice Lane Suzuki: An American Theosophist in Japan." Quest  95.1 (JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2007):

Theosophical Society - Adele Algeo Mrs. Algeo was a longtime editorial collaborator with Dr. Algeo in both Theosophical and linguistic pursuits. Regarding the latter, she assisted Dr. Algeo in the publication, Among the New Words: A Dictionary of Neologisms: 1941–1991 (1991), based upon the column appearing in American Speech, “Among the New Words.” Beatrice Lane Suzuki was the American wife of D. T. Suzuki, the well-known philosopher, Buddhist scholar, and Zen popularizer in the West. Her name is familiar to few Theosophists, yet she played an important role in Japanese Theosophy.

In a 2003 lecture in London titled "Japanese Buddhism and the Theosophical Movement," Professor Shinichi Yoshinaga mentioned the reported participation of D. T. Suzuki, about which little was known. In response to that clue, I consulted the archives at Adyar, which contain much information concerning Theosophical work in Japan, including the participation of the Suzukis during the 1920s and 1930s. The Suzukis had married in 1911 in Yokohama, at which time Beatrice became a Japanese citizen. They spent much of their married life in Japan, teaching at various universities, publishing an English-language quarterly, The Eastern Buddhist, and interpreting Buddhism for the West through their many translations.

Beatrice Lane Suzuki was an American from New Jersey who had graduated from Radcliffe (and while there took courses from William James, an early member of the Theosophical Society). She also did graduate work at Columbia University, where she earned a Master of Arts and a certificate in social work in 1908. She worked with her husband in all his enterprises, but the year before her death in 1939, she published her own work, Mahayana Buddhism, which is well regarded and still in print today.

There is no evidence that either of the Suzukis were Theosophists before they joined the Tokyo International Lodge in 1920. That is also true of Beatrice's mother, Dr. Emma Erskine Hahn, who lived with the Suzukis and joined the lodge at the same time. In fact, in her first letter to Adyar, dated June 1924, Beatrice states that the three of them joined at the time the Tokyo Lodge was formed.

After Colonel Olcott's visits to Japan in the late nineteenth century, no further work by the Adyar Theosophical Society occurred until Dr. James H. Cousins spent a year in Japan in 1919-1920 as a professor of modern English poetry at Keio University in Tokyo (Cousins and Cousins, 348-69). At this time, he helped form the Tokyo International Lodge. In a letter dated February 15, 1920, Cousins wrote to the international headquarters at Adyar about the lodge's beginnings with eleven members: five Japanese and six international members from America, Korea, Greece, and India.

Cousins himself did not remain in Japan much longer, leaving in March to return to Adyar. It is unclear if Cousins knew the Suzukis at this time, as they are not mentioned in his autobiographical account of his year in Japan. They may have been among the Japanese members who were recruited after his departure, as they were not among the original eleven.

The membership list sent to Adyar, dated May 12, 1920, contained twenty-one names, the first being Captain B. Kon, secretary of the lodge, the second, J. R. Brinkley, and the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth, Mrs. Erskine Hahn, M.D., Mrs. B. L. Suzuki, and Mr. T. Suzuki. In a letter of September 1920 to the international secretary of the Theosophical Society at Adyar, Jack Brinkley wrote that Captain B. Kon had to retire for personal reasons and that he had been elected to fill the vacancy. He also mentioned that the lodge had been reorganized to ensure there were enough officers to do the necessary work and enclosed a list of the officers which included Mr. T. Suzuki as President and Mrs. B. L. Suzuki on the Lodge Committee (along with four other members, including J. Brinkley as Secretary and Treasurer).

Things did not go smoothly for the new lodge, however, and in July 1921, Maurice A. Browne, a member of the Council, wrote to the recording secretary at Adyar that Jack Brinkley "has been absent in Europe for many months. Mrs. B. L. Suzuki, 572 Zoshigaya, Takatamachi, Tokyo-fu, has been Acting Secretary in his absence."

In a second letter, dated October 1921, Browne reported that "The Acting Secretary, Mrs. B. L. Suzuki, is going to Kyoto soon, but I have no doubt she will write to you about it and make such arrangements as are necessary until the return of the Secretary, Mr. Jack Brinkley."

A third letter from Browne, dated January 1922, indicated that he and his wife were moving to Shanghai. He continued: "The Secretary of the Tokyo International Lodge, Captain Jack Brinkley, has not returned to Japan, and the Lodge here is in a poor way. . . No doubt the Acting Secretary, Mrs. Suzuki, has notified you of her new address, c/o Professor Suzuki, Otani University, Muromachi, Kyoto, but of course at that distance she cannot do much for Tokyo."

In a letter received at Adyar in December 1923, Mr. K. R Sabarwal, number twelve on the original list of members, reported: "There is no Lodge of the Theosophical Society in Tokyo now. Can you let me know what formalities I shall have to undergo for becoming a member of Adyar?"

On moving to Kyoto, the Suzukis formed a new lodge of the Theosophical Society called the Mahayana Lodge. In a series of six handwritten letters and reports dating from 1924 to 1928, Beatrice Lane Suzuki outlined the formation of the lodge, its membership, problems encountered in keeping it going, and her understanding of the Japanese religious sensibility that made it difficult for Theosophy to have a long-term appeal among the Japanese (Algeo).

In the first letter, written in June 1924, she described the formation of the Mahayana Lodge on May 8 (White Lotus Day) with fourteen members: nine new ones, two who had joined in America, and the Suzukis and Beatrice's mother from the Tokyo Lodge. She mentioned that almost all the members were professors at either Otani University or Ryukoku University, both Buddhist institutions, and indicated their intention to have regular meetings in the fall. She was serving as secretary of the lodge and thus sent yearly reports to the headquarters at Adyar.

Beatrice's second letter was written in October 1924, in which she again described the formation of Mahayana Lodge and discussed business matters like dues, the charter, and the number of Adyar Bulletins to send the members. She stated, "As yet we have not elected any president but have a committee consisting of Mr. Yamabe, Mr. Utsuki and myself to perform the duties of president at present. I understand that Mr. Labberton of Orpheus Lodge, Tokyo, wrote you that I was the president of the Mahayana Lodge, but this is not correct. I have been asked to be the president, but being a woman and a foreigner I thought it wiser not to accept the position. We have had three meetings so far of the new lodge, two of them before the summer vacation and one since."

Beatrice went on to discuss a matter weighing on her mind: she still possessed the charter for the now-defunct Tokyo International Lodge and wished to send it back to Adyar. A new lodge, Orpheus, had been formed in Tokyo, with a new president, D. van Hinloopen Labberton. She wrote, "The International Lodge broke up when almost all of its members left Tokyo in 1921. . . . As I am no longer in Tokyo nor likely to be and now doing what work I can for Theosophy in connection with the Mahayana Lodge, I presume it is best to consider the International Lodge no more in existence. While it lasted, it was quite flourishing and had many interesting meetings and its members belonged to many different nationalities and it certainly is the seed from which both the present Orpheus and Mahayana lodges have sprung, three old members of the International being now in the Mahayana and two of them in the Orpheus. I feel that we owe to Mr. Cousins the spark which started the fire of Theosophy in Japan."

The third letter, written in November 1925, discussed a number of matters relating to the Lodge and also included, in a separate report, a brief history of Theosophy in Japan. Beatrice wrote of sending a painting to Adyar in response to a request of her friend Madame de Manziarly for a contribution to the Arts and Crafts Exhibition to be held there during Convention: "The subject of the picture is a Buddhist one and represents the Buddha Shakamuni with Manjushri and Samantabhadra and the guardian Bodhisattvas. It is a copy (but the copy is also old) of a famous painting 750 years old which is in the temple of Enryakuji of Mt. Hiei near Kyoto. Please have the picture exhibited during the Arts and Crafts Exhibition and then afterwards given in my name to either the Museum or the Library. I wanted very much to come to the Convention but it was impossible so I send the picture in my place."

Her report of the year's work stated: "The plan of the lodge is now to have papers prepared by the members on subjects connected with Buddhist and Theosophical subjects and later to have these papers published in a book, this book to be the contribution of the Mahayana Lodge to the cause of Theosophy. The lodge is a small one and circumstances and conditions here do not permit great activities but the aim of the members is to keep the light burning here in Japan and even though the light may not be such a bright one, never to permit it to go out."

In the fourth letter, written in November 1926, Beatrice hoped that she was not too late to get her report delivered in time for the annual Convention held at the end of December. Because of her own ill health, the Lodge had been very quiet during 1926. She wrote, "We have lost three members and gained two: Mrs. Hibino of Sendai (as absent member) and Mr. Jugaku whose application I herewith enclose. We have now therefore fourteen members. During 1927 we hope to be more active. My husband and I have offered our home to be used for lodge meetings. At the last meeting held a few days ago, Professor Izumi of Otani University spoke on 'Life After Death.' "

The fifth letter, written in February 1928, reported: "We have now twelve members ... My mother, Dr. Emma Erskine Hahn, one of our members, died on August 22. Prof Akamatsu moved to Korea and has not kept up his membership. Mrs. Hibino moved to Kyoto from Sendai in June 1927, and has become an active member of the Society.... Mrs. Hibino and I have started a little centre for the Order of the Star and we are about to distribute a booklet in Japanese on the work of the Star (Ransom). During 1928, we hope to distribute one on Theosophy."

This letter also included a separate report on Lodge activities for 1927: "During 1927 very few meetings were held. Mrs. Suzuki, the Secretary, spent some time in a hospital and her mother, Dr. Emma Erskine Hahn, a member of the Lodge, after an illness of several months died on August 22. These two events made it difficult to arrange meetings as they are generally held at the home of Prof. and Mrs Suzuki and the circumstances did not permit meetings at their home during most of the year. But in October 1927, the lodge resumed meetings. At the October gathering, Mrs. Setti Line Hibino spoke upon 'The Order of the Star'; at the November meeting Rev. B. Jugaku gave an interesting lecture upon 'The Poetry and Mysticism of William Blake.' In December Professor Teitaro Suzuki addressed the lodge on the subject 'What Appeals to Me in Buddhism.' All these meetings were well attended, a number of non-members being invited. In December the first meetings in Japan of the Order of the Star were held and it is hoped to do some work for the Star: this work has been started by two members of the Mahauna Lodge."

The sixth letter, written in November 1928, is the last letter by Beatrice Lane Suzuki in the Adyar Archives and, in fact, contains the last reference to the Kyoto Mahãyãna Lodge. In it, Beatrice talked about some of the difficulties of spreading Theosophy in Japan:

It seems difficult for Theosophy to make much growth here just for this reason that it is so similar in its teachings to Buddhism. There seems to be a general idea, especially among Theosophists, that the Japanese are not a spiritual people and do not care for spiritual things. In my opinion this idea is entirely wrong. I consider the Japanese very spiritual; all that is best in their culture is based upon religion. No one could pass through this period of the Emperor's coronation without feeling how near the spiritual world is to the Japanese. But with regard to Theosophy, Theosophy comes not as something new but as a variant of their own Buddhist teaching and for this reason they are slow to come to it. The appeal of Universal Brotherhood is the note that must be struck by Theosophists for the Japanese. It is just the same too in regard to the Order of the Star. Their own great teachers like Kobo Daishi [774-835, founder of the esoteric Shingon school of Buddhism], Shinran Shonin [1173-1262 or 1263, founder of the True Pure Land school of Buddhism], and others stand still too close to theirs in time and they feel that they have not yet fully absorbed the teachings of these great ones, and therefore they do not feel the call to look elsewhere. In my opinion it is not because of their unspirituality that they fail to do so but on account of their strong religious feeling for their own religious leaders. Personally I should like to have a larger membership for I am deeply interested in the Society, but at the same time I appreciate the reasons why it is more difficult than it is in Western countries.

What happened to the Mahayana Lodge after this time is not known, but judging from Mrs. Suzuki's letters and reports, the lodge probably became inactive at some point, though it was still meeting in 1929 when Dr. James Cousins and his wife, Margaret E. Cousins, spent two weeks in Japan, where Dr. Cousins introduced his wife to many of the friends he had made during his earlier stay in Japan. Mrs. Cousins, who was an ardent worker for women's rights, reported: "We were in Kyoto next day (October 5) at the other end of the 400-mile road from Tokyo. We were put up in the hospitable home of Professor T. Suzuki of Otani Buddhist University, noted writer on Buddhism, and his western wife whom he had met while mutually studying in a German University. She had formed a Lodge of The Theosophical Society, and a meeting with the members gave me another centre from which to radiate the Women's Conference idea." (Cousins and Cousins, 504)

The last mention of the Suzukis in the Adyar Archives is from the late 1930s. When C. Jinarajadasa, who later became international president of the Theosophical Society, made a short visit to Tokyo in 1937, he gave two lectures at Miroku Lodge. These lectures were translated into Japanese by Dr. Suzuki.

The later history of the Theosophical lodge in Tokyo, however, is rather different from that of the one in Kyoto. The first two Tokyo lodges (Tokyo International and Orpheus) seem to have been dependent on a few foreign members who did not stay long, and whose departure caused the groups to become inactive. A third group (Miroku), founded in the late 1920s, was more lasting, and Theosophical activities continued in Japan right up to the start of World War II. After that war, a Theosophical group was reactivated in Tokyo in 1947, and it continues until the present day. Membership in Japan has never been large, but there has always been a core of dedicated people.

When Beatrice Lane Suzuki died in 1939, Miriam Salanave, a friend who had known her in Japan, wrote in an obituary for her in the American Theosophist (v. 27, no. 9, September 1939):

Although a Buddhist Mrs. Suzuki never lost her interest in Theosophy and once was head of the T.S. in Japan. She told me that Prof. Suzuki's first gift to her was the "Voice of the Silence" which he wrote her was "pure Mahayana Buddhism." He was a student at Oxford at the time and she was at Columbia University. Mrs. Suzuki was devoted to Dr. Besant and Theosophical notables visiting Japan were always welcome guests....

It was her interest in esoteric Theosophy that attracted her to the esoteric teachings of the Shingon Buddhist sect. When I was living in Kyoto she urged me to take the Bodhisattva-Sila with her, an opportunity considered to be a rare privilege. Accordingly special arrangements were made at Toji, an important Shingon temple, for this impressive ceremony which I cherish among numerous other unforgettable Eastern experiences.

The vows taken during the Bosatsukai are indeed solemn and toward the end of the long ritual candidates ask that whatever merits accruing from taking these Bodhisattva vows may be distributed among all beings. I quote in part: "I pray that this merit will extend everywhere so that not only we, but all other beings may attain to the path of Buddhahood ... All these merits I wish to extend all over the world and after my death, together with all beings I wish to be born in that Buddha land, where, listening to the Dharma, I may come to the realization of it . . ." The dying wish of Beatrice Lane Suzuki, I am sure, must have been the same wish expressed above. "There is but one road to the Path, at its very end alone the 'Voice of the Silence' can be heard."


Algeo, Adele S. "Beatrice Lane Suzuki and Theosophy in Japan." Theosophical History 11.3 (July 2005). This article contains the complete text of the letters. I am grateful to the editor of that journal, James Santucci, for permission to use the article as the basis for this one.

Cousins, James H. and Margaret E. Cousins. We Two Together. Madras: Ganesh, 1950. See chapter 33, "A Japanese Year," and page 504.

Ransom, Josephine. A Short History of the Theosophical Society. Adyar: Theosophical Publishing House, 1938. Pages 390-1 and 415 contain information on the order of the Star in the East, founded by Annie Besant in 1911.