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“This crap about no Zen in the West, where do they get off? Who do they think they are?”
Of all the foreigners in the temple, Nengo and I had the most similar backgrounds; we both had trained and were established in Zen Sanghas in the States. Arriving in Japan, though, was for both of us like starting from zero, like being out at sea with no map, and no ship. We were being treated as though we had never heard a word of the teaching or sat a minute of zazen before in our lives, and I at least was starting to feel like it might well be true. The Dharma personas we had cultivated at home were now void—Roshi-sama, his magnetic wisdom and compassion aside, just berated us on our posture, and the monks, Japanese and Western alike, either totally ignored us or offered their unsolicited, candid assessments of “Western Zen” and “Western Zen teachers” (if even indulging the existence of such categories)…
People may think that all of my “No Zen in the West” and all of my ranting about “spineless American Zen” with it’s “pop-psychology and free-flowing peanut butter” add up to a Jiryu who’d basically rather be in Japan. A Jiryu who is suspicious if not convinced that Western Buddhism has moved so fast ahead that the Buddhism part got left behind. A Jiryu looking backwards.
By now, though, many of you have seen my book Two Shores of Zen, and hopefully it’s abundantly clear that for all of my lingering doubt and confusion, I am firmly in the Western Zen camp. My journey to Japan, like most of our journeys, led me back to the home I left. It uncovered a deep gratitude for our Western adaptations. They are not failings but are genuine, wise efforts to meet and actualize a tradition that we can’t and shouldn’t try to swallow whole. The Jiryu who returned says: Women and men practicing together – yes! Communication exercises – yes! Peanut butter – yes! And even online forums…
So why do I keep bringing it up? Why do I keep mentioning Japan? Why do I dwell on the austere clarity of the practice there? Why do I keep turning over and struggling with the wrenching insults I heard (and sometimes offered) to our Western practice? Why don’t I get over it and get on with it? Hasn’t most everyone else in California Zen?
There are lots of reasons, and I hope that by interacting with this blog you can help me explore them.
But for now it strikes me that to lose touch with where we’ve come from is to lose touch with the fact that we are creating something completely new, completely unprecedented, in what we call “Western Dharma.” I’m looking backwards to look forwards. I don’t just want to “get over” monastic-style practice – I want to understand how it illuminates lay life. I don’t want to just “get over” hierarchy – I want to understand how to organize institutions respectfully in a truly American way. I don’t want to just “get over” harsh training – I want to study what it really takes to soften and open a heart.
So I don’t believe that Zen hasn’t arrived, but I don’t believe that it has either. Precisely here in this middle, we find the incredible creative energy and work of our time and place. Let’s not get lazy and lean too far either way. If we think we’ve landed, we’re just stuck; if we think we’ve missed, we’re just lost.
It’s to find us and to unstick us that these days I want to keep reminding us that to most of the “Right Views” of 2,500 years worth of Buddhists, what we call Buddhism in the West is completely and utterly unrecognizable.
Stay with me here for a while, in “No Zen in the West,” and let’s let each other know how we’re thinking about authentically actualizing the Dharma, and how we’re living out this American-ness of our Zen and this sometimes subtle Zen-ness of our American lives.