I recently heard what may be the most important piece I’ve come across on American Zen, and though I share some thoughts about it below, the bottom line of this post is that I can’t recommend highly enough this profoundly moving talk by Duncan Ryuken Williams at the recent Soto Zen Buddhist Association conference.
There’s a funny and disturbing thing I’ve noticed about myself that I think I share with some others in the family of “Western Zen,” that is, we non-Asian, “convert” Zen students. I saw it more clearly than ever this summer while I was reading the great critique of Western Buddhism, Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism Under Colonialism, edited by the first rate Western Buddhism-critiquer Donald Lopez (more on his work in later posts, I hope). A basic “Orientalist” pattern revealed throughout Lopez’s book is the tendency of Western Buddhism to simultaneously appropriate and distance itself from Asian Buddhism. That is, we naturally tend to draw our Buddhist authority in large part from our connections to Asian Buddhism – from Suzuki Roshi, for example, or any of the other handful of important Japanese missionaries, or our Asian robes, or our knowledge of Asian texts, or our skill in Asian meditation practices. But at the same time we tend to distance ourselves from the living Asian traditions these people and objects and teachings and practices come out of and represent, repeating themes like “you know, in Japan they don’t really sit,” “it’s just funerals in Japan,” “it’s just ceremonies in Japan,” “what they do in Japan isn’t relevant to us,” etc. It turns out that at some level we seem not too much to respect the actual tradition we give ourselves so much credit for being heirs to.
Maybe that’s too harsh, and certainly it doesn’t cover the whole span of whatever “American Buddhism” is, but it’s a dynamic I recognize in my own life and to some extent in my community. I think my book is actually a good case study of it – as I detail my “misadventures in wacky Japan,” I get the benefit of association with the “authoritative” Japanese Zen while at the same time disparaging and distancing myself from it. The two shouldn’t work together – if you are insulting a thing you shouldn’t get credit for being part of it – but paradoxically they seem to somehow fuel each other.
But more than just personally or even as a single Zen community, this appropriation and distancing is a dynamic that colors the way that the history of Western Buddhism has tended to be presented, and it continues to mark “American Buddhists’” relationship with the Asian kinds of Buddhism in America – the Asian and Asian-American Buddhists who are present and active in the West alongside “us.” Drawing our legitimacy from Asia and appropriating the tradition as our own, we then turn around and distance ourselves from these actual Asian and even Asian-American Buddhists who have the whole time been practicing and investigating and evolving the same traditions we are.
The truth is, of course, that Asian and Asian-American Buddhists have been practicing the Dharma in the U.S. for far longer than our usual genealogies acknowledge. We tend to say that American Zen started in the 1950s and 1960s with these great Japanese missionaries, but what about the Japanese and Chinese temples that were in the U.S. long before? Why don’t we look to them for what American Buddhism is? Why don’t we really think of them as the founders of American Buddhism? Why don’t we ask them about the problems of integrating with mainstream culture, with finding a place alongside Christianity, with creating thriving American Buddhist congregations and relevant American Buddhist observances and institutions? Why do we so easily imagine that we starting making this “American Buddhism” up in the 1960s, when great priests and practitioners have been thinking about it since the century prior?
Duncan Ryuken Williams, a Japanese-American Soto Zen priest and well-known scholar, recently gave a very powerful talk before the Soto Zen Buddhist Association of North America – and it may be the most important piece on American Buddhism that I’ve ever heard. It tells some very moving stories of some of the Japanese Buddhists who predate our standard chronology of when “Buddhism arrived” and whose practice can’t be reduced to anything like “mere ceremony” or “not relevant” or, most perniciously, “not really American.” And his talk holds the seeds, I think, of a new approach, a new mutual appreciation and real exchange, that could break – I hope for me at least – this cycle of appropriation and distancing, of respect for the abstractions of Tradition alongside the dismissal of the people who “own it” at the very least as much as “we” do.
Please listen to this talk!