Who Westernized Zen?

I’d like to share with you all my studies of a recent period in Zen history that I think is especially interesting for understanding Zen in the West – the Meiji Period of Japan (1868-1912). Many of you know that I’ve spent the last two and a half years studying with the Group in Buddhist Studies at UC Berkeley, and this project comes out of that: a Master’s thesis on Soto Zen in the Meiji, focusing especially on the life of Nishiari Bokusan, a leader of the sect at the time and a significant (if indirect) influence on Suzuki Roshi and many other Western Zen founders.

I’ve had you all in mind as I’ve written the piece, and for the version I’d like to share with you I’ve added a “Preface for the American Sangha” that I’m including part of below. In the next weeks I plan to post a little more on the project, specifically on what some of the takeaways have been for me from this period of academic Dharma study, and particularly from my work on Meiji Buddhism and the life of Nishiari Bokusan.

You can download a full pdf of the thesis here.  To get a hard copy printed, bound, & shipped to you at cost, visit my updated website. (Recent talks and new information is also up there now.)

I hope you find this as interesting as I have!

Preface for the American Sangha

How did it come to this?  How did the Buddhism of Shakyamuni’s disciples become the Chan of Huineng and the Zen of Dōgen – and how did Westerners then transform Dōgen’s Zen into the novel ways of practice and teaching found at a place like San Francisco Zen Center?  I’ve been long puzzled by this question – especially the last part, of how we ended up with this – and, like many, I’ve assumed that the answer lies somewhere in the West.  We modernized Zen in the many ways that we have, and we Westernized Zen in the many ways that we have.  In general the books on Western Buddhism give that impression, and there is certainly some truth to it.

But as I began to study the Japanese Zen of the last century and a half, I realized that I’d been asking the wrong question.  Shunryū Suzuki, for example, did not bring the Zen of Dōgen to San Francisco, he brought the Zen of early twentieth-century Japan.  In particular, he brought the Zen of a scholar-monk named Kishizawa Ian, whom he called his “master” and with whom he studied for twenty-five years.  So the right way to understand the Western “transformation” of Buddhism is not to measure it against Dōgen’s monasticism but instead to ask:  how have we turned early twentieth-century Japanese Zen into our contemporary Western practice?

I say this because what I discovered in my study is obvious but important:  the world of Suzuki Roshi’s Zen training had very little to do with the world of Dōgen Zenji’s Zen and Chan training.  The Zen world that Suzuki Roshi trained in – a world he shared generally with people like Kishizawa Ian and Kōdō Sawaki and Hakuun Yasutani and Taizan Maezumi and Jōshū Sasaki – was not only centuries removed from Dōgen’s monasticism but was in fact a world that had already been influenced by the West, had already been modernized and to some degree adapted to Western sensibilities and epistemologies.

In other words, much of the transformation of Zen that I have assumed took place in the West in the mid-to-late twentieth-century in fact took place in Japan somewhat earlier.  Specifically, it took place over the course of the Meiji Period (1868-1912), a time of intense turmoil and change in Japan as the nation scrambled to deal with the influx of Western “modern” values, thought, technologies, and institutions, and rushed to carve out a place for itself within that.  I picture Western modernity as an enormous train hurtling down the track towards Japan in the period; the country could either hop on and outfit a suitable (if second-class) car for itself, or it could be crushed like a twig on the tracks.  Much of the debate and transformation across all aspects of Japanese society at the time – from education and government to culture and religion – can I think be understood through this image.  The same image can also illuminate Japan’s turn towards increasing militarization and imperialism in the early-to-mid twentieth century:  the mood then, too, was “hop on or be crushed,” colonize or be colonized.

The Buddhist leaders of the Meiji Period had to respond not only to government pressure – like orders to clarify the boundaries and doctrines of their respective sects, or the decriminalization of priests’ marrying – but they were also challenged by the vigorous and vital lay-centered “New Buddhist” movement that was springing up within and around the institutions, pushing them in a various ways to modernize and become more Western-friendly.

I see now that the debates and struggles born of these tensions within Japanese Buddhism in the Meiji Period have at least as much to do with getting us where we are today in American Zen as do any of the insights, adaptations, and departures from tradition enacted by the founders and shapers of American Zen.  This is the basic insight that has excited me about the period and that has driven me to study it.


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