Another in a series of posts trying to think through and share some “takeaways” from my recent graduate work and thesis about Soto Zen in the Meiji Period.
From my first contact with American Zen, I have been told, read, and believed that “Zen doesn’t proselytize.” This, according to Zen, is what is so great about Zen! (And maybe why you should join…?)
The point is that unlike those other greedy religions, Buddhism is about finding your own light, finding your own way, and has little if anything to with signing up for a religious institution. The foundational Buddhist principle of “skillful means” is really a lot like generic secular (or even religious) liberal tolerance – everyone finds a path for themselves, and whatever works is great! (In part since anyway there is no One Truth.) Making people Buddhist in itself is of no particular value. Those drawn to Buddhism should become Buddhists, that’s all. Those drawn to sit should sit.
All those stupid religions that try to grow themselves and gain converts, enticing them with heavens and grabbing onto them with hells, totally miss the mark on this point. But Zen just doesn’t go there – Zen people don’t proselytize!
Google it – it’s true. It’s everywhere.
But when did that become true? Where did we get that idea? Did we get it from Suzuki Roshi, who crossed the ocean for the express purpose of missionizing in the U.S. to raise Americans’ esteem for Japan? From Shaku Sōen, who vigorously promoted Buddhism in Chicago at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions and went on to spend years spreading the word to the West about the excellence of Zen?
Or did we learn it from Nishiari Bokusan, the great evangelizer, who (not unlike the nutty street evangelists who linger around most university towns) took to handing out Buddhist beads to every stranger he met in the street with the words “These beads will give you faith in Buddhism, bring you happiness, and protect you”? Nishiari who defeated an anti-Buddhist government official so thoroughly in a raging, days’ long debate that the official on relenting became Nishiari’s disciple and donated a vast plot of land? Nishiari who was among the leaders of the charge to sign on to the Meiji government’s national evangelization program, and who spent years travelling the country with that program teaching not even Zen orthodoxy but a State-mandated ideology of the subservience of Zen to the Emperor, and the Buddhist truth of reverence for the imperial nation? Nishiari who – as religious missionaries always and everywhere have, and whose Japanese coreligionists in Korea and elsewhere were also doing at the time – eagerly aided the government’s colonization efforts by pioneering Soto Zen in the newest-claimed reaches of the Japanese empire?
Surely Nishiari had some good reason, offered some justification for why he felt he needed to violate this basic “non-proselytizing” Zen principle? Or at the very least his twentieth century Soto sectarian biographers would have tried to sweep it a bit under the rug, dull the razor edge of his evangelist sword?
No! Not at all! His greatness as an evangelist in the biographies, and I expect in his own self-understanding, too, was inseparable from his greatness as a monk and teacher. Gaining converts is what he did. His followers were proud of him for it, his biographers celebrate him for it, and I can only imagine that he himself felt good about his successes in that regard.
So the question isn’t why Nishiari was such a blatant, impassioned, and unapologetic evangelist and proselytizer. The question is where did we in American Zen get this idea that “Zen doesn’t proselytize”?
I have some vague theories, one expressed in a convoluted thesis footnote:
…it is useful to note that Nishiari’s evangelism in Hokkaidō, like that of Buddhist missionaries in Korea, would have been primarily oriented towards Japanese settlers rather than regional natives. To the extent that this was so, and remained so for the Japanese Buddhist missionaries to the West as well, it is perhaps natural that Western Zen converts in the twentieth century may have been left with the sense that they had themselves not been evangelized, and by extension that the tradition itself was anti-evangelist…
But even I’m not really buying that. Suzuki Roshi was coy, for sure, but notwithstanding his reputedly “hands-off” style (“I’m just sitting here doing zazen if you want to come”), does anyone really honestly doubt that he was actively courting American Zen converts? Isn’t converting some natives (aka “sharing the teaching”) a basic reason he came over in the first place?
How on earth did the first generations of American converts to Buddhism decide – right after having been converted! – that Zen doesn’t evangelize?
So I guess my point is this:
1) Zen does, and always has, proselytize. (Not just in modern Japan, but in pre-modern China too – among a million examples, why for instance would Moheyan have taken on Kamalaśīla in the eighth century Samye/Lhasa debates if it wasn’t about gaining converts to the Right Way?)
2) We in American Zen now proselytize. The word is poison to our secular humanist ears and we love to deny that it describes us, but if we really look at it, can we deny that by and large that is what we’re doing in our efforts to “share” the teachings and – God forbid – “widen” the sangha? Why are we afraid to admit this? (I mean other than that it means we’re no better than those other crazy self-important religions…)