Zen Doesn’t Proselytize! Except Always!

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…)


12 thoughts on “Zen Doesn’t Proselytize! Except Always!

    • In my opinion, this is a dangerous line of thought. At what point does your sacred duty stop? If it is your sacred duty to share, what if they don’t want to listen? Do you force them?

  1. Jiryu, why have you scare-quoted “share” in “share the dharma”? I guess I’ve bought SFZC line on this – that we do all kinds of things to make the dharma accessible but we don’t proselytize. And I think proselytizing means kind of actively trying to convince and persuade people to sign up, say the magic words, profess their belief. I feel that the central concern of the proselytizer is the conversion count (convert and another soul is saved!) If people get what they need from practice at SFZC and move on, no problem right? But the proselytizer would be concerned if the converts started disavowing their new faith. Maintain an open door, but don’t be greedy (like we thought we had the right dharma). Anyway, that’s what I thought SFZC was doing.
    Isn’t proselytizing considered “bad zen” (so to speak) because unless someone is turning toward practice themselves, a “conversion” is just so much more karmic (karma generating) activity? Is it the mind of “fame and gain” that turns toward practice or not?

  2. I vow to save all beings, but I don’t want to persuade them of anything or influence them in any way other than what they want. I request membership dues but I don’t seek congregation. I encourage people to sew rakasus and take precepts but I don’t get disappointed when they break those vows and seek bad karma. I recite creeds at various times during the day but have no interest in people believing in those creeds. I have a charismatic Japanese leader but he really just wanted people to sit and has no religious significance.

    Aaron, I want to be charitable and kind here but SFZC does proselytize they just don’t do so aggressively and they’re not a cult. There are shades of gray. Importantly, doctors proselytize for vaccines, some politicians proselytize for social justice etc. I don’t see the huge problem with proselytizing per se. I think it depends on whether you respect the intellectual and spiritual dignity of the people you’re proselytizing to and also the commodity you’re selling. If your selling love, compassion, and wisdom, with an altruistic motive you’re a pretty cool dudette in my book.

    Finally my initial point was that having a wholesome product and not sharing this with the world is (maybe) not the right approach. Skillful means applies here and is helpfully summarized by Saint Francis, “Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words. I think I’m typing too many words so I will conclude with this thought; loving people, and Zen is also a religion of love, is not a passive open door as you describe, rather, it’s a active concern for people’s moral and spiritual wellbeing which immerses you in their behaviors and yes even their beliefs. God bless.

  3. It’s a matter of degree.

    Once you dress up as a monk and sing “Do you wanna be in my gang” you’re already there!

    On one side we have the Bodhisattva vows, on the other we have the Diamond Sutra – “no beings to save thus…..”

    You’d also be pretty useless as a monk and as a person if when asked “dude, why are you so mellow?” You say “It’s a secret!”

  4. Thank you, Jiryu. Our Sangha recently placed some notices (advertisements?) in Buddhist periodicals like Tricycle, so it was a good time to reflect on the purpose. I like to draw a fine line between “proselytizing” and “making resources know to those who might benefit”. We encourage sentient being who might benefit to come and look around, but we do not too aggressively try to chase them in, nor do we chase after folks should they not wish to stay. We encourage folks to try the Practice, and I try to keep folks dedicated to sticking with it (I am not much different, perhaps, from a trainer or dietitian trying to keep people on the healthy path until the benefits manifest), but I know it is not for everyone. So, that is why we call the Tricycle postings as “notices” and not “advertisements”. Are we wrong in feeling so?

    Gassho, Jundo

    PS – Good place for a “non-self serving” notice! 😉

    Treeleaf is the online practice place for people who cannot easily commute to a Zen Center due to health, location, work, childcare or family needs – or anyone who might benefit. We provide netcast Zazen, Retreats, discussion, Jukai, the support of fellow practitioners, interaction with a teacher, and all other activities of a Zen Buddhist Sangha, all fully online, accessible anytime, without charge. The focus is Shikantaza “Just Sitting” Zazen.


    online, any place any time you need


  5. Jiryu,

    Ha, ha, I’ve thought the same thing myself. The Bodhisattva ideal to save all beings is an ideal way to spread the religion. Not to far removed from the Christian proselytizing to “save” souls. I’ve often thought that gave zen a good chance of competing in the open U.S market.

    I think Suzuki Roshi’s practice developed and ripened as a result of traveling to America, but he keep his distance from the culture here.

    • But then the Diamond Sutra says there are no sentient beings to save.

      It seems to me that people out to save all sentient beings might cause more trouble than those who think there are no sentient beings to save.

      So what better way to explore this than through Treeleaf’s “You don’t need this but since you’re here” course for beginners. Book now, places are limited. Lol 😉

  6. Pingback: Online Dharma and Cheese Sandwich Buddhism | No Zen in the West

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