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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Shakyamuni’s father

In most of the versions I know of the life of Shakyamuni Buddha, his father King Suddhodana serves as a kind of setup man. Maybe you’ve heard the story the same way. The king’s overbearing attempts to insulate his son from the realities of impermanence and death are what the young man rejects when he leaves home on his quest. Shakyamuni’s insights into the nature of suffering and change come in contrast to–stand as a repudiation of–his father’s misguided belief that a life without suffering is possible. The son sees through his father’s foolishness and comes to wisdom.

Or at least that’s how I’ve always thought about it.

In the last year or so, though, I confess that I’ve been seeing and feeling the story in a sharply different way. I’m a father now, of two sons–Leo, our youngest, was born March 1–and I think about the story of the life of the Buddha with a new flood of sympathy for the king and a new feeling for a parent’s role. I turn the story in my mind in a different way.

I guess the difference is that I used to think that the king was trying to protect the boy, and thought he could. This is nuttiness, even if understandable nuttiness. But what if he were trying to protect the boy and knew he couldn’t? What if he were trying to create a set of experiences for his son that would create the stores of confidence and courage the child would need to face difficulties later on? Well, that feels to me like what most of the parents I know are doing. That feels to me like what Devon and I are trying to do.

If I could build my sons a palace, I probably would, at least for a while. That’s the pivot, I guess–that for a while bit.

In my work in hospice I pretty regularly encounter families who choose to keep the truth of serious illness from young children, sometimes even from adults. This is all really tricky, of course. With much of myself I think that we can’t ever know all of what’s going on in a family, and that the whole complex set of cultural expectations around illness and death make it really, really hard to judge what’s right and wrong in any particular case. I have a lot of respect for people’s own decisions.

But I do judge, finally, and I think that people, even really young people, do eventually need to be told the truth. The truth, even when it’s painful, has value. And lying to kids about reality doesn’t actually do them any favors.

So was that what the king was doing? Was the palace a lie? Sort of. It erected a barrier to certain truths, and created the conditions for certain other truths. As a child, under a rose-apple tree, Gotama had an experience of deep peace and concentration while his father worked in the fields and many years later, after nearly starving himself to death in his efforts, he remembered that experience, and used it as a guide.

I’m trying to learn how to be a good father. If the king thought he could keep his son imprisoned in the palace forever, then I’m not interested. But if he knew that the palace itself was temporary, a bubble in a stream? If he wanted to help nurture the qualities his son would later need to encounter difficulties with great courage? If he wanted to share the experiences of deep safety and love that we can see when the son one day touches the earth to ask for support? Who wouldn’t be proud to be a parent like that?

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Charles Taylor, exclusive humanism, and the Dharma

Over the last several months, I’ve been slowly (very slowly!) making my way through an incredible, dense, thought-provoking, boring, brilliant, obvious, startling book called A Secular Age, by the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. Part of why it’s taking so long is that I’m not always in the mood for it–it’s basically a detailed intellectual history of the West, and can get pretty dry in some sections. It also really is kind of obvious, or feels obvious at first blush. As I continue from chapter to chapter, though, the bits that seemed the most obvious, the most unproblematic and clear, start to get stranger and stranger, more complex, more surprising. It’s a disorienting experience.

Taylor begins with the fact that religious belief, for the first time in the history of the West, is now an option for most of us, rather than a given. At first, that feels like a pretty straightforward observation. We all know that, right? As he digs down, though, and looks at this in more and more detail and nuance, the observation gets deeper and stranger. As I read, I start to see more and more clearly how odd our particular cultural moment is, how different our lives are from the lives of our ancestors even just a few hundred years ago. I find myself reminded for the millionth time how inside of history we are, inside of culture, and how much in our general understanding of religion (or our general understanding of anything) is actually a very particular, historical view from a very particular, historical, conditioned, (we could say karmic) place–our Dharma-position.

Taylor is pretty committed throughout the book to dispensing with what he calls the “subtraction” story–the idea that once upon a time in the West people held all sorts of superstitious beliefs, but then with the rise of science we pruned away all of the magical nonsense and now live in the same world as our ancestors, but without the extra, unneeded bells and whistles. That’s a pretty common view of the rise of secularism, and Taylor demolishes it pretty thoroughly–it’s not the case that there’s a worldview with bells and whistles and then a worldview without. It’s rather the case that a particular worldview with particular bells and whistles is replaced by another particular worldview with particular bells and whistles. Not subtraction as much as change, or shift–from one complex, nuanced, internally dynamic way of being in the world to another.

So what is it that’s arisen in the West to replace the religious worldview of the year 1500, say? (Again, what entirely different worldview has arisen–not the same worldview with the superstitious bits taken out.) On Taylor’s telling, what’s arisen, for the first time in human history, is what he calls an “exclusive humanism,” a way of being in the world that locates the deepest sources of meaning with reference only to human life, rather than with reference to some reality outside of or beyond human life. It’s not exactly that people in medieval Europe were against finding meaning in the ordinary joys of human life–rather that there was understood to be an even deeper type of meaning available that was in quite serious tension with what we usually think of as human flourishing. Vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, for example, aren’t totally coherent if what we’re after is a good human life with reference only to human meaning–they only come into focus with reference to another, non-human-centered source of meaning.

Like everything else in Taylor, this point about exclusive humanism seems like a pretty straightforward observation at first. Okay, some of us in our contemporary age locate meaning exclusively in human life, rather than in something other-than-human, and that option wasn’t available in other historical eras. As I let the point simmer, though, I start to feel more and more its power and strangeness.

Which brings me to the Dharma. Taylor mentions Buddhism several times, but really he’s writing a history of the West, and stays pretty focused. I can’t help but think about the Dharma, though, and the place of an exclusive humanism in a Buddhist context.

In the Indian layer of our tradition, the importance of other-than-human fulfillment seems pretty clear. Nirvana is about getting free of our human experience in samsara, not about finding deep meaning in it. The Chinese situation seems less clear to me—Confucianism and Taoism are pretty this-worldly influences, but I think that there’s still a reference to an other-than-human, more-than-human realm—to the Heavens, to being in harmony with something other. A good life is in harmony with the Tao–but the Tao isn’t an exclusively human measurement.

But what’s the situation now, in the Buddha-dharma’s postcolonial postmodern global evolution? Is the Buddha-dharma secular? Is it humanism? Or does it continue to point towards the deepest source of meaning as somehow outside of or beyond human life?

I think this question is really profound, and I think there’s a genuine tension here. Some contemporary Buddhists, I’m sure, would be happy to fold Buddhism under a humanist umbrella–a lot of what’s sometimes called Buddhist Modernism is precisely the celebration of the ways that Buddhism offers a set of practices (centrally mediation practices) which can help perfect, transform, improve a human life with reference only to a human life. All of the pieces of the Dharma that seem to be in tension with exclusive humanism get played down, usually, or dismissed as superstitious accretions–devotional practices, for one.

On the other hand, I think there’s a thread in lots of contemporary Dharma understanding that’s suspicious of exclusive humanism. There’s an environmentalist critique of exclusively human-centered ways of making meaning, for example, that I think really resonates with lots of contemporary Dharma practitioners. Many people are drawn to practice in the first place, after all, out of some dis-satisfaction with the meaning available in an exclusively human-centered life: get a good job, go to therapy, take interesting vacations! Seems a little thin on some level.

Part of why this matters, I think, is that it points to the question of what we think a good human life is. If the best human life is one marked by exclusively human flourishing, then bodhisattva practice is about improving human lives with reference only to human lives–making sure people are fed and clothed, that our illnesses are treated, that we have shelter and community and so on. That we’re happy, as happiness is generally understood. On the other hand, there’s something very deep and very basic in the Dharma that points to the unsatisfactoriness of precisely all those things. The First Noble Truth is a pretty serious attack on the “good” things in a human life–family, friends, work. All of that, a piece of our tradition whispers, is in some way not-enough. Even in Zen, we call a priest ordination a home-leaving, right? To mark precisely the fact that even a home, even a happy, stable, loving home, is somehow not the entirety of a life. That there is a source of meaning which is in reference to something else.

If we connect to this piece of the tradition, then, a bodhisattva’s practice is not necessarily helping people be happy as that’s usually (humanistically) understood–food, clothing, shelter, medicine, good friends, stimulating conversations, good books, etc. A bodhisattva’s practice then would be actually to undermine that stuff, to return again and again to not-enoughness, to basic dissatisfaction, to pointing beyond.

A bodhisattva vows to help beings. But how we think beings should be helped depends a lot on what we think a good life is for beings. And some pretty different conceptions of that are tugging back and forth at each other about this, right at the heart of our tradition.

As I say, I don’t know that I’ve finished feeling my way through these questions. I certainly don’t feel like I’ve arrived at answers. But the questions themselves keep acting on me. Is the Buddha-dharma secular? Is it exclusively humanist? Does it point to something beyond a good human life? How, if we’re committed to helping each other, do we think we can actually be the most helpful? By adding to human happiness as it’s generally understood–or by undermining it, and pointing to its limitations? That last question especially–that’s a good one.

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Five Meats, Five Ambrosias, and Refuge in Evil

Dosho Port over at Wild Fox Zen picked up one of the strands of the Sanjie Jiao conversation that also had a little activity here some time ago – in his latest post he links to a talk I gave at Green Gulch a couple of Sundays ago (Absolute Refuge) and adds some of his thoughts about this strange and wonderful “refuge in evil” teaching I’ve been trying to infect people with.  “Refuge in evil” might freak some people out, but I’m confident that Screwtape would not approve – this sort of total refuge is the mark of a whole, not a broken person. 

(Dosho summarizes the issue well – before you click away thinking Jiryu has crossed to the Dark Side, check out his post or listen to my talk!)

For those of you who do think this makes some sense and/or is more interesting than offensive, I wanted to connect it to one more strange (possibly even stranger, and likely more offensive) Buddhist teaching: the “five meats and five ambrosias.”  In the last week I’ve been reading a book by Christian Wedemeyer called Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism, largely about the question of what the hell is going on? with some of the farther out Tantric Buddhist practices.  Wedemeyer’s favorite of their far out prescriptions is the “five meats and five ambrosias,” a set of first millenium Indian esoteric Buddhist rituals involving the consumption of “five meats” seen as taboo at the time: beef, dog, elephant, horse, and human flesh; and the “five ambrosias” that last I checked were still taboo: feces, urine, blood, semen, and marrow.

What?!  Gross!  This is sweet, nice, clean Buddhism?

Wedemeyer nicely summarizes the basic types of modern Western flipout about this kind of teaching, the shrieks of “degenerate!” and the desperate attempt to exile them from real Buddhism, writing them off as “non-Buddhist” or the result of “primitive” influences.  Pushing this kind of reaction aside, Wedemeyer gets into these teachings to try to really understand what is going on them, and his conclusion (buried in some layers of interesting but I think not entirely necessary structuralist and semiological lingo) is that these teachings aren’t concerned with these perverse rituals themselves so much as they are with a real commitment to a nondual understanding.  They express a truth beyond relative, human-centered value systems.  For a person who thinks they are “down” with nonduality, I think they are kind of like koan checking questions:  “You say understand the true meaning of this pure and pristine Buddhist ritual that you are doing, but do you understand the purity that is beyond purity and impurity?”

Or, more to the point, “You say you understand the purity beyond purity and impurity – please eat this shit covered human arm.”

It turns out that the language of these distressing practices seems to match really closely with the language of the more mainstream Buddhist practices.  It’s more or less that wherever the mainstream Buddhist rituals call for something pure, these rituals substitute something impure.  Again, it’s like they are asking:  “Do you think sandalwood is closer to Buddha than human feces is?  Do you think it’s a more worthy offering?”

Or, more to the point, “You say you understand offering beyond relative conceptions – please offer this shit in your high ceremony in honor of the Buddha.”

It is likely that 99.99% of Buddhists, even those who read these texts, continued just to offer sandalwood – scholars are hard pressed to find any convincing evidence of the actual observance of these twisted rituals.  Wedemeyer makes it clear that it’s not so much about whether these practices were “really” done or not so much as it is about the possibility of them that give the ritual texts their function to point out that biggest of big minds that would be required to enact them.  And I really appreciate that challenge.  I think that finding that big, equalizing mind would give even the usual sandalwood offering a depth, a completeness that I think is really beautiful and really vital to what we claim we are doing as Zen practitioners.

And this is the same move that I think the “refuge in evil” folks are making – I revere the good, but I understand that it is not separate from the evil.  I offer sandalwood, but I know and appreciate it’s ultimate non-separation from shit.

And just as when evil is in front of me that particular evil is, as Buddha, my refuge – so if shit is in front of me, then shit is the offering.  Wholehearted and pure and pristine beyond conception, its scent – as precisely Buddha – permeates the cosmos, awakening beings everywhere…

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“Abe Lincoln, wash your bowl!”

A month or so ago, while Devon, Gabriel, and I were visiting my parents in Chicago, Devon and I had this amazing outing where we went and saw something called a movie.  Gabriel stayed home with the grandparents.  I’m not positive how long it had been exactly–definitely over a year, maybe even a year and a half–since we’d last seen a film on a big screen, and I think that was what struck me the most–just the size of the thing, and the sound.  I’m pretty sure I gasped.

This is part of parenting, I’ve realized, the way that stuff that was once pretty straightforward–hey, wanna go see a movie tonight?–becomes almost overwhelmingly complicated.  We nearly made it to a movie last fall, actually, but some intricate arrangements with friends who owed us a Gabriel-watching after we watched their young son (while they saw a movie, naturally) fell through at the last minute and we never managed to find a weekend we could reschedule.

Anyway, the movie we saw was Lincoln, which I thought was great.  And one of the main ways that it’s stayed with me, or acted on me, is how it helped make concrete a question that I’ve been turning in my mind about the Zen tradition.  Basically what I’ve been wondering since I saw the film is what could the Zen tradition have said to Abraham Lincoln in 1865, as he wrestles with the issues around the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment, that would have been of any benefit to him at all?

I’ll back up.  There’s a critique of Zen which points to the way that moral issues can seem to play a vanishingly small role in the tradition.  We talk about the precepts some, of course, but in terms of actual moral deliberation, of discerning how to act in a particular thorny real world situation, I don’t know that the Heart Sutra is where I would point anyone for advice.  This seems to be exactly what the neo-Confucianists in East Asia have always criticized in Zen, and it comes up again (appropriately in my view) every time there’s another sex scandal, of which we’ve had plenty in these last years.  It’s laid out especially clearly here by Dale Wright, who also made some of the same points in his talk last fall at the Soto Zen Buddhist Association conference.  I’m tempted to quote part of Wright’s essay, but really the whole thing is worth reading, and thinking about.  (More about thinking in a minute.)

So I saw the movie, and I’ve been thinking about this critique, and they sort of came together for me–I imagine Abraham Lincoln taking off his top hat and going into dokusan and making three full prostrations and saying something folksy and charming to the Zen teacher and asking for help.  Genuinely, humbly asking for help:  there’s a war on, and thousands dying;  there’s the blood-stained disgrace of human slavery;  there’s the bickering and horse-trading of political life;  there’s the heartbreak and rage of his marriage.  What the hell should he do?

First I want to acknowledge where the critique is on strong ground, and then maybe tiptoe out to where I think it might misread the tradition, or at least only read it one way.  The strong part first–I can’t imagine something less helpful in that situation than saying “Do all good, Abe;  avoid all evil.”  The Pure Precepts, our beautiful Pure Precepts, can so easily become pious and irrelevant, can’t they?  The four bodhisattva vows, our beautiful four bodhisattva vows, can so simply go the same way.  Which beings?  How?  Where do I start?  How do I discern the most appropriate next move in a chaotic and overwhelming world?

So there’s that.  I’ve made myself laugh a couple of times recently thinking about how inane different Zen zingers can be in actual difficult moral situations.  (“Abe Lincoln–wash your bowl!”)  How easily an emptiness response to a moral question can boil down to a kind of superiority, and a kind of hiding.  Wright’s essay, drawing on Brian Victoria’s work, has some horrifying examples.

Having said all of that, though, I wonder if it’s true, really, that our tradition ignores moral deliberation, ignores thinking and choosing.  It’s true that sometimes our rhetoric tips us over into privileging the nondual over the dual, the absolute over the relative, emptiness over form, but what I feel more than anything when I look at the Shobogenzo, for example, is that it’s a record of Dogen thinking.  He discerns, he deliberates, he takes sides, he praises some ways of acting and strongly criticizes others.  He turns particular doctrinal questions, particular received metaphors or ideas, over in his mind, looks at them forward and backward, questions them, criticizes them, tries to articulate exactly how to embody and express their truths in the concrete particularity of his existence in time.  He does all of this in an endlessly subtle and self-reflective and dynamic way, of course, but he definitely does it, over and over and over.  As Hee-Jin Kim puts it in his brilliant Dogen on meditation and thinking:

Dogen is concerned with the nitty-gritty reality of our flesh-and-blood existence from which we cannot escape for a moment when it comes to the pressing matters of truth and meaning, right and wrong, good and bad, just and unjust, and so forth.  Encountering moral and existential dilemmas and perplexities, our “vast and giddy karmic consciousness” must still operate in full capacity to choose, decide, and act, not only for mere survival, but for authentic living.

I don’t deny the force of Wright’s critique above–I think it’s salutary and wise.  I just want to suggest that there’s a living tension within the tradition between thinking and non-thinking, and that careful, moral deliberation, although not usually foregrounded, is right there in what we’ve inherited, especially in Dogen.

Still it’s the image itself I can’t shake, the idea of it–maybe because Daniel Day-Lewis is a really, really good actor, or maybe because the Civil War continues to cast its long shadow in such complicated ways over American life today.  Abe Lincoln comes in and does his bows.  He’s not sure where to put his zagu exactly, but he does his best.  He forces his long legs awkwardly into half-lotus and he asks for our help.  He doesn’t know what he should do next.  What do we have to say?

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American Buddhist Apocrypha

There’s an important book in the academic Buddhist Studies world called Chinese Buddhist Apocrypha – I’ve mentioned pieces of it in previous posts (here and here).  What was important about the book, if I understand correctly, was that it was part of a turn in the field towards really taking seriously the self-proclaimed “Indian Sutras” that were clearly written in China.  Though some people read “apocrypha” as some kind of put down, the point of the book was to revalue and appreciate the texts that had until then tended to dismissed as merely “fraudulent” or “forged” or “invented” in China.  Scholars started looking more closely at them not because they revealed what the “Buddha really taught,” or what “real Buddhism is,” but because they spoke so precisely to the religious needs and insights of the Chinese Buddhists who composed them.

Even though we don’t so much claim to discover sutras anymore, and I think we’d have a different kind of moral perspective (Gary Snyder aside) than the medieval Chinese did on outright forging one, the term “apocrypha” has been bouncing around in my mind recently as a way to think about American Buddhism.

The point of a good forgery is that it’s not acknowledged as such.  “Of course this is not a forgery, it’s just we discovered this sutra that happens to be about China!”  And it’s this non-acknowledgement of our forgeries that I’m interested in, or bugged by.

I suppose there is something beautiful, and even profoundly true, about passing off our American forgeries as the real thing  – “the Buddha really said to take care of your heart and express yourself completely” – but it’s also the thing that gets most under my skin.

With Zen in particular, since the idea is that the living teacher is the real teacher, and that their Dharma is the Buddha’s Dharma, admitting “forgery” gets admittedly quite complicated.  Still, though, I’d like to hear more of it.  I think we owe it to ourselves and to each other to be as transparent as we can about what we’re inheriting and what we’re making up.  To do so is to make this whole transition of Buddhism more conscious, more clear:  “Here’s what we’re taking; here’s what we’re leaving.”

Part of what got me thinking about this was a really interesting lecture I heard recently from the Institute of Buddhist Studies podcast treasure trove:  Dale Wright on the teaching of karma, and how the doctrine should be re-interpreted to make it relevant for the modern or postmodern West.

His argument, very roughly, is this:  the Buddhist teaching of karma can be of great use for our time (grounding moral action in a world no longer watched over by God), but in order for us to make use of it, we need to sever it from the hopelessly foreign concept of rebirth.

I don’t know you three readers of No Zen in the West well enough to know if you’ll pile on at this point already, and anyway I plan to say more about the details of Wright’s argument in a future post.  The thing I’m getting to about his talk this time isn’t this actually pretty standard American Buddhist point about karma so much as it is how much I appreciate his consciousness about his reworking of the tradition.

He knows enough about the tradition – and I think respects it enough – to not twist the teachings of rebirth into something other than rebirth.  He doesn’t write an apocryphal sutra about it:  “Thus have I heard, at Vulture Peak the Buddha declared that the true meaning of rebirth is simply that this single lifetime is inextricable from the timeless network of being.”

And he doesn’t say (at least as far as I recall): “The essence of the teaching of karma is that it has nothing to do with rebirth.”

He says, instead, Here’s what the tradition really says about karma (that it’s mostly about rebirth), but for the teaching to be relevant to our world today, I propose that we take it in this other way.

That is, I propose that we leave X behind and keep Y intact.

My furious ambivalence at this “leaving X behind and keeping Y intact” in general is of course the engine of most of my posts on this blog.  But in thinking about Wright, and about American Buddhist apocrypha, I realize that the piece I’m most bugged by may just be the unconsciousness or casualness of our transformations of the Dharma.

So the way Wright did it just sounded really right to me:  aware that we’re making it up, and aware of the good reasons for making it up, we bow to what the tradition actually says and then write our own sutra.

It was very refreshing that he didn’t skip any of those steps.

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Who Are American Buddhists?

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!

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