Zen, Popular Conceptions of

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Zen is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese character chan, itself a truncated transliteration of the Sanskrit term dhyĀna (trance state). In contemporary Japan, three monastic traditions, the Rinzai, Sōtō, and Ōbaku, now use the term to identify themselves as belonging to the common heritage of the Chan school, which they call Zen (zenshū). The word Zen, however, has also become part of the secular lexicon. Often appearing in the form of "the Zen of x" or "Zen and the art of x," the idea of Zen is pervasive in popular culture. In this context, Zen often denotes a sense of liberation, spontaneity, and oneness with the world that can be sought not only in highly technical forms of meditative practice but also in archery, gardening, tea ceremonies, and even the most mundane matters, such as motorcycle maintenance. No longer referring in a more technical sense to any specific Buddhist tradition in Asia, Zen is, as Alan Watts (1915–1973) puts it, "an ultimate standpoint from which 'anything goes.' "

This highly romanticized vision of Zen owes much to the writings of D. T. Suzuki (1870–1966) and Beat generation authors, such as Watts, Gary Snyder (1930–), Jack Kerouac (1922–1969), and Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997). In his now classic novel, The Dharma Bums, Kerouac, for instance, sings of a "rucksack revolution" led by young American "Zen lunatics" armed with nothing but poetry and "visions of eternal freedom." Above all else, those who promoted this ideal of Zen as an alternative lifestyle vehemently opposed the rampant consumerism, materialism, and positivism of mid- to late-twentieth-century America and bemoaned the growing sense of alienation from nature and spirituality. Beatniks, hippies, and countercultural intellectuals celebrated a new "Zen" spirituality that ostensibly relied less on rational thought and more on the immediate, "mystical" experience of being.

Historians generally locate the origins of this particular understanding of Zen in a Buddhist reform movement that took place in Meiji (1868–1912) and post-Meiji Japan. Shortly after the emperor was restored to power in 1868, Buddhism came under heavy attack as a foreign, corrupt, and superstitious creed. As a result, numerous temples were abandoned and thousands of monks were returned to lay status under the slogan of haibutsu kishaku, "exterminate Buddhism and destroy Śākyamuni." In response to this threat, Zen apologists sought to defend their faith by advocating what they called a New Buddhism (shin bukkyō) that was thoroughly modern, nonsectarian, and socially engaged. In order to demonstrate their support of the colonial policies and military expansion of the newfound Japanese empire, adherents of New Buddhism went so far as to portray their new faith as consistent with bushidō (the way of the warrior), which they defined as the essence of Japanese culture.

A leading figure of this movement was the Rinzai priest Shaku Sōen (1859–1919) who, in 1893, visited Chicago as a representative of Zen at the World Parliament of Religions. In his Sermons of a Buddhist Abbot, the first book on Zen to appear in English, Sōen presented Buddhism as a rational and scientific religion well-suited to modern sensibilities. As in the case of all other so-called universal religions, Zen was no longer a strictly clerical concern but rather a spiritual insight accessible to all. Like his teacher Imagita Kosen (1816–1892) before him, Sōen taught lay disciples at a zazen (seated meditation) society known as Ryōmōkyōkai in Tokyo and at the monastery Engakuji in Kamakura, where he served as abbot. Among those who found themselves studying meditation under Sōen at Engakuji was the young D. T. Suzuki.

With the help of Paul Carus (1852–1919), a strong proponent of "religion of science," Suzuki carried on Sōen's efforts to bring Zen into the modern world. Drawing upon the notion of "pure experience" (junsui keiken) from the writings of the American philosopher William James (1842–1910) and Nishida Kitaro (1870–1945), Suzuki moved beyond Carus's and Sōen's interest in the unity of rationality and faith and began to emphasize instead the importance of a mystical experience that underlies all religious truth. As the unmediated, direct experience of being, or what he called "isness" (kono mama), Zen experience, according to Suzuki, was beyond dualism and intellectualization, and hence was superior to all other forms of religious experience. Furthermore, by identifying Zen experience with the uniqueness of Japanese culture Suzuki was able to firmly establish a nationalistic discourse couched in seemingly benign and universalistic religious terms.

Hisamatsu Shin'ichi (1889–1980), a fellow Zen nationalist, similarly argued that the Japanese mind, unlike the discursive and logical mind of the West, was predisposed toward an "intuitive" mode of understanding and an innate love for nature and tranquility. Despite the lack of historical evidence to substantiate their claims, Suzuki and Hisamatsu described traditional Japanese art, most notably haiku poetry, stone gardens, and Noh drama, as quintessential expressions of Zen awakening (satori). For both Suzuki and Hisamatsu, Zen, and therefore Japanese culture, are unique in that they express the experience of awakening directly and immediately without having recourse to established conventions or discursive thought.

As cultural relativism and gnosticism displaced rationalism and Judeo-Christian values as the reigning ideology among twentieth-century intellectuals, many Americans and Europeans increasingly sought a viable alternative in Zen, oblivious of its nationalistic and racist overtones. The transcultural, unmediated status of Zen mysticism, for instance, offered dismayed Catholics like Kerouac an alternative to their own stifling tradition, yet paradoxically allowed them to remain loyal to their original faith. Similarly, large communities of lay practitioners who had little or no interest in monasticism flocked to Zen centers established by Yasutani Hakuun (1885–1973) and by his American disciples Philip Kapleau (1912–) and Robert Aitken (1917–), where the rapid attainment of kensho (seeing one's true nature) and its certification known as inka were the only priority. This, however, stood in stark contrast to the disciplined lifestyle of a traditional Zen monk for whom such a certification bears more of an institutional than a personal significance. Zen, as we know it in the West, is thus significantly different from its more traditional counterpart; this difference, as we have seen, emerged from a cross-cultural dialogue that belongs exclusively neither to Japan nor to the West.

See also:Critical Buddhism (Hihan Bukkyō); Engaged Buddhism; Meiji Buddhism Reform; Modernity and Buddhism; Nationalism and Buddhism


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Juhn Ahn