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Religion Library: Zen

Exploration and Conquest

Written by: Julia Hardy

In Japan, in 1854, American ships sailed into a harbor at the entrance to Tokyo Bay and forced the Japanese government to sign trade agreements. This was a major factor in the defeat of the Tokugawa shogunate and restoration of the Meiji emperor in 1868. In response to western movements into Asia, Japan decided to form a "Greater East Asia Prosperity Sphere," believing that domination from within Asia would be preferable to domination by the West. It began to take control of territories adjacent to China, including Manchuria, Korea, and Taiwan, and then threatened China itself. In the 1930s, Japan launched a series of attacks on China, defeating and occupying Hebei and Nanjing. During World War II, Japan took control of more territory, including Thailand, Burma, the Philippines, Macau, Hong Kong, and more. While most of these events did not involve Chan or Zen specifically, the repercussions would affect both, and all of Buddhism in East Asia, in a variety of ways.

One final series of conquests relevant to Chan took place in Vietnam. Until the Lu dynasty (1109-1224) Vietnam had been controlled by the Chinese empire, and Chan, called Thien in Vietnam, was introduced very early as part of the Chinese cultural influence. In the mid-19th century France colonized Vietnam and made it part of French Indochina. The colonial government encouraged the spread of Christianity, and efforts were made to suppress Buddhism. During World War II, Vietnam was freed from French control and occupied by the Japanese.

Vietnam regained its independence after the Japanese were defeated, but a prolonged conflict soon broke out between opposing governments. The government of South Vietnam was sympathetic to western ideas, while the North Vietnamese rulers were communists with ties to China. The United States entered this conflict on the side of the South in the mid-1960s. Some Thien monks took up arms and fought in the war on the side of the North, as the South continued to discriminate against Buddhism, while other Thien monks like Thich Nhat Hanh fought for peace and engaged in providing aid for the Vietnamese people whose lives were devastated by the war. Nhat Hanh would later establish a Buddhist center in France and become a prominent teacher of Zen in the West.

In all of East Asia, Buddhism was weakened by these conflicts and by the propagation of Christianity. Differences between Buddhist sects had become gradually less important throughout East Asia for several centuries, and Chan and Zen were often blended with Pure Land practices. Buddhism declined in importance as a national institution, but the role of temples in many local communities continued to be vital, as they presided over events on the ritual calendar, conducted funerals and rituals in remembrance of the dead, and served as local gathering places and community centers.

Study Questions:
1.     Are the sectarian examples of Zen violence primarily religious conflicts? Why or why not?
2.     How did global capitalism affect China and Japanese Zen?
3.     Is Zen a colonizing or a colonized religion? Why?


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