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Religion Library: Zen

Modern Age

Written by: Julia Hardy

Zen in particular was amenable to this process, cultivating an image of itself as exemplary of the uniqueness of Japan. A connection between Zen and bushido, or the way of the samurai, was often touted, and sometimes used to justify a militaristic spirit, just as Japan began to undertake the unification of East Asia under its leadership. In support of that enterprise, elevating the status of Buddhism in Japan also created a bond with the rest of Asia.

Thus Buddhism's fortunes were restored in Japan, and Zen had a new identity, just at the time when it was being introduced to the West for the first time. Three individuals have been the object of a great deal of scholarly criticism for their roles in establishing a skewed image of Zen in the West: Soen (Soyen) Shaku (1959-1919), Paul Carus (1852-1919), and D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966). These advocates of Zen in the West emphasized the interpretation of Zen that was prevalent at the time in Japan, describing Zen as the essence of Japanese identity. In Zen practice, the focus was on koan study and the experience of enlightenment, and it was detached, in many ways from its roots in Asian life.

Suzuki wrote a number of books on Zen that, in turn, influenced popular books such as Zen in the Art of Archery (Eugen Herrigel) and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Robert Pirsig). He also taught the musician John Cage, the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, and other influential thinkers who attended his classes at Columbia University. In many ways, he is responsible for the interpretation of Zen that is accepted by most people in the West today.

This was not, however, the only version of Zen that was introduced to the West. A number of Zen masters from Japan, China, Korea, and Vietnam have founded centers in the West to serve both refuge communities and western converts. An active tradition of Zen practice has resulted that, while affected to some degree by western distortions, is in other ways an authentic movement within the Zen tradition. Some of the ritual elements common to Buddhism in practice in Asia have been transferred to the West, while others have not caught on beyond the Asian immigrant communities. Western scholarship on Zen has advanced, and while there is still a strong "pop Zen" movement, there are also many excellent studies on the Zen tradition and translations of Zen texts and scriptures.

If the pattern of transmission of Zen to the West follows that of other, earlier Buddhist movements, a period of confused interpretations will give way to scholarly corrections. Eventually, new and unique forms will emerge that, while faithful to the basics of the tradition, are shaped by the cultural milieu within which they evolve.

Study Questions:
1.     How did political instability contribute to the destruction of Zen in China?
2.     What is engaged Buddhism? How does its origins relate to the conflicts of the time?
3.     How was Zen introduced to the West? Which method might be seen as more authentic?


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