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Religion Library: Zen

Historical Perspectives

Written by: Julia Hardy

While much of what Sharf and other critics of western understandings of Zen have said is immensely valuable, sometimes the criticisms seem exaggerated or imbalanced in the opposite direction. Sharf's claim that the larger world of Buddhism was introduced to the West by scholars, while Zen was introduced by non-scholars, minimizes both the scholarly abilities of his targets and the excellent scholarship that exists on Zen in the West. It also ignores the many popular presentations of other forms of Buddhism in the West. The critique of "Zen nationalism" neglects the Beat and Hippie appropriations of Zen, which, while equally distorted, are distorted in a different direction that does not fit the militaristic model.

It is important to point out—as Sharf, Brian Victoria (Zen at War), and others have—that some of the Japanese Zen teachers admired in the West were actively militant during the years before and during World War II. Victoria's quotations of statements by some of these teachers, touting the supremacy of Japan, demeaning the Chinese, and suggesting that killing is a form of Buddhist compassion are indeed shocking.

The quoted passages were written or spoken while Japan, China, the United States, and Europe moved toward armed conflict. Ideological statements and verbal criticisms of the "other," however offensive, should be read within that context. Many of the individuals quoted had frequently visited western countries, or lived in the West for long periods of time, and had experienced the sting of western racist attitudes and prejudice. Some of their rhetoric could be regarded as a way of presenting themselves as equals to westerners, and worthy of their respect.

Despite the fascination of some in the West with the "Zen and the way of the samurai" ideal, westernized Zen has not become militaristic nor has the assimilation of popular Zen converted democracies into totalitarian strongholds. It is equally important to note that while popular books and films may present a distorted view of Zen, Zen in the West is anchored by a strong and legitimate community that does not shun Zen rituals and devotional practices, but, rather, actively engages in them.

In addition to the critique of popular interpretations, there also have been many excellent scholarly studies of Chan and Zen in the last several decades. Some of these studies have been done by professors at western universities who are also Zen monks, but free of the "missionary zeal" and "vexed frustrations" of Sharf's "globe-trotting Zen priests." Others are the work of scholars who are well-versed in the relevant languages and educated in the broader tradition of Buddhist scholarship. There have been a number of breakthroughs in historical and textual studies of Zen and Chan, encouraged by the cooperative efforts of scholars from both sides of the globe. If there was an imbalance in the quality of scholarship on Zen in the West, in comparison with other forms of Buddhism, it is rapidly being corrected.

Study Questions:
1.     Why is contemporary westernized Zen viewed as inauthentic?
2.     Describe the “Protestantization” of Zen.
3.     Why has violence often been associated with Zen?


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