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Religion Library: Zen

Modern Age

Written by: Julia Hardy

The fortunes of Zen have varied from country to country following the worldwide conflicts of the 20th century. In China, in the years following the Communist Revolution, the government launched a series of official and unofficial attacks on Buddhism. Temples were destroyed, works of art were destroyed or stolen, and monks and nuns were forced to become laypersons. Sporadic movements toward rebuilding temples and reviving traditions alternated with periods of renewed destruction throughout the 20th century. As a result, Buddhism in China, including Chan, was virtually destroyed. Buddhism continues to thrive in Taiwan and among the Chinese diaspora communities, but sectarian affiliations are of comparatively little importance to these groups. Some Chinese Chan teachers have established Buddhist organizations in the West to serve immigrant communities, and also to serve the growing western interest in Buddhism.

Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (b. 1926) is a Zen master who has been quite influential in the West. In Vietnam, Chan is called Thien, but because Zen is the more recognizable name, his students and followers describe him as a Zen master. During the Vietnam War Nhat Hanh advocated for peace and organized relief efforts to help victims of the war with food, housing, and medical care. After he was refused reentry into Vietnam following a peace mission to Europe and America in 1966, Nhat Hanh began teaching Zen and engaged Buddhism in the West, and in 1982 he founded a Zen center in France called Plum Village. He is a leading proponent of "engaged Buddhism," a modern-era movement that encourages Buddhist involvement in contemporary social issues. He is also a prolific writer who has published dozens of books and articles in English.

In Japan, anti-Buddhist movements of the 19th century advanced to the point of all-out attacks on Buddhism after the Meiji Restoration (1868). At the time, many temples combined both Buddhist and Shinto elements, but the newly restored Meiji emperor declared that all temples must be attached to only one of the traditions. Some Buddhist monks were forced to become Shinto priests while other monks and nuns were forced to become laypersons. Some monks were drafted into the imperial army. Many Buddhist temple buildings and works of art were destroyed. Peasants in some areas united to protest these events, and the government began to question its anti-Buddhist activities. Finally, in 1889, freedom of religion was declared.

Having lost status and political connections, some Buddhist leaders who survived this period responded by forming closer ties with the new Meiji government. Blaming the degeneration of Buddhism during the Tokugawa era, they instituted a reform movement to recover "pure" and "original" Buddhism. The result was called "New Buddhism," and its goal was to make Buddhism modern, cosmopolitan, humanistic, rational, compatible with modern science, and socially responsible. Buddhism was to be molded into a world religion that could stand proudly next to other world religions.


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