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Religion Library: Zen

Historical Perspectives

Written by: Julia Hardy

Zen has become a pop culture phenomenon in the West, especially in the United States. In recent years, there have been a number of notable scholarly publications that have severely criticized these pop culture forms of Zen as inauthentic. They have also been critical of some of the people who introduced Zen to the West, both for their romanticized and inaccurate portrayals of Zen, and for their associations with the rise of Japanese nationalism prior to World War II.

Robert Sharf, a frequent critic of westernized Zen, says that, unlike other forms of Buddhism that were introduced to the West through historical and textual studies and field reports, Zen was introduced by Japanese intellectuals and priests whose view of Zen was shaped by the "New Buddhism" that developed after the Meiji Restoration in the late-19th century. They aimed to produce a viable "world religion" freed from superstitious trappings, compatible with modern science, and appealing to the modern West.

Zen became a framework for establishing a Japanese national identity. Certain characteristics were attributed to Zen, and to Japan, that were not historically accurate. For example, connections between Zen and "the way of the samurai" were exaggerated. Japan was also characterized as focused on community, aesthetics, and feelings, as opposed to the West, which was individualistic, intellectual, rational, and scientific. Okakura Kakuzo's The Book of Tea is a good example of the image of Japan and Zen that was exported to a western audience during the first half of the 20th century.

Sharf and other critics have pointed out that swordplay, tea ceremony, calligraphy, painting, and poetry are not exclusively Zen activities, and their relationship to Buddhism is not unique to Japan. They have also made the important point that China's role as the birthplace of Chan and the source of Japanese Zen, was obscured, or even denied, by many of the post-Meiji scholars, who argued that Zen had only come into its own in Japan, and that Japanese Zen was the only true Zen.

Sharf, Bernard Faure, and others have also been critical of the emphasis on the role of religious experience or mysticism in these interpretations of Zen, an emphasis that was encouraged by popular books like Eugen Herrigel's Zen in the Art of Archery (1948) or Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), as well as scholarly works by D. T. Suzuki and others. Critics argue that these interpretations mystified the goal of Buddhism, making its focus an experience of transcendence, while ignoring its institutional structures, its scholarly activities, and its ritual and devotional aspects. Sharf calls this the "Protestantization" of Zen.


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