Some Hasty Notes on the Western Encounter with Buddhism & Specifically Zen in the West
(A gathering of newer and older reflections collected for a larger project, but something I thought possibly of use to others as it stands.)
Buddhism is a missionary religion. It has a “good news” it wishes to share. Buddhism offers a profound analysis of human hurt, and from that, a path to healing our broken hearts. From its birthing in the foothills between what is now India and Nepal somewhere in the neighborhood of the fifth or sixth centuries before our common era, Buddhism has traveled the world. First South as far as Sri Lanka, and then ever Eastward, with a brief but compelling journey West. Then North into Tibet and China. In modernity it has now reached parts of Africa, Europe, and the Americas. In all of these encounters, Buddhism has met with and engaged in dialogues of various sorts.
In Indian antiquity it provided a challenge to the nascent Hinduism which in significant part gave rise to Advaita Vedanta, which would in turn challenge Buddhist thinkers. In China it danced with Daoism and Confucianism, challenged and was challenged in turn. And most significantly in China birthed what some see as a whole new tradition, Zen.
And, of course, in the richness of time there was what happened as Buddhism came West.
It’s hard to say what the first encounters were. Probably in the Near East and in Greece in classical antiquity. Alexander’s foray into India in the fourth century before the common era had consequences for both Buddhism and Western religion and philosophy. Frankly, that’s an area where hard evidence is scant. Although there are numerous tantalizing hints. A dramatic example is Pyrrho’s apparent adaptation of Buddhism’s three marks of existence into his philosophical system. Today there are some delicious speculations about Buddhist influences, some perhaps more grounded in the documentary history than others.
In the third century before the common era the Emperor Ashoka sent missionaries to the Greek colonies in India and Bactria. Buddhism flourished in the Greco-Indian Gandharan civilization, which generated one widely read Buddhist classic, the Milinda Panha, the Questions of King Millinda. There are some physical evidences suggesting a Buddhist presence as far West as Greek Egypt. But again, mostly hints.
Stories of the Buddha are found in the Medieval Golden Legend. Specifically, the legend of Barlaam and Josaphat, a loose retelling of the story of the Buddha has an Arabic version and eventually became a Christian retelling of the story that may date to the early Middle Ages. And by the fourteenth century this adapted Buddha came to be venerated as a saint in both the Orthodox and Western churches.
In the early Sixteenth century the Jesuit and later saint Francis Xavier wrote a delicious account of his encounters with Japanese Zen priests. Another Jesuit Ippolito Desideri left an account of his sojourn in Tibet. Hints and stories. And maybe subtle influences.
It wasn’t until the Nineteenth century that Western interest seriously turned toward investigations of Buddhism. Eugene Burnouf’s 1844 French translation of the Lotus Sutracaused a sensation among intellectual circles. And led to Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s English rendition of a chapter which was published in the Transcendentalist journal the Dial, in that same year.
Then, Sir Edwin Arnold’s 1879 book-length poem the Light of Asiabecame a run-away best-seller. Basically, a free adaptation of the Lalitavistrara Sutra, the Light of Asiaprovided a romantic retelling of the life and principal teachings of the Buddha. It would go through more than eighty editions, and by some estimates sold as many as a million copies. From this point on the genie was out of the bottle. People in the West knew of something called Buddhism, and it was framed in a story just as compelling as that of Jesus.
In 1881 the Pali Text Society was formed and would begin steadily producing translations of the Nikayas. In the same year Oxford’s Sacred Books of the Eastunder the editorship of Frederich Max Muller produced a translation of the Dhammapada. This collection of teachings attributed directly to Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha, would in its many, many translations become the most commonly read Buddhist text in European languages.
Interest in Buddhism continued throughout the Nineteenth century. The philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer and Fredrich Nietzche interpreted and misinterpreted Buddhist principles in their work. While in America Transcendentalist thinkers read and incorporated Buddhist themes into their emerging spiritual philosophy.
By the end of the Nineteenth century the forming Theosophical society wound together elements of spiritualism and Buddhism, capturing many imaginations. In 1880 their founder Helena Blavatsky together with her principal disciple Col. Henry Steel Olcott received the five precepts as lay Buddhists. Perhaps, of course, her Theosophical or Esoteric Buddhism only touched upon the traditional religion here and there. Still, their public embrace startled the public imagination.
Henry Olcott would be a principal in the revival of Buddhism on the island of Sri Lanka. Even famously holding Buddhist healing services as an alternative to healing services led by Christian revivalists. Later he helped design what would become the universal Buddhist flag. Olcott’s Buddhist Catechism, as David McMahan, suggested, “(A)llied Buddhism with scientific rationalism in implicit criticism of orthodox Christianity, but went well beyond the tenets of conventional science in extrapolating from the Romantic-and-Transcendentalist-influenced ‘occult sciences’ of the nineteenth century.”It is still in print.
Somewhere prior to 1899 Laurence Carroll, or perhaps Laurence O’Rourke, almost certainly an Irishman but otherwise of uncertain origins, may be the first European to formally ordain as a Bhikshu in Burma, taking the name U Dhammaloka. In the first decade of the Twentieth century he became a major controversialist. After which he disappears from the historic record, and it is unknown whether he died a monastic or not. Better documented, the Englishman Charles Henry Allan Bennett, after a time studying Western occultism and as an associate of the magician Aleister Crowley, in 1900 he traveled to Burma and ordained as a bhikshu. He returned to England where he worked to establish a Buddhist presence.
An Englishman Ernest Hunt, and perhaps his wife Dorothy were ordained Shin priests in Hawaii in 1924. In 1953 he would re-ordain as a Soto Zen priest, probably the first convert from the West to do so. In 1928 Julius Goldwater (a cousin to the late senator and presidential hopeful) was ordained a Shin priest. He also lived in Chinese monasteries for a time as a monastic. In 1935 another American Robert Clifton ordained as a Shin priest, but later in 1957 ordained as a Bhikshu in Singapore. As the Venerable Sumangalo he would become the first Western born monk to be installed as abbot of a Chinese temple. In 1936 Gladys Sunya Pratt became the first Western woman to be ordained a priest in the Japanese Buddhist Mission of North America, which would eventually become the Buddhist Churches of America.
Shockingly, it appears it wasn’t until 1968 that three women were ordained Bhishunis in Hong Kong. One, Lois Larrick, has remained in orders as Bhikshuni Heng Chih. in 1973 Diane Perry. an English woman first ordained as a Tibetan nun as Tenzin Palmo traveled to Hong Kong to be ordained a full Bhikshuni, with it is worth noting, the permission of her Tibetan teachers. If these are in fact the earliest dates it speaks to the complexities of full monastic ordination in Buddhism and its marginalization and the struggles of women in patriarchial cultures. Similarly, the first African American I can find who ordained as a Buddhist monk was Saunders Smith, who ordained as Suhita Dharma in 1972 in the United States. Around this time Ray Vaughn was ordained a Soto priest by Matsuoka Roshi. As I write this I have no further details.
Of course, there were others, men and women, some known, some lost to history.
And with this something new and precious began to birth. Westerners have taken up Buddhist. Teachings and practices. Some have been acknowledged as teachers and guides within their chosen traditions. And, various forms of conversation have begun. Jews, Christians, and Muslims, in varying degree have begun a close examination of Buddhism and entered into conversations. And with that challenges and in many cases, transformations have begun, energies moving in many different directions.
And, interestingly, Buddhism has found itself caught up in conversation with traditions outside of religion and philosophy. In particular there has been a conversation with Western psychology, again, with energies moving in several directions. And, out of this something has begun to take shape. It has had various names, but what appears to be the preferred term of art is Buddhist Modernism. Although there are those who would quibble with the term modernism. Actually, there are those who would quibble with the term Buddhism for this new phenomenon.
This phenomenon, in all its variety arises out of Buddhist engagement with aspects of modernity, especially rationalism and scientific naturalism. With, I suspect, more than a dash of Western Romanticism. While we can antecedents Buddhist Modernism begins to take clear shape in the cusp between the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries.
It is a bit of a magpie’s nest, drawing on elements of Western psychology, philosophy, and spiritualty, and carries with it much of the secular sentiments of our time, emphasizing naturalist and psychological aspects. Along with this there has been a de-emphasizing of much of traditional Buddhism ranging from classical cosmologies and supernatural assumptions, ritual life, the primacy of monastic leadership and especially clerical hierarchy, and most of all the doctrines of karma and rebirth.
Instead a Buddhism arises that is focused on this-worldly concerns, both personal ethics, and extending from there to other forms of engagement informed by a sense of radical interdependence. Some, like Stephen Batchelor, going so far as to assert this more bare-bones and this-worldly Buddhism was in fact what the Buddha himself taught. In addition to questions of arrogance and sometimes “colonialism,” this emerging and perhaps sometimes self-confident Buddhism is sometimes accused of reductionism to the point of throwing the baby out with the bath water.
What is true is that with lesser or greater emphasis it is a driving current in modern Buddhism, heavily influencing convert Buddhists, but also extending out to include other more traditional Buddhists. Critics and scholars have begun to examine the phenomenon. David McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernismand Ann Gleig’s American Dharmaare particular jewels in a gathering literature.
Here’s what we can be sure of. Something is rising. It has silly and frivolous aspects, sometimes arrogant and reductionist. It has applications that have been given over to commercial use, sometimes in ways that feel at best as crass and at worst no better than those money changers in the Temple. Sometimes it can look racist. And perhaps sometimes it is racist, or at least supersessionist, to use a ten-dollar theological term. It describes a spiritual system that sees itself as replacing an older and less accurate version of the tradition. In this case where the “older” are mostly people of color and the “newer” are largely of European descent.
And this emerging Buddhism has birthed styles of religious engagement within traditional Buddhist schools as well as birthing new Western expressions of the ancient tradition, that appear to be vital. Women have a central place within it where before they were marginalized. Concerns with the conditions of poverty and the world’s ecological catastrophe are seen as following the insights of radical interdependence, a central theme of awakening. The rise of Engaged Buddhism is profoundly tied to currents of Modernist Buddhism. And, actually, even, on occasion, birthing fascinating Eastern expressions. The Dalit Buddhism in India as one compelling example.
So, a turn to a specific element of this Western encounter. Zen in the West.
In 1922 after first establishing a Soto temple in Hawaii, the Reverend Hosen Isobe established a Soto Zen mission in Los Angeles. It would eventually become Zenshu-ji temple. Converts would occasionally wander into these missions. And before the Second World War at least one Japanese priest, the Reverend Soyu Matsuoka consciously reached out to converts with mixed results.
It wasn’t until the 22nd of June, 1959, when Shunryu Suzuki arrived to become minister at the San Francisco Zen temple that time and place came together and this new phenomenon began to flourish. People flocked to the teacher and within a few years the convert practice group moved out of the temple and named itself the San Francisco Zen Center. Soon after other Soto and Rinzai priests would come, as would representatives of Korean and Vietnamese and Chinese Zen.
Here in America these various schools of Zen began to cross-fertilize. There were also influences from other Eastern disciplines, most notably, Insight meditation and yoga. And, of course, there were the assumptions and disciplines of the West. Today the Zen emerging in the West is both a faithful carrier of something ancient and beautiful, and at the same time substantially different than the Zen of its East Asian parents.
The heart of what we’re receiving from East Asia is two-fold. First, it is a way of seeing, and out of that a perspective on how to live in this world. And second there are some practices that the tradition brings along. Most importantly, two. One consists of some closely constellated disciplines that here I’ll call zazen, or seated Zen meditation. The other is another set of constellated practices I’ll call koan study.
We have from the beginning adapted those two things to our culture. There are always unique things regarding the container of Zen. And even as I write that word “container,” I’m uncomfortable how it can make these things seem unimportant. They are in fact critical. They address how Zen is presented, preserved, and transmitted. These things usually cluster into cultural styles. So, we see Chinese forms, Korean forms, Vietnamese forms, and Japanese forms. Each of these can be startlingly different. And, so, of course, there are the emerging ways unique to our Western cultures and as a subset our North American culture.
From that I would say we in the West offer two gifts and one very large challenge.
The first of these unique gifts of Zen in the West is the “Zen center.” The term itself was coined by students of the late Shunryu Suzuki. It represents a major shift in the locus of practice from monastery to lay practitioners. While there are and always have been lay Zen practitioners, they’ve always been at the edges of the monastic focus. Here that is no longer the case. The majority of people who practice Zen are laypeople and their communities are structured as Zen centers.
The second is gender equality and with it an egalitarian bias. In East Asia, again there have always been women practitioners, but they have been marginalized. Too often even the literature reduces them to unnamed “tea ladies,” who the aspiring teacher meets, is bested by, and then who asks where he, always a he, might find a suitable teacher? She, almost always a she then points them on. Today women and men seem to practice in near equal numbers here and surveying the names of the more prominent women teachers it looks like there is pretty solid parity. Not a done deal, not by a long shot. But, the quest for gender equity in practice in Western Zen is more than aspirational. Similarly sexual minorities have found a place within Zen practice that is unusual among the larger religious communities in the West. Again, we are at a better than aspirational stage.
Now, the unique characteristics of Zen come West are rather more than those two I hold up as great gifts. I think Stephen Slottow captures the essence of those features common to Zen in the West. With a slightly different ordering, 1) Vastly greater gender inclusivity. 2) An emphasis on lay and non-monastic practice. 3) De-emphasizing ritual and other traditional temple aspects of religious life. 4) The lack of substantial overarching denominational structures. 5) Deemphasizing of merit, its creation and its transference as central to practice.
The first two in that list are those unique gifts I noted above.
The following three while presented descriptively present what I consider are profound difficulties. Here we find that term “container.” And, here we find a challenge.
In East Asia Zen Buddhism arrived seeking support from authoritarian leaders who had the ability to either support or suppress. It was critical for them to be seen as useful to the state in some manner. Often this turned on the dedication of merit to benefit the leaders as well as the general well-being of the community. And these aspects of religion as holders of culture are historically critical to the “success” of a religion. Of course, they are also in many ways problematic, often the central locus of how a culture defines who is in and who is out.
Then. Now. Here, Zen encountered bourgeois republics with declining interest in religion. Here new problems emerge. The way we are organized makes our communities pay-as-you-go and the pressures to support the emerging sanghas and their teachers can and sometimes do compete in the hearts of the practitioners with basic survival. As a result it is hard to be poor, or even just struggling financially and be a serious Zen practitioner – in the sense of participating regularly and especially attending retreats.
Similarly, the first people attracted to Zen in the West have been from the dominant European descent community. The issues of race burns hot in the hearts of many current practitioners wanting to be more broadly inclusive. And we have arrived at a moment where the first Zen priests and teachers of African descent are emerging. But, whether Zen largely “belongs” or, at least seems to belong to the White middle class is a real question. In a culture driving relentlessly toward multi-racial, multi-cultural direction, the very survival of the tradition may be bound up with how open the Zen centers really are.
And, more. I’ve saved the biggest of the questions for last. And with that the challenges clustered around the question of whether Zen is spiritual or religious? Zen at its bare bones, those two things of a way of seeing, and those practices, is all pretty wide open. It is sometimes hard to see the container.
You certainly don’t have to be a “Buddhist” to embrace Zen’s sense of awakening or its practices. This is one reason why Zen has been so attractive to a number of Christians and is central to the emergence of what might best be called a nondual Christianity. But, even more challenging is the meeting of Zen, its perspective on awakening and its practices and Western psychology. (For instance) This has been a complicated issue for Buddhism come West, but it is also very much so for Zen in the West, where it is easy for Zen simply to become a psychological modality, a part of a larger project of therapy.
So, in summary. Our Western Zen is committed to bringing an ancient understanding of awakening to the West and with that some powerful disciplines. Zen practitioners here have organized ourselves mainly as communities of lay practice within Zen centers, committed to greater egalitarianism and the equality of people.
And with that a larger question of identity and with it of mission.
And taking those last things together, perhaps the critical question for our long term survival. What next?