Zen at the Margins: Reflecting on Monastic, Priestly, Secular, Jewish, & Christian Zens

Zen at the Margins: Reflecting on Monastic, Priestly, Secular, Jewish, & Christian Zens January 22, 2023



Zen at the Margins
Monastic, Priestly, Secular, Jewish, and Christian Zens

James Ishmael Ford

A non-believer opened his heart to the Buddha, saying, “I am not asking about words, I am not asking about the wordless.”
The world honored one sat quietly.
The non-believer replied to this, “With your wisdom and heart you have parted the clouds of my confusions, and showed me the way through.”
He made bows and departed.
After this the Buddha’s attendant Ananda asked, “What did the non-believer realize?”
The world honored one replied, “He is like a fine horse that races at even the shadow of a whip.”

Gateless Gate 32 & Blue Cliff Record 65

Zen comes to North America first with Chinese workers. For that first expression we only have residual evidence in the ruins of joss houses. In 1853 the Sze Yap Company builds what may be the first known Buddhist temple in San Francisco. Within a quarter of a century there were eight Buddhist temples serving Chinese immigrants in San Francisco alone, and it appears hundreds on the West coast. Chinese Buddhism is not so clearly sectarian, but it can easily be assumed among these were a number of Chan practitioners. By this time people of European descent began to find Buddhism. At the beginning of the Twentieth century Japanese Soto Zen temples are established in Hawaii, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. By the time Shunryu Suzuki came to serve the temple in San Francisco in 1959, convert Zen made a qualitative leap from individuals and smaller groups into the larger American consciousness.

Since then Zen has begun to take on a variety of shapes. Here the terms Fuzzy religion, Creole religion, and syncretism.

If these terms are not used pejoratively, but rather accepting the amorphous nature of boundaries when attempting to understand a religious tradition, then we have something of a handle as we see what is emerging in North America and the West more generally, and to some degree within the feedback loop of religious practice, in East Asia.

Here we see Zen in several varieties: Monastic, Priestly, Householder, Secular, Jewish, and Christian.

Zen arises in early Medieval China. While from its inception enshrined in its founding myths, Zen’s disciplines are available to everyone, and enlightenment, awakening can be experienced by anyone in any condition, male and female, monastic, and lay. The story of the Sixth ancestor Huineng is the story of an illiterate youth achieving the transformative insight of awakening.

In practice, however, the traditions and the lineages of authorization were contained within monasteries. And it is possible to find monasteries today, mostly in the Chinese traditions, but not exclusively, in North America. Where it is possible to practice in the modern versions, modern in the sense of the natural evolution of cultures, of the tradition.

Japan evolved a hybrid model, where monasteries exist, but are normatively training centers for people who will then go to temples where they will serve priestly functions. This is the largest model for transmitting Zen in North America and the West, with many of these passing-through monasteries, temples, and now Zen centers. These clerics are usually married. Although they represent a tradition that had only two generations earlier been codified in Japan and with many problems addressing the real life situations of married clerics and their families. Both of the major Japanese traditions have lineage representation in North America, Rinzai and Soto. Although as is the case in Japan, the Soto school is vastly larger here than Rinzai. The Japanese Sotoshu also maintains an institutional presence in North America.

In addition householder lineages have appeared. Again, there is precedent in Asia. But only in Japan were there a couple of relatively recent attempts at independent householder led institutions. The most significant of these for North America was the Sanbo Kyodan, the Society of the Three Treasures, founded by a dharma successor of the master Daiun Sogaku Harada. Harada Roshi was a prominent Soto master who had also trained extensively with Rinzai teachers. One of his heirs was Hakuun Yasutani.

Yasutani Roshi was a Soto priest, but worked for his living outside the temple system as a teacher and an elementary school principal. After receiving dharma transmission from Harada Roshi, while he did lead a training monastery briefly, he spent the balance of his teaching life working with lay practitioners. And, importantly he established the Sanbo Kyodan in service to that project. His successor as head was a householder Zen master, Koun Yamada. And the succeeding leaders of the organization, today renamed Sanbo Zen, have all been lay.

This lineage has sparked a number of lay led Zen organizations in the West, most notably the Diamond Sangha founded by the renowned Western Zen master and social activist Robert Aitken. However, in addition to this community, many other lineages have emerged with householder teachers.

The other three categories of Zen move the discipline into areas that have only the vaguest historical antecedents. Chinese religion seems always to have a syncretistic subtext, and accounts of early Twentieth century Chan monasteries mention Taoist monks among the company.

One is secular Zen. Here is a Zen stripped of all “religious” content. What this generally means is a conscious rejection of anything that might be perceived as supernatural, but often includes any culturally identified elements such as bowing or chanting in ancient languages, or sometimes chanting. It generally approaches Zen as a psychological phenomenon. It brings challenges to all traditional religious language, and pushes those of us who practice Zen to meet the dichotomies, both perceived and real, between our received tradition and what actually presents. The result is sometimes reductive.

The other two traditions emerging as Zen bring reductive and complex into an uncomfortable proximity.

I sometimes tell people I learned all of my Yiddish living in a Buddhist monastery. They think I’m telling a small joke. While I enjoy the irony, the fact is it isn’t a joke. It’s where I learned all the Yiddish terms that are part of my vocabulary.

With the great boom of Zen in the 1960s many young Jews found themselves drawn to the discipline. Some felt they were converting to Buddhism. Many, however, perhaps most did not. Even when some ordained as monastics and others in the priestly traditions. Among the more notable are the poet and musician Leonard Cohen, and the Zen masters Norman Zoketsu Fischer, Alan Hozan Senauke, and Bernard Tetsugen Glassman.

Zen practitioner and psychotherapist Brenda Shoshanna explains “A Jewish heart is warm, giving, human, devoted to family and friends and filled with the longing for the well-being of all. A Zen eye is fresh, direct, spontaneous, planted in the present moment. It is unencumbered by ideas, beliefs, tradition, hopes or expectations.” She then offers how “These practices are like two wings of a bird, both are needed for it to fly.”

Here we find a bare minimum Zen, in a sense similar to that found in secular forms of Zen, rooted in disciplines of presence and imply a saving encounter in that presence. And it suggests something lost, or would be except here it is complemented where there was a lack, by a generous application of Jewish principles.

In a sense I’ve found something similar on my own spiritual journey. When I first began Zen practice, what I encountered was something of a spiritual gym. The Zen center was a place to practice. And it was solitary. I could practice next to someone for years and not know them at all. I found the balance to that in joining a Unitarian church. The joke was the Zen community had a spiritual discipline but no real community. The Unitarians had community down pat, but no conflicting spiritual disciplines. Not really true. But in a broad brush way invited an exploration of A reduced but still vital Zen and the possibility of enriching out of another tradition, perhaps one’s natal spirituality.

And then there are the Zen Christians. For North American readers, the work of the Catholic monk Thomas Merton might come to mind. But he just begins a list that includes people who’ve moved well beyond appreciation of Zen to become dedicated practitioners, and in an increasing number of cases to become lineage holders, acknowledged as Zen teachers and Zen masters. The German Jesuit Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle was the first. But many have followed. The former Jesuit Ruben Habito, Redemptorist Patrick Hawk, and Our Lady’s Missionaries sister Elaine MacInnis begin a list. A significant lineage is emerging from the teaching line of the Jesuit Robert Kennedy.

To know where each of these teachers, Jewish and Christian, fit into a larger understanding of Zen, one needs to ask them.

I recently noticed two terms “creole religion” and “fuzzy religion” in a paper by the Buddhist scholar Laurence Cox, “European Buddhist Traditions.” It also brings to mind questions of syncretism in religion. And for me, Zen at the margins.

Fuzzy Religion is the more elusive term. Fuzzy enters the conversation as a pejorative, meaning lacking in substance. And usually attached to the word “spiritual,” as in “fuzzy spirituality. Often juxtaposed against a “real” religion. Religious Studies professor David Voas writes of “Fuzzy faith,” to describe an emerging faith position, sort of a post-Christian belief in God in some abstract sense together with some sort of, ill-defined relationship with Christian rituals and institutions.

But there is another term with an ironically elusive definition, “Fuzzy religion.” Professor of Religious Studies J. R. Hustwitt provides what I find a useful illustration. “The model of a religion as a discrete and homogenous thing is a useful fiction. The Caribbean Sea, Atlantic Ocean, and Gulf of Mexico are separately named, but these are not discrete bodies of water.”

I asked the Buddhist scholar Jeff Wilson about the term and he replied how he has run across it on occasion, but it isn’t commonly used. he sees it as referring “to hybrid or syncretic religious approaches in the popular culture, rather than orthodoxy and orthopraxy as promoted by formal organized religious traditions.”

As I’m seeing it, Fuzzy religion is concerned with the meeting of religions, especially in those areas where the languages of the different religions and their meanings are mutually understandable. But at the same time have subtle differences that seep into the other. Sometimes this can be something vague. But it can also point to things of enormous importance in our lives, especially in our religious lives today.

Creole Religion appears to have emerged in the study of the religious traditions that emerged among the Caribbean African diaspora. Creole is originally a linguistic term for a language that emerges out of the meeting of two or more other languages. It has also come to mean a person of mixed European and African descent, especially in the Caribbean and in Louisiana in the United States. The distinctive feature those scholars were trying to capture in the term Creole Religion is syncretism, the adaptation of a religious tradition into another, sometimes resulting in a whole new religion.

Almost an aside, but certainly an illustration of the ambiguous place of religions meeting, there’s a delightful article by the Religious Studies scholar Yvonne Chireau sparked by her stumbling on a Buddhist figurine on a rural Cuban domestic altar. With more sympathy than we often see in studies of the margins of the spiritual here in the Americas, Professor Chireau, speaking specifically of Hoodoo and other magical traditions, finds “the coexistence of multiple cultural elements, sometimes dissimilar, juxtaposed, channeled into an exquisitely balanced and harmonious mix.” As I find myself thinking about the emergence of various forms of Buddhism and specifically Zen, I find something, well magical. Certainly unexpected, and sometimes, deeply moving.

Syncretism is the third important term. In religion it means the incorporation of elements from one religion into another, and sometimes the creation of a completely new religion. An example of that later form of religion is how the Sikh faith arose out of the meeting of Islam and Hinduism.

The academic studies of religion and Buddhism are rife with internal criticisms. All of them are probably true, even as they contradict each other. The biggest problem is probably that of categories. And with that, of boundaries.

To paraphrase Professor Hustwitt, to model Buddhism as a discrete and homogenous thing is a useful fiction. The Caribbean Sea, Atlantic Ocean, and Gulf of Mexico are separately named, but these are not discrete bodies of water. For me what happens where the Atlantic meets the Gulf of Mexico in religion. What happens when Zen lands in North America is the story of my life.

Exact definitions are elusive. Fuzzy becomes a term of art. If one can avoid the traps of too easily dismissing, I believe we’re witnessing something rich and dynamic, and gifts are presenting themselves.

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