A Brief History of Zen Buddhism Come West

A Brief History of Zen Buddhism Come West November 27, 2023

Taking the Path of Zen
Robert Aitken







“Ordinary people and saints living together. Dragons and snakes all mixed up.”

Blue Cliff Record

From one angle Zen did proceed from the brow of Zeus. Like Athena, a goddess of intelligence and wisdom. It is here. This is it. Fully present.

It has always been. What you see is what you get. And it is ready to be engaged.

From another angle Zen has a history.  And a recent part of that history is how Zen, the pearl of great price of Asian wisdom has come West and spread across the Global North. It has also touched other parts of the globe, but that’s for another time. Here a little more of that history.

Among the various maybes and possibilities of that history of Zen coming West, specifically to North America, is the suggestion that possibly a Chinese expedition including five Buddhist monks led by the Bhikshu Hui Shen touched at points along the California coast sometime before the fifth century of our common era. It’s unlikely, but possible. And I do enjoy thinking maybe, possibly.

Zen certainly came to North America in the nineteenth century with Chinese workers. Chinese Buddhism, however, is not so clearly sectarian, but it can easily be assumed among these immigrants were a number of Chan practitioners.

The Chinese brought Buddhism and Zen here decades before white Americans noticed. In 1853 the Sze Yap Company, one of the earliest of the Chinese Six Companies, built what appears be the first known Buddhist temple in San Francisco at the corner of Pine and Kearney. Interestingly this happened within two years of the benevolent association’s founding, suggesting a high priority.

Within a quarter of a century there were eight Buddhist temples serving Chinese immigrants in San Francisco alone, and there were hundreds on the West coast. Outside the Chinese community these temples were usually called joss houses, and by the 1860s were attracting tourist attention. No doubt some among those visitors began to look more deeply into what was being offered. Chinese Buddhism is not so sectarian as Japanese Buddhism. So, the offerings included Zen, or more properly Chan, as well as Pure Land teachings. And it could be hard to sort one thread out from the others.

Japanese immigrants would create perhaps the first unambiguously Zen communities here in North America. In 1922, after establishing a temple in Hawaii, the Reverend Hosen Isobe established a Soto Zen temple in Los Angeles. A couple of years later he founded another temple in San Francisco. Others would follow. A decade after Reverend Isobe’s first foundation, the Reverend Nanshin Okamoto founded a Rinzai Zen temple on Maui.

And here it is important to note an almost immediate divide.

Part of the sadness for the Buddhist sanghas in the West, like their Christian counterparts, are the lines between ethnic communities from East and West. They’re not hard and fast, but neither are they easy to cross. So, it is relatively rare to see someone of European or African descent in the communities originally gathered to support Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, or Korean immigrants and their children, and now grandchildren. Similarly, there’s not a lot of crossover from the birthright communities the other way.

Some people of color, Latinx and African American have walked into variations of the same problems. These were people who’ve deeply seen the hurt. And who believed there is a possibility of healing in this Buddhist and Zen way. And who were willing to deal with those added on problems, slights, insults, and other hurts of being minority members of Buddhist temples and centers.

When we consider how we humans treat others that are not immediately “like us,” it becomes easy to see how theological doctrines like original sin may arise. It seems so deep, so pervasive, that anyone hoping to bridge great chasms might despair. And it probably needs to be added in, culture is important, and identity, and this wanting to protect is not an unmitigated evil. It’s very, very complicated. And, thankfully, some persist in crossing those boundaries.

Among those who’ve been able to persist, we’re now seeing teachers begin to appear. The first African American monk I’m aware of was Saunders Smith ordained as Suhita Dharma (and Thich An Duc) in 1974. He received Taman, the Vietnamese version of Inka, in 2006. The next two first fully acknowledged African American Zen teachers I’m aware of are Merle Kodo Boyd, who received dharma transmission in 2006 and Inka 2015. And Jules Shuzen Harris, who received Denkai transmission in 2002, dharma transmission in 2007, and Inka in 2019. Others have followed. And the problems continue, if somewhat attenuated by a lot of conscious effort.

As an aside, I’m also noticing how birthright and convert are often outdated distinctions. Or, at least not accurate enough. Many Jewish Zen practitioners say they’ve never converted. I’ve noticed this among Zen practitioners, as well. And. Increasingly there are people not of Asian descent who were born into Buddhist and Zen identified families. Just as for generations now there are people of Asian descent who are deeply culturally Christian. And of course, to keep it all lively, people of Asian descent raised nonreligious or perhaps Christian, or something else, who discover Buddhism and Zen other than at home, often in a classroom. Lots of messiness. Many invitations into a certain humility, especially when tempted to make categorical assertions about the human heart.

A possibly more useful distinction could be birthright and non-natal, that is people born into the Zen way and those who came to it later. Whatever, a generally acceptable term of art has yet been settled on. Perhaps revealing how liminal our moment is. How it is complicated, both dangerous and overflowing with possibilities.

Still. And…

Half a century ago Dr Martin Luther King, Jr observed Sunday morning as the most segregated hour in America. The divides at our religious moments continue. And it has turned out to be no different for Buddhists. For the self-reflecting person this reveals one more aspect of the usually unconscious but harsh divides between the dominant ethnicity and any minorities of any sort. And that part about religion being about social cohesion. Much hurt follows. And continues.

Probably it’s impossible to completely separate out a religious community from a larger cultural identity. This would apply both to the larger culture and any minority cultures within a larger community. For me this apparently unconscious repeating of ancient tribal-like patterns is harsh and sobering. Especially as in North America we live in cultures that rhetorically see themselves as expressly not based in where our ancestors came from. There never really has been a “melting pot.”

I’ve tasted just a bit of what that othering can look like when finding myself among Japanese Zen priests and in attending Japanese descent Buddhist communities. Small but accumulating slights, together with the odd direct insult making sure I’m not missing the othering. Mixed abundantly with genuine welcoming at the same time. Sometimes from the same people.

So, what to do? I find it all an invitation into humility. One I fail at constantly, but constantly aspire to. Frankly, what we fail at constantly, but into which we’re constantly invited. Like Zen itself, it is a constant invitation into intimacy. Which, it turns out, brings many, many facets of our humanity.

And there are reasons to hope. Zen communities in the West have had more obvious success in addressing gender equity, although it still is a work in progress.  One of the first handful of Zen teachers in the wave at the end of the nineteen sixties and beginning of the nineteen seventies, Houn Jiyu Kennett, was a woman. Today among the more prominent women who are Zen teachers are Jan Chozen Bays, Bobbie Rhodes, Joan Halifax, Melissa Myozen Blacker, Wendy Egyoku Nakao, and Enkyo Pat O’Hara, just to begin a long list. That has only worked because the majority of people involved pay attention to the actual problems, and most all involved really try to open their, our hearts.

What we’re about in this project is too important for us to not confront our failings. Noticing this lacuna in my, and I suspect many people’s understanding of this tradition and its communities, invites further examination about the nature of religious communities, writ large.

That said there is something emerging here in North America and the West.

And it has history. It has a story. And that story of this emerging community of practice can be outlined briefly. In the years before the Second World War a handful of Zen teachers began to work with Westerners. Among them the Soto missionary Soyu Matsuoka, the Rinzai master Sokei-an, and the priest Nyogen Senzaki, a disciple of the renowned Rinzai master Soyen Shaku who himself visited America to participate in the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago.

Probably the most important thing for reaching the non-Asian community during these years were the writings of D. T. Suzuki, another disciple of Soyen Shaku, a lay Rinzai practitioner and scholar who wrote compellingly of something called Zen enlightenment. A British admirer, Alan Watts, took Suzuki’s writings and ran with it. Sokei-an’s America widow Ruth Fuller Sasaki would immigrate to Japan, ordain, and then lead a translation team who would join in the project begun by Suzuki in providing an increasing wealth of Zen materials in English. The Beats picked up the rhetoric, and Zen, and enlightenment, and koans, especially the sound of one hand clapping became a part of the intellectual counterculture.

In the 1950s and early 1960s a number of personalities central to the establishment of Zen as practice began to take their place here. Shunryu Suzuki representing Soto Zen, Rinzai priests Joshu Sasaki and Eido Shimano settled in America. Before the 1960s were over Hsuan Hua would bring Chinese Chan, while Thich Thein An and Thich Nhat Hanh brought Vietnamese Thien. Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhism departing from normative Vietnamese Zen in some very interesting ways. And his influence on Buddhism in the West is hard to overstate. In 1972 Omori Sogen established a Rinzai temple in Hawaii, the first officially independent Rinzai institution outside of Japan.

As an aside in Europe, while there is a long history of Buddhism coming the Europe and Europeans reacting, the reach of Zen is first primarily through the writings of D. T. Suzuki. In 1970 when Taishen Deshimaru established the Association Zen d’Europe, which not only takes root, but today seems to represent a significant percent of European Zen practitioners.

Also, in the early 1970s Jiyu Kennett would establish a branch of what came to be called the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives in England, and today seems to represent the largest Zen oriented organization in Great Britain. The Vietnamese master Thich Nhat Hanh would spend much of his life centered in France. Other lineages would follow, including a relatively robust Sotoshu mission.

Of particular interest are the several Zen Christian lineages. The first notable figure in this movement is the German Jesuit Zen master Hugo Enomiya-Lassale. Father Lassale like most of the Zen Christians practice within the SanboZen lineage, and sometimes their community.

Returning to North America. Philip Kapleau, Robert Aitken, and Richard Baker would become the first Americans of European descent to be acknowledged as teachers. Philip Kapleau’s lineage would also have a part in the establishment of European Zen. It wouldn’t be until 1972 that the Korean master Seung Sahn arrived, but his peripatetic nature quickly assuring a version of Korean Son would also become a widely available option. In the same year the Rinzai priest Sogen Omori established a training temple in Hawaii. Finally in 2007 the Korean Taego priest Jongmae Park initiated a domestic training program for North Americans and Europeans.

Some of these would not make significant inroads among European and African descent people. For instance, while the Venerable Hsuan Hua’s community is extensive, it only counts a handful of non-Chinese descent people. While this is also largely true of the mission of the Venerable Sheng Yen, his dharma transmission to several lay heirs is gradually becoming significant in our shaping North American and Western Zen beyond the Chinese descent enclave.

That less direct influence can also be said of the Korean Jogye based communities in the West, although it should be noted the other Korean Zen organization, the Taego Order is now aggressive in attempting to bridge the gap between East and West establishing temples and Zen meditation groups across North America and Europe.

As I write this what I’ve come to think of as the “great die off” is beginning. The first generation of convert Zen practitioners and teachers, my generation are rapidly aging. Within two decades a goodly majority of us will have died. A decade after that, perhaps two or three extremely aged teachers will still be around to tell of the heady days when it all began. Maybe not even those two or three.

There are now some substantial Zen communities. The San Francisco Zen complex is perhaps the largest. Significant training centers exist around the country. There are literally hundreds of small centers. There are several training monasteries. And many teachers. There are three established trans-lineage institutions for teachers, the Soto Zen Buddhist Association, the American Zen Teachers Association, and the Lay Zen Teachers Association. Others are forming.

Our Zen teachers in the West include monastics, priests, householders, men, women, and people who live variously within the fluidity of human sexuality. I have been particularly proud of how we’ve faced sexuality, and issues of gender. Again, nowhere near a done deal. But there have been mind boggling changes in a few decades; and it shows us a way forward. And should give us hope.

Our communities tend to identify largely with the American progressive camp. I suspect largely because interest in religions outside of one’s birth communities comes with some of the freedoms that accompany higher education and higher income levels, and with that the assumptions of a more cosmopolitan perspective. Certainly, the demographics of the North American Zen communities show well educated people who at least began in the middle and upper middle classes. Again, for those who notice the demographics, class and access to Zen training for those not financially privileged joins the issues of race among the problematic issues of this emergent movement.

One of the most interesting things I’ve seen as I look at Zen as it is forming in the West is how there is no hard divide between a larger community of believers and a smaller professional class. When people speak of Zen ad their relationship to it, they almost always use the term “practice,” saying they are “Zen practitioners.” Not believers. Often, not even Buddhists. Practitioners.

There are no reliable numbers that I know of for this community. But, based on my observations, I’d hazard here in America, people of European, African, and Asian descent specifically committed to Zen and its disciplines as defined as North American Zen probably number between ten to fifteen thousand people. Perhaps more. Unlikely to be fewer. Those ten to fifteen thousand or more people are gathered into communities of practice and depth all across the country, although there is a weighting toward the West and East coasts. Almost all are small. Possibly with only one or two exceptions, all are very precarious.

And. Of course, there’s the die off coming. As small as our numbers are I believe there are enough younger people here and continuing to come in to pretty much assure there will continue to be a Zen presence. I suspect it will be dicey, but I am pretty sure something will continue.

What isn’t really clear, is out of the plethora of Zen practices that are flowering, which are the ones that will survive? I look at the San Francisco Zen Center complex, with its three anchoring institutions, the City Center, Green Gulch, and its rural training temple Tassajara, as well as its various branches gathered as “Branching Streams,” and there is no doubt younger people are attracted and are committing to the rigors of their requirements, which include a five year residency. The other major institutions, the White Plum and the Kwan Um, while they have different expectations for their members, there remain serious commitments to practice.

The other two major lineages the White Plum, a Japanese derived lineage that is rooted in the Soto school but is heavily marked by the transmission of a reformed koan curriculum has at least as many participants as Branching Streams. However, while there is a historic home temple, the Zen Center of Los Angeles, the individual sub lineages are wildly diverse and the closer one looks the harder it is to see what holds it together beyond the lineage itself and perhaps a lingering admiration for its founder’s charismatic and visionary first successor among the converts, Bernie Glassman. The Kwan Um also has a center training temple in Cumberland, Rhode Island. It has a more centralized training program, but it has mutated from its founder’s vision of a combined monastic and householder leadership, becoming almost exclusively a lay organization.

Once I posted a query on social media at several sites devoted to Zen practice asking about what formation experiences were expected, the necessary if not sufficient conditions in forming priests and teachers. The information I gleaned was too disparate to be part of any quantitative reflection. But I did notice how some very significant contemporary Western Zen teachers in their years of formation and practice, did not have that significant monastic experience. And I suspect this is going to continue to be a significant element of our forming North American Zen community.

In Japanese Zen one who leads first spends time in the monastery, usually between one and three years, and usually then trundles off to the family temple and a life as a parish minister. Some stay and dig in. Among those some small number will be recognized as masters of the way. In Soto “dharma transmission” is bestowed around the time one assumes pastoral duties and the home temple. The sense of “mastery” is usually associated with the title “shiki.” A shiki is a person allowed to lead a training monastery. Rinzai does not conflate that priestly authorization allowing one to lead that home temple with dharma transmission, instead reserving “Transmission” for those who become shiki within their school.

In China and Korea there was no direct connection between ordination as a monk or nun and dharma transmission, although almost all who received dharma transmission were monastics. Although it is important to note there have been from the beginning householders who’ve received transmission. The Taego order holds several transmission lines. With the interesting footnote that in Europe a Kwan Um Zen master has crossed over to the Taego, bring Seung Sanhn’s transmission into that community.

But the bottom line for the vast majority of continental Zen, the mainland of China and Korea and Vietnam in practice there is an assumption that some form of monasticism is what actual Zen practitioners do. Chinese versions are different than Japanese. In Chinese lineages there is no parish priest option for those who want to ordain but marry, as in Japan. Normative practice is monastic. Or, for some, but a notable minority, householder practice. The Korean derived Kwan Um school was founded in North America and the West to be both monastic and lay. Although over the years the monastic option has largely fallen away, leaving an organization where the large majority of its teachers are householders.

And with that, householders. The foundational literature of Zen is full of examples of enlightened lay practitioners. Some even receive dharma transmission. Always a minority, but from close to the beginning always an actual real option.

In truth all Asian cultures most householders don’t have formal practices. Instead, a believer embraces a life marked by devotion, and support of the “professional” practitioners sometimes as a practice, sometimes as a way of accumulating merit, and more likely mostly some combination.

That noted, there have always been practicing householders.

And here in North America and the West, practicing householders count for the majority of Zen practitioners. It is an overarching fact of Zen in North America and the West.

And. So. Here they are. Here we are. Many making Zen and the intimate way a central part of lives that also have a significant experience within the world. Working. Marrying. Raising children. To one degree or another, a normative assumption of being a Zen person is being a Zen practitioner no matter what else is true. And here we find that somewhere between ten and fifteen thousand people who identify as people of the Zen way.

What this new category of spiritual practitioner is, doesn’t have a good name. Lay suggests not serious. It also implies professionals and those who consume their services. Maybe Householder Zen. But that doesn’t fully describe it, either. There are monastics. And there are many priests. The new baseline for this convert community is the assumption everyone is a practitioner.

Where will this lead?

People have views. But the reality is we don’t know.

Which is just perfect for a tradition founded in Not Knowing…



About James Ishmael Ford
James Ishmael Ford is the author of Zen Master Who: A Guide to the People and Stories of Zen You can read more about the author here.
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