Historical Perspectives

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.

While much of what Sharf and other critics of western understandings of Zen have said is immensely valuable, sometimes the criticisms seem exaggerated or imbalanced in the opposite direction. Sharf's claim that the larger world of Buddhism was introduced to the West by scholars, while Zen was introduced by non-scholars, minimizes both the scholarly abilities of his targets and the excellent scholarship that exists on Zen in the West. It also ignores the many popular presentations of other forms of Buddhism in the West. The critique of "Zen nationalism" neglects the Beat and Hippie appropriations of Zen, which, while equally distorted, are distorted in a different direction that does not fit the militaristic model.

It is important to point out—as Sharf, Brian Victoria (Zen at War), and others have—that some of the Japanese Zen teachers admired in the West were actively militant during the years before and during World War II. Victoria's quotations of statements by some of these teachers, touting the supremacy of Japan, demeaning the Chinese, and suggesting that killing is a form of Buddhist compassion are indeed shocking.

The quoted passages were written or spoken while Japan, China, the United States, and Europe moved toward armed conflict. Ideological statements and verbal criticisms of the "other," however offensive, should be read within that context. Many of the individuals quoted had frequently visited western countries, or lived in the West for long periods of time, and had experienced the sting of western racist attitudes and prejudice. Some of their rhetoric could be regarded as a way of presenting themselves as equals to westerners, and worthy of their respect.

Despite the fascination of some in the West with the "Zen and the way of the samurai" ideal, westernized Zen has not become militaristic nor has the assimilation of popular Zen converted democracies into totalitarian strongholds. It is equally important to note that while popular books and films may present a distorted view of Zen, Zen in the West is anchored by a strong and legitimate community that does not shun Zen rituals and devotional practices, but, rather, actively engages in them.

In addition to the critique of popular interpretations, there also have been many excellent scholarly studies of Chan and Zen in the last several decades. Some of these studies have been done by professors at western universities who are also Zen monks, but free of the "missionary zeal" and "vexed frustrations" of Sharf's "globe-trotting Zen priests." Others are the work of scholars who are well-versed in the relevant languages and educated in the broader tradition of Buddhist scholarship. There have been a number of breakthroughs in historical and textual studies of Zen and Chan, encouraged by the cooperative efforts of scholars from both sides of the globe. If there was an imbalance in the quality of scholarship on Zen in the West, in comparison with other forms of Buddhism, it is rapidly being corrected.

Study Questions:
1.     Why is contemporary westernized Zen viewed as inauthentic?
2.     Describe the “Protestantization” of Zen.
3.     Why has violence often been associated with Zen?

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