April 19, 2014

Western Zen: Transition And Turmoil -- Part 1

Whenever a religion enters a new region dominated by an ethnic culture differing from that of its originating source, a certain amalgamation of ideologies, ethicalities, as well as prevailing myths and superstitions of the newly introduced religion and the antecedent religions takes place. Buddhism is an especially interesting case, as it has spread world wide and taken on many different flavors everywhere it's gone. When Buddhism entered China, as early as 50 BC by some accounts, it quickly began mixing with Taoism and various regional ethnic cultures. Over the course of the following 700 to 800 years Chinese Chan emerged.


Zen is really a very simple thing - it's about discarding our opinions and feelings about things and just being. It's about detachment. It's about introspection and contemplation. Yet getting to the point that we can detach and slow down our rapidly churning mind enough to be introspective can be very difficult. We use Zen regimens to help guide us in the direction that these things become easy, even second nature. But not all Zen regimens work for all people, and not all regimens, in fact, point us in the right direction at all. How do we know if our practice is taking us where we want to go?

Afew weeks ago I ran across Stuart Lachs' article Means of Authorization: Establishing Hierarchy in Ch'an/Zen Buddhism in America and quickly discovered that many people referenced it across the Internet. It was clearly creating quite a stir so I thought I would give it a read. That paper led me to read two of Mr. Lachs' other papers as well: Richard Baker and the Myth of the Zen Roshi, and Coming Down from the Zen Clouds - A Critique of the Current State of American Zen. These intelligent writings1 have helped expose a dark side of institutionalized Zen - a side we don't usually find revealed in the copious Zen literature available on the Market. In the forthcoming series of essays I will try to illuminate some of the challenges and dangers faced by Western Chan/Zen2 practitioners as they relate to Mr. Lachs' observations and commentaries.

Zen is a personal practice of Self-discovery, but the institutionalized side of Zen needs to be understood and differentiated from the actual practice of Zen. Master Lin Chi (Rinzai) told his students:

"The trouble lies in your not believing in yourselves enough. Because you don't believe in yourselves you are knocked here and there by all the conditions in which you find yourselves. Being enslaved and turned around by objective situations, you have no freedom whatever, you are not masters of yourselves."

Chan is a path that leads to freedom, individuation, and, ultimately, to salvation. It's a practice that requires great faith, great doubt, and great perseverance. In short, it requires, in Lin Chi's words, believing in ourselves.

And with that, may our journey begin . . .

Chuan Zhi, October 2006

1 These papers by Stuart Lachs provide valuable background information for the upcoming series of essays and are available for download as pdf documents here:

pdfRichard Baker and the Myth of the Zen Roshi101.27 KB26/01/2012, 12:42
pdfComing Down from the Zen Clouds50.79 KB26/01/2012, 12:42
pdfMeans of Authorization: Establishing Hierarchy in Ch'an/Zen Buddhism in America205.76 KB26/01/2012, 12:42

2The terms Zen and Chan are used interchangeably throughout - both terms originate from the same Sanskrit word - dhyana, meaning meditation. In the West, "Zen" is most commonly associated with Japanese-based lineages and "Chan" is most often associated with purely Chinese lineages.

Part 1. Introduction

When the ancient virtuous masters guided their students, either they used sticks or shouted. There weren't many words. However, the present cannot be compared with the past. One has no choice but to point a finger at the moon. After all, which is the finger and which is the moon? Investigate!"

-- Grandmaster Hsu Yun (Empty Cloud)

Western students new to Chan often experience confusion and anxiety when confronted with the myriad approaches to Chan training and the countless colors the Buddhist landscape presents. A recent Google search for "Chan Buddhism" actually pulled up over one million independent web page results! Where do we start? How do we filter the chaff from the wheat? Let's begin with a little history.

Zen in the West dates back to the mid 19th Century; however, Zen gained its first significant boost in America and Europe in the 1920's through the written works of Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, a brilliant thinker, philosopher, and practitioner of Japanese Rinzai Zen. With nearly a hundred years behind us, there's now a great deal of understanding (as well as misunderstanding) of the Zen "modality" - at least as it's been presented through various Japanese lines.

Whenever a religion enters a new region dominated by an ethnic culture differing from that of its originating source, a certain amalgamation of ideologies, ethicalities, as well as prevailing myths and superstitions of the newly introduced religion and the antecedent religions takes place. Buddhism is an especially interesting case, as it has spread world wide and taken on many different flavors everywhere it's gone. When Buddhism entered China, as early as 50 BC by some accounts, it quickly began mixing with Taoism and various regional ethnic cultures. Over the course of the following 700 to 800 years Chinese Chan emerged. When Buddhism later entered Japan over 500 years later from Korea, it merged with Shinto to form a new flavor of Chan Buddhism. The Zen sect wasn't introduced in Japan until nearly 1000 years after it had been established in China: in the late 12th century the Rinzai (Lin Chi) sect was introduced by Eisai; and in the early 13th century the Soto (Tsao-tung) sect was introduced by Dogen. By the time Zen entered the scene in Japan, Japanese Buddhism had already had more than a 500-year history.

Zen first entered the United States and other parts of the West predominantly through Japan, so it's not surprising that Japanese culture has strongly influenced our ideas of Zen from the beginning. An interesting development over the last few decades has been the introduction of Korean Zen and Tibetan Buddhism - each of which also have uniquely different belief structures, ideologies, and practices.

It's not surprising that Western Buddhism is undergoing a tremendous identity crisis, and that, in fact, the term Buddhism, can have hugely different meanings to a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism than, say, to a Japanese-lineage Zen practitioner or a purely Chinese-lineage Chan practitioner. Areas of differentiation between the numerous flavors of Buddhism include the idea of reincarnation, sutras, koan practices, vegetarianism, marriage, ecclesiastic hierarchical structure, as well as various superstitions and myths. The list of variances between them is endless, as would be expected when similar religions with no common "bible" have developed independently for thousands of years in vastly different cultures. In fact, nobody knows what the Buddha actually taught - nothing was written down until many generations after his death. (The only thing all Buddhists around the world seem to agree upon unquestioningly as originating from Shakyamuni Buddha are the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path).

To add to the confusion and chaos, the wide range of interpretations of Buddhist terminology from one sect to another has lead to infighting between Buddhist groups, among teachers, and between sangha members. Frequent scandals involving misuse of power and authority through exploitation of congregations has cast a bitter shadow on Zen Buddhism and many of its representative institutions in the West. And, while there's no debate here over which "path" is the best -- they are all great if approached with the right attitude -- the simple fact that there are so many different presentations of the same thing has had the effect of obfuscating rather than clarifying Zen for many.

The challenge we face is how to keep what's good of the Chan path, while adapting another culture's ways of thinking and doing things in such a way that we don't undergo a psychological rift that can only serve to sever us from that Path. In a Western culture that emphasizes individualism over collectivism, as well as scientific approaches to knowledge over intuitive ones, we face obvious challenges when we try to integrate ideas and methodologies from Eastern cultures. Fortunately, social and cultural aspects of the institution of Buddhism are not fundamental, or even required, ingredients of Zen.

The Chan Sect: Chan has historically set itself apart from mainstream, orthodox, Buddhism, but it has not until recently rejected the moral and ethical foundations historically considered prerequisites for Chan practice. Master Hsu Yun (Empty Cloud), considered the greatest Chan master of the 20th century, taught that before one is ready to begin Chan one must be morally, psychologically, and spiritually prepared: "There are four prerequisites concerning methods of practice," he said: "deep faith in the law of cause and consequence; strict observance of precepts; immovable faith; and choosing a method of practice." With these things taken care of, we are ready to tread the ancient Buddhist mystical path of Chan:

"The objective of Chan practice is to illuminate the mind by eradicating its impurities and by seeing into one's true self-nature. The mind's impurities are wrong thoughts and attachments. Self-nature is the wisdom and virtue of the Tathagata [Buddha]. The wisdom and virtue of Buddhas and sentient beings are not different from one another. To experience this wisdom and virtue, leave behind duality, discrimination, wrong thinking and attachment. This is Buddhahood." - Empty Cloud

While D.T. Suzuki was tremendously influential bringing Zen into popular western culture, his approach to Zen was strongly academic and his tendency was to view Zen as it's own unique "thing," distinct, independent, and isolated from it's religious, Mahayana, heritage. Whether or not this was a new twist in the history of Chan, successive teachers from various sects have perpetuated this Zen "isolationism". In addition, somewhere along the timeline, the Noble Eightfold Path lost its significance as a guide for practitioners to help them cultivate moral and ethical lives. Recently the extreme emphasis on "following the five precepts" has effectively substituted a simplistic ethical code of conduct for the complete Eightfold Path (which includes this ethical code). Thus, instead of regimens based on the more challenging but meaningful disciplines of Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action (where we have the precepts), Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration, we are left with the false impression that if we simply "don't kill, don't steal, don't engage in illicit sexual activities, don't lie, and don't use drugs" that we'll be riding the path to Nirvana. Somewhere we forgot that abiding by the precepts is merely a prerequisite for Chan, not actual Chan practice.

Zen in Transition: Japanese-lineage Zen groups have had a good amount of time to "test the waters" of American culture through numerous teachers and their congregations, yet a huge number of these groups have suffered greatly due to inherent incompatibilities between an alien culture forced upon an unprepared Western Mind. These incompatibilities may themselves account for much of the contemporary Zen isolationist paradigm.

Few people have done a finer job of identifying the numerous troubles Western Zen institutions have dealt with than Stuart Lachs. With over 40 years of Zen training under numerous teachers in the US, he has been witness to many fiascos. Principally, he has noted widespread misuse of power by representative teachers and an underlying alienation of teachers and students from their own culture. The many stories I've heard from students and read in books and articles from authors such as Mr. Lachs and Michael Downing (c.f. Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center) suggest that the terminology associated with Zen is often misunderstood, misconstrued, and misappropriated by teachers and practitioners alike, either intentionally or unintentionally. Such misuse of Zen's language has had the effect of leading individuals astray and has had a further deleterious effect on Zen Buddhism in general.

D.T. Suzuki, Stuart Lachs, Carl Jung, Hsu Yun and many others have made similar comments that we must not ignore: for Zen Buddhism to flourish in the West, adaptive changes must be made that allow a mutual embracing of our culture with the essence of Zen. This has been the natural course of Buddhism for nearly two thousand years as it has migrated from one country to another, so there are no new ideas here. There is no reason for us to reject our own sensibilities, our own cultural identity, for that of another that is alien to us by way of its own unique heritage and cultural history.

Stuart Lachs has identified where many of the dominant problems lay and has touched on a few ideas for solutions; implementing solutions, however, is the responsibility of the Zen institutions and their representatives. Until the dominant voices of Western Zen recognize the need for change, change will be tediously slow and the challenges for Western students will continue and grow.

Keeping and open mind: We Zen practitioners strive for an "objective eye" - to recognize things as they are (bhutatathata) rather than as we think or feel they are. Yet we have traditionally shunned listening to the academicians, theologians, and other researchers who have studied Buddhism from an historical, psychological, or religious viewpoint. "What could they know of Self Knowledge?" we ask arrogantly. We ignore the fact that many of these individuals are themselves long-time practicing Zen Buddhists. We might also observe that wisdom is not the exclusive domain of Zen Buddhists!

For us to intentionally turn a blind eye to any form of knowledge not only limits our understanding of the world in areas that could be vital to helping other people discover the Dharma, it also isolates us from our own culture and from society at large. Any psychologist will attest to the psychological damage this estrangement can cause an individual. We may also reflect on the Buddha's first step on his Noble Eightfold Path: Right Understanding. To understand something clearly, we must be open and receptive to information about that thing from every direction. And we must drop our own beliefs and opinions in order to attain that receptive mind. Understanding dissipates fear, removes ignorance, and enhances wisdom. It also helps us solve a lot of real-world problems.

Chinese Chan: While Japanese-style Zen schools have been here in the West for many decades, Chinese Buddhism has been here mostly in temples that serve ethnic populations of Chinese immigrants. This has produced inherent barriers for Westerners - predominantly in the areas of language and custom. It's not surprising that most of the problems we've seen in Zen temples have arisen in the Japanese Schools, for these are still the schools that dominate the Western Zen landscape. Proportionally, however, Chinese and Korean Zen Buddhist sects have also had their share of problems.

As founder and Abbot of one of the oldest Chan temples in the United States, Hsu Yun temple, Grandmaster Jy Din expressed great disappointment that his temple attracted so few native Westerners. It was his belief that ethnic temples could never adequately serve the native Westerner due to the vast differences in culture and language unless Western culture could be allowed "in the door." Eager to make Chan available to all Westerners, in 1997 he created the Internet-based Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun (ZBOHY). In accordance with Master Jy Din's vision, how do we preserve the essence of Chinese Chan while adapting the many culturally based Chinese approaches to those that will appeal to, and work for, the Western student? There is obviously no simple answer, but learning from the mistakes of Zen teachers and sanghas that have come before us seems more than prudent, as does listening to the words of advice and warnings from our academic friends who have studied and interpreted the history and evolution of Buddhism as it's spread throughout the world. Since Buddhist terminology is central to understanding Buddhist practice and theology, we'll begin to explore this subject by starting there.

In the upcoming essays I'll touch on some of the more frequently used terms found in Buddhism and how these terms relate to the Chan path, in general, as well as to the institution of Chan. As we go, I'll try to differentiate between the Dharma thread that is the Path, and the human element that has defined the institution of Zen. I'll discuss, to the best of my ability, the role of a Master, how the position is defined and its roles in the propagation of Zen. And I will also look at the concept of lineage and its relation to Dharma Transmission.

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