Is Western Buddhism Neutered? Part III – The Zen Fallacy

From William’s “Toward a Social History of Zen”

Through the study of…prayer temples and parish temples, this book proposes a three part explanation for the growth of Soto Zen Sect…namely the ability of Soto Zen priest to attend to the needs of both the dead and the living while successfully negotiating government directives.

To arrive at this conclusion, Buddhism is treated, first and foremost, as a religion (a complex of institutions, doctrines and rituals) not a philosophy. “Lived religion” in contrast to a timeless philosophy, compels us to examine the interrelations among religious lives of actual persons…[through] popular literature, ritual manuals, villager’s diaries, government records and stone markers…in a sense this prioritizes the study of Buddhists rather than Buddhism….it is the study of people’s lives and the ideas that inform them.

So far, a great and interesting book. Some of comments brought up in its introduction do affect the way that I think most of us view Buddhism – Zen in particular and Western Zen even more so. We gather much of what we know from the Great Zen Masters as well as from the koan collections. We read sutras and meditate faithfully but with all of this we have succeeded in ungrounding our practice. Our practice comes from the lofty attributes of these great Master’s deeds and thoughts but what is being, seemingly, proven is that this is not the base that Buddhism should sit upon…
Nor should it sit primarily upon the Buddha and his teachings. It is based on us and on how we (in the past as well as present) adapt those teachings to our daily lives.

However, the people at the center of this study are not exalted monks recorded in the annals of Zen History…Accounts of great Zen Masters and their doctrines have often been strung together and then published as a History of Zen _ an approach labeled as the “String of Pearls Fallacy”. Without reference to non monastic traditions and popular practices, these studies masquerade as a full representation of Zen history.

This “string of pearls” fallacy extends far into Western and Modern Zen. We, for the most part, take the works of the “Masters” as our primary resource into the study and practice of Zen as well as Buddhism in general, and that is all. We mark the works of Dogen, Huineng as supremely inspired and important works of transcendence and then extend that to the current “Masters”. We extol the Roshi and Zen Master ideal to the point that we are creating our own (from Shunryu Suzuki and Kapleau to Wilber and Shinzen Young). Nothing is wrong with the content of the teaching but the emphasis placed on them is unilateral and over-inflated. For the most part, Buddhism in Asian countries have moved past this idolization while here in the West, most sanghas (apart from a few, I suppose Engaged Buddhism begins to move toward this) do not actively engage the community. The modern history of Zen is being written through the words of a few elite individuals. Williams suggests that we…

examine the other side of Zen – the lives of ordinary clerics and lay-people – the “little people”…which challenges some of the traditional perspectives in the study of Buddhism…aiming to shift our attention from an exclusive focus on outstanding, exceptional religious individuals and their ideologies to the daily practices of the majority of ordinary Japanese Buddhists. I am not suggesting that doctrinal dimensions of religion, or its exemplary figures, are of not importance, but rather that we question our tendency to place them at the center of what constitutes the Buddhist tradition.

This is where, I think, Western Buddhism fails and fails horribly. We tend to disregard the cultural aspects of Buddhism – the Buddhism of the lay-person and the householder. Even the Western Buddhism that we consider to be “connected” to Buddhism’s past (monastics, Lay-Ordained) only attach to the larger, obtuse doctrinal writings and philosophical expositions. That isn’t culture. Well, it is culture but it is a very obscure and polished version of a very vibrant and human culture and it is what we are building the Western Tradition upon. Not upon the vibrant and human versions of Buddhist culture but the obscure and polished. This has lead to the creation of the archetypal “virtuously arrogant” American monk that sneers at poor state of Buddhism in other countries versus the “pure” version presented (or re-born) here. This has stemmed (at least I think so) from a disconnect between Western Zen and the standard “from the trenches” Zen practice and purpose.

…to suggest that they [the Zen Masters] or their doctrinal formulations are central to the Buddhist religion, or that the broader social contexts in which they existed is irrelevant, is to seriously misconstrue not only the Soto Zen tradition, but perhaps the Buddhist tradition in general…

Amen, brother.

5 thoughts on “Is Western Buddhism Neutered? Part III – The Zen Fallacy

  1. Two things.

    First. Check out this "in the trenches" blog This Is Not A Zafu

    Secondly, from a very worthwhile scholar of both Nietzsche and Dogen, Joan Stambaugh in her "Nietzsche's Thought of the Eternal Return":

    "Nietzsche did not arrive at the thought of Eternal Return through a study of Eastern thinking, but rather through his own experience. Thus the most appropriate way to understand his thought is to think about it in its own terms, and those are Western terms. There is no reason why Western thinkers should not come grips with this problem in terms of their own tradition." (p.4).

  2. I am working on a play somewhat parodying Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" related to this issue of Buddhism (qua doctrines and ecclesiastical structure) coming to the West. I'm calling it "Waiting for Bodhi." I am wary of a kind of populist approach to these things though. G.W.F. Hegel's "Who Thinks Abstractly" and his critique of common-sense abstraction (Nietzsche's "herd mentality") are kind of at the heart of it, and I think the originality of Buddha's everywhere in terms of both compassion and wisdom.

  3. "G.W.F. Hegel's "Who Thinks Abstractly?" and his critique of common-sense abstraction (Nietzsche's "herd mentality") are kind of at the heart of it, and I think the originality of Buddha's everywhere in terms of both compassion and wisdom."

    "Common-sense" abstraction as opposed to the more conventional attribution of abstraction to academic and otherwise educated people. Hegel's response to the question "who thinks abstract?" is "the uneducated, not the educated."

    We have to remember that with the exception of Hui Neng and some other figures in the Pali canon, most prominent figures of Zen and Buddhism in general were either directly from or just outside the aristocracy of their time and place, the Buddha especially. However, I think we are led astray if we chase after some hitherto repressed "householder/everyday buddhism" as something very different from what does appear in the written and orally transmitted teachings/stories. There is no authentically "everyday" form of Buddhism, and it would be absurd not to view the already given teachings as speaking to everyday life.

    We should recognize a form of this "talk in plain speak" attitude in the appeals many conservatives and hicks make to the common-sense appeal of creationism and intelligent design (or the common-sense appeal many liberals feel comfortable making to 'the market'). Mind you, those two bits in particular are beside the point. The point is in the way that "us" vs. "them" rhetoric appears even when we seem to be talking about universality and equality and the close ties it has with other forms of reductive thinking.

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