Zen and Cultural Preservation

I am an outsider to the Tibetan Buddhist world. But from where I stand, it appears that Tibetan Buddhism, in its various forms, is doing quite well in the US. I have met a few teachers, and quite a few students, and even visited a few groups, and almost across the board, I would say there is a seriousness about practice and a reverence for the teachings that goes very deep. It’s an impressive world. There are multiple (large and small) centers offering monastic-style practice and intensive retreat opportunities. In many cases, groups chant teachings in Tibetan; in some, they offer language classes so that students might better understand what they’re reading.

Of course, there have been reformers, like Chogyam Trungpa, who worked to find an authentically western expression of the tradition. Also, in many cases, teachers have chosen to downplay traditional preliminary practices for western students, letting them receive empowerments early on that might, in Tibet, have had a lot more prerequisites. I do not doubt that the question of how closely to adhere to the traditional practice and its cultural context is an active and pressing one almost everywhere. I would be surprised to hear otherwise.

But I sense (again, speaking very generally) that American Vajrayana students do not feel that the way Buddhism was practiced in Tibet was a sad, hollow shell of true Buddhism. They do not feel a sense of obligation to throw away all those aspects of the tradition that don’t easily fit into American culture; they don’t see their tradition as being broken; they don’t see themselves as the ones who will fix it. The students I have met hold their teachers — and other teachers of similar backgrounds — in the highest regard. They seem to want to do it the way their teachers did it, and if not that, they want to at least understand what it is that their teachers passed through to be who they are. It seems, from the outside, like a very respectful world.

In contrast, I’ve noticed, especially recently, that one of the defining characteristics of Zen culture is a tendency to speak negatively about Zen. It’s built in. It’s fashionable. I cannot count how many conversations I’ve heard in Japan in which priests lament the state of the tradition, of the priesthood, of the monasteries. Someone I know once asked her teacher (a very high-ranking and respected Japanese monk in his own right, a teacher of teachers), “Are there any Zen masters in Japan?” He thought about it and replied, “No, I guess not. Well, maybe that guy in…. No, well, no. Maybe not right now.” Older monks love to talk about how the young monks just don’t get it, and the young monks can see that a lot of the old monks seem to be all talk and no action*. Everyone knows that the monastic standards have gone lax — again, there are exceptions, but one doesn’t have to look far to find an authorized training monastery that is a monastery in name only, where even zazen practice is maintained at only the most basic, basic level (once a day, maybe).

If you’re new to Zen, this may all sound a bit shocking (or just sad), but it goes way, way back. 800 years ago, Dōgen (the founder of the Soto school in Japan) spent a good amount of ink complaining about how Buddhism has gone down the drain, how the people in authority have no idea what they’re talking about. Of course, Dōgen believed that the teachings he had received from his teacher, at least, were authentic; he just felt that he was more or less alone in what he was carrying.

Some of these complaints about Japanese Zen are absolutely real — I am deeply pessimistic about the trends I see here. But some of this way of talking is also cultural — in a country where self-deprecation is as fundamental as gravity, one shouldn’t be surprised that so few people are prepared to say, “This is the real deal.” I suspect that in his time, a lot of Dōgen’s enemies despised him not for what he was teaching, but for the unapologetic confidence with which he taught it.

In the West we see this too, but it’s a little different. In Japan, priests commiserate about the decay of Zen in Japan; in the West, priests commiserate about the decay of Zen in… Japan.

Many of the teachers who came to the West from Japan were fed up with the state of things in their home country, both within the tradition itself and within the bureaucracy-heavy institutions being built up around it. They personally knew great teachers, but they could see that there were few in line to replace them. So when they made their way across the ocean, they told students that they had the opportunity (in the land of opportunity) to establish something pure, something authentic. There was even talk of how this newly-established, pure practice might turn around and re-inspire Buddhism in Japan. This was big thinking.

And for the record, I love that they held such huge aspirations. As with Dōgen, we can’t separate out that confidence and that sincerity from what they actually accomplished, which is remarkable. But the downside is that many people heard this talk and just took their teachers’ word for it that Buddhism in Japan had gone down the drain, or that it wasn’t relevant anymore. So western practitioners were handed — and embraced — the rather lofty challenge of fixing Zen Buddhism, either because it was fundamentally broken, or because it was too burdened by Asian cultural baggage to be of any use in the West.

I suspect that a major reason that Vajrayana practitioners embrace the Tibetan-ness of Tibetan Buddhism is that there is a sense of protection, a desire to preserve not just the Buddhist tradition of that culture, but also the culture itself; it also helps that Tibetan culture as a whole seems to be closely intertwined with Buddhism, going so far as to establish a role like that of the Dalai Lama that wields not just spiritual, but also political, authority. Preserving Tibetan Buddhism is a way of supporting and preserving a displaced culture, and that’s appealing.

Zen in the West doesn’t tap into that impulse to preserve — after all, Japanese culture is doing just fine on its own. The feeling, for years, has been that true Zen has been buried under Japanese cultural baggage, and we need to free it (“it” usually being zazen). There are dozens of teachers in the US who take it as a badge of honor that they don’t wear robes, or that they don’t do the ceremonies, or that they don’t put on airs, sitting on the high seat. They’re free from all that “Japanese” stuff. And the same attitudes are common among those who frequent Zen centers. I knew one man in Alaska who was genuinely concerned that the ceremonies we performed were designed to make him feel “less than” his Japanese counterparts, as part of an agenda to suggest that Asians are innately more spiritual. I suspect that his concerns, which he was able to describe very clearly, are actually common in Western Zen, even if they are not always so plainly articulated.

I want to propose, however, that American Zen, like American Vajrayana, can take refuge in this culture-preserving mind. It’s available, and in our evolution, I think it’s important. But I also want to clarify that the culture to be preserved is not Japanese culture — it’s Zen culture.

The fact is that even Japanese people, as a whole, know very little about Zen culture. Non-Japanese often feel so overwhelmingly out of place in a Japanese monastery that they cannot see that Japanese people, too, are completely out of their element. They don’t know what to do. They don’t know how to stand, how to sit, how to behave. It’s a new world for them.

Of course, much of Zen culture in Japan is informed by Japanese norms. For example, I would say that one aspect of what I’m calling Zen culture is a refined formality. In monasteries, people avoid casual speech; Dōgen went so far as to insist that monks only refer to vegetables using honorifics. Some of the shape that formality takes in Japan is, naturally, very Japanese — there is a sense, from samurai movies and centuries-old literature about how one addresses those in power, about how to speak and sit and gesture in a very formal way, and some of that certainly enters the monastery. But monastery formality is its own thing. Likewise, the insistence on very specific physicality (hold your hands like this, stand with your feet like so, and on and on) has some parallels in other aspects of Japanese culture (tea ceremony is an obvious example), but I have never seen a version as complete as what one finds in a temple. Each individual accepts responsibility for participating in, and thereby creating, a very specific atmosphere, one you won’t find anywhere else.

It can be difficult to sort all this out. I’ve known non-Japanese who came here and got it all wrong. They went home insisting, “This is how they do it in Zen temples,” when in fact, that’s just how Japanese people sit. Or the reverse — they say, “Oh, that’s just Japanese culture,” when what they saw was something specific to one temple, one lineage. It takes time and patience and humility to sift through these kinds of questions.

But that is exactly what we — especially those who represent a lineage — have been charged with doing. We can bring that beautiful formality into Zen in America. It need not be Japanese at all. We can explore the full depths of what it is to create a group practice, that sense of synchronicity, of singular movement. It need not be Japanese. Even now, it’s not. There is a language spoken by people who practice in a traditional way, but it’s a language of the body, a language of gesture, a language of delicacy and fierceness and “just so.” It is not the Japanese language.

It’s just Zen.

*For an excellent discussion of the current state of Buddhism in Japan and its potential directions, please take a look at the lecture by Noriyuki Ueda in the most recent edition of Dharma Eye. Click here for the pdf.