Zen beyond Japanese culture – is it possible?

The question we as western Zen students have to ask: Can zen exist outside of Japanese culturalism and lineages?

This begs the question then: Can actual zen be distilled from the existing Zen in Japan that we know through the current lineages?

This question is huge, and many such as the likes of Jiyu Kennett of Shasta Abbey set out to do just that. She is clearly qualified, having studied and trained with the Soto-shu in Japan. She westernized the robes, put music to the ceremonial chanting, and even the ceremonies were westernized.  Yet, for all of her work, it flopped.


My first inclination in answering this question is that Westerners that seek Zen, already have had negative religious experiences with Christian churches. In this, they demand that Zen cannot be anything like what they experienced. What they want is an Authentic Japanese experience without actually having to go to Japan.

This then begs yet another question: Is then western Zen just a show?  It is now Spiritual entertainment?  

The second question is: Are the Western Zen seekers willing to really learn Japanese culture, the language, and customs?  Or it is just Live Action Role Playing, as in attending a weekend Lord of the Rings event where people dress up as elves and pretend to be in Rivendale.

Secondly, Zen coming out of Japan is very messy. The Meiji Restoration and WW2 did a lot to change the face of Zen in Japan. The Meiji restoration essentially ended the Zen Monk, turning all of the temples into family holdings. Shinto became the National religion while Tendai only allowed to administer the Bodhisattva vows. WW2 saw the rise of the Nationalism in where meny of the Zen temple holders spurred on the war with the west in hopes of rebuilding a Samurai-controlled nation. They failed with the surrender to the west, and the west came in and smashed what was left of that nationalism, though some of these Zen nationalists escaped to the west.

Many Zen students are now bypassing Japanese Zen and looking directly at Ch’an (Chinese Zen) and take to the Old Zen Masters as Authentic arbitrators of Zen that are infallible. Yet, what is found is that the translated works of these old Zen masters greatly vary in the context of what is being said, and a lot of different things are being said. In this, to discern what is Zen and what is not Zen from these translations becomes difficult if not contradictory.

Some like myself have turned to the Mahayana Canon (the body of Mahayana Sutras found in China) to refract an original Zen, given that the old Zen masters were well studied of the Sutras and much of what they said is reflective of the Mahayana sutras. Again, we are faced with not only translational issues but the aspect that some of the Chinese created Sutras are apocryphal, such as the Surangama Sutra and Heart Sutra. Both of these Sutras were widely published in old China and had a huge impact on the development of Ch’an. Even in those days, these Chinese created sutras were known to be non-authentic by the monks yet it was still taught as the teachings of Buddha. Why?

My only speculation is that since these questionable sutras have no original Sanskrit, then it was not considered blasphemy to tinker with them, to simply rewrite, edit and replace passages as one needs.  Researchers such as Ron Epstein have documented 28 different versions of the Surangama Sutra that show the tinkering over the decades.

This tinkering is no different than what has gone on in the Christian Church, where the Bible we know today has been highly edited, beautified, rewritten, and commenced upon by the church. Nobody would claim that anything in the bible is authentic to the times in which letters and scriptures were penned, though they will declare that the bible is ‘the word of God’ so make of that what you will.

So, then can an Authentic Zen be extracted out of the Mahayana Sutra?  I would say Yes, though you have a pure Zen outside of cultural display and context. 

There actually exists a Western Culture, though over the last few decades has been repressed by popular media, to claim that the Western culture is inherently racist, and patriarchal. In this light, trying to port Zen to a western cultural context is not-vogue, however, the multi-cultural context is vogue and those who engage in such are seen as ‘with it’, so the Japanism in Western Zen centers stays, even though what they do there is not done in Japan.

The above statement then begs the question: Are we learning Zen or Western Japanism? Japanese Nationalism? Or is it just LARPing (Live Action Role Playing) going on?

People tell me that learning Zen is like learning Karate. It’s about the discipline they say. Yet, we know that all of the Asian martial arts are just shows, when it comes to actual combat none of them hold up. Well, discipline can be learned outside of a Zen …the US Army comes to mind as a place, as do team sports, college studies programs, and even seminary training. So, the aspect of Zen as a means to learn discipline simply does not hold up. 

In my view, Zen is a romantic image. One where westerners see the temples and the Monks that sit in the halls and desire to live a peaceful life, free of the day-to-day stress of the world. And perhaps this all most people ever want, a temporary retreat from modern life  – to let go of the worldly ways if but for a moment, and to simply exist.  And, if that is all that Zen in the west becomes, then perhaps that is enough.

Many commercial businesses have taken to the ‘spiritual get-a-way’ model with no-talk spa’s, isolation retreats, single-gender ‘safe-space’ gyms, serene settings, and environments. Zen today simply becomes a business model, to provide a Japanese-style‘safe-space’ in where people can dress up as ancient Japanese monks and play as one.

Now all of what I have written then begs the final question: Is Japanese (and Chinese Ch’an) Zen anything more than escapism to the non-Asian Westerner?

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Non-aligned Zen Teacher currently living in Las Vegas, Nevada USA Youtube Channel Website

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