Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Japanese Zen Culture, and American Zen Culture

I wanted to write a bit on this piece I found by Koun Franz on Zen Culture, from my perspective as a guy who's been doing Rinzai Zen practice for more than a couple of decades or so now, and as a guy who's practiced at temples in China, Japan, and the US, although not regularly outside of the US.

I don't think Franz's piece is necessarily wrong, but rather that it's self referential in kind of a way.  The blog Speculative Non-Buddhism might have more to say about this topic from their perspective than I would (but see self-referentiality with respect to them as well.)

Franz writes:

... 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.

First of all, the * in the quoted text references a piece by Noriyuki Ueda-san on Zen in Japan (page 8).   I will make a few comments about that piece, too.  But, as I live in America, and Sweeping Zen has a wish to be somewhat authoritative in on-line Zen matters, I'll deal with them first.

There's a tendency amongst American Sōtō Zen oshos and practitioners to view Sōtō Zen as the Zen and Dōgen as the guy, the authority from which argument can be justified.  It's kind of strange from my vantage point, because from that vantage point Dōgen is not separate from the Buddha or the ten thousand things.  Dōgen was a pretty brilliant guy, but a lot of people want to make an icon out of him it seems to me.

Moreover,  when it comes to the bit about how "Dōgen's enemies despised him not for what he was teaching..." this needs a bit of unpacking because it's a bit oblivious to history.  Dōgen lived during the Kamakura shogunate.  The "official" Buddhism during that period was originally Tendai Buddhism, but Shingon Buddhism was also in Japan for quite a while as well.  However, as Wikipedia helpfully points out, during the Kamakura period other schools started to flourish as well, and the Zen schools arose in part from the Tendai school. 

Moreover, the Tendai school during this time was politically connected to the Shogunate, so naturally Dōgen (as well as Nichiren) wouldn't fare well challenging the status quo, especially, in Dōgen's case, because Zen would challenge the ecosystem wherein Tendai Buddhism was accommodationist with respect to Shinto.  Which is another way of saying it wasn't Dōgen's confidence that was the issue,  but rather the status quo, and Dōgen being the "nail that sticks out."

Next though, let's get to the main point of the quoted text: Is Japanese Zen "in decline?"  I don't know about Soto Zen, other than to say that at Sengakuji, they only have sitting for lay people once a month, and if you go to Sengakuji during a weekday, you'll find that most of the visitors are older people (because, duh, people are working during the day generally).  I'm also told it's a place to go for school field trips. Yet if you go during a weekend, you'll find that yes, there are younger people there. 

(A similar dynamic exists in Chinese temples whether they're more Pure Land or more Zen, though I don't know if schools have field trips to them; I sort of doubt they do.)

As for my recent visit to Engakuji, as I wrote elsewhere,  there were scores of practitioners, many beginners on the Sunday on which I visited.   That temples like Engakuji are also tourist meccas makes it somewhat wrong to me to conclude that Rinzai Zen is dying out in Japan faster than the decline of population of Japan in general (though that's a serious issue.)

And to me, the very question of the "decline of Zen in Japan" is irrelevant.  Why oh why, in a practice which purports to be one "not founded on words and letters, but pointing directly to one's mind," is so much verbiage spent on "whether they're doing it well," and "is it in decline?"  It seems to me to go there in thought is to self-confirm the decline itself! 

Moreover, even though the narrative of Zen in America as a reboot of "real" Japanese Zen, was definitely a narrative that was used,  it seems to have been problematic to even make that narrative as it was a bit of a case of adding another head to one's own.

I don't entirely disagree with Franz, but I would offer that the way Rinzai Zen has evolved in Japan (and its presence in Korea as well) has been "tuned" so that this non-reliance on words and letters and direct pointing to the mind is kind of baked into the practices in my experience, despite the variations from temple to temple and school to school.

Don't get me wrong; there are indeed mediocre oshos in Zen schools, and there are still the real history of scandals in the US, especially in Rinzai Zen in the US.  But that doesn't indicate a "decline of Zen practice" in either Japan or the US. (For some reason, probably because it's an example of what I'm trying to point out, but for whatever reason I want to note that although I didn't understand the teisho given at Engakuji except for words here and there, the osho who gave it gave it in such a way that various sections of it were chanted, and done with great energy.)

With regard to Ueda-san's piece, yes, there's such a thing as Funeral Buddhism in Japan, and because of Funeral Buddhism, there's a critical view of Japanese Buddhist clergy amongst Japanese.  That is definitely true.  But that's more an issue with Japanese culture than Japanese Buddhism actually.  There is so much that Japanese culture has evolved through that they've kind of forgotten how Japanese Buddhism - and Japanese Zen Buddhism in particular informs their culture.  And in those areas I'd cite: 

  • The way Japanese use personal space - and space in general - compared to other cultures
  • The way in which Japanese language tends to avoidance of conflict, and promotion of the "flow" of conversation
  • The continued existence of Japanese arts related to Zen

But at the same time there have been trends in their culture that have stifled growth (via excessive bureaucracy)  and trivialized aspects about life.  There's a place for trivializing aspects of life, of course.   But the kind of thing I'm trying to talk about here you can see at Sengakuji: Lord Asano's death was avenged by having his antagonist's head placed upon his grave at Sengakuji.  In the museum you can see the receipt they got for giving back his head.   Even then, Japanese culture required receipts for such things. 

In addition, I should note that Funeral Buddhism in Japan is closely tied to the Confucian notions of family;  families having ancestral burial grounds going back ten generations is not unheard of, to say the least, so that kind of bakes in a necessity of Funeral Buddhism culturally.

And finally, all of that said, we in America, whether convert Buddhist or Buddhists by ethnic heritage have our own problems, and one answer to those problems is to transmit Buddhism with and without words in our daily lives.

It's very difficult as Japanese might say, but still must be attempted because of endemic suffering.

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