Zen and the ‘West’: Situating the Tradition Within an Increasing Pattern of Cultural Exchange, Scientific Discourse, and ‘Modernization’

Aliya Renee Khan
Sep 25, 2018 · 12 min read

In reality, the idea of a “mono-ethnic” culture has never existed. An example can be seen in Japan: while government-endorsed nationalism has espoused the idea that Japan is a society of one race, in reality, the nation was organized from several previously disconnected, feudal states, each with their own unique traditions and cultures. Additionally, many Japanese today are descended from other east Asian groups, including Chinese and Koreans, and Japan as a whole hosts a multitude of ethnic communities, including Brazilians, Muslims, and others together making up a multiethnic society. This “mixing” of cultures, while it has been a theme throughout human history, has been especially prevalent in the last hundred years, in an age of globalization. Ideas can be transmitted faster than ever before, originally through telegrams and then newly-invented air travel, today through the the online communities and networks that transcend borders and cultural boundaries. Zen Buddhism has been caught in this cultural exchange: through interactions between the “eastern” and “western” world, Zen has asserted a position for itself that is reconcilable with Western traditions and even informs and transcends them. However, as Zen has been transmitted to Western countries such as America, much of the traditional doctrine and scripture informing the tradition has been lost in favor of a more lightweight, ‘practice from the comfort of your own home’ approach. Additionally, exposure to Western science, philosophy, and tradition has shaped traditional Zen in China and Japan. Whether or not any of these newly developed forms of Zen represent the true nature of Buddhism is a hotly debated question among Buddhist scholars: throughout history, Zen has adapted to new societies and cultures in order to facilitate its spread. Recently, as a result of contact with the west and a newly ‘globalized’ culture that is developing worldwide, Zen in both the “East” and in the “West” have made significant adjustments to both doctrine and practice in order to adapt to this new world order.

The most famous discussion of the development of Zen Buddhism in modern times took place in the form of a debate between Chinese scholar Hu Shih and Japanese D.T. Suzuki which occurred in the journal Philosophy East and West . The debate written in English with an American audience. Suzuki is commonly seen as a founding figure of Zen in America, as his cross-cultural work in the fifties was the main precursor to the establishment of Zen practice in the West. He was a renowned scholar and translator, and wrote several highly simplified essays and books on Zen which allowed the philosophy to easily integrate into modern Western society, in particular into the budding American counterculture movements which readily accepted a tradition that seemed devoid of the heavy doctrine and ritual of Christianity and which included a touch of Oriental mysticism. His approach to Zen can be summarized by his quote in Zen: The Spiritual Heritage of the East : “The basic idea of Zen is to get hold of the inner workings of the mind, and to do this in the directest possible way without resorting to anything external. Therefore, everything having a semblance of authority is shunned. An absolute faith is placed in one’s own being. Whatever authority there may be in Zen comes from within” (“Zen: the Spiritual Heritage of the East” 62–63). Through his writings, Suzuki asserted that “Zen must be understood from the inside, not from the outside,” (“Zen: A Reply to Hu Shih” 26) and that Zen transcended both philosophy and religion, existing as “the full and unmediated experience of life itself untainted by cultural accretions [...] the ultimate source of all religious teachings.” (Sharf 1). This contrasts with Hu Shih’s insistence that Zen must be situated into a particular historical context in order to be fully understood: in response to Suzuki’s writings, he states that “[a]ny man who takes this unhistorical and anti-historical position can never understand the Zen movement or the teaching of the great Zen masters. Nor can he hope to make Zen properly understood by the people of the East or West. The best he can do is to tell the world that Zen is Zen and is altogether beyond our logical comprehension.” (Hu Shih 4). As Zen philosophy has become more widely studied by Western scholars, many have begun to take a critical approach against the once widely-accepted Suzuki. Some scholars “find a philosophical distrust of the very notion of a “pure Zen experience.””, while others doubt “the legitimacy of packing the tradition in the idiom of modern Western philosophy, psychology, [and] religion.”(Bielefeldt 8). Despite this, the idea of Zen as a transcending, “pure,” and individualistic experience as taught by Suzuki seems to remain the popular belief in America today.

Zen in America, as introduced by Suzuki, must be understood as a product of the nationalistic agenda of Japan at the time. Carl Bielefeldt states that “Zen was in principle the most universal of truths [...] Yet, historically speaking, the discovery of this truth [...] was an Asian accomplishment. Though the work had begun with Zen in China, it had reached its full flowering in the traditional culture of Japan, with its aesthetics of "emptiness" expressed in flower arrangements, rock gardens, tea ceremony, and the like, and its ethics of "no thought" perfected in the prereflective, selfless action of the samurai” (Bielefeldt 6). Essentially, the form of Zen espoused by Suzuki was preached as ‘culturally superior’ both to other forms of Zen Buddhism, and to Western modes of thought. As Sharf summarizes, according to Suzuki, “Japanese Zen constitutes not only the essence of Buddhism, but also the essence of the Japanese spirit” (Sharf 27). Therefore, Suzuki is often criticized for introducing Zen in a sort of ‘reverse Orientalist’ manner, in which he frames the tradition as a superior alternative to Western religions, but doubts Westerners’ ability to actually achieve enlightenment or to practice the tradition properly. Prior to the time of Suzuki’s prominence, Japan was continuing a heavy period of modernization in an attempt to counteract encroaching Western powers. As a result, “ Japanese intellectuals, seeking to bring their nation into the "modern world," were naturally drawn to the European critique of institutional religion”(Sharf 4). This resulted in an attempt to purge Buddhism of its institutional practices: “The result came to be known in Japan as the New Buddhism (shin bukkyo), which was ‘modern’, ‘cosmopolitan’, ‘humanistic’, and ‘socially responsible’”(Sharf 4). Japanese Buddhists went so far as to cite Darwin’s theory of evolution in relation to Buddhism, emphasizing Japanese Buddhism as the most “evolutionarily advanced form of the Buddha’s teaching”(Sharf 5). Zen, then, is “touted as the very heart of spirituality, the essence of Japanese culture, and the key to the unique qualities of the Japanese race”(Sharf 6). It is this type of discourse and attitude towards Zen and towards the Western world that D.T. Suzuki was exposed to as a student, and while he may have had sincere intentions to help Westerners practice the Zen tradition, many modern-day scholars regard his teachings with some skepticism.

Despite this skepticism, popular Buddhism in the West has heavily developed with regard for Suzuki’s teachings. This type of modernist “New Buddhism” is the most appealing to Western masses because it essentially rephrases their own values of individualism and humanism into an exotic, oriental context. As Robert H. Sharf states, “those aspects of Zen most attractive to the Occident-the emphasis on spiritual experience and the devaluation of institutional forms- were derived in large part from Occidental sources. Like Narcissus, Western enthusiasts failed to recognize their own reflection in the mirror being held out to them” (Sharf 39). Zen in the West also lacks a heavy doctrinal structure which would have been unattractive to someone wanting to quickly pick up the tradition in their downtime. In practice, Zen in America has become commodified, with everything from “Zen retreats” to “Zen bamboo sheets” being sold. This could be seen as another adaptation of Zen to a new culture: American culture has always heavily relied on capitalism, and Zen has adjusted to this reliance in order to survive in a new society. However, many modern American Zen scholars are critical of this ‘popular Zen’ approach. David Loy, a Zen scholar and environmentalist, has been particularly critical of popular Zen, stating that “sooner or later our collective focus on endless growth - on ever-increasing production and consumption, which requires more exploitation of our natural resources - must inevitably run up against the limits of the planet [...] Today it’s not enough for us to meditate and pursue our own personal awakening; we also need to contemplate what this situation means, and how to respond” (Loy 3). Overall, he encourages a return to the doctrine of interdependency with regards to the Earth, and urges his readers to think of themselves as existing not as a separate ‘essence,’ but as part of an interdependent system. Perhaps as climate change and environmentalism become more relevant to modern-day discourse, Loy’s approach to Zen will become more prevalent.

In practice, Zen in the East has changed significantly in order to accommodate a ‘modernizing’ society worldwide. Most notably, Western-style scientific discourse and development have taken a ‘superior’ stance against traditional forms of religion, philosophy, and culture. Zen scholars and practitioners have aimed to counteract this ‘superiority’ by noting that while science is able to discover many truths about the world, it has no form of morality ingrained within in as religious practice does, and thus can create extremely destructive forces, as displayed in World Wars I and II. T’ai Hsu, a modernist Buddhist scholar, claim that many of the truths ‘discovered’ through science were actually present in Buddhist doctrine long before any scientific approach was developed. He states that “the truths contained in the Buddhist doctrine concerning the real nature of the Universe would greatly help Science and tend to bring about a union between Science and Buddhism,” (T’ai Hsu 43). He cites several examples of truths contained in Buddhist scripture that have since been ‘proven’ by scientific discourse. For example, the scientific model of the universe now involves a vast and infinite state within which stars and other astronomical bodies balanced and counterbalanced one another, with no definitive ‘center,’ as was previously believed. This is confirmed by a Buddhist Sutra which states that “Space is endless and the number of worlds is infinite, for all are in mutual counterpoise like a network of innumerable beads” and “The world is maintained on a ‘wind wheel’ (axis) which is suspended in a vast and empty space” (T’ai Hsu 44).

T’ai Hsu also noted the necessity of ‘appealing to the masses’ to enable the survival of any religion. He cites doctrine, stating that “The Saddharma Pudarika Sutra tells us that expedients may be used to convince the multitude, and in many of the other Sutras we find that every subject is fully discussed in a manner surpassing that of Science” (T’ai Hsu 49). He seems to imply that by relating and reconciling Buddhist tradition with Science, the tradition will be allowed to survive in a modern world that generally resists religion because of its associations with superstition, external powers, and obscure doctrinal tradition. His contemporary Sheng Yen, founder of the Dharma Drum Mountain school of practice in Taiwan, seems to agree with this idea, explaining that the difference between Buddhism and other religions seems to lie in the fact that “[a]lmost all non-Buddhist religions rely exclusively on faith in some external power, and subscribe to the belief that no human being could ever become or transcend god(s) [...] Buddhism, on the other hand, emphasizes diligent cultivation” (Yen 18). This type of ‘diligent cultivation’ meshes well with the individualistic culture that has developed in the modern world, and seems more accessible than a religious tradition that emphasizes external, supernatural beings and judgement in other lives.

Despite the fact that T’ai Hsu seeks to reconcile science with Zen Buddhism, he maintains the superiority of the Zen tradition over Science, stating that unlike Science, “The principles of Buddhism however may enable us to overcome the restriction of the ego and the law and enable us to enter the realm of perfect wisdom. Those who reach this enlightenment are like the blind man, whose vision is suddenly restored, so that he can see clearly and distinctly all that is around him” (T’ai Hsu 50). He likens the scientist to a blind man seeking to perfect his instruments rather than his inner vision, and thus depending too much on bodily senses (T’ai Hsu 50). Overall, Tai Hsu’s brand of Buddhism sees Science as a ‘vehicle for the masses,’ as Mahayana Buddhism was once considered to be, that will allow the tradition to continue in a way that lay people can integrate with their daily lives. However, in order to attain true Enlightenment and Truth, one must follow the seemingly ‘unscientific’ practices of Buddhism in order to “sweep away all the false conclusions at which Science has arrived” and “overcome ignorance and attain enlightenment” (T’ai Hsu 50).

This change in eastern practice of Buddhism, as suggested by Tai Hsu, can be clearly seen in the practices at the Dharma Drum Mountain. Sheng Yen, founder of the Chung-Hwa Institute of Buddhist Studies, embraces the paradigm model “To be fully established in the Chinese Buddhism tradition, but to have a global vision for Buddhism as a whole” (Yen 2). He studied Indian and Chinese Buddhism with the hopes of “making them relevant to a modern society, so people today will have the opportunity to understand, appreciate, and use the wisdom of the buddhadharma” (Yen 2). He was a strong believer that Chinese Buddhism in particular has the strength to “absorb, embrace, adapt, and adjust to the needs of people everywhere” (Yen 2). Practitioners at the Dharma Drum Mountain are encouraged to pursue their own research, as noted from the guest lecture given by Dr. Huimin, a disciple of Master Sheng Yen. In one of his two lectures, he presented particularly informative information about new forms of Zen death practices focused on a type of ‘natural burial’ which emphasized a return to the natural earth in death (Huimin). This type of ‘clean burial’ is very environment-friendly and emphasizes the idea of interconnectedness also espoused in the West by David Loy. Thus, Zen in both the East and the West seem to be converging to a focus on environment conservation and overall interconnectedness.

The discourses and cultural transmission between the East and the West influenced Zen in both areas. In the West, D.T. Suzuki initially introduced Zen as a non-philosophy, non-religion focused on pure, individual experience, ideas that were very appealing to the American scientific mind. In recent years, however, Suzuki has been analyzed critically and more attention has been paid to the ideas of Hu Shih, who criticized Suzuki’s ahistorical approach as lacking basis and being inexplicable and overly simplified in a logical sense. Suzuki, when seen as a product of his time and place, may have been promoting the heavily nationalistic and imperialistic agenda of the Japanese government at the time. This can be seen through his focus on Japanese Zen as the “full flowering” of the tradition, his eagerness to spread the tradition to Western areas, and his insistence that while Zen was a universal truth, it represented a distinctly Asian accomplishment. While modern Zen scholars in America have begun to criticize Suzuki’s approach, it still remains very integral to Zen practice in America today. In the East, Zen in both China and Japan has adapted in order to meet the needs of a ‘modernizing’ society. In Japan, the ‘modern’ form of Buddhism was developed as a result of Japan’s move towards swift modernization to counteract Western powers and to avoid being colonized. In China, Buddhist scholars such as Tai Hsu championed the idea that Buddhism not only is compatible with scientific discourse, its incorporation of morality allows it to transcend science itself. Oftentimes, science can oversimplify phenomena or rely too heavily on data to the point where it creates generalizing solutions that are difficult to apply to every society, culture, or individual. Therefore, the discourse involving Zen and science, particularly noting the lack of morality that science on its own possesses, is particularly informative in a modern age when we seem to hold scientific practice above all other forms of research. Zen has developed in both the East and the West as a result of historical circumstance, sociocultural factors, and academic discourse. Today, the Zen of both the East and West are beginning to take a turn towards environmentalism and other activist issues, as evidenced by the writings of David Loy and the lecture given by Venerable Dr. Huimin. Part of the Zen tradition throughout history has been its ability to adjust to new cultures, ages, and societies, and with the advent of globalization and the increasing interconnectedness of the world, it will be interesting to see where Zen finds its place.

Bielefeldt, Carl. “Zen Wars III: Revenge of the West.” Presentation at Lund University, Sweden, 1998.

Hu Shih. “Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism in China Its History and Method,” Philosophy East and West 3, no. 1 (April 1953): 3–24.

Loy, David. “Awakening in the Age of Climate Change,” Tricycle (Spring 2015): 1–7. Sharf, Robert H. “The Zen of Japanese Nationalism,” History of Religions 33, no. 1 (August 1993): 1–43.

Sheng Yen. The Dharma Drum Lineage of Chan Buddhism — Inheriting the Past and Inspiring the Future. Taiwan: Sheng Yen Education Foundation, 2010.
Suzuki, D.T. “Zen: A Reply to Hu Shih,” Philosophy East and West 3, no. 1 (April 1953): 25–46. Suzuki, D.T. “Zen, the Spiritual Heritage of the East,” in Selected Works of D.T. Suzuki, Volume III , 60–64. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016.

T’ai Hsu. “Science and Buddhism,” in His Eminence T’ai Hsu: Lectures in Buddhism . Paris:1928.

Venerable Dr. Huimin. “A Mindful Death: Buddhist Approaches to Dying in Taiwan.” Presentation at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, 2018.

Aliya Renee Khan

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Adventurer, vegetarian food enthusiast, lover of all things colorful. Advocate of sustainable and ethical consumption and believer in human resilience.