Archive for June, 2012

James Atlas’s piece “Buddhists’ Delight” in the Opinion section of this week’s New York Times (6/17/12) doesn’t directly deal with Zen, but relates to a lot of the themes that come up in pop culture depictions of  Zen in the U.S. Atlas recounts his own experiences with Buddhist meditation, discusses the larger phenomenon of American Buddhist converts, and touches on scientific studies of mindfulness meditation as well as the modern movement of Engaged Buddhism.

I was intrigued by Atlas’s citation of Dr. Paul D. Numrich’s conjecture that there might now be as many Buddhists as Muslims in the U.S. In fact, a Pew Forum survey from 2007 suggests that there might be more Buddhists than Muslims: it gives the percentage of Buddhists in the U.S. as 0.7%, and the percentage of Muslims as 0.6%. However, Atlas also notes that many of these self-identified Buddhists are what Thomas Tweed labels “nightstand Buddhists,” i.e. people who have read books about Buddhism, but who do not participate in Buddhist communities or engage in Buddhist ritual practices. This makes it more difficult to parse statistics such as those the Pew Forum reports. Even if there are (or were) more Buddhists than Muslims in the U.S., what does this mean in terms of religious communities and public religiosity? Nightstand Buddhists might also identify as members of other religious traditions, especially (in the U.S.) Christianity and Judaism, or might not see their Buddhist identity as “religious,” but rather “spiritual” or “philosophical.”

In classrooms, online, and in popular books on Buddhism, I frequently encounter this idea that Buddhism isn’t really “religious.” Some Buddhists and non-Buddhists in America and Asia reject Buddhism’s religiosity because they don’t see it as possessing the dogma, ritualism, and superhuman powers that they associate with religions. Buddhism seems more empirical, rational, or scientific than religion does. I think this underlies some of the scientific studies on Buddhist meditation that Atlas mentions in the article. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin and U.C.L.A. have studied how Buddhist meditation can change the brain’s neural pathways or work as cognitive therapy. In 2011 UCLA held the symposium “Buddhism and Neuroscience: a Discussion on Attention, Mental Flexibility and Compassion” to consider similar issues.

While cognitive science theory can be useful explanatory tool for understanding religion, these studies run the risk of reducing Buddhism to meditation and furthering the idea that Buddhism isn’t really “religious.” Many people already see Buddhist meditation, like Hindu yoga, as a kind of therapeutic exercise rather than a religious practice. These people aren’t wrong — Buddhism, like all religions, has changed significantly throughout its history, and continues to do so — but this view ignores what most Buddhists have done throughout the religion’s history, as well as the orientalist underpinnings of American Buddhism.

In the same book where he coins the term “nightstand Buddhist” (The American Encounter with Buddhism, 1844-1912) Thomas Tweed describes the introduction of Buddhism to Europe and America. 19th-century Europeans and Americans got interested in Buddhism for different reasons: some embraced its esoteric and “occult” aspects, while others saw it as conforming to the Enlightenment values of rationality and empiricism. Both ways of looking at Buddhism have continued in the U.S., and it is the latter view of Buddhism as rational or science-compatible that persists in these cognitive science experiments. The same Victorians who embraced Buddhist rationality were horrified to discover what Buddhists were actually doing in Asia, namely worshipping the Buddha and other deities, performing rituals, and in most cases not paying much attention to the doctrinal content of Buddhist scriptures. This led to a narrative of degeneration, according to which the Buddha’s eminently reasonable teachings were corrupted by later followers to varying degrees. It was up to these European and American scholars to revive “true Buddhism.” I’ve seen American Buddhist converts express dismay at the devotional Buddhism practiced in East Asia because it doesn’t look anything like the “true Buddhism” they encountered in the U.S. My point is not that American Buddhism is “inauthentic,” but that American Buddhists often ignore the history of their religion, especially the imperialist/colonialist forces that shaped it.

“Buddhists’ Delight” outlines the various reasons for Americans’ interest in Buddhism, from the “mind-body obsession” to the pressures of modern urban life, to global concerns such as the environment, human rights, and public health. As someone who studies Buddhism from an academic perspective, I’d like to see these interests extend to the historical and cultural forces that have shaped American Buddhism.



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In my Zen news feed this past week there was an item about High School Musical star and teen heartthrob Zac Efron being spotted with bags from Z.E.N.: Zero Effort Nutrition. This L.A.-based company delivers healthy food to those who have money but lack time. Celebrities are a target, and Z.E.N.’s website boasts testimonials from such luminaries as Shannon Tweed, Mary Louise Parker, Jamie Kennedy, assorted Kardashians, and, of course, Zac Efron.

Z.E.N. makes no mention of Zen Buddhism on its website, but it still clearly capitalizes on the association of Zen with effortlessness, as well as Zen’s connotations of healthfulness, calm, and natural/organic foods. “Zero Effort” here refers to not planning one’s diet, not having to cook, and watching “excess” weight melt away. This effortlessness is only possible if one has money to spend, as the program runs around $50.00/day. Ultimately the effort is deferred onto the people who design the meal plans and prepare the food.

It’s easy to snark on this unbridled capitalist appropriation of Zen, but Zen Buddhists have historically been enmeshed in economic realities, with monks and nuns having to cultivate relationships with government officials and wealthy patrons. Z.E.N. Foods isn’t the same thing as monks seeking patronage, but the point is that not all Zen Buddhists are, as is sometimes imagined, above financial concerns or averse to making money.

With Z.E.N. Foods, what I’m more interested in anyway is the idea of Zen being associated with effortlessness. From the earliest centuries of Zen history, Zen monks have disagreed about the role of effort in Zen practice. Zen is based on the idea that everyone is already a buddha, and all you have to do to be enlightened is realize you’re already enlightened. To some Zen monks, such as the 12th-century Chinese monk Dahui Zonggao, it was still important to expend effort in attaining that realization. To other Zen monks, effort implied a distinction between enlightenment and delusion that they saw as contradicting Zen teachings. For these monks, who primarily belonged to the Caodong lineage (Soto in Japanese), refraining from effort was the key to realizing one’s innate buddhahood. I highly doubt that the purveyors of Z.E.N. Foods have any idea about the attitudes toward effort in different forms of Zen, but their association of Zen with effortlessness reflects (in some ways) the triumph of the Caodong/Soto view of effort in representations of Zen in American pop culture.

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Zen Dog Care

Koans are an important genre of Zen literature that relate (usually legendary) encounters between Zen masters and their students. They often feature statements or actions that defy logical explanations, and are used as meditation tools to drive students’ minds beyond reliance on language and reason to a realization of their innate buddhahood. One of the most famous Zen koans is the exchange, “Does a dog have buddha nature?” “No!” This “No!” is attributed to the Chinese Zen (Chan) master Zhaozhou, and became the core of koan meditation for Dahui Zonggao, who advocated focusing on a single word or phrase in the koan. This particular exchange about a dog’s buddha nature works as a koan because the “No!” is unexpected: according to Zen doctrine, all sentient beings — dogs included — possessed buddha nature, meaning that all beings are already buddhas, most of us just don’t know it. This subversion of Zen doctrine is what makes the exchange an effective koan, as the meditator cannot rely on textual study or reason to explain the answer.

Dogs may not have buddha nature, but they do have plenty of Zen products to keep them calm and clean.

Both Cranimals’s Zendog calming biscuits and Zenpuppy dog treats promise to calm “wild, crazy, unruly dogs.” Not only do these products rely on the association of Zen and calmness, they also tie into the image of Zen as in touch with nature: the Zendog biscuits are certified organic, while the Zenpuppy treats boast 14 herbs and botanicals. Each package shows a dog in seated meditation, or zazen, with the Zendog even sitting on a culinary approximation of a lotus throne.

After Fido enjoys a calming biscuit, he can luxuriate in a Zen bath:

Carma Critta’s Zen Shampoo for Dogs and ZenSoaps’s Cedarwood Anise Dog Shampoo are also all-natural products, but aside from the image of the dog in a robe doing zazen on the ZenSoaps bottle, there are no references to the shampoos having a calming effect on dogs. Zen here is shorthand for “natural” or “organic.”

Nature was a prominent theme in premodern Chinese and Japanese art, including works by Zen monks, but the concepts of “natural” and “organic” that these dog products use are modern ones. The packaging nods to Zen practice, but the use of the term “Zen” is based on the decontextualized Zen that we often see in consumer products.

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I’ve seen Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies, and the Truth about Reality (Wisdom Publications, 2003) at several bookstores alongside his other titles on Zen, and was curious about what made his version of Zen hardcore. The title alludes to Warner’s background in punk bands, but he also uses it to describe his approach to Zen that emphasizes the boredom and ordinariness of most Zen practice. Hardcore Zen is Zen stripped to its core, at least as Warner defines it.

Hardcore Zen recounts Warner’s punk rock youth, his encounter with Zen at Kent State University, and his move to Japan, where he gets a job working on the TV show Ultraman. As the book goes on, the focus shifts more to the teachings and practice of Zen, including chapters on disturbing meditation experiences, reincarnation, morality, drugs, and dharma transmission from teacher to student. The punk rock and monster movies of the title are part of Warner’s life experiences, but aside from setting the book’s tone to “irreverent,” there isn’t much analysis of how they relate to Zen.

In Japan, Warner studied with a Soto Zen master named Gudo Nishijima and eventually received dharma transmission from him. Soto Zen is one of the two main branches of Zen in Japan (the other is Rinzai). I found Warner’s descriptions of his Soto Zen practice to be the most compelling parts of the book. He writes of the boredom, frustration, depression, and euphoria that go along with seated meditation (zazen) and challenges the view that Zen is all about the enlightenment experience of satori. In doing so, he offers an alternative to the satori-centric description of Zen that comes from modern Rinzai writers such as D.T. Suzuki and Philip Kapleau, author of The Three Pillars of Zen.

Some of the provocateur trappings of Hardcore Zen are kind of obnoxious, from the photo of the toilet on the cover to the punk rock patois Warner adopts. We get it, this isn’t your grandmother’s Zen memoir. There are some interesting parallels between punk and Zen, though, in that both claimed authenticity in the face of mainstream artificiality, but ultimately became part of the mainstream (or were never separate from it in the first place).

Warner’s take on Zen, and Buddhism in general, is pretty standard as far as modern Western interpretations go. He sees the Buddha as a modern philosopher whose empirical, rational ideas were corrupted by centuries of superstition and ritual: “Gautama Buddha was able to see through the façade of religious organizations and must certainly have realized that his simple method of meditation ran a serious risk of being turned into something cheap and shoddy by association with such nonsense” (p. 159).

Like most religious practitioners, Warner is interested in authenticity: what is real Zen, real Buddhism, reality as a whole? He also claims to have some answers to these questions, which justifies the book project. As someone who studies Buddhism in a university, I was particularly interested in an accusation Warner makes on page 8: “it’s hard to find a group of people who misunderstand Buddhism more thoroughly than Buddhist scholars.” I have no problem with the criticism that I don’t have the same understanding of Buddhism that a practitioner does, because these are different kinds of knowledge. Even so, the question of authenticity arises: who says what Zen is, the scholar or the practitioner? Warner claims that Zen is “resolutely anti-sexist” (p. 35) and that “Buddha was emphatic that women were just as capable as men of reaching enlightenment” (p. 36). Though Warner is free to understand “true Zen” as anti-sexist, I cannot ignore the many examples from Zen history that show it has not always been that way. My job is to examine what Buddhism has been in different cultural and historical contexts, which can conflict with believers/practitioners’ views of their own tradition.

Hardcore Zen is not a good place to look for Zen history, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s a modern Western interpretation of Soto Zen doctrine and practice that might appeal to people who are suspicious of religion in general and suspicious of the New Age aura surrounding a lot of Western Buddhism in particular.

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