a collaborative genealogy of spirituality

Zen in America

by Ann Burlein

Prayer Image Spanish Moss by <a href=''target='_blank'>Marky Kauffman</a>
Prayer Image Spanish Moss by Marky Kauffman

To insist on history is not an innocent move. Yet the facts of a truth’s history do not make it untrue or even less true. Foucaultian genealogies do not refute; their power lies elsewhere. Genealogies seek to shape the relation we have to a truth: the ways in which we take up a truth, hold and use it. There is not just one way of relating to a truth; there is not just one way of remaining true. Indeed, sometimes the way to stay true to something is to work against that which limited it. This is the work that critical thought performs on itself.

Foucault used to say that he had far too much respect for the truth to think that there could be only one. Inspired by the ancient Greco-Roman practice of philosophy as a spiritual exercise or way of life, Foucault cast his intellectual work as an attempt “to learn to what extent the effort to think one’s own history can free thought from what it silently thinks and so enable it to think differently … After all, what would be the value of the passion for knowledge if it resulted only in [the accumulation of] a certain amount of knowledgeableness and not in the knower’s straying afield of himself?” In what became the final years of Foucault’s life, his search for non-moralizing approaches to sexuality led him to stray into the twentieth century Chicago school of economics, into the “philosophical spirituality” of ancient forms of practices of the self, as well as into the “political spirituality” of the Iranian Revolution. While many of Foucault’s readers have responded with incredulity at Foucault’s uptake of the “s” word, studying and immersing myself in Foucault has never felt qualitatively different from studying and immersing myself in Zen: both demand equal parts surrender and critique. After all, the hermeneutics of suspicion that is so often claimed as a crucial component of modernity (think Nietzsche, Marx, Freud) questioned not only religion but also reason.

Zen was brought to the West by “an elite circle of internationally minded Japanese intellectuals and globe-trotting Zen priests,” writes Buddhist scholar Robert Sharf, “whose missionary zeal was often second only to their vexed fascination with Western culture.” Consider Sharf’s portrait of D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966), whose popular writings contributed in no small measure to many of the productive mis-recognitions that bedevil American Zen. Sharf writes:

Having lived through the military humiliation of Japan at the hands of the ‘culturally inferior’ Occidental powers, Suzuki would devote a considerable portion of his prodigious energies tantalizing a legion of disenchanted Western intellectuals with the dream of an Oriental enlightenment. Yet all the while Suzuki held that the cultural and spiritual weaknesses of the Occident virtually precluded the possibility of Westerners ever coming to truly comprehend Zen. One is led to suspect that Suzuki’s lifelong effort to bring Buddhist enlightenment to the Occident had become inextricably bound to a studied contempt for the West, a West whose own cultural arrogance and imperialist inclinations Suzuki had come to know all too well.

Suzuki was not alone in living at this flash-point: this is colonialism, and the Zen that men like Suzuki and his teacher Soen Shaku (1859–1919) brought to the States was inextricable from the agon that is (post-) colonialism, how its conflicting vectors catch, enable, and vex.

The Zen they introduced had emerged in response to profound social and economic changes in Japan during the Meiji period (1868–1912). Meiji government officials had derided Buddhism as a “corrupt, decadent, antisocial, parasitic, and superstitious creed, inimical to Japan’s need for scientific and technological advancement … a foreign ‘other.’” Government officials appropriated temple estates and dissolved the danka system (which required people to register with a local temple). One Buddhist response to these encroachments was to concede the corruption, but to locate the problem in the institutional trappings that had accumulated around Buddhism and not in Buddhism itself. Buddhism, they argued, was modern, cosmopolitan, humanistic, and socially responsible—when appropriately reformed. Given the university education of its promoters, this project of purification was deeply informed by Western thought, including the anti-clerical critiques of the enlightenment, the romantic celebration of religion as feeling by Schleiermacher, as well as the immanent spirituality of Nietzsche. Sowing one seed of the late twentieth century discourse of being “spiritual, not religious,” this “new Buddhism” of the Meiji period claimed to comprise an unflinching spiritual empiricism—an empiricism not of the material world (that was the West’s province), but of the mind. Its intrepid investigators had gone bravely forth into spiritual realities where Western scientists had not yet tread, in the process anticipating (or so the claim went) key scientific discoveries in physics, astronomy, and psychology.

While the new Buddhism began as a defense against Meiji critique, as Japan defeated China in 1895, Russia in 1905, and pushed further into Korea, Manchuria, and Taiwan, Zen elites willingly took up the banner of Japanese imperial ideology and ambitions. Celebrating “the way of the samurai” as the very heart of Asian spirituality, reformers proffered Japanese Zen as the most advanced form of the Buddha’s teaching. Japan would restore Buddhism from its degenerated state, thus linking Japan to the rest of East Asia through a missionary project that justified imperialism.

As a professor of religious studies, I have been insisting to students for well over a decade that not only is it unethical to sequester critical thought from religion and spirituality—there is just no need. That these are false alternatives I still do not doubt. Yet becoming part of the zendo has given me a different sense of the commitment it takes to resist this opposition—whose falseness does not make it disappear. I have found this work difficult as a student in the zendo in ways that I do not find it to be difficult as a teacher in class. In the classroom I have ways of helping students avoid ventriloquating a religious text or practice by creating a middle zone wherein their lives can be engaged and addressed without their having to pretend that the text or practice in question came from no place and no one. When reading Job, for instance, students can draw on what they have learned about suffering in their own life without ignoring the specific nature of ancient Israel’s suffering. Openness to “spiritual” questions does not require them to suspend academic exploration as well as critique. For despite modernity’s claims about itself, critique is not limited to the secular.

Sitting in the zendo, however, I relearn how deep runs the habit of regarding religion as literal—even if, when confronted with the probable historical inaccuracies of Zen lineages (for instance), people can quickly acknowledge that, of course, such “truths” are not probably about something other than historical accuracy. When pushed, people can acknowledge the power of “metaphorical” or “mythical” forms of truth—but people read literally, until they are questioned. In this way, religion still speaks to us. For how we relate to a truth matters more than its propositional content.

It’s an odd thing to sit in the zendo study group and watch the fabrication of a “timeless” tradition. I do not understand this desire to see religion as a “timeless” truth, which in American Zen takes the form of revering the interaction between teachers and students as moments of immediate contact with ‘reality.’ And the truth is, I fear this desire and the reverence to which it leads. In the Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche identified the inculcation of a feeling of indebtedness for life itself, for its first causes and principles, as the very ‘origin’ of religion: how the power of our wishing and the sense of our fullness become a fetter. Nietzsche has Christianity in his sights, which he excoriated for making this sense of debt infinite: God sacrifices his only son for your sins. Yet not believing in the Christian God is not enough to escape the power relations that history has embedded in its forms of truth. “After the Buddha was dead,” Nietzsche wrote in The Gay Science, “they still showed his shadow in a cave for centuries—a tremendous, gruesome shadow. God is dead; but given the way people are, there may still for millennia be caves in which they show his shadows.” For Nietzsche, these shadows included ostensibly secular games of truth (like science) insofar as the scientific will to know remains moralistic in its drive. In declaring God dead, Nietzsche affirmed a tension between truth and life: “To what extent can truth stand to be incorporated?—that is the question; that is the experiment.” That, I contend, is the real sticking point—not attachment to claims of immediacy: we do not want the agon(y) of a politics of truth.

When American practitioners of Zen proclaim the immediate nature of truth (and thereby cut off uncomfortable questions of historicity), the apple is not falling far from its tree. Consider the reformist movement Sanbokyodan, which was established formally in 1954 by Yasutani Hakuun (1885-1973). Many of the key teachers in the West were certified by Yasutani: H.M. Enomiya-Lassalle (who was the first to hold Zen retreats in Germany), Philip Kapleau, Robert Aitken, Eido Tai Shimano, and Maezumi Taizan. Buddhist scholar Robert Sharf depicts Sanbokyodan as a typical Japanese ‘new religion,’ noting in particular its rejection of scriptural study and its controversial promise of rapid spiritual progress. Yasutani changed the nature of spiritual attainment: rather than being identified by (or with) doctrinal knowledge or ritual mastery, “spiritual success lies in the momentary experience of satori—a state that students in the Sanbokyodan have been known to experience in their very first seven-day intensive retreat (sesshin).” This version of Zen differs starkly from the more standard view of nirvana as an impossibly distant ideal, so that morality, study, and merit-making were the core of a traditional monk’s life in Japan. This stark difference was Yasutani’s point. By proclaiming this break, Yaustani portrayed himself as returning to Zen’s “true” nature with Dogen.

From an academic point of view, Yasutani speaks the standard “fundamentalist” narrative—with a colonial twist. Meiji reformers fashioned Zen as not really a “religion,” but rather as a spiritual technology through which practitioners are believed to observe the mind without mediation. In the Meiji reformers’ choice to make ineffable experience the core of this “new Buddhism,” Sharf sees an attempt to insulate Zen from critical analysis. This Romantic desire to cordon Zen off from the corrosive effects of critique and historicity persists in American Zen today. At best, the impulse to insulate Zen from critique is about siding against the cultural arrogance and imperial inclinations of America, which show no signs of abating, end of Empire notwithstanding. Yet when Zen truths are shorn from the politics of their history, this impulse seeds another fundamentalism, this time of the left rather than the right.

Zen in America unfolds within this problematic. One result was a series of scandals that posed sharp questions about enlightenment experiences–their-idealization, what we think enlightenment is ‘good for.’ What is the nature and value of life-changing experiences whose power does not totally transform all of the dimensions on which life is lived?

One Saturday at the zendo the dharma talk given by my teacher, Barry Magid, could have been taken straight out of any Intro to Religion course. What a relief! He spoke of Zen as true “in the way that Anna Karenina is true.” We do not expect novels to be accurate descriptions of facts, and we commit a category mistake when we relate to religions as if they were factually rather than fictionally true. The fictioning and fabricating are the power of their truth.

This kind of approach is rare: emphatically to eschew the either/or according to which critique is necessarily secular, and spiritual practice is nothing but blind (not just blind in the idealizing way that love is blind, but totally and inescapably and uninterruptably blind). Instead, the thought re-animating the opposition between critical and religious thought seems to be that one is either in or out: that being inside a religion or spiritual practice entails immersion and surrender, whereas critique entails standing back and outside, establishing distance. This view sees the outsider’s distance of critique as incompatible with the practitioner’s embrace. But in most of the things that I care about, I find myself both within and without in one and same breath.

Much as Suzuki’s life flashed up at the meeting point of conflicting forces of resistance and embrace, the American reception and appropriation of Zen flashed up in a particular parallelogram of forces, in which Zen becomes a way to embrace and resist in one and the same breath. This is Zen as counterculture (or counter-conduct), but also Zen as primary icon through which we solicit power and govern ourselves.

So many of our images of Zen are historically inaccurate. To know their falsity is to face the tangle through which Zen came to us. The freedom of this inauthenticity is also a politics of truth. Call it a koan if you want (I’m not wild about koans, myself): sitting with a Zen marked by the vicissitudes and vexations of its transmission and of our reception. In a world where nothing stays self-identical for long, religion provides a frame, one frame, wherein living bodies incorporate forces (natural and social) to fabricate truth. Into the rhythm of refrain, the parallelogram of forces—Suzuki’s and our own—is drawn and incorporated, elaborated and intensified. To my mind, the source of any value that religion might have arises here: in diverse, repeated and failing, attempts to imagine counter-the-fact … with all the courage and blindness such imagining demands. This is religion as a history that we make, compose, invent—but (with a nod to Marx) not as we choose. Why claim more?