Early Zen History
The Trip to China
Zen Spreads to Japan
Tokugawa and the Dawn of the Modern Era
Zen During the War Years
Zen in the Modern World
The great path has not gates,
Thousands of roads enter it.
When one passes through this gateless gate
He walks freely between heaven and earth.
Following World War II, Zen once more returned to its focus on "suchness"; direct pointing at the
concrete reality of the world, unfettered by the mind's attempts to define reality in meaningless ways.
Zen's involvement in the Japanese war machine was submerged beneath the placid mirror of
Buddhist pacifism, propelled in part by the destructive horror of the twin atomic bombs. Japan set out to
remake itself anew, and as it had done many times before, Zen proceeded to adapt to its surroundings.
Like the culture which surrounded it, the Zen tradition largely ignored the recent past, preferring instead
to focus on the ancient Zen masters such as Dogen, or on the future. For Zen, this future increasingly
lay in the West. D.T. Suzuki returned to America to tour and teach, spending much of his remaining life
there. A number of Westerners, such as Phillip Kapleau and Alan Watts, sought training under Zen masters
and continued the Zen traditions, but with a distinctly Western flavor. In the modern, more democratic
Japan, Zen became less tied to the state, benefitting from a secular society that respected freedom of
religion. Zen even came to achieve a peaceful and cooperative coexistence with Christianity--in much the
same way that it had with Shintoism in an earlier age. The first "Buddhist Christians" were Japanese, but
this phenomenam soon spread across the world. Today, untold numbers of Christians also practice Zen Buddhism,
practicing zazen and and learning the teachings of Dogen while simultaneously studying the Bible and the
Word of Christ.
Internationally, Zen was especially popular among the Beats. The Beats interpreted Zen to mean absolute
freedom from society's rules, strictures, and customs. They sought enlightenment through excitement, sex,
drugs, or virtually any intense experience that brought them in touch with their "inner self." But while
the Beat experience could be creative, engaging, and even true to Zen in many ways, it should also serve
as a warning to us that "Imperial Zen" was not a unique application of the religion.
In his 1959 book, "Zen and Japanese Culture," D.T. Suzuki wrote:
"Zen has no special doctrine or philosophy, no set of concepts or intellectual formulas, except that it
tries to release one from the bondage of birth and death, by means of certain intuitive modes of
understanding peculiar to itself. It is, therefore, extremely flexible in adapting itself to almost any
philosophy and moral doctrine as long as its intuitive teaching is not interfered with. It may be found
wedded to anarchism or fascism, communism or democracy, atheism or idealism, or any political or economic
Perhaps D.T. Suzuki's contention is true. Perhaps Zen is indeed infinitely adaptable. But Suzuki's words
should certainly give us pause. At its best, Zen is a powerful creative force, a unique way of seeing the
world that is both liberating and uplifting. One only need observe the peaceful smile of a Zen master to
understand that there is something very different, something "enlightened" in such an individual.
But Zen has a darker side. The same search for "emptiness" that liberates the mind can also free it of
any moral compass if it is wedded to the wrong philosophy or doctrine. In modern Japan, Zen Buddhism is
a force for peace in the world, even pacifism. But there is no question that it can be readily adapted to
the prosecution of war, in all its forms.
In the end, perhaps every Zen practioner should hearken back to the "Middle Way" of Shakyamuni. In avoiding
extremes, Zen can remain as it was intended to be, a source of individual liberation, and not a domineering
tool for society.