Zen in the Modern World


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

Zen Links

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.

    --Zen koan

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 dogmatism."

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.