YOGEN SENZAKl (see “Ancestors“), the first Zen teacher to take up residence in America, taught Zen at a time when there was almost no interest in it. And the challenge of forging a compatible marriage between Asian Buddhism and the Western ideal of social responsibility—the subject of this issue’s special section—was not even on the horizon. In his residential hotel rooms in Los Angeles, Senzaki had his American students sit zazen on chairs, for he considered cross-legged meditation a most un-American activity. He died in 1958, just as the currents of Beat Zen were riding the crest into the explosive sixties.
That was just thirty-five years; and since then, Zen culture in this country has changed with the rapidity of headline news. The wild romance with emptiness, courted by the Beats, was soon replaced by the militaristic, monastic-oriented Zen that Alan Watts had earlier tried to discourage Americans from emulating. While Watts helped validate the self-styled experiments with meditation that characterized the Zen legacy of the Beats, his message had a kind of boomerang effect; by the mid-seventies, the “zip-head” monastic, as Watts used to say, who embodied Zen form to perfection—but not necessarily Zen spirit—had become the ideal in Zen centers across the United States.
Zen culture, like the national political climate, or any other living organism, seems to have its own cycles of breathing in and breathing out, of deep and shallow breathing, of sucking the outside into one’s own center, followed by an expansive release. So it was with those communities modeled on monasticism, in which an idealized confinement burst its seams, testing the traditional supremacy placed on monastic practice. The health of several centers has been threatened internally by irresponsible leadership, and women in every tradition have rallied against abuses that are systemic to patriarchal patterns. But the recent concern with social action brings another dimension into play.
By 1968 very few people remained indifferent to the Vietnam War. For those in their twenties, there were two clear alternatives to express opposition: demonstrate, agitate, join the Yippies, SDS, the Weathermen—or “go on a spiritual trip.” Music and drugs were the common language, but there was mutual mistrust between these two camps. By the mid-seventies, however, both wings of the counterculture joined the rest of the country as it slumbered through the apathetic post-Vietnam era. There were exceptions, of course; but the social activism of the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, for example, or of the American Zen teacher Robert Aitken, was slow to be embraced by their American students.
In Kenneth Kraft’s article on the emergence of engaged Buddhism, he demonstrates that social action has precedents in traditional Buddhist texts and history. Nonetheless, there are questions about whether it’s viable, from a traditional view, as an authentic Buddhist form—or simply an inevitable expression of American Buddhism. Either way, the American heritage of social responsibility as a requirement for full citizenship within the system, which was largely shunned by the Vietnam generation of Buddhist practitioners, has now come full circle. The Buddhist community at large seems to have embraced the American commitment to benevolent intervention. And now, with President Clinton’s promise of a populist government, there exists for the first time a synchronicity between Buddhism and mainstream culture.
It is too soon to tell whether this newfound compatibility heralds a flowering of truly Buddhist activity—or whether it signals the triumph of secularization over the dharma. While Thich Nhat Hanh and Anne Waldman, Joanna Macy and some of the other activists featured in this issue embody the best of dharmic activism, this movement also harbors Cub Scout & Brownie Buddhism—where the self-cherishing identification as one who does good deeds takes precedence over the slow, often painful, process of cultivating an open heart.
As Buddhism increasingly adapts to the dominant culture, the lessons of American ancestors like Nyogen Senzaki become increasingly important. After coming from Japan to California, not wanting to draw public attention to the dharma, and wishing to recreate the anonymity he had enjoyed as a monk, he stopped wearing robes, let his hair grow out, and furnished his rooms “Western-style.” With no medals of merit, no title, and in fact, no props at all, he was like a Sufi adept who “lived in the world, but not of it,” remaining free of illusions. The danger for us is to forget that the ideals of American life, even at their most compassionate, are not the same as Shakyamuni Buddha’s teachings on the nature of mind. As the traditional trappings of Buddhism are increasingly discarded in this country, Senzaki’s kind of authenticity and private conviction beckon with more urgency.
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