In The Chosen, the novelist Chaim Potok tells a story of the friendship of two gifted young men, both from devout and observant Jewish homes, both the offspring of brilliant fathers. Although the two fathers have never met, they are each familiar with the other, and each regards the other with a mixture of respect and suspicion. One is a scholar of religion who employs the tools of his craft to shed light on Jewish historical experience. The other is a tzaddik, the spiritual leader of a Hasidic community and a man of deep mystical experience. The scholar seeks to bring Jewish tradition into dialogue with the modern world. He is a man of devoted belief, but his faith lacks a certain vitality. The tzaddik seeks to exclude the contemporary world from the purview of religion, for he knows that the fruits of spiritual life flourish best when that life is rooted in a foundation of stable beliefs. His faith is indeed vital, but that vitality is predicated on willfully ignoring much of humankind’s rich store of knowledge about the world.

The Chosen gives dramatic shape to questions that are of signal importance in religious life today—questions that revolve around the possibilities for religious faith in a world left disenchanted by reason. What is the place of faith in a world that has, in Saul Bellow’s phrase, undergone “a housecleaning of belief”? How are we to have faith in a sustaining system of meanings when the bases of such systems are continually being overturned? How, in short, are we to hold the kind of faith that can imbue experience with a sense of the sacred even as it speaks to, and does not reject, the particular challenges and characteristic mood of our age?

These questions first began to take shape for me some twenty years ago, when I attended a conference of Buddhist scholars hosted by the Zen Center of Los Angeles. The intent of the conference was to examine the T’ang Dynasty (618-907 C.E.) debate between the Southern and Northern schools of Chinese Zen, or Ch’an. That debate, which was a pivotal event in the history of Zen Buddhism, was over differences in perspective on sudden and gradual aspects of enlightenment. The scholars had gathered to revisit that debate, with an eye toward separating historical fact from sectarian legend.

Actually, to say I attended the conference is a bit of an overstatement. As a resident and staff member of the Zen Center, I was, along with the rest of the staff, invited to listen in on the discussion from what were, in effect, the bleacher seats. Not many staffers saw fit to attend; if memory serves, there were just two or three others besides myself. Nevertheless, I found much of the discussion, for all its recondite references and excursions into Buddhological minutiae, fascinating. In particular, I was struck by how strongly Zen Buddhism has, for close to thirteen hundred years, right up to the present day, been shaped by this abstruse and, not incidentally, highly political debate.

Within several generations of the controversy, the Northern, or “gradual,” school died out, and all schools of Zen since then have been descendents of the “suddenists” of the south. Indeed, Zen literature abounds with derisive references to the Northerners. They are the foils—the hypocrites, bumblers, and prevaricators—against whom the true spirit of Zen is measured. But, as in countless other sectarian squabbles in the world’s religions, the tools of modern historical research—archaeology, the comparative study of texts, linguistic analysis—allow us to reexamine the debate, and not surprisingly, a picture emerges that is quite at odds with the one passed down by tradition. We now can see that the differences between the schools, however urgent such differences may have seemed in the context of the times, had more to do with style and emphasis than with substance. The Northern school was not a collection of dualistic drones and spiritual losers bent on purveying lessons of religious mediocrity. Far from it. They were, however, the losers in a sectarian battle for popular acceptance and aristocratic patronage. And history—at least history’s first draft—is not written by that kind of loser.

That the doctrinal history of Buddhism was informed by sectarian and political forces is not limited to Zen. In fact, Tibetan Buddhism had a sudden-gradual debate of its own, and it was as crucial to the development of that tradition as the dispute, roughly contemporaneous, between the Northern and Southern schools was to Zen. In the Tibetan case, however, the gradualists, who hailed from India, defeated their Chinese suddenist opponents. Ever since, practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism have followed a path marked by stages, each with specific teachings, initiations, and practices appropriate to one’s level of progress. It is ironic, though, that the suddenists in the Tibetan case were those self-same gradualists of Northern Ch’an. Which leads one to conclude that, first, one person’s sudden might well be another’s gradual, and second, those Northerners just could not catch a break.

It seems that sometimes human history pivots on the outcome of disagreements that are, to later generations, obscure or largely forgotten. Although they may appear remote, such events have a way of casting the social and personal horizons within which those who follow must abide. Had Hamilton and Jefferson’s debate on the role of the federal government not been resolved in Hamilton’s favor, for instance, the United States would be a very different place—if even a single place at all. In the years after Jesus’ death, Paul argued that the gospel was for everyone to share, while others among the first disciples maintained that the Good News was a strictly Jewish matter. Paul, of course, carried the day, and ever since, universal love and antipathy toward Jews—both the legacy of Pauline polemics—have characterized the Christian message. For contemporary Buddhists, the sudden-gradual discord is a reminder that the Buddha-dharma, while not reducible to historical analysis, is not exempt from it either.

That history is written by the winners is just the way of the world, and even back in the day I was not so naive as to think otherwise. I also knew, well before the sudden-gradual conference, that much of Zen Buddhism’s version of its own history was fictive. I found nothing troubling in this. I believed that, in a religious context, stories of the past were primarily and properly vehicles for finding meaning in the present—that is, whether true or not, the function they served was a mythic one. But what was new to me – and it was both bracing and disconcerting—was seeing that the line separating the historian’s concern with fact from the religionist’s concern with meaning, was far more permeable than I had thought. For the conference presented a case where the very lore by which the teachings of Zen were transmitted had originated, at least in part, in order to further sectarian interests. What’s more, upon further reflection, it was clear that it had never ceased to serve that function.

At the conclusion of the conference, the abbot of the Zen Center, Taizan Maezumi Roshi, summoned me to his office to give him a brief report on how things had gone. As I was well aware, the proper protocol for the occasion was for me to assure him that the conference was a great success, and then, so to speak, bow out. But my enthusiasm got the better of my judgment, and I began describing the various points of discussion I’d found most intriguing. As I rambled on, Roshi listened impassively, his face set in the sort of stern expression that Zen masters seem to favor so, and which the Japanese liken to a bamboo carrying-pole with a full bucket of water at either end.

Eventually I brought up the thorny issue of “the special transmission outside the scriptures,” one of Zen’s central tenets. Indeed, as the Exodus is for Judaism and the Resurrection is for Christianity, this transmission is an integral part of Zen’s self-definition. It is, as much as anything, what makes Zen Zen. The phrase describes the conferral of religious authority as, in its essence, a wordless “mind-to-mind” process, in which the master confirms the adequacy of the student’s realization. According to tradition, this transmission extends back, in an unbroken chain, to the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. The problem—at least the historical problem—is that it doesn’t.

As anyone with more than a passing knowledge of Buddhist history knows, the special transmission originated not with Shakyamuni in India in the fifth century B.C.E., but some thousand years later, in China, probably just several generations before the sudden-gradual debate. This last point helps explain the rancor between the schools. As I described it to Roshi, the conference made clear that the debate had little to do with doctrine, for scholars have found that the disagreements were far less sharp than legend would have it. What was really at stake, apparently, was each side’s claim to spiritual legitimacy. This, I ventured, cast the whole matter, and much of Zen’s later history, in a very different light.

It was at about this point that I realized I had long since crossed the line of propriety, so, with a chirpy “Well, anyway, everything went really well,” I brought my verbal barrage to an abrupt halt. As I began my retreat, I saw the buckets fall away, as Roshi raised his most congenial smile and said, “Sure, sure, sure. The scholars must certainly be right. Everyone knows the transmission doesn’t really go back to Buddha.” Then, with a nod, he signaled for me to leave.

As it happened, that night Roshi gave his weekly lecture, and most of the conferees stayed on to attend. Midway through, he paused, glanced around the room, and, apropos of nothing that had gone before, growled, “There is one thing you must remember: Our Zen way is still the only lineage that goes back directly all the way to Shakyamuni Buddha.”

Then, with buckets back in tow, he glared straight ahead, still as stone. After a long silence, he shrugged, rubbed his bald pate, and said sheepishly, “Well, where was I?” Then he returned to his topic.

Feeling caught in the crossfire of two valid yet contradictory perspectives—the historical perspective of the scholar and the mythic perspective of the religious practitioner—I sensed that I had stumbled onto a question of some significance, certainly personal significance and perhaps some wider significance as well. But had I been asked just what the question was, or why it was important, I would not have known what to say.

The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur writes that “enigma does not block understanding but provokes it,” and this is how this question, over time, has done its work on me. It is as though it has its own field of gravity, which for years has held me in its orbit. As I have circled around it, I have seen it first from one angle, then another, formulating it first this way, then that. It is the sort of question that asks not for conceptual closure but for rich elaboration that broadens out into the social world and for knowledge that resonates deep in the recesses of the self.

In the collision of historical and mythic perspectives, a problem that lies at the heart of religious life in the modern world is brought into sharp relief. It is certainly not a problem unique to Buddhism. Indeed, it is probably felt with greatest acuity within the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. No religious tradition is immune to it, and any religiously minded person confronts this problem, consciously or not, in one form or another.

In her excellent book The Battle for God, the religious historian Karen Armstrong describes the matter by enlisting the terms mythos and logos. These terms refer to the two great styles of human consciousness, the first concerned with meaning, the second with practical action and reason. According to Armstrong, prior to modernity, mythos and logos were held to be complementary aspects of human experience. But the modern period, marked by the predominance of rational thought, has discredited myth as a means of knowing the world, and our mythic sensibilities have, as a result, atrophied. The triumph of logos has left us to confront an indifferent universe, devoid of meaning or purpose. That has been the price we have paid for the astonishing successes of science and other forms of systematic reason. Jean-Paul Sartre described the existential impact of this state of affairs as the “God-shaped hole” in modern consciousness.

But we are, I think it can be said, inescapably religious. The great historian of religion Mircea Eliade described the drive toward the “discovery of the sacred” as an innate feature of human nature. The forms and symbols that express sacredness vary widely, but the inner movement toward it is a constant. The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung saw modernity as the setting of a great spiritual drama. Throughout human history, religions have provided symbols and myths that deepen human consciousness and give coherence and meaning to the affairs of life. As Jung saw it, conventional religion had grown anemic, its rituals, stories, and symbols drained of numinous content. How, he wondered, are human beings to reestablish their links to the deeper strata of consciousness without sacrificing the great gains made possible by the discourse of reason?

There is no single formulation that captures modernity’s religious dilemma in all its depth and dimension. But certainly one key aspect of it concerns a conflict in attitudes toward the past. Traditionally, religion has looked to the past, for it is there that mythos finds those golden ages, sacred origins, great revelations, paradigmatic understandings, and prototypical acts that are foundational and authoritative. In Buddhism, for example, emerging schools and movements have most often established their legitimacy by basing themselves on a particular scripture or body of scriptures and through that linking themselves to the religion’s founder. But in the particular case of Zen Buddhism, being a school “not dependent on words or letters,” it is the teacher-to-disciple transmission that affirms that link and, through it, the lineage’s authority—and not just authority, but preeminence.

For most of human history, it was natural to look to the past to find one’s model for facing the present. Since the world of the spirit, the transcendent realm, is characteristically experienced as being metaphysically prior to everyday existence (as in, for example, such Buddhist ideas as Buddha-nature being original nature, or nirvana being an unconditioned realm of experience), it makes sense that the transcendent, or its realization, would also be assumed to be temporally prior as well. But today we know the past in a way our ancestors could not. We are no longer as free to project onto the past the face of the present. What is more, the very idea of the spiritual privilege of the past goes against the tendency of logos, and thus the ethos of modernity, to look to the future for the greatest good—in human progress, in evolution, in the promise of science and the power of reason. The gap here is not just a matter of discrepant views but of discrepant worldviews, of the underlying beliefs that structure how the world is construed and how human action is assigned meaning, value, and purpose. For us moderns, the past is not what it used to be.

Armstrong likens the current period to the Axial Age (c. 700-200 B.C.E.), a time of tumultuous social and economic transition. During the Axial, the old paganism ceased to address new religious needs adequately. Out of the need to find new ways of being religious were born the unifying faiths of today’s world religions. Today we face a similar challenge, and in Armstrong’s view, we’ve yet to answer that challenge in a definitive way. The alarming rise of fundamentalism must, she maintains, be understood in this context. It is an attempt, however misguided and regressive, to find certainty in an uncertain world. It is, one might say, a false solution to a real problem.

While Armstrong may be right in asserting that we have yet to articulate a historically meaningful answer to the challenge posed by our times, it is in our nature to respond, as best we can and in ways we may not even understand, to the problem we are given. If one accepts, as I do, that we humans are inescapably religious, that we possess an innate drive to experience the sacred, then surely we must, in the midst of our bewilderment, be struggling to fill modernity’s God-shaped hole. I agree with Armstrong that such a model has yet to be systematically articulated. But by looking into the details of actual experience, an outline of that faith may become apparent. We can’t help but live out—each in our own way—a portion of the answer, even as that answer eludes our grasp.

Liberate this article!

This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.