During the recent visit of Pope John Paul II to Sri Lanka, representatives of the Buddhist community there boycotted a meeting with the Pontiff in protest over statements about Buddhism in his recent best-selling book, Crossing theThreshold of Hope (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994). The Theravadin elders were particularly concerned about the Pope’s charac­terization of Buddhism as “atheis­tic.” I will not discuss the charges made by the Sri Lankan monks (who are capable of speaking for themselves), nor do I wish to determine whether or not Buddhism is indeed atheistic. Instead, I would like to examine what the Pope has to say about Buddhism in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, considering the sources of many of his characterizations as well as identifying possible points of convergence between his positions and traditional Buddhist attitudes toward religions.

Each of the thirty-six chapters of Crossing the Threshold of Hope is an answer to a question submitted by Italian journalist Vittorio Messori, with the questions sometimes reflected in the chapter titles: for example, “How does the Pope Pray?,” “If God Exists Why is He Hiding,” “Was God at Work in the Fall of Communism?” Buddhism is mentioned in two chapters, the first, entitled “Why So Many Religions?” begins, “But if God who is in heaven—and who saved and continues to save the world—is One and only One and is He who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ, why has he allowed so many religions to exist?” The Pope does not address the question of diversity of religion, but instead stresses those elements that are common to all religions. His answer consists almost entirely of quotations from a document that sets forth the church’s official position on non-Christian religions, Nostra Aetate, drafted during the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). That document asserts the unity of humankind, because the human race was created by God, and declares that all peoples have one destiny in “God, whose providence, goodness, and salvation extend to all.” Yet “men turn to various religions to solve mysteries of the human condition.”

His Holiness Pope John Paul II and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Couresty of The Office of Tibet.
His Holiness Pope John Paul II and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Couresty of The Office of Tibet.

From ancient times up to today all the various peoples have shared and continue to share an awareness of that enigmatic power that is present throughout the course of things and throughout the events of human life, and, in which, at times, even the Supreme Divinity or the Father is recognizable.

This view—that God’s revelation is somehow present even in other religions—has a long history. It was an important element in missionary theory of Jesuits such as Roberto Nobili (1577-1656), who sought to teach the Indians about “the lost Veda,” portraying Christianity as a rediscovery and fulfillment of their own tradition. In the nineteenth-century, the German Indologist Frederick Max Müller argued that an intimation of the divine, which he called “primitive revelation,” had been provided to humanity by God at the creation. As a result of mythology, this intimation had developed into polytheism in some cultures, monotheism in others. More recently, the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner set forth the notion of the “anonymous Christian,” which argues that those who oppose the church are merely those who have not yet recognized that they are already Christians through its “secret grace.” It is at this point that the Pope first makes mention of “the religions of the Far East.” That he uses the outdated term “Far East” (far from what?) anticipates anachronisms in his more specific discussion of Buddhism. Here, once again, he cites Nostra Aetate:

The various schools of Buddhism recognize the radical inadquacy of this mallleable world and teach a way by which men, with devout and trusting hearts, can become capable either of reaching a state of perfect liberation, or of attaining, by their own efforst or through inner help, supreme illumination….The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions…[which] although differing on many points from that which the Church believes and propounds, often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens men.”

Thus, the Holy Spirit works even outside of the church, something the Pope says he himself has witnessed while visiting Asian countries.

The pope evinces a less ecumenical, less catholic position in the chapter entitled, “Buddha?” (his question mark). At the beginning of that chapter, the interviewer asks the Pontiff about Buddhism, which “seems increasingly to fascinate Westerners as an ‘alternative’ to Christianity or as a sort of ‘complement’ to it.” Here, the Pope’s tone changes. He is no longer discussing the multiplicity of religions and their common virtures, but a specific religion that is making inroads in the West. It is therefore not surprising that he immediately mentions the world’s most famous Buddhist, the Buddist with the most Western followers: the Dalai Lama. Acknowledging that he has met the Dalai Lama a few times, he describes him not as a leader of the cause of Tibetan independence or as an internationally honored proponent of human rights, but as a proselytizer. “He brings Buddhism to people of the Christian West, stirring up interst both in Buddhist spirituality and in its methods of praying.” For the Pope, one of Buddhism’s flaws is that it rejects the reality of the world, a world that for him is the arena of God’s salvation through the incarnation of Christ. He writes, “The ‘enlightenment’ expereienced by Buddha comes down to the conviction that the world is bad, that it is the source of evil and of suffering for man…To save oneself means, above all, to free oneself from evil by becoming indifferent to the world, which is the source of evil.”

One obvious response that students of Zen or of Tibetan Buddhism might make to such a characterization is that the Pope seems wholly ignorant of Mahayana Buddhism, where the Bodhissatva vows to remain in samsara; hardly indifferent to the world, he finds reality immanent in it (“form is emptiness, emptiness is form”), as he works ceaselessly and in myriad compassionate ways to benefit others. The Pope may indeed be describing the arhat, the Hinayana disciple of the Buddha, but he is not describing the Bodhissatva. But perhaps it is wise to resist such a response, because the degradation of the arhat and the exaltation of the bodhisattva is itself part of a polemic, a polemic present from the earliest Mahayana sutras, designed to wrest authority from the older tradition. To answer the Pope by invoking the Hinayana-Mahayana distinction is merely to answer one polemic with another.

Much of the Pope’s characterization of Buddhism derives directly from nineteenth-century missionary literature. With the rise of the science of philology, the notion was put forward that languages represented the “mentality” of a given culture. This idea of mentality was then incorporated, with devastating effect, into race theory. There was the concept of “the Oriental mind,” a mindset that was deemed passive, irrational, static, world-negating, and given to mysticism (a forerunner to Jung’s view of Asians as “introspective”), all of which was though to be reflected in the degenerate and corrupt societies of Asian in the nineteenth century. The European mind, on the other hand, was rational and dynamic, the posessor of both superior technology and the superior religion that made that technology possible, Christianity. Such a view was used to justify both the colonial and missionary policies of Western nations. If Christianity is the true faith, then God’s providence ordains the delivery of that faith to the non-Christian world.

[The Church] builds up civilization, particularly “Western civilization,” which is marked by a positive approach to the world, and which developed thanks to the achievement of science and technology, two branches of knowledge rooted both in the ancient Greek philosophical tradition and in the Judeo-Christian Revelation.”

This passage, which could have been drawn from any number of nineteenth-century polemical treatises, Protestant or Catholic, is drawn instead from Crossing the Threshold of Hope.

The Pope’s charicterization of Buddhism as atheistic is yet another product of the nineteenth-century, drawn largely from a selective reading of Theravada sources, neglecting much of the Buddhist literature of the rest of Asia. This “atheism” was used to serve a number of agendas in the European discourse about Buddhism in the Victorian period. The Buddha himself was almost always presented as an atheist. It was his followers who later deified him and worshipped him as a god. To some, the masses’ inability to preserve the rational vision of the founder was a mark of the degeneration of the tradition. For others, it was evidence of God’s presence in the world, for if Christianity was the true faith, it was viewed as impossible that the majority of the world’s population should not believe in (some) god.

Crossing the Threshold of Hope by John Paull II
Crossing the Threshold of Hope by John Paull II

Thus, the Pope’s characterizations of Buddhism as negative and atheistic are nothing new. They derived from a colonialist and Orientalist past, when the superiority and eventual triumpth of the West were unabashedly proclaimed. What has changed since then, however, is the presence of Buddhist teachers in the West. With Europeans and Americans (including Catholic monks) engaged in Buddhist practices, it has become necessary for the Pope to address the question of Buddhist practice, to which he turns in the chapter called “Buddha?”

The Pope does not deny that Buddhist meditation practice results in a level of detachment from the world similar to that achieved by Christian mystics. The problem with the Buddhist system is that it stops short: “Carmelite mysticism begins at the point where the reflections of Buddha end, together with his instructions for the spiritual life.” Therefore, the Pope concludes, “its is not inappropriate to caution those Christians who enthusiastically welcome certains ideas originating in the religious traditions of the Far East.” He counsels his readers to know their own spiritual tradition well and not to set it aside lightly.

Thus, Buddhism will only take one so far; Christianity alone can take one to the ultimate goal. If we substitue names, we have a Buddhist position with a long history. Buddhism arose in India among a number of movements competing for followers and patronage. It was therefore necessary to account for the inferiority of other traditions. Other traditions were declared inferior because they led (at best) only to a better rebirth; only the Buddha showed the path to liberation from samsara. However, the opponents who required consignment to the inferior position were not always non-Buddhists. With the rise of the Mahayana some four centuries after the Buddha’s death, it became necessary to account for the traditions that had existed in previous centuries. The chief weapon employed in the early Mahayana suras, most famously in the Lotus, was the doctrine of upaya, the ostensibly innocuous notion that the Buddha taught different things to different people in accordance with their capacity. The Buddha had taught the path to nirvana, mere freedom from rebirth, to those who were incapable of understanding the most profound emptiness and who lacked the necessary courage to undertake the bodhissatva path to the true enlightenment of buddhahood. For the Lotus, there was ultimately only one vehicle, the Mahayana, and even those who had traversed the HInayana path to nirvana and become arhats would also eventually have to embark on the Mahayana (“Great Vehicle”) to buddhahood. Indeed, their nirvana was only an illusion, a city conjured by a skilled guide for travelers temporarily too weary to sojourn onto their true goal. Th old vehicle, the Hinayana, could only go so far. After that, one had to transfer to the Mahayana to reach true enlightenment. This is precisely the argument the Pope makes about Carmelite mysticism.

In Japan, the great Zen master Dogen (1200-1253) wrote that the sutras of the Buddha are not just texts but that “there are nothing but sutras everywhere in time and space,” that mountains and rivers are also sutras. Yet he found the issue of truth being present in non-Buddhist teachings to be a different question entirely:

Ignorant people state that Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism are ultimately one, only the entrances are different. Or they say those teachings are like a tripod. This kind of view is often heard among the monks of the Great Sung China….These misguided foolish people have a superficial view of the Buddhist way because they lack sufficient understanding of the Dharma and its origin.

It would seem, then, that neighter Christians nor Buddhists subscribe to the romantic view that all roads lead to the same mountaintop; they may all lead to Everest Base Camp, but there is only one path to the summit.

I recall a conversation I had with an eminent Tibetan abbot some fifteen years ago. Were were talking about Pope John Paul II, who had just been elected by the College of Cardinals. The myriad buddhas and bodhisattvas work in many ways to benefit sentient beings, the abbot told me, appearing through their infinite compassion in whatever form is most helpful to others. The ways of the buddhas and bodhisattvas are mysterious and beyond our understanding. Perhaps the Pope, he said, had appeared in the world to lead those sentient beings who were not yet karmically perpeared to receive the teachings of the Buddha, who instead accumulate the necessary merit for a more favorable rebirth by following the ethical teachings of Christianity in this liftetime. Invoking the ancient doctrine of upaya, that doctrine once most ecumenical and most patronizing, most inclusive and most exclusive, he asked, “How do we know that the Pope is not a Bodhissatva?”

Donald S. Lopez, Jr. is Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan.

Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness

Sharon Salzberg

Shambhala: Boston & London, 1995.

193 pp., $16.00 (cloth).

Amy Hollowell

I closed this book after having read nothing but the Buddha’s words on loving-kindness (Metta Sutta) that open it. What else was there to say?

But then, aware of my attempt to limit the limitless, I began again and soon discovered that, as Sharon Salzberg writes, “The Dharma, the way of freedom, is like a hologram: in any single part, we discover the whole.” Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, Salzberg’s long-awaited first book, is in fact a practical guide to just that: discovering the whole through the parts.

The parts here are love, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity—the four brahma-viharas, “divine states of dwelling.” “By practicing these meditations,” writes Salzberg, “we establish love (metta), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita), and equanimity (upekkha) as our home.” What Salzberg, and American Vipassana teacher and cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, provides in Lovingkindness is a how-to manual for the practice of these meditations.

Sharon Salzberg, Courtesy of Shambhala Publications.
Sharon Salzberg, Courtesy of Shambhala Publications.

There is nothing lofty here, nothing particularly clever. The elegance of Salzberg’s work is not in her presentation or in her use of language; rather, it is in her clarity, her sincerity, her pure manifestation of the dharma in a step-by-step, hands-on method for true happiness, here and now, whoever your are, wherever you are. For, as Salzberg writes, “Resting fully in the present is the source of this happiness.”

Salzberg first elucidates the theory of metta practice; then, having shown us the recipe, she welcomes us to the kitchen and with radical simplicity introduces the pots and pans. In a chapter entitled “Breaking Open the Loving Heart,” for example, she deftly treats the concept of separateness that gives rise to our great suffering. But to this most fundamental Buddhist teaching, Salzberg adds the vitality of her own experience. She recounts the tale of a dog called Max, whom she had heard was particularly nasty. On her daily early-morning walk, she would pass the mobile home where Max lived. For many days, Max was nowhere to be seen, yet her trepidation grew and became all-consuming Finally, one early morning she met the dog. Salzberg stopped. Max stood up, and they eyed on another. Then she “blurted out” what first came to mind: “Max,” she said, “Maxine is my middle name. People use to call me Max, too, you know!” Max sat down and Salzberg walked on.

This is where Salzberg is at her best, charging what otherwise might remain flat words with the brillian spark of life—her life, your life, our lives. The meditation exercises that she provides at the end of each chapter likewise serve to illuminate the more lackluster general treatise. There are variations on standard practices applied to the quotidian—walking meditations and sitting meditations, reflections on happiness and anger, exercises involving friends, enemies and neutral others, with extensions to groups and objects and the ten directions.

My experience of this book was one of space, a space so vast that the words could spread and just be what they are, free of concept, category, expectation. I had started at the center, with the Buddha’s sweet words, and Salzberg took me to the four corners.

Amy Hollowell is an editor at the International Herald Tribune in Paris.

Zen Haiku: Poems and Letters of Natsume Soseki

Translated and Edited by Soiku Shigematsu.

Weatherhill, Inc.: New York, 1994.

128 pp., $7.95 (paper)

Sam Hamill

Sometime during the late 1680’s, the great Japanese poet Basho (1644-1694) had an awakening: he came to the realization that poetry could be a primary path to enlightenment. This would not be particularly noteworthy (every true poet experiences such a realization), except that Basho subsequently elevated the seventeen-syllable haiku from parlor game poetics of the literati to major artform. His poems became synonymous with the Zen spirit, and his travel journal,Narrow Road to the Interior, would become perhaps the single most influential volume of poetry in Japan. He brought to haiku the pith and incisive insight of the Zen koan and a devotion to practice—everyday Zen, everyday haiku.

Following Basho, the best haiku poets (Buson and Issa) followed tenets of Basho’s teaching, personalizing their own practice. Two hundred years after the death of Basho, the leading haiku poet, Masaoka Shiki, saw Basho’s kado (way of poetry) so watered down that he led what was basically a revolt against Basho. This was the state of haiku when the young writer and English teacher Natsume Soseki, two hundred yeards after the death of Basho, experienced Zen for the first time at Kigen Temple.

Natsume Soseki (1867-1916)
Natsume Soseki (1867-1916)

In 1900, at the age of thirty-four, Soseki went to England as a government-sponsored student, but his time there was spent in loneliness and poverty. Although he would become one of the major modernist writers, he would view Western culture with a healthy skepticism and continue to refine his Zen practice. Despite failing health and a nervous breakdown, during hte last dozen years of his short life, Soseki wrote eight or nine masterpieces, including the novels I am a Cat, Botchan, and Kokoro (The Heart).

History will no doubt remember Soseki as one of Japan’s premier modern novelists and, if at all, as a minor poet of both haiku and Chinese-style poems, a calligrapher and painter. Nevertheless, these poems and letters selected by English literature scholar and Zen monk Soik Shigematsu reveal a finely tuned sensibility:

  A rutting cat

  Has grown so thin:

  Almost nothing but eyes.

Envisioning this poem in our time, who can help but associate the huge eyes of a starving cat with those of famished children in the Sudan, in Bosnia, or in any of a hundred other places? And the eyes, the eyes—they remind us that what we do not have we see the more clearly for its absence.

Perhaps remembering the Zen admonition against “leaning on words,” Soseki writes,” Without a word/ A white plum tree’s/ Blossomed.” Writing to an acquaintance in 1898, he observes: “Zen is not words or phrases but actual practice, isn’t it? If you are in the dusty world and buffeted at the mercy of it, then I wonder if there’s any difference between the Zen life and the Zenless life.”

In his own Zen practice, Soseki moved from advocating a “self-centeredness” to a selfless or egoless state (muga). Was he following the teaching of Dogen Zenji, who instructed, “study the self to forget the self”? He wrote in the margins of anote declining an inviation to a prime minister’s party:

  A cuckoo’s cry—

  Hard to get out:

  In the midst of shitting.

These translations by Soiku Shigematsu remain basically literal. He makes not attempt to establish a syllabic measure, but exhibits an ear for tone and for rhyme on occasion. A longer introduction would have helped North American readers who are unfamiliar with Soseki’s novel—Shigematsu offers only the barest sketch. We are left with a small gathering of small poems and a few letters, an anecdote or two revealing a clear, austere mind engaged in self-revelation that simultaneously transcends ego:

  Monk in samadhi

  Still alive!

  A winter moon.

Sam Hamill is a Contributing Editor to Tricycle. His book The Sound of Water: Haiku of Basho, Buson, Issa and Others is available from Shambhala Publications.

The Words of My Perfect Teacher

Translated by Association Padmakara.

Forward by H.H. Dalai Lama.

San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1994.

cloth. $30.00

Steven D. Goodman

Given the recent controversies regarding what constitutes appropriate behavior for Buddhist teachers, how apt that a classic manual of Tibetan Buddhism that frankly addresses this issue should appear in a wonderfully fluent English version at the present time. I feel certain, however, that the title alone will provoke a reaction from some Western converts to Buddhism. The Words of My perfect Teacher—what can that mean? Aren’t teachers rather like professionals in the mental health fields? As such, are they not fallible experts who need to be watched and monitored? In what sense could they be called “perfect”? More to the point, how is one to gauge the authenticity of a teacher? How should his instructions be judged?

Patrul Rinpoche (1808-1887), the author of The Words of My Perfect Teacher:

“Do not take [the teacher’s advice] as a window through which to observe others’ faults, but rather as a mirror for examining your own. Look carefully within yourself to see whether or not you have those hidden faults. If you do, recognize them and take them out of their hiding place. Correct your mind and set it on the right path. As Atisha said:

‘The best spiritual friend is one who attacks your hidden faults. The best instructions are he ones that hit those faults. The best friends are mindfulness and vigilance. The best incentives are enemies, obstacles and the sufferings of illness. The best method is not to fabricate anything.'”

These are the tough words of a Khampa nomad renowned for his uncompromising frankness. However, Patrul Rinpoche was also known for his humility. Patrul Rinpoche was a vegetarian, often lived as a wandering beggar, and went out of his way to avoid the fame which his teachings inspired. He referred to himself as “the ragged Abu, rough mannered and burning with the fires of the five poisons.” In time he came to be known as the very embodiment of compassion, Avalokitesvara, and his “no nonsense” approach to these Buddhist teachings made him a favorite amongst the Khampa and Golok nomads of Eastern Tibet.

Patrul Rinpoche’s collected writings survive in a six volume edition, and they deal with a wide range of topics: ethical advice, poetry, commentaries and outlines of Mahayana Buddhist classics, tantra, and the esoteric teachings of the Great Perfection (Dzogchen). In recent years a number of these works have been translated into English.

His most widely acclaimed work, however, is “The Words of My Perfect Teacher” (Kunzang Lamai Zhalung), a text that is studied by teachers and students of all the different Tibetan Buddhist traditions. The intent of this work is to prepare the student for the practice of the esoteric teachings of Dzogchen, through a systematic training in the entire range of Buddhist teachings of Mahayana and Vajarayana.

Patrul Rinpoche divides his work into three parts. Part One deals with six basic topics of “external” Buddhist practice: the rarity and value of human life, the tranistory nature of all life forms, the unsatisfactory nature of samsaric existence, the karmic principle of cause and effect, the benefits of liberation from suffering, and how to rely on a spiritual friend. Patrul Rinpoche begins this last topic by reminding the aspirant that spiritual transformation, according to the Mahyana Buddhist traditions, is not a solitary affair: “No sutra, tantra or shastra speaks of any being ever attaining perfect buddhahood without having followed a spiritual teacher.” Yet he reminds us how easily we are influenced by people and circumstances, and how important it is to examine the qualities of a teacher.

Do the teachers maintain the vows and pledges? Patrul Rinpoche would have us ask. Are they learned and kind? Have they brought the teachings to fruition in their own lives? Along with these questions, he offers some hard advocie on what kind of teachers one ought to avoid. Patrul lists four types: those who are descendants of some great teacher but only concern themselves with the perpetuation of that spiritual empire; those who truly lack special qualities, but are full of pride due to the flattery of undiscerning students; those who actually have less decorum and self-control than ordinary people, but who pretend to posess the attainments of the great adepts of the past; and those who, not having cultivated love and compassion, are in no way more accomplished than oneself.

Part Two deals with five “internal” Buddhist practices: taking refuge, the development of bodhicitta (altruistic intention), meditation on the teacher as Vajrasattva as a method of purifying unwholesome karma, and guru yoga, which Patrul Rinpoche calls “the ultimate way to arouse the wisdom of realization.”

Finally, Part Three offers instructions for quickly “exiting” from this life, so that “in case death should arrive suddenly before the path has been completed, a link to the pure lands is created through the transference of consciousness, bringing [us to] Buddhahood without meditation.”

The Words of My Perfect Teacher offers a solid foundation for the practice of Mahayana, Vajrayana, and Dzogchen. This current translation contains, in addition to the basic text, an informative introduction, copious notes, and a useful glossary of important terms. It is the result of the efforts of the Association Padmakara, a team of talented scholars and practitioners, all of whom have had the benefit of prolonged study with master teachers. In fact, this translation was selected as the Tibetan Buddhist Classic Text by the International Sacred Literature Trust, whose avowed purpose is “to promote understanding and open discussion between and within faiths.”

What would the humble ragged nomad from eastern Tibet have thought of his text’s being studied by students of Buddhism in Europe and America? I think he would not be surprised. Tradition has it that Patrul Rinpoche often disappeared from his monastery. On one such occasion his bedraggled condition moved a learned man to take pity on him and to offer him precious teachings from a work known as the Kunzang Lama. Patrul Rinpoche faithfully went up to this man’s home to receive the instruction based on this text. This continued for some time until Patrul’s friends came to the man’s residence looking for their beloved teacher. On hearing his visitors’ descriptions of the features of their teacher, the man realized he had been giving the teachings to the man who wrote them.

Steven D. Goodman is Professor of Buddhist Studies at Graduate Theologial Union, Berkeley, and California Institue of Integral Studies, San Francisco.

Wabi-Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers

Leonard Koren

Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley: 1994.

96 pp., $14.95 (paper).

Richard Pilgrim

By the author’s own assessment this is a “skinny volume”—a “tentative personal step forward toward ‘saving’ what once constituted a comprehensive and clearly recognized aesthetic universe” in Japan. As such, there is a winsome nostalgia about Wabi-Sabi.

The book itself, in simple prose and photographs, seeks to outline the history and character of wabi-sabi, a Japanese aesthetic principle characterized by rustic simplicity, naturalness, and irregularity which developed in the medieval period—highlighting particularly its relationship with the tea ceremony, and contrasting it with “modernism” gernally and contemporary Japanese “gratuitous post-modern appendages” in particular.

The aesthetic universe of wabi-sabi, so the author suggests, arises within the context of intuitive, subjective appropriations of the natural beauty of things. Long the province (at least nominally) of the “Zen arts,” wabi-sabi is said to imply certain spiritual values—particular states of mind, moral precepts, and material qualities—all of which the author elaborates on briefly.

Whatever one’s views about the actual content of the book—a content delivered more powerfully by its photographs of surface textures and ceramics than its conceptual analysis—readers might find it intersting to know that wabi-sabi is by no means a direct lineal descendent of Zen Buddhism. In tracing its hisotry, the author suggests that Zen has been the prime mover in its creation. However, such an impression effaces other important contributors, leaving us with Japanese Zen as a rather romanticized, aestheticized phenomenon. First of all, the aesthetic principle of wabi-sabi goes back at least to the eleventh century in Japan (prior to the arrival of Zen Buddhism), and no doubt contains the resonances and marks of other contributors (e.g., Shinto, Taoism, and other forms of Buddhist—not to mention more “secular” literary practices and ideals.) As such, it is closely related to the eleventh-century aesthetic ideal of yugen (“profound mysterious beauty”) which, in turn, is closely related to poetic traditions influenced by Tendai Buddhism, and to the ascetic/recluse traditions of Chinese Taoism and Buddhism. Shinto contributions, moreover, might be seen in the preference of natural materials, simplicity of form, and clarity of line.

While Koren cannot be held accountable for creating these false impressions about Zen, nevertheless, the book perpetuates that trend by implying (a) that Zen is intrinsically aesthetic in its modes of awarenss and expression, and (b) that it can engender only certain kinds of aesthetic experiences when it is aesthetic. Both views should be suspect, since both imply that Zen experience and Zen experessions are limited ot the domain of the aesthetic (as opposed, for example, to the ethical, rational, or philosophical).

Such views tend to romanticize Zen and to overlook how it might be lived out in other modes of human behavior and awareness. (Note, for example, the recent interest in the West in Zen and ethics, as well as “socially engaged” Buddhism.) Beyond that, however, they also imply that Zen can only be expressed by certain kinds of aesthetic experience.

An intersting discussion took place in the pages of The Eastern Buddhist some years ago between Theologian Paul Tillich and his counterpart (of sorts) in Japan, Hisamatsu Shin’ichi, conerning the criteria governing “Zen art” (in this case painting). In that discussion, Hisamatsu refused to allow any Western examples (from Picasso to Paul Klee) into the category, mostly because they failed to meet one or another of his Zen-based aesthetic criteria.

These criteria, however, are not just Zen-based, but, in fact belong—at least in some degree—to a larger Japanese aesthetic universe, starting with yugen and perhaps ending with the provocative pages of Roland Barthes’ Empire of Signs or Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows. In short, who’s to say, for example, that John Cage’s music is not “Zen art” even though it is neither wabi nor sabi, and who’s to say that Beethoven was not a bodhisattva?

Richard Pilgrim is Associate Professor of Religion at Syracuse University. His books include Buddhism and the Arts of Japan (Anima Books).

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .