Zen in the American Grain
Kyogen Carlson
Station Hill: Barrytown, New York (1994).
118 pp., $9.95 (paper).

A Japanese Buddhist monk once told me that the experience of spiritual awakening is like flying in a rocket to the moon. Until a rocket leaves the earth’s gravitational field, it must expend tremendous energy to propel itself upward. However once it moves out into space, the rocket is floating weightless, and as it nears the moon, a new gravitational force takes over, carrying it effortlessly to its destination.

In the same way, until we transcend relative, conditioned patterns of thinking, Buddhist practice is difficult; but as we emerge into the purity of a higher level of consciousness, a new force envelopes us. If this analogy holds true not only for the individual but for a society, then the rocket that is American Buddhism has lifted off and is rapidly ascending. Still, it has not yet broken free from the limited, intellectual atmosphere of its own assumptions.

Kyogen Carlson
Kyogen Carlson


In Kyogen Carlson’s thoughtful book Zen in the American Grain, the action of both these forces is reflected: the powerful self-propelling engine of sincere enthusiasm, and the weight of habitual, unconscious ways of perceiving the world. Carlson is one of a young “second generation” of Buddhist teachers – heads of temples who have practiced and trained primarily in North America. Zen in the American Grain is a record of insights and experience gained through ten years of training in a Soto Zen monastery in northern California, and in the struggle to establish a small independent temple in Portland, Oregon. This honest autobiographical account is important not only because of the deeper vision of life that it offers, but also for what it suggests about the present condition of Buddhism in North America.

In a sense, Carlson’s book resembles a Buddhist How to Be Your Own Best Friend—down-to-earth, informal, full of transcendent yet practical advice. At times the conversational style begins to ramble; more rigorous editing would have considerably strengthened the fabric of the text. Nevertheless, his observations are illuminated by gentle humor and insight, and the text is rounded out with engaging anecdotes, Zen lore, analogies and parables. At one point he captures a pervasive American attitude toward practice with penetrating accuracy, likening the modern spiritual dilettante’s indecision over which path to choose to the dilemma of a man buying a new car. Confronted with a vast array of attractive possibilities, the man feels that to settle on one car would be to reject all the other, equally appealing ones – forgetting that the ultimate goal is not to find the perfect car, but to reach his destination.

For Carlson, the spirit of Zen is constantly being manifested in ordinary life, at the heart of every situation. The transcendent Buddha-mind of enlightenment already pervades all human interactions and relationships, including those between boss and employee, friend and enemy, husband and wife. Even the noisy barking of a neighborhood dog is distracting precisely because it is a signal of distress, a noise that carries meaning for everyone on the block. The universal mind of enlightenment provides a contextual framework for understanding everything that happens. Carlson says that enlightenment is like gravity, a principle from which we can never be separate: “We are always one with it, no matter what we do.” Whether our “movements” in life are clumsy or graceful, all reflect one universal law. Zen training, he suggests, is learning to live in harmony with that force.

Ironically, however, it is this very ability to ground the elusive, inarticulable essence of Zen in familiar human experience that also threatens to lower it to a level where it becomes only rational—merely a useful tool for living. Zen practice, Carlson assures us, consists of nothing more than sincerity, moral precepts, and meditation; and practice is nothing other than enlightenment itself.



But where does this leave the aspiring Buddhist practitioner? How do we arrive at the transcendent understanding that is supposed to come through practice? One example of the kind of vague questions that still haunt this peculiarly American version of Zen is well summed-up in a chapter called “Superstition.” There, Carlson suggests that people often unconsciously blur causal relationships in life, attributing events in this world to supernatural causes or theological fictions of the imagination. The logical, sensible alternative he offers is to carefully examine events and their causes, and to attempt to understand them in rational terms. But from the larger perspective of Buddhism—at least as it is understood in most Eastern cultures—this view is no less limited than the “superstitious” view. Many Buddhists view karma, for example, not simply as a negative influence that makes people feel unhappy sometimes (which is how Carlson often seems to present it) but as the determining factor in every relationship, event, and situation they encounter. To accept the idea of a causality that cannot be rationally understood by the intellect means losing control of life, and the possibility of not knowing the real reasons for the things that occur—an uncertainty that many Westerners, not surprisingly, have been reluctant to accept.

Carlson’s approach to Zen reflects the fact that Buddhism in America today is largely perceived as being centered in the life of the individual. For many Americans, Zen Buddhism has become an identity, a source of self-esteem, a tool for cultivating happiness. If there is any danger of Zen becoming diluted in the process of its Americanization, it lies not in the loss of rigid monastic discipline, but in the loss of its very essence: the realization of muga (no-self). In the West, the reality of the self remains such a basic, unchallenged assumption that it is hard for most Westerners to envision, or even to truly desire, its transcendence.

Sarah Fremerman has been a nun at Kyoto Shudo-in, a monastery in Kyoto, for the past six years.

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