This essay has been adapted for Tricycle from the afterword that has been added to the forthcoming edition of Zen in America. Written by Tricycle’s editor, Helen Tworkov, the book follows the movement of Japanese Zen to the United States through portraits of Robert Aitken, Jakusho Kwong, Bernard Glassman, Maurine Stuart, and Richard Baker.Zen in America was originally published in 1988 by North Point Press and will be reissued this spring by Kodansha America.


Untitled, Richard Serra, 1993, paintstick on paper, 50 x 30 inches.
Untitled, Richard Serra, 1993, paintstick on paper, 50 x 30 inches.

In 1983 there were seven American Zen teachers who had received teaching authority from their Japanese teachers and, at that point, had established independent centers. Today, no selection of seven teachers would represent all the expressions of Japanese-derived Zen in the United States. Some teachers have broken off long-term apprenticeships with their own teachers whose ethical behavior became too problematic for them to support; cut off from the face-to-face intimacy considered critical to the traditional ideal of transmission, they subsequently sought accreditation from other teachers, who, in certain cases, were outside their own lineages. On the one hand, teachers with proper credentials have been publicly criticized for having sex with students. On the other, teachers with no formal certification have attained respect for their virtuous, if unenlightened, behavior. To Americans new to Zen, it may well appear that dharma transmission, ethical behavior, and some discernible sign of awakened mind have nothing to do with each other.

Historically, face-to-face transmission has been the lifeblood of the Zen teachings, the method that revitalized the dharma for each new generation. Designed to encourage an experiential embodiment of the teachings, the system—in theory—counters the natural propensity of spiritual vigor to stagnate. At this point in the United States, widespread disregard for the traditional values of dharma transmission—in addition to the libertine antagonism that Americans display towards authority—has left the Japanese lineages of Zen without a coherent system of assigning teaching authority. With their increasingly ubiquitous use, titles such as reverend, sensei, roshi, even abbot, often sound whimsical, hollow, and opportunistic. For many Zen practitioners, it has even become irrelevant to ask, “Is there a problem here?” Yet, at the very least, the question seems worthy of inquiry.

The Zen system of dharma transmission remains unique. There are dozens of Buddhist sects in which the priests, meditation instructors, and lineage holders arrive at their positions through systematic levels of study, not unlike advancing to college from high school, or from graduate to postgraduate studies. In some traditions leadership is passed from father to son, and Tibetan lineages often employ reincarnation to confer spiritual status. In the Zen ideal, “transmission” does not refer to something given and received, but to the recognition of one enlightened mind by another. Even in its more prosaic implications of authority conferred, transmission traditionally addressed the issue of awakening and affirmed the value of enlightenment. Yet enlightenment—oddly enough —has become all but a dirty word among many American Zennists. Not surprisingly, the devaluation of dharma transmission coincides with a devaluation of enlightenment itself.

Many of today’s American practitioners speak of enlightenment and ethics as separate and contradictory concerns. The quest for enlightenment has been derided of late as the romantic and mythic aspiration of antiquated patriarchal monasticism, while ethics has become the rallying vision of householder Zen. To pursue the unknowable state of enlightenment is now often regarded as an obstacle to a practice that emphasizes “Everyday Zen,” a state of mindful attention in the midst of ordinary life.

The archetypal debate between Rinzai and Soto teachings—or between those who urge the importance of a specific, sudden enlightenment experience and those who emphasize the gradual growth of clear awareness in daily activity—has historically defined the two main schools of Japanese Zen. Yet the debate shifts considerably when it enters a society whose mainstream fails to recognize or validate the enlightenment experience. To apprehend that all phenomena are impermanent, essentially empty, without a fixed identity; to experience the false fabricated sense of self as a delusion; to allow the boundaries that imprison the ego-centered “I” to dissolve; and to cultivate a view that does not judge, compare, compete, and criticize are not goals prized by normative social values. And furthermore, in the United States there is still no cultivation of the traditional monastic environment in which both the Soto and Rinzai Zen schools flourished. In Japan, these sectarian differences reflected variations in emphasis, style, and methodology, but they occurred within the common parameters of monastic life and within an ideological framework in which the virtues of the “falling away of body and mind” (to use Zen Master Dogen’s description of his enlightenment experience) were valued. Novices who believed that such an experience—known as “kensho” or “satori”—defined the ultimate target of Zen practice were cautioned by masters that it was only the first step. Zen’s reputation for eccentricity is based both on its use of harsh and unusual methods for disabusing disciples of an attachment to emptiness. In Zen the main obstacles to clarity are never in the realm of actual experience, negative or positive; rather the challenge lies in dealing with one’s ideas and attitudes “about” enlightenment.

Contemporary advocates for everyday Zen affirm classic Soto teachings; but Soto Zen’s focus on awareness in the midst of activity supported a consistent awakened state and was not used to denigrate enlightenment. And the focus on mindful activity cautioned against confusing a momentary flash of insight—or even a deep experience of emptiness—with the mature and seasoned understanding that qualifies an awakened mind.

Recently an American Zen teacher, echoing a sentiment that has gained strong support among many of today’s practitioners of Japanese Zen, said to me, “I don’t give a shit about enlightenment.” In Zen literature dozens of teaching stories depict awakened masters trying to ground a disciple’s ambitious quest for enlightenment in the daily activities of washing one’s eating bowls, folding one’s robes, cleaning the toilet. The old masters themselves often employed shock to scramble their disciples’ ideas, concepts, hopes, and desires for and about enlightenment. Yet to exploit this as license to denigrate enlightenment seems a grievous and perhaps peculiarly American misinterpretation.

This essay has been adapted for Tricycle from the afterword that has been added to the forthcoming edition of Zen in America. Written by Tricycle’s editor, Helen Tworkov, the book follows the movement of Japanese Zen to the United States through portraits of Robert Aitken, Jakusho Kwong, Bernard Glassman, Maurine Stuart, and Richard Baker.Zen in America was originally published in 1988 by North Point Press and will be reissued this spring by Kodansha America.


Untitled, Richard Serra, 1993, paintstick on paper, 50 x 30 inches.
Untitled, Richard Serra, 1993, paintstick on paper, 50 x 30 inches.

In traditional monastic settings, the attachment to emptiness among Zen monks occurred so frequently that it became a well-known phenomenon—the legendary Achilles’ heel of Zen and the catalyst throughout Zen history for voluminous attacks on the attachment to enlightenment. But then, criticism lay in the domain of the masters, enlightened masters who had stepped off the hundred-foot pole, who had come down from the metaphorical mountaintop to enter the marketplace. Enlightenment disparaged by practitioners, students or teachers, who have not viewed reality from the top of the hundred-foot pole, who have had no personal experience of an awakened mind, is something else altogether.

In the absence of any widespread interest in monasticism, the thrust in American centers of Japanese-derived Zen is toward accommodating lay practitioners. In theory, this does not diminish the supreme place that enlightenment has held in the Zen tradition, but in actuality it does. Everything about the Zen sense of an enlightened mind—the concept, the language, the path, the view—is on shaky ground in a society which considers silence, emptiness, and sitting still (“doing nothing”) worthless. This does not make lay practice impossible, but it docs make it extremely difficult; and the attempt to fit Zen into the conventions of our society endangers its essence. While the old masters agreed that getting stuck in emptiness was a kind of “Zen sickness,” the literature also makes it clear that the path of uncovering one’s own original enlightenment is an all-consuming affair, rife with ego-obstacles, extreme mental anguish, and truths that hurt and blind. In short, it does not exactly conform to the desire for mental and physical comfort that characterizes the American way of life.

Buddha means “awakened one.” When Zen practice was first offered in this country, waking up looked like a vital alternative to the bureaucratic clergy and dead rituals familiar to many American childhoods. However naively and ignorantly, enlightenment was pursued with good intentions; D. T Suzuki introduced a somewhat romantic version of satori; Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, never spoke about it—and encouraged his students to follow his example. Soen Roshi despised “the stink of Zen” that could permeate the robes of a monk drunk on his attachment to enlightenment. The consistent message of all Zen teachers, however, which was taken very seriously by idealistic, democratic Americans, reiterated Shakyamuni Buddha’s good news: that realization of one’s own true nature is the birthright of every human being. Yet in the specific domain of Zen training, the methods for cultivating a realized mind evolved in and were tailored for a monastic setting. Since Americans were apparently not yet ready to live by the traditional monastic rules, which included abstinence from drugs, alcohol, and sex, American Zen in the sixties combined monastic ideals with communes. The activities of daily life, common to both householders and monastics, of cooking, washing dishes, working in the garden, or changing flat tires were—theoretically—accomplished with meditative attention.

In Zen Master Dogen’s teachings on “practice-enlightenment,” attention to details and meditative mindfulness in action manifest emptiness particularized: in particularity vastness is known; total attention requires a mind emptied of distraction, habitual patterns, and self-preoccupation. But in the actual life of American communities throughout the seventies nothing in fact replaced the focus on enlightenment or formal meditation. Attempts to “democratize” Zen practice did not prove successful; the activity, however mindful, of raising children, working in a bakery, or tending the gardens never achieved the same status as zazen, and despite a certain amount of lip service, zazen alone remained identified with realization. Try as they might, Zen teachers could not disabuse American students from an attachment to zazen as both the supreme expression of, and surest route to, enlightenment.

Throughout the eighties students got unhooked from an attachment to zazen and to enlightenment, but mostly through anger and negativity, not by stepping off the hundred-foot pole. If teachers helped at all, it was by default. In the midst of sexual scandals and abuses of power, realization itself became disparaged. In this climate the quest for enlightenment began to lose its value, and trust in the dharma was more and more frequently abandoned in favor of psychotherapeutic approaches to problem-solving. With the behavior of teachers at the center of concern, ethical probity and psychological attributes became the standards by which to measure a teacher’s capacity to transmit the dharma.

However satisfying to the linear mind of the Western practitioner, a simple shift from an awakened mind to ethical or personality norms doesn’t add up: ethical behavior may or may not be born of fundamental insight into the nature of reality; as well, it may or may not be released through the compassion inherent in one’s own Buddha-nature. And if the essential emptiness of one’s own Buddha-nature is not plumbed as the source for ethical action and compassion, and if ethics is separated from realization, then what is called “Buddhist ethics” offers nothing new to a predominantly Christian society.

In the United States, when Zen centers were starting up in the sixties, what compelled Americans was not just a polite, antiseptic, prettied-up addition to religious plurality, replete with elitist aesthetics. Zen challenged entire paradigms of Western thought, of Western psychology, even the very beliefs that individuals cherished about their own identities. It was precisely its marginality that imbued Zen with a moral vigor so lacking in established religions. With time the baby-boomer, almost all white Zen sangha grew up, got married, had kids, and worried about money. During the eighties, Western Buddhist centers attracted so few young people it seemed American Zen might suffer death by attrition, but the centers grew—in terms of land and buildings—anyway. Supported by the wealth of young rebels grown into good citizens, temples were built, country centers purchased, and factories converted to meditation halls. The Middle Way became solidly middle class.

The householder life has long been lauded as an exemplary way to practice Zen. But today the householder discourse is too often used to justify having one’s cake and eating it too—one can have sex, make babies, hold a job, develop a career, keep house, and use each of these activities as an opportunity to practice without missing a beat in terms of spiritual aspiration. To abandon monasticism in favor of householder activities, or to favor ethical behavior over enlightenment, demands, at the very least, new structures, new methods, new practices. But that has not happened, and the recent focus on ethical behavior complies nicely, if not somewhat self-righteously, with the dualistic moral considerations necessary to the householder lifestyle. Furthermore, Buddhist laity were traditionally as dependent on community as was monasticism itself. In North America, aside from a handful of residential centers, “the community” for Zen lay practitioners is defined by job, race, sex, neighborhood and by the culture-bound values with which they are imbued. Yet it is not simply a historic accident that Buddhism begins with a person walking away from a life of luxury, from a palace, a family, art, from security and every comfort. Nor is it an accident that Zen was nourished in a monastic setting, by students and teachers who chose to abandon their worldly existence.

This essay has been adapted for Tricycle from the afterword that has been added to the forthcoming edition of Zen in America. Written by Tricycle’s editor, Helen Tworkov, the book follows the movement of Japanese Zen to the United States through portraits of Robert Aitken, Jakusho Kwong, Bernard Glassman, Maurine Stuart, and Richard Baker.Zen in America was originally published in 1988 by North Point Press and will be reissued this spring by Kodansha America.


The most compelling question today is whether the Americanization of Zen now under way is a necessary process of cultural adaptation or whether what we have confidently called “Americanization” has become a justification for the co-optation of Zen by secular materialists. In the sixties and seventies, American practitioners were arrogant about Zen, proud of their engagement in an enlightenment tradition that employed personal experience as opposed to blind faith or the devotional or community practices of their childhoods—or of other sects of Buddhism. Zen engaged its American adherents in such a radical alternative to common encounters with religion that it became embarrassing for long-time practitioners to even entertain the idea that perhaps conventional congregational worship was what one wanted or needed most from a religion. Perhaps deep down many Americans are concluding that community is more important than personal insight; perhaps sitting quietly and calming the mind provides psychological benefits without offering the inspiration to go further. Perhaps after twenty years of zazen with no remarkable experiences to report, they feel betrayed by false seductions; or find the social aspects of Zen less entertaining. In short, rather than say, “I’m not so interested in getting enlightened” —or, “I am not so interested any more,” or, “I no longer believe in the efficacy of enlightenment,”—Zen practitioners are beginning to repudiate enlightenment itself. Again, when a great Zen master knocks enlightenment, it is one thing; but the denigration voiced by many Americans has been too often accompanied by an unacknowledged lack of aspiration, an appeal for approval from the dominant Christian culture, an attachment to personal comfort, and an indulgent lifestyle. The point here is not to argue in favor of an enlightenment tradition over other forms of religious endeavor—either within or outside of Buddhism—but to relocate enlightenment at the center of the Zen tradition.

The replacement of enlightenment by the ethical standards favored by many of today’s Zen practitioners may be attributed in part to the failure of contemporary Buddhist teachers to convincingly integrate spiritual awakening with their behayior whether that behavior takes a conventional form or not. Yet this both feeds on and fuels a human resistance to the unknown and the unknowable that lie at the heart of all religious pursuit, and which has been so successfully suppressed by organized religion. At present, there is no outstanding public religious voice in the culture at large (no heir, for example, to Thomas Merton) immersed in a view of reality that does not support the socioeconomic political—and religious—establishment.

The United States, for the most part, remains thoroughly attached to proving, validating, and authenticating even mysticism. Humanist psychologists now tell us that Buddhism and psychology are exactly the same; Buddhist physicists applaud scientific proof for the unity of all creation; New Age pundits and stress-reduction experts expound the feel-good effects of meditation; and Zen leaders place ethical norms at the center of their concerns. What all these claims have in common is a reference to what can be known, what can be grasped, what can be controlled and apprehended by the conventional mind. In these “Americanized” paradigms, Zen never strays from the comfort of what is familiar, and is thereby diminished. How radically different this is from Soen Roshi’s exhortation to Zen monks to “apply ourselves day after day, year after year, to the study of the ‘Unthinkable.'”

In Zen, precept study and the commitment to the Eightfold Path are means of purifying the mind. The more one’s mind is cleansed of defilements, the greater the possibility that one’s behavior will be liberated from greed, anger, and ignorance. To concentrate on behavior without penetrating the mindsource is to risk replicating the narrow interpretation of scripture embraced by Christian fundamentalists. According to Zen teachings, getting attached to ethics is no better or worse than getting attached to enlightenment. The United States, however, has no shortage of blueprints for ethical behavior, and enlightenment is too important to be sabotaged by the misdeeds of a handful of teachers.

The importance of maintaining an enlightenment tradition extends far beyond the parameters of Zen and into the quality of American culture. Zen has no monopoly on understanding emptiness. World literature, East and West, is filled with expressions of unity and nonduality which attest to the universality of this insight. What is unique about the Zen tradition is its explicit focus on a rigorous methodology designed to prime this realization.

Only by employing both ideology and method can the authority of the Zen tradition affirm an awakened sensibility for any society in which it is allowed to flourish. The abandonment of religious virtue has left this culture aggressively antagonistic to the pursuit of the unknown, the unknowable, to the mystical realms of reality. The original enthusiasm for Zen in the United States was not just for personal discovery, but for the possibility of developing an appreciation for the unknown in an excessively cluttered society—it was an effort to break ground for new possibilities. What we need to know cannot arise from what we know now; our liberation from personal and collective suffering must derive from what we cannot envision, what is beyond our imagination, even beyond our dreams of what is possible. One day an American student asked a Japanese Zen master, “Is enlightenment really possible?” He answered, “If you’re willing to allow for it.”

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