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Zen Buddhism, the Udumbara Flower

First, a general background to Zen, then a brief, as long as it may be, this is a brief description of Japanese Zen and a summary of Western Zen as well, both in no way conclusive, followed by thoughts for the future of Zen.

I won’t go too deeply into explaining the practice of Zen except where it’s appropriate for context. I suggest going to other sources for that. However, any comments on contemporary Zen and its future must be understood in some context of past and present East and West development and practice. I’ll use the conventional term Western Zen, though there is no such thing as such, for shorthand discussing Zen in the West, just as it can be argued there is no such thing as ‘Japanese Zen’ in much the same way, ultimately, there is only Zen. The influence of Korean and Vietnamese Zen is substantial, but for reasons I’ll outline as I go, I will concentrate here on the relationship between Japanese Zen and Western Zen.

Overall, Zen Buddhism is a Mahayana school and, as such, carries characteristics and framework of the tradition and, therefore, some familiar to other traditions in the Mahayana movement as well. That means teachings of the Bodhisattva Way – Compassion doctrine, religious rituals, and customs from India intermingled with the development of Chinese customs and the development of Chinese Mahayana scriptures and practices. Its meditation practices combine and evolve Samatha and Vipassana and are mainly developed in India. It’s challenging to go into the development of Zen in India, and I won’t try here in any great detail; that would be an essay on its undertaking after Venerable Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha, but Zen claims to continue his example of personal searching and direct insight, and this forms the core of the tradition that was transmitted to China. The notion of evolving Dharma is quite crucial in Zen. This, among other things, sets Zen apart and is quite crucial to this discussion; the capacity for evolution sets Zen and other Mahayana schools apart from contemporary Theravada Buddhism, which in any country or epoch looks the same and stands in principle on that.

Zen Buddhism is considered to have spread from India to China in the 5th century C.E., and traditional dates and people are somewhat representative. It’s questionable whether the exact historical details will ever be known. Nonetheless, the school continued to develop in China, and by the 9th Century, its distinctiveness had taken shape sufficiently to spread from there to Vietnam and Korea and, finally, during the Sung Dynasty, to Japan. This staged spread resulted in differences between lineages in the development of thought and practice, with their ethnic dimension and temporal characteristics depending on when they split from the main lineage in China. Rinzai Zen amalgamates several Sung dynasty schools and their methodologies, known for the Chinese Zen master Rinzai Kigen.

Buddhist Monk preaching Zen

Zen in Asia remained mainly monastic, though as a Mahayana school, it has civil characteristics, and it is impossible not to consider a solid relationship to culture. Buddhism and the Arts have always gone hand in hand in China and Japan, hence the narrative in China that Bodhidharma introduced Tea, Martial Arts and painting into China. Naturally, this is a legend; of course, there’s broad archaeological evidence that China’s cultural arts predate the introduction of Zen Buddhism, but the narrative illustrates the role Zen has played in providing metaphorical inspiration and spiritual depth in all the societies it has been practised in. Both Artists and Monks work to ‘See’ and to ‘act’ truthfully, so it’s naturally convergent that Zen training provides a vehicle to do that, and the world of the temple is also that of the artist and many others who seek the same.

Zen entered Japan in the 12th century, corresponding with the late Chinese Sung dynasty; well-developed Rinzai teaching centred for the most part on Zen meditation, which developed in India as a combination of Samatha and Vipassana practices, and koan practice developed in China, often misunderstood as enigmatic riddles but in fact tools for triggering metaphorical understanding. Chinese and Indian literature and ritual liturgy are similar to any other school of Mahayana Buddhism. To understand the development of Koans in the Zen tradition, see Hogen Sori’s work Zen Sand, in which he gives an in-depth discussion of the format and function of the tradition, I’ll say here that koans form a unique metaphorical insight method of Zen.

Shingon and Tendai Buddhism were introduced into Japan by the priests Kukai and Saicho, respectively, in the 8th century, and it was predominantly from these two sects of monks who took up Zen, among the most famous was Esai, a Japanese Tendai sect monk, regarded as the founder of Kenninji Zen Temple, and Enni Bennin a former Shingon monk regarded as the founder of Tofukuji Zen Temple, Ehei Dogen founder of Soto Zen in Japan was also a former Tendai master. This relationship has left a character on Japanese Rinzai and Soto Zen. 13 Chinese Rinzai Zen masters were invited to Japan, and numerous Japanese monks travelled to China in the 11th and 12th centuries, and together established the Rinzai and Soto lineages that survive today. A second wave of Chinese Zen teachers arrived in Japan in the 1600s, introducing latter-day Rinzai practice as it was in China by then, and that lineage became known as Obaku Zen in Japan to differentiate its practices and lineage from those established earlier. Obaku Zen never became widespread and has largely died out in the post-war period.

To briefly mention, though it’s of solid importance both in Japan’s past and the future of global Zen, the introduction of Zen into Japan concurred with the rise of the Samurai warrior class as a power in Japanese society, and this too contributed to the establishment of Zen Buddhism, and Zen to the growth in cultural arts which the Samurai wished to take up in emulation of the Japanese aristocracy. This interstate in Zen by descendants of this educated sector of Japanese society has continued to this day. It significantly affected Japanese culture and remained in effect in contemporary Japanese Zen.

Methodologies transmitted into Japan continued to develop further during the feudal period, so much so that Zen is sometimes incorrectly identified as the Japanese school of Buddhism. Most Rinzai and Obaku Zen lineages died out over the subsequent centuries, present-day Japanese lineages trace themselves back to only one of the original introduced lines.

Japan also, from the mid-1600s until the mid-1800s, fell under international seclusion by the Tokugawa government. The seclusion of Japan had the effect of freezing most development while preserving Japanese and Chinese intellectual and cultural legacy. During the later Tokugawa era, Hakuin Ekaku and his followers emerged and became influential in Zen Buddhism’s restoration in the later Meiji era.

The preservation of Zen teaching in Japan and its restoration also became important in the restoration movements in China, Korea and Vietnam in the 20th century. Many Chinese monks have long trained at Tofukuji in Kyoto, for instance, and Korean and Vietnamese monks teach at Myoshinji. Hanazono University in Kyoto and Rinzai University have a robust relationship with many Buddhist universities in Asia.

Contemporary Zen in Japan

Though there are important works about Zen Lay people, and as pointed out, a solid relationship to culture, the more significant body of the tradition rests inside temples. In China, it was usually remote, away from secular life, most notably the excellent temple centre of the Wuhan Mountain region, while in Japan and Korea, training centres were often less remote, the Japanese Emperors preferred to keep Buddhism close to the court, and this has undoubtedly influenced the character of Japanese Zen.

To explain as briefly as possible, and this is not comprehensive, as a Rinzai monk or nun in Japan, you belong administratively to one of five Head Temples in Kyoto or the five Head temples in Kamakura, or one of the 12 secondary temples, or one of the branch temples affiliated to them. It’s not set in concrete, and people move from one to another if they wish to or under circumstances such as training ending in place. There are also several independent training temples and branch temples. As such, there is some variation in practice in the Rinzai school. The Soto sect is more centralised, especially in recent times; the contemporary Sotoshucho is administered from its headquarters in Tokyo and directs all Sotoshu monks to train at Eiji Head Temple for at least one year before returning to their branch temple. In all sects, you are usually ordained at a branch temple and then committed to further training at a training temple. There are sometimes exceptions to this, but this is the norm.

It’s important to understand that at least since the later Tokugawa era, Japanese training temples are not monasteries with permanent retreat members the way they’re thought of in Southeast Asia or Christian communities in the West. Monks and nuns enter training for 1 to 12 years, depending on their desired level. They usually take a position administrating a branch or sub-temple connected to the main training temple rather than living there. Only a few temple officers will remain at the head temple. Training has remained essentially unchanged in the training temples for a thousand years. It’s an experience that transports you to another era and demands muscular physical, mental, and spiritual endurance. Many trainees suffer injuries, there’s considerably more running than one would imagine; these are not places to relax and take it easy; these are places with the atmosphere of strict barracks, and young boys averaging 21 or so years of age on average, alongside some late comers up to middle age, living a dormitory life.

Regardless of differences, in China or Japan, the layperson seeking Zen instruction has traditionally gone to the temple and spent time among the monks as a private venture. Even today, one of two laymen will participate in an intensive known as Sesshin within the training hall. Sesshin intensives are regarded as an important part of Zen training for both ordained trainees and lay people.

It’s only since the 1700s that a substantive lay movement has arisen; lay groups, called zazenkai, usually meet in smaller branch temples to practice zazen, often people with a familial connection to the branch temple who also might attend ritual events at that temple. Recently, more people have been crossing from one sect to another, but it’s still relatively small.

The Japanese Rinzai priest Hakuin Ekaku, who lived in the late 1700s, was the main protagonist for this lay movement. He lent his name to the term ‘Hakuin Zen,’ used to describe not a distinct practice from Rinzai Zen, but the emergence of greater importance on lay Zen in the tradition. Hakuin Zen anticipated the collapse of the Japanese feudal system. Hakuin encouraged more lay Zen students than any Zen teacher before him. However, it would still be nearly 100 years after Hakuin and the opening of Japan in the Meiji era that the lay movement comes into its own. This parallel can be observed in other Asian countries as well.

Gautam Buddha preaching and meditating in a serene environment

In the early Meiji era and onwards, there was a boom in the temples. The popularity of both full-time training and Lay Zen continued into the post-war era. In the temples themselves, a generation of Roshi emerged who, on one hand, were strict preservers of tradition and, on the other, modernists. They could see the benefits of Japan in the world, typical in many ways of their generation. This generation includes Mumon Yamada of Myoshinji and Zenkei Shibayama of Nanzenji.

In a conversation with Yuho Kirchner, who has trained in Japan since 1968, he described that in those days, the training temples, Senmon dojo, or sodo, as they are also called, were full. In fact, they turned many away. In contrast to today, it’s been the situation for many years that many are empty. When Kirchner arrived in Japan during the height of the post-war economic boom, Japan’s economy was inflating rapidly. Yet, as he says, Kyoto was still surrounded by rural life. It’s a safe bet that much of Japan was still as it had been for hundreds of years.

Today, not having any new entrants for many years, and at some training centers that still have trainees at all, being able to say four came this year is a good year. Tofukuji, for example, which is a temple you enter having trained elsewhere, often at Nanzenji, a kind of postgraduate place where the Emperor’s own teachers trained, will only receive 2 or three a year from the entire pool these days.

As far as opportunities for people from outside Japan going to train there, few Japanese teaching priests speak a second language, and fewer still wish to. There is still innate conservatism, and yes, racism. Japanese minds are generally not open to the rest of the world, and the Buddhist establishment is among the most conservative. In this regard, contrary to the spirit of Venerable Sakyamuni’s teaching of opening the mind, there are many walls to training in Japan.

I think in many ways, it’s more difficult today than it once was, simply because that immediate post-war generation experienced the uncertainties of war and the optimism of rebuilding, and they are largely gone. In terms of openness, the late Kiedo Fukushima Roshi of Tofukuji was an exception in that he had experienced life at a Western Zen center in the United States and accompanied his teacher Zenkie Shibayama on his American tour visits. He would give some instruction to lay people and monks in English. By all accounts, the late Mumkon Yamada of Myoshinji was also progressive in his views.

Though progressive views are one thing, it may take generations for progressive actions to follow. Yamada Roshi during his tenure as Abbot of Myoshinji and director of Hanozono University made it quite clear that more of the same was in danger of steering Zen Buddhism in Japan into oblivion. He is well known throughout Japan, having become the most interviewed Zen Master, even appearing in television interviews, to educate and put his opinions forward. Though currently, it seems still not enough warning.

For lay people, there is very little. Yuho told me that in the old days, there were large lay groups at every temple, and it was open. However, the people who once frequented these sitting groups have grown old and drifted away. The Roshi who opened the temples up to them and gave public lectures on Zen have passed away. The people replacing them have dwindled, and many young Japanese are no longer interested in traditional Buddhism. Instead, if they do take an interest, they prefer to attend some of the Tibetan Buddhist groups at community centers that have sprung up. This parallels the Western experience, rather ironic in a country that has the largest number of temples in the world, only comparable to ancient Egypt.

In recent times, the number of small public zazenkai or sitting groups has increased in the Kyoto area. But I observe that they are mainly aimed at tourist experience, not recommended for anyone wishing to go deeper. Temple priests strutting around with the kaisaku stick and often giving talks inevitably only in Japanese on the superiority of Zen monks to suffer through training to become professionals. Much of it is performance and in no way advances people’s understanding of Zen. I’ve asked more than one person for their thoughts on this kind of ‘Zen experience,’ and the feedback was very negative, unsurprisingly so. These ‘Zazen experiences,’ which are not really worthy of being called Zazenkai, have been going on for decades. But the recent expansion of tourism into Japan has seen more tourist zazen experiences open. Probably more to be avoided, except for a cup of tea and the atmosphere of the sub-temple’s gardens.

Only a few of the Head temples hold more serious zazenkai, and there are one or two popular ones left. But Kirchner says nothing like the post-war era. He recounted to me in the late sixties and into the 1970s, thousands of people attended weekly zazenkai with lectures, but nearly all of them are gone.

In practice in Japan today, as a lay person, it takes, in general, a few years of sitting in a serious zazenkai to finally get access to a teaching master on a personal level. A person from outside Japan still currently needs to consider staying in Japan for some time to break in and be taken seriously. Bearing in mind there are a lot of people who say they are serious but are really beginners, and there’s no guarantee to the Japanese side that this person before them will be anything but transient until proven otherwise. So for foreign people, Japanese Zen remains elusive.

Mostly, training in Japan as a monk, or even as a lay person, is strictly on the terms of conforming to a strict expectation of some or even high fluency in speaking and reading in Japanese and acceptance of the strict nature of life inside the monk’s hall. In Thailand, visas to stay in temples and train are relatively easy, but in Japan, they are guarded like gold. And references, the very Japanese trait of needing to know someone, ensure that everyone is on the same page. All contribute to the lack of well-trained Western monks and nuns in the Zen world compared to other Buddhist traditions from other parts of Asia.

Not a few priests in branch temples are businessmen in robes. The main business of many temples in cities, like Kyoto, Tokyo, Kamakura, and others, is garden tourism. This has nothing to do with any spiritual activity, other than the ambiance the visitor might draw in while they drink their matcha tea. The other business of branch temples is funerals, and the term Funeral Buddhism is often applied to all Buddhist sects in Japan. Expensive funeral and grave fees can be argued to have contributed to the decline of all Buddhist sects in Japan. Ordinary Japanese have increasingly come to resent what can be a huge financial burden at a time of mourning. Meanwhile, at large training centers, the declaration of UNESCO protected status to a temple is a death sentence as far as sincere Buddhism is concerned. It seems to just lead to souvenir shops, buses, and thousands of shoes on the very historic and cultural sites it’s meant to protect. The historic site of Mount Hei, the oldest home of Buddhism in Japan, has been reduced to a theme park.

A few temples, such as the historic Kenninji, attempt to engage the arts community in an effort to bring the public to Zen Buddhism, but the results are difficult to judge.

Although in Japan Sanbo kyodan Zen is a minor movement with only a few thousand followers, mostly in the Tokyo area, and to many Japanese, a Zen-like cult movement rather than part of the mainstream, it’s impossible not to mention it. This is due to its impact in the West, where it has a substantially larger following and emphasis on charismatic authority. This characteristic is unique and generally out of step with mainstream Buddhist values. Charismatic authority essentially does not exist in mainstream Buddhism; it’s more typical of post-Luther Christianity, and Sanbon Kyodan draws on some charismatic Christian practices. Sanbo Kyodan makes various claims to the revival of true Zen and correct transmission of truth and authority, and corruption of the mainstream. Sanbo Kyodan is a lay movement without priests, though in mainstream Zen, priests are little more than lay people.

It’s also important to mention the aforementioned priest Saicho, who in the 8th century championed the introduction of Chinese Vinaya from Mount Ten’tai in China. This form of temple regulation allowed the marriage of priests, and though taken up by followers of Pure Land Buddhism, it was not widely adopted in his lifetime. In the late 19th century, Saicho’s reforms were widely adopted and into the Zen school as well. The intention was to modernize Zen institutionally. The marriage of clergy is a widespread practice in Christianity and Islam; however, the issue arises that Japanese society traditionally encourages sons to follow into father’s professions. This has resulted in generations of Temple sons who become priests without vocational conviction and even resentment. Even one year in the monk’s hall is tough, made even tougher if you are a prisoner of circumstance. Under this kind of forced circumstance, how is it different from a cult? A case of well-intentioned and needed reform gone wrong when context is not taken into account. On the other hand, to be fair, the marriage of Priests brings positive influences into the temple. It’s difficult to imagine some temples functioning at all without temple mothers and daughters. A priest on his own is in quite a bind. There might be only discipline in the zazenkai and no one to provide a soft counterpoint. Temple ladies can have a strong networking effect.

In recent generations, the number of nuns has increased. In the early 2000s, a Rinzai Nido or hall for training women opened, the first since the closures of the Meiji era. Many nuns traditionally came from the imperial family, sent into training to dispose of them. However, in the Meiji era, the number of princesses was reduced, and there was a desire to distance the institution of the Emperor from Buddhism. By the end of the 20th century, however, the number of men interested in being a priest as a career had diminished, and the number of women had increased. This is a general phenomenon around the world in many walks, and no less so in the world of Zen Buddhism.

Zen in the West

Zen Buddhism became widely known in the West in the later part of the 19th century as Japan opened up to the Meiji government, predominantly through scholarly study at first. A few Japanese Zen monks did arrive in the West, such as Shaku Soen, at the turn of the century. However, the largest expansion of interest in Zen Buddhism took place after World War Two, mainly driven by Westerners who visited and trained in Japan for varied periods as priests or as laypeople.

In the late 1950s and the 1960s, a number of Japanese priests traveled to Europe and the United States. There, along with an early generation of laypeople, they began the first real practice communities in the West. Zen also gained popularity among the Beat generation and counter-culture movements during the post-war era. In popular culture, figures like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac integrated ideas and practices into their work, helping to open Zen in the West. People inspired by lecture tours and books by Daisetzu Teitaro Suzuki also contributed to spreading Zen to Europe and America. The writings and psychotherapy school of Carl Jung, who was inspired by Zen, played a part in popularizing Zen in the 60s and 70s.

Taisen Deshimaru, a radical Soto Zen priest whose following has been mainly in Europe, Taizan Maezumi also of the Soto school, and Robert Aitken, a lay teacher of the Sanbo Kyodan, played a role in introducing the model of charismatic authority into Western Zen. This model, normally alien to Zen Buddhism, claimed revisionism to make Zen more appropriate for modern and Western people, leading to mixed results and issues of leadership abuse, mainly in the United States.

The majority of Western Zen groups and centers are small and run on the ‘meditation center model,’ where practice revolves around the practice of zazen. Some also emphasize koans in some form, though there are few places where the traditional koan system has been introduced. In contrast to Japan and Asia, Zen in the West is mostly lay-based. There are monks and nuns, but rather large training centers in Europe and the Americas are basically combined. They may carry out ordination and have small ordained communities, but they are also places where laypeople are represented in greater numbers and are proactive in their running. Only a few groups promote practices such as Shakkyo, memorial services, etc.

Ordination and lineage, which mean very little in itself in Japan, bring to mind an amusing comment from a friend, a priest at Daitokuji in Kyoto. He laughed and said, “In the West, you can be an instant Roshi.” While not entirely accurate, it captures the essence that in Japan, people not only train under someone but must demonstrate it. Respect doesn’t automatically come with the robe and title; to those who don’t know, you’re just another black crow. In the West, the equivalent of auxiliary priests carefully craft their images as masters, and in a market culture that venerates individuality, this is somewhat inevitable.

This phenomenon extends beyond priests; the Japanese Sanbo kyodan sect, hardly known in Japan, has proliferated Zen in the United States and Australia. It places emphasis on charismatic leadership and practice authority, claiming to revive the authority of the document of heritage or Inka. In contrast, in Japan, this document holds very little importance. A Japanese priest has their temple affiliation, but their reputation is ultimately based on their actions. Supporters in Japan praise or despise a priest as a master or a weasel based on their apparent kindness and character, rather than just their title. It is a problematic trait of Western culture to prioritize someone’s education and branding above demonstrated merits.

In many ways, Western Zen groups often resemble micro-cults found in Christianity, but with zazen, koans, and lineage inheritance as their focus. To be measured, Japanese priests still have considerable financial, albeit slowly dwindling, support from traditional Zen families. There is no such traditional base in the West, placing the priest in the position of marketing themselves to survive.

There are very good centers and teachers in the West. Positive models include Upaya Zen Centre, a place of combined Soto and Rinzai practice led by Joan Halifax, the priest and academic Dosho Port, and San Francisco Zen Centre, a large group of centers established in the 1960s and run on a combination of Japanese and Western principles. Ryumonji Soto Zen Temple in Europe, among others, shows that the Sotoshucho has taken steps to introduce an international standard in practice and education. However, there is also much that is idealistic and offers little beyond people gathering together in costumes.

One of the few relatively open places to go in Japan is Sogenji in Okayama prefecture. It has led to many satellite groups and branch temples in the West. Still, questions linger about the long-lasting impact and potential niche status of implementing hard-core Rinzai Zen exactly as dropped into somewhere in the mid United States or Poland.

More recently, in popular culture, Zen has influenced the emerging global Mindfulness movement. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a leading figure in the Mindfulness movement, has foundations in Zen Buddhism and based his mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) method on it. Criticism of the Mindfulness movement raises questions about ‘Zen without Buddhism’ and challenges the reductive nature that may erase Zen altogether. The focus on the individual as therapy prompts questions about authenticity and helpfulness. The traditional reply is that it is only useful as an entry point. Ultimately, the Mindfulness movement is focused on the individual’s sense of gain and has little to say about connectedness and compassion. As one Chinese nun remarked, ‘Zen without Buddha’ means dead Zen, dead life. The appeal of Mindfulness lies in its lack of group dynamics, charismatic authority, and religious and cultural trappings, particularly given the problems that have arisen in some Zen groups in the West. It’s an understandable shift.

Moving forward

Zen in Asia has evolved over many generations, spanning both China and Japan. However, Zen’s presence in the West is relatively recent, extending just over a century. While this may seem inconsequential in comparison, it holds immense potential for the future.

Traditionally, Buddhism asserts that the Buddha Way and the Dharma transcend temporal concerns. However, pragmatically, this perspective may not suffice. Despite the inherent Buddha mind in all beings, the present era introduces new paradigms previously nonexistent. Zen Buddhism faced challenges in the last century. While it has expanded and lay practice gained popularity, numerous temple training centers and branch temples across Asia have closed. Factors include global conflicts, economic shifts, and political changes, coupled with transformations in people’s lives.

Traditional Zen flourished alongside feudalism and liberal arts, mutually thriving for many centuries. However, their decline aligns with the waning of Zen training. Feudalism’s resurgence is improbable in this era of evolving human life. Buddhism, inherently timeless, has always been a social phenomenon, with Mahayana schools like Zen being particularly influenced.

While finding a temple for Zen training, even as a layperson, proves challenging in Japan, Theravada Buddhism experiences a flourishing in Thailand and Sri Lanka. Foreign trainees interested in deeper aspects of Buddhism or Vipassana meditation freely practice there. This contrasts sharply with Zen, where very few Westerners embark on such journeys, highlighting a significant gap. Japanese Zen has the opportunity to enhance Western Zen and, in doing so, revitalize itself if it adopts a more open approach.

Mumon Yamada of Myoshinji asserted that ‘Zen in Japan is dead and needs to be reintroduced from the West.’ Apart from the evident gradual collapse of the Danka support system in Japan, ensuring people’s connection to their temples and continued financial support, the issue of relevance arises. This challenge affects established Buddhism both in Japan and the West. In the West, the task is ongoing and never truly completed—akin to a continuously growing tree. Regardless of its current or future greatness, old and young trees alike can wither unless renewed.

In feudal times, towns and communities prospered where temples existed, illustrating Buddhism’s ability to create economic and cultural benefits wherever it took root. To envision the future of Zen and Buddhism, both in the East and West, we can draw inspiration not by retroactively looking at the past but by understanding how temples initially thrived. Rethinking the role of temples or Zen Centers involves embracing, rather than discarding, tradition and delving into the historical tradition of education. Temples have historically served as repositories of cultural learning, making this a logical model to follow in the 21st century and beyond.

This reevaluation includes contemplating the roles of monks, nuns, and lay leaders not merely as contemplative or officiant priests but as cultural teachers. Expanding Hakuin’s Zen engagement with the broader world beyond the temple, it envisions temples as spaces for arts, crafts, and meditation—reviving much of the traditional life of Zen Temples that has influenced centuries of culture. Japanese Zen has a rich legacy of arts and cultural influence, and Western Zen should actively and passively contribute to contemporary culture and arts.

Historically, Japanese villages grew around temples, and revitalizing the relationship between Zen and culture can facilitate a similar phenomenon. The 21st century offers numerous possibilities for reforms in Zen Buddhism, aligning with the gradual march of liberalism and technological advancement. However, caution is warranted, especially considering the toxic effects of charismatic authority in Western Zen. Striking a careful balance between practice and leadership is crucial for Western Zen groups, exemplified by institutions like Upaya Zen Centre in the United States.

While charismatic figures had a place in an earlier time, the evolving interest in spirituality with less authoritative structure suggests that tradition, for tradition’s sake, will not propel Zen forward. The tradition should continue, drawing on the rich legacy of wisdom from Venerable Sakyamuni to Bodhidharma to Rinzai Kigen and the present.

Conversations with many Japanese individuals highlight the perceived gap between their spirituality and the contemporary institution of Buddhism—a gap that needs bridging. This challenge signifies a positive problem, indicating that people worldwide still possess a high degree of spiritual feeling. With a tradition spanning 25 centuries, Zen has more than enough resources to reconnect with people. Failing to do so might lead to a continued separation from its origins, ultimately relegating it to an interesting subject in the history of Buddhism rather than a living tradition.

The traditional Zen epitaph “all things teach” remains key to the future of Zen Buddhism, emphasizing that Hakuin Zen, beyond being a methodology, serves as a guide through the persona of Hakuin Ekaku, open to anyone seeking to understand how Zen can be.


Hakuin Ekaku, 1971, The Zen Master Hakuin: Selected Writings. Philip B. Yampolsky (tr.) New York: Columbia University Press.

–––, 1994, The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Hakuin, Norman Waddell (tr.) Boston: Shambala Press.

Dumoulin, Heinrich, 1988, Zen Buddhism: A History—India and China, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

–––, 1990, Zen Buddhism: A History—Japan, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

Suzuki, D.T., 2010, Zen and Japanese Culture, Princeton: Princeton University Press. Suzuki, D.T., 1976, Essays in Zen Buddhism (2nd series), New York: Samuel Weiser Inc.

–––, 1976, Essays in Zen Buddhism (3rd series), New York: Samuel Weiser Inc.

–––, 1960, Manual of Zen Buddhism, New York: Grove Press.

Stevens, John 1993, Three Zen Masters, Kodansha International Koji Sato, 1977, The Zen Life, Weatherhill

Mujyo Zen
Article by

Mujyo Williams

Trained as a Zen monk at Tofukuji Rinzai Daihozan Senmondojo, Kyoto, Japan, and is Kiedo Fukushima’s disciple in the Zenkei Shibayama lineage.
He is the head of the Australian Zen Studies Institute.

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