The Many Problems of Zen Buddhism

Let me say at the outset that I am not just “picking” on Zen or Buddhism in general, and that I am quite acutely aware and lament all the incredible failings of Christianity and in particular of my own community of Catholicism. But just as we learn and benefit from our encounter with all the profound and beautiful elements of this tradition (and all the others), so we might learn something important by considering their problems and their history. Here I am going to take a brief look at two different categories of problems: intellectual and moral.

Let’s consider the intellectual first. It is also, paradoxically, the easier one to deal with. I already alluded to this problem in my reflection on Merton’s critics. There I mentioned this odd essay by John Keenan that appears in a collection of essays on Merton and Buddhism: “The Limits of Thomas Merton’s Understanding of Buddhism.” Keenan is a former professor of religion at Middlebury College, but he has bigger “scholarly guns” standing behind him and to whom he refers: Robert Scharf, Roger Corless, and the looming figure of Bernard Faure, the noted cultural historian of Buddhism at Princeton (who by the way seems to have a real disdain for Merton’s understanding of Zen).  

So, as I mentioned in the earlier posting, Keenan tells us that Merton got his Zen from Suzuki and that kind of Zen was seriously truncated. In many ways he is absolutely right. Suzuki brought over to the West a very narrow form of Rinzai Zen and furthermore he presented it as the only authentic Zen. But Suzuki also was very knowledgeable and deep and very impressive in his presence–in other words someone like Merton felt he was meeting a true representative of the Zen tradition. And he was! But according to Keenan and these other folks there is some kind of fatal flaw in Suzuki’s Zen because it is only a small part of the picture. The criticism is that if you approach Zen through their lens, Suzuki’s and Merton’s, you will not really know Zen. Wrong, absolutely wrong! Let me illustrate with an analogous example. Suppose you knew nothing about Christianity but you went to Mt. Athos and met the great spiritual fathers, Paisios and Silouan. They would illumine you on their kind of Christianity, and it might seem like the only “real thing”; they might even urge you to become Orthodox. You would get no idea of the richness of the Western mystical tradition of Christianity. But I wouldn’t blame them at all; they were truly deep and truly “deeply realized,” to put it in those terms. Through them you could enter the depths of what it means to be a Christian in the deepest sense and the Christian mystical tradition. And that is the most important thing. But it’s the not the whole picture, and that’s ok. And all their disciples would doubtless say that I am deluded for saying that, and that’s ok also!!

So I believe that those who were influenced by Suzuki got a window into the depths of Zen even if that was not the “whole picture” in some superficial way. Yes, there was the Soto school, there were Pure Land Buddhists, and so many other minor schools, all of which played an important role in conveying Zen and Buddhism, and at various times in history it was one school or another that did a better job of that than the others–corruption was a constant problem. In modern times there also arose a school that tried to combine Rinzai and Soto traditions, and so on. Whichever way you go, the important thing is getting to Zen. And now comes the other problematic point. Suzuki and the Rinzai tradition make a big point that what Zen is all about is this “awakening,” which is then a total transformation in one’s self understanding, in one’s being, and in one’s vision of all reality. So the very meaning and definition of what Zen is becomes a bone of contention. Suzuki and his followers believe that without this awakening there is NO Zen. According to these folks this awakening is “wordless,” beyond all concepts and descriptions, and mostly transmitted from one person to another, certainly not “learned” from books. Well, this kind of talk does not appeal to many professional religion scholars that inhabit our various academic departments of religion. They have an inherent bias toward texts and social structures, and anything that claims to go “beyond” that is held suspect. Since their job is precisely to analyze these texts, you can appreciate their position; but that doesn’t mean they have the “real” understanding of Zen as opposed to some monk. In fact, the very meaning of Zen may be quite different between these two positions. To borrow and adapt a quip from Upton Sinclair: you can’t expect a man to see something when his paycheck depends on his not seeing it.

Let’s summarize the complaints of this group of scholars: 1. that the core of Zen is this enlightenment experience, whether gradual or sudden; 2. that this awakening is wordless and beyond all conceptualizations; 3. that even if Zen’s natural home is in “Zen Buddhism,” the Zen experience can be found universally outside all structures; 4. that Zen Buddhism, like all religious traditions, is cluttered with a lot of texts, traditions, rituals, etc. that may or may not help in this “awakening.” They pretty much reject all these.

This last point is especially irksome to this group of scholars because to them it seems that Zen is merely the sum total of various kinds of practices and things: in other words, the flavor of religion known as Zen Buddhism. In fact, this is one of the ways they attack the Merton approach to Zen (and even Taoism) because Merton tends to push all that aside to get at the heart of Zen. Let’s back up a bit: what a number of these scholars practice has been in vogue for the last few decades: deconstruction. This began with a French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, spread from philosophy to literary departments (where it pretty much destroyed the enjoyment of literature in the old sense) and then to cultural studies, like with Bernard Faure. The method approaches a text and/or cultural structures and history showing the inconsistencies and contradictions, like claiming that Zen is “wordless” in hundreds of writings, like claiming that Zen is beyond all ritual, yet practicing strict ritualism, etc., etc. What someone like Faure seems to claim is that even some of the ancient Zen Masters are presenting a kind of Zen ideology where they create a Zen history that is partly fiction and partly misleading by leaving out all kinds of stuff. What gets lost in all their clutter of “facts” and “data” is the heart of Zen.  

Merton seems to have anticipated all this brouhaha almost 50 years ago. Here is a long quote from his key essay “The Study of Zen.” In a remarkable way he lays out the issues involved:

“’There is nothing,’ says Levi-Strauss, ‘which can be conceived of or understood short of the basic demands of its structure.’ He is talking about primitive kinship systems, and of the key role played in them by maternal uncles. And I must admit from the outset that uncles have nothing to do with Zen; nor am I about to prove that they have. But the statement is universal. ‘There is nothing which can be understood short of the basic demands of its structure.’ This raises a curious question: I wonder if Zen could somehow be fitted into the patterns of a structuralist anthropology? And if so, can it be ‘understood?’ And at once one sees that the question can probably be answered by ‘yes’ and ‘no.’

“In so far as Zen is part of a social and religious complex, in so far as it seems to be related to other elements of a cultural system–‘yes.’ In so far as Zen is Zen Buddhism, ‘yes.’ But in that case what fits into the system is Buddhism rather than Zen. [my interjection: Faure really hates this kind of statement] The more Zen is considered as Buddhist the more it can be grasped as an expression of man’s cultural and religious impulse. In that case Zen can be seen as having a special kind of structure with basic demands that are structural demands and therefore open to scientific investigation–and the more it can be seen to have a definite character to be grasped and ‘understood.’

“When Zen is studied in this way, it is seen in the context of Chinese and Japanese history. [Merton is practically prophesying the work of Faure and others.] It is seen as a product of the meeting of speculative Indian Buddhism with practical Chinese Taoism and even Confucianism. It is seen in the light of the culture of the Tang dynasty, and the teachings of various ‘houses.’ It is related to other cultural movements. It is studied in its passage into Japan and its integration into Japanese civilization. And then a great deal of things about Zen come to seem important, even essential. The Zendo or meditation hall. The Zazen sitting. The study of the koan. The costume. The lotus seat. The bows. The visits to the Roshi and the Roshi’s technique for determining whether one has attained Kensho or Satori, and helping one to do this.

“Zen, seen in this light, can then be set up against other religious structures–for instance that of Catholicism, with its sacraments, its liturgy, its mental prayer…its devotions, its laws, its theology, its Bible, its cathedrals and convents; its priesthood and its hierarchical organization; its Councils and Encyclicals.

“One can imagine both of them and conclude that they have a few things in common. They share certain cultural and religious features. They are ‘religions.’ One is an Asian religion; the other is a Western, Judeo-Christian religion. One offers man a metaphysical enlightenment, the other a theological salvation. Both can be seen as oddities, pleasant survivals of a past which is no more, but which one can nevertheless appreciate just as one appreciates Noh plays, the sculpture of Chartres or the music of Monteverdi. One can further refine one’s investigations and imagine (quite wrongly) that because Zen is simple and austere, it has a great deal in common with Cistercian monasticism, which is also austere–or once was. They do share a certain taste for simplicity, and it is possible that the builders of twelfth-century Cistercian churches in Burgundy and Provence were illumined by a kind of instinctive Zen vision in their work, which does have the luminous poverty and solitude that Zen calls Wabi.

“Nevertheless, studied as structures, as systems, and as religions, Zen and Catholicism don’t mix any better than oil and water. One can assume that from one side and the other, from the Zendo and from the university, monastery or curia, persons might convene for polite and informed discussion. But their differences would remain inviolate…. All this is true as long as Zen is considered specifically as Zen Buddhism, as a school or sect of Buddhism, as forming part of the religious system which we call ‘the Buddhist religion.’

“When we look a little closer however, we find very serious and responsible practitioners of Zen first denying that it is ‘a religion,’ then denying that it is a sect or school, and finally denying that it is confined to Buddhism and its ‘structure.’ For instance, one of the great Japanese Zen Masters, Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen, said categorically: ‘Anybody who would regard Zen as a school or sect of Buddhism and call it Zen-shu, Zen school, is a devil.’

“To define Zen in terms of a religious system or structure is in fact to destroy it–or rather to miss it completely, for what cannot be ‘constructed’ cannot be destroyed either. Zen is not something which is grasped by being set within distinct limits or given a characteristic outline or easily recognizable features so that, when we see these distinct and particular forms, we say: ‘There it is!’ Zen is not understood by being set apart in its own category, separated from everything else: ‘It is this and not that.’…. We see from this that Zen is outside all particular structures and distinct forms, and that it is neither opposed to them nor not-opposed to them. It neither denies them nor affirms them, loves them nor hates them, rejects them nor desires them. Zen is consciousness unstructured by particular form or particular system, a trans-cultural, trans-religious, trans-formed consciousness. It is therefore in a sense ‘void.’ But it can shine through this or that system, religious or irreligious, just as light can shine through glass that is blue, or green, or red, or yellow. If Zen has any preference it is for glass that is plain, has no color, and is ‘just glass.’

“In other words to regard Zen merely and exclusively as Zen Buddhism is to falsify it and, no doubt, to betray the fact that one has no understanding of it whatever. Yet this does not mean that there cannot be ‘Zen Buddhists,’ but these surely will realize (precisely because they are Zen-people) the difference between their Buddhism and their Zen–even while admitting that for them their Zen is in fact the purest expression of Buddhism. But, of course, the reason for that is that Buddhism itself…points beyond any theological or philosophical ‘ism.’ It demands not to be a system (while at the same time, like other religions, presenting a peculiar temptation to systematizers). The real drive of Buddhism is toward an enlightenment which is precisely a breakthrough into what is beyond system, beyond cultural and social structures, and beyond religious rite and belief (even when it accepts many kinds of systematic superstructures–Tibetan, Burmese, Japanese, etc.).”


So much for this long quote. It is important because this view is now under serious attack by a number of scholars. I would also add that what Merton said above connects very well with Abhishiktananda’s contentions late in his life about the “namarupa” of both Christianity and Hinduism, how one had to go deeper than these to get to the heart of that religion. But whatever the scholars argue and debate and propose and write their innumerable papers about, the “true person of no status,” the Zen-person, will walk unseen and unknown, not measured by any metric or any methodology.


Now we turn to the much more difficult subject of moral problems. Zen Buddhism(and the other schools of Buddhism, like the Tibetans), like most religious traditions has had its share of problematic behavior on the part of its top practitioners, the Zen Masters. In the modern era and especially as Zen came to the West and the U.S., it is astonishing how recurring the moral failings have been: sexual predation and exploitation, alcoholism, and financial chicanery…all these and more abound in ALL the various lineages and schools of Zen. It has been a shock to a lot of American students of Zen. Some have left; some took refuge in a Zen kind of state of denial–“Zen is beyond morality, etc.” –forgetting that the Buddha himself laid down some pretty strict rules for his monks and disciples. Many other Zen students sobered up about their religious infatuation with Zen and had to face a much more realistic approach to their pursuit of enlightenment. A number of westerners now question the kind of unexamined master-disciple relationship that a lot of religious traditions hold up. I have discussed some of the problems here in postings long time ago, and do not intend to go over this dreary ground again. However, there is this interesting and puzzling point: why is it that so many who are considered “enlightened” or at least “advanced” students of Zen are so vulnerable to so many moral lapses that not only harmed themselves but caused significant harm to many others?” To push this further: it seems that one has a critical choice here: either their “enlightenment” is a pretend, a play-acting, or at best nowhere near the depth their students think they see in them, perhaps one could say “project” on them; or is it the more intriguing possibility that enlightenment itself and Zen consciousness is “not enough.” I mean you would think that since Zen makes such a big thing about awareness and vision and all that, that a master of Zen, a teacher of Zen would not be exploiting his own students for his own pleasure or succumbing to the chaos of inner drives that lead to self-destruction. You would think that Zen consciousness would keep you from all that…. So which is it? I have no idea. But the dilemma can get even more twisted….

A Zen practitioner and teacher by the name of Brian Victoria has written a scathing book about the collaboration of many Japanese Zen Masters with Japanese militarism leading up to World War II. He implicates almost all of the top Zen Masters (including D. T. Suzuki) who became the lineage bearers for all the current Western Zen teachers. Victoria shows how all the Zen lineages are tainted with this sordid history which the Japanese especially do not want to admit to. The needless wars and the war crimes of the Japanese military were never ever condemned by any of the Zen Masters; nor after the war was there any expression of real regret or sorrow for what they were involved in—how often these Zen Masters were cheer leaders for the Japanese military.

To be fair, Victoria has his critics also: some claim that he quotes these people out of context, and they don’t sound so bad when you recognize the times they lived in. I don’t buy this because all these folks were contemporaries of Gandhi, and it’s obvious that he was able to see through this muck. The problem is, as I think Victoria shows, the wedding of Zen Buddhism with Japanese culture and then one step further, with Japanese national identity. D. T. Suzuki showed a bit of that in his writings. And this is the kind of problem that we see all over the globe….when national identity and religious identity become merged. Radical Hinduism in India, Eastern Orthodoxy in Eastern Europe–consider how Christian Serbs turned to slaughter the Serbian Moslems a few decades ago. Also, there’s Jews and the State of Israel; and we have plenty of problems with Christians here in the U.S. waving the flag, the gun, and the Bible.

But let’s return to the real crux of the thing: the dilemma we face leads to a real questioning of the meaning and scope of “enlightenment.” Unless of course we choose to hold that all these figures were “faking” enlightenment or something like that. Maybe some of them were precisely doing that, but not the majority. More likely we need to face the puzzle of how an “enlightened being” could be seduced by nationalism, could be overcome by lust, could destroy himself with alcoholism, or be enticed by greed. And to expand this puzzle even more, consider the Christian thing about “saintliness” or “holiness.” A dear acquaintance of mine, Donald Nichol, a British historian and student of religion, once wrote this marvelous little book on holiness. Donald valued holiness to the nth degree; the “holy person,” was beyond questioning. As much as I liked that book, I always thought that he overvalued this thing of “holiness.” Sounds like a strange thing to say, especially coming from a monastic perspective, but truly there is something more at stake here, and it is not too far-fetched to say that holiness is not enough. Consider some people who have been declared by the Church to be saints, yet whose lives contain egregious mistakes and distortions of vision. Like St. Bernard, the great Cistercian figure, one of the giants of the medieval Church — he called for the slaughter of Moslems that occupied the Holy Land. He was a cheerleader for the Crusaders. The very opposite of Francis of Assissi. Now I won’t question the “St.” in St. Bernard, but I do question the nature and scope of that which we call “holiness.” Or consider more modern examples: Pope John Paul II who was recently declared a saint. He was instrumental in trying to cover up the priest pedophile scandals that were emerging into the light during his pontificate. Or take the example of Mother Teresa, also recently canonized. She took money from one of the nastiest banksters in America, Charles Keating, and for 10 years or so she had as spiritual director a Jesuit who was convicted in a court of law of having sexually abused a large number of underage boys. It does seem that holiness does not exclude blindness of a serious kind. Unless, again, one wants to doubt the very presence of this “holiness.” Truly a puzzle!  

So returning again to our Zen friends, so whether it be enlightenment or holiness or whatever other lofty goal our religious tradition sets up for us, we also need to attend to that which real and true wherever and whatever that be. As the Upanishad says: “Lead me from the unreal to the Real.” And as that old platitude says, no one has a handle or a monopoly on truth. And that goes for the “holy person” and the “enlightened person” also. Perhaps that saying holds for them even more! A bumper sticker I saw says it all: Question All Authority! Yes! Even the authority of holiness or enlightenment. And a truly holy/enlightened person would say Amen to that!!