Zen goes to North America

October 2, 2010

Seon/Zen/Chan is a good match for the American approach to life: instead of providing only an analysis of how things are, it shows a course of action and the benefits of taking it. Instead of promoting reliance on other people, or a solitary path, it offers a middle-way, which fits both the need for individual rights and social convenience. Also, there are a number of Korean Buddhist temples US which makes easier to provide guidance to practitioners.

Seon is more known in US as Zen, which is a house-hold name. A number of manuals – some of them having next to nothing in common with Zen – have been named “The Zen and art of…”. This trend started after the success, in the 1970s, of the book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert M. Pirsig. The author, while narrating the motorcycling experiences of him (initially, a “technical guy” who needs to know all the details) and his friend (who just rides, delegating motorcycling repairing to professionals), provides his view on Zen, that he realizes along the book: a middle path, where we know when to use our analytical skills, and when just to let it be. This may be considered one of the most straight-forward, non-intellectual ways to describe a Zen experience, following a Zen-approach. Pirsig got inspiration from his book from an older publication, “Zen in the Art of Archery” by Eugen Herrigel, which had a more introspective approach.

I strongly believe that, had the authors chosen to use “Seon and the art of…” instead of Zen, now Seon itself – which is the path Chan followed to reach Japan – would have been a name understood by the masses. Also, Chosun Dynasty violence against Buddhism in Korea may have weakened a bit its readiness to go abroad and teach it in the 20th century, when Buddhism started to flourish again at home.

Japanese Zen monks started to develop centres in US in the early 1960s, in line with Japanese tradition and customs. But, by the mid 1970s, American monks already started to take over, so Zen was even more American. One of the most tangible result of the spread of Zen/Chan in USA, is the City of 10,000 Buddhas ( http://www.cttbusa.org ) in North California; here, monks strictly enforce the traditional monastic rules, with several monks in permanent silent, one meal per day, etc. but the town also welcomes Westerners, often coming mainly to meditate and live the local organic life.

The vitality of Korean Buddhism in North America and at home is seen in temples, were monks live and lay-people come on retreats, and the number of missioners sent overseas: as reported on Wikipedia.org and KoreanBuddhism.net at the end of the previous century, there were 104 Korean Buddhist temples in USA, and 148 overall in fifteen countries. Another reason for the success of Seon is the number of groups and information available online, through dedicated communities or within sites discussing all main Buddhist schools.

After the fall of South Vietnam to communism in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam War, the first major Buddhist community appeared in North America. Since this time the North American Vietnamese Buddhist community has grown to 160 temples and centers, however Vietnamese Buddhism is one of the least popular forms of Buddhism among Buddhists of European descent. Two reasons for this are a lack of meditation within the practice (which is generally favored by Western Buddhists), not much proselytizing being carried out by the Vietnamese Buddhists and the fact that Vietnamese monks do not tend to use English to reach out to Buddhists who are not of Vietnamese descent.

The most famous practitioner of synchronized Thiền Buddhism in the West is Thích Nhất Hạnh who has authored dozens of books and founded Dharma center Plum Village in France together with his colleague, Bhiksuni and Zen Master Chân Không. According to Nguyen and Barber, Thich Nhat Hanh’s fame in the Western world as a proponent of engaged Buddhism and a new zen style has “no affinity with or any foundation in traditional Vietnamese Buddhist practices” and according to Alexander Soucy (2007) his style of Zen Buddhism is not reflective of actual Vietnamese Buddhism. (Yet Thích Nhất Hạnh often recounts about his early Zen practices in Vietnam in his Dharma talks saying that he continued and developed this practice in the West which has a distinctive Vietnamese Thien flavor.) Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhist teachings have started to return to a Vietnam where the Buddhist landscape is now being shaped by the combined Vietnamese & Westernized Buddhism that is focused more on the meditative practices.

This post is part of Zen: from China to cyberspace free booklet. You can download for free the whole book here.

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