Section 8: Evidence of a great Zen transformation taking place in America


A few symptoms of the Zen fad in America today may be cited, as though discussing the Asiatic flu. Zen is not being introduced personally by masters who have attained enlightenment, as it was in the past.

In Newsweek Magazine, under the title "Spreading Buddhism", the news is that the Prime Minister of Burma spoke at New York University of Buddhism as a personal religion. The Chicago Review printed nine articles on Zen during 1958. One was by Alan Watts, analyzing the kinds of Zen. After Chinese (ch'an) and Japanese Zen (square), he names a third variety, "Beat" Zen. An author in the Christian Century analyzes "Beat and Misleading" religion saying it means merely that our religion has swung to the "meditative, mystical sort". Mademoiselle Magazine prints, "What is Zen?" Zen appears quite often in Time Magazine. One article states: "It has become evident that many of America's young intellectuals are becoming converted to Zen Buddhism. This is a result of more than fifty years of effort on the part of Buddhist and Hindu missionaries ...... and military occupation."

To acquire a perspective on the periodical reportage, three types of Zen evidence may be distinguished. One type includes inquiries into why the West needs Zen. Another type is in the Beat literature which uses Zen. A third type is from the authors who translate the Zen tradition and explain it to us.

Of analysts, the broadest one is perhaps in the introduction to Suzuki's book, Zen Buddhism, edited by William Barrett. It is called, "Zen for the West". He is not a professional orientalist and considers it "great luck to have" stumbled on the writings of Suzuki ".....simply because the writings shed light upon problems in my own life." He further says, "We Westerners have only recently come to face certain realities of life with which the Oriental has been living for centuries." He cites intellectual revolutions in the fields of philosophy, science, literature, art, psychology, and religion, finding correspondence between recent doctrines and those long held by Zen Buddhists. He quotes Kant, Heisenberg, Joyce, Lawrence, Jung, and Tillich. His arguments make good billboards for Zen but do not add much to a plastic understanding of the paintings.

The Beat authors use Zen as their own. The dedication to Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" reads: "To Neal Cassady, author of the First Third, an autobiography (1949) which enlightened Buddha. Published in Heaven." Taking a line form the work, we read: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.....who vanished into nowhere Zen New Jersey." In Gregory Corso's book of poems, "Gasoline", Ginsberg writes an introduction. It reflects a Zen-like attitude. "But what is he saying? He gets pure abstract poetry, the inside sound of language alone. Who cares?! It's said! Outside by a Halloween fire, wise on a charred log, an old man is dictating to the heir of the Goon." Corso himself says, "I know no word that is mine and I am tired of life." This is very easy to believe when reading his poem of nonsense,

Four windmills, acquaintanceships,
were spied one morning eating tulips
and the entire city flips
screaming: Apocalypse! Apocalypse!

The Zen saying aptly describes these poets, "Before you study Zen, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers. While you are studying Zen, mountains are no longer mountains, nor rivers, rivers. But when you have insight, rivers are again rivers and mountains mountains." Jack Kerouac writes best-selling prose about Beat people. His favorite, "Dharma Bum", is a real person who has translated Han-shan's poetry, spent some months in a Japanese monastery on a Zen Fulbright grant, and, according to Kerouac's printed characterization, is modeling his way of life according to his interpretation of Zen. The book, Dharma Bum is full of Zen-about sentences. Kerouac himself claims to follow the older, Indian, Dharma. His writing seems to follow Whitman down the "open road"! A typical bit of his writing is this: "But let the mind beware, that though the flesh be bugged, the circumstances of existence are pretty glorious." He reminds us that most of the acceptance of Oriental religion is a whimsy strained through the contemporary point of view, and that Zen is doing little in its original form, being transferred to grow here.

The most circumstantial evidence of a large interest in Zen is in the presence of teachers, translators, and thinkers who are Zen converts, here. They write the most literally Zen-about sentences. Dr. Suzuki, a Japanese scholar, who has written many books interpreting Zen for the West, teaches it at Columbia University. He is quoted in Time Magazine, as saying that painters and psychiatrists seem especially interested in Zen. He feels, "The real future of Zen in the United States depends on English-speaking masters who have attained enlightenment."

An example of the converted thinker is Hubert Benoit, psychiatrist and author of "The Supreme Doctrine, Psychological Studies in Zen Thought." He endeavors to reform Western concepts describing the mind, in accordance with what he thinks the Zen way is. He believes in the attainment of mental maturity, instantaneous enlightenment or "satori". He, however, has not attained "satori".

Arthur Waley, translator of The Tale of Genji (by the Lady Go-Murasaki) {A famous Japanese novel over 100 volumes long, in the original.}, writes: "The resemblance of its" (Zen's) "doctrines to the hypotheses of recent psychology..." And, Lin Yutang, author of "The Importance of Living", writes: "The only important Chinese contribution to the West is its art. Its philosophy is too tender, its science too undeveloped."

Scanning the evidence, it may be concluded that there is a Zen fad. Since there is no systematic establishment of its followers, or a school, an account of its influence must be partly speculative. One might analyze early American thought for the roots of the present fervor. That might also help predict the future character of the transformation. Also, Zen has never traveled in mass media before.

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