The appeal of Zen in the West over other forms of Buddhism

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  • Foursquare
    Member
    • Feb 2012
    • 20

    The appeal of Zen in the West over other forms of Buddhism

    I'm only new here and I don't know if this topic has been dealt with before or not, and I maybe in the wrong section of the forum for this question, but I'll post it here and see what happens.

    How do Western Buddhists and Zen practitioners account for the appeal of Zen in the West over other forms of Buddhism? It is my impression, and I could of course be wrong, that Zen is by far the most popular form of Buddhism outside East Asia and that this is especially so in the West. Is it that Zen appeals more to the Western mind or is it that Zen was more popularised in the West than other forms of Buddhism going all the way back to the first 20 years of the post-war era, i.e. 1945 to 1965, when Zen was first introduced to a Western audience in the US and so was really the first form of Buddhism to be thoroughly grounded in the West and make any kind of an impact and take root?
  • Risho
    Member
    • May 2010
    • 3179

    #2
    Re: The appeal of Zen in the West over other forms of Buddhism

    I actually thought that Tibetan Buddhism was more popular in the West.

    From my perspective, I really like Zen because it focuses on the essential. I can't really compare it to other traditions because I haven't practiced in those, but from a very personal perspective I am an iconoclast, I am very rooted in self-sufficiency and I favor science over superstition. Not that other traditions do or do not have those. I don't mean it to sound negative.

    Gassho,

    Risho
    Email: risho.treeleaf@gmail.com

    Comment

    • Koshin
      Member
      • Feb 2012
      • 938

      #3
      Re: The appeal of Zen in the West over other forms of Buddhism

      In my personal view, I agree that Tibetan Buddhism is, by far, more popular in the West than Zen. In my country there must be at least more than 50 recognized groups of Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism groups, no more than 10, and the number of followers in Tibetan Buddhism is much higher. As one teacher told me once, "they say there are nearly 3,000 buddhists in Mexico... I really think there are only 3 or 4, real ones" :shock:

      Similarly, Zen attracted me more than any other form of Buddhism because I feel it goes beyond the iconic folklore and traditions, to the very heart of reality, non-dual duality of body-mind, self-world .

      Perhaps it might seem that at first gaze Zen´s simplicity and clarity would be more attractive to someone who would like closer to Buddhism, it might seem easier to just sit in front of a white wall and attain enlightenment, but that same simplicity contains much work and effort (not-working and effortless :wink: ), which may not seem so appealing after after all for most people, and thus feel more comfortable in other forms of Buddhism, more structured in rituals, traditions, images, collective experiences .... I do not know, I´m just guessing :wink:

      Also, don´t mean to sound negative .... as someone said in this Sangha, Buddhism is like music, no two performers alike, but each may (hopefully) give great performances
      Thank you for your practice

      Comment

      • Jundo
        Treeleaf Founder and Priest
        • Apr 2006
        • 39026

        #4
        Re: The appeal of Zen in the West over other forms of Buddhism

        Hi,

        Yes, I would say that Tibetan Buddhism is larger, and many folks are attracted to (and benefit from) the colorful, powerful, magical atmosphere of their practices. Also, do not forget that the conversation is focused on "convert Buddhists" ... and that Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Thai, etc. Buddhist families in America and Europe follow their own religious traditions and practices that may not involve many of the central activities of a typical "convert Buddhist Zen group" (no Zazen, for example, and more religious worship of Buddha or family ceremonies like funerals and such!).

        Also, "Zen" in the West comes in a variety of flavors ... some more traditional, liturgical and "religious" ... some "modern" and stripped of a lot of the bells and whistles ... some focused on Koan Zazen, some on Shikantaza ...

        ... then there are also Vipassana "Insight" groups and Theravada (perhaps the largest body in the UK), Friends of the Buddhist Order/Triratna, and Soka Gakkai/SGI (the Nichiren Buddhist group centered on chanting with a very large following).

        So, I am here to say ... many roads for many hikers ... many medicines for different patients ... and hopefully everyone will find the right one. Heck, some may do better with Christianity, Judaism or something else! And, the right road/medicine for John may be wrong for Mary. The point is to find a good one ... not a path that leads into poison or poison ivy!

        I happen to think that Shikantaza is a powerful Medicine of All Medicines that could benefit what ails most folks .... but it may not be so for all.

        Gassho, J
        ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

        Comment

        • Foursquare
          Member
          • Feb 2012
          • 20

          #5
          Re: The appeal of Zen in the West over other forms of Buddhism

          Well, that's interesting--and surprising. I certainly would not have thought that in the West Tibetan Buddhism's following would be so much larger than Zen's. The popularity of the Dalai Lama might have some bearing on this. I thought Zen would easily outstrip in numbers other Buddhist traditions. I did say that in my impression of Zen being the predominate Buddhist tradition in the West in terms of numbers that I could of course be wrong, and it looks like I am.

          Comment

          • Jinyo
            Member
            • Jan 2012
            • 1957

            #6
            Re: The appeal of Zen in the West over other forms of Buddhism

            Hi there - I got quite confused when I began to explore Buddism because I didn't really grasp the difference between convert buddhism
            and traditional practices. I think it takes quite a bit of work/guidance to compare and contrast (and experience different flavours as Jundo
            expresses it) to find what suits.

            I'm not sure we in the West are quite there with this process - there seems to be a lot of discussion/disagreement between convert strands/schools.
            At least with Soto Zen I feel there is clarity to the practice and that zazen is a firm anchor.

            I do feel though it's important to take on the 'whole deal' (another of Jundo's expressions) - a lot of people in the West seem to take mindful meditation
            on its own as an expression of Buddhism - and want to throw out - or not even bother - with the teachings.

            Anyway - my thoughts lack clarity - as I'm new to all this.

            Gassho

            Willow

            Comment

            • Ryumon
              Member
              • Apr 2007
              • 1689

              #7
              Re: The appeal of Zen in the West over other forms of Buddhism

              Tibetan buddhism definitely gets more press, what with the Dalai Lama and a number of celebrities following him. But Zen got to America first, and has a much longer history. I think a lot depends on where you live; I live in France, for example, and while Zen was there before Tibetan buddhism, it was a lineage that was, well, controversial (Taigu can talk about that...), and has remained discreet. There are, however, many Tibetan centers in France, making it easier to go that route.

              It's worth noting that I grew up in NYC, and back in the day - late 70s, early 80s - when I was exploring these things, there were Zen centers, but nothing else. No Vipassana, and no Tibetan (at least that I encountered). Also, at the time, the only books on buddhism were about Zen; I don't know when the first Trungpa book was published in the US, but that was the first Tibetan book AFAIK.
              ---
              Ryūmon (Kirk)
              流文

              SAT/LAH

              I know nothing.

              Comment

              • chicanobudista
                Member
                • Mar 2008
                • 864

                #8
                Re: The appeal of Zen in the West over other forms of Buddhism

                From a wonky perspective, the US census doesn't ask for religious affiliation. So, the Pew Forum is as close (to give one reference point) as we get to see the faith landscape.

                http://religions.pewforum.org/reports

                For Pew, self identified Zen Buddhists rank first. But looking at the numbers is pretty much close. Divided along five groups almost evenly.

                Sent from my SPH-D710 using Tapatalk
                paz,
                Erik


                Flor de Nopal Sangha

                Comment

                • Daijo
                  Member
                  • Feb 2012
                  • 530

                  #9
                  Re: The appeal of Zen in the West over other forms of Buddhism

                  I think we also have to consider the fact that there are many people practicing "Zen" who do not identify themselves as "Buddhists". So polls and census data would be difficult. I sometimes sit with a group of about 30 people and I believe their may be 4 of us who would say we were Buddhists and that it is our religion.

                  Comment

                  • chicanobudista
                    Member
                    • Mar 2008
                    • 864

                    #10
                    Re: The appeal of Zen in the West over other forms of Buddhism

                    A good book to read about this topic is "Buddhism In America" by Richard Hughes Seager.

                    Sent from my SPH-D710 using Tapatalk
                    paz,
                    Erik


                    Flor de Nopal Sangha

                    Comment

                    • Jundo
                      Treeleaf Founder and Priest
                      • Apr 2006
                      • 39026

                      #11
                      Re: The appeal of Zen in the West over other forms of Buddhism

                      Hi,

                      Numbers and popularity polls do not matter anyway. In fact, throughout its history, Zen practice has been rather limited even in the Buddhist world ... a small, minority, "elitist" practice ... limited to those folks who had the time, energy, basic literacy and access to doctrine and teachings and teachers (this is "A Way Beyond Words and Letters" ... but even the legendary 'illiterate' 6th Ancestor had folks read to him and mastered the basic doctrines and teachings of Buddhism and Zen), who possessed a personal calling to pursue the way, philosophical bent, dedication to practice, simple financial and social freedom and such ... time to "sit on their ass" literally! 8) ... to undertake Zen practice. In the old days, all this was pretty much limited to monastics (and not even to all or perhaps most of those!) ... and the peasants and general population were much more concerned with immediately pressing things like working in the fields, keeping fed and staying alive!

                      The vast vast majority of the Buddhist world in Asia ... in the past and even today ... is most focused on ordinary people worshiping and praying to the Buddhas & Bodhisattvas as godlike beings who can help keep the worshiper and those they love and pray for healthy, happy and free of harm (the same as most -any- religion in the world, any church or temple from Boston to Bangalor). Most folks have little interest or understanding of Buddhist teachings much beyond that. This is the Buddhism encountered about anywhere one goes in Asia ... from Thailand to Tokyo to Tibet ... as, for example, on my recent excursion to China:

                      viewtopic.php?p=65263#p65263

                      I do not mean, by the way, to "put down" some flavors of Buddhism as "less than" folks who sit Zazen and get involved in deep doctrinal examinations of Buddhist writings and teachings! Far from it! That is the medicine that those people may need for their hearts and lives ... just as some may find that same medicine in all religions. I do not think that "Zazen" and the kind of practice that we engage in here ... although an amazing and wonderful Path ... is necessarily even the right Path for the vast majority of people ... who need to live out their own Karmic paths.

                      It is only in the West, and for a very few years, that lay people have delved into Zazen and other practices of meditation, doctrinal study and the like that was formally limited to monastics behind monastery walls (even in Thai or Tibetan Buddhism, most of the meditating was limited to the monks in monasteries, and the general population was simply expected to support the monks' efforts by providing food and financial support ... with a very few exceptions ... usually a scattering of very wealthy lay folks of the past with the resources to access teachers and the excess free time to do so ... and even then most just "dabbled" and did not go so deep). Consider yourself very fortunate! Heck, consider yourself very fortunate to have even been born a human at all!

                      There is the famous story of the turtle ...

                      In the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Buddha used the metaphor of a blind turtle in a vast ocean to explain how difficult it is to be reborn as a human being and at the same time to have the chance of hearing the Dharma.

                      Suppose there is a small piece of wood floating on a vast ocean. The wood has a small hole the size of which is just enough for the head of a turtle to pop into. There is a long-lived sea turtle in the ocean. Once every one hundred years, this turtle comes out from the bottom of the ocean and pops his head into the hole of the wood.

                      To be able to hear the Dharma is just as hard as for the blind turtle to encounter the small piece of wood on a vast ocean and let its head go through the hole in the wood piece.


                      We also chant in the Evening Gatha ...

                      ... do not squander your life.
                      Have you sat today?

                      Gassho, Jundo
                      ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

                      Comment

                      • Risho
                        Member
                        • May 2010
                        • 3179

                        #12
                        Re: The appeal of Zen in the West over other forms of Buddhism

                        Gassho,

                        Risho
                        Email: risho.treeleaf@gmail.com

                        Comment

                        • JohnsonCM
                          Member
                          • Jan 2010
                          • 549

                          #13
                          Re: The appeal of Zen in the West over other forms of Buddhism

                          Well I can only speak for myself on this one, but Zen appealed to me because it didn't truck with all the add ons of other buddhist traditions (silly hats and such :shock: ). I liked how Zen really spoke to the essential, the simple and pure practice of just sitting. The world is full of attachments, and so are our lives as we live in this saha world, and so, why add on more attachments to mandalas and large hats and such? Boil it down to it's bones, the bones of zazen. Get rid of the added on after flavors, and just sit with Shakyamuni buddha under the bodhi tree.
                          Gassho,
                          "Heitetsu"
                          Christopher
                          Sat today

                          Comment

                          • Jundo
                            Treeleaf Founder and Priest
                            • Apr 2006
                            • 39026

                            #14
                            Re: The appeal of Zen in the West over other forms of Buddhism

                            Originally posted by JohnsonCM
                            Well I can only speak for myself on this one, but Zen appealed to me because it didn't truck with all the add ons of other buddhist traditions (silly hats and such :shock: ). I liked how Zen really spoke to the essential, the simple and pure practice of just sitting. The world is full of attachments, and so are our lives as we live in this saha world, and so, why add on more attachments to mandalas and large hats and such? Boil it down to it's bones, the bones of zazen. Get rid of the added on after flavors, and just sit with Shakyamuni buddha under the bodhi tree.
                            Hey Chris,

                            That is an image of the simplicity and "its only about sitting and not the other stuff" that many Westerners have developed about Zen/Chan Buddhism during its history ... but something that has probably rarely been true in that history (except for the masters who would sometimes quit the monastery for a time and go up to the mountains to lead a hermits life for awhile ... and then most of which usually would head back to the monastery eventually). The history of Zen/Chan/Son Buddhism in Japan, China and Korea is pretty much the history of monastics not much different in their rituals, lifestyles and "funny hats" than any of the other sects.

                            Here is the present Abbot of Eiheiji, the Soto Zen Head temple, and his funny hat (Nishijima Roshi has a similar hat) ...



                            ... and here is the kind of thing that Zen priests spend much of their time undertaking in China, Japan and Korea (as much or more than Zazen sitting) ...

                            [youtube] [/youtube]

                            It is mostly Western Zen Buddhism that has sought to pear it down, simplify to "sitting alone", remove the old ways and "funny hats". In fact, Taigu and I are also about getting to the Simple, Clear Heart of Practice ... but it becomes the old question of what traditions to keep, what to change, without "throwing the Baby Buddha out with the ritual bathwater" ...

                            Here is something I have posted several times, and most folks may have read:


                            This practice is not limited to any place or time ... we drop all thought of place and time. It certainly is not Indian, Chinese, Japanese, French or American. But, of course, we live in place and time, so as Buddhism traveled over the centuries from India to China, Japan, Korea and other places, it naturally became very Indian/Chinese/Japanese/Korean etc.

                            But what of the cultural trappings?

                            Must we bow, ring bells, chant (in Japanese, no less), wear traditional robes, have Buddha Statues, burn incense? ... All that stuff besides Zazen. Are they necessary to our Practice?


                            No, not at all!


                            We don't need anything other than Zazen, any of those trappings. In fact, they are no big deal, of no importance, when we drop all viewpoints in sitting Zazen.

                            On the other hand, we have to do something, to greet each other somehow, read some words, dress some way. Why not do such things? As I often say, for example, we have to do something with our hands when practicing walking Zazen ... why not hold them in Shashu (I mean, better than sticking 'em in your pockets)?

                            viewtopic.php?p=24626#p24626

                            As well, there are parts of our practice which we do BECAUSE we resist (for example, when visiting a temple for Retreat, I usually put my heart fully into ceremonies and arcane rituals BECAUSE I resist and think some of it silly or old fashioned). Ask yourself where that kind of resistance is to be found (here's a clue, and it is right behind your own eyes).

                            What is more, there is method to the madness, and many (not all) customs have centuries of time tested benefits ... embody subtle perspectives ... that support and nurture Zazen Practice at the core. Many parts of our Practice, though "exotic", are worth keeping, even if they strike someone as strange at first. Bowing, statues, rigid decorum in the Zen Hall and, yes, weird talks about Koans and arcane ceremonies all fit in that category. They may seem like unnecessary "Japanese" or "Esoteric" elements at first, until you understand the role they serve. I have given talks on all these things recently, for example ...

                            Bowing ...

                            http://www.treeleaf.org/sit-a-long/arch ... owing.html

                            Many aspects of tradition can be seen in new ways when the barriers of the mind are knocked down. Thus, for example, the Kesa, the Buddha's Robes ... though just cloth ... can be seen to cover and enfold the whole universe, laughter, cries of pain, old age, becoming and fading away ... life ...

                            On the other hand again, it is okay to abandon or reject many practices. However, KNOW very well what you are rejecting before you reject it. For example, I wrote this to someone awhile back about which of the "Japanese trappings" are worth keeping and which can be discarded. I wrote him:

                            Absorb what is useful and discard the rest. For example, I think Oryoki [formal meal ritual] is a great practice, and worth keeping.. Same for bowing.

                            Some things I keep out of respect for TRADITION [the robes, the ways of doing some ceremonies]. It is important to keep ties to where we come from. Some things also have a special symbolic meaning if you look into them, so worth keeping [for example, a Rakusu]

                            But other stuff, no need to keep: For example, I usually avoid to chant in Japanese or Chinese [except once in awhile, out of respect for tradition]. Tatami mats and Paper screens have nothing to do with Zen practice particularly [but I happen to live in an old Japanese building, so ... well, tatami and paper screens!} Some things I think are just dumb (except symbolically), like the Kyosaku stick. Incense is great, until it was recently shown to cause cancer. Many beliefs of Buddhism are rather superstitious things that were picked up here and there. I abandon many of those.
                            The outer wrap of Zen Buddhism is changing greatly as it moves West. The greater emphasis on lay practice over monastics, the greater democracy in what was a feudal institution (arising in societies where the teacher's word was law ... oh, those were the days! :wink: ), giving the boot to a lot of magico-supersticio hocus-pocus bunkum, the equal place of women ... heck, the use of the internet to bring teachings that were once the preserve of an elite few into everyone's living room.Those are good and great changes to the outer wrapping (you can read about them in books like this one (author interview here: http://atheism.about.com/library/books/ ... anChat.htm ). The coreless core, however, remains unchanged.

                            Do not throw out the Baby Buddha with the bath water. Many completely "Japanese" practices which seem silly at first are worth keeping. ...

                            ... other things, like some of the arcane incense, bell & drum filled rituals, take them or leave them.

                            Gassho (an Asian custom), Jundo (a Dharma name)
                            Gassho, Jundo
                            ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

                            Comment

                            • chicanobudista
                              Member
                              • Mar 2008
                              • 864

                              #15
                              Re: The appeal of Zen in the West over other forms of Buddhism

                              Originally posted by Jundo
                              Hi,

                              Numbers and popularity polls do not matter anyway.
                              But. Really. We all wanna know who's on first? :wink:
                              paz,
                              Erik


                              Flor de Nopal Sangha

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