Zen in daily life

Zen teacher Dogen and the Soto approach to Zen

Western Interest in Zen

By zen master Prof. Masunaga Reiho

From Zen for Daily Living by Prof. Masunaga Reiho, Page 20, Shunjusha Pablishing Co., 1964.

[2. Zen in the West] [3. Zen and Mysticism]

1. Reasons for Western Interest in Zen

For man the most important thing is life. Life is always in flux, and it is the creative matrix of the new. Anything without life is dead. Life has creativity and vitality as its essential elements. Originally all living things embody creativity and vitality. But eventually, over many years, they become rigid, form-ridden, and dogmatic. In Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler wrote that the West has civilization but no culture. This weakness has now become apparent in politics, economics and science. Many taboos have emerged in social conventions and traditions. Techniques and machines brought about the industrial revolution; man has been taken up into the cogs of the machinery and has lost his basic humanity. Man, surrounded by machines, mass-communication, and organized systems, has become alienated from freedom and spontaneity. Zen seems unusually well suited to break the deadlock facing modern man. Science has now emerged into the atomic and outer space age. Originally based on humanism, science gradually became to be considered all-powerful and autonomous.

In this way it moved in the wrong direction, luring mankind toward destruction. Zen seems to have a vital role in correcting this false tendency of science. Although the world is said to be moving toward a thaw, the two ideological camps are still in sharp conflict. The weak nations are caught in the middle, wavering from left to right. Zen offers the possibility of basically undercutting this dualism. It can help man overcome the conflict of ideologies for the first time. The West tends to emphasize the individual over the group. But even in individual man there are two facets. They are the false self and the true self.

No matter how much the individual is emphasized, it does no good if the emphasis is on the false self. Through the true-self the dignity of man emerges. In Christianity, God is worshiped as an absolute other he is separated from human beings. Zen, on the other hand, returns the human being to this original wholeness and shows him his true self.

In Buddhism the true self is called Buddha-nature. Buddha-nature includes man's religious nature and true humanity. It is deeply involved in human dignity. Thinkers in Europe and America have sensed this. Zen, with its emphasis on man's true self, has given them new insights into human potentialities. Christianity talks about a future kingdom of heaven and makes it the dwelling place of the soul. But Zen considers this too far removed from the actual world.

Zen tries to help man live fully in this world. This is called the expression of full function. Zen stresses present rather than future, this place rather than heaven. It aims at making actuality the Pure Land. In religion the most important thing is not miracle. Religion, of course, transcends the world of science, but it should not conflict with science. Buddhism is a world religion that envelops science. Any religion that hopes to appeal to modern man must embrace science and as well as transcend it. Zen does this.

In conclusion, Zen

  1. Frees man from enslavement to machines and reestablishes his humanity;
  2. Eases mental tension and bring peace of mind; and
  3. Enables man to use his full potentialities in daily life.

From this grow the Zen characteristics* of simplicity, profundity, creativity, and vitality that have attracted so many Westerners. But unless combined with zazen, Western Zen runs the risk of becoming a form of cultural snobbism.

* S. Hisamatsu in Zen and Art p.24, states that the 7 characteristics of Zen art are asymmetry, simplicity, witherness for (or austerity), naturalness, profundity, detachment, and tranquility. While good, this classification seems to he somewhat ambiguous. It contains some overlapping.

[1. Reasons for Western Interest in Zen] [3. Zen and Mysticism]

2. Zen in the West

Zen penetrates to man's true self and helps him live it in daily life. In the past few years, Zen has enjoyed something of a boom among intellectuals in Europe and America. This stems partly from Zen's capacity to break the intellectual deadlock induced by mechanical civilization, to correct one-sided dependence on science, and to soften the conflict of ideologies.

In addition, Zen responds to the modern need for simplicity, profundity, creativity, and vitality.

I would like to discuss Western Zen under six classifications - "beat" Zen, conceptual Zen, square Zen, Suzuki Zen, native Zen, and Zen.

Beat Zen

This is the Zen popular among the "beat" in America and the "angry young men" in England. Its proponents rebel against convention and tradition. Seeking freedom, they try to model their actions on those of the monks in Sung China. But most of them lack creativity and moderation. They represent, however, a phase of the process toward deeper understanding.

Conceptual Zen

This is the Zen derived from reading many books. It tries to grasp Zen conceptually and fails because Zen is a practice and not a concept. But the conception can serve as a starting point.

Square Zen

This is the Zen bound by rigid forms and rituals. Its advocates put weight on solving Koans and receiving the certification of the Zen masters. But since Zen stresses vital freedom, there is no need to be so strictly enslaved by form.

Suzuki Zen

This is the Zen that has grown through the works of Prof. Daisetz Suzuki. His contributions to Western understanding of Zen have been tremendous. But his Zen ends to emphasize enlightenment through the Koan. If this emphasis is too strong, Zen loses its original "abrupt" flavor and becomes step-like.

Native Zen

This is the Zen based on native philosophic tradition. It is represented, for example, by the writing of Prof. Van Meter Ames of Cincinnati University. It resembles the kakugi - (matching meanings) method of early China, which adapted Buddhist thought to the native heritage. This method contributed much to the development of Mahayana Buddhism in China. This type of Western Zen has potentiality for contributing significantly to understanding of Zen in Europe and America.


This is the Zen that grows from right training. Here, the works of Dogen, the founder of the Soto sect in Japan, offer many pointers, especially in his intuition of the self-identity of original enlightenment and thorough practice. This Zen requires a deep philosophic ground, understanding of Zen's historical development, and the guidance of a true Zen master. From these will come an authentic transmission. But of course this transmission should be creative; the disciple should not cling to the teachings of his master but should transcend them. This is the Zen beyond Zen. *

*Dogen criticized the Zen that had become exclusive and intolerant and was tending toward rigid dogma. He pointed to shortcomings in the characteristics associated with Zen in the past, and advocated a Zen beyond Zen.

[1. Reasons for Western Interest in Zen] [2. Zen in the West]

3. Zen and Mysticism

Much of Zen's appeal today, I believe, stems from this uncompromising view of the whole man. Many Western thinkers are drawn to Zen because it promises fulfillment without the supernatural. Its basic approach could supplement and strengthen such Western ideas as existentialism in Europe and pragmatism in the United States. In an increasingly complex and mechanized world, perhaps there is need for a teaching that helps man toward being himself. Zen seems well suited to restore the sense of life to many who have lost it-to stimulate the creative in man that alone can guarantee his survival.

Among some scholars Zen is regarded as mysticism, and they find this attractive. But can Zen be judged is this way? If Zen is mysticism divorced from reality, how can we live in vital freedom with actual society? In this space age Zen would then also conflict with science. Science forms the basic mood of the present. The wisdom taught by Buddhism does not exclude scientific knowledge but envelops it. A religion conflicting with science is not a religion for the present.

Zen transcends dualism and truly vitalizes the value of science.

No dependence on words and letters does not mean a retreat from knowledge. Rather it indicates no enslavement to words and letters and the bringing out of the true meaning of life. Science, of course, is not omnipotent. It has its own limits. In the spiritual background of Zen there is the wisdom of Sunyata. Sunyata wisdom does not depend on anything, does not become enslaved to anything, and does not cling to delusion. It denies a rigid view of substance. To consider Zen as mysticism and to be fascinated by this is to rob Zen of life.