Zen vs. the U.S. Navy

It would be an exaggeration to say that “Zen” was invented as a defense against American gunboats. It would not be completely wrong, however.

This is a post in my Crumbling Buddhist Consensus series. Modernized Zen is one of the two main Buddhist sources for Consensus Western Buddhism. This post explains how and why Japan radically altered Zen to make it compatible with Western ideas.

Opening the Japanese oyster

On July 8, 1853, Commodore Matthew C. Perry took four state-of-the-art American warships into Tokyo harbor. They were powered by steam engines and armed with a devastating new weapon. Their Paixhans guns fired explosive shells: not solid metal cannon balls, but bombs that detonated on hitting their target. Perry gave a “shock and awe” demonstration, destroying several buildings on the harbor front.

Against this barbaric assault, Japan had no defense whatsoever.

For two centuries, it had maintained a policy of cultural isolation. Christian missionaries had arrived in the 1600s, and successfully converted many Japanese. When the Empress learned how Europe took the Americas, she correctly concluded that the missionaries were the first step in a strategy of colonization.

Japan banned Christianity. All Japanese were required to belong to, and financially support, a Buddhist temple, to prove they weren’t Christians.

To eliminate dangerous foreign ideas, nearly all contact with the outside world was prevented by force. This isolation successfully kept out Christianity. Unfortunately, it also kept out Western technology. In 1853, Japan had almost no guns, and those few were hopelessly obsolete. Perry could have leveled Tokyo, and there would have been nothing Japan could have done about it.

His four black ships defeated a glorious empire. Japan was forced to sign a series of humiliating treaties, on terms dictated by America. These ended Japan’s policy of isolation; Perry had “opened the Japanese oyster,” as American headlines put it. (Yum!) The unequal treaties gave Americans free trade access, the right to live in Japan, and the right for missionaries to teach Christianity. Other Western powers imposed similar treaties over the next few years.

These treaties were seen by both the West and Japan as first steps toward colonial domination.

Japan chooses modernism

The situation was critical; dire; intolerable. But what to do?

Step 1, obviously, was to get some Western-style warships. Just a year after Perry’s arrival, Japan had built its first: an astonishing feat, given a start from late-Medieval-level technology. Over the next few decades, Japan continually built and bought ever-more-powerful gunboats.

Unfortunately, it was always behind. Among the Western powers, warships were the main technology arms race during the second half of the 1800s. Japan fought a series of naval battles against Western powers in the 1850s and 1860s, and it was crushed every time.

The problem was that warships weren’t just an accidental discovery. They depended on Western technology, which depended on Western science, which depended on Western philosophy.

During the 1850s and 1860s, Japan’s elite was profoundly split over strategy:

In the late 1860s, this split broke into civil war. The modernists won, and took control of the country.

Japan modernized astonishingly quickly. Feudalism was replaced with a modern bureaucratic state. The traditional economy was replaced with capitalism. Late-Medieval technology was replaced with modern industry. The military, closely entwined with the government, was built up rapidly, and soon won wars against China, Russia, and Korea.

Japan adopted the European ideology of the nation-state, which required a single culture throughout its territory. Among other things, that meant the selection of a state religion. Up to this point, Japan had a confused mixture of Buddhism, Shinto, and Confucianism, without a “true national religion in the manner of Western nations”. This was declared “a weakness in the Japanese national identity, placing it at a disadvantage to the Western powers.”

Abolish Buddhism and destroy Shakyamuni!

The modernists’ concession to traditionalism was the slogan “Japanese ethics, Western technology.” Japan’s essential national character, its inviolable fundamental values, would remain intact. Especially, Japan would not adopt Christianity.

The new state adopted Shinto as its official religion. Shinto would be the sacred carrier of Japaneseness. Buddhism, instead, was pretty much banned.

Up til then, the Buddhist institutional Sangha had immense social and economic power, due to the old requirement that all Japanese belong to and support a temple. These religious taxes were heavy, and widely resented. The Sangha had backed the losing, traditionalist side during the ’50s and ’60s. Eliminating Buddhism was popular with many ordinary people, and wiped out a hostile power base.

The anti-Buddhist movement was called haibutsu kishaku, which means “abolish Buddhism and destroy Shakyamuni.” Buddhism was declared to be “a corrupt, decadent, anti-social, parasitic and superstitious creed, inimical to Japan’s need for scientific and technological advancement.” It was denounced as not really Japanese, but a foreign import. It was from China, a seemingly great empire that proved pathetically weak as the colonial powers carved it up in the 1840s and ’50s.

Most Buddhist temples were closed. Many were destroyed. Buddhist monks were forced to return to lay life or forcibly converted to Shinto. Countless Buddhist books and treasures were confiscated or burned.

The New Buddhism

Buddhism was saved, sort of, by a small group of Buddhists who had sided with the modernists during the 1850s and ’60s. They were intellectuals, educated at newly created Western-style universities, who saw value in both Buddhism and Western ideas.

They agreed that the Buddhist establishment had to be destroyed. Institutional Buddhism had “degenerated” into meaningless rituals and folk superstitions. But this was the fault of a corrupt Sangha, not Buddhism itself. Haibutsu kishaku was a purifying flame that would actually strengthen Buddhism in the long run.

They proposed that a “New Buddhism” (shin bukkyo) could be a powerful tool for the government in its drive to modernize and strengthen Japan. Their sales pitch succeeded; persecution of Buddhism ended. Imakita Kosen, one of the leaders of the New Buddhism movement, was made a Doctrinal Instructor at the Ministry of Doctrine, with power to reform the religion:

If you’ve read my earlier post about Protestant reforms to Buddhism, you’ll recognize many of the items on this list. All across Asia, the re-making of Buddhism in the late 1800s included both Protestant and nationalist factors. Japan took the nationalism more seriously than most.

The New Buddhist reform had limited effect in Japan. There’s still a lot of pretty traditional Buddhism there now. However, the strategy of exporting New Buddhism to the West was successful. The Zen we have now is heavily influenced by it. That Zen was one of the main inputs to “Consensus Buddhism.”

(Of course, export Buddhism was not only motivated by cynical nationalism. No doubt all those involved also genuinely believed that they were bringing a better religion to Westerners, for our benefit.)

Exporting New Buddhism

Imakita Kosen’s dharma heir, and successor at the Ministry of Doctrine, was Soyen Shaku. In 1892, he wrote:

Religion is the only force in which the Western people know that they are inferior to the nations of the East… Let us wed the Great Vehicle [Mahayana Buddhism] to Western thought… At Chicago next year, the fitting time will come.

The World Parliament of Religions was held in Chicago, in 1893. Here Japanese Buddhism was presented to white America for the first time. Soyen Shaku’s lecture to the Parliament, presenting New Buddhism, was a big success. He followed up with the first English-language book on Zen, and a world teaching tour in 1905-6, spending time in America and several European countries.

(Anagarika Dharmapala, the great modernizer of Sri Lankan Buddhism who I discussed in a previous post, was even more of a star at the Parliament. He seems to have been particularly popular among the ladies—rather a waste if he kept his vow of celibacy.)

Soyen Shaku had responsibilities in Japan; he could not be a full-time missionary. In 1897, he sent his young student D.T. Suzuki to America—one of the most important events in Western Buddhism.

D.T. Suzuki invents “Zen”

Suzuki wound up defining “Zen” for the West for the next sixty years.

His qualifications to speak about Zen were dubious. He had a much stronger background in Western philosophy and theology, which he studied at university in Japan and in America. While at university, he did study Zen with both Imakita Kosen and Soyen Shaku, but his training was squeezed into weekends and vacations. He was a layman—never ordained—was never given formal permission to teach, and was definitely not a “Zen master.” Later in life, at least, Zen was not his own path; he practiced mainly Shin Buddhism, a very different sect.

Zen, however, was the Japanese Buddhism easiest to reinterpret as compatible with early 20th-century American values. And that is what Suzuki did, in dozens of English-language books, and when teaching in the U.S. (He was a professor at Columbia University in New York from 1952-57.) His starting point was Imakita Kosen’s New Buddhism, but to this he added a new theory of Zen meditation and enlightenment.

This theory was developed by Suzuki together with the Kyoto School. That was a group of Japanese philosophy professors, founded by a close friend of Suzuki’s, devoted to synthesizing Buddhist and Western philosophy. Their work was world-class—brilliant. Unfortunately, the main Western philosophy they chose to integrate with Buddhism was German Romantic Idealism. That philosophy is long-since discredited in the Western world. It is also, in my personal opinion, mostly wrong and harmful.

Suzuki presented this mash-up as the original, true, pure Zen; but also as not particularly Buddhist. Zen was, instead, the mystical essence of all religions; just as much a part of Christianity as of Buddhism.

From his study of Western culture, Suzuki understood its biggest problem: the uncertainty, anxiety, alienation, and loss of meaning that came with the scientific-rational-relative worldview. He presented Zen as the solution; and that was believable enough to make it popular.

Since his death, American Zen teachers have gradually unpicked Suzuki’s politically-motivated distortions. However, the Suzuki/Kyoto (mis)interpretation of meditation is still widespread. I think this is important to understanding current Consensus Buddhism. It is a large and subtle subject, so I’ll write a full, separate page about it soon.

The New New Zen: Sanbo Kyodan

A large fraction of American Zen teachers are in the Harada-Yasutani lineage, called Sanbo Kyodan, which was most active in the mid-20th century. I haven’t been able to get a clear picture of its historical relationship with the late-1800s New Buddhism, but its ideas are closely similar:

Further reading

Some things in this post might seem improbable. They appear all to be uncontested facts, however. You can check them easily in (e.g.) the Wikipedia. Its section on the Japanese New Buddhism is a good starting point.

David L. McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism has a long section on Suzuki’s reinterpretation of Zen in terms of Western Romantic Idealism.

Robert H. Sharf has several academic journal articles that discuss the re-making of modern Zen in detail. These include “The Zen of Japanese Nationalism” and “Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience”, and “Sanbōkyōdan: Zen and the Way of the New Religions.” Sharf has some axes to grind, and sometimes he seems to me to edge on overstating his case, but the facts seem solid.