Comments on “Zen vs. the U.S. Navy”

Samsara 2011-07-01

Very nice article David; I enjoyed it very much.

I think it’s important to keep in mind that although Sanbo Kyodan has had a big influence in the U.S., especially in regards to “consensus Buddhism”, teachers more in the style of Shunryu Suzuki, Katagiri Roshi, even Brad Warner are also very important and don’t seem to carry this New Buddhism/new age/German Idealism baggage, though I’m not sure if I really understand the German Idealism connection exactly. I think “realizing one’s true self, which is infinite and absolute” is similar to sunyata and annata, though certainly not the best wording for it.

Also, Eisai and Dogen rejected much ritual (though Sanbo Kyodan has taken it much further I’m sure), clearly emphasized meditation above all else, and were more inclusive (Dogen accepted women, e.g.). So again, I think many aspects of New Buddhism were an attempt to revive Zen roots, and I think it’s easy to argue that these just are compatible with Western ideas, which is why they were chosen and emphasized. Perhaps you can elaborate on the Idealism infusion, because I don’t really see it.

Lastly, we shouldn’t forget the fact that New Buddhism has been more or less an absolute failure in Japan. Today Zen is extremely unpopular, Buddhism as a whole is seen as very conservative and pretty much only exists for tourists and funerals, the most common school is the burn-incense-to-pray-for-your-lost-keys school, and most people know less than American high school students about Buddhism. Also, my understanding was that New Buddhism was a 1890-1910ish thought experiment. By the time Shinto untranationalism ramped up, any serious interest in Buddhism was pretty much treason, and when it reemerged after the war I don’t think it had taken much of the New Buddhism package through the gap. A majority of Buddhist evangelists from Japan in North America came after the war.

It’s very fascinating that Buddhism changed so drastically after Western contact. I think this was a very good thing. I like to think Buddha’s Buddhism and Dogen’s Buddhism was similar to what I practice, but I can’t pretend to know the literature anywhere near well enough. It really doesn’t matter though. I like Buddhism because, as we know it anyways, it is compatible with science and isn’t superstitious, while also reducing delusion and dissatisfaction. If it weren’t rational I would find it stupid, and without “rational Buddhism” I think I’d be a less balanced person.

David Chapman 2011-07-01

I agree with much of that! Especially, it doesn’t matter whether our Buddhism is the same as Shakyamuni’s or Dogen’s or Padmasambhava’s—what matters is whether it works for us. And, yes, for me too, it’s important that it be compatible with science and that it’s not stupid!

And, I don’t know a lot about it, but it does seem that New Buddhism (and Sanbo Kyodan) are no longer influential in Japan. But, they have strongly shaped Zen in the West.

And, I’m not trying to argue that American Zen was made up from scratch. There is some traditional Zen in it. But, as you say, the bits that have been selected for survival into Western Zen are bits that resonate with Western themes; and they have been re-contextualized and re-interpreted in various ways.

I’m not sure I can get enough of the Romantic Idealism stuff in a comment to be useful. The post after next is going to be a summary of it, and then I’m going to come back to Zen’s incorporation of it two posts after that. However, I’ll give it a try… You wrote:

I think “realizing one’s true self, which is infinite and absolute” is similar to sunyata and annata

This is the essence of the Kyoto School view. “Realizing one’s true self, which is infinite and absolute” is the essence of Romantic Idealism. And then the Kyoto School equated that with various Buddhist concepts—shunyata, anatman, nirvana, dharmakaya, alayavijñana, kensho, satori, and so on.

I think this is wrong in two ways. First, the point of anatman and shunyata is that you don’t have a true self. I realize that there are things in Dogen that sound similar. I don’t know Dogen nearly well enough to know whether he had the same unusual interpretation, or if that’s a misreading of Dogen.

The second point is that, regardless of what Buddhism says, I think I don’t have a true self, or anything that is infinite or absolute; and I think there’s convincing reasons to believe that based in Western philosophy.

I don’t know anything about Katagiri Roshi. I love Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, but I choked on his Branching Streams Flow in Darkness, which seemed to have a bunch of German stuff in it.

And, much as I love Brad Warner, he does talk about God a lot. He’d be quick to say (I assume) that he doesn’t mean the Christian God, it’s an impersonal God that is the same as the entire universe, absolute reality itself—but that idea of God comes straight out of German Idealism again, and I’ve got big problems with it.

Samsara 2011-07-01

Thanks for the response! I agree that the point of emptiness and no-self is that there is no true self, but if you call this empty lack of a self the true self, you have the same notion, just rather poorly expressed. Also, I would consider the dharma (forms/phenomena) to be infinite, in both a scientific and Buddhist sense. ‘Absolute’ is probably the word I like least in there, but I can make myself feel better about it by thinking of the dharma as absolute in its infinite relativity. Just seems like semantics to me, but maybe I’m being naive. I could say the same about Brad Warner’s God, but that term is far more problematic and less forgivable!

David Chapman 2011-07-01
If you call the lack of a self the true self, you have the same notion, just rather poorly expressed.

The problem is that calling war “peace” is likely to be confusing. If everyone agrees to call war “peace”, and they stop using the word “peace” to mean peace, it wouldn’t cause any problem… but people haven’t agreed to stop using “true self” to mean true self.

And, if a diplomat says “when I say ‘peace’, I mean war… Now, let’s sign a peace treaty”, you might suspect that they are up to something. There’s probably some kind of an agenda there.

When German Idealism is mixed into Buddhism, there is definitely an agenda. “By ‘true self’, I mean no-self” is a deliberate attempt to confuse people, for specific reasons. There’s an intended outcome here, and it is not a good one.

Namgyal Dorje 2011-07-01

I find this fascinating, as it echoes other Western-Japanese cultural-economic developments that have happened in the past century or so. My work background is in manufacturing, and here there is a similar history. Post WWII America provided the Japanese with support to rebuild their economy. This took various forms, but critically included some experts in scientific management such as W E Deming. By the 1980s the Japanese had been so effective in deploying and developing these techniques, that the West (which had paid only lip service to the techniques in many areas) was re-importing the self-same core principles back from Japan. The techniques were so well packaged in a shiny Japanese-rebranded form that many didn’t seem to realise that their origins in fact were Western, not Eastern. Without wishing to go on too great a diversion, it is these techniques that lie behind Japan’s strong position in sectors like the American auto-market.

The presentation on this blog of the origins of Western Buddhism reads a little bit like ‘here is a thing that happened at point X in time, and we can now see the result’. But this implicitly has a static quality to it. That is almost inevitable when trying to write a brief history (of anything). However in the manufacturing world this process has continued from the 1950s up to the present time and seems likely to continue for some decades at least. The conversation between the two cultures is ongoing, and it is very much a dialogue, with both business cultures learning and developing. Critically it is not a Japanese monologue, with Western businesses begging ‘share with us your mysterious Eastern ways’. This dialogue must likewise be happening now, between Buddhists and Buddhist Traditions East and West. With the point of origin identified, and the path to modernity you’ve laid out in this blog, I’m interested to wonder ‘where is this dialogue going’, ‘what is the present trajectory, all things being equal’ and ‘what will Buddhism in both the East and West look like in 20 years as a result? In 50? In 100 years?’

David Chapman 2011-07-01

@ Namgyal – Yes, as you say, the Asia/West re-construction of Buddhism is on-going, with contributions from both sides. But I can’t cover everything all at once! I’m going to work forward through time. I’m doing mostly Protestantization in the late 1800s now, then we’ll get the re-conceptualization of meditation in terms of bad German philosophy in the early 1900s, then the hippies going to Asia in the 60s and 70s, then the formation of the Consensus in the 90s, then the current post-systems Zeitgeist, and then I go off the deep end and have wild hallucinations about the future. My “wild” goes only a few years into the future, though. If you want 20 or 50 or 100 you’ll have to take your own drugs.

Sabio Lantz 2011-07-02

@ David

Wow, fantastic piece. I have learned a lot. Thank you for all your effort. Now for a few questions/thoughts:

Old Buddhism was infested with gods, spirits, monsters, and demons. New Buddhism rejected the supernatural.

Wasn’t Shintoism loaded with spirits (Kami) and superstition too. How did Shintoism escape this criticism at that time?

Their work was world-class—brilliant. Unfortunately, the main Western philosophy they chose to integrate with Buddhism was German Romantic Idealism.

What other Western Philosophy of that time would you have liked to see them use as a template for their new Buddhism? I am just curious. Parallel histories would be fun to explore. Was German Romanticism chosen because it was the most dominate in universities at that time? US and European? (thanx)

However, the Suzuki/Kyoto (mis)interpretation of meditation is still widespread. I think this is important to understanding current Consensus Buddhism.

Wow, very good point! Superb essay. Thanks

David Chapman 2011-07-02

I know almost nothing about Shinto… Good question about why it wasn’t rationalized. If anyone knows, I’d be interested to hear.

Japan used Germany, particularly, as a development role model, so cutting-edge German philosophy was what they went for. And Idealism was still the dominant philosophy in the early 1900s. The Kyoto School’s first publication was 1911, which is just when Idealism was dying. (G. E. Moore’s Refutation of Idealism was 1903 and Bertrand Russell’s early publications were a bit later, with Principia Mathematica in 1910.)

The Kyoto School worked closely with Heidegger, who was arguably the greatest philosopher of the 20th century. Influence seems to have gone in both directions. Heidegger’s thought seemed very Buddhist when I first encountered it; later I learned that wasn’t an accident.

I’m glad they didn’t work with the logical positivists; that would have been a big waste of everyone’s time! Although, who knows… maybe we’d all now be proving theorems about meditative states. “Let G be a ground of Being over the empty space J,J’ of form and formless jhanas, with projection N into nirvana. Now consider the bundle T of thoughts arising in J…”

Sharf argues that there was a big influence of William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience on D.T. Suzuki’s (mis)understanding of meditation. If so Suzuki must have badly misunderstood William James. (Which Sharf does suggest in footnote 59 of his Zen Nationalism paper.)

Romantic Idealism is an attempt to solve the problem of nihilism. Nihilism is actually a pseudo-problem. It appears as a problem only if you are committed to eternalism of some sort. The whole modern project is eternalist in its attempt to find ultimate foundations. Those don’t exist, so if you insist on them, reality manifests as empty in a negative sense. That’s the “disenchantment of the world” that Romanticism seeks to cure. As soon as you give up on ultimate foundations, the problem of nihilism (and disenchantment) vanishes.

Toward the end of this series, I’ll follow the common critical-theory story that modernity ended sometime around 1980. And that means that nihilism is no longer an issue. Which means that Romantic Idealism is a (failed) solution to a problem we don’t have. And anyone who came of age after 1980 never thought they had the problem, which (I suspect) is why Consensus Buddhism doesn’t appeal to them.

Of course, we do still have problems… samsara is not so easily banished… but they are different ones. At the end of this series I will speculate about what they are and what to do about them.

Sabio Lantz 2011-07-02

@ David

On Shinto
Yeah, I could see why Shinto was chosen because it offered the emperor a niche as the ultimate Leader (ripe for use by the ruling powers) which Buddhism did not offer at that point in history. Whereas Buddhism offered that niche in Tibetan history and thus played a large role in Tibetan Buddhist politics and influence in the West. I wonder if some present-day traditional-prone Shintoists lament the good-ole-days prior to the Japanese State confiscating their religion. I wonder if there are Nyingma-like Shintoists in that sense – or perhaps more pointedly so, more Bon-like Shintoists. Maybe you will help us on that when you get to Tibet. Either way, alas, power-holders will always try to use whatever tools available.

On Idealism vs Logical Positivism
Interesting point about Heidegger! Yeah, maybe we could have had more science verifying the qualitative differences caused by some Buddhist practices (and not others) if time had not been wasted on Idealism but instead aimed at empiricism. And if James had indeed influenced Suzuki, the pragmatism may have nurtured a Buddhism that could survive the scrutiny of the disillusionment of the knife of reductionism better than the New-Age fluff born of German idealism. (Good Lord, your terms are contagious! ;-) )
I seem to remember a whole series of faux-History books with authors exploring “what-ifs” – there is another project for someone burdened with free time.

I love the final teaser even in your comments and look forward to further enlightenment. I imagine different “problems” plague different groups and thus solutions will always vary. That is why we have Pentecostals and Episcopals, Scientologists and Skin Heads.

Heads up: Brad Warner just twittered about you saying “Why I matter. Heh.”.

David Chapman 2011-07-02

Thanks! Brad followed up with a post about my posts about him.

David Chapman 2011-07-03

@ Samsara,

I’ve been chewing on what you wrote, and it lead me to dig into this true-self/no-self thing some more. I’m planning to write a page about the Westernization of Zen meditation, which is risky because I don’t know very much about Zen and am quite likely to make an idiot of myself.

Anyway, it appears that Zen gets “when I say ‘true self’, I mean ‘no self’” from the Lankavatara Sutra. Or at any rate, D.T. Suzuki (who wrote its only English translation) thought so. The relevant part of the Lankavatara Sutra is an attempt to reconcile the Mahaparinirvana Sutra with the rest of Buddhism. In the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, Buddha, as he is dying, says “You know all that stuff I told you about no-self? I lied. If you believed me, you were idiots.”

I personally think Buddha got it right the first time :-) The poison mushroom in his last meal was affecting his judgement. But it seems that this is an authentically Buddhist doctrine. It’s not the position of the majority of Buddhisms, but it’s apparently not a Western distortion of Zen. Rather, it appears that Suzuki and Kyoto School picked Zen to align with Romantic Idealism because it actually does have a similar stance.

At least, that’s my best understanding for now. I’m going to have read more about it…

bud fritz 2011-07-03

‘I know almost nothing about Shinto… I don’t know very much about Zen…’ For someone with such strong opinions expressed so authoritatively, your writing sure is full of telling caveats such as these.

Not sure why all the hate for German romanticism. You list all its defining characteristics, as if it will be obvious how horrible they are, but I find myself agreeing with most of them.

One significant western influence on DT Suzuki not mentioned here is socialism, which cured him of the commonly held Buddhist notion that social injustice, poverty etc were caused by an individual’s bad karma from a past life.

‘No, the doctrine of karma certainly must not be understood to
explain the cause of our social and economical imperfections.
The region where the law of karma is made to work supreme is
our moral world, and cannot be made to extend also over our
economic field. Poverty is not necessarily the consequence of
evil deeds, nor is plenitude that of good acts. Whether a person is
affluent or needy is mostly determined by the principle of economy
as far as our present social system is concerned.’

‘As long as we live under the present state of things, it is impossible
to escape the curse of social injustice and economic inequality.
Some people must be born rich and noble and enjoying a
superabundance of material wealth, while others must be groaning
under the unbearable burden imposed upon them by cruel society.
Unless we make a radical change in our present social organization,
we cannot expect every one of us to enjoy an equal opportunity
and a fair chance. Unless we have a certain form of socialism
installed which is liberal and rational and systematic, there must
be some who are economically more favored than others’..
(from ‘Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism’).

Finally, I kind of don’t get your main point in all of this. You seem to have an agenda, but I can’t quite see it. The closest I can glean is, a rejection of all modernizing, westernizing influences on Buddhism? Which would include a return to superstition, patriarchy, clerical superiority over laity, etc.?

David Chapman 2011-07-03

Hi, bud,

A few posts in the future, I’ll have a summary of what I think is wrong with Romantic Idealism. However, I don’t necessarily want to talk anyone out of it. If it works for you… great! What I want to point out is that its ideas are taken for granted as Buddhist by a lot of modern Buddhists. If we know that it’s optional, we can choose whether or not we want to include it in our Buddhism.

I’ve summarized my agenda, and given an outline, in earlier posts in this series.

I definitely don’t want to return to tradition, or to reject the modernizations of Buddhism! I think the changes are mainly for the better. But there are aspects I want to question. At this point in the series, I’m laying out some of the recent history of Buddhism, to show that many things commonly assumed to be “ancient Buddhist wisdom” are actually Western ideas merged into Buddhism within the last 150 years. That will make it easier to challenge them later.


Ron Sinnige 2011-07-04


Thanks again for this. Since I have a special interest in zen, most of what you present in the article was known, but good to see summarized. As you and others mention, for sure there are other directions in zen apart from Sanbo Kyodan, which is virtually unknown and unimportant in Japan anyway. I especially appreciate the quality of your (and others’!) comments. Great to see this happen. I’m more of a practitioner myself, (i.e. not much of a literate intellectual), so in that sense cannot contribute much. I basically just sit back and thoroughly enjoy all this. Look forward to reading more!

Manny Furious 2011-07-05

Hi David,

I guess my difficulty with all of this sort of, for lack of my thinking of any kind of remotely suitable term, Reform Buddhism is that, like most contemporary “Buddhism”, it misses the point entirely. Buddhism, Zen or otherwise, isn’t really an “entity” against which we label as “correct” or “incorrect”. All of this talk is superfluous. And while I agree with guys like you and Brad Warner that having this mega Buddhist institution arise in the country that seems to believe it has some sort of mandate or authority to define contemporary Buddhist practice for the masses is annoying and even absurd, I also think it’s irrelevant. If a bunch of lazy seekers want to believe everything somebody tells them, that’s not really my problem. And/or if they feel that doing so somehow improves their lives, who’s to tell them they’re wrong?

Furthermore, I strongly disagree with many contemporary (particularly Western) Buddhists on many points. But it doesn’t really matter. Their practice doesn’t really affect my practice. In fact, I don’t even refer to myself as a Buddhist, and I’ve given up on discussing Zen with most people, because it doesn’t really matter if anybody believes whether my practice falls into their presupposed guidelines of what is or isn’t “Buddhism” or “Zen”. It’s doesn’t matter if I even think that. What matters is that I’ve reaped the benefits of practicing the way I practice, whatever it’s called.

Manny Furious 2011-07-05

Also, I always have to laugh at the usual criticisms aimed at D.T. Suzuki, since he seems to have actually had a Satori (which most modern Zen practitioners minimize, although it used to be the cornerstone of Zen/Chan). Furthermore, there aren’t any reports (that I know of) of any sexual, ethical or economical indiscretions on D.T. Suzuki’s part. By all accounts that I’m familiar with, he was an unusually patient, compassionate and personable man. Meanwhile, the list of “true”, dharma-heir-certified Zen “masters” who have committed such indiscretions is manifold.

So who seems to have had a better grasp of life and how to live it? The true-blue, certifiable “Roshis” (so much for the “man of no rank”) or the man who actually seemed to live a life of contentment and happiness?

If so-called “Zen” is the Dennis Merzels and Richard Bakers of the world, and D.T. Suzuki is not, then I guess I’m not Zen.

Samsara 2011-07-05

“Upon seeing the morning star, Gautama became Shakyamuni Buddha when he was, is and will be awakened to His TRUE SELF and said, says, and will say, “I was, am and will be enlightened, together with the whole of the great earth and all its sentient beings’ simultaneously.”” - Keizan, 13th century

Just came across this and happened to note the use of “true self”. Not that that really means anything though. I look forward to reading about the Westernization of Zen :-)

David Chapman 2011-07-05

Hi Manny,

Yes, I take a “live and let live” attitude to different kinds of Buddhism. Maybe Brand X looks nuts to me, but if it’s working for them, great.

But, the leaders of the Consensus are pretty open about the fact that it isn’t working even for them. And they say they are puzzled about that and don’t know what to do about it. So, I hope to be helpful. I’ve got some guesses about why it isn’t working that I think are pretty good. I’ve even got some guesses about what to do about it (although they’re probably crazy).

It would be much better if a change of direction could come from within the Consensus, but I don’t see that happening. Coming from the outside, I will probably sound strident—and I probably have to speak a bit sharply for there to be any chance I’ll be heard. But I do think the Consensus leaders are looking for alternative directions, and that they want to be open-minded, so who knows.

The other reason I am writing this is that I do think the Consensus has actively suppressed dissent. That is worth speaking out against.


David Chapman 2011-07-05

Samsara, thanks for the Keizan quote! To be absolutely sure, I’d want to check the translation—but it does look like Zen comes by this “true self” business honestly.

What I’m going to do, two or three posts in the future, is to explain why that aspect of Zen has been attractive to Westerners, and therefore foregrounded within Western Buddhism.

I’ll also eventually say something about why I think Zen is wrong about it. Most other Buddhisms unambiguously reject a “true self.” My objection is not dogmatically Buddhist, though; it’s just that I don’t think there is one. YMMV…

Joshua Jonathan 2011-07-05

Hi David,

The discussion about ‘true self’ and ‘no self’ is fascinating. Personally I’m also sure that there is no ‘I’, but it is totally wierd to think so. It’s the main reason for my interest in Zen, because this tradition says the same - or so it seemed, because ‘Buddha-nature’ does not seem to be the same as ‘no-self’.

You wrote …

“Buddha, as he is dying, says “You know all that stuff I told you about no-self? I lied. If you believed me, you were idiots.”

I personally think Buddha got it right the first time :-) The poison mushroom in his last meal was affecting his judgement. But it seems that this is an authentically Buddhist doctrine. ”

Please tell us, what did he get right? And what is the “authentically Buddhist doctrine”?

Samsara 2011-07-06

I would agree; I absolutely think there is not a true self. And that is the true self :-)

Sabio 2011-07-06

@ SamSara,
I have been allergic to “true self” concept in Zen for decades due to its romanticism connotations which David illustrates well. I don’t think it is mere linguistic. And though, in my feeble ways, I think I partially understand and deeply agree with the “no self” insight in Buddhism, I have found the “no self” difficult to talk about because its counter-intuitive connotations also.

Thus, I have fumbled with calling such insight “Many Selves” instead of “No Self” (see here) – of course the connotations of this phrasing comes with its own stumbling blocks too.

But this may only be my idiocentric “YMMV” David wrote of. I had to look that up: “Your Milage May Vary”. :-)

Either way, undoing limited habits of mind is the goal, and thus the question for me is what habits do phrases reinforce, weaken or help dissolve. Little undesirable actions matter – they build up. Little undesirable ideas can be similar. So the effort to observe a term’s nuances and expose implications inside verbal trojan horse is a valuable exercise.

Sabio 2011-07-06

Hi David

So I have a few questions to again clarify:

(a) When you say,

“[‘Consensus Buddhism’] isn’t working even for them

By “not working” do you mean their small numbers or their limited demographics (grey-headed, white baby-boomers)?

(b) Do you feel the Buddhist group to which you have been a committed student for many years is also susceptible to some of the criticisms you have made in this series and to ones you will make?

(c) Do you feel that any given Buddhist sect can have more than one justification stances?

(d) Justification stances taken by the actual believers in a group may differ in frequency from those that any particular interpretter tells us comes from the teachings of a founder or head-teachers? Do you feel this is true or important?

David Chapman 2011-07-06

@ Joshua Thank you for your interest! Unfortunately, I’m not qualified to talk about no-self (and true-self) in Zen—as is obvious here! I’m going to have to do more reading on that… but I expect that much of the understanding is transmitted orally and/or via the practice, and I’m not in a Zen lineage, so reading will never make me qualified.

I can and will say some things about self from other Buddhist and Western perspectives. But, I won’t give a detailed account in this blog series; it’s too big a topic, and not really relevant to my analysis of Consensus Buddhism. It is what I hope to get to next on my main Meaningness site, when I finish this blog series here.

By “authentically Buddhist”, in this case, I meant as opposed to “19th Century German philosophy that got added to Zen by D.T. Suzuki”. I find arguments about what’s “authentic” in Buddhism pointless, so I shouldn’t have used the word—thanks for pointing out my sloppiness! If modern Zen were a mash-up of pre-1867-Zen and Romantic Idealism, that wouldn’t make it “inauthentic” in my view—merely wrong.

@ Samsara I think I can guess what that means… But if my guess is right, it still seems an unhelpful way of talking. I hope I can avoid discussing this in detail, because Zen philosophy certainly is subtle, so I would be likely to get it wrong, or get dragged into complicated arguments.

@ Sabio Yes, your “many selves / no self model” is pretty close to my view. (Other readers: do follow his link and check it out!) Especially, when I get to “what next, if current mainstream Western Buddhism is wrong?”, I am going to start from observations about the fragmentation of self in contemporary culture.

One thing your post doesn’t get at is the nebulosity of the self/other boundary. I think that’s really important, and probably related to what Zen is trying to say with “by true self I mean no self.”

David Chapman 2011-07-06

@ Sabio — our last comments crossed in cyberspace! Replying to your more recent one:

(a) “Consensus Buddhism isn’t working even for them”: Over the years, I’ve read a bunch of interviews with Consensus Buddhist leaders in which they express disappointment with the efficacy of Consensus Buddhism. For themselves and their students. I haven’t collected these because I didn’t expect to write about this, so I don’t have any handy. I am going to have to do a lot of Googling to find some again. (If anyone can point me at any, I’d greatly appreciate it!)

Back even in the early 90s, they were saying “well, Buddhism is great, but it turns out, we learned, it doesn’t deal with a lot of your stuff, so you need to do psychotherapy too.” And then “at least half of our students can’t practice because their emotions are too out of control.” And “it seems like Buddhism ought to make you into an ethical person, but we’ve found it just doesn’t.”

A bit later, “we don’t seem to be getting enlightened here, what’s wrong?” And “vipassana is really hard work and doesn’t go anywhere; we’re adding Advaita because it’s quick and easy.” “We’re all doing Byron Katie work now, because it seems to deal with issues Buddhism doesn’t.” “Well, we’ve been doing this for decades now, and we’re just about as neurotic as we ever were—what’s going on?”

(b) Which criticisms do you have in mind? I haven’t really criticized anything yet, I’m just writing boring 19th century history… Eventually, my criticism of Consensus Buddhism is that it’s trying to solve problem X with tools that weren’t designed for that problem (so they don’t work), and also problem X is one people under 50 mostly don’t have (so they aren’t interested). Aro isn’t trying to solve problem X (and uses quite different tools). On the other hand, it mostly has the same demographic problem, so maybe most Aro students think it’s trying to solve X. I don’t know; it’s probably difficult for me to see from the inside.

(c) Yes; as I wrote in the “duopoly” post, most Western Buddhisms use a mixture of traditional and modern justifications.

(d) Interesting insight! Yes, I think that’s true… For example, the Aro Lamas justify Aro primarily as a terma, where my own interest is more pragmatic. In principle, that could result in problematic misalignments. I try to be aware of such things, so it doesn’t seem to have been a problem… but probably some of what they mean to say is not quite what I hear. Some such divergences are likely in any teacher/student relationship, I’d guess.

Did you have a particular case in mind here?

Sabio 2011-07-06

@ David

Thanks. I read Your essay on Nebulosity many months ago and found it superb! I love the term and the problems you describe with the word “Emptiness” in English. Your term and method of description capture much for me. My other epistemological posts on my site hint at your Nebulosity but you have clarified much for me. I actually use the word now as if it should be common sense. My wife called me on that the other day. She said she loved the term but had not heard it before.

David Chapman 2011-07-06

@ Sabio — Thanks for adding the pointer—I forgot that “nebulosity” is somewhat my own jargon!

An in-depth discussion of the nebulosity of the self/other boundary will be the next major topic on Meaningness. I believe some insights from Western philosophy can really clarify the Buddhist notions of shunyata (emptiness) and anatman (no-self). My take is that, through meditation practice, Buddhism has uncovered profound and important truths about those. But, its conceptual, explanatory framework is partly wrong. And because Buddhism has had the attitude of “a saint said it 2000 years ago, so it must be right”, it’s gotten stuck.

My understanding derives partly from Heidegger, and he got it partly from the Kyoto School, so I do have some more reading to do there…

But the main thing is, I want to explain this in very simple, everyday language that anyone can understand. And with stuff this non-intuitive, that’s difficult. I think I can do it, though…

Rig'dzin Dorje 2011-07-07

‘The anti-Buddhist movement was called haibutsu kishaku, which means “abolish Buddhism and destroy Shakyamuni.” ‘
Highly ironic, in relation to the thousand year-old Chinese slogan, “if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”
Buddhism does have a tendency to attract nemesis in its own image.

Rig'dzin Dorje 2011-07-07

What is a justification stance, please, and who has one?

Sabio 2011-07-07

@ David

(1) Buddhism is not Working
Wow, those were critical points: Buddhism wasn’t curing poor ethical choices, emotional instability, “issues”. Buddhists are just as neurotic.
Christians have claimed superiority over the ages and studies are essentially showing that was hype too.

(2) Problem X
I guess we’ll know more when you discuss what “X” is and how Census Buddhism is trying to address it and how Aro Folks, inspite of a teaching not directed at “X”, many followers still persist (in other words, it doesn’t work either). Perhaps those that would be drawn to Aro filter themselves right from the start and the same for other Buddhism flavors.

David Chapman 2011-07-07

@ Rig’dzin Dorje – I think “justification stance” is pointing at this post (although I didn’t quite use that term).

@ Sabio – Not sure I followed what you are saying in your point #2. Certainly people do filter themselves in to/out of different Buddhist groups. “Problem X” is basically how to form a coherent self and preserve meaning in the face of uncertainty and the disenchantment of the world.

Sabio 2011-07-07

@ David
Ah, that helps much to have “Problem X” spelled out up front. I see why a “True Self” could meet some Zen followers felt need to have a coherent self in order to hold off uncertainty – a deluded effort from the beginning, in my opinion. But I think I see where you are going. Thank you.

@ Rig’dzin
In the post David points to, he spoke of “Justifications” used in sects to justify their legitimacy (I think). I realize that “stance” is used technically in Aro, but I meant it as in “position” or “proposition” . David used the word “justification” but he did not my phrase “Justification Stance” though I meant them to be the same.

WeeDram 2011-07-07

All very interesting, I guess, but as someone who simply practices … blah, blah, blah. The point is to just practice.

Sabio Lantz 2011-07-08

@ WeeDram
Granted, this is very geeky and you are correct that practice is important. But perhaps David’s posts help illustrate that:
(1) There are many different sorts of practices, all with different effects
(2) The ideology or rhetoric of a system can train ones mind too, esp. when linked with a practice
(3) We often don’t know the assumptions we make with either #1 nor #2

Josh 2011-07-28

Hello all. Very interesting discussion. I think having a friendly and open discussion with other practitioners is a great privilege, because my understanding of practice and what does and doesn’t matter keeps evolving (partly) in response to those discussions.

Re: the Keizan quote - I could be wrong, but I think I recognise this as a translation by Peggy ‘Jiyu’ Kennett, founder of the Shasta Abbey lineage. I don’t have another translation of Keizan to compare this one to, but I can say that Kennett wasn’t shy of taking artistic license with her translations in order to direct her students to what she saw as the essence of a text, and she definitely saw Zen as of-a-piece with Christian mysticism. In fact during what she referred to as her ‘3rd Kensho’ she reported a past-life regression in which she saw her previous existence as a Christian monk some centuries previously. Throughout her writings she uses TRUE SELF (in small caps) as a translation for any term she feels refers to ‘ultimate reality’ - so this may not give an accurate sense of Keizan’s Japanese, but I can’t be sure. She also attended D.T. Suzuki’s lectures, and was influenced by him.

As for Dogen’s view, the full text of his Shobogenzo (Nishijima/Cross translation i.e. Brad Warner’s lineage) is online as a free download at: -> ‘Digital Texts’.

The only appearance of the term ‘true self’ I can find in Nishijima’s translation is in Chapter 6, “Soku Shin Ze Butsu”, in which Dogen is refuting the view that the popular Sino-Japanese phrase “this very mind is buddha” implies the existence of a ‘true self’. Dogen argues that to believe in a ‘true self’ - or as Nishijima translates, “spiritual intelligence” - which transmigrates from one body to the next and which is identical with the principles of ‘buddha’ and ‘enlightenment’ is non-Buddhist. Specifically it is supposedly the view of the non-Buddhist Indian philosopher Senika, who is apparently found in the Avatamsaka Sutra. Dogen clearly took the teaching of anatman seriously.

However, Dogen does frequently use the common term ‘self’ (ji 自), as in the description of the state of zazen as “the samadhi of receiving and using the self”. But I don’t think that someone who acknowledges the fact that (more-or-less nebulous) ‘self’ is an aspect of everyone’s lived reality is automatically denying the idea of anatman. Anatman, after all, doesn’t automatically mean there is ‘no self’, it means there is ‘no atman’ i.e. no undying, unchanging, transmigratory cupful of the world-soul hidden in each superfically-physical being.

For Dogen’s use of the term ‘self’ in his writings, you could try Chapter 75, “Jisho Zanmai: Samadhi as Experience of the Self”, but Dogen is famously obscure.
E.g. “In this learning in practice, we get rid of the self, and we experience the self as exact accordance. For this reason, in the great truth of the Buddhist patriarchs, there are concrete tools for experiencing the self and realizing the self, [but] if we are not Buddhist patriarchs as rightful successors we do not receive their authentic transmission.” (Vol. 4, Ch. 75, P.43)

As to whether the ‘satori experience’ was once the “cornerstone” of Zen but has since fallen into neglect, I would suggest that the idea of ‘awakening’ as a single, mystical experience was originated within Chan/Zen by Dahui Zonggao (1089–1163) as a rhetorical strategy to promote his innovations and lineage within the monastic institutions of Song Dynasty China. It was a successful strategy, displacing the ‘silent illumination’ orthodoxy that had gone before in Chan, and one that was subsequently employed by D.T. Suzuki and the Sanbo Kyodan to appeal to Western mystics. Dogen certainly had no time for Zonggao (Jp. Daie Soko), whom he critiques in Chapter 75. For Dogen, zazen is enlightenment.

David Chapman 2011-07-28

Josh, thank you very much; this is extremely helpful.

I had planned to write a full page on the re-making of Zen meditation under the influence of Western religion and philosophy. After reading more, I’ve concluded it’s not feasible (for me). There’s already a big, contentious literature on this, and the minimal price of entry is fluency in Medieval Chinese and Japanese. (Since, clearly, one cannot rely on English translations.)

It seems that most scholars would agree that some interpretations of the Tathagatagarbha literature at least resonate with Western mysticism; but there are diverse interpretations of Tathagatagarbha, and their differences can be subtle. It seems also that most scholars would agree that 20th century Zen has, at minimum, chosen to emphasize parts of the tradition that resonate with Western mysticism. Sorting out the degree to which that is an actual distortion is beyond my capability. I hope qualified folks do continue to work on that.

(A relevant paper I found interesting: Paul Swanson’s “Why They Say Zen Is Not Buddhism: Recent Japanese Critiques of Buddha-Nature.” Apparently some recent Japanese scholars reject Tathagatagarbha altogether, which I think probably goes too far. Available on-line at

What I can and will do is explain why I think the mystical interpretation of meditation is wrong in terms of reality. Whether it’s wrong in terms of Zen, I will probably never know!

Robert 2011-09-20

Isn’t most Buddhism in Japan, including the popular Pure Land sects (far more popular than Zen), still literal, unscientific, “infested with demons”, and geared around performing rituals? And it was always geared around ordinary people. And has any Buddhism in Japan been pacifistic? It Tendai, Jodo Shu, and Zen monasteries maintained standing armies that engaged in offensive warfare. Hiring their armies out was, in fact, a major means of raising funds. And the Ikko Ikki were fanatic peasant adherents to Shin Buddhism.

If most of Japanese Buddihism was not like the Zen described above before the Meiji restoration, and has not changed with Zen after, and still surpasses Zen in Japan, can Buddhism in Japan really be said to have experienced a protestant reformation, or just a small segment of Zen?

David Chapman 2011-09-21

Hi, Robert,

Yes; as I wrote:

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.”

The point here is that the Americans who went to Japan (and elsewhere in Asia) brought back what they thought was “ancient wisdom, with an unbroken lineage back to Shakyamuni.” But (both in Japan and in Southeast Asia) the Buddhisms they encountered had been extensively Westernized a few decades before they got there. Unreformed Buddhisms were much less interested in educating Westerners, so they have had much less influence.

This is important to understanding how Consensus Buddhism got to be what it is—and to figuring out where to go next.


Steve 2014-06-17

“Perry gave a “shock and awe” demonstration, destroying several buildings on the harbor front.”

Interesting! Do you have a citation for that?

David Chapman 2014-06-17

Wikipedia cites “Walworth, Arthur; Black Ships Off Japan p. 21.” I haven’t gone to the source to verify that.

Marcus 2014-06-17

I enjoyed reading this blog posting. It was very “enlightening”.
“The World Parliament of Religions was held in Chicago, in 1893.”
That’s 108 years before 9/11.
The topic of discussion, at least for Swami Vivekananda? Extremism in religion.

fripsidelover9110 2015-10-01

“I know almost nothing about Shinto… Good question about why it wasn’t rationalized. If anyone knows, I’d be interested to hear.”

It was not rationalized because it is impossible to rationalize Shinto, while it is possible to rationalize Zen. It is possible because there was a precursor, a forerunner of the current bobos, western middle-to-upper-middle class Buddhism in the history of Buddhism.

Then What is the precursor of western middle-to-upper-middle class Zen Buddhism?

Literati Buddhism in Chinese (Tang and) Song dynasty.

Emphasis on meditation, scant or virtually none interest in the traditional Buddhist rituals and supernatural thing, No extensive study of scriptures, Spontaneity of (daily) life, and so on…

You can find most of White middle class-ish Zen Buddhism features in Song dynasty literati Buddhism.

It’s why I think the current American Zen Buddhism is basically a sort of revival of (Chinese) Literati Buddhism, or 20~21th century western version of Literati Buddhism.

“Monks, Rulers, and Literati: The Political Ascendancy of Chan Buddhism” by Albert Welter is a recommendable scholarly work on the subject.

fripsidelover9110 2015-10-01

There are some Japanese historians who strongly argue that the Chinese Song dynasty was the first modern society which appeared in the world history.

If their thesis is right, it might explain partly why the two (Song literati Zen Buddhism and the current American Bobos Zen Buddhism) shares several features in common.

David Chapman 2015-10-01

Thanks, that’s very interesting!

frank jude boccio 2015-11-23

Zen’s use of ‘self-nature’ and ‘the true self’ seems to be there from the beginning. The Lankavatara certainly has advaita influences and then the Taoist essentialism also is an influence. Look at The Platform Sutra: Hui-neng begins by saying, “Good friends, our enlightened self-nature is pure and clean…” I can imagine Nagarjuna popping a blood vessel with this talk of “self-nature!”

Later, after his secret midnight meeting with Hung-jen says, “Who would have theought that self-nature is unchanging? Who would have thought that all things are manifestations of self-nature?”

Rob MacLachlan 2016-03-27

You say that Zen misunderstand the purpose of mediation. Have you written anything on what that purpose is?

David Chapman 2016-03-27

Hi, Rob!

If you search the comments on this page for “meditation”, you’ll see various things I’ve said, obliquely, about what’s wrong with the modern Zen theory. Although I concluded that:

I had planned to write a full page on the re-making of Zen meditation under the influence of Western religion and philosophy. After reading more, I’ve concluded it’s not feasible (for me). There’s already a big, contentious literature on this, and the minimal price of entry is fluency in Medieval Chinese and Japanese.

But what you asked was what the purpose actually is. And that answer to that is that there’s no one purpose (and no one thing called “meditation”). Through the history of Buddhism, there’s been a very large number of practices that get called “meditation” (which may not be a coherent emic category) and which had very many different purposes. Some of those are relevant for us now; most are not.