Exploring Chán

Chán offers an exploration into the nature of being. For those of us treading its path, it involves discarding our opinions and feelings about things, it involves detachment, introspection, and contemplation. Getting to the place where we are able to slow down the churning, chaotic, mind enough to explore the inner universe of Self can be difficult, so we use various techniques to help us.  In time, seeing into our essential nature becomes our natural way of seeing.   

Many people come to Zen through institutions--zendos most commonly here in America--yet, whether we engage in group practice or solitary practice Zen will always remain a purely solitary endeavor.  
Why do we do it?  To expand our awareness?  To escape suffering? To become whole?  To understand our essence as conscious beings? Regardless of our reasons, Chán is a practice that requires great faith, great doubt, and great perseverance. In short, it requires, in Lín Jì’s words, "believing in ourselves".
Where to start? Western students new to Chán often experience confusion and anxiety when confronted with the myriad approaches to Chán training and the countless colors the Buddhist landscape presents. A recent Google search for "Chán Buddhism" pulled up over three million independent web page results. Where do we start? How do we filter the chaff from the wheat?

Zen's historical background can help shed some light.

Zen in the West dates back to the mid 19th Century, however Zen gained its first significant boost in America and Europe in the 1920's through the written works of Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, a dedicated translator, and practitioner of Japanese Rinzai Zen. With nearly a hundred years behind us, there's now a great deal of understanding (as well as misunderstanding) of the Zen "modality" - at least as it's been presented through various Japanese lines.

Whenever a religion enters a new region dominated by an ethnic culture differing from that of its originating source, a certain amalgamation of ideologies, ethicalities, as well as prevailing myths and superstitions of the newly introduced religion and the antecedent religions, takes place. Buddhism is an especially interesting case, as it has spread world-wide and taken on many different flavors everywhere it's gone. When Buddhism entered China, as early as 50 BC by some accounts, it quickly began mixing with Taoism, Confucianism, and various regional ethnic cultures. Over the course of the following 700 to 800 years Chinese Chán emerged. When Buddhism entered Japan over 500 years later from Korea, it merged with Shinto to form an altogether new flavor of Chán Buddhism unique to Japan. The Zen sect wasn't introduced in Japan until nearly 1000 years after it had been established in China (in the late 12th century the Rinzai [Lín Jì] sect was introduced by Eisai; and in the early 13th century the Soto [Tsao-tung] sect was introduced by Dogen.) By the time Zen entered the scene in Japan, Japanese Buddhism had already had more than a 500-year history.

Zen first entered the United States and other parts of the West predominantly through Japan, so it's not surprising that Japanese culture has strongly influenced our ideas of Zen from the beginning. An interesting development over the last few decades has been the introduction of Korean Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, each of which also have uniquely different belief structures, ideologies, and practices.

It's not surprising that Western Buddhism is undergoing an identity crisis and that, in fact, the term Buddhism can have hugely different meanings to a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism than, say, to a Japanese-lineage Zen practitioner or a purely Chinese-lineage Chán practitioner. Areas of differentiation between the numerous flavors of Buddhism include the idea of reincarnation, sutras, koan practices, food, marriage, ecclesiastic hierarchical structure, as well as various superstitions and myths. The list of variances between them is endless, as would be expected when similar religions with no common "bible" have developed independently for thousands of years in vastly different cultures. In fact, nobody knows what the Buddha actually taught - nothing was written down until many generations after his death. (The only thing all Buddhists around the world seem to agree upon as originating from Shakyamuni Buddha are the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path).

To add to the confusion and chaos, the wide range of interpretations of Buddhist terminology from one sect to another has lead to infighting between Buddhist groups, among teachers, and between sangha members. Frequent scandals involving misuse of power and authority through exploitation of congregations has cast a bitter shadow on Zen Buddhism and many of its representative institutions in the West. And, while there's no debate here over which "path" is the best -- they are all great if approached with the right attitude -- the simple fact that there are so many different presentations of what is essentially the same thing has had the effect of obfuscating rather than clarifying Zen for many.

The challenge we face is how to keep what's good of the Chán path, while adapting another culture's ways of thinking and doing things in such a way that we don't undergo a psychological rift that can only serve to sever us from that Path. In a Western culture that emphasizes individualism over collectivism, as well as scientific approaches to knowledge over intuitive ones, we face obvious challenges when we try to integrate ideas and methodologies from Eastern cultures. Fortunately, social and cultural aspects of the institution of Buddhism are not fundamental, or even required, ingredients of Zen.

While D.T. Suzuki was tremendously influential in bringing Zen into popular western culture, his approach to Zen was strongly academic and his tendency was to view Zen as it's own unique "thing," distinct, independent, and isolated from it's religious, Mahayana, heritage. Whether or not this was a new twist in the history of Chán, successive teachers from various sects have perpetuated this Zen "isolationism".   

Japanese-lineage Zen groups have had a good amount of time to "test the waters" of American culture through numerous teachers and their congregations, yet a huge number of these groups have suffered greatly due to inherent incompatibilities between an alien culture forced upon an unprepared Western Mind. These incompatibilities may themselves account for much of the contemporary Zen isolationist paradigm.

The terminology associated with Zen is also often misunderstood, misconstrued, and misappropriated by teachers and practitioners alike, either intentionally or unintentionally. Such misuse of Zen's language has had the effect of leading individuals astray and has had a further deleterious effect on Zen Buddhism in general.

D.T. Suzuki, Stuart Lachs, Carl Jung, Hsu Yun and many others have made similar comments that we must not ignore: for Zen Buddhism to flourish in the West, adaptive changes must be made that allow a mutual embracing of our culture with the essence of Zen. This has been the natural course of Buddhism for nearly two thousand years as it has migrated from one country to another: there are no new ideas here. There is no reason for us to reject our own sensibilities, our own cultural identity, for that of another that is alien to us by way of its own unique heritage and cultural history.

We Zen practitioners strive for an "objective eye" - to recognize things as they are (bhutatathata) rather than as we think or feel they are. For us to intentionally turn a blind eye to any form of knowledge not only limits our understanding of the world in areas that could be vital to helping other people discover the Dharma, it also isolates us from our own culture, and from society at large. Psychologists attest to the damage this estrangement can cause an individual. We may also reflect on the Buddha's first step on his Noble Eightfold Path: Right Understanding. To understand something clearly, we must be open and receptive to information about that thing from every direction. And we must drop our own beliefs and opinions in order to attain that receptive mind. Understanding dissipates fear, removes ignorance, and nurtures wisdom. It also helps us solve a lot of real-world problems.

Chinese Chán: While Japanese-style Zen schools have been here in the West for many decades, Chinese Buddhism has been here mostly in temples that serve ethnic populations of Chinese immigrants and their descendants. This has produced inherent barriers for Westerners - predominantly in the areas of language and custom. It's not surprising that most of the problems we've seen in Zen temples have arisen in the Japanese Schools, for these are still the schools that dominate the Western Zen landscape. Proportionally, however, Chinese and Korean Zen Buddhist sects have also had their share of challenges.

As founder and Abbot of one of the oldest Chán temples in the United States, Hsu Yun temple in Honolulu Hawaii, the monk, Jy Din, expressed to me great disappointment that his temple attracted so few native Westerners. It was his belief that ethnic temples could never adequately serve the native Westerner due to the vast differences in culture and language unless Western culture could be allowed "in the door." Eager to make Chán available to all Westerners, in 1997 Jy Din put his seal on the first four ordination certificates for the newly founded, internet-based, order of Hsu Yun (ZBOHY).

In the spirit of Chán, it is the intent of the friends and members of ZBOHY to offer this website as a forum for articles, discussions (registration required), art and poetry, that inspire and illuminate, and that assist on the journey through the expansive realm of Chán.  We welcome submissions of content from registered users of the site.  We also encourage comments and questions which, while moderated, can be freely posted at the bottom of most pages. 

Chuan Zhi, December 2014