Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Zen in America

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In the latest issue of The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik discusses the recent books Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright and Stephen Batchelor’s After Buddhism, the latter of which he calls “in many ways the most intellectually stimulating book on Buddhism of the past few years.” As with most of the articles under the magazine’s departmental heading A Critic at Large, it’s less a review than an excuse to explore the subject in general, and Gopnik ends up delivering a gentle pitch for Buddhism as a secular philosophy of life. He writes:

As for the mind’s modules [Batchelor writes], “Gotama [Buddha] is interested in what people can do, not with what they are…We may have no control over the rush of fear prompted by finding a snake under our bed, but we do have the ability to respond to the situation in a way that is not determined by that fear.” Where Wright insists that the Buddhist doctrine of not-self precludes the possibility of freely chosen agency, Batchelor insists of Buddhism that “as soon as we consider it a task-based ethics…such objections vanish. The only thing that matters is whether or not you can perform a task.”

This idea was enormously appealing to certain Americans of the nineteenth century, as Gopnik notes earlier on: “These American Buddhists, drawn East in part by a rejection of Gilded Age ostentation, recognized a set of preoccupations like those they knew already—Whitman’s vision of a self that could shift and contain multitudes, or Thoreau’s secular withdrawal from the race of life…The quietist impulse in New England spirituality and the pantheistic impulse in American poetry both seemed met, and made picturesque, by the Buddhist tradition.”

I find something especially revealing in the way that such adherents hoped to combat certain stereotypically American tendencies, such as material striving and competition, with the equally American notion of a “task-based ethics.” The promise of turning one’s preference for concrete action—or rules of behavior—from a weakness into a strength is very attractive to someone like me, and I’ve always liked R.H. Blyth’s memorable description of the training of a Zen novitiate:

I remember when I began to attend lectures, at a Zen temple…I was surprised to find that there were no lofty spiritual truths enunciated at all. Two things stuck in my head, because they were repeated so often, and with such gusto. One of them, emphasized with extreme vigor, was that you must not smoke a cigarette while making water. The other was that when somebody calls you (in Japanese, “Oi!”) you must answer (“Hai!”) at once, without hesitation. When we compare this to the usual Christian exhortatory sermon, we cannot help being struck by the difference.

But I’ve also learned to be cautious about appropriating it for myself. I’ve been interested in Zen for a long time, particularly since discovering Blyth’s wonderful books Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics and Haiku, but I don’t feel comfortable identifying with it. For one thing, it’s a complicated subject that I’ve never entirely gotten my head around, and I don’t follow its practice in fundamental ways. (I don’t meditate, for instance, although reading Gopnik’s article makes me think that I probably should.) My understanding of it is mediated through such Western interpreters as Blyth, and I feel less than qualified to talk about it for much the same reason that Robert Pirsig gives in his disclaimer to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “What follows…should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles, either.”

And my understanding of Zen can best be described as being not very factual on motorcycles. What I like about it is what Stewart Brand, speaking on the related issue of voluntary poverty, once called “the sheer practicality of the exercise,” and I’ve taken as much of its advice to heart as I can. It feels like common sense. The trouble, obviously, is that this extracts a tiny sliver of meaning from a vast spiritual tradition that most Westerners haven’t studied firsthand, and its cultural distance makes it easy for us to abstract whatever we want from it. As Gopnik points out:

[Batchelor’s] project is unashamedly to secularize Buddhism. But, since it’s Buddhism that he wants to secularize, he has to be able to show that its traditions are not hopelessly polluted with superstition…Batchelor, like every intelligent believer caught in an unsustainable belief, engages in a familiar set of moves. He attempts to italicize his way out of absurdity by, in effect, shifting the stresses in the simple sentence “We don’t believe that.” First, there’s “We don’t believe that”…Next comes “We don’t believe that”…In the end, we resort to “We don’t believe that”: we just accept it as an embedded metaphor of the culture that made the religion.

And Buddhism is probably more conducive to this “set of moves” by Americans than, say, Christianity, simply because it feels exotic and unfamiliar. If you look at the picture of Jesus that emerges from a study like The Five Gospels, you end up with a religious ethic that has important differences from Buddhism, but which also shares deep affinities in how it positions the self against the world. Yet it’s so tangled up with its history in America that secular types are unlikely to embrace it as a label.

Of course, this scavenging of traditions for spare parts is quintessentially American as well, and it comes out of an understandable impulse to correct our worst tendencies. In all honesty, I’m one of the least “Zen” people I know—I’m ambitious, competitive, and deeply invested in measuring myself against worldly standards of success, all of which I intend to renounce as soon as I’ve proven that I can win in all the conventional ways. It’s all very American of me. Yet it would be equally true to say that I’m drawn to the doctrine of nonattachment because I need it, and because it serves as a corrective to ingrained personality traits that would otherwise make me miserable. I’m not alone, either. Gopnik refers briefly to the San Francisco Zen Center and “its attempted marriage of spiritual elevation with wild entrepreneurial activity,” and the one thing that the most famous exponents of Zen had in common is that they were all hugely ambitious, as well as highly systematic in the way that they pursued their goals. You don’t become the spokesman for an entire religious tradition by accident, and I suspect that their ambition usually came first, and their lifelong effort to come to terms with it was channeled, not into withdrawal, but into a more active engagement with the world. This might seem contradictory, but we’re also simply more likely to talk about Blyth, Pirsig, D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, and the rest than the nameless monks who did the sensible thing and entered a life of quiet meditation. It skews our picture of Zen a bit, in particular by presenting it in intellectual terms that have more to do with the needs of writing a book than the inner experience of a principled adept, but not to an extent that seems impossible to overcome. It may well be, as Gopnik notes, that “secular Buddhism ends up being…secularism.” But even if we arrive there in a roundabout way, or call it by different names, it still amounts to the best set of tools that we have for survival in America, or just about anywhere else.

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  1. Emerson and his disciple Thoreau (as well as Whitman) were among the first generation of Americans who were able to access various translations of the Eastern philosophers: Lao Tzu, Confucius, the Bavagadita, and the like. If I hadn’t written about Heinlein, I was considering writing about Emerson and the philosophy from the east.

    I’ve just had eye surgery, and as soon as I can see properly again, I’ll be starting your draft. I can hardly wait. Tomorrow should be the day!


    August 8, 2017 at 2:48 pm

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