Friday, April 27, 2012

The New American Zen

I’m thinking this morning about what’s different about Zen as it is developing here in America.  While we feel our current practices are an authentic expression of the tradition of Zen Buddhism, almost all our practice centers would feel quite foreign to a Zen practitioner from Japan, Korea or China. 
These changes are an unavoidable and natural outcome of one world-view being understood from new perspectives and practiced in a new context.  These cultural changes and adaptations are a part of the history and living tradition of Buddhism.  They occurred when Buddhism went from India to China – when it traveled from China to Japan and Korea – and now, as this ancient tradition comes from Japan and Korea and takes root in America, more change is in process.
Three major areas of change occur to me:
Egalitarian impulse – Zen, as it has come from Japan and Korea, has traditionally been extremely hierarchical.  In the US, there are still clear lines of authority, but we are also creating governance structures and practice structures that honor the wisdom and counsel of all participants.
Non-monastic practice – American Zen, from it’s beginnings in the late 1950’s has included a strong emphasis on lay practice.  You don’t have to be a monk or a nun to seriously practice Zen.  There is still a vital monastic stream in American Zen, but Zen meditation and retreats are now practiced by a vigorous lay community who are balancing daily life with practice life.
Whole person focus – There has been a broadening of the range of what is discussable in Zen practice.  It is clear that ‘spiritual attainment’ by itself is not the complete answer to the human situation.  Spiritual practice has to be balanced with emotional/personal/daily-life growth and practice.


  1. Whole person focus is so important and so hard to balance in a Zen Center environment. How do we keep the spiritual focus without being 'driven' to the point of spiritual bypassing while having the daily-life component without becoming a self-help group? My sangha is struggling with this right now.

  2. I think these are the right questions to be dancing with.

  3. thanks David -- you clearly articulate the direction in which I feel we're heading.

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