Zen Narratives

Modern scientific research on the history of Zen discerns three main narratives concerning Zen, its history and its teachings: Traditional Zen Narrative (TZN),[1][web 1] Buddhist Modernism (BM),[2] Historical and Cultural Criticism (HCC).[1] An external narrative is Nondualism, which claims Zen to be a token of a universal nondualist essence of religions.[3][4]

Traditional Zen Narrative (TZN)

The Traditional Zen Narrative developed in phases in China during the Tang Dynasty and the beginning of the Song Dynasty, from the 7th to 11th century. It became dominant during the Song Dynasty, when Chán was the dominant form of Buddhism in China, due to support from the Emperial Court.[5]

Its main phases were the development of the traditional Chan lineage, culminating in the "Transmission of the Lamp"-genre,[6] the encounter dialogue culminating in the kōan collections,[6] and the "climax-paradigm of the Song period, when Chan became the dominant Buddhist school in China.[6]

The Traditional Zen Narrative bases its self-understanding especially on the encounter stories of the well-known teachers of the later Tang-period, such as Mazu Daoyi and Linji Yixuan.[7] This period is seen as the "golden age" of Chan, a "romantic coloring"[7] discarded by McRae:

"...what is being referred to is not some collection of activities and events that actually happened in the 8th through 10th centuries, but instead the retrospective re-creation of those activities and events, the imagined identities of the magical figures of the Tang, within the minds of Song dynasty Chan devotees"[7][7][...]"This retrospective quality pervades the Chan tradition. Time and again we find we are dealing, not with what happened at any given point, but with what people thought happened previously.[8]

Buddhist Modernism (BM)

In the 20th century the Traditional Zen Narrative was transformed into a modern narrative, due to the power of the Western colonial forces and the modernisation of Japan,[9][2] and the popularization in the Western world.[2]

Romanticism and transcendentalism

As a consequence of the adaptation of Zen to the modern world, and the cross-cultural fertilization of western transcendentalism and esotery and Japanese Zen,a romantic idea of enlightenment as insight into a timeless, transcendent reality has been popularized.[2] This is especially due to the influence of Soyen Shaku[10] and his student D.T. Suzuki,[11][12][13] who, though known as a Zen Buddhist, was also influenced by Theosophy.[14] Further popularization was due to the writings of Heinrich Dumoulin.[15][16][17] Dumoulin viewed metaphysics as the expression of a transcendent truth, which according to him was expressed by Mahayana Buddhism, but not by the pragmatic analysis of the oldest Buddhism, which emphasizes anatta.[18] This romantic vision fits into Western romantic notions of self-realization and the true self, being regarded as a substantial essence being covered over by social conditioning:

Westerners do have a preconception of what ought to happen in mystical insight and in the attainment of enlightenment. True mystical insight, they will object, is not something that can be imposed from outside by a social system; instead it is a welling up of psychic energy from within, a breakthrough in which the true self erupts through the shell imposed by intellect, self-images, and socialization.[19]

The Traditional Zen Narrative atrracted the interest of Beat poets and writers in the 1950s:

What was particularly attractive about Zen, however, was not the rigorous zazen and koan study that Maezumi and others would be teaching a decade later, but rather the unusual discourse and eccentric behaviors of the masters of the "golden age" of Chinese Chán described in the classic literature of Zen.[20]

Historical and Cultural Criticism (HCC)

See also: Neo-Advaita

Contemporary research on Buddhism has shed new light on the history of Chan and Zen.

Since the 1960s the scientific research on Zen has created another narrative of Zen.[17] The "grand saga"[21] of Zen appears not to be an accurate historical documentation, but a skillfully created narrative, meant to lend authority to the Zen school.[6] The consequences of this critical narrative seem hardly to be recognized in the Western world.[22][web 2]

Enlightenment as timeless transcendence

The romantic notion of enlightenment as a timeless insight into a transcendental essence has been thoroughly criticized.[23] According to critics it doesn't contribute to a real insight into Buddhism:

...most of them labour under the old cliché that the goal of Buddhist psychological analysis is to reveal the hidden mysteries in the human mind and thereby facilitate the development of a transcendental state of consciousness beyond the reach of linguistic expression.[24]

Charismatic authority

The introduction of Zen in the West has been accompanied by problems which seem to be connected to this "grand saga". The teacher scandals which have occurred in Western Zen have been explained as being caused by an overreliance on charismatic authority,[25] and a misinterpretation of the meaning of dharma transmission and the position of a roshi.[26][27][28]

In Western Zen dharma transmission is highly esteemed. In the Japanese monastery system dharma transmission is a formal notification that someone is fully qualified to take a leading role in this system[11][29] In the USA and Europe dharma transmission is linked to the unofficial title roshi, older teacher. In the Western world roshis have been given an archetypal status as wise old man, someone who has realized an infallible insight into the true self, and a perfect personality. In daily life this appears to be an idealized view, give the repeated cases of abuse of power, and financial and sexual misbehaviour.[29][30]

The dependence on charismatic authority and lack of central authority may also lead to fragmentarisation and "new sects spinning off in several directions".[31]

Zen and World War II

Japanese Zen organisations supported Japanese nationalism and its endeavours during the Pacific War. This support has been made widely known in the Western world by Brian Victoria in his groundbreaking study Zen at War, though in Japan this was already more common knowledge.[9] D.T. Suzuki too supported these endeavours.[32][22][33] This Japanese nationalism, and the Japanese uniqueness was also a reaction to perceived western imperialism during the 19th century.[34]


Main article: Nondualism

According to Wolfe, Zen is a token of "nonduality":

The teachings of nonduality have begun to come of age in the West, recognized (at last) as the central essence of Zen, Dzochen, Tao, Vedanta, Sufism, and of Christians such as Meister Eckhart. In particular, the recorded teachings of sages (such as Ramana Maharshi and Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj) have paved the way for a contemporary generation of illuminating speakers and writers.[3]

This nondual consciousness is seen as a common stratum to different religions. Several definitions or meanings are combined in this approach, which makes it possible to recognize various traditions as having the same essence.[4]

See also



    Book references

    Web references


    Further reading

    Classic historiography

    Critical historiography

    Formation of Chán in Tang & Song China


    Modern times

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