The word Zen is the Japanese equivalent of the Sanskrit dhyana, meaning concentration, or, more widely, meditation, namely, the meditation of Mahayana Buddhism. Zen Buddhism was brought to China by the Indian monk Bodhidharma in the 6th century CE. In China, it was called Ch’an.
Zen’s golden age began with the Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng (638-713), and ended with the persecution of Buddhism in China in the middle of the 9th century CE. Most of those we think of today as the great Zen masters came from this period.
Zen spread to Korea in the 7th century CE and to Japan in the 12th century CE. In the eighteenth century onwards, a number of Buddhist texts were brought to Europe by people who had visited the colonies in the East. These texts aroused the interest of some European scholars who then began to study them. The meeting between East and West contributed to the Buddhist revival in all its forms. The encounter between Western scientific rationality and Eastern religious wisdom was mutual challenging and beneficial and continues to be so.
The western reception of Zen began soon after the turn of the 20th century, when both the cultural world associated with Zen and actual Zen practice began to spread to wider circles. The first initiative came from the East, but the West soon took an active role in appropriating these influences. The progress was rapid and has never stopped.
At the beginning of the century, a Rinzai Zen abbot, Shaku Soen (1858-1919) started to present the Zen wisdom, but since his English was not adequate, he didn’t have much success. But the encounter with Suzuki Daisetsu (Daisetz T. Suzuki) was a very important and meaningful step for the Zen development in the Western countries.
The popularity of Zen naturally brought many Westerners to Japan, a country with a living Zen tradition, and many Japanese masters traveled to America and Europe to meet the demand for authentic wisdom and instructions. Zen halls appeared in San Francisco in 1928 and in Los Angeles in 1929, in New York, the Buddhist Society of America, later the First Zen Institute of America, was formed in 1931.
A great variety of Zen forms was propagated – those of the traditional Buddhist schools and lineages, with variants introduced by individual masters, and also secularized forms which tended to dissolve the religiously Buddhist character of Zen. The transition from the Eastern to the Western hemisphere, despite every effort to maintain continuity, inevitably required new versions of Zen. It is very clear that the multiform Zen tradition, whose history is extremely rich, has undergone significant enlargements and metamorphoses during the 20-th century.
For example, for the modern psychology, the data of Zen not only are an interesting object of research but also promise to enrich therapeutic methods. On the other hand, several themes have been lumped together in what is called the New Age movement. This appeals to the Zen experience, which is supposed to create an integral consciousness announcing a new epoch. Another aspect is that the encounter between Christianity and the Eastern religion has been saluted by leading intellectuals as the most important event in this time of spiritual development.
Some of the masters with a big contribution in the flowering of Zen thought in the West are:
Kodo Sawaki (1880-1965) He was one of the most important Zen masters of the 20th century, and besides giving the teaching to his disciples, he also served as a professor at Komazawa University. In 1949, he also took responsibility for Antai-ji, a Zen temple in northern Kyoto. He had some important successors: Kosho Uchiyama, Gudo Wafu Nishijima, Taisen Deshimaru, etc.
Shunryu Suzuki (1904—1971) was a Sōtō Zen monk and teacher who helped popularize Zen Buddhism in the United States and is renowned for founding the first Buddhist monastery outside Asia. Suzuki founded San Francisco Zen Center, which along with its affiliate temples, comprises one of the most influential Zen organizations in the United States. A book of his teachings, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, is one of the most popular books on Zen and Buddhism in the West.
Taisen Deshimaru. In 1936, Taisen Deshimaru, who would become one of Zen’s most influential figures, became one of Kodo Sawaki’s disciples. In 1965, just before his death, Kodo Sawaki ordained Taisen Deshimaru as a monk, gave him his kesa (monk’s robe), and asked him to continue his teaching by spreading Zen in Europe. Deshimaru decided to travel to Europe and spread the true teaching of Soto Zen there. In 1970, Master Deshimaru created The European Zen Association, which would later become The International Zen Association (AZI). A year later, Taisen Deshimaru opened the first Zen dojo in Paris, which was entirely dedicated to the practice and teaching of Soto Buddhism. During the following years, with the help of his ever-growing number of students, he created more than one hundred Zen dojos in both Europe and North America. In 1979, Deshimaru founded in France the Zen temple of La Gendronnière, the largest Zen temple outside Japan. The temple was officially recognized by Japanese Soto Zen authorities as the Head Temple of Europe. He was called “The 20th Century Bodhidharma”.
Uchiyama Kōshō (1912-1998) was a Sōtō priest, origami master, and abbot of Antai-ji near Kyoto, Japan. Uchiyama became abbot of Antai-ji following Sawaki’s death in 1965 until he retired in 1975 to Nokei-in, also near Kyoto. Uchiyama was the author of more than twenty books on Zen Buddhism and origami, of which Opening the Hand of Thought: Foundations of Zen Buddhist Practice is best known.
Yasutani Haku’un (1885–1973) was a Sōtō Rōshi, the founder of the Sanbo Kyodan Zen Buddhist organization. He became known through the book The Three Pillars of Zen, published in 1965. Yasutani has been one of the most influential persons in bringing the Zen practice to the West.
Harada Sōgaku (1871–1961) studied under various Sōtō and Rinzai masters. He served as abbot at various Sōtō temples throughout Japan. Harada Roshi’s teaching integrated the Rinzai use of Kōan and became known for his teaching combining methods from both schools, Soto and Rinzai.
Nishijima Gudō Wafu (1919-2014), a layman who trained under Sawaki during the war years, beginning in 1940, before later entering the priesthood in the postwar era. Nishijima gave regular public lectures on Buddhism and Zen meditation and was the author of several books in Japanese and English. He was also a notable translator of Buddhist texts: working with student and Dharma heir Mike Chodo Cross, Nishijima compiled one of three complete English versions of Dōgen‘s ninety-five-fascicle Kana Shobogenzo; he translated Dogen’s Shinji Shōbōgenzō. He also published an English translation of Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way.
Zen has put down deep roots in Western spiritual life and will last for a long time. We can assume that the 20th century has begun a new era in the history of Zen.
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