Ruth Fuller Sasaki (1892–1967) who was one of the key figures in making Zen understandable and accessible to the West, said there are two kinds of people who are interested in Buddhism.
"The first kind are largely muddle-headed men and women who, because they are unhappy or frustrated, are looking for some strange or exotic belief to make their daily lives less drab and dreary. They think that, if they take up the strange Eastern cult called Buddhism they will learn how to become clairvoyant, how to talke to departed spirits or to the great mystic master in the forbidden land of Tibet" (Anthology of Zen, p. 219).
Well, Sasaki may have been right about the first kind of Americans when she delivered her lecture before the students of Ryukoku University in 1950. This was a time not long after the second World War. World War II had opened America's eyes to the rest of the world—especially to Asia. America was no longer the sleeping giant. It had awakened. It turned it eyes increasingly towards Japan mirroring Japan's interest in the West which had been going on much longer. America wanted to know about the rest of the world. For some inexplicable reason(s), Americans grew increasingly interested in Zen and for that matter, Buddhism. Zen, it seems, was destined to plant its roots in America and the West.
About the second group Ruth Fuller Sasaki had this to say in her lecture.
"The second group is composed of those who seriously yearn for true religious experience but have found it neither within Christianity nor without. In the present disturbed condition of the entire world men and women are finding daily life more and more difficult to sustain and less and less rewarding. For old and young alike the struggle for existence is very hard. Everywhere men’s hopes are daily being shattered and their dreams dissolved. In America, where material prosperity is at the greatest height, these same difficulties exist, for we in the West are coming to realize that the possession of an automobile or an electric refrigerator is no compensation for inner insecurity and fear" (ibid., 221).
The second group I am very familiar with.
Even before the 1950s, America entered the Cold War which didn’t do a lot for the psyche of the average American. Sasaki is absolutely right in saying there is “no compensation for inner insecurity and fear” by way of automobiles and appliances. Indeed, we had plenty to fear with the A-bomb and nuclear annihilation; and the Communists. Nevertheless, as I recall, Madison Avenue did try to sell America on the idea that they could, in fact, compensate for their inner insecurity and fear by buying refrigerators, dish washers, washing machines, big cars with fins, hamburgers, and ugly ranch style homes. Thus it came to be that the palliative for America’s growing insecurity and fear was a good dose of materialism and eventually, easy credit with the credit card.
For many of us, Zen Buddhism was the answer to our own inner insecurity and fear. We could work on the outside to change the politics and ideology behind what was driving the Cold War and, at the same time, look within through the methodology offered by Buddhism. Many of us had already concluded, by the time the 1960s had ended, that materialism wasn't doing anything except making the rich, richer and middle-class America a nation of debtors who believed, for the most part, in the propaganda of progress—yes, the “world of tomorrow”!
When I discovered Zen back in 1965, it was something that enabled me to look within, and look deeply. The more I decided to look within it became apparent to me that my previous insecurity and fear increased as a result of a culture in which I lived that didn’t give a rat’s ass about the inner life of man. It wanted us to keep our eye on the external and the superficial; to get caught up in fads and fashions, and when all else fails, take prescription drugs.
Christianity, itself, had become almost useless if not senile. Its interest was mainly directed to social service, trying to take care of the victims of capitalism while supporting the latter. It offered no means of looking within.
Buddhism, I am now convinced, will eventually surpass the religions of Abraham for the simple reason that these religions do absolutely nothing to lessen the inner insecurity and fear that is growing around the world. In fact, they seem to be feeding it.