Zen has been in deep doo-doo for a long time. Holmes Welch’s study of Chinese Buddhism in China from 1900 to 1950 paints a not so good picture. Along with the decline of Buddhism in China was likewise the decline of Zen. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t enlightened masters. What I am concerned about is the fact that we are losing sight of what Zen and for that matter Buddhism is really about.
In my last blog I made a small case for what Zen is about, which is the realization of pure Mind which comports nicely with Mahayana Buddhism which commences with bodhicittotpada (generating the Mind that is bodhi). This knowledge, including the knowledge of Mahayana Buddhism, is being overshadowed by other forms of Buddhism.
When I look at Buddhism which relies on the Pali Nikayas and its brother the Chinese Agama Sutras I see too much emphasis on anâtman (lit., not the self) and not enough emphasis on the positive, namely, nirvana and how to get there from the here of samsara. Making matters even worse is the lack of understanding of how the Buddha meant anâtman to be used which is not a denial of the âtman but rather a call for us to reject what is not the âtman such as the Five Aggregates which make up the temporal body which is synonymous with suffering or duhkha.
Long ago, Zen master Huang-po, appeared to be aware of the problem of anâtman and the Theravadins (Blofeld, The Zen Teaching of Huang Po, p. 109). Zennists like Huang-po, from what I can gather, saw the Theravadin’s interpretation of anâtman to be an covert attack on the One Mind, if not Mahayana Buddhism in general. All that we might hope to learn, intellectually, about the One Mind can be found in the Mahayanasraddhotpadasastra (The Awakening of Faith Treatise) attributed to Asvaghosha. This is not something, even today, that gets much play in modern Zen.
Modern Zen Buddhism in the West seems mesmerized by the practice of zazen, and to a lesser extent by Nagarjuna’s doctrine of emptiness, and Theravada no-self Buddhism. Zen, in other words, has become a new form of self-help therapy for depressed and troubled Westerners suffering from the affliction of nihilism. This is not to say there are no alternatives, there are. They are in the form of Tibetan Buddhism, Pure Land and Nichiren. As far as Zen is concerned one might have to go to either China, Taiwan or South Korea to find something like traditional Zen in which the notion of One Mind is still alive.
I never cease being amazed by the fact that Chinese Buddhism, which includes Zen, is a perfect example of Asian mysticism which, in a number of ways, seems to go beyond anything the West offers—and, remarkably, doesn’t require a God. While Western mysticism is for the most part to be found in library bookshelves, Buddhist mysticism, especially as found in Zen, it still alive, although on its deathbed in the West. In this regard, when Zen came to the West, Westerners had no idea what was being handed to them. In the Buddha’s words, “Those who are afflicted with passion will not see it (i.e., the Way); they are enveloped by a heavy darkness” (Catusparisat Sutra 8:12).
This darkness is spreading. Zen in the West has not demonstrated enough light to push back this darkness. Because of such darkness, on the Internet I have become Peck’s Bad Boy, the guy some Buddhists love to hate for trying to bring them a Bic lighter’s worth of Mahayana light. Personally, I can accept the demise of Zen Buddhism in the West. I have tremendous faith that there will aways be Black Dragons in every Buddhist country who keep the clouds away from the eternal light of nirvana.