Zen Skin, Zen Marrow: Will the Real Zen Buddhism Please Stand Up?

Zen Skin, Zen Marrow: Will the Real Zen Buddhism Please Stand Up?

Zen Skin, Zen Marrow: Will the Real Zen Buddhism Please Stand Up?

Zen Skin, Zen Marrow: Will the Real Zen Buddhism Please Stand Up?

Synopsis

Since Zen Buddhism first captivated the attention of Western seekers the dominant discourse about this sect has been romantic, idealistic, and utopian. The essence of Zen has been described as ineffable, wholistic, and promoting social harmony. In recent years, however, some scholars have begun to examine Zen through the lenses of historical and cultural criticism, producing a sharp challenge to the traditional view. These clashing viewpoints are now entrenched in two warring camps, and their exponents talk past each other with virtually no constructive interaction. In this book, Steven Heine argues that a constructive compromise is possible. He focuses on three principal areas of disagreement: (1) the role of language and discourse in a tradition that claims to be 'outside words and letters,' yet has produced a voluminous body of texts, (2) the function of rituals and objects of worship to gain world benefit in a tradition supposedly founded on unmediated experience attained in an iconoclastic and ascetic environment, (3) the impact of a tradition that espouses peace and harmony on social issues such as class and gender discrimination and on nationalism and imperialism in Japan. Avoiding the stagnant polarization that characterizes most encounters between Zen traditionalists and their critics, he suggests ways in which these two perspectives can complement each other in a more balanced and nuanced alternative position.

Excerpt

The idea and inspiration for this book came to me while I was presiding at a panel at a national conference dealing with applications of Zen Buddhist and other forms of East Asian thought to the realm of ethics. As the presider, my role was simply to announce and to keep time for the presenters and to moderate the discussion part of the session. The panelists gave outstanding presentations on how traditional Zen thought was highly appropriate and adaptable to the relativism of the postmodern world and to environmentalism in an era experiencing the threat of global warming, etc. After a little over two hours of lectures and response by the discussant, I opened up the panel for questions from the floor after observing a very attentive and patient audience, most of whom had stayed in the room for the entire session (rather than the usual coming and going).

The first question came from a scholar known as a harsh critic of the behavior of some aspects of the Zen institution, who challenged just about everything the main speakers had been saying. Here, I thought, was a moment either of great intellectual challenge and debate or of embarrassment in that one side of the argument, representing a defense of Zen, or the other side, representing a critique, would easily put away the other party’s claims. However, I was quickly surprised to see that neither of these options was actually the case. Instead, the conversation deteriorated into an instance of two parties talking past each other. A couple of speakers responded by denying the validity of the question by maintaining that they were focusing . . .

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