Zen in Brazil: The Quest for Cosmopolitan Modernity

By Usarski, Frank | Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Zen in Brazil: The Quest for Cosmopolitan Modernity


Usarski, Frank, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies


Cristina Rocha, Zen in Brazil: The Quest for Cosmopolitan Modernity Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press 2006. 256 pp. Hardcover, $37:00. isbn-10 0-8248-2976-x; isbn-13 978-0-8248-2976-6.

Cristina Rocha is a Brazilian researcher engaged in the study of the Buddhism of Brazil. She swapped Brazil for Australia a number of years ago and is now associated with the University of Western Sydney, where in 2003 she finished her PhD thesis on "Zen in Brazil," which has finally been published as the book reviewed here. As the subtitle "The Quest for Cosmopolitan Modernity" already indicates, "Zen in Brazil" is designed as "a study of how the discourse of modernity has historically influenced a sector of Brazilian society to adopt Zen as a sign of the 'modern'" (3). According to the author, due to the particular socio-historic and cultural conditions under which Buddhism has found its way into the host society, the topic demands a specific approach, since "the adoption of Buddhism in Catholic countries should be differentiated from its adoption in Protestant nations"(7).

Corresponding to these heuristic concerns, Zen in Brazil is sub-organized into three thematic blocks. The first block, composed of the first two chapters, gives an overview of the circumstances under which Japanese Buddhism first emerged and further developed in Brazil. The first chapter offers a summary of the economic and political elements that constituted the process of Japanese immigration to Brazil. It highlights the dynamics of the establishment of Japanese religious institutions, including Busshinji temple in Sao Paulo that both historically, and under the influence of the Kyoto school and its interpretation of Zen as a universally valid religious practice, has played a key role in the process of divulgating Zen in Brazil. The second chapter focuses on the counterpart of the twofold adoption process, that is, the preconditions on the side of the "receiver." Among the aspects discussed are the dynamics that contributed to a shift from a negative to a positive image of Japan in Brazil. In some cases, echoing the Japan-friendly tone in the works of European writers and the japonaiserie from the nineteenth century onwards, this led to an erudite appreciation of Japanese culture. This tendency was later fostered by the growing popularity of haiku poetry among Brazilian authors, the impact of the books of Hermann Hesse, Alan Watts, and other European and North American writers and, to a lesser degree and more indirectly, by the interest in Western Esotericism, particularly Theosophy. The quantitative outcome of these trends in terms of Brazilians who actually began to practice zazen was, however, restricted to a small group of intellectuals.

Chapters three and four discuss the manifestations, national and global sociohistorical, and religious circumstances in the establishment and evolution of Buddhism in general, and of Zen in particular. This is in a country whose common label as "the world's largest Catholic nation" is misleading since it neglects the multiethnic dynamics and the predisposition towards religious syncretism. Due to "this complex, plural, and porous religious universe" characteristic to Brazil, it is not surprising for Rocha "that Zen Buddhism found a place in the country" (95). This is especially clear when one takes into consideration the constant decline of official Catholicism during the last few decades, and the growing autonomy of religious subjects such as the individual's increasing responsibility for "his/her own combination of picking, choosing, mixing, hybridizing, and creolizing from different religious traditions according to his/her needs in his/her 'spiritual journey'"(120). According to the author, one of the factors that transforms a diffuse religious openness into a concrete Zen practice is the favorable public image of Buddhism created by movies, magazine and newspapers articles that attribute "values such as nonviolence, inner peace, compassion, equality, justice, love, happiness and harmony" to Buddhism (152). …

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