What do you think of when you hear the word Zen? For most people, “organized religion” probably isn’t a phrase that pops up immediately. This can be a bit of a predicament for Zen Buddhist missionaries working in places like Europe and North America.
The word, which comes from a Japanese translation of the Chinese word chán, literally means meditation, and has developed a romantic sense of being purely in the moment and devoid of all thought. This concept has been focused on by various artists in Western culture like Jack Kerouac, with a diminished emphasis on the less sexy doctrines and worshiping of Buddha that are very much a part of the whole religion.
This image dichotomy is something that the Headquarters of Missionary Work for the Soto School of Buddhism in Europe has to deal with all the time.
Excite News Japan recently went to interview them on the state of modern Soto Zen Buddhism abroad. Check our rundown of their findings below!
The Soto Zen Buddhist Association (SOTOZEN) explains that they have around 4,600 members around Europe, with nearly half of them concentrated in France. Second place is tied for approximately by Italy, Germany, and Spain.
They use the term “members” loosely, however, to refer to anyone who shown an interest in and participated in the meditation aspect of the religion. Even so, they have a significant enough presence on the continent to function.
In addition to the well-known meditation, they are also able to offer equally important rituals such as chanting sutras, eating meals in conformity with the dining rules of oryoki, and performing intense 3-day to week-long meditation session referred to as sesshin in the summer.
SOTOZEN explains that their presence in Europe was partly due to getting in at the right time.
“In 1967, a Soto monk named Taisen Deshimaru had set up a Zen dojo in Paris to bring Zen to Europe. At the time the Vietnam war was waging and hippie culture was firmly entrenched. People were quickly losing faith in their current social foundations and were looking for anything new. Along with India’s Hinduism, Zen was another well that they could take pieces from to fit into their ideological puzzle. Zen’s focus on sitting (zazen) and meditating was very accessible for people. You didn’t even need knowledge of Japanese, just a body.”
Although people didn’t need to know Japanese to participate, it seems it would have helped to recognize it as a religion rather than just a philosophy. And yet, ironically, this may have been the cause of its success in the largely secular nation of France.
“As opposed to the faith-based Zen meditation, many people have incorporated Zen meditation as a purely physical act. That could be the reason many people join the Zen meditation in Europe. They want to meditate but cannot worship Buddha, and when they enter the main hall many people refuse to pray.”
For some religions this may be considered a grave insult, but for Soto Zen Buddhism as well as many other branches of the religion, adaptation is the key to survival. SOTOZEN are well aware that what Zen is depends largely on the when and where.
While many critics claim that this is Zen’s biggest weakness, there probably wouldn’t be a European Soto school without the ability to change and respond to the people around it.