June 9, 2009
It’s a Zen Thing
For much of my childhood I lived within a few miles of the Great Buddha (Daibutsu) of Kamakura, the ancient capital of Japan. Kamakura had been a center of flourishing new sects of Buddhism in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. But even though Buddhism was an everyday reality of my childhood, I was much more attentive to things that interest boys everywhere than I was to Buddhism.
It wasn’t until I was transplanted back in the U.S. for college in the late 1960s and early 70s that I read much about Buddhism. And that came via university religion and philosophy courses in which Alan Watts’s The Way of Zen and D. T. Suzuki’s Zen and Japanese Culture came into view. Watts I didn’t trust, since it was clear he was an eclectic borrower and shaper of a spiritual perspective tailored to his liking. But I was naturally predisposed to trust Suzuki. It turns out that I shouldn’t have trusted Suzuki either.
For someone with my background it’s ironic that Buddhism and Buddhist ideas seem more relevant now than they did during my childhood. And if you are of my generation—even without my background—it’s probably true that Buddhism surfaced on your cultural radar in recent decades in a way you would not have predicted earlier in life.
If you are younger, you’ve probably grown up with Buddhism as a recurring pattern in the scrim of popular culture. And of all things, the word Zen has crept into our vocabulary to an extent that boggles the mind. Everyone is supposed to know what “It’s a Zen thing” means—simple, minimalist, Eastern, mystical, spiritual, peaceful, paradoxically cool, whatever. “It’s like, you know … ,” which almost has a tinge of Zen itself.
If you don’t know and you want to, you know, like get a better grasp of Zen and of Buddhism in general, we’ve got a new book for you. One that is written by Christians for Christians, but not in an apologetic or polemical manner, Buddhism: A Christian Exploration and Appraisal by Keith Yandell and Harold Netland is the book for you. (Netland, by the way, also grew up in Japan—in the deep north of Aomori—returned to Japan as a missionary, and has seriously studied Buddhism.) You can check out the table of contents here and read a sample here.
Paul Griffiths of Duke Divinity School comments on the book:
And why should I not have trusted D. T. Suzuki? Well, it turns out that he was something of an evangelist for Buddhism, and one who was adapting Zen Buddhism to Western tastes. Back in Japan, Suzuki’s take on Zen was not well regarded by Zen scholars. (Yandell and Netland tell us about this.) And as you probably know, most of what today passes for Zen or Buddhism in general here in North America is a thoroughly Americanized version, and often a quite eclectic one.