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Eric Cunningham
Key Issues in Asian Studies, Association for Asian Studies, Ann Arbor, 2011
79 pp including Glossary, Notes, Suggestions for Further Reading

Zen Past and Present is one of a series of booklets about Asia for high school and college students. The book is aimed at students who may not know anything about Zen Buddhism. The book gives a thumbnail history of Zen Buddhism,  beginning with the Buddha and moving through India, China and Japan to Zen in the West today. Associate Professor of History Eric Cunningham has provided a simplified explanation of some key Zen concepts, such as  “emptiness” (sunyata),the importance of sitting meditation (zazen), the doctrine of “the perfection of wisdom” (Prajñāpāramitā), awakening (samadhi), and Zen kōans.

The book begins with a Timeline starting with the awakening of Siddhartha Gautama, which is given as 589 BCE and the Buddha’s dates as 560-480 BCE, dates which modern scholars acknowledge as being, at best, only approximate. The first chapter asks, What is Zen? and while the book attempts, with mixed results, to answer this question, it is beyond its scope to give a definitive answer (can anyone?). One of the strengths (and weaknesses) of this book is how the social and political history of the eras is interwoven into Zen’s story. All events in history, including religious ones, take place within the broader context of the times and, as befitting a history professor, Cunningham gives a succinct explanation of the times as he traces Zen’s march through history. Some of Zen’s most fruitful periods occurred in circumstances of great turmoil when society was in the midst of economic collapse, revolution, banditry and mass slaughter.
book cover
 In just 79 pages, Cunningham covers some of the major events and figures in Zen, from the legendary Indian, Bodhidharma, who supposedly brought Zen to China, through to the last Chinese Zen patriarch, Huineng and his famous verse contest with the head monk Shenxui, to the modern Japanese masters such as Shaku Soen and that prolific Zen proselytizer D. T. Suzuki and his project of rehabilitating Japan’s reputation in the eyes of the West after the Second World War through Zen Buddhism. Cunningham, quite rightly, points out that in both China and Japan, Zen Buddhism had a political as well as religious role. He mentions Brian Victoria’s shocking book, Zen at War (Weatherhill, 1997) which brought to the West the realization that Japanese Zen Buddhism largely supported Japanese imperialism during the war. The last chapter in this short volume, titled “From Dharma Bums to Punk Zen” brings Japanese Zen as a cultural artefact to America and touches on Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Pulitzer Prize winning Zen poet Gary Snyder, and Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. To go from Bodhidharma to Gary Snyder in just 80 pages in a lucid, readable narrative, is quite an accomplishment. The question is, how successful is this project?

While chapters such as Chapter 4, The Scriptural Origins of Emptiness and Chapter 5, Zen Comes to Japan, give a good overview of some of the teachings and history respectively, the book focuses too much on what we know as Rinzai Zen and too little on Sōtō Zen. Much is made of kōan study and next to nothing of shikantaza, the Sōtō practice of just sitting. A whole chapter (Chapter 6) is devoted to “Zen Warrior Culture”,  which gives a sketch of the contribution of Zen aesthetics to Japanese culture but only one paragraph on perhaps the most important of Japanese Zen masters, Sōtō Zen founder Dōgen Kigen. One gets the misleading impression that Rinzai was the dominate form of Zen in Japan. Sōtō Zen was by far the largest sect in Japan but its lack of flamboyance and its practice of quiet sitting is less interesting to Westerners. Cunningham admits that due to the popularisation of Japanese Zen by Rinzai scholar D. T. Suzuki, in Western eyes, “Rinzai is the Zen of the Western imagination” (original emphasis) and that Sōtō Zen “has been significantly larger than the Rinzai sect for most of its history”. But is it necessary to perpetuate this misrepresentation? Far more Japanese have practiced Zen under the guidance of a Sōtō teacher than a Rinzai one and Sōtō is no less important in Zen history than Rinzai but one would not be aware of this from this book. While Cunningham has depended far too much on D. T. Suzuki for his understanding of Zen with little critical evaluation of Suzuki’s position as an expositor of Zen, that other Suzuki, the monk Shunryu, who opened the first Zen monastery outside of Asia, is mentioned almost en passant. His influential book, Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, is not included in the Suggestions for Further Reading list and yet it is considered by many to be not only a modern classic, but quite suitable for beginners in Zen. Likewise, Philip Kapleau's seminal work, The Three Pillars of Zen, another exceptionally influential book for Western Zen, gets no mention.

D. T. Suzuki was not a monk and had no experience of a Zen monastic life. His contribution to the understanding of Zen Buddhism is being re-evaluated by modern Western scholars and much of his work is found to be wanting although his influence is unquestioned. Today we know much more about Zen Buddhism from sources other than D. T. Suzuki, Alan Watts and other early exponents of Japanese Zen. There is no reason to perpetuate the myth that Zen is all about kōans, bushido, enigmatic aphorisms, archery or Japanese culture. Cunningham is aware of this criticism as he recommends, in Further Reading, Robert Sharf’s essay “Whose Zen? Zen Nationalism Revisited” and “The Zen of Japanese Nationalism”, both of which are quite critical of Suzuki’s Zen. However, the short reading list is dominated by works by or about D. T. Suzuki and not a single one by or about Dōgen, an omission I find quite startling in a treatise about Zen Buddhism. It is time that modern popularisers of Zen (and this is a book aimed at non-experts who may know very little about Zen) moved away from the model of D. T. Suzuki polemics and offered a Zen story not dominated by Japanese exegeses and mythologies.

Further Readings

The Complete Shōbōgenzō of Dōgen
The Daruma-shū, Dōgen, and Sōtō Zen by Bernard Faure
Reflections on Translating Dōgen by Rev. Taigen Leighton
Remembering Dōgen: Eiheiji and Dōgen Hagiography by William M Bodiford
Zen: Its Origins and Significance by John C H Wu
D.T. Suzuki and the Question of War by Kemmyō Taira Satō
Engaged Buddhism: A Skeleton in the Closet? by Brian Daizen Victoria
The "Negative Side" of D. T. Suzuki's Relationship to War by Brian Daizen Victoria
Beat Zen, square Zen, and Zen. (Zen Buddhism as practiced in China, Japan and the US) by Alan Watts
An Exploration of Jack Kerouac's Buddhism: Text and Life by Sarah Haynes