Americanized Buddhism


ZEN QUESTIONS: Zazen, Dogen, and the Spirit of Creative Inquiry, by Taigen Dan Leighton. Wisdom Publications, 2011, 312 pp., $17.95 (paperback)

These essays and Dharma talks are meant to guide practitioners of Soto Zen meditation. The author is in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, author of “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind,” a classic among books of this type. As the enthusiastic blurbs show, Leighton’s teaching is widely admired. He is “one of the West’s most important Zen scholar-priests and one of our foremost exponents of bringing out into the world the insights we find on the meditation cushion.”

The non-practitioner, who comes to the book cold, can read it as illustrating a remarkable cultural and religious event of our times: the Americanization of Buddhism. Though the title contains the name of Dogen, one of the crustiest and most impenetrable of Japanese thinkers, the book is as American as apple pie and Dogen is made to seem entirely at home in this setting. Many other Buddhist topics and personalities are here thoroughly naturalized into the contemporary American cultural matrix.

The central aim of Buddhism, according to Leighton, is “universal liberation”: “One of the strongest and most synchronistic American interfaces with Buddhist perspectives is the ideal of freedom, of liberty and justice for all, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.” Dogen’s view that all sentient beings without exception have Buddha nature is “a kind of Buddhist declaration of independence.” Conversely, Leighton makes Thomas Jefferson sound like a Zen master by rewriting his dictum as follows: “The price of liberation is eternal vigilance.”

Leighton spices up a sermon against consumerism by neatly recycling an old Buddhist image: “People are trained by advertising to become hungry ghosts.” Referring to “the nuclear disaster in northern Japan,” he does not call for the end of nuclear power plants, but advocates “responsible nuclear guardianship”: “retrievable, monitorable storage, so that leaks can be repaired and so that any possibly relevant future technologies might be applied to reducing and containing their radioactivity.” Rather a tall order. Meanwhile, meditative awareness will prepare us to face future ecological disasters more effectively. Though longing for nuclear disarmament, Leighton is glad that in the meantime “our Air Force pilots have training in meditative calm.”

Perhaps Leighton makes too smooth a connection between sociopolitical struggles and meditative calm, and as a result falls into a wishful moralizing that deadens his prose: “From the fundamental perspective of right livelihood, people should have some means to support themselves through meaningful activity that allows them the human integrity and dignity to employ their interests and express their abilities with vitality and creative energy.” Poetic mindfulness has lapsed here.

The mental freedom that Zen aims at is again presented in terms attractive to contemporary Americans. “At the core of our sitting is the activity of questioning.” The meditator questions the texture of experience in accord with the spirit of modern scientific psychology, but also in accord with American idealism: “It is the kind of questioning that the Colorado River asks the Grand Canyon over centuries and centuries.” It asks: “Can we stop all the wars our country wages?” How do we achieve peace and justice in society and in our own mind? Against “lobotomy Zen” that says goodbye to thinking, Leighton suggest that the true Zen practitioner becomes a living question, quietly and persistently applied to the painful contradictions of our society and our selves. These contradictions are resolved only through a deeper sense of the interconnectedness of all.

The chapters on Dogen show the ancient Zen lifestyle quietly flourishing anew in American settings. Leighton naturalizes Dogen’s poetic language not by giving a rational explication, but by having it chime with equally puzzling and pregnant utterances from Wallace Stevens, Bob Dylan and American versions of the Sufi poet Rumi. Dylan’s “empty lot where the ladies play blindman’s bluff” suggests that “our whole world and all its stuff may be an empty lot, the myriad forms of emptiness.” Rumi’s “voice from the sky calling the lovers and the odd, lost people” is linked to the Zen practice of “admitting that there is a question sitting on our cushion right now, that we are all a little bit lost, a little bit damaged.” By such methods Leighton brews up an American Buddhist poetic vision.

Following Gary Snyder, he links Zen with the wildness of American nature and even the jungle of modern cityscapes. To Dogen is ascribed the unlikely quote: “Mountains belong to the people who love them.” Zen encourages us to follow “our wild true hearts,” hitting the road in the style of Jack Kerouac or hitting the cushion to find an “interplay of flowing mountains and waters” in the realm of spirit.

Something new is coming to birth here, and it seems destined to thrive.

Joseph S. O’Leary is an Irish theologian and professor of English literature at Sophia University. His publications include “Philosophie occidentale et concepts bouddhistes.”