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Blind Boy Apollo
and the All-White Astronauts

New Age "Asiatic" thought ... is establishing itself as the
hegemonic ideology of global capitalism. (Zizek)

Sunday, September 25

zen and the art of the cultural shell game

[Robert Sharf in "The Zen of Japanese Nationalism"] ... shows that [D.T.] Suzuki's intellectual development was influenced by... Paul Carus, the German-born follower of Schleiermacher and US-based founder of the Religion of Science.... As a result of this exposure to Carus' protestant championing of the primacy of religious intuition, Suzuki came to view Zen practice, despite much evidence to the contrary, as providing unrivaled access to pure, unmediated mystical experience. This fact leads Sharf to accuse Suzuki of reappropriating "Japan from Europe as an exoticized object."

from a review of Curators of the Buddha:
The Study of Buddhism Under Colonialism

in Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Volume 4,1997

The Gospel of Buddha -- "Compiled from ancient records by Paul Carus, 1894" says the full-text online version -- has sold over three million copies in its long life. And who knows how many times it's been downloaded. In the editor's preface, Carus writes: "Soon after the appearance of the first edition of 1894 the Right Rev. Shaku Soyen, a prominent Buddhist abbot of Kamakura, Japan, had a Japanese translation made by Teitaro Suzuki." This is none other than the D.T. Suzuki who introduced so many influential Westerners to "Zen." In recent scholarly religious studies, the quotation marks around Zen are common, and for good reason.

In the same preface, Carus say that some passages "are rendered rather freely in order to make them intelligible to the present generation." Carus says, further on...

It is a remarkable fact that the two greatest religions of the world, Christianity and Buddhism, present so many striking coincidences in the philosophical basis as well as in the ethical applications of their faith, while their modes of systematizing them in dogmas are radically different; and it is difficult to understand why these agreements should have caused animosity, instead of creating sentiments of friendship and good-will. Why should not Christians say with Prof. F. Max Mueller:
"If I do find in certain Buddhist works doctrines identically the same as in Christianity, so far from being frightened, I feel delighted, for surely truth is not the less true because it is believed by the majority of the human race."
It's as if someone who grew up knowing only dogs, suddenly encounters a land of cats. Oh, he thinks, they're just like dogs! They're all furry, just like dogs. They have two eyes, two ears, four legs, a tail. Why they're practically the same. And while all those homologies do obtain, we know there are significant differences between cats and dogs. These aren't so important in the normal course of things. We don't think -- or care -- about such differences unless and until we conceive some questionable need to teach our cat to fetch. Then... problems.

D.T. Suzuki and his Japanese masters conceived just such a questionable need to make Buddhism look and feel and act like Christianity. As a result, what was presented to the West as "Zen" is an animal that never existed. And this bait-and-switch routine has had consequences that still reverberate in our current cultural assumptions, not only about who and what those others are, but about who and what we are -- ultimately, about who and what human beings are. And are not.

D.T. Suzuki and the Zen sect he came out of -- it's a longer, more twisted story than I can tell here (but see Rude Awakenings: Zen, the Kyoto School, & the Question of Nationalism) -- had their subagenda. Paul Carus -- who was deep into Theosophy and Swedenborgian spiritualism -- had his. And as in so many other cases, we had Dr. Jung to validate the whole weird hybrid mélange as utterly authentic.

the study of buddhism under colonialism

"suzuki's early interest in things western was wide-ranging, and included such fashionable quasi-religious movements as theosophy, swedenborgianism, and the 'religion of science.'"
~ from robert h. sharf's contribution on "experience" p. 101

recursive orientalism

Again, there's more to this story and it's not my intention to write an entire chapter on the recap. However, the principle that I'm here calling recursive orientalism -- the perception of the projected as "foreign" and thus both more intriguing and more genuine at the same moment that it's actually the familiar, and thus utterly false -- seems to be widely operative in these cultural poachings. Think of all the New Age "American Indians" out there, for example. Also, since I've been working on this post -- and another not yet finished -- for far too long, I'm leaving the confusing wording of this paragraph as it stands, for now, and appending the rest of this as notes that I don't want to lose. This is not so much authorial laziness as it is a tribute to your high intelligence, Valued Reader. I know you'll be able to read between these sparsely introduced lines.

The following is from Journeys East: 20th Century Western Encounters with Eastern Religious Traditions (p. 172), quoting Robert Sharf's article "The Zen of Japanese Nationalism" (in Curators of the Buddha):

Robert Sharf, one of a clutch of post-Saidian theorizers who have turned their attention to the interactions of Orientalism and Buddhism, has argued that Suzuki's construction of Zen bears the imprint of unorthodox, modern (post-Meiji) developments within Japan, of Japanese cultural chauvinism, and of Occidental values and assumptions such as those Suzuki absorbed from Paul Carus and other Western intellectuals. He also seeks to explain the appeal of Zen in the West in these terms:
Philosophers and scholars of religion were attracted to Zen for the same reason that they were attracted to the mysticism of James, Otto and Underhill: it offered a solution to the seemingly intractable problem of relativism engendered in the confrontation with cultural difference. The discovery of cultural diversity, coupled with the repudiation of imperialist and racist strategies for managing cultural difference, threatened to result in "the principle of arbitrariness" ... In mysticism, intellectuals found a refuge from the distressing verities of historical contingency and cultural pluralism.

"Today, military Zen has been resuscitated as 'corporate Zen,' which uses Zen practice as part of corporate training programs, because schools no longer emphasize the old virtues of obedience and conformity."

~ David Loy
author of A Buddhist History of the West and
The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory
in a review of Zen at War by Brian Victoria, 1997

The following is from Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India and "the Mystic East" by Richard King (p. 12). The work it refers to is Robert Bellah's sociological classic, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life.

...religion and mysticism (which has come to be seen as a specific subcategory of religion) have been firmly placed within the realm of the private since the Enlightenment. The view that religion is largely a matter of personal belief rather than of communal involvement is a prominent feature of modern Western religious consciousness. The extreme example of this is the phenomenon that Robert Bellah labels 'Sheilaism' -- named after a respondent he met by the name of Sheila who claimed to have her own personal religion.... The modern privatization of religion is in fact enshrined in the Constitution of the most powerful nation on earth, the United States of America, with the explicit separation of Church and State and the freedom of the individual to practice the religion of his or her choice. Notice how the language of consumerism and choice has now entered the realm of religion.
Bellah notes of Sheila (Habits, p. 221) that her views are "significantly representative." And that was two decades ago. Since that time, Shielaism has taken a great leap forward, though tinged more today with "Zen" and suchlike Orientalist shadings than with Sheila's tenuous notions of a Christianesque God.

Did I mention that, as with "Zen," the same importation of Western-revisionist readings of Asian religion applies to "Hinduism"? It does. Vedanta was largely colored by Blavatskian theosophical notions, and thus considerably removed from any real grounding in Indian thought and culture. Yet it is via this route that Americans have conceived such a profound (loosely speaking) regard for such pop-media prophets as Tupak Okra. Or whatever his name is.


I salute the hyper-credulous, non-caveat-empathic consumer in you.