Chris Locke has a fascinating sketch of what he’s thinking about how the West turned Zen into a New Age religion. (I’m not being condescending by calling it a sketch; Chris warns us that he hasn’t stitched the pieces together yet.)
For me and a gazillion other half-baked students in the ’60s, D.T. Suzuki was the guy to read for the thrill of radical otherness that Zen promised. But, says Chris:
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.
Because this is just a sketch and some notes, Chris doesn’t say more. We’ll just have to wait for the fullness of time. As if time were real.
Chris does also quote Robert Sharf, however, which gives a hint of where he’s going with this:
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…
My mother was something of a pan-religionist. She was eager to embrace every culture’s religious ideas, in part out of an admirable respect for the diversity of our world. But to embrace all religions, you have to drop the particularities of practice and belief. You end up reducing religion to a mere spiritualism — Yes, I am aware that “reduce” and “mere” are evaluative terms — that attempts to get you past the despair of relativism (just as Chris says) by finding a common core to all religion.
Spirituality may seem to be what all religions have in common, but that doesn’t mean it’s their core. Religions differ over the importance of belief, faith, action, practice and ritual; it only seems obvious to some religions that spirituality is the core of religion.
Personally, I think a whole lot of the problems vanish if we just accept the idea of local revelation, and reject any religion’s claim to universality. This enables us to preserve the notion of difference — which is a way of respecting the local — without falling into the depression of relativism.
(There you have it: A solution to the world’s problems in just two sentences! Now onto curing cancer…)
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