What's "Authentic" About Japanese Zen?

The most common question I ask myself, almost on a daily basis, is “What am I doing in Japan?” The emphasis of this question shifts around, depending on my mood. Sometimes, the emphasis is on the “what” of “What am I doing?” Other times it’s on the “I” or on the “doing.” But the most common emphasis is on “Japan.” What am I doing in Japan?!

I never had a special interest in Japan. Some Americans grow up loving anime and pokemon, and for them, Japan is a paradise of J-pop and Godzilla. Other people are attracted to the aesthetics of traditional Japanese culture and arts— to haiku, empty spaces, bamboo, paradoxical phrases, tea ceremony, martial arts. And while I do enjoy a clean, empty tatami room or a bamboo forest as much as the next gal, that’s not why I came here. I came because, like most young people, I was in search of answers. I heard there was a good teacher in a monastery here, and so I came. Of course, I didn’t find answers. I just found more and more questions and doubts. But that’s okay; I think that’s good. 

I want to write about the word “authenticity,” about how much I hear this word and how confused I am by it, and also why I can’t help myself from wanting to use it. I’ve heard a couple Westerners tell me that they come to Japan to practice Zen “at the source,” the implication being that Japan is the source of Zen, and so practicing in Japan, by proximity or osmosis, puts them closer to “true Zen” or “true Buddhism.” I imagine this kind of attitude may have been more prevalent in the 60’s and 70’s, when Westerners were first getting in to Zen and had absolutely no idea about the realities of Zen practice in Japan. Maybe people are a bit more informed these days. There is some understanding about the economic realities Japanese priests face and the decisions they have to make about their livelihoods and families. When I was at Tassajara this summer, quite a few students I talked to mentioned how “the only thing monks do in Japan these days is own funeral parlors,” which is a kind of funny distortion of the facts; I don’t know a single monk who owns a funeral parlor.  Funeral parlors are privately owned businesses. Families pay a fee to the funeral parlor and also to the priest they hire, who is not necessarily connected with the funeral parlor. But I digress. The point is that, as more and more first-hand accounts and literature about Buddhist history becomes available, people are starting to doubt whether Japan is the “source” of Zen they always dreamed it was. 

Students on our Buddhist Studies program listen to a lecture. I'm pouring tea.
Yet despite some explicit cynicism and criticism by Westerners about Japanese practice, it seems that at the core of this cynicism is a deep longing for “authenticity,” both for an “authentic” Buddhist practice and authenticity with themselves. I can’t blame anyone for this. I want “true” Buddhism or “true” Dharma practice as much as the next person. Yet over the years I’ve stopped being able to ignore exoticism and unfounded idealism when it manifests in myself and when I see it manifesting in others. This could be coming up for me now because I am working with a group of twenty-year olds who are in Japan for the first time, bringing with them their dreams and hopes about Buddhism. I am a huge cheerleader for Japanese Zen, but I want them to see Japanese Buddhism for what it is, not for what they want it to be.

I started to see the exoticism and idealism in myself when I began practicing at Nisodo. At the time, there were two other Westerners and more then twenty Japanese nuns. Nisodo is extremely hierarchical, and you are expected to be obedient to your seniors at all times. So for the first few months, that’s everyone. You have to obey everyone. When Japanese nuns would give me an instruction or even a harsh criticism, I would jump to obey or correct myself. But when one of the two Westerners corrected me, a thought would flash through my mind like “What do you know?” or “Who are you to be correcting me?” I didn’t trust that they knew about monastery life or about Buddhism, because they weren’t Japanese. Several years later, when I started to be in a position of seniority, I quickly learned that it was useless to try to instruct Westerners when they first arrived. For the most part, the Westerners who came to Nisodo didn’t want to listen to corrections from other Westerners. They wanted to learn from Japanese people. And again, I can’t really criticize this because I do it too. Why come all the way to Japan just to have some French nun tell me how to bow? The underlying assumption, or bias, or dream, is that Japanese people naturally are more in tune with Buddhism. They are more “authentic.”

Scholars and academics have basically done away with the notion of cultural “authenticity.” Cultural authenticity implies the existence of an essential, monolithic culture which doesn’t change, and of course, cultures and people are always changing. The same is true, I think, of Dharma practice. In recent years, scholars have rejected the notion that a “Golden Age” of “Pure Chan” existed in China, where monks single-mindedly pursed koans under the guidance of an inscrutable master, untouched by involvements in economics, politics, ritual, and magic. People have also recently begun to question the alleged “purity” of the Dogen's Zen. We don’t know so much about Dogen, actually. But we know he had donors and supporters. He had to have eaten something. He bought the wood for Eiheji somehow. Probably with money. I’m not sure we can say that Dogen’s Zen was “pure” in the sense that it was entirely unmixed with worldly desires. Desires are numberless. He was a human. So I don't think the word "pure" is very useful.

Still, if there is no such thing as “authenticity” or “purity,” what keeps me here? What am I doing in Japan? I’m pretty sure that now it’s more than romantic, idealistic notions about the authenticity of Japanese Buddhism. But then why? Why not just practice in America, where I could eat bread, sleep in a real bed, and have a boyfriend in the process? Do I practice in Japan because I feel it wouldn’t be “real practice” if I had these things? Am I defining “real practice” to myself as the absence of comfort and independence? Do I really need to be in Japan for that? My question actually isn’t a new one. “Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?” is probably a similar one. Why go anywhere at all?

It’s clear to me that there is something unique about the experience of practicing Zen in Japan. I don’t know what that thing is yet. I really don’t. Part of it might be that because Buddhism is so old and deeply engrained in Japanese culture, it’s easier for monastics to be supported here. It could be that as Buddhism becomes more rooted in Western culture, as we develop more Buddhist Universities, wealthy Buddhist patrons and large, established monasteries, it will render Asian Buddhism unnecessary. But I don’t know. I don't think we’re not at that point yet. I keep coming back to Japan, and I don’t know why. 

P.S The students on my program have all found this blog. Hi guys! Sorry I used your photo for my own selfish purposes. Did you finish your reading?


  1. "It’s clear to me that there is something unique about the experience of practicing Zen in Japan"

    it's an autistic culture and the japanese are on "autistic spectrum"

    zen is autistic and you probably feel comfortable there !

    dogen was autistic !

  2. Please explain, an3drew.

  3. An3drew was banned from commenting on Brad Warner's blog because of his consistent provocations of other commenters. He has some obliquely hostile agenda against most of the contemporary zen community. I would advise not feeding the troll.

    1. Doesn't your incessant narcissistic rant get tiring?

  4. I suppose, it's also just that you happen to be in Japan now..

    1. you have an interesting blog, I love Scotland ! :o)


  5. Mumonkan, case 16: Yun-men said, "The world is vast and wide. Why do you put on your seven-piece robe at the sound of the bell?"

    I agree that your questions are not new ones. They're pretty good ones, though. :)


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