Tuesday, July 17, 2007


Ever since the 1940s or 1950s, when Buddhism, and particularly Zen, became fashionable in the United States, their popularity has grown in the entire Western world.

I was raised in the Midwestern United States more or less as a Christian. At age 17 I became conscious of Buddhism when I first visited the Far East, and spoke with Japanese people. It was a marvelous discovery of a way of life I had never been aware of.

Buddhism was certainly known in the U.S. before then, especially within the Asian population. Around 1957, when I was living in California, Gold Mountain Monastery, a Buddhist Center, was established in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Out of curiosity I volunteered to help with the construction and dedication of the temple, even though most of the activities were in the Chinese language.

Also, about that time I began to practice Zen in the home of Japanese master Hiromu Oda. Fortunately for me, he spoke English.

“Hi”--Oda’s informal name—and I became good friends. He also taught sumi-e, Japanese brush painting, and I became one of his pupils. That led to the writing and publishing of my first book, The Art of Japanese Brush Painting.

As I said, Hi and I became good friends. He asked me to help him construct a patio on a patch of rock-hard ground behind his house. In spite of my limited hammer-and-nails experience with San Francisco’s Gold Mountain Center, I knew next to nothing about constructing a patio. But Hi knew even less about patios other than they were pleasant places to drink tea. So the two of us got along well.

I learned more about Buddhism and Zen from him; he learned a little about patios from me.

As widespread as Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam is today, Buddhism and Zen have become almost equally popular over the years since the 1950s.

One reason is that Buddhism and Zen are poles apart from what is known as religion.

1. Zen does not promise an afterlife.

2. Nor does it require any sort of belief in anything divine.

3. Nor does it have any rules or regulations.

4. Nor does it concern itself with sacramental matters.

4. Zen does not have a holy book.

5. Zen has no prayers.

Most people feel a need for such fringe benefits, and are uncomfortable if these embellishments aren’t accessible. Most people crave something outside of themselves in order to feel validated.

What Buddhism is about is so fundamental that it is intimidating to many people who have been brought up in the belief of something outside of themselves.

What is Buddhism about?

It’s about understanding. Understanding the human condition, understanding why we are less than content, and understanding how we can end that discontent.

To link Buddhism, its offshoot, Zen, and their common roots in Taoism, what they are about, in seven words, is living in harmony with the present moment.

That’s worth repeating: living in harmony with the present moment.

Some writers and scholars equate Buddhism with Christianity or with other religions. They draw significant parallels between them the way parallels have been drawn between the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and that of J.F. Kennedy, and between the lives of Jesus and Elvis.

For example, did you know that Lincoln’s son had a pet turkey named Jack?

Or, did you know both Jesus and Elvis were Capricorn?

Furthermore, Jesus was a carpenter. Elvis’s favorite high school class was wood shop.

Also, the name Elvis Presley has twelve letters. The name Jesus H. Christ has twelve letters.

Eerie coincidences, eh?

Buddhism can’t be linked with any sort of religion because it is unique.

Zen can’t be linked with religion because it is self-sufficient.

Religious prayer is talking to one’s god. Prayer usually asks for favors, such as “Please heal Aunt Mabel’s cancer.” Or, “We ask you to bless this food we are about to eat.”

Buddhist meditation, as well as Zazen, is listening to ourselves.

Still, we live in an interdependent world. Buddhism and Zen are about realizing your own being as it relates to all beings.

To quote Buddhist writer Gary Gach (Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Buddhism), “The Western mind-set is typically dualistic; the self split asunder from the world, . . . body separated from soul, self from the cosmos, humanity from God. The Eastern mind-set, on the other hand, sees humanity and the cosmos as interconnected, intertwined.).”


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