Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

14.2: Zen Buddhism in America

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    ( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorA}[1]{\vec{#1}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorAt}[1]{\vec{\text{#1}}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorB}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorC}[1]{\textbf{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorD}[1]{\overrightarrow{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorDt}[1]{\overrightarrow{\text{#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectE}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash{\mathbf {#1}}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \(\newcommand{\avec}{\mathbf a}\) \(\newcommand{\bvec}{\mathbf b}\) \(\newcommand{\cvec}{\mathbf c}\) \(\newcommand{\dvec}{\mathbf d}\) \(\newcommand{\dtil}{\widetilde{\mathbf d}}\) \(\newcommand{\evec}{\mathbf e}\) \(\newcommand{\fvec}{\mathbf f}\) \(\newcommand{\nvec}{\mathbf n}\) \(\newcommand{\pvec}{\mathbf p}\) \(\newcommand{\qvec}{\mathbf q}\) \(\newcommand{\svec}{\mathbf s}\) \(\newcommand{\tvec}{\mathbf t}\) \(\newcommand{\uvec}{\mathbf u}\) \(\newcommand{\vvec}{\mathbf v}\) \(\newcommand{\wvec}{\mathbf w}\) \(\newcommand{\xvec}{\mathbf x}\) \(\newcommand{\yvec}{\mathbf y}\) \(\newcommand{\zvec}{\mathbf z}\) \(\newcommand{\rvec}{\mathbf r}\) \(\newcommand{\mvec}{\mathbf m}\) \(\newcommand{\zerovec}{\mathbf 0}\) \(\newcommand{\onevec}{\mathbf 1}\) \(\newcommand{\real}{\mathbb R}\) \(\newcommand{\twovec}[2]{\left[\begin{array}{r}#1 \\ #2 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\ctwovec}[2]{\left[\begin{array}{c}#1 \\ #2 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\threevec}[3]{\left[\begin{array}{r}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\cthreevec}[3]{\left[\begin{array}{c}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\fourvec}[4]{\left[\begin{array}{r}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \\ #4 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\cfourvec}[4]{\left[\begin{array}{c}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \\ #4 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\fivevec}[5]{\left[\begin{array}{r}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \\ #4 \\ #5 \\ \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\cfivevec}[5]{\left[\begin{array}{c}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \\ #4 \\ #5 \\ \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\mattwo}[4]{\left[\begin{array}{rr}#1 \amp #2 \\ #3 \amp #4 \\ \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\laspan}[1]{\text{Span}\{#1\}}\) \(\newcommand{\bcal}{\cal B}\) \(\newcommand{\ccal}{\cal C}\) \(\newcommand{\scal}{\cal S}\) \(\newcommand{\wcal}{\cal W}\) \(\newcommand{\ecal}{\cal E}\) \(\newcommand{\coords}[2]{\left\{#1\right\}_{#2}}\) \(\newcommand{\gray}[1]{\color{gray}{#1}}\) \(\newcommand{\lgray}[1]{\color{lightgray}{#1}}\) \(\newcommand{\rank}{\operatorname{rank}}\) \(\newcommand{\row}{\text{Row}}\) \(\newcommand{\col}{\text{Col}}\) \(\renewcommand{\row}{\text{Row}}\) \(\newcommand{\nul}{\text{Nul}}\) \(\newcommand{\var}{\text{Var}}\) \(\newcommand{\corr}{\text{corr}}\) \(\newcommand{\len}[1]{\left|#1\right|}\) \(\newcommand{\bbar}{\overline{\bvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\bhat}{\widehat{\bvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\bperp}{\bvec^\perp}\) \(\newcommand{\xhat}{\widehat{\xvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\vhat}{\widehat{\vvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\uhat}{\widehat{\uvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\what}{\widehat{\wvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\Sighat}{\widehat{\Sigma}}\) \(\newcommand{\lt}{<}\) \(\newcommand{\gt}{>}\) \(\newcommand{\amp}{&}\) \(\definecolor{fillinmathshade}{gray}{0.9}\)

    Zen Buddhism is probably the best-known school of Buddhism in America due to the influence of D. T. Suzuki, who first visited America in the year 1897. Suzuki was a renowned Buddhist scholar, who wrote extensively on Zen Buddhism and its relationships to such diverse topics as Christian mysticism (Suzuki, 1957) and psychoanalysis, the latter book being co-authored by Erich Fromm (Suzuki et al., 1960). Zen Buddhism has also made its way into popular literature in the United States. The famous “Beat generation” author Jack Kerouac, who had many discussions with D. T. Suzuki (Suzuki taught for a few years at Columbia University, which happened to be Kerouac’s alma mater), wrote a most entertaining book about his own pursuits on the path of Zen called The Dharma Bums (Kerouac, 1958). And there was the immensely popular classic entitled Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, first published in 1974 (Pirsig, 1999), which opened the eyes of a whole new generation of Americans to the philosophy of the Far East.

    Buddhism, and Zen Buddhism in particular, is also beginning to have more and more influence on psychotherapy in America today. Although a discussion of therapy techniques is beyond the scope of this chapter, it is becoming easy to find such material. There are books on Zen and psychotherapy (Brazier, 1995; Mruk and Hartzell, 2003), Buddhism and well-being (Brach, 2003), comparisons of psychoanalysis and Buddhism (Epstein, 1995; Suzuki et al., 1960), and a variety of chapters in spiritually oriented handbooks on psychotherapy (e.g., Cooper, 2005; Corbett & Stein, 2005; Crawford, 2005; Finn & Rubin, 2000; Lukoff & Lu, 2005; Roland, 2005; Sharma, 2000; Tan & Johnson, 2005). Not only does this blending of Eastern and Western philosophy promise to expand the horizons and potential effectiveness of psychotherapy, learning more about the different cultural perspectives that led to these different lifestyles will help to prepare psychologists to recognize more quickly and easily the culturally-related issues that are affecting their patients or clients.

    Sangha: A Community Practicing Together

    The concepts of togetherness, friendship, social support, etc. are certainly well known in the West, despite the fact that Western cultures are generally considered to be individualistic. Adler identified developing friendships as one of three main tasks in life, and the value of social support during times of stress and grief has been well documented. In Yoga and Buddhism these concepts have been central for thousands of years. Buddhists refer to the Three Jewels (also known as the Three Gems or the Three Refuges): the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. A Buddha is one who is fully enlightened (not just Gotama Buddha), and the Dharma is the way of understanding and love taught by Gotama Buddha. A Sangha is a community of Buddhists who practice the Dharma and seek enlightenment together (Suzuki, 1960; Thich Nhat Hanh, 1995). The Sangha is not, however, just a get-together of companions with similar interests. The Sangha can renew our inspiration and energy, and it can help us to keep practicing when our own motivation wanes (Goldstein & Kornfield, 1987). The energy and motivation we gain from being part of a Sangha can help us to develop Bodhicitta, the altruistic desire to help all people achieve enlightenment. The ceremony to actively generate Bodhicitta within us begins with a series of visualizations in which we imagine Gotama Buddha being with us, surrounded by other Buddhas, great sages, and all sentient beings (Dalai Lama, 2001). Being filled with Bodhicitta makes us a Bodhisattva right away (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1999). This is not simply a belief or devotion, however. Taking refuge in the Sangha is a practice, one that can only take place in the company of others and with their support (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1995).

    The Sangha is by no means unique to Buddhism. In Yoga they refer to Satsanga, associating with the truth or with someone virtuous such as a guru (Feuerstein, 2003; Yogananda, 1946). I remember when a monk, and a monk in training, from the Self Realization Fellowship visited the Yoga retreat center I visit. During the evening they offered Satsanga, a brief lesson followed by a question and answer discussion. In this semi-formal setting we were all able to expand our understanding of Yoga and share our interests and experiences. Indeed, some people practicing traditional Yoga or Buddhism consider the guru (or lama, in Tibetan) to be a fourth jewel in which to seek refuge (Feuerstein, 2003).

    discussion question \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Buddhists strongly support a Sangha, a community of believers. Can you imagine practicing Buddhism alone? What about your own personal groups, whether church groups, clubs, friends, family, etc.? Are they supportive? How important are those groups to the way you live your life, and could you imagine your life without them?

    A Final Note

    This chapter and the one that follows have very religious overtones. So I would like to say a little more about the importance of covering these topics in a personality textbook. Alfred Adler said that if you want to understand someone, look at their style of life. As stated at the outset of this chapter, I have tried to present this material as guides for one’s lifestyle that have developed within different cultures. There are three basic moral codes that influence our lives: community, autonomy, and divinity (see Triandis & Suh, 2002). In collectivistic cultures there is an emphasis on community moral codes, whereas autonomy codes are more influential in individualistic cultures. Both cultures emphasize moral codes related to divinity (as religion or spirituality). If we tried to separate religious culture absolutely from our study of personality, we might very well end up with an academic discipline that misses the richness and wonder of human life. More importantly, what happens to people who ignore spirituality in their own development? Abraham Maslow lamented the defense mechanism of desacralization, the failure of people to consider anything to be truly important and meaningful. Yehudi Menuhin, in his introduction to Light on Yoga by B. K. S. Iyengar (1966), offers a striking impression of those who do not seek harmony with the universe:

    What is the alternative? Thwarted, warped people condemning the order of things, cripples criticizing the upright, autocrats slumped in expectant coronary attitudes, the tragic spectacle of people working out their own imbalance and frustration on others. (pg. 12)

    I don’t know whether Maslow considered desacralization to be this frightening a possibility, but it certainly gives one reason to consider the value of spiritual aspects of human development, especially since spirituality is one of the cultural universals (Ferraro, 2006a; Murdock, 1945). And given that spirituality is universal, these matters are certainly not unique to Eastern culture. In the next chapter we will consider spiritually guided lifestyle recommendations as they apply to cultures influenced by the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

    Personality Theory in Real Life: Are You Really You?

    We ended the first chapter in this book by asking an interesting question: Who are you? In this chapter, we have addressed the possibility that everything you know about yourself is an illusion, and that even knowing is an illusion. How can this be? The answer may be found, or perhaps not found, in the mystery that is God. The Christian Bible teaches that God’s ways are not Man’s ways. Paramahansa Yogananda provides a marvelous image of the mystery of the Godhead being so far beyond our comprehension that it defies description (Yogananda, 1946); and Dante’s awesome description of the appearance of the divine essence in Paradiso is difficult to envision, even as one reads Dante’s words (in Milano, 1947). Perhaps some things are beyond our comprehension.

    How then, should we proceed to live our life? Based on the concept of Karma, our past actions will influence our future experiences. Consider things you have done in your life. Have you regretted some of them? Did they seem out of character for you? Try to determine if unfortunate events followed those actions you regret. On the positive side, are there things you have done that make you proud or happy? Have those things involved other people, or were they done for other people? Try to determine whether those good things you have done resulted in favorable consequences for you and for others.

    Now, here comes the tricky part. When you have done good things, do they feel more like you than the bad things did? If the answer is yes, it may be that you have begun to touch something special within yourself. You are responsible for both the good things and the bad things you have done in this life. But perhaps the good things feel better, feel more like you, because they begin to connect you with your transcendental self, that spark of the divine within you, which may be called spirit or soul. Thinking this way is a deep and powerful challenge, which requires you to have some faith in yourself. Meditate on this, and see what happens!

    This page titled 14.2: Zen Buddhism in America is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Mark D. Kelland (OpenStax CNX) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform.