The Zen Drug
I went to a Zen temple once in Chicago about 20 years ago. I’d read about Zen and Buddhism for a long time before that, but this was my first time to actually go to a temple and try to meditate. We also listened to a recorded talk from the master. A lot of it was about how zazen would help with stress reduction and finding a center of calmness in our hectic lives.
I was a bit skeptical about the whole stress reduction thing. While eating tea and cookies after the meditation, I asked the resident monk about this. It seemed to me that this focus on stress reduction was teaching us how to accommodate our daily lives rather than search for enlightenment. I also thought we were not supposed to chase after goals like stress reduction during zazen, but to just be aware without attention to possible benefits.
The monk told me that, yeah, it wasn’t quite like the zen of medieval China and Japan. It was adapting to the needs of American society. And that was the best thing about Buddhism and Zen, it has always changed and adapted. Zen in Japan was not like Ch’an in China, which was not like Mahayana in India, which was not like Hinayana two and a half thousand years ago. Buddhism has adopted and changed in everyplace that it has spread. North America and Europe are the most recent frontiers, where the most dynamic change is happening. Let’s see where it takes us.
I thought that was a great answer. I was a budding historian and confirmed relativist, so anything that talked about change and local adaptation would seem true to me. I wouldn’t judge at Buddhism as practiced in Thailand, or Japanese Pure Land based on how much it adhered to my own rigid preconceptions about what Buddhism should be. I would try to understand it as the adherents understand it, to appreciate what it did for them. Why shouldn’t I approach Western Buddhism with the same attitude?
But it wasn’t a great enough answer to make me go to the temple again or continue meditating. In fact, meditating made me angry.
Instead, I focused my devotion and practice even more deeply on the academy. And over the next several years I learned to deepen my commitment to change and relativism by developing analyses of how and why change happened in distinct ways in different times and places. What were the social contexts and particular historical trajectories that created each cultural development? What larger categories of economy, society, politics and precedent could explain it? Of course, constructing these kinds of analyses only created more stress rather than ameliorate it. But stress wasn’t the point, was it? Truth was—at least if we understand truth as recognition by colleagues that you have used their categories and methods in skillful yet innovative ways.
I don’t think this brief zen episode was very important in and of itself. But it took place in a period when I was being painfully defeated in my angry struggle against graduate school and slowly surrendering to professionalization. The struggle continued for a couple more years, but it was a lost cause. The completion of six months of concentrated dissertation writing was the moment of final surrender. Even if my subsequent professional behavior was somewhat slack, non-careerist and idiosyncratic compared to my colleagues, the institution still shaped most of my thoughts and desires for over a decade.
Now, after about five years of fitful attempts to reconstruct my soul, I look back on the monk’s response and find it tragic. He’s given up the search for truth and insight, and left it to other institutions that are even less equipped to find it than Zen. He was helping to restructure Zen as a drug that helps relieve the symptoms but does not address the illness. Zen is becoming one more supportive adjunct for the perpetuation of institutions that create stress and illusion.