Inclusivity in Zen

This is what you might face when trying to enter an ancient Zen monastery.

American Zen people enjoy wringing their hands about inclusivity. The demographic at Zen centers in America tends to skew mostly white. This leads some people to make the absurd assumption that white people dominate Zen. In fact, white people are a tiny minority of Zen practitioners. The vast majority of Zennies are Japanese, Korean, Thai, or Chinese. White folks are the newcomers worldwide. Only in America and Europe are they the majority.

Still, lots of us white folks in the American Zen world worry about how to make our centers more inclusive. We don’t want anyone to feel like they can’t do Zen practice because of silly, superficial things like race, gender, sexual orientation, and so on.

However, one of the problems when it comes to Zen and inclusivity is that Zen is not a very warm, welcoming, and inclusive sort of practice for anyone. It never has been. In fact, it has always been quite the opposite.

The stereotype of how one entered a Zen monastery in Asia in the past was that you first gave up everything you owned except for a begging bowl and a set of robes. Then you climbed up to the top of some foreboding mountain, dodging the bears and mountain lions and yetis. When you got to the monastery you pounded on the door and begged to be let inside before you froze to death or got eaten. Eventually one of the monks might take a look at you and tell you to get lost.

If you were very determined, though, you would stay put. If you stayed on the front porch for several days in spite of starving and getting rained and snowed on and having to fend off predators and bugs, they might take pity on you and let you inside. Even then you’d hardly be treated like an honored guest. You’d have to prove your usefulness to the community by doing the crummiest grunt work that no one else wanted to do. Maybe in a few years you’d graduate to a higher status. But only if you worked really hard at it.

Inclusivity? Ha! Good luck with that!

Despite this harsh attitude, Zen monasteries were also traditionally known as places that would not reject you just because of your ethnicity or social status. Men and women usually trained separately, but apart from that everyone mixed together.

In fact, in the rigorously stratified caste system of ancient Japan you could essentially erase your lowborn status by becoming a monk and thereby standing outside of that system entirely. Still, you had to prove you were serious about the practice and that you were prepared and able to do whatever it took to keep the monastery running.

The fact that you could change your social status by becoming a monk was such a big deal societally that laws were enacted to prevent people from pretending to be Buddhist monks. There was a time when you could face the death penalty for eating meat while dressed as a monk, for example.

In addition to monasteries there were also Zen temples that were not monasteries. These Zen temples served the wider community. The temples could afford to be a bit more welcoming because they weren’t tight-knit, isolated, largely self-sufficient communities like the monasteries were. Still, even at the temples, Zen was the sort of thing where you had to come to them. They weren’t like churches and religious centers today who are often competing in the spiritual marketplace for as many members as they can get.

America in the 21st century is very different from ancient Japan. Compared to ancient Japan, our Zen monasteries are positively cuddly. Furthermore, we Americans have a strong national ideal of including everybody and making sure no one feels left out. And yet this is often at odds with the traditional Zen way of being rigorous and uncompromising.

One thing I learned about Americans and our notions of inclusivity and tolerance while living in Japan is that we Americans are generally seen as being extremely demanding and entitled. To Japanese people, we all seem to have some special need and we all demand that this special need be accommodated by every person or institution we encounter. We will talk endlessly about our special needs and we expect to receive lots of “oh you poor, poor thing” type responses as folks go about trying to make us feel comfortable and included.

In Japan they don’t do that. But it’s not because they demand everyone must conform. This is one of the biggest misconceptions about Japanese society, if you ask me. It’s not that Japanese culture demands conformity for its own sake.

It’s more because individuals in Japan understand that their society has a limited capacity for meeting everybody’s specific needs. Asking for special treatment of any kind can make you seem like a spoiled prima donna.

As a vegetarian living in Japan, for example, I quickly found out I couldn’t rely on anyone else to meet my dietary demands or even feel very sympathetic to them. This was the food that was available. If I didn’t want to eat it, that was my problem, not the problem of the person who made the food.

Kiyotaka “Jimmy” Ugawa, my boss at Tsuburaya Productions, and Nishijima Roshi, my teacher, had both survived World War II. During and after the war nobody got to be picky about what they’d eat, or where they’d sleep, or, at times, even whether they got to live or die. Even those who weren’t old enough to remember the war and occupation years still felt their lingering societal effects. Even putting aside the war years, Japan, being a small isolated island nation with limited resources, has developed a culture that values being satisfied with whatever is available.

I feel like an important part of what Buddhism is supposed to teach is a sense of how to stop making demands on the world to accommodate what we want. This is central to the very purpose of Buddhism. It’s about reaching beyond our individual wants and desires to find something deeper and more true. It’s about being happy with what you have to be happy with.

All societies are set up to accommodate the majority. That’s not because society is mean and bigoted. It’s because, for most of human history we’ve been damned lucky just to get whatever we can get. We couldn’t accommodate everyone’s individual wants, so we built things to accommodate what was seen as the average person, then we let those who weren’t average figure out how to make that stuff work for them. Yes bigotry exists. But it’s a separate matter.

An American Zen Buddhist center is a very small and often impoverished society. They’re usually barely able to cater to the needs of the most average types of individuals who might show up.

Some people are lucky in that they have to make comparatively fewer adjustments than others. Up until recently, this was not usually seen as a major concern. Now it’s become thrust into the forefront. I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Maybe our standards are becoming much too high overall. This attitude may be the source of lots of the unhappiness we see around us from people who seem to have all of their needs taken care of.

Even if a Zen center could accommodate all of the various special needs that its American members are inclined to demand, I don’t think they should. It worries me to see lots of American Zen folks so distressed about inclusivity that they forget what the purpose of our training really is.

Zen training is intended to free us from the demands we make upon the world to be kind, comfortable, accommodating, and unfailingly harmless. It is intended to remove us from our comfort zones and present challenges. It is supposed to be uncomfortable.

The intention of the practice is to get rid of those props we use to make life easier and learn to still be able to be relaxed and content even under trying circumstances. Our usual American demands to be seen and heard as individuals or as representatives of some group identity are inappropriate in a Zen setting. 

For fifteen years of my life I was a racial minority and an immigrant. I don’t claim that my experience as a white foreign guy in Kenya and in Japan were exactly equivalent to the experiences of minorities in America. Obviously not! Still, I do know very well what it’s like to be the odd one out in a culture that is decidedly not your own. Everything smells weird and tastes funny and everyone stares at you. You can’t be anonymous no matter how hard you try. When you walk into a subway car, all of a sudden you’re hearing conversations about the influx of foreign people into the country, conversations that they think you can’t understand. Your hair is strange. Your manners are wrong. I am not insensitive to the way many people in a cultural majority fail to see how minorities can feel excluded even when such exclusion isn’t intentional.

We would like our Zen centers to be places where anyone can feel just as included as anyone else. But, in order for Zen to be Zen, it can never feel totally welcoming or totally accommodating to anyone. I hope we can take steps to remove any unnecessary barriers to inclusion. And yet I hope that doesn’t come about by trying to change Zen into something that’s too accommodating and thereby loses its value.

It’s going to take time before there are American Zen centers in which black folks or Latinos or other non-white ethnicities make up the majority. But I am sure that one of these days we will start to see places like that. It took over 2000 years for white folks to get into Zen. If it takes 200 years for it to catch on to the next race, that will be a tenth of how long it took for us whiteys to get into it. We’ve only had Zen centers in the USA for about fifty years. I think we need to have a bit more patience.


Friday Oct. 12, 2018 CLEVELAND, OHIO 7:00pm UU Church 2728 Lancashire Rd., Cleveland Heights, OH 44106

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