NOTE: This was going to be the first chapter of the book The Zen of Godzilla (see my previous blog for an explanation of what this never-completed book was proposed to be) . I wrote this in 2012, before the first Legendary Films Godzilla movie was released in 2014. I think the Legendary Godzilla series is pretty good. But at the time I wrote this I didn’t know what to expect of them.
In 1998 Tri Star Pictures made the first ever American Godzilla film. It was a travesty. While it was certainly not the worst movie ever made or even a particularly bad example of a giant monster on the loose film, it was not a Godzilla movie. Fans of the original Godzilla have nicknamed the 1998 American Godzilla GINO, Godzilla In Name Only.
One of the main reasons the 1998 movie was such a disaster as a Godzilla film is because the people who made it had no real conception of what Godzilla was or of the cultural depths out of which he crawled. The question that remains to be answered as I write this is; can anyone who is not Japanese make a real Godzilla movie? Or do you have to be born and raised in Japan to really get Godzilla?
This is a similar question that vexes students of Zen. They wonder if a person can truly understand Zen without being born into the culture from which it sprang. They walk to a Zen temple in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, or Akron, Ohio, or Chapel Hill, North Carolina and wonder how much of what they see and hear there is truly Zen and how much is just Japanese cultural stuff.
I’m using Japan as my example because Japanese Zen is the style I’m most familiar with. But I believe that a lot of what I want to communicate applies equally to Chinese Chan Buddhism, Korean Seon Buddhism, Vietnamese Thien Buddhism and quite probably to the whole range of forms of Buddhism that have crossed over into the West. By the way “Chan,” “Seon,” and “Thien” are different ways to pronounce the same word that the Japanese pronounce “Zen.”
In his famous essay “Beat Zen, Square Zen and Zen” Alan Watts says, “The Westerner who is attracted to Zen and would understand it deeply must have one indispensable qualification: he must understand his own culture so thoroughly that he is no longer swayed by its premises unconsciously.” He continues saying, “Zen is above all the liberation of the mind from conventional thought, and this is something utterly different from rebellion against convention, on the one hand, or adapting foreign conventions, on the other.” So how do we go about avoiding trampling over conventional thought like Godzilla stomping Tokyo Tower? And how do we simultaneously avoid capitulating to a bunch of Japanese cultural stuff that has nothing to do with Zen the way Megalon finally capitulated to Godzilla when Godzilla drop kicked him at the end of the classic movie Godzilla vs. Megalon?
Let’s start by looking at how we have adapted Christianity to the West. The historical Jesus was not the blond haired blue eyed European looking person depicted in much of Western Christian art. But medieval painters created this image based upon the features of the people they saw around them, and based upon their own concepts of what constituted the ideally handsome person as the son of God would certainly have been.
The Christianity we’re familiar with in the West is quite different from its Middle Eastern roots. It has absorbed influences from Greek philosophy, pagan religious rituals and so on. A lot of us who know this are nonetheless surprised to learn that the Zen teachings of the ancient masters are also a mixture of cultural influences absorbed over a period of many centuries.
But even when we’re well aware that much of Buddhist philosophy is an amalgam of Indian, Chinese, Tibetan, and Japanese thought, and even when we know that these cultures are very different from each other, there still persists the idea that there is a fundamental difference between the Eastern and Western mind. A lot of people believe that it is as impossible for a Western person to fully comprehend Zen as it is for an American director to make a decent Godzilla movie — simply due to the fact that he or she is not from the Far East and, therefore, cannot possibly understand so-called “Eastern thought.”
Roland Emerich and Dean Devilin who directed the 1998 American-made Godzilla movie did not understand what Godzilla represented. Very superficially they got that he was a symbol of the fear of nuclear annihilation. But they didn’t come from a country that had actually suffered the effects of the atomic bomb. They also didn’t understand how Godzilla also represents natural disasters like typhoons and earthquakes that Japanese people face so often.
In an interview I did with Shusuke Kaneko, director of the 2001 film Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All Out Attack, the director said that in most Godzilla movies, the monster appears in the south and heads north, caving out a path of destruction. There are news reports on where the monster is now and which direction he’s heading and the populations of those area duly flee for their lives. Kaneko said that this is exactly what happens when a typhoon hits. They make landfall somewhere in the south and proceed northward. All anyone can do about a typhoon is either get out of its path or hope it runs out of steam before it gets to where they live. You can’t fight a typhoon.
Similarly, the people of Japan try all kinds of things to kill Godzilla. They drop bombs on him, they send out squadrons of tanks, they zap him with electricity, they dig big pits and try to make him fall into them, they build super duper flying machines to attack him, they build giant robot Godzillas to battle him, they even enlist the aid of Mothra to try and convince him to go away. But in the end nothing will stop Godzilla.
By contrast the 1998 American version of Godzilla was killed by two guided missiles. Guided missiles don’t kill Godzilla! Guided missiles just make him mad! Everybody knows that! Well, apparently everybody except Emerich and Devlin.
Zen also deals with that which cannot be appeased or destroyed. Unlike Christianity in which there is a God who can be appealed to and whose favor can be courted in order to change a situation that is unfavorable, Zen offers nothing of the sort. Dogen, the 13th century founder of the Soto School of Zen, speaks of having deep belief in cause and effect. That which must be, must be. Appealing to a higher power to intervene and change things won’t work.
We cannot escape the effects of our actions. The rule of karma is seen by Buddhists as being a natural law. If you drop a bowling ball on your foot it’s going to break your toes. If you steal money from your best friend, you’re going to feel some kind of effect from that action. You can’t avoid this. But when the karmic effects of your past actions catch up to you, you have total freedom to react in the best way possible. But remember, your karma will also affect what sort of reactions are possible for you.
Dogen talks about karma in three times. There are karmic effects that are immediate. There are those that take a little while to mature and be felt. And then there are those effects that are not felt for a very long time after whatever cause set them in motion. These are the hardest to deal with because they occur so long after the actions that were their causes that they appear to be completely random. But for Buddhists there is nothing random in this universe.
Kaneko put this philosophy into his film by depicting Godzilla as the embodied spirit of those who had died during World War II, both on the Japanese side and of those who had opposed Japan’s attempts to rule the world. Godzilla’s attacks are the belated comeuppance for those who have failed to pay respect to those who died to make a better world, who polluted and spoiled that world and generally treated things and people with nonchalance, contempt, and insolence.
Kaneko, being Japanese, understood Godzilla far better that the Americans who made their Godzilla film just four years before his. He even includes a little jab at that film. In Kaneko’s movie a military leader goes over the history of Godzilla’s appearances. At one point he says that a creature similar to Godzilla attacked New York at the end of the previous century, but that the Japanese know this monster was not Godzilla.
So what of American and European Zen? Is it really Zen if your teacher is named Murray and grew up in Flushing? Can you find real Zen practice in Amsterdam or Prague? And for that matter, is Zen just simple Orientalism and not even worthy of attention? Can we ever hope to separate the essentials of Zen from those aspects that are merely cultural artifacts Zen has picked up along the way? Or like the makers of the first American Godzilla film, are we doomed to pick up on only the wrong aspects of Zen and thereby create a travesty?
A lot of people are put off by the Japanese-ness of Zen temples and centers in the West. The atmosphere strikes them as unnecessarily foreign and strange. One Zen center I visited in Minneapolis went to great lengths to remove anything “Oriental” from their décor. They even went so far as to put a big huge rock in the spot where a Buddha statue would normally be.
The various Japanese things one encounters in Zen temples in the west are less bothersome to me that they are to a lot of other non-Japanese people. I lived in Japan for eleven years and a lot of the things in Zen temples that strike many Americans as weird and foreign look pretty normal to me. The way the wood is carved on temple altars is the way wood is carved to make all kinds of furniture in Japan. The tatami mats on some floors are the same as the tatami mats that were on the floor of my bedroom. Lots of the decorations look like the decorations Japanese people have in their houses all the time.
But I can understand why lots of people find that sort of thing a bit odd. Most of that stuff really isn’t necessary. And yet it I also feel it’s wrong to dump all of it just because it seems foreign.
Because it’s not just the outward trappings of Zen temples that feel “oriental” to us. What’s with all that bowing? And what about the chants? Even when they’re translated into English or other European languages they’re still sung in a weird monotone like something out of an old samurai movie.
If we dump all of this stuff what we’re left with often doesn’t seem very Zen anymore.
The idea of trying to neatly cut the cultural stuff away from the Zen stuff like trimming the meat off a chicken bone is probably not really possible. Japanese art and architecture as well as personal manners have been deeply influenced by Zen to the extent that it’s not clear where one leaves off and the other begins. Take bowing, for example. Japanese people bow to each other in greeting the way Westerners shake hands. The custom of bowing appears to have originated with Buddhist temple practice but it became part of general Japanese culture even for people who never go to Buddhist temples. So if we try to cut one away from the other we may end up removing some important aspects of the practice.
There are people out there who do something very much like Zen without calling it Zen. Toni Packer is a good example. A former student of Philip Kapleau Roshi, she left the Zen tradition in part because she disagreed with what she saw as the unnecessary use of Japanese ritual. Jiddu Krishnamurti and U.G. Krishnamurti both taught something quite similar to Zen while being quite hostile toward Zen itself due to what they saw as its many useless rituals and rites. Whenever I read something by Ekhart Tolle I’m struck by how he appears to be attempting to do Zen without the Zen.
I don’t know if this is good or bad. I think it’s inevitable that one day we’ll drop words like “Buddhism” and “Zen” and start talking about realism. Because, to me, that’s all Buddhism and Zen are talking about; reality as it actually is.
But I’m not so sure that it’s time to drop the words Buddhism and Zen just yet. There are all kinds of philosophies out there that purport to deal with reality as it actually is, when really they are serving up only elaborate fantasies that lead people further away from reality as it actually is. It may still be necessary to distinguish Buddhism and Zen from those things.
There’s also a danger that if someone expresses these concepts without acknowledging their origins or acknowledging that there were people before who had these same insights, the followers of these people will mistakenly attribute these insights to the personal power of the person who expressed them. The result would be that you’d end up with a cult of personality. We’re already seeing this in the way that, for example, Jiddu Krishnamurti is deified by some of his latter day followers even in spite of his constant insistence that no one should see him as a savior. And this is certainly what happened to Buddha.
By aligning oneself with a tradition one can avoid some of this, though nothing is ever going to prevent some people from completely misconstruing things. It seems to me sometimes that certain people seem willfully inclined to deliberately misinterpret absolutely anything. If anything can be misunderstood it will be. And communication is never really perfect, which means that it is absolutely impossible to say something that cannot be misinterpreted, no matter how hard you might try.
I’m often pretty disgusted with some of the things I see passing for Zen. I’ve been pretty outspoken about some of these things — for example, the instant enlightenment seminars offered by certain so-called “Zen Masters.” I’ve often tempted to do what Toni Packer and others have done and just drop the words Zen and Buddhism entirely.
But I haven’t done so because I feel that would be dishonest. Any insight I have to offer came from the Zen Buddhist tradition, from Zen Buddhist teachers, from the Zen Buddhist environment. If I tried to pretend otherwise I’d be lying. I sometimes regret having taken the vows and become a Zen monk. But I did so. I could declare my vows null and void, but even that would be dishonest. I took them. They’ll never truly be null and void.
I don’t think we can find a Zen that transcends all cultural trappings. Even if we scrupulously attempt to remove everything that tastes the least bit Asian, we’re still left with our own cultural trappings.
It’s important not to use Zen as an excuse to be some kind of weaboo, a person of non-Asian descent who runs around pretending to be Japanese or Chinese or Korean or whatever. There are plenty of those people at Zen centers in the West, saying “hai” instead of “yes” or bowing all the time. That stuff is disgusting, especially to someone who really is Asian. So stop it.
Like Alan Watts said, we need to be aware of our own culture. And that’s hard to do. For my own part, I never understood just how deeply American I really am until I left the United States. Up until that time I imagined myself as being utterly different from the average American. And maybe I am in some ways. But in just as many other ways I’m deeply American.
NOTE: And that’s where the chapter ends, I’m afraid! I never did come up with a suitable conclusion. Anyhow, I hope you enjoyed it!
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