Modern Day Zen Hagiography

Posted on 10. Mar, 2011 by in Blog

This paper takes a critical look at two recently published biographies of modern day Chan/ Zen teachers in America. The popular American magazine “Tricycle: A Buddhist Review” printed both biographies which made them widely available to the diverse American Buddhist communities and the interested general reader. Both biographies were presented as straightforward reporting of fully enlightened Chan/Zen figures. Biography is a literary genre that implies a level of honesty and integrity presupposing that what is presented is an actual life, not believable fiction. Religious biographies however are hardly ever simple, straightforward, or disinterested. As with any other text, these texts are interactive; that is, they are written and published for chosen audiences with specific intentions…

…Hagiography is a creative literary genre which, at least for devotees and sympathetic believers, “brings into existence that which it utters.” It “creates what it states, in contrast to all derived, observational statements, which simply record a pre-existent given.” Hagiography derives its power by reproducing the collectively recognized, in these cases projecting it onto contemporary figures, and in this way confirming their own validity, and that of their protagonists, who embody the values of a tradition…

Stuart Lachs has written another piece that looks at some Chan/Zen standard practices of legitimacy and authenticity. Much of what becomes obvious is generally applicable to many other traditional models of institutionalization, transmission, and empowerment, Buddhist or otherwise. The paper “When the Saints Go Marching In: Modern Day Zen Hagiography” is available here in .pdf format (updated version 03-21-2011).

Also, Stuart Lachs’ lecture audio (2011) on the subject of modern day Zen hagiography found here

Another lecture audio (2012) on the subject of hua-t’o in Ch’an/Zen practice found here (both made available via via Institutt for Kulturstudier og Orientalske Sprak)

For those interested in previous work by S. Lachs, links to .pdf files:

Coming Down from Zen Clouds (1994)

Means of Authorization (2002)

Richard Baker and the Myth of the Zen Roshi (2002)

The Zen Master in America (2006)


4 Responses to “Modern Day Zen Hagiography”

  1. David Marshall

    11. Mar, 2011

    Hokai, thank you very much for those Lachs articles. I have a great interest in Shunryu Suzuki in particular and will enjoy reading them.

    Lachs objects to the idealizing of Zen masters, to hagiography, to placing Zen masters too high on a pedestal. Okay, we could err in that direction, but it seems as though Lachs wants to err in the opposite direction. That’s a discussion unto itself, but in his zeal to take Shunryu Suzuki off the pedestal he tries to paint him as a war supporter, and that seems to be mistaken. He cites no evidence for that other than a few words from Suzuki’s son Hoitsu. He quotes Hoitsu (in his essay “Richard Baker and the Myth of the Zen Roshi”) saying:

    “I don’t know where all of this antiwar talk comes from, but my father and the rest of the family supported Japan’s war effort just like everyone else.”

    The trouble is, Hoitsu was born in 1939 and could not have been a witness. Also, Hoitsu might have some cultural, professional, or personal reasons for wanting to paint his father as a supporter of the war.

    Lachs writes, “Even Chadwick [Crooked Cucumber]
    was forced to admit: ‘Anything Shunryu had done that could be considered remotely antiwar he had done before the Pacific war started.’ ”

    But that remark was taken out of context. It’s true enough by Suzuki’s own account, but Suzuki couldn’t have opposed the war without being thrown in jail or killed at that point, and it is extremely unlikely he would have had any positive effect, anyway.

    Before the war Suzuki opposed war in an indirect way by his own account. Indirect because it was a militaristic society and not tolerant of direct opposition and perhaps also because of aspects of Japanese culture. We have no way of knowing exactly what happened, but I see no evidence against his word or any reason to doubt him.

    Here is an excerpt from Crooked Cucumber about the subject, including a brief interview:

    “There were few people in Japan those days who thought the war was wrong, and few of those had figured out how to talk about it without going to jail or losing their positions. No one could voice strong doubts or criticize the state, but there was room for positive suggestions. Anything Shunryu had done that could be considered remotely antiwar he had done before the Pacific War started. Now in 1943 there was little he could do. He didn’t oppose the war, didn’t oppose the government, didn’t advocate surrender, didn’t say that Japan was wrong. He didn’t want Japan to lose the war, he just wanted the war to be over. He was torn between his belief in Buddhism and peace, and his devotion to duty and country. . . . Shunryu never overtly evoked the precept against killing to advocate an end to the war on moral grounds.

    “Sometimes Shunryu handed out papers he’d written, urging that Japan work with other nations toward amicably solving problems rather than acting rashly in a way that might bring on destruction.

    “He was interested in establishing a way of life that created peace, working on the root cause of war rather than railing at the symptoms.

    “Roshi, I heard that you opposed the war when you were in Japan. Is that true?” I asked him.

    “Yes, in a way, but there was not much I could do. We tried to look at the root cause.”

    “Did many priests do that?”

    “No, not till after the war. Then they all did.”
    “What was it like then?”

    “Japan was under the spell of some strange idea. There was a lot of confusion.”

    “How did you get away with it? How come you weren’t arrested?”

    “I didn’t oppose the government. I just expressed ideas like if there were peace, that the country and also the government would be stronger. And I encouraged others to think about careless assumptions.”

    “I heard you printed things.”

    “Yes, before the war, but if you saw what I wrote, you wouldn’t understand. Not so direct. It was different from your situation here.” He sighed. “It would be very hard to explain. You would have to know so much background.”

    Lachs also brings up Baker’s mention (in the introduction of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind) of a particular anti-war group that Suzuki led, saying that Baker couldn’t even remember where he had heard the idea and intimating that the idea was surely false. Suzuki mentioned this group in an interview with Peter Schneider:

    Suzuki-Roshi: Before the war I had strong feelings against war. Before the government started some organization to organize civilians against America I organized young men in my area to have the right understanding of the situation of Japan at that time. We invited good people who actually participated in important activity in various areas of government and we would ask questions until we understood them. So later the government organized people to fight completely with America, but my purpose was to prevent – not war, but to counter people who may have a one-sided view of the situation of Japan, or in their understanding of ourselves and human nature. I didn’t have any big purpose for my group, I just didn’t want my friends to be involved in that kind of nationalism which I thought may destroy our Japan completely – it’s more dangerous than war. We lost completely because of lack of understanding.

    Peter: And wasn’t this considered a very unique thing to do?

    Suzuki-roshi: Yeah. At that time.

    Peter: Did you get in trouble? Did you get in trouble for it?

    Suzuki-roshi: Yeah, I got into various troubles.

    Peter: What happened?

    Suzuki-roshi: What happened? At length it helped, you know, but at first I was very much criticized. But what I was saying was right and enough people agreed with me so they decided to utilize me to help their you know – to help their idea of leading people. And they appointed me to be a head of a new organization, which was started by the government, but I resigned. I accepted once, you know, and next day I resigned from it.

    This was before the war, before the militarists took over. When the army took over my voice was not loud enough.

    Peter: But the army didn’t come after your voice?

    Suzuki-roshi: No. It was not so bad. But that was why I think I didn’t get drafted. They marked me – on my name maybe there was some special mark. He’s dangerous, but no reason to kill him. I was not such a big deal. But if they may have been concerned that if I were in the army that what I might say will affect morale.

    Peter: Were there many priests like you who were pacifists?

    Suzuki-roshi: Hmm?

    Peter: Were there many priests like you who were pacifists?

    Suzuki-roshi: They didn’t take any stand till after the Second World War was over. . . .

    Suzuki-roshi: I care more about the way of thinking. the fundamental way of thinking which will cause big war. That is why I didn’t like nationalists in Japan. Their view was very one-sided and very unrealistic. And they accused others of faults without knowing what they were doing. They actually created problems.

    Peter: Maybe this is why the government did not persecute you, because you were approaching the problem from a religious point of view.

    Suzuki-roshi: Yeah.

    Peter: Not political.

    Suzuki-roshi: No. And after the world war I was not purged. I had no record of fighting with the military war. I had many printed matters expressing my feelings, many things about what should be the policy, what kind of danger we had then in the nation, things like that. But most of it may be difficult to understand for people. I didn’t say anything about war or anything like that. I said that if we neglected to understand the situation of Japan more clearly and if we understood things just by what is printed, then we will lose the real picture of Japan. So what I put the emphasis on is to study more about what everyone was doing in his country, in the army, or in the political world. I was very much interested in that kind of thing when I was young, before the war. And because of this kind of anti-war activity, I was not purged.

    Peter: Were most priests purged?

    Suzuki-roshi: Yes. Most priests who joined the army.

    Peter: Lost their temples or were put in jail?

    Suzuki-roshi: No. They couldn’t join some educational programs or some official things, on education or city hall. But I wasn’t purged. They tried to purge me, but I showed them the printed materials I had.

    Peter: Who was they, the American soldiers in Yaizu?

    Suzuki-roshi: No, the government, the new government. So they had no reason to purge me.

  2. Greg

    19. Mar, 2011

    Just read “When the Saints Go Marching In” – sincere thanks for bringing Lachs’ latest article to my attention. He is doing very important work pulling the shades up on a world of abuse and corruption that is aided and abetted by magazine like Tricycle and Shambhala Sun.

    Thank goodness that in the internet era we have other means of knowledge than such cowardly and servile publications as those.

    I recently read an article on the Buddhist Channel (,9922,0,0,1,0) which comes to mind now. In it, the Shambhala Sun editor expresses their editorial policy as follows:

    “we have tried not to wash the Buddhist world’s dirty laundry in public — to avoid getting into detail about difficulties and divisions within Buddhist sanghas. This is particularly important in the Sun, with a substantial non-Buddhist or beginning Buddhist audience.”

    That sentiment is nauseating and contemptible, and its proponents at Shambhala Sun are complicit in the abuse of hundreds of people.

  3. Tricycle

    25. Mar, 2011

  4. Stuart Lachs

    07. Apr, 2011

    Reply to Mr. Shaheen

    I find James Shaheen reply to my article “When the Saints Come Marching: Modern Day Zen Hagiography” off the mark. Already the article’s title clearly states and the contents that follow are about modern day Zen hagiography, not a general critique of Tricycle magazine. Mr. Shaheen also assumes that I am a reader of his magazine, which is incorrect. I almost never read the magazine except when someone informs me of an article that they think is of interest to me.

    But let me give the history of my encounter with Tricycle. On April 9, 2009, I sent Tricycle an email with a “letter to the editor” responding to the Nowick article “down east roshi.” I received an email back on the same day from Aaron Lackowski, Editorial Assistant, acknowledging the receipt of my email along with a note saying “I will circulate it in our editorial department.”

    I heard back from Mr. Lackowski two months later, on June 17th, with the following, “While it is not our place to get into the details of conflicts within communities (unless that is what a given article is specifically about), you could certainly submit a briefer account of how the community disbanded, saying something to the effect that it was not the focus on music but Nowick’s personal problems in dealing with students that drove them away. To go further than this would mean writing a short follow-up article, which is not something we’re interested in doing. Keep in mind that we don’t often publish letters longer than three paragraphs.”

    He added: “Do be in touch if this [three paragraph letter] is something you’re interested in doing. For your letter to be considered for the current issue, we would need it by the end of this week. You would have another three months for consideration in the following issue.”

    The next day I sent Mr. Lackowski a three paragraph “letter to the editor,” but this was rejected.

    So by June 2009 Tricycle had published at least two hagiographic articles, the Nowick article and the Sheng Yen article titled “The Wanderer,” within a year. I gathered from the above letter that they did not really want to hear, or rather want their readers to hear, an informed criticism of what they had published. So it strikes me as odd that Mr. Shaheen is now so offended that I wrote an article critiquing two articles that he chose to publish, while he declined to include my critical assessment of one of those articles in his magazine.

    Let us put this in the larger context of Zen in America, which has been plagued by scandals since the mid 1960’s, beginning in Hawaii with Eido Shimano and continuing to this day with the same Eido Shimano roshi and now Dennis Gempo Merzel roshi, and a long list of names in between. A good part of the problem is related to over-empowering the master/ roshi much beyond his/her level of attainment, while necessarily disempowering students. This is exactly what hagiography does, and this is exactly what the two hagiographic articles Tricycle published do. It is problematic that Zen literature is filled with hagiographic presentations from the distant past, that present the master/roshi as a fully enlightened being. Unfortunately, all too often Zen followers then project these outstanding qualities highlighted in the hagiographies onto the present day title holders. But now Tricycle magazine, supposedly better informed than the average reader, presents two modern hagiographies and thereby gives these stories a stamp of approval, or at the least some form of public endorsement.

    I believe that by endorsing these two hagiographies, published along with photos of these supposedly highly enlightened people, Tricycle does much more to continue the fantasy of highly enlightened Chan/Zen figures beyond the understanding of ordinary people than any critiquing article can counter. With the Sheng Yen article Mr. Shaheen chose to publish the most dramatic section of the auto-hagiography: Sheng Yen’s fantasized homeless living on the streets of NYC during the winter months. Exactly this story has now been repeated in the blogoshere and in several obituaries of Sheng Yen, thus becoming a fact of modern day Zen. The poorly researched Nowick article presents the problematic Nowick figure as an iconoclastic old style Zen roshi- the “real deal,” as the article stated.

    Intentionally or not, Mr. Shaheen is “perpetuating hagiography” in Zen, because he chose to publish these two articles. But maybe Mr. Shaheen does not think these articles are hagiographies? This aspect is not addressed at all by his reply, although it is evidently the main point of my article.

    The main aim of my article is not criticism of Tricycle, but rather, to critique two hagiographic articles published by Tricycle. My critique shows that the two articles are perfect examples of how traditional Zen hagiography is perpetuated up to the present day, and points out some of the tragic and far reaching consequences of this fact. That both these hagiographies were printed in Tricycle within a year was Mr. Shaheen’s choice.

Leave a Reply