It has happened before and it happened again the other day -- an email out of the blue from a young woman who has an earnest homework project: "My general topic is how Americans view Zen Buddhism," she wrote. The overview statement reminded me of the old-final-exam-question joke: "Describe the universe and give three examples."
She wanted to do an interview. You'd think at my age I could slip into the no-thanks shadows with ease, but n-o-o-o-o-o-o! Topics like this, however academic and juvenile, still stir my juices, I think as much as anything because I remember my own fumbling, uncertain, hydrant-sniffing, drawn-yet-scared approaches to spiritual endeavor. I find human uncertainties, even those camouflaged with academic expertise, touching. I want to 'help' and in so doing, ignore my very own observation, "Just because you are indispensable to the universe does not mean the universe needs your help."
Oh well, another failure. What else is new? Might as well wallow if I can't get shut of it.
How do Americans view Zen Buddhism? The question as it stands is on a precise par with the question, "How do Americans view chocolate ice cream?" It only sounds different because chocolate ice cream is a direct, immediate pleasure and spiritual endeavor is 'virtuous' or 'mystical' or 'good' ... and no one is entirely relaxed around things that are virtuous and good. Chocolate ice cream needs no improvement; spiritual life seems to nag relentlessly.
What do Americans think of Zen Buddhism, that splinter of a splinter of Buddhism which some Buddhists do not even consider to be Buddhism? Ask the adherents and there will be a lot of swooping and soaring and demonstrably serene tones of voice. Depending on the emphasis put on actual practice, and, I suspect, dependent on age, Zen Buddhism can be pretty serious: "After all, 'I' am a serious matter, ergo Zen Buddhism is likewise serious." And I can't fault the reasoning: How else is anyone to iron out the wrinkles of this life if s/he is unwilling to take this life seriously ... or even just solemnly?
I like Zen Buddhism because, although it really is too simple and too hard, still, it's direct: As sports columnist Red Smith once observed approximately about writing, "Writing is easy. You just sit down at the typewriter and open a vein." Zen Buddhism too is easy ... you just sit down, shut up, focus the mind, open a vein ... and see what happens. After all the folderol attending on other serious matters in life, it is healthy, sensible and, yes, somewhat scary to find something that cuts the crap and goes for the throat. Or anyway, I think so.
Zen Buddhism in America. I like it, sort of. I think it's useful, sort of. I've used a lot of energy-years on its behalf, whatever 'it' is. I dislike praising it and I dislike damning it: It's like chocolate ice cream -- take a lick if you like and leave the opinions to other "Americans."