A Critique of Post-Critical Zen: On Bret W. Davis’s “Zen Pathways”

June 19, 2022   •   By Avram Alpert

Zen Pathways: An Introduction to the Philosophy and Practice of Zen Buddhism

Bret W. Davis

AT AGE 16, in my high school literature class, I discovered the meaning of life: there is none. Or so I learned while reading Albert Camus’s existentialist fable The Stranger (1942). Life is all a whirl of absurdity and chaos. Whatever meaning there may be is the meaning that we make. And the responsibility to make meaning in a world that does not provide it leaves us in anguish and despair. That made sense. Anguish and despair more or less describe being 16 years old, anyway. If there had been a club to join, I would have been a card-carrying existentialist.

At age 18, I discovered that the existentialists had it all wrong. Or so I learned reading D. T. Suzuki’s essay “The Philosophy of Zen” (1951). To be sure, life is absurd and chaotic, but that does not mean we have to make our meaning against this chaos. The chaos is the meaning. As Suzuki put it: “The existentialist looks into the abyss […] and trembles and is seized with inexpressible fear. Zen would tell him: Why not plunge right into the abyss and see what is there?” Life isn’t all anguish and despair. It is transience and flux, and, if we simply accept that fact, we can be permanently released from our anxiety. No longer wanting to be an anxious teenager, that sounded much better.

This realization, however, did not last much longer than my existentialist phase. No matter how much I wanted to be “Zen” rather than anguished, the tumult of life always seemed to outrun my calm — whether that was personal misfortunes or the political and economic quagmires of the early 2000s. Being Zen may have been great once upon a time, but I began to doubt its relevance in contemporary life.

The idea that Zen no longer worked in the modern world was a rather ironic conclusion, however, as I would soon discover. It is not by chance, after all, that Suzuki wrote about Zen in response to existentialism. Suzuki was as much a modern philosopher as Camus was. As a resounding chorus of modern scholarly critics have argued, the Zen that most of us know is a modern invention. It is not that Zen since its founding confronted anxiety in a way that worked in calmer times but no longer functions in ours. It is that Zen has always been a complex mix of political intrigue, otherworldly myths and beliefs, philosophical debate, daily monastic functions, the performance of rites and rituals, and meditative practice. Modern Zen cleaned up this history and offered readers like me a promise of calm and repose that very few, if any, had ever achieved.

And that’s not even the half of it. In the years following World War II, critics in Japan like Ichikawa Hakugen questioned whether modern Zen ideas were linked to Japanese fascism. Even though Zen writers like Suzuki were not particularly jingoistic, these critics pointed out that there was nothing in their philosophy that prepared us for what to do in the face of fascism and oppression. What kind of advice is it to “be Zen” and go with the flow of things when the flow pulls us into terror and desecration? Not only did it seem that Zen couldn’t help me overcome my anxiety, but that, even if it could, the result would be a pliant subject amenable to following whatever horrors life might throw my way.

I was not alone in this experience of fascination and disillusionment, and several generations of North American Zen scholars have now been steadily processing it. They have taken, to borrow the title of Bret W. Davis’s new book, multiple “Zen pathways.” Some have found the critique of Zen philosophy liberating, as it allowed other aspects of the tradition to come to the fore. Alongside philosophical treatises, there is now burgeoning work in fields of “vernacular Buddhism,” which study, among other topics, songs, monastery economies, wars, cults, and sex. Others have continued to pursue a philosophical critique, finding that much of what Zen promises in terms of unmediated enlightenment is simply irreconcilable with the linguistically saturated structures of the human mind. Others still have found that, though Zen may not be the world-altering philosophy we once imagined it to be, is still full of insights and ideas that remain worth considering.

Close to this third option, a final group, to which Davis seems to belong, is interested in using the power of the decades of critique as a way to refresh the strength of the original message. Citing the work of Paul Ricoeur, Davis calls this the process of moving through the “hermeneutics of suspicion” to arrive again at the “hermeneutics of faith,” in which we have a “post-critical, second naivety.” Yes, critical historical studies have revealed the limits of Zen’s promises. Yes, some of the most enticing claims are epistemologically unstable. Yes, studying history and sociology can be illuminating. Yes, there are gods and hell realms and cults. But, nevertheless, what Davis calls “the real Zen,” is a practice of returning to our everyday lives by “clearing our hearts and minds” and “digging down to the deepest and truest parts of ourselves.” There we find our connections with others, and thus “we free ourselves up for becoming pure vehicles of the great compassionate vow to enlighten and liberate all sentient beings from suffering.” There is not much in Davis’s general description of Zen that would differ from the pre-critical studies.

What is different, and where this work makes an important contribution, is that Davis does engage some of the problems raised by critical scholars. He takes seriously the risks of losing oneself in the flow of empire, the need to develop critical political and ethical stances, and the fact that Zen meditation alone cannot solve all of one’s problems. He approvingly cites Suzuki’s important postwar acknowledgment: “By itself satori [Zen awakening] is unable to judge the right and wrong of war. With regard to disputes in the ordinary world, it is necessary to employ intellectual discrimination.” According to Suzuki and Davis, this does not mean banishing the pursuit of satori so much as appreciating what it can and cannot do.

In this vein, Davis offers a wide-ranging post-critical work that is largely written as a primer for newcomers to Zen. He gives overviews of, among other topics, how to meditate, Zen conceptions of death, the relation of self and others, the one and the many, nature and art. He ranges freely across other traditions, including especially Daoism and Christianity, and one learns a fair amount about the Kyoto School of Philosophy, one of Davis’s primary fields of study (along with the work of Martin Heidegger). In one particularly illuminating moment, for example, he describes the distinction in Ueda Shizuteru between “freedom-for-the-self” and “freedom-from-the self,” in which we learn to take the roles of speaker and listener. It is in examples like these that we see the phenomenological power of modern Zen philosophy to illuminate what happens in ordinary conversation, and how that everyday phenomenology branches out into a philosophy of freedom beyond standard contemporary accounts in Europe or the United States.

The result of Davis’s broad reading across these traditions is a helpful compendium of Zen philosophy and practice that is rich with footnotes to both classical works and contemporary scholarship. Readers who want a fuller picture of Zen philosophy and practice would do well to work through those notes and extend their reading to other contemporary scholars.

Davis’s post-critical work is at times too much so, and a more complete understanding of Zen would involve engaging more with its limits as well as its diversity. He tells us, for example, that the hells described in Buddhism are not about punishment but instead “ignorance that needs to be enlightened,” that Zen art is expressive of Zen philosophy, that meditation is the heart of Buddhist practice. All of these assertions have been challenged by scholars working in the sociology and history of Zen practice. They have found that the kind of Zen Davis seeks is, historically speaking, more the exception than the rule. Hell realms are often about punishment, Zen art is often about formal innovation, patronage, and portraiture, and anthropological accounts have suggested that for most Japanese Buddhists, even monks, meditation is less important than reciting liturgical rites and doing basic temple maintenance.

That is not, of course, in any ways a criticism of those who do meditate, make philosophically expressive art, and focus on the this-worldly philosophy, as Davis does. And he admits that his Zen is not a historical or sociological Zen. His main concern is “what [Zen] can mean for us [his mostly North American audience] today.” This is entirely fair, and there is nothing wrong with this focus, especially if one is as candid as Davis is that this is what he is doing.

I do wonder, however, what else we might learn from a different post-critical introduction to Zen Buddhism, one in which the institutional, political, and sociological complexities of Zen history are taken seriously. After all, one of the big promises of Zen, and Buddhism more broadly, is that it can be embodied. It is not just a series of philosophical postulates, but also a series of proven methods (meditation, rituals, and forms of pedagogy) for actually living out those postulates. Zen doesn’t just hypothesize the possibility of being in the flow of the universe; it gives you the means to join the flow. According to Davis, our individual enlightenment to seeing the world as it really is involves our compassionate love for others and a desire to end their suffering. But if that’s the case, then Zen should have a methodology not only for individual realization, but also for how to bring that world without suffering into being.

While Davis’s encouragement to a politics of “engaged Zen” founded on roughly Gandhian lines of love and compassion is all well and good, it does not tell us much about how to live our everyday lives in the face of massive global suffering. Indeed, at times there is intense contradiction. Right before the chapter on “engaged Zen,” for example, Davis tells us that enlightenment is so immediately available that we can find it while waiting in line to buy a shirt at Target. No mention is made of the conditions of labor for the workers or assemblers, nor of the climate impact of retail shopping. We are interdependent on fossil fuel and unjust labor, not just one another in a general sense. Of course, Davis is not on the hook to solve these problems; one will not find full political resolution anywhere.

And that’s precisely the point. In a world without such resolution, and in which we are all so interdependent with so many terrible things, it’s hard to know why it is a worthy goal for any individual to think and meditate their way toward their own enlightenment, or if individual enlightenment is even a meaningful concept today. Davis tells us that we need to be at peace with ourselves in order to make peace in the world. I would say, however, that it is a more dialectical relationship.

In eschatological terms, Japanese Buddhists sometimes spoke of living in mappō, or “the end of the dharma,” when the world had degraded so much that enlightenment became impossible. This idea especially flourished in the Kamakura period (1185–1333), where it had the counterintuitive effect of creating new creative doctrines for how to overcome the situation. Hōnen (1133–1212), for example, argued that the age signified the need to reject rigorous individual practice, embrace the idea of relying on Amida Buddha, and reject all previous distinctions of class and gender. Anyone and everyone could receive Amida Buddha’s grace. Dōgen (1200–1253), meanwhile, rejected the mappō concept entirely. According to Kamakura experts like Jacqueline Stone, however, he still responded to it. Although he adhered to strict monastic practices and praised meditation above all, he argued that these practices were indeed useful and available for everyone. Facing the possibility of no enlightenment at all, these and other monastics of the period reinvented Buddhist thought and practice.

We might similarly wonder about what kinds of creative reinvention are necessary today. I mean “we” in Davis’s sense of non-practicing Buddhists; for many practicing Buddhists, traditional methods and soteriological aims may very well still hold true. And I am not in the least saying that classic philosophy and meditation cannot be a force for love and good in the secular world. I am saying that the historical record teaches us that philosophy and meditation on their own are insufficient for achieving their aim — ending eliminable suffering.

We might learn more from Buddhism if, rather than carving out what we like in its history, we take seriously its limitations and failures, and ask how its genuinely illuminating philosophy can more readily overcome them. To do so, we need works like Davis’s that are helpful guides to the kind of peace and equanimity that can help end suffering. But we also need more introductions to Zen and other worldviews that run toward the pathways of entangled and unpleasant interdependence that constitutes the globalized world.

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Avram Alpert is a fellow at The New Institute, Hamburg. His most recent book is The Good-Enough Life.