This kind of mutual enrichment of two Buddhist traditions was undoubtedly one of the greatest fruits produced by the encounter between the two in North America.
Born in India sometime between the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, Buddhism spread across the Asian region and developed in distinctive ways in each place. More recently a variety of Buddhist traditions have been carried into North America, where they have entered a new phase of evolution in the culture of the West. One of the new developments has occurred as a result of the confluence of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism (Tantra). In what follows I introduce this mixing and discuss the resulting birth of Buddhism for Westerners.
Tibetan Appreciation of Zen Arts
The Teacup and the Skullcup: Chögyam Trungpa on Zen and Tantra (Halifax, Nova Scotia: Vajradhatu Publications, 2007) contains the record of two seminars titled "Zen and Tantra" conducted over seven days in January and February 1974. Among the chapter headings are the following: "Precision and Vastness," "Artists and Unemployed Samurai," "Beauty and Absurdity," "Dynamic Stillness and Cosmic Absorption."
Each of these paired terms contrasts features of Zen with features of Tantra. As these headings illustrate, the lecturer at the seminars was adept at discussing Buddhism in language that reverberates within the hearts of modern Westerners. He was one of the first Tibetan lamas to become fully assimilated into Western culture.
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (1939-87) was a meditation master and the eleventh lama in the teaching lineage known as the Trungpa Tulkus. He fled Tibet to India in 1959, began studies at Oxford University in 1963, and moved to North America in 1970. He considered his lifework to be planting the Dharma in the West. While his life was short, he successfully laid a broad foundation for Tibetan Buddhism in the Western world, establishing more than one hundred meditation centers in the process.
Trungpa was interested in Zen and the Zen arts. It was while studying at Oxford that he encountered Zen in the works of Alan Watts, but it was in the United States that he developed a close relationship with a number of Zen masters. The first one he met was Shunryu Suzuki (1904-71), founder of the San Francisco Zen Center. Around that time, what Trungpa identified as "spiritual materialism" was rampant, and the students of Suzuki Roshi were the only ones who were, in his view, practicing Zen correctly. Suzuki and Trungpa held feelings like those of father and son toward each other, and they shared ideas on disseminating Buddhism in the United States. It was not long after the two got together, however, that Suzuki developed cancer and passed away quite suddenly.
Following Suzuki's death, the next Zen master Trungpa developed a close relationship with was Kobun Chino Otogawa (1938-2002). The two of them are said to have been like brothers to each other. Through his exchange with Suzuki, Trungpa had become familiar with zazen (seated meditation), which is not practiced in Tibetan Buddhism, and he recognized its merits. He then learned Japanese calligraphy and the Zen practice of oryoki (liturgical eating) from Kobun. There is also calligraphy in Tibet, but it does not use ink brushes and has a much more limited degree of freedom. Trungpa developed a liking for Japanese calligraphy. He left behind many works of calligraphy penned with ink brush in elegant style, including some placing the Sino-Japanese character for kami (god) alongside Tibetan letters.
Trungpa engaged in exchange with various Zen masters of the Soto sect, including Suzuki and Kobun, and he also got together with Eido Shimano Roshi and other Zen masters of the Rinzai sect. In addition, through an introduction by Kobun, he became a family friend of Kanjuro Shibata, a kyudo (Japanese archery) master and twentieth in the line of bow makers to the throne of Japan.
Trungpa sometimes dressed in kimono and Zen kesa robes. He also practiced Japanese calligraphy and ikebana (the art of flower arrangement), but this was not merely because he was fond of them. Holder of an instructor's license in the Sogetsu school of ikebana, he recalls that when he first came across this art form, he was astonished:
"The Sogetsu School in Japan does not only pay attention to flower arranging, but also it pays attention to sculpture and to creating an environment out of a variety of things. My meeting with my teacher in England (Stella Coe of the Sogetsu School) provided me with a tremendous shock and surprise that such a new dimension of working with reality could be presented in terms of ikebana. The first time I saw a flower arrangement I was quite amazed that dignity and reality could be expressed by means of that particular arrangement. There is beauty and there is cruelty. Maybe there is invitation, there is seduction, and in fact the whole thing is like the Buddhist teaching. So, it is not just purely a work of art. It is a manifestation of reality which can be presented in a simple but very spacious fashion. Ikebana practice teaches how to go about your life. It requires a great deal of paying attention, nonaggression and not being speedy."1
Flower arrangements are, Trungpa said, not merely works of art but "a manifestation of reality." Probably he is not the only person to have characterized ikebana as a representation of reality, but surely he is the first to have declared that "the whole thing" of ikebana is akin to Buddhist teaching and that the practice of ikebana "teaches how to go about your life." This proposition is based on the following insight, which informed Trungpa's specific way of presentation of traditional Tibetan Buddhist thinking.
"If you understand the ultimate aspect of the dharma, this is the ultimate aspect of the world. And if you should cultivate the ultimate aspect of the world, this should be in harmony with the dharma. I am alone in presenting the tradition of thinking this way."2
It would appear that Trungpa viewed ikebana to be an excellent method for cultivating "the ultimate aspect of the world." Shibata, whom he invited to teach kyudo in his Shambhala sangha, offers this recollection:
"Trungpa Rinpoche was attracted to Kyudo because it was not a sport. Rinpoche thought that for Americans just sitting was too tiresome a way to always do their meditation. Whereas in Kyudo there is change and movement, so he thought it might be a good method of meditation practice."3
Trungpa included ikebana and calligraphy along with kyudo in the training menu of the Shambhala sangha. As he saw it, ikebana and calligraphy were also suitable ways for Americans to practice meditation.
In Japan as well, calligraphy is seen as one of the fields in which Zen masters train. But it is only in twentieth-century North America that calligraphy and other Zen arts were actively incorporated into the Buddhist training system as methods of meditation practice.
Tibetan Influence on American Zen
Practitioners of Zen picked up much more than that from Trungpa. One person who has said as much is Bernie Glassman (b. 1939), one of the leading American Zen masters. He writes:
"Even more important to my thinking was seeing how Trungpa Rinpoche adapted the basic Tibetan Buddhist tradition to teaching dharma in America. Zen, as it came to this country, was very hierarchical and aimed purely at producing teachers. The temple system of Japanese Zen didn't come over, except among ethnic Japanese living here, and at that time there was almost no contact between them and non-Japanese Americans interested in Zen. The primary purpose of Zen Center of Los Angeles was to produce American Zen teachers. But Trungpa Rinpoche was talking about building a sane society.
"That was of great interest to me. I wanted to bring what I was learning into the community. Here also I adapted Rinpoche's approach. Rather than focusing on building a sane society within the growing sangha of Western Buddhist practitioners, I wanted to work with the whole society. I stayed in a Buddhist venue, as a Zen priest and teacher, but in my work I moved out into the general community."4
Glassman Roshi is a Dharma heir of Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi (1931-95), founder of the Zen Center of Los Angeles. He became a student of Maezumi Roshi in 1967 and a sensei (teacher) in 1976, moving to New York in 1979, where he set up the Zen Community of New York. To raise funds for the Zen community, he opened the Greyston Bakery in Yonkers in 1982. Eventually he expanded the goals of the bakery to include employment and job training for the homeless and others. The bakery is part of the Greyston Mandala, a network of organizations dedicated to developing Zen as a force for social change.
Glassman retired from the Greyston Mandala in 1996 and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he organized the Zen Peacemaker Order (now known as the Zen Peacemakers). He is a leader in the peace movement, and in autumn 2007 he taught a graduate course at Harvard Divinity School titled "Buddhist Arts of Ministry in the Zen Peacemakers Order." He is also known for conducting "bearing witness retreats," which are primarily "Street Retreats" and "Auschwitz Retreats." Taking part in a Street Retreat involves living on city streets for five days with no money. This is a unique method devised by Glassman for realizing an enlightened society with Zen as the driving force, and it has won high praise.
Glassman is one of the leaders of today's socially engaged Buddhism. While the term engaged Buddhism was coined by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen master from Vietnam, Glassman selected Trungpa rather than Thich Nhat Hanh to be his role model, as he himself has stated. Inspired by Trungpa, he has been applying what he learned from him in the general community.
John Daido Loori (1931-2009) was another of Maezumi's outstanding Dharma heirs, and he also looked up to Trungpa.5 Daido Roshi established the Mountain and Rivers Order of Zen Buddhism (MRO) in 1980 and became abbot of the Zen Mountain Monastery (ZMM), the core facility of the order, in 1989. Unusual for the United States, ZMM is an extremely strict and highly organized Zen monastery.6 Training is based on the Eight Gates of Zen training matrix. The eight gates are (1) zazen, (2) study with a teacher, (3) academic study, (4) liturgy, (5) right action, (6) art practice, (7) body practice, and (8) work practice.
Evidence of Trungpa's influence is to be seen in the eight gates. Daido remarked of Trungpa, "He incorporated into his training matrix some of the elements integral to Zen - the liturgical meal of oryoki, the Zen arts of flower arranging, calligraphy, and archery."7 Daido integrated these elements into three of the eight gates: liturgy, art practice, and body practice.
Daido also relied heavily on Trungpa in the realm of doctrine, as can be understood from the MRO's recommended reading list for gate 3, academic study. The list contains thirty-four reference works by seventeen writers, and more of the works are by Trungpa than by any other author except Daido himself.8
Trungpa's influence also extends into the MRO's interpretation of the Buddhist precepts. Pema Chödrön, one of the central figures along with Trungpa in the 1984 foundation of Gampo Abbey, a monastery of the Kagyü lineage of Tibetan Buddhism in Nova Scotia, Canada, offers this comment on Trungpa's view of the precepts practiced in Gampo Abbey:
"At the same time that we have been trying to keep the vows purely, we also are working very hard on keeping an open, flexible mind. Trungpa Rinpoche emphasized again and again that we should not use the monastic rules as a way to close ourselves off from the world - the whole point was to see them as a way to further open our hearts and minds toward the whole world."9
This is a revolutionary approach to the vows or monastic rules. Traditionally, the more rigorously one practiced the precepts, the further one withdrew from the world. The MRO's reformist stance on the precepts, which are studied and practiced in gate 5, right action, is the same as Trungpa's, which is emphasized in Gampo Abbey. The following passage provides an indication of that.
"In essence, the Precepts are a definition of the life of a Buddha, of how a Buddha functions in the world. They are how enlightened beings live their lives, relate to other human beings and this planet, and make moral and ethical decisions while manifesting wisdom and compassion in everyday life."10
Further evidence of Trungpa's influence can be seen in the heavy emphasis on motivation common to Zen Mountain Monastery and Gampo Abbey. According to Chödrön, Trungpa advised her to keep a close watch on the motivation of those wishing to become monks or nuns.11 In the MRO, similarly, one wishing to become a formal student must meet with the Guardian Council, a group of senior MRO students, and articulate one's reasons for practicing Zen and wanting to become a formal student of the MRO.12
Evolution of Buddhism in North America
The foregoing has confirmed how Glassman and Daido, while learning from Trungpa, each formed a unique Zen sangha representing North America.
Zen was the first form of Buddhism to gain a popular following in North America, a development that Trungpa appreciated. He wrote, "In the United States, Zen has been the vanguard of buddhadharma."13 The American boom of Zen Buddhism began in the second half of the 1950s, fueled by the writings of D. T. Suzuki (1870-1966) and lectures he delivered at Columbia University (1951-57).
Starting around that time, Shunryu Suzuki, Maezumi, Shimano, and several other Zen masters arrived in the United States from Japan. In short, it became possible for students to receive instruction in zazen under Zen masters while in the United States. But as noted above, the temple system of Japanese Zen didn't come over. Zen communities for Westerners needed to be established.
Here it is intriguing that the role model for community creation was filled by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a master in the separate tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, who moved to North America in 1970. Having received special education in both doctrine and meditation from an early age as a tulku, Trungpa had developed extraordinary abilities. In the efforts of Zen practitioners to establish Zen communities, the perspective and approach Trungpa had taken to planting the Dharma in the Western world was also highly useful.
At the same time, Trungpa incorporated the Zen arts into his own training matrix. This kind of mutual enrichment of two Buddhist traditions was undoubtedly one of the greatest fruits produced by the encounter between the two in North America.
The chapter headings in The Teacup and the Skullcup I cited at the start of this article draw contrasts between Zen and Tantra in the way they interrelate with reality. But why is it that Trungpa associates Zen with artists and Tantra with unemployed samurai? No doubt we can gain a deeper appreciation of the fruits of American Buddhism through close study of the record of the "Zen and Tantra" seminars.
1. Chögyam Trungpa, "Perception and the Appreciation of Reality," in The Collected Works of Chögyam Trungpa, vol. 7, ed. Carolyn Gimian (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2004), 684.
2. Quoted by Carolyn Gimian, introduction to The Collected Works of Chögyam Trungpa, vol. 1, by Chögyam Trungpa, ed. Carolyn Gimian (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2003), xxxvi.
. Kanjuro Shibata, "Teaching Kyudo," in Recalling Chögyam Trungpa,
comp. and ed. Fabrice Midal (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2005), 465.
. Bernie Glassman, "New Upayas," in Recalling Chögyam Trungpa,
. The back cover of Trungpa's The Teacup and the Skullcup
bears this message: "For years Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche dazzled us with his diamond wisdom at various venues from coast to coast. We delighted in his insights into the arts of Zen and its relationship to the tantric teachings. A whole generation of Buddhists was thus nourished. Now, The Teacup and the Skullcup: Chögyam Trungpa on Zen and Tantra skillfully
makes available the heart of this extraordinary master to a new generation of practitioners. It should be on the bookshelf of every serious student of Buddhism - John Daido Loori."
. For more information on ZMM see Akemi Iwamoto, "Amerika zen no tanjo - Rori Daido roshi no maunten zen'in" (An American Zen: The Zen Mountain Monastery of John Daido Loori), Journal of East Asian Cultural Interaction Studies, Supplemental 6 (2010):11-31.
. John Daido Loori, "The Body of Reality," in Recalling Chögyam Trungpa,
. Pema Chödrön, "The Establishment of a Pure Monastic Tradition in the West," in Recalling Chögyam Trungpa,
. Pema Chödrön, "Establishment of a Pure Monastic Tradition," 252.
. Quoted in John Daido Loori, "Body of Reality," 410.
Akemi Iwamoto is a senior research fellow at the D. T. Suzuki Memorial Hall (its tentative name), which will open in Kanazawa, Japan, in autumn 2011. She received her PhD in Buddhist studies from Kyoto University in 2002. She has been a visiting scholar at Indiana University, Bloomington, and has held a post-doctoral position at State University of New York at Albany. She taught a six-week intensive course on Yogacara Buddhist texts at the University of the West, Rosemead, California, in 2008.
This article was originally published in the July-September 2011 issue of Dharma World.