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Zen Buddhism in America


Zen Buddhism is a separate school of Mahayana Buddhism that emphasizes mindfulness and meditation practices as the path to achieving enlightenment. According to Wienpahl, the basic principle of Zen is that it cannot be transferred through books as “the heart of the matter is a practice” (3). Although meditative practices date back to the periods even before Gautama Buddha, the basic principles of Zen developed in China in the 7th century.

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Later, they were transferred to Korea and Japan, and the last centuries are marked by the spread of Zen Buddhism to the West. After being brought to the U.S. by immigrants from Asia, Zen quickly attracted Americans, and today it has millions of converts across the country. The popularization of Zen led to its being practiced in such places as Silicon Valley, where it was popularized by different influential public figures like Steve Jobs. It is evident that the original practices and beliefs of Zen Buddhism have transformed in the new environment, resulting in the occurrence of such a phenomenon as American Buddhism, which connects ancient traditions and modern Western culture.

Overview of Zen Buddhism

History of Zen Buddhism

The concept of ‘zen’ or ‘chan’ in Chinese means meditation – the practice that was known centuries prior to the existence of Zen Buddhist school. As Ishii et al. state, the art of meditation was practiced even before Gautama Buddha’s teaching (17). About the sixth century, the practice transferred to China from India. It has developed into a separate school of Mahayana Buddhism during the Tang dynasty and become more popular in the following centuries. The rule of the Song dynasty was the period of significant development for Zen Buddhism, and major works and doctrines were written between the ninth and twelfth centuries.

After becoming popular in China, Zen started the expansion to other countries. According to Ishii et al., the tradition became known in Korea and Vietnam approximately between the seventh and ninth centuries, and it was later adopted by Japanese Buddhists in the twelfth century (18). Despite being one of the latest countries that adopted Zen Buddhism, Japanese tradition gave the major development to the teaching, developing many schools that are functioning until today. Sōtō is the largest Japanese school of Zen today, followed by Rinzai and Ōbaku. After its introduction to the West during the last decades of the 19th century, Zen Buddhism became a global phenomenon.

Fundamental Beliefs of Zen Buddhism

As it is known from the name of the religion, which means ‘meditation,’ Zen Buddhism is about practicing. The followers of Zen involve in regular meditations when they try to reach a state of calm and concentrated attentiveness, exploring their feelings and listening to intuition. Through such practices, Buddhists work on achieving the primary goal of the religion – freedom of mind and enlightenment (Wienpahl 3).

Such meditations got their practical implementation as they help to fight anxiety, relieve stress, and bring order and calmness to the everyday life of the practitioner. That is why modern culture has even incorporated Zen Buddhism into mental health therapy.

Despite the increased popularity of the teaching and the spread of literature about Zen, it is the concept that is often misunderstood, as it cannot be described. Although Buddhists practice repeating koans (sacred statements or stories) to arouse enlightenment, the central belief of Zen Buddhism is that the practitioners should find the truth within themselves. Zen cannot be learned by theorizing or by logical philosophical thinking, thus it cannot be explained in books. Ishii et al. characterize the meditation practice as “the act of adjusting one’s mind by seeing and reflecting the true nature of the universe” (17).

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To achieve such a state, Buddhists control their minds in step-by-step meditation acts. Wienpahl describes these steps as gradual improvements in understanding Zen (2). Thus, by practicing with a teacher, a person can learn and understand Zen Buddhism more than by reading about it.

American History of Zen Buddhism

Although the U.S. Zen Buddhism has developed from Japanese schools, the first traces of the religion in America are believed to be Chinese. According to Prebish, first immigrants from China appeared in the West of the country in about 1840 (138). Within two decades, the Chinese comprised almost one-tenth of the population of California. These people practiced Zen, but the religion did not spread among the Americans until the Japanese influence.

The doctrine was popularized by Japanese teachers and was officially recognized in the USA in 1893 during the World Parliament of Religion (Prebish 138). Shaku Sōen (1860–1919) and his disciples were the first advocates of Zen in America. Among them, Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki is known for making the most impact on the development of Zen Buddhism on American soil.

After decades of steady development of Rinzai teaching in the USA, Zen Buddhism has seen a popularity boom in the 1950s and 1960s with the spread of Sōtō school. Such a tendency can be connected to the Immigration and Nationality Act amendments of 1965, which led to an increase in the Asian population in the USA. Mitchell claims that this period marks the division of the American Zen into two streams with “one serving primarily the needs of Japanese Americans, the other attracting the attention of primarily white American converts” (121).

Another form of religion appeared during these years and attempted to bring together the practices of different schools. Vietnam War has also contributed to the popularization of the religion during this boom, as the stories of monks’ self-sacrifice for the sake of peace has spread around the world.

The tendency of secularization that was popular in the U.S. in the last decades of the previous century positively influenced the advancement of Zen Buddhism, as it contributed to the demonopolization of religion. After the positions of Christianity were undermined, the interest in Zen increased. During these years, Buddhism studies were implemented in universities as an individual program following the conference “World Buddhism in North America” (Prebish 142).

Buddhism was frequently told by scholars who were, at the same time, practitioners and promoted further spread of religion among the educated population. Today, according to Prebish, the estimated number of Buddhists in America reaches six million, with Zen practitioners being the most numerous group (144). Given the media attention, which began in the 1990s, and the increasing popularity among the U.S. celebrities, the number of Zen practitioners in America will likely continue to grow.

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Transformation of Zen Buddhism in the USA

The U.S. Buddhist community consists of two major groups – immigrants from Asia and American converts who were attracted to the new religion. Prebish, however, defines three types of Buddhists according to the way their religion was promoted, namely as baggage, export, and import religion (147). Baggage religion is the teaching which is brought to a country with a group of immigrants and which is practiced mostly in their community.

Export religion can be popular among both immigrants and locals, and it means the belief which was transferred intentionally by missionaries. In the case of import religion, it is mostly followed by the local practitioners who ‘imported’ it on the demand when motivated by fashion or a trend. All three types are present in the USA Buddhist community, the majority of which practices Zen Buddhism.

Religion, as well as any other element of cultural heritage, undergoes an inevitable transformation when it arrives in a different environment. Zen Buddhism has experienced a series of adaptations to the Western lifestyle. Prebish assumes that the most distinctive feature of American Buddhism is that it was able to refuse from the Asian hierarchical pattern and align with American democratic trends (148). It is only logical that gender roles in Buddhism change under such radical democratization, so female rōshi have appeared in American Buddhist temples.

Adaptation or Americanization of Buddhist practices has resulted in the spread of the teaching outside the religious environment. Buddhism is present in everyday life, popular media, and even psychotherapy. Zhang explains that the latter can be justified by understanding Zen practice as “the method for accessing deeper and unconscious self of the individual” (20). That is why meditation is applied to treat complicated mental states through mindfulness and self-understanding. Prebish also mentions the presence of Buddhist ethics in modern American social values or so-called “socially engaged Buddhism” (144). The mentioned tendencies prove that Zen Buddhism in the USA exists in different forms, even beyond the scope of religion, penetrating culture, and social life.


Zen Buddhism is such a direction of the Buddhist religion that is strongly connected to practice. The fundamental beliefs of Zen imply that nobody can learn it through reading scriptures, as the practitioners must discover the truth by themselves through meditation. After reaching America in the late 19th century, the essential beliefs of Zen Buddhism have not changed but yielded to minor transformations. Noticeably, U.S. Buddhism is less hierarchical and more democratic comparing to Asian tradition. American Zen is also widely applied outside the religion as a therapeutic practice or the element of culture

Works Cited

Ishii, Shudo, et al. “Zen and Zen Buddhism: An Overview.” Handbook of Zen, Mindfulness and Behavioral Health, edited by Akihiko Masuda and William T. O’Donohue, Springer, 2017, pp. 17-27.

Mitchell, Scott A. Buddhism in America: Global Religion, Local Contexts. Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.

Prebish, Charles S. “The Emergence of American Buddhism.” The Buddhist World, edited by John Powers, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2018, pp. 138-156.

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Wienpahl, Paul. The Matter of Zen: A Brief Account of Zazen. Routledge, 2017.

Zhang, Fan. Building and Negotiating Religious Identities in a Zen Buddhist Temple: a Perspective of Buddhist Rhetoric. Springer, 2019.

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