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As American As Zen: Core American Values and the Construction of an American Zen Tradition

Updated on June 15, 2013

As American As Zen: Core American Values and the Construction of an American Zen Tradition

Justin Aptaker

Religions, like all other social phenomena, are characterized by both stability and change across time, and by similarities and differences across geographic locale. For example, the various Christian traditions in the first three centuries CE hardly resembled Protestant Christian sects in America today. Nevertheless, even in such instances where drastic change has obviously occurred, we may also identify certain fundamental continuities which link old traditions with new ones. This paper will analyze The Complete Idiot's Guide to Zen Living, examining both continuities and discontinuities between American Zen and other Zen traditions, both historical and contemporary. I will argue that American Zen is a Zen radically shaped by core American values. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Zen Living explicitly recognizes this fact, saying, “Zen seems practically tailor-made for America, but that is partially because America has tailor-made Zen to suit itself.”1 I will demonstrate that American Zen has been shaped by the following core American values identified in 1954, 1960, and 1970 by the sociologist Robin M. Williams: work, science, materialism, freedom, individualism, equality, progress, and efficiency/practicality.2

Much of the Zen in The Complete Idiot's Guide to Zen Living represents simultaneously continuity and discontinuity with historical forms of Zen. For example, the bookinsists that one must have faith to practice Zen, but not the kind of faith that believes in gods. Rather, one must believe in the benefits of self-examination and in the efficacy of the Zen “process” to achieve this.3 If we have this faith, the book implies, we will enjoy myriad this-worldly benefits. For example, the book devotes four chapters to how Zen can help in our jobs/careers.4 This can be compared to this-worldly, often occupational/economic, benefits offered by Zen prayer temples in Tokugawa Japan.5 However, the faith required at these temples did center on kamis, bodhisattvas, talismans, and divinely revealed medicines,6 rather than on a desacralized lifestyle or “process”.

It can be illuminating to consider the above dynamics in the light of a couple of Williams' core American values: work and science.7 According to Williams, Americans value busyness, activity, and hard work, such that, for many Americans, one's sense of self-worth is largely connected to work performance.8 This attitude towards work was famously connected to the Protestant reformation by Max Weber, leading to the concept of the “Protestant work ethic”. The American Zen presented by The Complete Idiot's Guide to Zen Living is clearly shaped by the American valuation of work. On the one hand, the book notes the particularly American connection between identity and occupation, and proffers its brand of Zen as an antidote to such facile modes of self-definition.9 In this sense, American values have enabled a stifling atmosphere, which American Zen reacts against. American Zen shapes itself to remedy American maladies, offering a panacea for “your hectic, stressed-out Western lifestyle.”10 On the other hand, the sheer amount of space that the book devotes to the workplace constitutes an implicit acquiescence to a high valuation of work; in order to target an American market segment, the book focuses on dominant American concerns.

The aforementioned desacralization of Zen can be partly explained by the fact that American culture, as a product of the Age of Enlightenment, also highly values science. Positivism and empiricism have left indelible marks on American values, leaving many Americans skeptical of anything that cannot be directly perceived or demonstrated scientifically. The desacralization of American Zen renders Zen more palatable to the American skeptic. From a certain perspective, D. T. Suzuki and other proselytizing intellectuals promoted Zen in the West “not as a religion . . . but as an individual spiritual experience that would lead to 'an uncompromisingly empirical, rational and scientific mode of inquiry into the nature of things'.”11 Even as recently as the year 2000, one philosopher stated that we can think of Zen as “a kind of empiricism,”12 because it relies on sense-experience. There is also a trend in Western thought to draw connections between Zen and the modern science of psychology. For example, one scholar attempted to integrate Zen and psychoanalysis.13

While the American secular landscape is dominated by science and empiricism, the American religious landscape is dominated by Christianity—a religion with a level of exclusivity not prevalent in the religious landscapes of certain other nations where Zen thrives. Thus, many religious Americans, unable to incorporate a religious form of Zen into their existing beliefs, can only accept a desacralized Zen. In contrast, Ch'an Buddhism in Song China was inextricably enmeshed in a sacred reality in which the influence of gods and ghosts upon human affairs was assumed “by virtually everyone.”14 Likewise, in contemporary Korean Sǒn monasteries, one may find shrines devoted to the veneration of various divinities, buddhas, and bodhisattvas.15

Having examined how the American valuation of both work and science contributes to the American use of Zen as a desacralized process for achieving this-worldly benefits, I'd like to look again at the American valuation of work, in order to note its close association with another American value: materialism.16 After all, one must work in order to purchase material goods. Jack Kerouc's The Dharma Bums highlights this connection, saying that Dharma Bums are people who refuse to “work for the privilege of consuming.”17 According to Jason C. Bivins, American Zen developed largely as a reaction against the increasing materialism of 1950's America.18The Complete Idiot's Guide to Zen Living both echoes this opinion,19 and speaks against materialism in many places,20 even saying that “Zen means . . . transcending materialism.”21 The book devotes an entire section to “The Materialism Monster.”22 This is reminiscent of the values in contemporary Korean Sŏn monasteries, where monks pride themselves on their detachment from material goods.23 In contrast, however, there are indications that some of the Zen priests in Tokugawa Japan fared sumptuously by using their government-backed power to extort large amounts of money from parishioners.24

The anti-materialism in The Complete Idiot's Guide to Zen Living is often portrayed as the path to freedom. Attachment to material possessions represents a relinquishing of control to the things that we are attached to,25 and nirvana is “freedom from attachments.”26 Concerning the elimination of attachment, The Idiot's Guide says, “This is true freedom,”27 and “You'll feel an amazing, uplifting sense of freedom.”28 This emphasis on freedom comes as no surprise, as freedom is one of the most obvious core American values. Robin M. Williams observed this,29 and even our national anthem refers to “the land of the free”. However, many American depictions of Zen “freedom” may not be continuous with historical conceptions of Zen freedom. According to Dale S. Wright, early Western interpretations of Zenoften highlighted aspects of Zenfreedom that harmonized with contemporary Western conceptualizations of freedom, which presupposed “tension between freedom and authority as well as between individual autonomy and the demands of a communal setting.”30 Wright concludes that such dichotomies do not apply to medieval Chinese conceptualizations of freedom, as offered by Ch'an practice.31

The above quote by Wright, mentioning tensions between individual autonomy and the demands of a communal setting, leads directly into another point of departure between historical forms of Zen and the Zen shaped by American values. One of the most salient American values, also listed by Williams,32 is individualism. Individualism became a strong theme in Zen from some of its earliest manifestations in America; the Zen popularized by the Beat Generation was aligned with “Western individualism.”33Mention of the individual occurs over twenty-five times in The Complete Idiot's Guide to Zen Living, often drawing a clear picture of a Zen shaped by American beliefs in the supreme value of the individual. The book states, for example, that “Zen is your individual path,”34 “Everyone has an individual dukkha profile,”35 and “[the practical outworking of awakening is] a highly individual matter.”36

While a current of individualism runs strong in American Zen, Zen practice in most historical contexts was very communal in nature. While Carmi Schooler, writing in 1990 for the journal Sociological Forum, stated that Zen has a “subjective and thus individualistic goal,”37 Dale S. Wright observed that, given the largely monastic setting of historical Zen, “communal intersubjectivity” has historically been more basic for Zen than “individual subjectivity.”38 Although there are Zen lay-associations in contemporary Korea,39 the heart of serious Zen practice has usually been in communal settings, such as Ch'an monasteries in Song China and Sŏn monasteries in contemporary Korea. This fact stands in stark contrast to the Zen depicted in The Complete Idiot's Guide to Zen Living, which stridently insists that Zen is “Do-It-Yourself.”40The Idiot's Guide even describes the essence of American individualism, saying:

Traditional American values include self-reliance, independence, gumption, overachievement, being a self-starter. We love self-help books, do-it-yourself projects, build-it-from-nothing businesses. Maybe it’s that pioneer spirit.41

Immediately after this, The Idiot's Guide portrays Zen as the quintessence of this American individualism, calling Zen “the original self-starting spiritual practice.”42 Reminiscent of the anarchism in Beat Zen,43The Idiot's Guide even calls Zen “cowboy-style religion . . . a little bit rebellious.”44 Once more, this is highly discontinuous with Ch'an/Zen in Song China and Tokugawa Japan, where the government exerted a great deal of control over a Zen institution which could hardly be characterized as “rebellious.”4546 Zen in Tokugawa Japan, rather than being individualistic or anarchistic, clearly played a very social/political role, giving the government unimaginable control over the populace.47

It is important to note certain ramifications of these differences between individualistic American Zen, and historical forms of Zen practice that mostly involved communities of monastics or priests. The focus on monasteries or temples would have created an aura of some exclusivity in Zen practice. While a few people would join a monastery or become Zen priests, the majority of people would never become so involved in Zen practice. Steven Heine points out that although Dōgen seems to have believed in the “universal potentiality” for Zen practice, he clearly held to a sort of “monkish elitism”, which deemed the monastic lifestyle to be the supreme and proper context for Zen practice.48 In Tang and early Song China, it is unlikely that many laypeople practiced meditation seriously.49 Although, by the Southern Song, it seems that certain laypeople did practice meditation, such people came from the educated literati class,50 which constituted an elite minority. In contrast, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Zen Living says that “anybody can meditate,”51 and “Zen is for anyone.”52 This is in keeping with the core American values of equality and equal opportunity.53

The air of equality and equal opportunity in American Zen is a far cry from the Zen in Tokugawa Japan, which relegated certain groups of people to the status of “nonhuman,”54 thereby fostering myriad forms of social discrimination. Furthermore, Buddhist doctrine in Tokugawa Japan automatically consigned all women to a special hell after death, due to the impurity thought to be generated by menstruation.55 While Ch'an in Song China was progressive for its cultural milieu, in that it allowed females to join the monastic community, the number of female Ch'an masters was “miniscule” compared to the number of male Ch'an masters.56 Moreover, nuns had to follow stricter monastic rules than monks, and were required to be subordinate to monks.57 Thus, although one might hope that such Buddhist concepts as “emptiness” and inherent “buddha nature” would lead naturally to an egalitarian ethos in Zen Buddhism, Zen in practice typically did not bear out such hopes, but instead took on the prejudices of the social environments in which it developed.

Interestingly, D.T. Suzuki, one of the most important apostles of Zen to the West, strongly believed in the value of equal opportunity, and connected this ideal to both his Buddhism and his vision of social progress.58 Suzuki's melioristic perspective is fully in keeping with America's high valuation of progress.59The Complete Idiot's Guide to Zen Living also promotes a connection between Zen, equality, and progress, expressing the hope that universal Zen practice could help move all of humankind “toward a more generally enlightened state, with more equality, more peace, more tolerance. . .”60 On an individual level, the book also frames meditation as a tool for achieving “spiritual progress.”61 More generally speaking, one could easily see how Americans might view the Zen religion itself as representing a sort of progress in America, as Zen is still relatively new and “other” in the American religious landscape.

The last of Williams' core American values of which I will speak at length is “Efficiency/Practicality.”62In America, where thinkers like William James and John Dewey popularized the particularly American philosophy of pragmatism, there has been a strong tendency in academia to link Zen with pragmatism and practicality.63646566 This tendency has also found its way into popular opinion. For example, Patrick Cox, writing for the popular magazine Philosophy Now, says that “Zen’s concerns are of the most practical nature.”67The Complete Idiot's Guide to Zen Living reassures readers that nirvana is “practical”, and does not, by means of constant meditation, interfere with getting things done.68 This practical emphasis is in some ways continuous with Zen in Tokugawa Japan, where lay-people often sought practical, this-worldly benefits from Zen medicines and prayer temples.69 In contrast, while Korean Sŏn monastics in supporting roles are busy attending to the practical affairs of the monastery,70 meditation monks spend most of their time meditating, and very little time contributing to the monastery's practical needs.71 In Song China, Dahui's polemics against silent illumination revealed that sitting in constant meditation was quite popular for Ch'an practitioners at the time.72 Thus, for many serious Zen practitioners, both historical and contemporary, Zen practice has almost entirely superseded attention to practical matters.

Robin M. Williams identified other core American values, including humanitarianism, democracy, and achievement/success. However, it is beyond the scope of this paper to explore in depth the way that these values may have shaped American Zen, as the length requirements for this paper do not allow for adequate attention to such complex issues. Suffice it to say, these other values do demonstrably influence the American approach to Zen. Concerning achievement/success, for example, it could be argued that Americans might look at Zen practice itself as a challenge to be “conquered” in rugged American fashion. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Zen Living proposes that while ambitions to out-do others or grope for more material possessions are not in keeping with the spirit of Zen, one can have a very “Zen-like” ambition to live with more mindfulness.73

In conclusion, this paper has demonstrated how The Complete Idiot's Guide to Zen Living presents a Zen that harmonizes with many of the core American values identified by sociologist Robin M. Williams. This analysis, along with a review of some of the scholarly literature on Zen, has shown that American Zen is largely the product of American values. It is important to realize, however, that historical forms of Zen in China and Japan would have also been largely the products of their sociocultural milieus, and thus the influence of American values upon the shape of American Zen does not imply that American Zen is not a valid Zen tradition. Sometimes, as with the American valuation of materialism, American Zen shapes itself as a rectifying reaction against a possible imbalance in American values. In many other instances, American Zen presents itself as fully in line with American values—in so doing, American Zen sometimes digresses considerably from its historical roots. In The Complete Idiot's Guide to Zen Living, this synthesis of Zen with American values is so complete thatAmericans can feel right at home through the entire read, assured that Zen is very American indeed.


1 Adamson & McClain, Location 1303

2Dominant American Values, accessed at:

3Adamson, Eve & Gary R. McClain, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Zen Living, Kindle Location 1902.

4 Adamson & McClain, Location 5080 – Location 6303

5 Williams, Duncan R., The Other Side of Zen, p. 59


7Dominant American Values, accessed at:


9Adamson & McClain, Location 5095

10Adamson & McClain, Location 679

11Rocha, Cristina, p. 165

12Graham, Archie S., p. 508

13Cooper, Paul C., p. 592

14Schlutter, Morten, How Zen Became Zen, p. 5

15Buswell, Robert E., The Zen Monastic Experience, pp. 52, 54

16Dominant American Values, accessed at:

17Kerouac, Jack, The Dharma Bums, p.73

18Bivins, Jason C., pp. 64, 65-66, 69

19Adamson & McClain, Location 4779

20Adamson & McClain, Locations 948, 2781, 4783, 5037, 5044, 5595, 6086, 6105, 6357, 6421

21Adamson & McClain, Location 6086

22Adamson & McClain, Location 4783

23Buswell, Robert E., The Zen Monastic Experience, p. 105

24 Williams, Duncan R., The Other Side of Zen, pp. 34-35.

25Adamson & McClain, Location 4807

26Adamson & McClain, Location 2679, emphasis added

27Adamson & McClain, Location 6520

28Adamson & McClain, Location 4885

29 Dominant American Values, accessed at:

30Wright, Dale S., “Emancipation from what?”, p. 113


32Dominant American Values, accessed at:

33Pohl, Karl-Heinz, p. 476

34Adamson & McClain, Location 3301

35Adamson & McClain, Location 5042

36Adamson & McClain, Location 3773

37Schooler, Carrmi, p. 576

38Wright, Dale S., “Rethinking Transcendence”, III.B

39Buswell, Robert E., The Zen Monastic Experience, pp. 135 - 146

40Adamson & McClain, Location 1304



43Kerouac, Jack, The Dharma Bums, p. 75

44Adamson & McClain, Location 1319

45Williams, Duncan R., The Other Side of Zen, pp. 13 - 37

46Schlutter, Morten, How Zen Became Zen, pp. 31 - 48

47Williams, Duncan R., The Other Side of Zen, pp. 13 - 37

48Heine, Steven, p. 52

49Schlutter, Morten, How Zen Became Zen, p. 179


51Adamson & McClain, Location 3116

52Adamson & McClain, Location 1329

53Dominant American Values, accessed at:

54 Williams, Duncan R., The Other Side of Zen, pp. 25 - 31

55Williams, Duncan R., The Other Side of Zen, pp. 50 - 52

56Schlutter, Morten, How Zen Became Zen, p. 6

57Discussed in lecture

58Moriya, Tomoe, p. 289

59 Dominant American Values, accessed at:

60Adamson & McClain, Location 931

61Adamson & McClain, Location 2961

62Dominant American Values, accessed at:

63Stroud, Scott R, p. 197

64Fesmire, Steven, p. 207

65Ames, Van Meter, p. 33

66Kozyra, Agnieszka, p. 98

67Cox, Patrick, p. 13

68Adamson & McClain, Location 2427

69 Williams, Duncan R., The Other Side of Zen, pp. 59, 86

70Buswell, Robert E., The Zen Monastic Experience, pp. 107 - 133

71Buswell, Robert E., The Zen Monastic Experience, pp. 168

72Schlutter, Morten, How Zen Became Zen, pp. 127 - 128

73Adamson & McClain, Locations 937 - 948

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    • japtaker profile imageAUTHOR

      Justin Aptaker 

      5 years ago from United States

      In response to Krillco:

      *I achieve sudden enlightenment, take off my shoes, put them on my head, and walk away*

    • krillco profile image

      William E Krill Jr 

      5 years ago from Hollidaysburg, PA

      I strike you with my bamboo cane and shout: 'KATZ!'


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