On the Path

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This course offers an introduction to the stories of Zen's 1500-year innovation and transformation within the ever-changing cultures of China and then Japan. These stories offer a richer and more complex view of Zen than the common myths of Zen as existing in a world ("the East") of serene, untroubled spirituality. Although we do not focus on the cultural history of Zen, you will come to appreciate to some degree the relationship between the Zen spiritual disciplines that evolved and the social and political environments in which they survived—sometimes flourishing, sometimes struggling to stay alive.

In an era of Zen guitar, Zen home decorating, and Zen basketball, it may be more important than ever to return to the Zen that dispenses with all distractions of language and thought to concentrate on the ultimate goal of awakening. As we shall see, it is Zen that in ancient societies in the midst of rebellion, invasion, and violent political infighting brought forth masters whose fierce methods represented commitment to the utterly unflinching pursuit of truth. And it is Zen that in a gentler age—one of poetry and art and flowers—had an enormous civilizing influence. And it is Zen that offered the spiritual discipline that enabled Japan's rulers to face the terrifying threat of invaders. That Zen has not flourished by merely soothing the itch for the exotic; at its core it is hard, diamond-hard.