Document Type

Contribution to Book

Source Publication

The Theory and Practice of Zen Buddhism: A Festschrift in Honor of Steven Heine

Publication Date

Winter 2-15-2022


Charles S. Prebish and On-cho Ng






Chinese Culture, v.6



First Page


Last Page



Comparative Humanities


In the Western and oftentimes Asian imagination, Buddhism generally—and Zen more specifically—is understood as being resolutely disengaged, attaching itself to a form of awakening that is not only, as the classical phrase has it “beyond words and letters,” but in the modern summation by D. T. Suzuki, perfectly compatible with any and all forms of political and economic “dogmatism,” whether capitalist, communist, socialist, or fascist. Of course, as numerous scholars have shown over the past century, on the level of historical actuality, Buddhist and Zen teachers and institutions have long participated in (usually hegemonic) economic and political structures. The scholarship on Buddhist and Zen “social history” is large and growing. And yet, much less attention has been paid to the philosophical and doctrinal sources for political activism and, in particular, resistance to prevailing economic and political structures. With the possible exception of Buddhist-inspired peasant revolts of medieval and early modern periods China and Japan, the first sustained efforts to develop an “alternative” form of Buddhist engagement arose in early 20th century Japan, with a number of groups associated with New Buddhism. While most of the New Buddhist were doctrinally influenced by Shin (Pure Land) and Nichiren teachings, several currents of New Buddhism correlate with classical Zen teachings, and thus provide possible foundations for a theory of “Zen resistance” —one that, I argue, complements the more recent Zen-inspired movement known as Critical Buddhism.