Asian American & American Zen

June 18, 2024

A personal essay by BZC’s administrative director, Ryan Lee Wong, on how two lineages of Asian American politics and Suzuki-lineage Zen temples began in the Bay Area in the 60s, recently published in Lion’s Roar.

Born in Japan in 1904, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi was a key figure in introducing Zen to white Americans. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Zen Center.

Asian American & American Zen

Two movements began in isolation from each other. Ryan Lee Wong on why liberation is possible when they converge. 

In 1972, just after my mother immigrated from Korea to California, she attended a summer camp that gathered young people of different races and religions to build mutual understanding. A smiling sansei (third generation Japanese American) counselor approached her and said, “Welcome, sister.”

My mother stared. She was born just after the end of the Korean War—ten years after Korea gained its independence from Japan. Her parents had grown up during the brutal colonization era, and her grandparents had donated to Korean independence fighters who wore rags as they fought one of the most powerful empires on earth. 

My mother snapped at this Japanese man: “I’m not your sister.”

Fast-forward to 2015. Brooklyn, where I’d arrived from California five years earlier, was roiling with protests against police brutality. I needed something to help me with the rage I felt toward the police, the courts, white supremacy—with America itself. 

I walked into Brooklyn Zen Center hoping meditation would help calm my burning mind. It did. Yet after meditation came chanting, some of which was in Japanese. Even stranger, most of the people in the room were white. I’d come to escape the colonial histories that shaped me, and now I was in a space filled with them. 

I thought: I’m never coming back.

Those two moments, forty years apart, were both shaped by major movements of the sixties and seventies. And though both movements began in the San Francisco Bay Area, they’re rarely spoken of together. The first was the formation of Asian America as a political identity, and the second was the proliferation of temples in the Shunryu Suzuki Zen lineage.

In 1968, just a few years before my mother attended that camp, students at San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley went on strike. They formed a Third World Liberation Front that demanded Ethnic Studies and more faculty of color. Some of the students were tired of being “Orientals” and adapted a new term: “Asian.” The next decade saw an explosion of activity on campuses and cities: free health clinics, revolutionary study groups, art exhibitions, after-school programs, labor organizing, feminist publications, and a thousand other projects that made up the Asian American Movement.

It was this movement that brought my parents together—two idealists at UC Berkeley in the 1970s. It was this movement that shaped their twenties, as they organized in factories and helped free the wrongfully incarcerated Chol Soo Lee. It was this movement that created or inspired most of the institutions where I later held my first jobs: Museum of Chinese in America, Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and Kundiman. It was this movement that defined “Asian” not as a census category or monoculture, but as a coalition, a strategy, a political stance. 

At the same time those students went on strike, new Zen temples began sprouting under the guidance of Shunryu Suzuki. He came to America in 1959 at the invitation of Sokoji, a Soto Zen Temple in San Francisco’s Japantown. A group of mostly white, counterculture, young people began seeking out Suzuki’s teachings. They’d read D. T. Suzuki and Alan Watts; they wanted alternatives to the social values and worldviews they were raised with. 

Those students began a sitting group, then began to ask for more intensive monastic training. Suzuki turned his attention toward the new San Francisco Zen Center they founded in 1962, which quickly expanded into two residential centers, Tassajara and Green Gulch, then acquired a building down the street from Sokoji. Teachers who trained at Suzuki’s three centers went on to found temples around the country. There are now more than sixty “Branching Streams” affiliates offering the same practices that Suzuki taught his students, including Brooklyn Zen Center where I first sat. 

It’s striking that the new Asian America and the new American Zen flowered in the same city, driven by the same countercultures, yet barely interacted. Early Asian American politics were largely influenced by leftist politics. Young organizers saw the material struggles of their communities: aging seniors losing their homes, garment workers facing exploitation, Asian neighborhoods with little access to healthcare or fresh produce. And it seemed as if a global leftist wave, from China and Vietnam to Cuba and Ghana, was remaking the world for the better. Marx famously warned that religion was the “opiate of the masses,” and for many of those organizers, politics was irreconcilable with faith, activism a world apart from contemplation. 

Meanwhile, the early San Francisco Zen Center students were studying Japanese culture but not necessarily Japanese America. They studied Buddhist sutras but not the recent history of internment, Eihei Dogen and Hakuin Ekaku but not Fred Korematsu or Yuri Kochiyama. One way to see the divide between Sokoji and San Francisco Zen Center is a failure to organize across difference: to bring issei and nissei elders together with baby-boomer hippies and the Beat Generation, to create a multiracial sangha where all of those lived experiences were seen and valued. Instead, there was the two temples split. 

Now we have a chance to braid these histories back together. Rev. Dana Takagi suggested in a recent lecture, marking one hundred years of Soto Zen in America, that we might see the Asian American Movement as “studying the self,” Eihei Dogen’s definition of the path of awakening. By understanding our histories and organizing in response, we turn toward liberation through and from our identities. 

Read more here.