In my recent article “Modern Buddhism and its Cultural Translations: Reflections from a Qualitative Case Study of Two European Zen Monks”, published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Arxiu from Etnografia de Catalunya, I proposed to understand modern Buddhism using a psychological and cultural approach. To this end, I examined the life stories of two European Zen monks.
The first is the Catalan monk Lluís Nansen Salas; Nansen is his ordination name, which means “sage of the south”. He was born in Barcelona in 1965. Since childhood, Lluís Nansen felt disenchanted with both Catholicism and the Western social way of life and its values. This disenchantment drove him to seek out alternative non-Western practices and worldviews, such as yoga and aikido. As a teenager he read Alan Watts, Herman Hesse, Taisen Deshimaru and others. Finally, he began to practice zazen in 1991, in a center in Barcelona. Initially, Lluís Nansen was interested in Buddhist practice, with little interest in its philosophy and beliefs. As the years passed and his commitment to meditation grew stronger, he began to study the Dharma with increasing interest.
Lluís Nansen emphasizes the intensification of practice for personal development. It helped him achieve greater awareness of his daily emotions, worries and behaviors. There are also two personal moments that Lluís Nansen describes as important for strengthening his practice: the birth of his two sons in 1992 and 1995. These two events made him feel an increased concern with the reality of life and death. . The idea of impermanence encouraged him to go further in his engagement with the practice of Zen. Thus, in 1995, he decided to be ordained a monk.
In 2008, Lluís Nansen created his own center, the Dojo Zen Barcelona Kannon. The center started with a few participants and now has over 200 registered members. In 2016, Lluís Nansen received a Dharma transmission (Shiho) of the monk Roland Yuno Rech. In addition to his studies as a Buddhist monk, Lluís Nansen graduated in theoretical physics from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. In his lessons, books and seminars, he combines his scientific training with his Buddhist expertise. For example, he analyzes the idea of karma in terms of psychological conditioning. It also explains the ideas of ‘suffering’ and ‘desire’ using the concept of ‘intention’. According to the Catalan monk, the practice of zazen helps us overcome the intentionality of our ordinary mind and our psychological conditioning and behavior. Through zazen, we can reach – at least for a moment – our “original mind”, a state of non-intention and emptiness.
The second case I have examined is that of the German monk Jens Olaf Christian Muho Nölke, who at the time of the study was the abbot of the Sōtō Zen monastery in Antaiji, in northern Hyōgo, Japan. Muhō is his Buddhist name, which means “without direction”. Muhō was born in Berlin in 1968 and grew up in a former church where his grandfather was pastor. After his mother’s death, Muhō became increasingly skeptical of the Christian milieu in which he was raised. He also began to question the meaning of “playing the game” dictated by the modern Western materialistic way of life. Like Lluís Nansen, Muhō experienced a disenchantment with the emancipatory cultural patterns of Western culture.
When he was 16, Muhō met a high school teacher who led a Christian Zen meditation group. Initially, he was skeptical about participating, but eventually decided to try and practice meditation. During his first sessions, he experienced sensations usually ignored by his ordinary state of mind. Muhō explains how meditation produced a reduction in rumination as well as greater focus on the body and surrounding sensations. The whole process produced a mindset that opened Muhō to a new path of understanding. Also like Lluís Nansen, Muhō began the practice of zazen with limited knowledge of Buddhist doctrine. He focused on the practice itself and not on the beliefs and worldviews attached to it.
A year later, the group’s teacher Christian Zen resigned from his leadership, and Muhō decided to fill the new vacancy. In this new situation, Muhō realized that he needed to study Buddhist history and ideas in order to be able to fulfill this new role properly. He read about Prince Siddhartha and how he gave up his rich life to follow the path to enlightenment. Muhō felt strongly drawn to and identified with the story of the Buddha. This led to his decision to pursue a degree in Japanese studies at the University of Berlin. In his master’s thesis, he wrote a comparative philosophical analysis of the works of Eihei Dōgen, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger. To gather a bibliography for his thesis, Muhō spent a few months at Kyoto University. There he heard of a monastery in the Hyogo Mountains where “true Zen” was practiced. The monastery is Antai-ji, founded in 1921 for the practice of zazen and the study of Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō. The monastery had renowned Zen monks as abbots, including Sawaki Kōdō and Uchiyama Kōshō.
After his stay at Antai-ji, Muhō returned to Berlin to submit his thesis, obtaining his master’s degree in 1992. Later, he decided to return to Kyoto to continue his studies and the practice of Zen. He enrolled in a doctoral course which he never completed, becoming ordained a monk at Antai-ji instead. In 1999, he received the Dharma transmission from the then monastery abbot, Miyaura Shinyū. In 2002, the aforementioned abbot died, and Muhō was elected the ninth abbot of Antai-ji. He was the first non-Japanese monk to hold this position. Recently, he was replaced by Nakamura Ekō, the first woman to hold the position at Antai-ji.
In his writings and teachings, Muhō combines his academic and Buddhist training in a pragmatic and philosophical style. Like Lluís Nansen, he interprets the idea of karma from a secular perspective. He considers it a traditional way of expressing how psychological conditionings and compulsions affect people’s daily lives. According to Muhō, the practice of zazen helps us move beyond an ego-centered karmic mindset and connect with enlightened mind. He calls this path “adult practice”, which includes not only the practice of meditation, but also the monastic activities of daily life in Antai-ji.
By comparing the lives of the two monks, we can observe similar patterns in their increasing involvement in Buddhism. For example, the two monks began their practice after a strong disenchantment with Christianity and the modern materialistic way of life. This is a common trend among post-modern spiritual seekers, who usually delve into different spiritual paths after finding the one they think is most suitable for them. In some cases, spiritual seekers find the right path for their psychological and existential needs in Buddhism. This happens in part because of the philosophical and cosmological aspects of Buddhism. However, in the stories presented here, the most appealing feature of Buddhism seems to be meditation as a bodily and mental practice. This shouldn’t be surprising, considering the centrality of meditation in modern Buddhism.
The process of conversion to Buddhism is not passive. Rather, each practitioner adapts, redefines and translates Buddhist ideas, practices and values according to their needs, motivations, interests, personality, upbringing and cultural background. In the examples of Lluís Nansen and Muhō, we can observe processes of cultural translation in which Buddhist ideas are interpreted in scientific and secular terms. Although this is a common trend in modern Buddhism, we see here that it was also influenced by the academic backgrounds of the two monks.
Family history also plays a major role in the conversion process. For example, some unique characteristics can be observed in the two monks, especially at certain turning points in their life history. For Lluís Nansen, the birth of his sons made him reflect on the phenomenon of impermanence, leading to a stronger commitment to the practice. In Muhō’s case, his awareness of impermanence was tied to his mother’s untimely death. It was a turning point in his life, which pushed him to search for new existential meanings and spiritual practices. Birth and death are central topics in Buddhism, so their relevance is not uncommon in the conversion process of the two monks discussed here. But they are also universal problems of our species, which no culture can avoid.
El budisme modern i les seves traduccions culturals. Reflections from a study qualitatiu de casos amb dos monjos zen europeus (Arxiu D’Etnografia De Catalunya)
Modern Budism (Buddhistdoor in Spanish)
Zen Kannon Barcelona Center
BDG Related Features
Zen in the “Athens of Cuba”
Interview with Montse Castellà Olivé, president of Sakyadhita Spain
Spain hosts European Buddhist Union conference
In the chaos there is a refuge for meditation
Presentation of the Arya Tara Buddhist Retreat Center, Madrid