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Literature / Arts

Long Strange Journey: On Modern Zen, Zen Art, and Other Predicaments

(University of Hawaii Press 2017)

Gregory P. A. Levine

“That’s so Zen.” These days, ‘that’ could refer to almost anything in the “Zen-scape”: ritual practices or a personal belief system, but also “a taste culture, lifestyle preference, [or] social justice framework”. Necessarily wide-ranging, this densely written yet playful book by Gregory P.A. Levine guides us through the “multifarious tradition” that is Zen today, with a focus on its “postwar allure, unruliness, and refusal to stay put doctrinally, philologically, and socially” rather than on Zen as a strictly Buddhist doctrine and practice.

Levine coins a seriocomic term, “Zenny zeitgeist,” to differentiate from institutional Zen practices and denote instead Zen in the many modes—exoticized, arguably Orientalist, highly elastic, and at times fetishist—in which it is found across postwar mass-mediated culture: literature, film, architecture, self-help culture, and beyond.

Levine shifts effortlessly from a discussion of sixteenth-century Jesuit encounters with Zen meditation practices to Zen as seen in New Yorker magazine cartoons. He examines Zen as “both object and agent of modernization and globalization,” considering how Zen art and aesthetics move and forge links among diverse spaces—temples, museums, popular culture, the art world, the academy—while also crisscrossing national, ethnic, class, and intellectual boundaries.

Transnational, interreligious, scholarly, personal, and popular: Zen and Zen aesthetics have been recontextualized and appropriated in these and more spaces. Levine’s achievement here is to weave a compelling narrative through today’s countless Zen contexts, circles, and communities, navigating sometimes uncomfortable questions of authenticity, colonialism, and commercialism along the way.

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