Giuseppe Jisō Forzani has been the Director of the Sōtō Zen Buddhism Europe Office based in Paris since November 2009. He is Italian, and after a turbulent youth practised and studied in Sōtō Zen Buddhist monasteries in Japan, and was ordained there. He is married and has two sons.

You are the director of the European Sōtō Zen Office. What do you see its role being, and what activities does it carry out?

I think that before explaining the function of the Office, we need to look at some history. There was a great wave of emigration from Japan starting in the second half of the XIX century, particularly to Hawaii, Brazil and the Los Angeles area of North-America, where large communities of Japanese people settled. A lot of them were believers and followers of Sōtō temples, so Sōtō missionaries were sent overseas from Japan. To maintain the connection between those missionaries and the Japanese Sōtō institution, Sōtō Zen Offices (sōkanbu) opened in Hawaii, North America and South America. In Europe there was not the same wave of immigration, but in 1979 the European Sōtō Zen Office was opened to officially represent the Japanese Sōtō institution. The main function of the Office is an administrative one: registration of priest ordinations and of temples, certification of missionaries, link between European priests and the Japanese institution and so on. Currently based in Paris, it is organized as a French non-profit association. The staff members of the Office are appointed directly by the Japanese Sōtōshū institution, and the members of the association are the European priests registered with the Sōtōshū. Each year we hold a general assembly, and organize a two-day study seminar open to all, inviting distinguished scholars to speak. We also organize lectures on Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō for European Sōtō Zen communities who are interested in it. In this sense the Office can have a role in providing a means of study for European Sōtō priests and lay practitioners.

What might grow out of a closer relationship between Zen in Europe and Japan? What do you feel we can learn from each other?

The most important element to develop a closer relationship is better mutual knowledge and understanding. I think there is a lot of mutual misunderstanding due to a lack of straightforward communication. We Europeans know very little about what Zen means for Japanese people, and maybe we are not always interested in understanding it; on the other hand, Japanese people know very little about the reasons why we are interested in Zen, and maybe they are not so curious either. The history of Zen in Europe (and more generally speaking in Western countries) is a very short one, just forty years or so. In the pioneering enthusiasm of the beginning, we assumed that our approach to Zen, which was centred on zazen with a very strong idealistic vision, was exactly the same as Japanese people had, ignoring the deep differences of cultural, religious and social background and the history of Zen in Japan. This was due also to the fact that the Zen introduced in Western countries was strongly influenced by a wave of Japanese intellectuals fascinated by Western philosophy so that the missionaries who spread Zen among Western people presented Zen in an already “westernized” way, using Western philosophical concepts and logical language to appeal to Western people. After this first wave, there was a phase, still going on, in which Zen revealed another facet; institutional, ritual, aesthetic, with strong Japanese cultural characteristics, structured by centuries of Japanese history: some Western people are attracted by this aspect, while others reject it. I think we should use our relationship primarily to reflect more carefully about what Zen can represent in Western culture and society, rather than following our fantasies about Zen and imitating the Japanese model without really knowing it. I also think we should take care to study the relationship between Zen and Buddhism. In fact, this is a very sensitive issue. Clearly Chinese Chan and consequently Japanese Zen developed from a Mahāyāna Buddhism root, originating in India. But as a religious and cultural phenomenon Zen developed first in Chinese and then in Japanese ground, assuming conceptual characters of new surroundings. To give a clear example, we can say that the ethical perspective of Japanese Zen is far more influenced by the Confucian interpretation of reality than by the Buddhist vision. Ignoring this kind of evidence can be very misleading.

We have the impression in Europe that ritual plays a larger part in Zen practice in Japan than it does here – longer, more complex and more often. Is this true, and if so, why?

If by Zen practice in Japan you mean the practice of Japanese Zen temples, and by ritual you mean the performance of liturgical ceremonies, then yes, certainly it is true: ceremonies are the main practice of the majority of the 14000 Sōtō Zen temples in Japan. It has been always so, from the very beginning of Zen history in Japan. So maybe we should turn the question around: Why do rituals not play the same large part in Zen practice here in Europe as they do in Japan? The answer is connected with the way in which Zen was introduced in Western countries, as I have already mentioned briefly. But I think that the most important question is: what is the meaning, the role and the function of the presence of Zen in Europe? The way of building European Zen of the future depends on our answer to this question…

On a more personal level, what was it that led you to join Antaiji?

More than thirty years have passed since then, so it’s almost impossible for me to reconstruct the atmosphere, my expectations and my state of mind. What I remember now is altered by all my life experience since then, and furthermore I am getting older and my memory fades away little by little. I can only say that I was very confused about my life and had many strange ideas about Zen. I felt I had to change my way of life, which was very selfish and wasteful, by being in a place where I had to do zazen regularly, live in community and to follow a schedule. Choosing Antaiji was a mix of circumstances, good friendship, chance, good luck and free will – and I wonder now if this last factor was the least significant. I say so because too often we are inclined to idealize ourselves and our past choices, especially in the religious field. But our merits are very small: even when we made a “good choice” (and we can only evaluate if it was good or not later on) the contribution of chance, circumstances and other peoples influence is far more significant than our own will. If we don’t admit this as fact we will always overestimate ourselves.

Based on your time there and your experiences since, what do you see as most important in the Sōtō Zen tradition? How can we best preserve this?

More than seven hundred years ago, Eihei Dōgen clearly stated repeatedly that to talk about a so-called Zen school or tradition can lead people who want to follow the Buddha Way astray. Following this warning we must say that what is most important in the Sōtō Zen tradition should be that which is most important in the Buddha Way. If I were to express it in a few words, using “zen terminology”, I think I would say that what is most important is practising zazen correctly, understanding how and why to practise zazen correctly, and having a style of life in keeping with this understanding. I think that the best way to preserve it is to develop an attitude of always being a disciple of the Buddha Way – knowing that what we still have to learn is far vaster and greater than what we have learned already, no matter how great our knowledge and mastery could be.

A difference between Japanese Zen and the way it is taking root in Europe is in the role of the group and dojo. The majority of practitioners in Europe, even those ordained, practice and train primarily in a non-residential environment, not in a monastery. How can Sōtō Zen best adapt to this way of practice while preserving what is essential?

We should consider carefully the fact that, as I have already said, Zen Buddhism has a very, very short history in Europe: forty years is almost no time; we are at the very beginning of the European Zen adventure. Of course we European people encounter Zen in a Japanese form and shape, but we should clarify the relation between Zen and the culture in which it developed. While it is steeped in Japanese elements, Zen Buddhism is not a Japanese product; it is not a product of any particular culture. But the task is not to look for a kind of universal essence to separate it from Japanese culture, to maintain and preserve the essence while throwing away the form. There is not a “Sōtō Zen” to be adapted to a “European way”. Say I am a painter, a person that expresses his own vitality and uniqueness through painting, I would use colors and paintbrush and canvas, I could follow a particular style and school, but there is not “the painting” which I have to adapt “a style”. The only painting that exists would be my painting – which came into being “using” all the elements that I have at my disposal. If I really wish to express myself through painting, little by little my work would take a shape that corresponded more and more to this intention, even if I were never completely satisfied. If we really wish to express the true sense of our life through Zen, we should use all the instruments we have to fulfill this intention, avoiding using those which lead us astray, and little by little our Zen practice of life would take the shape that corresponds to our reality, as individuals born, grown and educated inside European culture.

Finally, what are your hopes for the future of Sōtō Zen in Europe?

At this moment in history I would say I am personally more worried about the future of Europe than about the future of Sōtō Zen. I feel Europe is a beautiful ideal and dream, many different peoples, countries, cultures, languages, sensibilities living together in a pluralistic unity. I think that after centuries of wars and conflicts, Europe now represents a good example of how to live in peace with common standards while respecting each other and enhancing the value of difference. I hope this dream can continue, but I know Europe is now living at a very difficult historical moment, under pressure from separatist movements and economic attacks. We are living through a period of great transformation; nobody knows how our world will change in the future, even in the near term. The only thing that we know for sure is that the future depends on how we live in the present.
We are living more and more under the power of economics, a kind of immaterial economy that determines our everyday lives in a very concrete way. We pay homage to the so-called markets, a kind of new deity that rules our lives through the “commandment of growth”, even if we don’t want to believe in it. Traditional religions are becoming little more than a shelter for people searching for affiliation, furnishing an alternate consoling identity. My hope is that Zen Buddhism in Europe will not become just another comforting religion (maybe with exotic tastes). I hope Zen Buddhism can contribute to a new conception of religion, which would help people to invent new forms of peaceful life in common based on the consciousness that we all share the same human condition while maintaining, protecting and enhancing differences of understanding and of expression.