I'm sure there were those who came for the money and status, but I also think that the Zen teachers who once came to America saw an opportunity for refreshment of something that was laden with culture and lethargy in their homelands. All those dancing or philosophizing ninnies in America may have lacked the gravitas necessary to Zen practice, but their pep, when harnessed, was more likely to express a no-kidding joy.
When harnessed ....
Anyone who has been to a Zen monastery or a Zen center may be wowed, as I once was, by the setting and format. It was clean and disciplined and, most beckoning/repelling of all, silent. Not a dust mote seemed to be out of place. There was none of the dancing or philosophizing that could be found in the streets, outside the confines of monastery or center, inside my heart. It was novel, it was beautiful, it was inviting, it was elevating and elevated, it was scaaaaary. But the question that whispered from some shadowed corner was, "Suppose it's true? Suppose it works? Suppose there were something that would still the uncertainties? Suppose ...?" It was hard to see how something so distant, so rigorously perfected could work, but suppose it could?
Suzuki Roshi once called Zen practice was "a very formal practice with a very informal mind." But for the informal, dancing-ninny mind, it is hard to imagine that a world of dust-mote rigor could set things right. The mind rebels: It's too tight, too tight-assed, too belly-button, too ... too limited and limiting.
And I sure as hell wouldn't recommend it to everyone.
But, since every problem, of whatever sort, requires some rigorous and attentive examination and exercise, well, maybe Zen practice makes some sense to some people.
A very formal practice ... yes, Zen is surely that. Other spiritual persuasions, as far as I can see, provide similar, if differently-expressed, rigors. The difference with Zen is that it kicks its students out the door: The object is not some endless, chase-your-tail belief system. Zen, in effect, says, "Get out there and dance!"
But the richness of true dancing can hardly be known without some rigorous practice. Free-style dancing is dancing, but it is also not yet free.
So... a very formal practice with a very informal mind. Nothing is assumed and yet the format of practice looks like nothing so much as a lock-down assumption: Do it this way ... No! Not that way! And in a hundred-hundred ways, the mind rebels and resists and pretends it has attained an easy informality. The mind longs for the limitless because it is limitless, but its sense of the limitless is not only limited by habit and bias, but also by its own search-for/longing-for the limitless.
The rigors of a very formal practice are enough to make a blind man weep.
Well, I haven't got the pep or the time to carry out this disquisition. Gotta get my son over to the place where he can receive his driver's permit. I started writing it when noticing another American ninny flonging his Zen dong ... making sweeping statements from the apparent comfort of an apparent informality ... dancing an unlearned dance. Any Zen student might do the same ... me too, for sure. But just because it's popular doesn't make it true.
Zen practice, that dust-mote rigor, is so easy that it's hard-hard-hard. But the mind is never hard. It is always dancing and flowing like Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire. Life is always dancing.
And the pep is so beautiful and so compelling and so ... home sweet home. Might as well get out there and dance. It doesn't take a Zen student to know that.