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  • Zen in Brazil: The Quest for Cosmopolitan Modernity
  • Ronan A. Pereira
Zen in Brazil: The Quest for Cosmopolitan Modernity. By Cristina Rocha. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2006. Hardcover $37.00. Pp. xii + 256.

The localized site of Cristina Rocha's Zen in Brazil: The Quest for Cosmopolitan Modernity is a country of over 180 million people that accounts for almost half of South America's area, population, and economy. The core subject is the diffusion of Zen Buddhism there as a result of global flows of people, ideas, images, technology, and the like. However, the scope goes beyond the title, as is suggested by its subtitle, "The Quest for Cosmopolitan Modernity." In the author's own words, this case study is used not only to elucidate the contemporary transnationalization of Buddhism, but also "to deepen our insight into the interplay of the global and the local, the articulation of modernity vis-à-vis tradition, transformations in Brazilian society, the process of creolization of beliefs, and the historical anthropology of modernity" (p. 3). This ambitious task is supported by a wide range of theoretical categories (e.g., modernization, globalization, creolization, Appadurai's "scapes," and Bourdieu's habitus); a critical debate on the scholarly literature of Buddhism, transnational production, and the flow of cultural goods; and a multi-sited field.

In chapter 1 Rocha establishes a web of surprising connections among Brazil, Japan, Zen Buddhism and the discourse of modernity. She shows that in the early twentieth century the Brazilian elite desperately longed to enter modernity while at the same time attempting to construct an identity for Brazil as a white and Western nation. In this context, a modernizing Meiji Japan became a successful model to be followed, and Japanese immigrants were hailed as the "whites of Asia" and an asset to help Brazil get closer to modernity. In presenting the lives and rhetoric of some Zen missionaries (kaikyōshi) in Brazil, Rocha shows that they were invariably informed and aligned with the discourse of modern Zen "that has been packaged to assert Japan's own modernity vis-à-vis Western cultural hegemony" (p. 61). Parenthetically, it is interesting to note that while Rinzai Zen was the first and most [End Page 152] successful Zen sect in the West due to the propagandizing efforts of D. T. Suzuki and the Kyoto School philosophers, it is nonetheless Sōtō Zen that predominates in Brazil.

Shifting the focus away from the kaikyōshi and pursuing a deeper discussion on modernity, chapter 2 addresses the role of intellectuals in introducing into the country an idealized image of Zen. On the one hand, this process was informed—as in many countries—by the Romantic Orientalist ideas associated with a mystical and "exotic East"; on the other hand, it was used to perpetuate a tradition of social markers used for class distinction in Brazilian society. Thus, instead of seeking a firsthand introduction to Japanese culture and Buddhism through Japanese immigrants, Brazilian intellectuals tended to find inspiration in cultural centers in the West such as France (until World War II) and the United States or, later on, in Japan. Rocha supports her arguments by tracking down the presence of the "Orient" in Brazilian literature, the popularization of haiku and its association with Zen, and the role of non-Japanese Brazilian intellectuals in "bridging the local and the global." She concludes:

[F]rom the late 1950s onward, elite intellectuals saw their knowledge of Zen not as a form of cultural resistance, but rather as a tool enabling them to demonstrate both their role in Brazilian society as translators and interpreters of overseas avant-garde movements and their prestigious position as cosmopolitans. These claims gave them the cultural capital necessary to reinforce and maintain their own class status in the country.

(p. 73)

In chapter 3 Rocha situates Zen within the Brazilian religious field in order to profile its sympathizers and adherents. Here again the idea of modernity is crucial. First of all, the author argues, "modern Buddhism—constructed by Asian elites as compatible with science and thus superior to Christianity—was adopted by Brazilian intellectual elites in opposition to what was perceived as a mystical, hierarchical, dogmatic...


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