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Is Zen Buddhism?

Volume 28, Number 2, Autumn 1995, pp.273-286


    It  may  be considered  strange  that  Zen  has  it any  way  been
    affiliated  with  the spirit  of the  military  classes  of Japan.
    Whatever  form Buddhism  takes in the various  countries  where it
    flourishes, it is a religion  of  compassion, and  in  its  varied
    history it has never been found engaged in warlike activities. How
    is it, then, that Zen has come to activate  the fighting spirit of
    the Japanese warrior?
                                                    -- D. T. Suzuki(1)

SUZUKI'S  QUESTION REMAINS the most problematic  one for understanding
the place of Zen within Buddhism and comparative  religion  generally.
In his provocative  study  Zen and the  Way of the  Sword: Arming  the
Samurai Psyche,(2) Winston L. King raises this issue on the first page
and reminds us that such perversions of moral and religious ideals are
not  found  only  in Japan.  We need  only  consider  "how  the simple
otherworldly  ethic of Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth, to love those
who hate us and turn the other cheek to those who strike us could have
been  transformed  into  the  Crusaders"  gospel  of  killing  infidel
Saracens  or into a church of bitterly feuding and even warring sects.
The  answers   to  all  such   questions   are  always   complex   and
unsatisfactory.  "This  response  too, for valid as it is it overlooks
the most important issue: the difference between our understanding  of
the Crusader, who would  now be considered  benighted  by all but  the
most fundamentalist  Christians, and the reputation of the Zen samurai
spirit  among  contemporary  Japanese  and those  likely  to read this
article.  The  problem, then, is  not  only  how  this  perversion  of
Buddhism  occurred, but why samurai Zen continues  to be accepted  and
praised as a legitimate form of Buddhism.

    King never addresses  this question squarely, although at times he
comes close.  Instead, Zen and the Way of the Sword provides a concise
and  admirably  clear  introduction  to  a  fascinating  subject.   An
explanation  of Zen practice and experience is followed by chapters on
how the samurai adopted Zen (and
1.Zen and Japanese  Culture  (Princeton: Princeton  University  Press,
1959/1973), 61.
2.New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.


how they adapted to each other);  the history of the Japanese warrior;
the nature, history  and forging  of the  Japanese  sword  (in  loving
detail and with many illustrations); the samurai code of bushido;  the
art of swordsmanship  during  the enforced  peacetime  of the Tokugawa
period;  and, the most  provocative, a critical  evaluation  of D.  T.
Suzuki's  views  on  Zen  swordsmanship.  It concludes  with  a rather
cursory consideration  of martial arts today outside as well as inside
Japan, which is such a vast subject that King is able to touch on only
a few examples.
    The  author's   delight   in  swordmaking   and  swordmanship   is
contagious.  There are many line drawings, evidently  from old prints,
on armor and fighting techniques, castles and battle formations, sword
forging and testing, as well as the proper way to commit seppuku. This
information  does not break  any new ground  (and no Japanese-language
sources  are cited), but it is brought together  into a well-organized
overview  which expands the context beyond Zen and Japanese culture to
bring  in  more  general  questions  about  the  relationship  between
religion and society.
    Nonetheless, Zen and the Way of the Sword  is better  on the sword
than on Zen.  The first chapter attempts to summarize the Buddhist and
Taoist  roots of Zen, the role of the Zen master, the function  of the
Zen koan and the meaning of Zen enlightenment into 17 pages, and is as
unsatisfactory as one would expect. King provides no personal glimpses
into his qualifications  for explaining Zen enlightenment, and his own
efforts  are not encouraging: What did Koresada  realize when his nose
was twisted? "Probably that Reality and Truth are within " (166). His
main sources are Philip Kapleau (who, despite what is said on page 21,
never received  inka from his teacher Yasutani  Hakuun) and especially
D.  T. Suzuki. There are many quotations from Suzuki's writings, which
raises  problems  that  King  does  not  address, if it  is  no longer
satisfactory to accept his version of Zen uncritically.  King does not
shrink from making some telling  criticisms  of Suzuki later, but this
critique is limited by the fact that King has been dependent on Suzuki
for setting the terms of the discussion.  The usual birfurcations  are
central  to  his  explanations:  intellectual,  cerebral,  conceptual,
conscious,  deliberate  is  bad;   existential,  visceral,  intuitive,
unconscious, instinctive  is good.  Given  how much Suzuki  criticized
dualism, it is difficult  to overlook how problematic  these ones are.
For one thing, such category-oppositions  have a history and a context
within Western  thought that tends to be lost when they are translated
into such a different language as Japanese, and vice-versa: so we must
be cautious about understanding  the Japanese understanding  of Zen in
such terms.  That Suzuki's  English was excellent  due to his years in
the United States does not alleviate  the problem  but aggravates  it:
how  much  do his English  writings  skillfully  adapt  Zen to Western
sensibilities? That  is, how much  did he tell  us what  we wanted  to
hear? These


considerations have become important yet King does not raise them.

    Another  problem  with such categories  is that  they conveniently
valorize characteristics that just happen to be Japanese. For example:
"Zen wants  to act, and the most effective  act, once the mind is made
up, is to go on without  looking  backward.  In this  respect, Zen  is
indeed  the  religion  of  the  samurai  warrior.  (Suzuki)(3).   This
exemplifies  a general  trait that Robert  Bellah  considers  the most
important of Japanese society: its goal-oriented  behavior.  According
to Nakamura Hajime, "Japanese Buddhists came to maintain the view that
one  should  repudiate   traditional   disciplines   in  the  name  of
disciplines for the promotion of productive activities.  " To make the
same  point  from  another  perspective,  Japanese   culture  is  less
interested  in  abstract  theory  and  universalized  principles  than
Indian. This raises again the old question how much of Zen is Buddhist
and how much of Zen is Japanese.  Then is Zen anti-intellectualism  an
aspect  of  Buddhist   enlightenment,  of  the  Japanese   version  of
enlightenment, or of the Japanese understanding of enlightenment?
    Raising such questions about the differences  betwen Pali Buddhism
and Japanese Buddhism brings us back to the most important  issue, the
relationship betwen Zen and the samurai spirit.

                               I I

    The Hinayana, which tends to condemn life, has remained  strict in
    the prohibition of killing;  and it is the Mahayana, which extolls
    life, that has ended up by finding  excuses  for killing  and even
    for its glorification.

                                                  --Paul Demieville(6)

Whether  or not  Pali  Buddhism  condemns  life, it is  strict  in its

3.D. T. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism: First Series (New York: Harper
and Row, 1949),84.
4.Robert N.  Bellah, Tokugawa  Religion: The Cultural  Roots of Modern
Japan  (New  York: The  Free  Press, 1957), 188.  For  a more  general
discussion  of the differences  between  East Asia and South Asia, and
where the West fits into them, see David Loy, " Transcendence East and
West," Man and World 26, no. 4: 403-427.
5.Hajime  Nakamura, Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples, rev.  trans.,
ed.  by Philip P. Wiener (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1964),
505. Nakamur's emphasis.
6."Le Bouddhisme  et la guerre," Melanges (Paris: Institut  des Hautes
Etudes Chinoises, 1957), 353.


against  taking life.  The eightfold  path includes  right action (not
destroying  life, etc.) and right livelihood  (not making one's living
through  a profession  that brings harm to others, such as trading  in
arms and weapons, soldiering, killing  animals, etc.).  The Dhammapada
expresses  the psychological  dimension of such an attitude: "Never by
hatred is hatred appeased, but it is appeased by kindness.  This is an
eternal truth.  "(44) "The victor breeds hatred, and the defeated  lie
down in misery.  He who renounces both victory and defeat is happy and
peaceful." (46)

Depending on how one understands  life ("we must transcend the dualism
of life and death") and killing ( "no one kills, no one is killed ") ,
it is possible  to take these prohibitions  in more subtle  ways.  The
danger   with  this,  however,  is  a  sophistry   that   can  end  up
rationalizing Buddhism itself away. In his admirable study "The Modern
State  and  Warfare: Is there  a Buddhist  Position? " Brian  (Daizen)
Victoria finds "no evidence in what are generally considered to be the
fundamental  tenets of Buddhism (centered on the Four Noble Truths and
Holy Eight-fold  Path) that would condone an adherent's  participation
in the killing of other human beings for any reason whatsoever.  Thus,
Buddhism, at least in its earliest formulation, must be considered  to
take the position of absolute  pacifism  as its normative  standard of
conduct."(7)  The life of Sakyamuni Buddha, as conveyed in the Nikayas
for  example, is completely  consistent  with  such  teachings.  It is
inconceivable  that he could have lived as a samurai, or that he would
have approved of any such use of his teachings.

    What Victoria  says about the early Buddhist  sangha enables us to
develop this contrast further:

     The Sangha was organized to be a non-coercive, non-authoritarian,
     democratic  society  where  leadership  came only from good moral
     character and spiritual insight.  It is an order of society which
     has no political ambitions  within the nation, and in whose ranks
     there is no striving for leadership.  It seeks to persude men and
     women  to follow  its  way, by example  and  exhortation, not  by
     force.  By completely eliminating the then prevalent caste system
     from its ranks, Buddha Sakyamuni may rightly be considered one of
     history's  first  leaders  not only to advocate  but actually  to
     practice his belief in the basic

7.In  the  1990  Anthology  of Fo Kuang  Shan  International  Buddhist
Conference, 378.  "My reading of Buddhist  political  history tells me
that every time Buddhist leaders have closely aligned themselves  with
the political ruler of their day, the Buddha Sangha has become corrupt
and  degenerate...The  Sangha's  often  slavish  subservience  to, and
actions  on behalf  of, their rulers  have resulted, in my opinion, in
its becoming the de facto pimp and prostitute of the State."(379)


     equality of all human beings. He clearly hoped that the religious
     and social ideals of the Sangha would one day permeate  the whole
     of society. (369)

    How  well  have  these   ideals   permeated   Japanese   Buddhism?
Historically,  Japan  has  been  very  good  at  adapting  to  foreign
influences, and Buddhism is famously adaptable.  This adaptability has
been a two-edged  sword, enabling Buddhism to permeate  other cultures
by adapting  their  religious  institutions  to its own ends, but also
allowing  Buddhism  to  be coopted  (even, in  its  birthplace, to  be
assimilated  by the "fraternal  embrace"  of Hinduism, as Coomaraswamy
put it).  The Mahayana  doctrine  that samsara  is nothing  other than
nirvana may be understood  in opposite  ways: the true sunya nature of
samsara may be taken as nirvana  itself, or nirvana redefined  in more
this-  worldly  ways which end up rationalizing  cravings, nationalism
and subservience to secular authority.

    From this perspective, the basic  problem  with Japanese  Buddhism
appeared  at the very beginning: Buddhism was first brought into Japan
by the ruling  classes, who saw it as a potent  means to preserve  the
nation  --  which for them meant  their  own position, of course.  Zen
arrived  several centuries  later, yet it continued  a pattern that by
then had been set.  King cites  the case of Eisai  (1141 -  1215), the
"founder" of Zen, as typical.  After returning from his second trip to
China, during  which he was ordained  as a Rinzai  master, Eisai found
that his "new" Buddhism was not acceptable  to the Tendai hierarchy at
Enryakuji.  So he went to Kamakura, where  he gained  the favor of the
widow of the first shogun Minamoto Yoritomo, and she established a new
temple for him.  His first major writing was Treatise on the Spread of
Zen for the Protection  of the Nation.  (Dogen  too wrote  a work, now
lost, entitled  The  Method  of Protecting  the  Country  by the  True
Dharma.)  Only  later  was  he invited  back  to Kyoto  as  an honored
monk-teacher.  If the traditional stories can be trusted, establishing
oneself  by currying  the favor  of the powerful  was not  the  way of
Sakyamuni, nor  the  way of the  early  Chinese  patriarchs, who  only
reluctantly  answered  the  requests  of emperors  to become  national
teachers.(8)  The  contact  with  secular  authority  is not in itself
objectionable;   according  to  the  Nikayas  Sakyamuni  had  numerous
dealings  with rulers, but as teacher  and adviser, evidently  because
his Dharma was respected  for itself, as an alternative  authoritative
Law. The problem arises when Buddhist teachings and pres-
8.This  was not as true later.  "While Buddhist  monks in the southern
part of China(under  the Chin dynasty) successfully  maintained  their
independence of the State, their northern counterparts did not fare as
well.  Faced with non-Chinese  rulers, Buddhists  monks offered  their
services as political, diplomatic and military advisers"(King, 371).


tige are appropriated for other ends, as an ideology that supports the
state and justifies privilege and class.

    If, as Victoria points out, Sakyamuni  believed in the equality of
all human beings and hoped sangha ideals would come to permeate all of
society, the issue of social hierarchy is especially problematical for
Japanese Zen, which came to emphasize devotion to one's lord more than
one's personal path of liberation  from desire and delusion.  Or, more
precisely, the  two  tended  to be equated: to let-go  of oneself  was
understood to mean identifying  completely with one's daimyo.  "I have
no desire to attain  buddhahood, " Yamamoto  Tsunetomo, author  of the
Hagakure, wrote after he had retired  to become  a monk.  "The sincere
resolution  deeply engraved  on my mind is to be reborn for as many as
seven times as a Nabeshima  samurai and administer  our clan." However
praiseworthy  this may be as an example of egolessness, it still needs
to be asked in what sense Yamamoto is a Buddhist monk.

    King identifies an inbuilt factor in Buddhism which tended to work
against  its own teaching  that  life is sacred: a doctrine  of karmic
destiny.  "And free as Zen may have  been  in some  respects  from the
bonds of the Buddhist tradition, it was not free from the bonds of the
teaching of karma" (33).  Karma is a complicated issue in Buddhism and
it is too simple to say that Zen encourages  us to accept  such karma,
yet  something   like  that  seems  to  be  implied  by  the  repeated
exhortation to become one with our immediate circumstances.  King also
cites  the strong  sense of family  loyalty  and tradition, especially
among the Japanese  upper classes.  As an endorsement  of one's family
and occupation, however, these attitudes  become  questionable  in the
light  of Sakyamuni's  own example  --  not only  when  they  lead  to
violating  the precept  against  killing, but because  the sangha  was
originally  established  as an alternative  to such  family  and caste
obligations, which Sakyamuni  himself had obviated  by abandoning  his
own family and royal position.

    The difficulty  with accepting  one's "karmic  destiny"  is that a
collective  "wego", such as the Japanese understanding  of egolessness
encouraged, is not intrinsically  superior to the individual  ego.  It
may  be even  more  dangerous, depending  on how  those  energies  are
channelled.  It  is  relevant, therefore, that  the  absolute  loyalty
expected  by family-heads  and  daimyo  did not extend  to interdaimyo
relations, for the daimyo  did not consider  their own compacts  to be
binding. As King points out, such agreements tended to be marriages of
convenience, "acagey betting on the winner of the next set of battles,
cemented  by intermarriages  and  hostages.  Hence  Japanese  military
history  is  full  of  temporary  alliances, broken  or  shifted  when
conditions changed" (132).

    It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Eisai s relationship
with the secular  powers-that-be  developed  into  a Faustian  compact
fatal to the original nonviolent  spirit of Buddhism.  That Zen taught
the samurai how to be loyal to


their daimyo and how to fight better  for their daimyo  elevated  that
social relationship above the fundamental Buddhist precept not to kill
any living beings, especially humans.  If it is important to recognize
the problems  with  Western  subject-object  dualism, what  about  the
dualism  that pits  me and my daimyo  against  you and yours? When  we
consider  all the killing that has occurred  on behalf of abstractions
like  God  and  the future  socialist  utopia, egoless  devotion  to a
particular  person can seem attractive;  but only until we ask whether
what inspired  that daimyo was anything more than his (and his clan's)
own lust for power, wealth and prestige.  Accepting  one's karmic role
in such a social system does provide a clear solution to the perennial
problem  about the meaning  of one's life, yet we should be clear that
this was not Sakyamuni's solution.

The Code of the Samurai exhorts that "one who is a samurai must before
all things keep constantly  in mind, by day and by night,...  the fact
that he has to die.  That is his chief business"  (126).  No one would
deny that Zen should  help us to be able to die;  but one may still be
uncomfortable with the other idea implicit here, that this will enable
us to kill better.  The issue is, finally, an ethical one: did bushido
provide  an ethic, or did it serve in place  of an ethic? That is, did
it provide  some  moral  authority  tempering  the  power  of  secular
authority? King quotes  Roger Ames: "bushido  being  centered  in this
resolution  to die, it is not in any strict sense an ethical system at
all...  In essence, it does  not  represent  any  particular  mode  of
conduct  or normative  standards"  (125).  This  may remind  us of the
bodhisattva, whose  compassionate  activities  are not limited  by the
bounds  of conventional  morality, yet  it is very  different, because
insofar as Zen did not provide an alternative moral perspective on the
hierarchical and predatory social system, it became coopted by it.  As
Ames  continues: "Of  course, historically, the proponent  of bushido,
the samurai, did align  himself  with  a prevailing  morality, or more
likely  was  born  into  circumstances  where  the  decision  of moral
alignment was predetermined."

    I think King puts his finger on the problem:

      If, as Suzuki  claims, Zen is impatient  with  all rationalizing
      and   ethicizing   and  believes   only   in  visceral-intuitive
      rightness, if it can be (as already noted) "wedded  to anarchism
      or fascism, comunism  or democracy, atheism  or idealism  or any
      political  or  economic  dogmatism,"  serving  any  master  that
      happens to be dominant at the time or place where Zen is, can it
      be called "Buddhist"  in any meaningful  sense;  or is it only a
      subjective energy-providing technique?
      ...For essentially Zen, with its slight regard for scripture and


      literary  or  ritual  tradition, has  no means  of checking  its
      "Buddhist" quality from time to time or maintaining a consistent
      witness to a good or holy life-pattern. (190-191)

Perhaps  this gives us some insight  into the recent scandals  in many
U.S. Zen centers, whose teachers (mostly Japanese or Japanese-trained)
were  discovered  to  have  engaged  in  sexual, financial  and  other
misconduct.  If  King  is right, the  basic  difficulty  is  that  Zen
training  does not in itself  prepare  such teachers  to deal with the
kinds of moral dilemmas  and temptations  that their positions  expose
them to, especially in a more individualistic, non-Confucian society.

    Suzuki could not help touching  on the problem of morality  in his
Zen and Japanese Culture chapters on swordmanship. King quotes most of
a long paragraph that encapsulates Suzuki's view:

The sword is generally associated  with killing, and most of us wonder
    how it can come into  connection  with Zen, which  is a school  of
    Buddhism  that teaches  the gospel of love and mercy.  The fact is
    that the art of swordsmanship distinguishes between the sword that
    kills  and the sword  that gives  life.  The one that is used by a
    technician  cannot  go  any  further  than  killing, for  he never
    appeals  to the sword  unless  he intends  to kill.  The  case  is
    altogether  different  with the one who is compelled  to lift  the
    sword.  For it is really not he but the sword itself that does the
    killing.  He has no desire  to do harm  to anybody, but the  enemy
    appears  and makes  himself  a victim.  It is as though  the sword
    performs  automatically  its  function  of  justice, which  is the
    function  of mercy.  This is the kind of sword that Christ is said
    to have brought  among us.  It is not meant just for bringing  the
    peace mawkishly cherished by sentimentalists... [This sword] is no
    more a weapon of self-defense or an instrument of killing, and the
    swordsman  turns  into an artist  of the first  grade, engaged  in
    producing a work of genuine originality. (Suzuki, 145)
This  is not  one  of Suzuki's  better  paragraphs.  According  to it,
selflessness  makes the killing sword into a life-giving instrument of
righteousness, for the man who has mastered  the art does  not use the
sword; thus the opponent may be said to kill himself.  "[T]he enemy is
filled  with the evil spirit  of killing  and so he is killed  by this
evil spirit" (Suzuki, 180).  In the Japanese  feudal era, though, were
all  enemies  really  evil? And  what  would  happen, then, if feuding
daimyo required two enlightened  swordmasters  to fight? Would each be
killed by the selfless sword of the other?

    King too finds such apologetics  unconvincing.  He is left "almost


by the logic that produces this Zen work of genuine originality, as if
a  blow  that  kills   were  ethically   indistinguishable   from  the
brushstroke  of a calligraphy master.  "There is a vague and imprecise
hope  that  the  Zen-inspired  sword  is, indeed,  functioning  as  an
instrument of "justice" --  one presumes in the conceptual, moralistic
sense of the word.  But it is apparently not absolutely necessary that
it  be so to  make  such  deeds  beyond  and  above  ordinary  ethical
judgments" (186).

    In sum, insofar as the Zen experience  "transcends"  concepts  and
ethics, and emphasizes  oneness  with  one's  situation, its  Japanese
practitioners seem more vulnerable to the prevailing ideology and more
likely  to be coopted  by  the  dominant  social  system.  Instead  of
providing a moral and spiritual perspective  on secular authority, Zen
ends up sacralizing secular authority.


Despite   some  passages   (such   as  the  above  paragraph   on  Zen
swordsmanship) that lend themselves to such cooptation, Suzuki himself
did not fall into this trap.  His twelve years in the U.S.  and Europe
(1897 -  1909) provided him with an international  perspective  on the
emperor  system,  state  Shinto,  militarism, and  the  self-righteous
"Japanese spirit" they propagated.(9)

    Unfortunately, the same cannot  be said for most of his colleagues
in  the  Zen  world,  who  did  not  benefit   from   such  a  lengthy
internationalization.  For  example, Suzuki's  teacher  Shaku  Soen, a
progressive, university-educated  roshi  who portrayed  Buddhism  as a
"universal religion"  at the Chicago World

9.For  a detailed  study of Suzuk's  social  and political  views, see
Kiyohide  Kirita,"D.T.Suzuki  on  Society  and  the  State,"  in  Rude
Awakenings: Zen, the  Kyoto  School  & the  Question  of  Nationalism,
edited by James W. Heisig and John c. Maraldo (Honolulu: University of
Hawaii Press, 1995), 52-74.  For an example of Suzuki's antiwar views,
see  "Why  Do  We  Fight?" The  Eastern  Buddhist  os  vol.  1, no.  4
(November-December  1921), 270-281.  A note on Shinran  in The Eastern
Buddhist os vol.  1, no.  5 contrasts him favorable with Nichiren, who
"inspired the militarists  of some years ago when a jingoistic  spirit
reigned in this country"  (395-396).  "Buddhism  and Education"  ( The
Eastern Buddhist os vol. 8, no.  1 [May 1949], 36-45) contrasts Shinto
and  Buddhism: "Shinto  is warlike, militant, and  devoid  of a loving
spirit; while Buddhismm: "Shinto is warlike, militant, and devoid of a
loving  spirit;  while  Buddhism  is just the opposite, for it teaches
all-embracing  love which knows no enemy of whatever nature"(36).  "My
firm  conviction  is that  if Buddhism  held  the Japanese  statesmen,
militists, and people generally in its firmer grasp, that is, if Japan
had been governed by Buddhism  and not by shinto as she has been until
recently, there  would  have  been no such  war as the one whose  most
ignominious  catastrophe  was Japanese  are all experiencing  just  at


Parliament  of Religions, actively  supported  the Russo-Japanese  War
(1904-5) and justified it in terms embarrassing to read today:

      War is not necessarily  horrible, provided that it is fought for
a just  and honorable  cause, that it is fought  for the upholding  of
humanity   and  civilization.   Many  material  human  bodies  may  be
destroyed, many humane  hearts be broken, but from a broader  point of
view these  sacrifices  are so many phoenixes  consumed  in the sacred
fire  of spirituality, which  will  arise  from  the smoldering  ashes
reanimated, ennobled, and glorified.(10)

   Thus have all wars been justified by their apologists. When Tolstoy
wrote asking him to cooperate in appealing for peace, Soen refused and
visited the war front to encourage the troops, declaring that

    war against evils must be unflinchingly  prosecuted till we attain
    the final  aim.  In the present  hostilities, into which Japan has
    entered  with great reluctance, she pursues  no egoistic  purpose,
    but seeks the subjugation of evils hostile to civilization, peace,
    and enlightenment....  I came here with a double purpose. I wished
    to have my faith tested by going through the greatest  horrors  of
    life, but  I also  wished  to  inspire, if  I  could, our  valiant
    soldiers  with  the  ennobling  thoughts  of the  Buddha, so as to
    enable them to die on the battlefield with the confidence that the
    task in which they are engaged  is great  and noble.  I wished  to
    convince  them of the truths that this war is not a mere slaughter
    of their fellow-beings, but that they are combatting  an evil, and
    that, at the same  time, corporeal  annihilation  really  means  a
    rebirth   of  soul,  not   in  heaven,  indeed,  but  here   among

Harada  Sogaku  (1870  -  1961), the  abbot  of  Hosshin-ji, made  the
identification between Zen and war complete and explicit:

    Forgetting  [the  difference  between]  self  and others  in every
    situation, you should always become completely one with your work.
    [When ordered to] march -- tramp, tramp; [when ordered to] fire --
    bang, bang;  this  is  the  clearest  expression  of  the  highest
    Bodhi-wisdom, the
10.Shaku  Soyen, Sermons of a Buddhist  Abbot: Addresses  on Religious
Subjects, trans. D. T. Suzuki(New York: Weiser, 1971),211-12. The full
text  was originally  published  in 1906  and  taken  from  a memorial
address for those who died in the war.
11.Shaku Soyen, Zen for Americans(LaSalle, Illinois: Open Court Press,
reprinted 1974),201-3.


    unity of Zen and war."

What is most discomforting  about  these  words  is not that  Soen and
Harada  support  war, but that  they invoke  Buddhism  to justify  and
promote it. In Soen's case, a terminology appropriate to Armageddon is
used  to excuse  a war of colonial  expansion.  In Harada's  case, the
nonduality  of self  and other  --  an essential  principle  of Suzuki
"stimeless,  ahistorical  Zen  --   is  used  in  a  way  that  flatly
contradicts  the basic spirit of Sakyamuni  "steachings.  The issue is
complicated  by the  European  colonization  of Asia, which  made  the
Japanese fearful for their own independence;  the Russo-Japanese  War,
for example, was started  in reaction  to Russia  "simperialist  moves
into Manchuria  and the Liaodong  peninsula.  What is not complicated,
however, is  the  unquestioned  identification  of Zen  ideology  with
nationalistic  aims.  If both  Soen and Harada  were  politically  and
historically  benighted, or at least uncritical, one wonders  how much
Zen anti-intellectualism played a part in this.  Again, the problem is
not so much that they were  products  of their  time, but how much Zen
contributed to making and keeping them so.

    A recent paper by Robert Sharf, "The Zen of Japanese  Nationalism"
, argues  for  a close  relationship  between  such  Zen ideology  and
nihonjinron, the popular pseudo-science  devoted to demonstrating  the
uniqueness  (and  usually  the superiority)  of Japanese  culture  and
spirit.  Sharf  believes  this is true not only  for the Zen religious
establishment but for the philosophical proselytizers whose views have
been  most  influential  in the West.  He devotes  a long  section  to
nihonjinron themes in D. T.  Suzuki's writings which he traces back to
1935, when Suzuki  began publishing  a series of Zen books in Japanese
that are still largely  unknown  outside  Japan.  This section  is not
persuasive, however, in the light of Kirita's much more detailed study
of Suzuki's  social  and  political  views.  For  example, during  the
Pacific War Suzuki's non-Buddhist  writings  were concerned  to find a
uniquely  Japanese  spirituality  in Buddhism, especially  in its Pure
Land sects;  yet this did not lead him to exalt the Japanese people or
offer  them  as an example  for the rest of the world  to follow.  The
following passage is typical:

    The Japanese  are highly  sentimental  and lacking  in logic, have
    difficulty in forming an independent judgment on the right and
12.Quoted  in Daizen Victoria, "Japanese  Corporate  Zen," Bulletin of
Concerned Asian Scholars 12, no. 1 (1980),65.
13.History of Religions 33, no. 1 (Auguest 1993),1-43.
   Editor's  note: Since  republished  in revised  form  in Donald  S.
Lopez, Jr., ed., Curators  of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism  under
Colonialism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995),pp. 107-160.


    wrong  of things, are only  concerned  about  being  ridiculed  by
    others, and are reluctant  to enter  into  unknown  and unexplored
    areas, and if they should dare to do so, they do it recklessly and
    without any plans made in advance.(14)

This is not nihonjinron.  However, some of Sharf's  other targets  are
more difficult  to defend.  Suzuki's  lifelong  friend the philosopher
Nishida  Kitaro  "was himself  guilty  of the most spurious  forms  of
nihonjinron  speculation", such as repeatedly characterizing  Japanese
culture  as  one  of  "pure  feeling", more  emotional, aesthetic  and
communal  than  (and, by implication, superior  to) the  intellectual,
rationalistic  and scientific  cultures  of the West (23).  In 1944, a
difficult  year for all Japanese, Nishida  declared  that contemporary
Buddhists h ave forgotten [the] true meaning of the Mahayana. Eastern
culture must arise again from such a standpoint.  It must contribute a
new light to world  culture.  As a self-determination  of the absolute
present,  the  national  polity  (kokutai)  of  Japan  is  a  norm  of
historical  action  in such a perspective.  The above  mentioned  true
spirit  of  the  Mahayana  is in the  East  preserved  today  only  in
Japan."(15)  This must be taken in the light of Nishida's  support for
the Greater  East  Asian  Co-Prosperity  Sphere  and for  the  Pacific

    Such  a nihonjinron  attitude  was evidently  shared  by Hisamatsu
Shin'ichi  (1889-1980), who also believed that only Japanese  have the
aesthetic  and  intellectual  sensibility  necessary  to  fathom  Zen,
despite the fact that this truth was universal:

I have  long  spoken  of "Oriental  Nothingness"...  I qualify  it  as
Oriental  because  in the West such Nothingness  has never  been fully
awakened, nor has there  been  penetration  to such a level.  However,
this does not mean that  it belongs  exclusively  to the East.  On the
contrary, it is the most profound basis or root source of man; in this
sense  it belongs  neither  to the East or West.  Only as regards  the
actual Awakening to such a Self, there have been no instances in the
14.Quoted  in "D.T.  Suzuki  on Society  and the State," 60.  For  its
source, Kirita gives the Collected Works (in Japanese), vol.  21, page
15."Towards  a Philosophy  of  Pre-established  Harmony  as  a Guide,"
trans. David A. Dilworth, The Eastern Buddhist, NS, vol.3, no.1 (1970)
,36.See Sharf,
24.  16.How much Nishida supported them, and why,
are difficult  issues  discussed  at length  in Rude  Awakenings.  See
especially the chapters by Ives, Ueda, Yusa, and Jacinto Zavala.


      West; hence the regional qualification "Oriental".(17)

Sharf recounts a well-known conversation  between Hisamatsu and Suzuki
recorded at Harvard University in 1958:

  Hisamatsu: Among  the many  people  you've  met or heard  of (in the
    West) is there anyone who you think has some understanding of Zen?

  Suzuki:   No one. Not yet anyway.

  Hisamatsu: I see. Not yet.  Well then, is there at least someone you
    have hope for? (Laughter)

  Suzuki: No. Not even that.

  Hisamatsu: So, of the many  people  (in the West)  who have  written
    about Zen there aren't any who understand it?

  Suzuki: That's right.

  Hisamatsu:  Well,  is  there  at  least  some  book  written  (by  a
    Westerner) which is at least fairly accurate?

  Suzuki: No. Not to my knowledge.

Taken out of context, this conversation is somewhat misleading: Suzuki
had  high  hopes  for  Zen in the  West, while  recognizing  that  its
naturalization abroad would take time.  Nonetheless, if Zen experience
is indeed  the essence  of all religion, as Suzuki  so often  claimed,
this conclusion cannot help but be depressing.  Yet there is more than
one  way  to understand  their  dialogue.  It may  be that  Occidental
culture is so rationalistic and so infected by subject-object  dualism
that all Westerners  are spiritually  obtuse.  But it is also possible
that  the problem  is on the  other  side  as well: that  a supposedly
universal  experience  has in fact  come  to be defined  primarily  in
Japanese terms.

    Sharf  concludes  by situating  the  nihonjinron  impulse  in  its
historical  context, as one intellectual  reaction  to the radical and
destabilizing   transformation   of  Japan  initiated   by  the  Meiji

    Nihonjinron  is in large part a Japanese response to modernity  --
    the sense of being adrift  in a sea of tumultuous  change, cut off
    from the past, alienated  from history  and tradition.  Since  the
    Meiji reforms, Japanese  intellectuals  have been confronted  with
    the  collapse  of  traditional   Japanese  political   and  social
    structures, accompanied  by the insidious  threat posed by the the
    hegemonic discourse of the
17.Zen and the Fine Arts, trans. Gishin Tokiwa( Tokyo: Kodansha, 1971;
originally published in 1957 as Zen to bijutsu), 48. See Sharf, 31-2.
18.FAS Society Journal (Spring 1986), 19-23.


    West.  In response, the Japanese would formulate  a conception  of
    Japaneseness that would, in part, insulate themselves from Western
    universalizing discourse.  This was accomplished through insisting
    that the essence of Japanese character  lay in a uniquely Japanese
    experience  of the world, an experience that was thus conveniently
    out of the reach of foreigners. (36-37)

Whether  or not  this  overstates  the  case, it touches  on something
important.   The  Meiji  restoration   remains  an  ambiguous  legacy.
Traumatized  by its brutal  forced  opening  to the rest of the world,
acutely  aware of the need to adopt Western  technology  as quickly as
possible in order to defend itself from the imminent colonization that
devastated the rest of Asia, not only Japan s self-confidence but its
very self-identity were badly shaken. It is not surprising, then, that
Zen and the samurai spirit became understood to exemplify the superior
soul of the Japanese  --  which happened  to fit nicely into a concern
that arose in certain quarters  of the West to find a superior "other"
with which  to flog itself.  We may sympathize  with Japan's  need  to
establish   its  own  identity   on  the  world  stage,  and  Japanese
intellectuals'  need to avoid the "hegemonic  discourse"  of the West.
Nonetheless,  the  resulting   self-understanding   of  Japanese   Zen
Buddhists cannot be accepted uncritically.(19)
19.I  am grateful  to an anonymous  reviewer  and Dan Yukie  for their
helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay.

David Loy
Faculty of International Studies
Bunkyo University
Chigasaki 253, Japan

December 14, 1994

Sincere thanks to Ti.nh Tue^. for providing us with this article. Buddhism Today, 02-7-2000


Updated: 1-7-2000

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