A Letter on
Zen, and
War, and

One of the best magazines going now is Tricycle. The magazine is devoted to Buddhism, but it also deals with the hard issues of Buddhism-in-the-world --- a world which can be unjust and callous. Recently, the magazine published a review of books on Zen and the Second World War --- specifically, how the Buddhists in Japan survived during, even participated in, some of the more horrific practices of the government. In the newest issue of Tricycle, the editors printed this letter in response to the review.

Dear Mr. Baran and Staff of Tricyle:

I very much enjoyed this issue of Tricycle. As usual I found myself thinking deeply on a number of topics raised. In particular the book review by Mr. Josh Baran on Zen at War and The Rape of Nanking captured my interest.

What I wanted to respond to was the judgement laid down by Mr. Baran on those who enacted the atrocities as well as those who were victimized. It seems to me that in a Buddhist magazine --- pointing out the dangers of Zen-gone-astray as one of the causes for these atrocities --- should have been tempered with a Zen perspective of over-riding compassion for all those involved in this chapter of world history.

By compassion I don't mean sympathy or righteous indignation followed by some kind of on-guard-forgiveness. I mean a realization that all activities are embraced, supported and created by this Universe and --- perhaps more importantly --- that all of these created activities are empty of any self nature. However cold and callus this type of compassion may seem to Mr. Baran, the truth of it should be thoroughly investigated before judgement is passed in the name of Buddhism.

The words of D.T. Suzuki were sharply ridiculed by Mr. Baran. But the underlying perspective of this ridicule seemed too be, To heck with insight into the empty nature of reality, we're talking about human lives here! However easy it is to relate to this point of view we should also be able to see, acknowledge and state that this perspective is, as much as anything it is criticizing, one-sidedly weighted from the perspective of a solidified self.

A more productive Buddhist lesson than trying to judge those that have lived in other times, or even consciously trying to prevent similar things from happening again, might be to first experience without a shadow of a doubt that those past atrocities are not something separate from what we are right now. It did not happen in some other time called "the past." They're still happening right now.

You are those Zen masters extolling the virtues of war. You are that soldier who chopped off the head of that boy. You are that boy who was made to rape his own mother, as are we all. And for all your effort to avert it, if something similar happens again the blood can be no where else but on your hands.

Before judgement in the name of Buddhism occurs we are all asked by this tradition to first realize that every activity that has ever been or will be is precisely that which makes up the very content of this moment in which we now live.

Mr. Baran seems unable to accept in any way that Buddha-Nature could be said to function in such horrific activities. Well it did, didn't it? "How can we absorb these overwelming contradictions?" he wrote. We absorb them quite simply through the understanding that all of us have been duped in the past, we are all being duped now and we will all be duped in the future. There is no other alternative to being duped in this world or the next. In fact, being duped continually is the very essence of this world and of all other worlds. Samsara can be nothing other than Nirvana. Nirvana can be nothing other than Samsara.

Everybody has always done just exactly what they have seen fit to do given the circumstances of their lives, no more and no less. Buddhism's gift is not pacifism or moral superiority but to offer a wonderful insight into the irresistible charade of life and death. This gift enables us to understand and play the game without suffering from its irresistiblity, or ridiculing others for the temptations they gave into. So actually it's perfectly okay to blow your horn and lead a charge in questioning the virtues of Zen or Buddhism or the way others failed to practice it. But you should also have the courtesy to mention that the moment you open your own mouth, you've joined all those you rail against and have condemned yourself, and all of us, to eternal Samsara.

Zen monk
[Reproduced with the permission
of the author and Tricycle]

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