Zen Versus Jesus

Under conditions of tyranny it is far easier to act than to think. —Hannah Arendt

Philosophy may safely be left with intellectual minds. 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. —D. T. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture[1]

The humble appreciation that God is working through all peoples, cultures and religions does not mean relinquishing the critical faculty of thought. While it is true the Christian can learn about Christ more completely through encounter with other cultures and religions (this is the very point of mission), it is also true that this humility still calls for a fulness of understanding. It was not uncommon in my experience to encounter in Japan (having spent more than twenty years there), the westerner (or even the western missionary) infatuated with all things Japanese, particularly Zen Buddhism, but what these connoisseurs of all things Japanese usually failed to understand was the xenophobic nationalism often attached to Japanese religion and identity. This in no way cancels out some of the insights to be gained in Zen but it also severely qualifies those insights should one be willing to critically examine the religion, yet the uncritical acceptance of the authority of the Zen master and Zen teaching (particularly about the critical faculty) is the ground for Zen practice.

It is not just that wholesale acceptance of Zen practice entails acceptance of a diagnosis of the human predicament and its solution based on a worldview very much counter to an orthodox Christian understanding, but this practice has been involved from its inception in Japanese militarism, colonialism, and ultimately war crimes (which Japanese Buddhist and Zen authorities have acknowledged and for which they have apologized). As Brian Victoria notes, “The fact is that Zen leaders who supported Japanese militarism did so on the grounds that Japanese aggression expressed the very essence of the Buddha Dharma and even enlightenment itself. Thus, until and unless their assumptions are closely examined and challenged, there is no guarantee that Zen’s future, whether in the East or West, will not once again include support for the mass destruction of human life that is modern warfare.”[2]

Far from Zen being only peaceful it is directly connected to Bushido (the Way of the Warrior) and Bushido and Zen are thoroughly enmeshed in “the essence of Japan.” In the description of Nitobe Inazō, in his book Bushido: The Soul of Japan, Bushido and Zen are integral to one another: “I may begin with Buddhism. It furnished a sense of calm trust in Fate, a quiet submission to the inevitable, that stoic composure in sight of danger or calamity, that disdain of life and friendliness with death. A foremost teacher of swordsmanship, when he saw his pupil master the utmost of his art, told him, ‘Beyond this my instruction must give way to Zen teaching.’”[3] Nitobe, a Christian, describes Zen as awakening one “to a new Heaven and a new Earth.”[4]

Victoria details the key instances when Zen was used to mobilize the country to war. The Chief Abbot of Eiheiji, Sōtō Zen master Hata Eshō (1862–1944) wrote on behalf of the “national spiritual mobilization” the following:

Buddha Shakyamuni, during his religious practice in a former life, participated in a just war. Due to the  merit he acquired as a result, he was able to appear in this world as a Buddha. Thus, it can be said that a just war is one task of Buddhism. Likewise, achieving the capitulation of the enemy country may also be counted as the religious practice of a Buddhist…. I believe the brilliant fruits of battle that have been achieved to date are the result of the power of the people’s religious faith [in Buddhism].[5]

Two Zen scholars, both affiliated with the Sōtō Zen sect, put forth a doctrinal understanding of the relationship between Buddhism and war which enabled institutional Buddhism to directly support Japan’s war effort:

In order to establish eternal peace in East Asia, arousing the great benevolence and compassion of Buddhism, we are sometimes accepting and sometimes forceful. We now have no choice but to exercise the benevolent forcefulness of “killing one in order that many may live” (issatsu tashō). This is something which Mahayana Buddhism approves of only with the greatest of seriousness…. We believe it is time to effect a major change in the course of human history, which has been centered on Caucasians and inequality among humanity. To realize the true happiness of a peaceful humanity and construct a new civilization, it is necessary to redirect the path of world history’s advance from this false path to the true path. Rooted in this sublime view of history, the mission and responsibility of Mahayana Buddhists is to bring into being true friendship between Japan and China.[6]

Zen and Buddhism in general were utilized to mobilize Japan’s invasion and colonial domination of China and much of east Asia. In this mobilization Zen teachers appealed to a long history in which Zen supported warfare and it was common in the process to claim as Furukawa Taigo did, that Japan was not simply the most advanced Buddhist country but the “only Buddhist country.” Thus a means of spreading Buddhism most directly was through colonization, since all of Japan’s neighbors were lacking in true Buddhism. Japan is “presently using the sword in Manchuria to build a second divine country [after Japan], just as it would go on to do in China and India.” Furukawa appealed to all of his fellow believers: “All Buddhists in the country! Resolutely arise and participate in this rarest of holy enterprises. What difference does it make what the League of Nations does? Just who do England and the United States think they are anyway? The arrow has already left the bow. Do not hesitate in the least. A firm will makes even demons run away. The only thing is to push on resolutely.”[7]

Nonetheless Japanese Zen Buddhism is often perceived to be nothing more than a peaceful set of practices through which one can attain an enlightened understanding bringing about harmony and healing.[8] It is not unusual for western Christians to believe that Zen (which accords with both claims of Zen Priests and also Shintoists, who will also claim the same thing about Shinto) is so lacking in doctrine that it can be melded without disturbance with Christian faith. The focus on practice, of course, is not unique to Zen but is the way most religions (outside of the Christian west) are perceived by their practitioners but the mistake would be to imagine that practice does not entail an implicit or explicit worldview. As Bernie Glassman writes, “So if your definition of enlightenment is that there’s no antiSemitism in the state of enlightenment. If your definition of enlightenment is that there’s no nationalism, or militarism, or bigotry in the state of enlightenment, you better change your definition of enlightenment.”[9]  

The Zen practitioner begins with acceptance of “Buddhist” understandings of “enlightenment,” based on the authority of the Buddha (to even use terms like “Buddhist” and “Buddha” is already to have taken a modern stance in regard to the religion which will tend to cover the explicitly polytheistic world assumed by the Buddha).[10] Belief in Buddhist “enlightenment” entails belief in the authority of the Buddha who claimed:

Nobody is my teacher. Nobody is comparable to me. I am the only perfect buddha in the world. I have attained supreme enlightenment. I am conqueror over all. I know everything. I am not contaminated by anything at all… I have all the powers of the omniscient. I am an arhat (someone who has attained the goal of enlightenment) in the world. I am unrivaled in all realms, including those of the gods. I am the victor who conquered Mara.[11]

Being a practitioner at a minimum means taking the Buddha at his word: “Accept what I did not explain as ‘unexplained.’ Accept what I did explain as ‘explained.’”[12] Enlightenment begins by holding to the authority of Sakyamuni’s words; thus, one must rid themselves of metaphysical speculation or any subject the Buddha did not explain. This   subjugation to the authority of the Buddha will be utilized by the Japanese State in its creation of imperial-way Buddhism which translated subjugation of the Buddha into unquestioning subjugation to the Japanese Sovereign.[13]

Setting aside for the moment the fact that the New Testament claims Christ is the light that enlightens all men (John 1:9), one might wonder if the Buddha’s absolute claims are warranted? Buddha spoke these words to Upagu, who if he had caught the vision could have been Sakyamuni Buddha’s first disciple, but Upagu thought the man was a megalomaniac. Richard Cohen raises the possibility of two responses: “Would you have recognized the man as enlightened? Would you have discerned a spirit of universal peace, beyond politics, in words that valorize hierarchy, celebrate raw power, and speak well of battle?” Or would you be “puzzled that anybody would answer these questions in the affirmative. . ..”[14]

Sakyamuni’s claim is beyond the political or the religious as he alone dominates the world, and the claim is that his domination opens the way to full enlightenment. The question, particularly as it works out in the Japanese context, is whether the supposedly apolitical and areligious nature of Japanese Buddhism is simply a means for demanding its universal acceptance. As Victoria notes, “The ‘selflessness’ of Zen meant absolute and unquestioning submission to the will and dictates of the emperor. And the purpose of religion was to preserve the state and punish any country or person who dared interfere with its right of self-aggrandizement.”[15]

Zen has largely been received in the west from writings and evangelism of D. T. Suzuki, who is revered as the “true man of Zen,” yet Suzuki wrote that “religion should, first of all, seek to preserve the existence of the state.” Suzuki was thinking of the state’s invasion of the Chinese mainland and used Zen as a motivating factor as, “the Chinese were ‘unruly heathens’ whom Japan should punish ‘in the name of religion.’”[16] The oft quoted (in both east and west) Zen master Harada Sōgaku wrote, “[If ordered to] march: tramp, tramp, or shoot: bang, bang. This is the manifestation of the highest Wisdom [of Enlightenment]. The unity of Zen and war of which I speak extends to the farthest reaches of the holy war [now under way].”[17] The uncritical seeker after enlightenment must shoot and bang away, not pausing to consider the morality of what he is doing or the strange exclusiveness and inevitable “uniqueness” of the Japanese faith.

Japanese Buddhist practitioners, who are not alone in the pantheon of buddhisms claiming uniqueness throughout Asia, claim to be the one and only true purveyors of Buddhism. Fukuda Gyōei notes “that it was in Japan where “pure Mahayana [Buddhism]” was to be found. According to him, this is because Saichō (767–822), the eighth-century founder of the Tendai sect in Japan taught that “all Japanese had the disposition of bodhisattvas.” As bodhisattvas they were both “treasures and benefactors of the nation.” According to Gyōei, Buddhism in Japan was not Indian or Chinese Buddhism transplanted. The Tendai sect had been established “based on a deep understanding of the Japanese national character . . . as a religion to pacify and preserve the nation,” and this was made possible by the “gracious wish” of successive Japanese emperors.[18]

Dr. Shiio Benkyō (1876– 1971), a Jōdo sect priest who later became president of Taishō University declared that the Buddhism left in India and China is a failure and only in Japan is it “possible to draw near to a Buddhism like that of the time when Buddha Shakyamuni was alive.”[19] Benkyo explains, “Buddhism in India collapsed due to [the nature of] Indian culture. Buddhism in China collapsed because it ran directly contrary to the history and nature of the Chinese state, and was therefore only able to produce a few mountain temples. On the other hand, thanks to the rich cultivation Japanese Buddhism received on Japanese soil, it gradually developed into that which the Buddhist teaching was aiming toward.”[20] Japanese Buddhism is the only authentic Buddhist teaching, precisely because it has grown up in Japanese soil and has been shepherded by the Emperor: “The priceless customs and manners of our country are the fundamental reasons for this occurrence. These customs and manners are to be found throughout the land, but their heart lies with the emperor and the imperial household, through whose efforts they have been guided and fostered.”[21]

Thus all Japanese Buddhism is called “imperial-way Buddhism.” Since the emperor embodies the state, and Buddhism and the state are one, then the emperor and Buddhism are one.

In looking at the past we see that imperial edicts from successive emperors taught us the proper way to make offerings of even a single flower [to the Buddha], or offer even one stick of incense, or read the sutras with the correct pronunciation, or worship in the Buddha Hall. The power to select and protect each of the sects, to determine each and every temple observance—all have their roots in imperial edicts. Japanese Buddhism acts on the basis of imperial edicts. This is what distinguishes it from the Buddhism of foreign countries.[22]

In turn the practice of Buddhism entails a reverence for the edicts of the successive emperors “To venerate the Three Treasures [of Buddhism] means to revere imperial edicts without question.”[23] Japanese Buddhism is melded with Japanese imperialism, xenophobia, and nationalism.

Cohen claims Buddhist enlightenment is on the order of the “Enlightenment” of seventeenth and eighteenth-century Europe which “provides the political context for understanding Buddhist enlightenment as the simultaneous, coequal, perfection of rationality, religiosity, morality, and humanity, beyond politics.”[24] Just as western enlightenment is the occasion for marking other peoples and times as part of the darkness (to be set aside or forcibly enlightened), so too in Japan, Buddhist enlightenment is beyond questioning and the politic connected to this enlightenment, associated as it is with the Japanese Emperor, is beyond question. As Saeki Jōin, a Hossō sect priest and chief abbot of Hōryūji, one of Japan’s oldest and most famous temples, writes, “If you receive an imperial edict you must revere it, for the ruler is heaven and the people are the earth.” Jōin concludes: “The emperor, being holy and divine, is inviolable…. The emperor’s edicts, being holy and divine, are inviolable … and they must always be revered.” Jōin defends this on Buddhist grounds,

As expressed in the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha in his compassion regards [beings in] the three worlds [of desire, form, and formlessness] as members of his family. That is to say, he doesn’t think of his family as composed of just his blood relatives, or only the few members of his immediate family, or simply those in his local area. No, his family includes everyone in the whole world, in the entire universe. For him, everyone in the world is a member of his family. In fact, he does not limit his family members to human beings alone. Even animals and all living things are included…. There is nothing that the Tathagata [fully enlightened being] in his great compassion does not wish to save…. There is no one who he does not consider to be his child…. When this faith in the great compassion and mercy of the Tathagata is applied to the political world, there is not a single member of the Japanese nation who is not a child of the emperor…. This expresses in the political realm the ideal of a system centered on the emperor.[25]

Being apolitical and areligious is the means of asserting an absolute and universal hegemony. The Zen practitioner may or may not be fully aware of submitting to the final authority of the Buddha, but anything less than total submission disenables the practice. One either steps into the path of enlightenment, suspending critical thought concerning Buddhist enlightenment, or one does not enter that path. Accepting the practice is itself a metaphysical presumption in that the pragmatic, practical, surface, is given priority.

Cohen compares it to Martin Luther’s nominalism: “surfaces are able to sustain the burden of reality because, in fact, they do re-present an occult reality” beyond comprehension.[26] As he concludes, “let us recall how Luther coaxes readers to adhere to the surface of the Word, thereby avoiding a dangerous fascination with the transcendental unknown.” The commands and practices of the Buddha are like the literal plainness of Scripture. The good Calvinist also, has “the ability to take scripture at face-value, without wrapping it in enigmas,” and this “is possible only for one illumined by the Spirit. Only the elect can accept that god saves some and damns others gratuitously; only the elect can praise this god as perfectly just, when from a human perspective, he appears cruel, random, and malicious.”[27] In the Japanese code of the warrior, the cruelty and bloodletting of the sword must be understood as the loving prerogative of the master, and the Zen Samurai can no more question than a Calvinist the morality of his god.

Cohen defines a Buddhist, “as someone for whom a buddha is an ultimate authority; a Buddhist trusts that, because a buddha is perfectly enlightened, his command dharetha must always lead to beneficial results.” One may have to endure, like the good Calvinist, the seeming contradictory, but there is no questioning of enlightenment as set forth by the Buddha. “Insofar as one is a Buddhist, one’s abstract ideals, concrete cosmologies, economic pursuits, clothing and bodily comportment, even diet, can be traced back to one’s trust in enlightenment.” There may be disagreement among Buddhists over the details, but all agree there is a Buddha who realized unexcelled and complete enlightenment.[28]

This is not to say the Christian should not expect to find God at work in other cultures and religions, but this expectation should not include suspending critical judgment. Too often nationalism, religious fanaticism, and genocidal violence, are overlooked (perhaps set aside as having nothing to do with the religion), and Zen is a key example. The reality of Japanese Zen has a very different history than the popularized version of the religion which accords it only peace and healing.

[1] Brian Daizen Victoria, Zen at War (New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc., 2006) quoted from the epigraph.

[2] Victoria, x-xi.

[3] Inazō Nitobe, Bushido: The Soul of Japan, 11. Cited in Victoria, 114.

[4] Nitobe, 11-12, Cited in Victoria, 115.

[5] Buddhist magazine Daihōrin, 36-39. Cited in Victoria, 111-112.

[6] Hayashiya and Shimakage, Bukkyō no Sensō Kan, 4. Cited in Victoria, 104-105.

[7] Taigo Furukawa, Rapidly Advancing Japan and the New Mahayana Buddhism (Yakushin Nihon to Shin Daijō Bukkyō), 51. Cited in Victoria, 110.

[8] For example, Ruben L. F. Habito, The Healing Breath of Zen (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2006).

[9] Bernie Glassman Buddhist magazine “tricycle” (1999) Cited in Cohen, xi.  

[10] As Richard Cohen remarks, “What are we to say of a doctrine which is sometimes represented as one of almost perfect Theism; sometimes as direct Atheism; sometimes as having the closest analogy to what in a Greek philosopher, or in a modern philosopher, would be called Pantheism; sometimes as the worship of human saints or heroes; sometimes as altogether symbolical; sometimes as full of the highest abstract speculation; sometimes as vulgar idolatry?” Richard S. Cohen, Beyond Enlightenment: Buddhism, religion, modernity (London and New York: Routledge, 2006) 151.

[11] Raniero Gnoli, ed., The Gilgit Manuscript of the Sakghabhedavastu (Rome: ISMEO, 1977), 1:132. Quoted in Cohen, xii.

[12] V. Treckner, ed., The Majjhima-Nikaya (London: Pali Text Society, 1935), 1:432. Cited in Cohen. 154.

[13] Victoria, 95.

[14] Cohen, xii.

[15] Victoria, xiv.

[16] Victoria, Ibid.

[17] Victoria, Ibid.

[18] Quoted in Ōkura Seishin Bunka Kenkyūjo, Gokoku Bukkyō, pp. 185-209. Cited in Victoria, 97.

[19] Gokoku Bukkyō, 33, Cited in Victoria, 98.

[20] Gokoku Bukkyō, 50, Cited in Victoria, 98.

[21] Gokoku Bukkyō, 50, Cited in Victoria, 99.

[22] Gokoku Bukkyō 50-51, Cited in Victoria, 99.

[23] Gokoku Bukkyō, 130-131, Cited in Victoria, 100.

[24] Cohen, xiii.

[25] Gokoku Bukkyō, pp. 159-160. Cited in Victoria, 97.

[26] Cohen, 157.

[27] Cohen, 157.

[28] Cohen, 161.