Thursday, 1 March 2012

Good Book: Zen at War (Second Edition)

Once upon a time a mighty nation considered itself the holiest, most righteous in history. The ruling class especially leaned heavily on religious rhetoric, invoking the name of a great prophet to defend its every worldly whim.

Then the nation began committing colossal atrocities against other peoples, and viciously repressing its own. And how did all of those pious believers react?

(Spoiler alert: not well.)

In Zen at War, Brian Daizen Victoria scrapes the stickers off many a smug Zen bumper. Taking Japanese Buddhism by the root he shakes it hard, and a lot of bitter fruit falls out. In the political history of our religion, once considered a seditious foreign cult in Japan, he finds pivotal concessions early teachers made to buy safety and comfort. Spooling forward, we watch these dubious innovations draw in all denominations, until the distinction between the Buddha Dharma and Japan's organic (and congenitally nationalistic) Shinto becomes academic at best.

Arriving at the fascist period and world war, we find virtually no Japanese Buddhists, Zen or otherwise, living the Buddha's teaching. Exceptions are either obscure or excommunicated. Meanwhile, Buddhist teachers kink like contortionists to make patriotism, emperor worship, and wholesale killing intrinsic to the Dharma.

Parallels with America scream in the reader's face. Reading Zen at War, I realised that the American mishmash of messianic nationalism and Christianity is nothing less than State Shinto. Where nation and culture are declared 'scripture made flesh', authentic religion is impossible. And just as a society that muddles God and Mammon castrates Christianity, so one that equates selflessness with service mutilates Buddhism.

The first edition of Zen at War concluded with an illuminating review of the ways that Zen is used to gain obedience in postwar corporate Japan, but the most powerful chapter is only available in the second. In "Was It Buddhism?", the author brings Buddhism forward from India, where it had already become a policy tool for the powerful, through China, where it acquired the relativism of Taoism and the paternal piety of Confucianism. (Deviations any honest Zenner must admit are now fundamental to Zen, pagan origin notwithstanding.) These he compares to the Buddha's actual teachings. For example, investigating sangha, a concept much cited in defence of priestly authority, Daizen notes:
The [Buddhic] Sangha was based on noncoercive, nonauthoritarian principles by which leadership was acquired through superior moral character and spiritual insight, and monastic affairs were managed by a general meeting of the monks (or nuns) […] All decisions required the unanimous consent of those assembled. When differences could not be settled, a committee of elders was charged with finding satisfactory solutions.
Daizen is a Sōtō priest trained at Eiheiji. He holds a master's degree in Buddhist Studies from Komazawa (Buddhist) University in Tokyo, and a doctorate in same from Temple. His andragogical résumé is extensive and tedious. In short, this is not the man to mess with.

But the work does suffer from a lack of editing (or maybe intrusive editing), and a tendency to beat certain points to death. Prominent Western Zenners, including Gary Snyder and Brad Warner, have challenged Daizen's indictment of some iconic figures, charging lazy scholarship and wilful misreading. I'm not qualified to have a side, but in the end, the fact remains that no ordained Zen teacher in Japan actively opposed the war until it was lost.

Aside from that, the book's greatest flaw is its title. Zen at War is actually about all Japanese Buddhist denominations; it takes Daizen half the book just to get around to Zen. All of it is relevant and readable, but I found the Zen monk in me saying, "C'mon, Brian, get to the Zen already!"

But such objections pale before the historical significance of this groundbreaking work. The Japanese edition has already inspired unheard-of public acts of contrition in several influential Zen lineages; this, in a culture even less inclined to apology than Western ones. Zen at War has changed the way Japanese Zenners see themselves. Whether it will change their behaviour as well, only time will tell.

Meanwhile, Western Zenners remain arrogant as ever. Perhaps if more of us read Victoria, we too will be inspired to confront some of the dubious assumptions we've imported whole-cloth from Asia, and so attain greater understanding of the Dharma.
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