Sunday, 31 October 2010

Zen Flesh, Zen Bones

Amidst all the Islamophobia and shrill ‘new atheism’ thrown up by the war on terror, it makes for a striking contrast to consider the reputation of Buddhism in the West. From the Beats to the Beastie Boys, Buddhism’s kept its reputation in the West as the progressive’s choice in faiths, the peaceful and tolerant religion, glossed by Damien Keown in his Very Short Introduction like this:

Buddhism also seems in harmony with the other dominant contemporary Western ideology, namely secular liberalism. Buddhism is undogmatic, even to the extent of instructing its followers not to accept its teachings uncritically, but always to test them in the light of their own experience…Buddhsm is more concerned with the development of understanding than the acceptance of creedal formulas (OUP, 2000)

A nice reminder then, via Jerryson and Jurgensmeyer’s Buddhist Warfare, of the fact that, like all religious traditions, Buddhism’s been shaped by - and has in turn shaped - the history it has developed within. That’s a history of class society, so a history of war.

Here’s Takuan Soho (沢庵 宗彭) from the Rinzai School of Zen, on the philosophical uses of war, and the Buddhist values of violence:

The uplifted sword has no will of its own, it is all of emptiness. It is like a flash of lightning. The man who is about to be struck down is also of emptiness, and so is the one who wields the sword. None of them are possessed of a mind that has any substantiality. As each of them is of emptiness and has no ‘mind’, the striking man is not a man, the sword in his hand is not a sword a sword and the ‘I’ who is about to be struck down is like the splitting of the spring breeze in a flash of lightning.

I’m not knocking the bloke, naturally; he’s had a delicious side dish named after him, and stars in the manga バガボンド, so there’s a legacy there I need to acknowledge.

But historicising’s important, yes? Anyone who’s read their D T Suzuki with any attentiveness shouldn’t be surprised here. Religious discourse and organization are a part of the totality of their social world - from Hong Xiuquan’s Heavenly Kingdom to Korean Christianity in the democracy movement of the 80s to Falung Gong today - and their contradictions and insights are inseperable. We can’t pick and choose what aspects of traditions we want to acknowledge and, more importantly, a pseudo-progressive mystical Orientalism is still an Orientalism.

So watch out for the uplifted sword!

1 comment:

  1. While I obviously can't refute the mere existence of Takuan's creed, if we are to take seriously your assertion that "We can’t pick and choose what aspects of traditions we want to acknowledge and, more importantly," isn't it imperative that you point out the fact that Takuan himself is guilty of a most egregious violation of the same?
    That is to say, the wide eyed Westerner who sees Buddhism as a peaceful religion is FAR less guilty of misreading Buddhism than is Takuan himself.

    Takuan not only willfully ignores the first teaching of the Buddha, that of the four noble truths and the eightfold path that lies within, but he is also a woeful example of Nagarjuna's "dim witted," those who wrongly conceive of emptiness:

    "Emptiness, ill-conceived, destroys a stupid man as would a snake when handled improperly, or a spell badly executed."

    That is to say, while humans have every ability to warp any teaching to their nefarious ends, it is weak analysis to therefore assert that all teachings are prone to violence, hatred and war.

    There is no correlation to Deuternomy Chapters 7 and 20 in the Buddhist teachings. There is no dictum to ""fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem" as in the Qur'an.

    The reason I make this point is that there seems to be an urgent desire in a certain school of Buddhist scholars to take upon themselves the noble quest of disabusing Western neophytes of their silly views on Buddhism, that Buddhism is every bit as doctrinaire and corrupt as any other teaching the neophytes have already turned away from. The point seems always to lead to two conclusions: 1) I, the scholar, am the expert; you, practitioner, are a simpleton; and 2) idealism, especially those of the pacifist variety, is for fools.

    What is especially rich about such self-righteous anti-piety is the fact that Buddhism has ALWAYS been a religion where locals will pick and choose which aspects are helpful and which are less important. That westerners look for the non-dogmatic and peaceful aspects of the religion should be a source of hope, not condemnation. At least they get the core teachings right, unlike Takuan, who is taken as a "more serious" Buddhist by scholars (because he's not white, middle class, and liberal - thus, not an easy target for the sui-disant iconoclasts of the Academy) , even as he violates the most basic tenets of the dharma.