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!