Zen and the Art of Divebombing,
or
The Dark Side of the Tao


I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.

Alec Guiness, as Obi-Wan Kenobi, Star Wars, 1977


In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna is taught by Krishna that it is his dharma as a warrior to fight the righteous battle with his cousins and kill them, and that if he kills them without passion or expectation, practicing karmayoga, he can achieve salvation even while he does this. A similar mix of purposes, religious and martial, though with major differences, can be found centuries later with the samurai warrior class of Japan, and with the militaristic ideology that later developed in modern Japan.

Although fighting battles and killing enemies would seem to violate the Buddha-dharma, specifically the Precept of the Buddha not to kill, an apparent violation that has troubled many over the years, certain samurai, and later the modern military, ultimately could see themselves as fulfilling a Buddhist purpose in what they did, even in the horrors of World War II in the Pacific. The code of the samurai, later called bushidô, the "Way of the Warrior," was in no way a religious duty like Arjuna's dharma, but a connection between religion and battle was made through the way in which Zen Buddhism wedded Buddhist purposes to both the Taoist practice of an art or a craft and, in a historical tradition dominated by a military class, the Japanese "martial arts."

While the most important modern political application of karmayoga has been Mahâtmâ Gandhi's Satyagraha, "non-violent resistance," which inspired Martin Luther King's conduct of the civil rights movement in the United States, the mix of Zen and bushidô arguably contributed to the aggression and war crimes of Japan during the "China Incident" and the Pacific War. The ultimate lesson, as we shall see, is one about the nature of morality.

"Zen" is the Japanese pronunciation of the name of a School of Buddhism that originally began in China, combining Buddhist ideas with influence from the ancient Chinese school of Taoism. The Chinese name was "Ch'an" (, Chán in Pinyin -- the character at far left is a modern simplified Japanese version), which itself was the Chinese pronunciation of dhyana, "meditation," in Sanskrit. It has become common to use "Zen" to refer to the Ch'an School both in China and in the other places to which the School spread, like Korea and Vietnam. This has occurred probably because Zen was popularized in the West by Japanese practitioners like D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966). The chart illustrates the historic flow of influence, with the Korean and Vietnamese pronunciations, as well as the Japanese, of "Ch'an." The major schools of Zen in Japan are also given.

Traditionally, Ch'an is supposed to have begun in China with a semi-legendary Buddhist missionary from India, Bodhidharma (died c.528) -- Japanese Bodai Daruma, or just Daruma. The story is that Bodhidharma arrived in China, went to the Shao-lin () Monastery -- famous as the place where kung-fu (from , "ability; work; service"), Chinese boxing, is supposed to have originated (and popularized in the Kung Fu television series, starring David Carradine, in the 1970's) -- and sat down to stare at a wall. After nine years, he suddenly achieved enlightenment. Bodhidharma is often shown with legs that are withered, or have even fallen off, because of how long he had sat on them, cutting off the circulation. In Japan, this has given rise to the "Daruma doll," in which Bodhidharma (Daruma) is represented in a round shape, as a good luck talisman, weighted so that it will return upright when roled.

In this strange story, Bodhidharma is supposed to have achieved "Sudden Enlightenment," whose characteristic is not just that it is sudden but that it is inexplicable. There is nothing about the wall, or about what Bodhidharma was thinking about (if anything), that explains why or how he achieved enlightenment. This goes back to a fundamental feature of Buddhist thought, that not everything about reality is or can be explained. Thus, when the Buddha was asked about certain things, he said they were "questions which tend not to edification," and refused to answer them. The Buddha said:

Bear always in mind what it is that I have not elucidated, and what it is that I have elucidated. And what have I not elucidated? I have not elucidated that the world is eternal; I have not elucidated that the world is not eternal; I have not elucidated that the world is finite; I have not elucidated that the world is infinite; I have not elucidated that the soul and the body are identical; I have not elucidated that the soul is one thing and the body another; I have not elucidated that the saint [arhat, one who achieves enlightenment in Theravâda Buddhism] exists after death; I have not elucidated that the saint does not exist after death; I have not elucidated that the saint both exists and does not exist after death; I have not elucidated that the saint neither exists nor does not exist after death. And why have I not elucidated this? Because this profits not, nor has to do with the fundamentals of relgiion, nor tends to aversion, absence of passion, cessation, quiescence, the supernatural faculties, supreme wisdom, and Nirvana; therefore have I not elucidated it.

And what have I elucidated? Misery [duhkha, pain, suffering -- from the root du, to burn, pain, torment] have I elucidated; the origin of misery have I elucidated; the cessation of misery have I elucidated; and the path leading to the cessation of misery have I elucidated [i.e. the Four Noble Truths]. And why have I elucidated this? Because this does profit, has to do with the fundamentals of religion, and tends to aversion, absence of passion, cessation, quiescence, knowledge, supreme wisdom, and Nirvana; therefore have I elucidated it. [Henry Clarke Warren, Buddhism in Translation, Harvard University Press, 1896, Atheneum, 1962-1987, p.122 -- Sutta-Pit.aka, Majjhima-Nikâya, Sutta 63]

The Buddha's refusal to "elucidate" that the saint exists after death, or does not exist, or both, or neither, produces one of the basic principles of Buddhist thought, the Fourfold Negation (or "tetralemma"). The Greek Hellenistic philosopher Pyrrho of Elis picked up this idea while in India with the army of Alexander the Great, and taught a skepticism where we are to "suspend judgment" in all things, refusing to say of anything either that it is, or that it is not, or both, or neither. The Buddhist origin of this is unmistakable, even if we did not also have credible evidence of Pyrrho having been in India. In Buddhism itself, a stronger idea developed, not just that these issues do not "tend to edification," but that the nature of reality is such that these rational alternates cannot apply to it, so that, in fact, the saint neither exists after death nor does not exist nor both nor neither -- because, whatever the nature of the saint's existence, it is beyond rational comprehension, beyond the affirmation or denial of any possible predicate.

We see this in a story recorded about Bodhidharma by Tao-yüan (Dôgen, in Japanese) in about 1004. Desiring to choose a "dharma heir" and return to India, Bodhidharma asked his closest students to state the essence of his teaching [these are the Japanese versions of their names]:

Dofuku said, "In my opinion, truth is beyond affirmation or negation, for this is the way it moves."

Bodhidharma replied: "You have my skin."

The nun Soji said: "In my view, it is like Ananda's sight of the Buddha-land -- seen once and for ever."

Bodhidharma answered: "You have my flesh."

Doiku said: "The four elements of light [i.e. fire], airiness [i.e. air], fluidity [i.e. water], and solidity [i.e. earth] are empty [shûnya, i.e. neither existence nor non-existence, etc.] and the five skandhas are no-things. In my opinion, no-thing is reality."

Bodhidharma commented: "You have my bones."

Finally, Eka bowed before the master -- and remained silent.

Bodhidharma said: "You have my marrow."
[Paul Reps, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, Charles E. Tuttle, 1967, Anchor Books, and Shambhala, 1994, pp.ix-x]

In Buddhism, the "marrow" here is a distinctively Ch'an idea, that the ultimate teaching is silent. This is not, of course, an unfamiliar idea in China, where Taoism was already the "Silent Teaching" and the Tao Te Ching said, "One who knows does not speak; one who speaks does not know" [LVI:128]. This characteristically Taoist idea, then, is assimilated into Buddhism through Ch'an. A Buddhist background for it, however, needed to be discovered or....manufactured. The legend that developed was that Bodhidharma was the 28th "patriarch" in a line of apostolic succession from the Buddha's disciple, Mahâkâshyapa, who had smiled faintly and attracted the Buddha's attention after the Buddha delivered a sermon and was just twirling a lotus flower. Mahâkâshyapa understood that the real teaching was the silent twirling of the lotus, and the Buddha recognized that he alone understood this.

As it happens, one of the most important Buddhist texts in the Mahâyâna tradition is the Lotus Sûtra (in full, the Saddharma Pun.d.arîka Sûtra, the "Sutra of the True Dharma of the Lotus Blossom," Miao-fa Lien-hua Ching in Chinese and Myôhô Renge Kyô in Japanese), which has the peculiar structure of referring to a sermon that the Buddha gives, the Lotus Sermon, even while it is never clear that he actually does give this sermon in the text (cf. Leon Hurvitz, Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma, Columbia University Press, 1976). Although I don't know if the claim was ever made, the Ch'an tradition could easily say that the "Lotus Sermon" was in fact the silent twirling of the flower, which could not be recorded in the text, but which did constitute the extra-texual "silent teaching." As it happens, the episode with Mahâkâshyapa is supposed to have taken place on Gr.dhrakût.a, "Vulture Peak" ("Mount of the Numinous Eagle" to Hurvitz), which is where the sermon of the Lotus Sutra was located.

Thus, Ch'an claimed a special "transmission separate from texts," which had to be confirmed in someone by a person in the line of transmission from Mahâkâshyapa. The idea of the transmission apart from texts could be fiercely denied by other Buddhist figures. Zen may sometimes seem to dispense with texts altogether, but this tendency was even criticized by some Zen figures, like Dôgen (1200-1253), who said that without texts Buddhism was nothing but "bald headed monks." Indeed.

Since each person's enlightenment needs to be certified by someone in the apostolic succession, Ch'an contains an essential element that could easily become authoritarian and dictatorial, depending on the personal authority of the certified teachers. But Ch'an contains the opposite tendency also, at times seeming very antinomian, anarchic, and individualistic, as in the saying that if you meet the Buddha on the road, you should kill him -- since enlightenment is not be found in some person. Other factors will determine which tendency predominates at different times and places.

The indirect nature of the "silent teaching" can be illustrated with a couple of examples. One is a story, the very first one I ever heard about Zen (back in 1967):

A young man hears that there is a Zen master living as a hermit in the forest. He decides to become his student. After much searching, he finds the hut of the old master, and the man himself is out in front of the hut, raking leaves. Introducing himself and explaining his desire to become the master's student, the young man is surprised to then receive no answer. The old man has continued his raking and never even looks up or acknowledges the young man's presence. This is naturally very disconcerting, and the young man stands and thinks for some time. Then he does off in another part of the forest and builds his own hut. Ten years later, while he is raking leaves, he suddenly achieves enlightenment (satori). He immediately returns to the old Zen master, bows, and says, "Thank you."

This little story exhibits the purest form of the "silent teaching." Indeed, it is no less than the "silent treatment" by the old Zen master. Few Zen masters are so reticent. The Japanese Zen master Bankei (1622-1693) was famous for his popular lectures. But this story illustrates very well the idea that enlightenment cannot be conveyed by language. Indeed, there is a familiar saying that nothing can be said that can do more for enlightenment than what a finger pointing at the moon can do for seeing the moon. In this image, it is not hard to understand that the finger is not the moon, has basically nothing to do with the moon, and that once the moon is seen, the finger becomes superfluous and irrelevant. Someone who continued pointing at the moon after all others had already seen it would be thought a fool. I especially like his image because I had a cat once, and whenever I used to set out her dinner and tried to point to it, she always just looked at my finger. In Ch'an, one would say that we are distracted by the language the same way that my cat was distracted by my finger. With my cat, I could move my finger toward her dinner, and eventually she would notice the food and forget about the finger. With enlightenment, or even with the moon, such an expedient is not available.

Bodhidharma is supposed to have anointed as his successor (the "second Patriarch" in China) his student Hui-k'o (Eka, the "marrow" student above, in Japanese). After the death of the fifth Patriarch, Heng-jen, there was a split in the tradition, resulting in the Northern School, of Shen-hsui, who held that enlightenment is attained gradually (a common idea in Buddhism at the time, when it was thought that merit, from worthy deeds, needed to be accumulated over many lifetimes), and the Southern school, of Hui-neng (638-713, Enô, in Japanese), who taught the charactestic Ch'an idea of sudden and spontaneous enlightenment. The Southern School is the one that became particularly antinomian, careless of ritual, and emphasizing the "silent teaching" passed from teacher to student.

Eventually the Southern School eclipsed the Northern School, but by the 9th century, two more tendencies began to differentiate Ch'an practice, over the manner of meditation. The basic practice of meditation, as Bodhidharma seemed to be doing it himself, was called "just sitting" (tso-ch'an in Chinese, zazen in Japanese -- or, more commonly, ). This is meditation without any of the meditative aids familiar from India, mantras (words or formulas), man.d.alas (diagrams), or mudrâs (gestures). Staring at a wall for nine years is indeed "just sitting." This practice becomes characteristic of the Ts'ao-tung School in China, the Sôtô School in Japan.

Another form of practice also became popular, however. Stories or questions that had arisen in the tradition could themselves become the objects of meditation (as, in effect, mantras). These were called kung-an in Chinese -- , kôan in Japanese -- a term that originally meant a judge's table and which came to mean court cases. So in meditation one can consider "cases." This became characteristic of the Lin-chi School in China, the Rinzai School in Japan.

It is a Japanese kôan, from Hakuin (1685-1768), that is probably the most famous of all. To begin meditation, one might be asked (by the master or by the abbot of one's monastary), "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Several simple answers might suggest themselves. The sound of one hand clapping could be silence. "Silent teaching," right? Or it might be slapping the hand against one's thigh, or even clapping the palm of the hand with the fingers on the same hand. All of these answers, however reasonable, might only earn a beating from the Zen master. The point of all such kôans is that there is no answer. The negation goes deeper than just saying either "silence" or "no sound." The negation applies to the question itself:  It is a self-contradictory question. One hand cannot clap. So the whole idea of the sound of one hand clapping is meaningless [note].

What is the point of asking meaningless questions? Entirely to disrupt rational thought and make the mind jump the tracks that normally confine it. Since that is the only way to get at enlightenment, which also defeats rational thought, then even humble questions can do the job. But how does one answer the question to the satisfaction of the Zen master? With an answer just as meaningless and irrelevant as the question, or perhaps by giving the Zen master a beating himself.

A monk asked Fuketsu: "Without speaking, without silence, how can you express the truth?"

Fuketsu observed: "I always remember springtime in southern China. The birds sing among innumerable kinds of fragrant flowers." [Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, p.200]

Meditation by "just sitting" and by trying to answer a kôan are what I call the theoretical side of Ch'an. In mediation what you want is knowledge or understanding. You are not doing anything. Indeed, in Zen meditation there is a tendency for one to fall asleep, which is why a proctor is often used to thrash sitters back to consciousness. Bodhidharma may have achieved enlightenment after staring at his wall, but he had not done anything practical, and, if his legs really whithered, he had damaged his ability to ever do very much that was practical. We find, however, a Zen tradition that displays a practical application of its ideas. This is especially conspicuous in the Zen classic, Zen in the Art of Archery (originally Zen in der Kunst des Bogenschiessens), by the German philosophy professor Eugen Herrigel (1884-1955).

Herrigel had been interested in Zen for some time and managed to get a teaching appointment in Japan, from 1923 to 1929, just so he could explore the "mysticism" of such a different tradition. However, he was discouraged at every attempt to enter into the practice of meditation. His Japanese hosts (in their own politely xenophobic way) did not think that meditation would be to his taste (i.e. the gaijin isn't up to it). What was eventually suggested, however, was that he study an art under a Zen master. Archery was something he already knew a little, so that seemed like an agreeable avenue. His wife simultaneously took up flower arranging [note].

The archery techniques were rather different from what was familiar to him. But the first lesson, drawing the bow, was not so bad. The second lesson, however, was very bad. He was told by the archery master that he must release the arrow without releasing the arrow:  "You mustn't open the right hand on purpose" [Zen in the Art of Archery, Vintage Books, 1989, p.29]. This would seem to be a necessarily impossible task. If one is to release the arrow, then the arrow will necessarily need to be released? No? Evidently not.

Familiarity with Ch'an and Taoism, however, answers the paradox of the instruction. An impossible task is a kind of kôan, but to do this, to release the arrow without releasing the arrow, without purpose or intention, this is thoroughly explained by something else:  It calls for Not-Doing (), the fundamental principle of Taoism. Taoism is about actions and already has views about art and practice. The Zen practice of the "art of archery" combines Taoist theory and Taoist purposes with Buddhist theory and Buddhist purposes. The Taoist purpose of art is to perfect an art and achieve beauty. These are purposes wholly alien to Buddhism. Back in India, the idea that Buddhism might be used to achieve beauty in life would be absolutely farcical. In India, Buddhist meditation on the transiency of life might take place at a cremation ground or other places where death and decay are present and obvious. By the time Buddhism gets to Japan, meditation on the transiency of life might take place in the presence of blooming Cherry Trees, whose flowers are indeed transient, but which are certainly far more pleasant to contemplate than burning or rotting corpses. Herrigel says:

The effortlessness of a performance for which great strength is needed is a spectacle of whose aesthetic beauty the East has an exceedingly sensitive and grateful appreciation. [ibid., p.27]

But it is not an "appreciation" that comes from Buddhism. The Buddhist purpose of any practice, of course, is to achieve enlightenment and Nirvana, the things that the Buddha "elucidated" above. How are these Buddhist purposes accomplished through the practice of an art? Or, more specificially, accomplished through Not-Doing? We can find the answer by asking what is doing the practice if the artist himself is "not" doing it. As it happens, Herrigel's archery master says something about this:

Then, one day, after a shot, the Master made a deep bow and broke off the lessson, "Just then 'It' shot!" he cried, as I stared at him bewildered...

"What I have said," the Master told me severely, "was not praise, only a statement that ought not to touch you. Nor was my bow meant for you, for you are entirely innocent of this shot. [ibid., pp.52-53]

When Herrigel achieves not-doing, he does not release the arrow, but "It" releases the arrow [note]. When Herrigel asks what "It" might be, he is told, "Once you have understood that, you will have no further need of me" [p.52].

In Taoist terms, the answer to what the "It" might be is fairly simple:  When we achieve not-doing, it is the Tao that does whatever is done. But the Tao is not part of Buddhism -- except perhaps as the Fourth Noble Truth, the "Way" -- but certainly not as a metaphysical agent. What releases the arrow for Buddhism? Well, if the purpose of Buddhism is to achieve enlightenment, then the purpose of Buddhism is to become a Buddha. If achieving not-doing means achieving enlightenment, then it is one's own self as a Buddha that releases the arrow. Of course, in Buddhism there is no self, so we cannot really say it is "one's own self" that becomes a Buddha. What we find instead is that it is one's "Buddha Nature" that is realized in enlightenment. So we can say that one's Buddha Nature is "It" and that it is the Buddha Nature that releases the arrow.

Now, Herrigel's teacher does not discuss the Buddha Nature, so in Zen in the Art of Archery ones never does learn what "It" is. While the Buddha Nature is commonly discussed in Mahâyâna Buddhism, and also in Zen (e.g. Bankei), there is a Zen tradition to avoid the idea as not "tending to edification." Thus the Chinese master Chao-chou (778-897, Joshu in Japanese) was asked whether a dog had a Buddha Nature. Since dogs are sentient beings, and all sentient beings can be reborn as humans and become Buddhas, dogs would ordinarily be said to certainly have a Buddha Nature. However, Chao-chou answered "Wu!" in Chinese. This is often translated as "No!" but it is not the ordinary Chinese negative for "no" or "not" (which would be pu -- in Wade-Giles, bu in Pinyin -- Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary, character 5379, [Harvard University Press, 1943, 1972]). Chao-chou uses Mathew's character 7180, , whose meaning is given there as "without; apart from; none. A negative" [p.1065]. Chao-chou is not really answering "no" to the question, i.e. to deny that a dog has a Buddha Nature; he is saying not to ask the question, which is hard to do in one word -- but this is the traditional and reasonable interpretation of his answer. Since the Japanese pronunciation of wu is mu (hence, the "mu kôan"), one Japanese author playfully suggested that Chao-chou was simply making a noise like a cow ("Moo!") and not answering the question at all. In the "Gateless Gate," the Chinese master Ekai (1183-1260, Japanese pronunciation), comments with a poem stating the unanswerability of the question:

Has a dog a Buddha-nature?
This is the most serious question of all.
If you say yes or no,
You lose your own Buddha-nature.
[Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, p.165]

The "silent teaching" thus may avoid the issue of the Buddha Nature altogether, but if we want to know what not-doing has to do with Buddhism, it is the Buddha Nature that is available in place of the Taoist Tao. This ties together Buddhist practice and Taoist practice and the dual goals of enlightenment and beauty.

Further debates occur about whether the Buddha Nature is acquired, through practice and the accumulation of merit, or is original, i.e. inherent in all beings capable of enlightenment. This question would, of course, be even more irksome for the likes of Ekai, so we need not consider it any more here, except to give a characteristic quote from Bankei, whose whole teaching rested on the "unborn" Buddha-mind, i.e. everyone's original Buddha Nature:

Not a single one of you people at this meeting is unenlightened. Right now, you're all sitting before me as Buddhas. Each of you received the Buddha-mind from your mothers when you were born, and nothing else. This inherited Buddha-mind is beyond any doubt unborn, with a marvelously bright illuminative wisdom. In the Unborn, all things are perfectly resolved. [The Unborn, The Life and Teaching of Zen Master Bankei, 1622-1693, translated and with an Introduction by Norman Waddell, North Point Press, San Francisco, 1984, p.35]

Bankei's statement, "In the Unborn, all things are perfectly resolved," highlights another aspect to this. If Buddhist practice can produce beauty, then maybe this world, the place of birth, disease, old age, and death, is not so bad after all. Maybe we don't really need to avoid rebirth -- the goal of all Indian religion. Indeed, the Chinese influence in Ch'an tended to turn Buddhism from a world-denying religion into a more world-affirming religion. This can be stated in traditional Buddhist terms. The Buddha himself achieved enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree, but the Sutta-Pit.aka states clearly that he achieved Nirvana at his death -- "and rising from the fourth trance, immediately The Blessed One passed into Nirvana" [Buddhism in Translation, op. cit., p.110]. We have a special term for that occasion, the pari-nirvân.a, the "complete" Nirvana. If the purpose of Buddhist practice is to be free of sam.sâra, the round of birth and death, then this could only be accomplished through a parinirvân.a.

On the other hand, was the Buddha really still suffering after he achieved enlightenment? If not, then he had achieved Nirvana already and sam.sâra had actually been transformed into a place without suffering. The metaphysical possibility for this had been opened in Mahâyâna Buddhism by the Mâdhyamika ("Middle") School. The greatest philosopher of this school, and possibly the greatest Buddhist philosopher ever, Nagârjuna (c.150-250), had applied the Fourfold Negation to most attempts at rational understanding, even to the difference between Nirvana and sam.sâra, which thus come out neither the same, nor different, nor both, nor neither. This ambiguity opened the way for world-affirming Chinese interpretations, and probably for the much more worldly tantrism of the Vajrayâna stage of Buddhism even in India. Ch'an, with its Taoist side, was never very interested in being free of the world, and when it became attached to the practice of arts and skills, it could even see itself as supremely successful at participating in worldly affairs. Other schools of Chinese Buddhism, like T'ien T'ai (Tendai in Japan), became similarly world affirming, as did some distinctively Japanese schools.

Thus, we often find statements in East Asian Buddhism that the fruit of enlightenment is to see that life and the world are just fine the way they are. This is rather astonishing in comparison to the original message and milieu of Buddhism back in India, but it naturally reflects both the internal evolution of Buddhist thought and the powerful influence, once the message arrives in China, of a civilization that no one would ever mistake for being world-denying, or "otherwordly" in any sense.

Now, I have been considering the case of Eugen Herrigel learning the "art of archery"; but there is something odd about that art. It was not invented in order to shoot at straw targets, as Herrigal and his teacher do. No, archery had the very practical purpose of use in hunting, to shoot Bambi, or in war, to shoot people. Indeed, Herrigel's teacher says, "We master archers say: one shot -- one life!" [p.31]. Archery is a martial art, i.e. an art of war.

Although archery was originally the most important martial art in Japan, and shooting targets from horseback is still a practiced sport, eventually the sword became for the warrior class of Mediaeval Japan, the samurai, the most imporant weapon, at least in theory. "The sword is the soul of the samurai" -- though this became the case mainly during the Edo Period, when there was rarely real fighting, apart from duels, and when firearms, which had decided battles in the 16th century, had all been seized and destroyed. The Edo samurai were required by law to carry two swords, and no one else was permited to carry more than one short sword (the wakizashi) for self defense. Today the basic techniques of sword fighting can still be learned in the sport of kendô (the "way of the sword"), and the techniques special to using an actual sword can be learned in the martial art of iaidô (the "art of drawing the sword"). Both of these disciplines can be considered parts of kenjutsu (the "art of the sword").

The sword as an art easily fits a Taoist paradigm, articulated through the kôan of a Chinese master, who said that before he ever studied Ch'an, he always thought that mountains were just mountains. Then when he began studying, he found that mountains were not mountains (a typical Taoist paradox). After long study, he stopped worrying about this and mountains went back to being mountains again. This easily describes the stages of reaching enlightenment through meditation, but it can also describe the stages of learning an art or skill, not just something like the sword, but even very humble skills.

For instance, learning to drive an automobile with a clutch, which cannot be done without some instruction, actually involves a very simple rule: (1) step on the clutch, (2) put the engine in gear, and (3) slowly step on the gas pedal and the release the clutch at the same time. This simple procedure always turns out to be very difficult to effect. It takes, not more instruction, but just constant practice. Eventually, it becomes easy, smooth, and natural, and the driver simply forgets about it, doing it automatically, which is good, since a driver needs to look where he is going. Learning the use of a sword has an added aspect that a completely ignorant person can still pick up a sword and, in general, know what to do with it. Such a person can even be dangerous, since in a fight he will be desperate and there is no telling what they might do. Someone who receives instruction, however, is endangered by their own concentration on the techniques they are learning. They may even be a worse swordsman than the ignorant person, until the techniques become natural and automatic. This is easily explained by the circumstance that ignorance is much more like "not-doing" than is the "doing," effort, and trying of the stage of instruction.

Another humble example also illustrates the Taoist principle of "No-Mind" (wu-hsin, ), which is the emptiness of thought that results from the not-doing of the mind. Typing is a skill that anyone can practice, since the identity of the letters is usually printed on the keys. Anyone can thus sit down and type, by the "hunt and peck" method, usually using just index fingers. People can go their whole lives typing like this and doing just fine. On the other hand, "hunt and peck" can never be all that fast, and anyone might wish to increase their speed and facility by taking lessons in "touch typing," where all the fingers are assigned to particular keys. Beginning instruction, one's typing is certainly much worse than even the slowest "hunt and peck" typist; and it takes some time to develop ease and facility with the method. Eventually, however, one's fingers become accustomed to hitting certain keys, and speeds of 70, 100, or more words-per-minute can be achieved. A very odd thing may then happen. Years after I had learned to type, I realized that I had actually forgotten, consciousnessly, where all the keys were. My fingers would go them them automatically when typing a word, but if I asked myself, "where is such-and-such a key," it often took some thought, or looking, to identify where the key was. This loss of memory, while retaining an automatic skill, is a perfect example of "No-Mind." With the sword, the ideal was to be able, with thought, to spontaneously draw, strike, and kill all in the same blinding motion. I think this is why baseball is popular in Japan -- a game with a great deal of standing around but where, once the ball is hit, the action proceeds in a flash, and players who stop to think what to do will certainly commit an "error."

With the sword, there is indeed little else to really do with it but kill. But war and killing raise the awkward problem, for anyone in East Asia, that they violate the moral precept of the Buddha not to kill. This injunction was taken very seriously in the entire history of Buddhism, and even in Japan it was long believed that fowlers and fishermen would fall into one of the Buddhist Hells (of which there are many) because they killed sentient beings. They did not practice what, in the Eightfold Way, would be called "right livelihood." And besides, if the purpose of Buddhism is to eradicate suffering, doesn't killing inflict suffering? But if fowlers and fishermen would fall into Hell for their professions, what about men whose livelihood involved killing, not just sentient beings, but human beings? This would mean the samurai. What is going to prevent them from falling into Hell?

It has now become common to see the samurai as resorting to Zen to effect their salvation. Thus, in his Zen and Japanese Culture [1938, Bollingen Series LXIV, Princeton University Press, 1959], D.T. Suzuki said:

We have the saying in Japan: "The Tendai is for the royal family, the Shingon for the nobility, the Zen for the warrior classes, and the Jôdo for the masses." This saying fitly characterizes each sect of Buddhism in Japan. [p.63]

Actually, it doesn't. One of the greatest samurai of all, the first Edo Period Shôgun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, was a patron of Jôdo, or "Pure Land" Buddhism. The great appeal of Jôdo for a samurai was its teaching that all of us are hopelessly sinful, all destined for Hell, and that our only chance for salvation is to rely on the power of the original Vow of the Buddha Amitâbha (Amida Butsu in Japanese) to cause all beings who call on him to be born into his Western Paradise, his Pure Land, where they can work out their salvation without suffering or distractions (like sex -- people are born from lotuses). Invoking Amida means chanting the "Nembutsu" -- Namu Amida Butsu -- where namu comes from Sanskrit namas, "bowing, obeisance, adoration."

Jôdo, and the closely related Jôdo Shin-shu, are still the most popular forms of Buddhism in Japan; and so Suzuki's saying that it is for the "masses" is, as far as that goes, accurate. But besides a samurai like Ieyasu, and his predecessor Toyotomi Hideyoshi (who is buried on Amida-yama in Kyôto), we also have a counterexample to Suzuki in perhaps the greatest Japanese epic, the Heike Monogatari (The Tale of the Heike, c.1240 -- or see the story of "Hoichi the Earless" in Masaki Kobayashi's classic 1964 movie Kwaidan). As the fleet of the samurai clan of the Taira is defeated at the battle of Dan-no-ura by the Minamoto clan in 1185, and the child emperor Antoku is about to die with his grandmother, Nii-no-ama, when she jumps with him into the water, she first tells him to face East, to honor the Sun goddess Amaterasu-ômikami at Ise, and to the West, to invoke the Buddha Amida and his Pure Land.

She turned her face to the young sovereign, holding back her tears. "Don't you understand? You became an Emperor because you obeyed the Ten Good Precepts in your last life, but now an evil karma holds you fast in its toils. Your good fortune has come to an end. Turn to the east and say goodbye to the Grand Shrine of Ise, then turn to the west and repeat the sacred name of Amida Buddha, so that he and his host may come to escort you to the Pure Land. This county is a land of sorrow; I am taking you to a happy realm called Paradise." [The Tale of the Heike, translated by Helen Craig McCullough, Stanford University Press, 1988, p.378]

The Jôdo sect did not yet exist at this time, but Pure Land practice was widespread. Thus, not only do we find samurai, like Ieyasu and Hideyoshi, as Pure Land patrons, but also important persons from the "royal [actually, imperial] family."

In Pure Land practice, the whole issue of the sinfulness of war and killing is conveniently avoided. People are expected to sin anyway, so if we must, we don't have to worry about it too much. All we have to worry about is getting to the Pure Land. This is not just a Japanese approach. Rebirth into a Buddha Land (there are several besides Amida's) is also one of the possibilities in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Not as good as Nirvana, but better than being reborn here.

There were also, however, samurai who were patrons of Zen. This began with the Hôjô Regents of the Kamakura Shoguns, but later one of the most important figures was Oda Nobunaga, the first local lord, besides Hideyoshi and Ieyasu, who was responsible for the unification of Japan in the 16th century. The personalities of the three figures are captured in a parable about how each of them would get a bird to sing:  Nobunaga would say, "Sing, or I'll kill you"; Hideyoshi would say, "Sing, or I'll make you sing"; and Ieyasu would say, "Sing, or I'll wait for you to sing." Distinguished by his ruthlessness, Nobunaga became infamous for burning the Tendai temples on Mt. Hiei, above Kyôto, and he is buried in a complex of Zen temples, the Daitokuji, in the same city.

How would Zen enable the samurai to avoid the sinfulness of their profession? Mainly through the Taoist expedient of not thinking about it. The "silent teaching" can very effectively avoid moral issues, including breaches of the precepts, by dismissing them with all other conceptual and rational issues. Taoism, of course, expects that by not-doing, by not thinking about moral principles, things will take care of themselves.

Exterminate benevolence, discard rectitude [righteousness],
And the people will again be filial...
[Tao Te Ching, translated by D.C. Lau, Penguin Books, 1963, p. 23, XIX:43]

A version of this also turns up in Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:  "Peace of mind produces right values, right values produce right thoughts. Right thoughts produce right actions...." [p. 267]." Pirsig apparently thinks that the right meditative attitude, "peace of mind," will spontaneously produce right values, thoughts, and actions, without the mediation of rational examination and analysis -- the kind of thing that Socrates, whom Pirsig dislikes, might do. This is a version of moral aestheticism. With Zen, its effects can be tested. Did the mastery of archery by Eugen Herrigel produce "right values, thoughts, and actions"? Evidently not, since he returned to Germany and became an enthusiastic Nazi. Is there anything in Zen and the Art of Archery that might provide some moral principle prejudicial to things like Naziism? Really, no. D.T. Suzuki himself, writing in the 1930's, said:

Zen has no special doctrine or philosophy, no set of concepts or intellectual formulas, except that it tries to release one from the bondage of birth and death, by means of certain intuitive modes of understanding peculiar to itself. It is, therefore, extremely flexible in adapting itself to almost any philosophy and moral doctrine as long as its intuitive teaching is not interfered with. It may be found wedded to anarchism or fascism, communism or democracy, atheism or idealism, or any political or economic dogmatism. It is, however, generally animated with a certain revolutionary spirit, and when things come to a deadlock -- as they do when we are overloaded with conventionalism, formalism, or other cognate isms -- Zen asserts itself and proves to be a destructive force. [ibid., p. 63]

As he was writing, "fascism" actually meant Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, and "communism" actually meant Josef Stalin. They were all of them, indeed, a "destructive force" -- they may have been responsible for the deaths of up on 70 million people. And Suzuki himself appeared to have no objections to fascism and militarism as they developed in Japan -- recently examined by Brian Victoria in his Zen at War [Weatherhill, 1997]. Morally this leaves us with Zen as completely undiscriminating -- morally blind -- which is not what Taoism, or many Zen masters, would have expected. We might call this the "Dark Side of the Tao," on analogy with the "Dark Side" of the Tao-like "Force" in the Star Wars movies. As it happened, the "silence," or the "dark side," allowed for the practice of great wrongs and the perpetration of great evils.

What happened to Taoism, morally, back in China? Well, nature abhores a vacuum. If the Taoists didn't want to talk about morality, the Confucians were more than happy to do so. The void of moral discourse left by Taoism was easily filled by the moral discourse of Confucianism; and Taoists were largely expected to obey Confucian morality in their public and private life, enforced by Confucian officials, which is why Taoist sages often took to the hills as hermits. In Japan something rather different happened. The samurai would pay little attention to Confucius, who, after all, had said, "Your job is to govern, not to kill" [Analects, XII:19]. It was indeed the job of the samurai to kill. Nor was there a class of Confucian bureaucrats to dominate the government, as in China during the Ming Dynasty. Japan had gone the opposite way of China, with the military coming to dominate the country in the Kamakura Period. What moved to fill the Taoist void of Zen was then the ethos of the military, of the samurai, namely bushidô, the "Way of the Warrior." In the feudal system that came to dominate Japan, one's duty was to one's lord. If he said, "Go kill those fellows," you go kill them. If he said, "Go kill your family," you go kill them. And if he said, "Go kill yourself," then you go kill yourself (seppuku, ritual suicide).

While it is not uncommon to see statements, in martial arts books or even in samurai movies, that a samurai only draws his sword in the interest of justice, or only returns an attack that has been made on him (the "submissive way," judô, , ideology derived from Taoism), the only samurai who had the luxury of acting this way were the rônin, the "wave men," who were unemployed and so without a master. They could defend the innocent or do whatever else they liked, as we see in the classic Kurosawa Akira movies The Seven Samurai (Shichi-nin no Samurai, 1954 -- remade as a Western, the Magnificent Seven, 1960) and Yojimbo (1961 -- remade as a Western, A Fistful of Dollars, 1964 -- though the original story seems to have been Dashiell Hammett's "Continental Op" novel, Red Harvest). There are even stories about a samurai who was the "master of no sword." In one of those, he was recognized and challenged by another samurai while they were taking a ferry across a river. He suggested that they be put off and fight on an island that was coming up. After they got off the ferry, the "master of no sword" pushed the boat off but then jumped on himself, calling back, "That is my technique of 'no sword'," as the challenger was left behind on the island.

But no samurai wanted to be unemployed. This meant poverty, and the samurai as much as anyone wanted a family and a position in life. How unpleasant it could be to be a rônin we see in Masaki Kobayashi's movie Harakiri (1962), where we find that many unemployed samurai are really reduced to begging. Toshiro Mifune's character in Yojimbo, like John Belushi in his Saturday Night Live samurai skits of the 1970's, is dressed very nearly in rags and seems to scratch himself a lot, from lice or just lack of bathing. Indeed, that is what poverty is like. With a job and a master, however, a samurai no longer was free to make his own judgments -- he was expected to do what he was told.

What bushidô was originally all about is now open to debate. G. Cameron Hurst III argued in "Death, honor, and loyalty: the bushido ideal" [Philosophy East and West, Volume XL, No. 4, October 1990, pp.511-527] that 20th century notions about bushidô mostly have nothing to do with the samurai but are based on an 1899 book by Nitobe Inazô (1862-1933), Bushidô: The Soul of Japan. Nitobe was Western educated, knew relatively little about Japanese history, and even thought that he had coined the word bushidô himself. His ability to faithfully represent Japanese history, culture, and values is thus sorely in question. Hurst, on the occasion of the death of Emperor Hirohito in 1989, noted the hostility to the Emperor, as a possible war criminal, at the time.

The emotional reaction to the emperor's death and funeral protocol, as well as discussions with many who are not Japan specialists, impressed upon me once again the widespread belief that the behavior of Japanese forces in World War II was conditioned by adherence to the old samurai code of ethics called bushidô, which emphasized unflinching loyalty to the emperor, even to the point of willingly sacrificing one's life, by suicide if necessary. Bushidô in many Western minds, as represented, for example, in Baron Russell's The Knights of Bushido, is intimately linked to the rise of Japanese imperialism, kamikaze attacks, suicide charges, and prisoner-of-war atrocities. That this is a historical perversion -- that even if there was a modern bushidô that functioned as a normative ethical code for Japanese troops, it might in fact be a modern creation, with no real link to any Japanese traditional set of ethics, real or imagined -- is seldom considered. [p.512]

While Hurst seems correct that the 20th century idea of bushidô in both Japan and the West is a modern, Meiji period, creation, and while even traditional Japanese discussions of the duties of the samurai were largely the creation of the Edo Period, when more samurai were bureaucrats than warriors, fighting more duels than battles, nevertheless, I think he is wrong about it being a "historical perversion" to trace the crimes of the modern Japanese military back to the samurai. If Hurst merely wants to say that there was never a unified, recognized, official ideology called "bushidô" in traditional Japan, then he is certainly right. If he wants to say that the values and practices that led to the characteristics of later Japanese militarism were hotly disputed by many Japanese themselves at the time, he is certainly right. But if he wants to say that the modern, militaristic versions of bushidô have "no real link to any Japanese traditional set of ethics," then I think he is quite wrong. However much a modern creation, the ideology of bushidô is very much based on real values and tendencies in Japanese history. Not everyone had to agree about these values and tendencies for them to exist, any more than all the samurai had to practice Zen rather than Jôdo, for them to be real antecedents and so real precedents and sources for the Japanese militarism and war crimes of the 20th century.

A key point is about the meaning of "loyalty." The Confucian term is chung (). The word, although not well defined in the Analects, nevertheless appears to mean "conscientiousness," and is applied to those who "do their best, to do their duty," where their duty is always, in Confucianism, to do what is right. That is the Chinese ideal. In Japan, however, most certainly by the modern period (Meiji through World War II), chung, or chû in Japanese, had come to mean blind obedience, that "loyal" persons are supposed to do what they are told, whether it is even right or wrong. Where in China a truly "loyal" minister might refuse to carry out the wrongful orders of an Emperor, and gladly pay with his life for refusing, a martyr to righteousness, in Japan this kind of individual dissent became intolerable.

The question, then, must be, how far back does this Japanese interpretation go? When did the ideal of "blind obedience" become current? Indeed, it became established quite early. A good clue about this is that we can step right into the middle of the debate already raging in the 13th century, when the Buddhist monk Nichiren (1222-1282), founder of a sect now usually known by his name (though previously as the Hokke or "Lotus" sect), argued vehemently against the "blind obedience" interpretation of chû, citing the Chinese Classics:

In the same letter you say: "To obey one's lord or parents, whether they are right or wrong, is exemplary behavior, approved by the Buddhas and kami and according with worldly virtue." Because this is the most important of important matters, I will not venture to give my own view but will cite original texts. The Classic of Filial Piety says, "A son must reprove his father, and a minister must reprove his sovereign." Cheng Hsüan comments, "When a sovereign or father behaves unjustly and his minister or son does not admonish him, that will lead to the country's ruin or the family's destruction." The Hsin-hsü says, "One who does not admonish a ruler's tyranny is not a loyal retainer. One who does not speak from fear of death is not a man of courage." ...I can only grieve to see my lord, to whom I am so deeply indebted, deceived by teachers of an evil Dharma and about to fall into the evil paths. ["Yorimoto chinjô," Shôwa teihon Nichiren Shônin ibun 2:1356]

Nichiren himself preached adherence to the Lotus Sutra above all else, and rebuked the authorities for their adherence to false doctrines, like Zen, which he called the "work of devils." He and his successors found themselves at odds with the authorities over this then and ever since, often exiled or tortured. Nichiren himself was almost executed. He was arguing against the attitude, certainly of the authorities themselves, who happened to be the samurai Hôjô Regents of the Kamakura Shôguns, who expected obedience. So the tension between Chinese (Confucian) loyalty and Japanese (samurai) loyalty already existed soon after the samurai had themselves taken over Japanese history -- the effect of the battle of Dan-no-ura and the establishment of the Shôgunate.

It is noteworthy in this that the attitude of the authorities, in prefering blind obedience, was nothing peculiarly Japanese. We don't need a theory of the "Japanese mind" to explain it. Authority loves obedience, and there are still few politicians, judges, or policemen even in the United States who would allow, as Martin Luther King said, that "an unjust law is no law at all." In the German Army, the saying was, "An order is an order is an order." We find the ability of authorities to command obedience compromised only through some kind of institutional check. In China, even after the triumph of the scholar bureaucrats, there was still an institutional tension between the mandarins and the Throne itself; and in Mediaeval Europe, all know of the institutional independence of the Church and of the epic contests for authority between the Popes and the German Emperors, Kings of England, France, Aragon, etc., etc. But with only figurehead Emperors, and de facto rulers who were samurai themselves, Japan no longer possessed, and later would ruthlessly crush, any institutions or movements that might oppose the absolute authority of the (now military) government. This circumstance may be obscured by undoubted examples in Japanese history of betrayal and disobedience, even revolt and insurrection, but these examples are presented in Japanese history itself as redeemed by the willingness of the disobedient to die. This makes it all the easier for the government to crush real dissent and to create, whether in the 17th century or the 1930's, a totalitarian state.

Later in Japanese history, we get actual manuals of bushidô, most famously the Hagakure ("Hidden [kakure] [by?] Leaves [ha]," 1716) by Yamamoto Tsunetomo [a book cited and illustrated in a curious 1999 movie, starring Forest Whitaker, Ghost Dog, which is about an unusual gangster, a hit man, who lives by Yamamoto's code of the samurai -- the movie is even subtitled The Way of the Samurai]. Cameron Hurst is concerned to emphasize that many scholars disagreed with Tsunetomo in his day. Fair enough. But, again, the point is not that everyone agreed with him, but that we only have to produce some counterexample to Hurst's statement that there is "no real link to any Japanese traditional set of ethics" from 20th century bushidô. Tsunetomo is a "link" and does represent a "Japanese traditional set of ethics." Tsunetomo also, as it happened, became, on the death of his lord in 1700, a Zen monk.

Confucius says, "The superior man [or gentleman] understands righteousness; the small [or mean] man understands profit" [Analects, IV:16]. Tsunetomo rejects both.

To hate injustice and stand on righeousness is a difficult thing. Furthermore, to think that being righteous is the best one can do and to do one's utmost to be righteous will, on the contrary, bring many mistakes. The Way is in a higher place than righteousness. This is very difficult to discover, but it is the highest wisdom. When seen from this standpoint, things like righteousness are rather shallow. [Hagakure, William Scott Wilson translation, Discus/Avon, 1979, 1981, pp.25-26]

Tsunetomo is not here recommending a Machiavellian prudence that occasionally must "take the way of evil" for a good end [The Prince, Daniel Donno translation, Bantam, 1966, 1981, p.63], that approach would be calculating and Tsunetomo says:

Calculating people are contemptible. The reason for this is that calculation deals with loss and gain, and the loss and gain mind never stops. [p.44]

Nor does one go looking for a righteous lord. Instead, "being a retainer is nothing other than being a supporter of one's lord, entrusting matters of good and evil to him" [p.20], i.e. suspending one's own judgment. Indeed:

Nakamo Jin'emon constantly said, "A person who serves when treated kindly by the master is not a retainer. But one who serves when the master is being heartless and unreasonable is a retainer. You should understand this principle well." [p.132]

In other words, whether the lord is kind or heartless, reasonable or irrational, one is to obey him, and "matters of good and evil" are left to his judgment. All the retainer does is obey. "For a warrior there is nothing other than thinking of his master" [p.23].

So if the samurai thinks neither of righteousness nor profit, what does he "understand"? The answer is the real theme of the Hagakure, "The Way of the Samurai is found in death" [p.17]. A samurai understands death.

Victory and defeat are matters of the temporary force of circumstances. The way of avoiding shame is different. It is simply death.

Even if it seems certain that you will lose, retaliate. Neither wisdom nor technique has a place in this. A real man does not think of victory or defeat. He plunges recklessly towards an irrational death. By doing this, you will awaken from your dreams. [p.30]

Thus Tsunetomo condemns the famous "47 Rônin," the retainers of Lord Asano of Akô (led by Ôishi Yoshio, represented as a kitten in the popular Japanese image at right), who waited a couple of years to avenge his death (1701-1703), not because they defied the Shôgun and killed Lord Kira in revenge, but just because they waited (see Inagaki Hiroshi's movie Chushingura, , "The Treasury of the Loyal Retainers," 1962). This was "calculating." What a samurai needs to do is "constantly hardening one's resolution to die in battle, deliberately becoming as one aleady dead" [p.33].

The person without previous resolution to inevitable death makes certain that his death will be in bad form. but if one is resolved to death beforehand, in what way can he be dispicable? [p.34]

Concerning martial valor, merit lies more in dying for one's master than in striking down the enemy. [p.55]

This is a real Todesliebe, a "love of death" -- for which we have, interestingly, a suitable term in German. These sentiments easily explain what Rear Admiral Matome Ugaki wrote in his diary in 1941, after seeing the submarine I-22 leaving Saeki Bay on the way to join the Pearl Harbor Strike Force at Hitokappu Bay in the Kuriles:

How much damage they will be able to inflict is not the point. The firm determination not to return alive on the part of those young lieutenants and ensigns who smilingly embarked on their ships cannot be praised too much. The spirit of kesshitai [self-sacrifice] has not changed at all. We can fully rely upon them.

Gordon W. Prange, who quotes this in At Dawn We Slept [Penguin Books, 1981], says:

One cannot help wondering, if the amount of damage they could inflict was "not the point," what indeed was the purpose of training, arming, equipping them, and sending them forth? [p. 349]

If we answer simply, "the Way of the Samurai is death," then Cameron Hurst might say we are being anachronistic; but, indeed, Admiral Ugaki's statement doesn't make any sense on any consideration of prudence or righteousness. What makes more sense to us is what George C. Scott says as General George Patton at the beginning of the 1970 movie Patton:

The idea is not to die for your country, but to get the other poor, dumb bastards to die for their country.

So if we want to explain Admiral Ugaki we have to look for something in Japanese history and culture that exalts death above prudence or even rationality. But that is certainly there in Hagakure. Each of the "young lieutenants and ensigns" were at, as Tsunetomo says, "the point of throwing away one's life for his lord" [p.21], though the lord in this case had become the Emperor rather than a feudal daimyô.

But there was a bit more. Admiral Ugaki was really not indifferent to success, and Tsunetomo sometimes lets some consideration of prudence slip into his maxims. Thus he says, "If a warrior is not unattached to life and death, he will be of no use whatsoever" [p.158]. "Use"?! What kind of heresy is this? A warrior is to be "used" for something besides getting himself killed? Indeed. We see a different aspect of this in the following long passage:

In the secret principles of Yagyû Tajima no kami Munenori [1571-1646, founder of the official school of the sword of the Tokugawa Shôgunate] there is the saying, "There are no military tactics for a man of great strength." As proof of this, there was once a certain vassal of the shogun who came to Master Yagyû and asked to become a disciple. Master Yagyû said, "You seem to be a man who is very accomplished in some school of martial art. Let us make the master-disciple contract after I learn the name of the school."

But the man replied, "I have never practiced one of the martial arts."

Master Yagyû said, "Have you come to make sport of Tajima no kami? Is my perception amiss in thinking that you are a teacher to the shogun?" But the man swore to it and Master Yagyû then asked, "That being so, do you not have some deep conviction?"

The man replied, "When I was a child, I once became suddenly aware that a warrior is a man who does not hold his life in regret. Since I have held that in my heart for many years, it has become a deep conviction, and today I never think about death. Other than that I have no special conviction."

Master Yagyû was deeply impressed and said, "My perceptions were not the least bit awry. The deepest principle of my military tactics is just that one thing. Up until now, among all the many hundreds of disciples I have had, there is no one who is licensed in this deepest principle. It is not necessary for you to take up the wooden sword [i.e. become a student of the sword]. I will initiate you right now." And it is said that he promptly handed him the certified scroll. [pp.163-164]

What we see in this passage is the notion that someone who does not worry about death also has a certain skill that follows from this. The man is certified in the sword by Maser Yagyû just because of this state of mind, not because of any actual instruction. There was also a samurai saying, that "he who leaves his house intending to live will die; and he who leaves his house intending to die, will live." There is a Taoist expectation in this that, by the "doing" of life, death will result, but by the "not-doing" of life (the "doing" of death), life will result. This was actually the frame of mind of many of the naval pilots who attacked Pearl Harbor. When they returned successfully to their aircraft carriers, many pilots were astonished that they had survived. All they had thought about was dying and had not considered surviving. That they both survived and succeeded in their mission could then be ascribed to the skill that their determination to die had given them. Not skill in the sword, to be sure, but skill in modern "martial arts" like torpedoing and divebombing -- the divebomber pilots who called themselves "Hell Divers" after an American movie starring Wallace Beery and Clark Gable (Hell Divers, 1932). Somewhat miraculous results from not-doing are already expected in the Tao Te Ching, which says, "Heaven and earth will unite and sweet dew will fall" [XXXII:72]. So the intention to die can easily to be thought not to be without its reward.

The Pearl Harbor attack and several months of subsequent actions were very successful, but eventually many Japanese soldiers, sailors, and airmen went off intending to die, and did, without even achieving military success thereby. Actually, this was no more than what was expected by the architect of the Pearl Harbor strike, Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku (1884-1943), who did not believe in suicidal attacks and had no illusions about Japan's ability to win a protracted war with the United States. He almost seemed to be expecting and welcoming death by the time he was shot down and killed in 1943. When it became clear that Japan was losing the war, however, the reponse of the Japanese military seemed to be that they were losing just because the men were not intending to die with enough spiritual purity. The introduction of the kamikaze () suicide pilots in 1944 would have gladdened the heart of the earlier Yamamoto, Tsunetomo, who, it seems, would have relished such senseless acts of pointlessly throwing away lives for the Emperor. Of course, the 20th century military was still rather hoping for some success from these tactics, and was perfectly willing to see 100,000 Japanese soldiers, and a similar number of civilians, die in the defense of Okinawa, long after the war was known to be lost, just to discourage the invasion of Japan. Discourage it they did; so President Truman dropped atomic bombs, killing another couple hundred thousand Japanese, and received the Japanese surrender on the same terms they could have gotten a year earlier.

The 20th century fruit of blind obedience and the love of death was thus ugly and sordid almost beyond comprehension. And this is not even to take into account Japanese atrocities against civilians and prisoners of war -- incidents like the horrific "Rape of Nanking" -- often motivated by racism and by contempt for those who ignominiously surrendered rather than "throwing away" their lives in senseless but virtuous death.

The brutality of the Japanese military, which was visited upon its own people as well as on prisoners and civilians, itself has antecedents in Zen. It has already been noted that the "silent teaching" may actually be expressed by beatings, and that the Zen meditation hall is a place where someone sitting zazen can be struck and beaten just to keep them awake. And we have the following story:

Gutei raised his finger whenever he was asked a question about Zen. A boy attendant began to imitate him in this way. When anyone asked the boy what his master had preached about, the boy would raise his finger.

Gutei heard about the boy's mischief. He seized him and cut off his finger. The boy cried and ran away. Gutei called and stopped him. When the boy turned his head to Gutei, Gutei raised up his own finger. In that instant the boy was enlightened. [Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, pp.169-170]

We may stipulate that enlightenment is well worth a finger, and that Gutei was a great enough Zen master to know that so bloody and permanent an expedient would be effective -- and it is a nice thought that the boy has "no finger" to raise up. But for ordinary fallible humans, this would be an appalling act of brutality and child abuse, and it can be expected to be little else if emulated in any way by subsequent teachers. Just as disturbing is the circumstance that, although the names in the story are in Japanese, it is actually a Chinese story, from Tao-yüan's collection. This makes for a very dangerous precedent once it gets into a tradition, the Japanese one, where positive reasons to value violence, for its art, arise.

Thus, into the "silence" of the "Dark Side of the Tao" there rose values and behaviors that would have been appalling in every imaginable way to Confucius and to the sages of Taoism, let alone to the saints and ancient teachers of Buddhism. The aestheticization of brutal violence, which is no less than what we see in any "martial art," is necessarily offensive to both Confucianism and Buddhism, and would be an unexpected and unwelcome possibility to Taoism.

A characeristic example of the aestheticization of violence may be seen in Inagaki Hiroshi's triology of movies, Musashi Miyamoto (in Japan, 1954), or Samurai (I, II, & III), when subtitled. Mifune Toshiro plays the famous rônin Musashi Miyamoto (1584-1645), a real but semi-legendary character, supposedly influenced by the monk Takuan (1573-1645), who is usually considered a representative of Zen but was actually ordained in Jôdo. In the movies, Musashi has a friendly rival, Sasaki Kojiro, whom in the end he must reluctantly face and kill in a duel -- fighting with only an oar and a short sword. Sasaki, however, is a worthy and noble samurai, who at one point early in the story is ambushed by a group of bad guys. Musashi hears of this and rushes to his friend's aid. By the time he arrives, however, all the bad guys have been killed and Sasaki has already left. When Musashi sees the scene of the fight, with bodies strewn around, does he exclaim "What carnage!" or anything of the sort? No. He says, "What art!" It seems that every attacker had been killed with just one sword stroke, an elegant economy of effort and demonstration of artistic perfection. Musashi, it is true, it shown becoming weary of fighting and hates to kill his worthy rival. But he does nevertheless.

A very real life moment of both senseless death and aesthetic violence took place at the Battle of Midway in 1942. The aircraft carrier Hiryu ("Flying Dragon"), fatally hit by American divebombers, was burning and sinking. The commander of the carrier division, gifted Rear Admiral Yamaguchi Tamon, decided to go down with the ship -- a British tradition, to be sure, but fully conformable with bushidô. Captain Kaku Tomeo of the Hiryu decided to stay with the Admiral, and Yamaguchi was overheard, by others leaving to abandon ship, saying to him, "There is such a beautiful moon tonight. Shall we watch it as we sink?" As it happens, "moon viewing" is a venerable Japanese custom -- the old castle at Matsumoto even has a special "moon-viewing-tower." So here we have this ancient aesthetic diversion calmly anticipated on the burning deck of an aircraft carrier, with exploding magazines underneath, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

So what went wrong here? Simple enough. Logically, the "silent teaching" is a poor, indeed an empty, basis for moral judgment. Confucius, not the Tao Te Ching, was correct about that. Taoism opened itself to misuse, and so did Ch'an, though many people still have difficulty believing that the "true religion" or the proper "peace of mind" can actually accompany wrongful, even cruel and atrocious, actions. But this is the case. It is not to say, on the other hand, that Taoism and Ch'an are without value. They are of great interest and value -- Taoism corresponds quite nicely to modern theories of spontaneous order; Ch'an is quite orthodox Buddhism when it comes to the defeat of reason by enlightenment and Nirvana; and Zen really may help both with archery and with motorcycle maintenance -- just not as morality. Even real holiness in religion may be accompanied by moral error. Morality is a matter for reason, and both religion and aesthetics can be morally judged, regardless of their own claims, intuitions, or logic. The real lesson is for the Polynomic Theory of Value, that morality, aesthetics, and religion are about different things, logically independent systems of value, but that human existence combines them all. In Buddhist terms, the dharma as a moral teaching cannot be replaced with an incomprehensible transmission separate from the texts; and the blind obedience of the samurai, whether practicing Zen or Jôdo, was neither righteous action nor right livelihood.


Bibliography

World War II Bibliography

History of Philosophy, Chinese Philosophy

History of Philosophy, Buddhist Philosophy

History of Philosophy

Philosophy of Religion

Philosophy of History, Military History

Philosophy of History

Ethics

Home Page

Copyright (c) 1999, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2009, 2010, 2011 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved


Zen and the Art of Divebombing,
or The Dark Side of the Tao, Note 1


It turns out that there may be context for this kôan. It was already a saying in Chinese that "One hand can't clap." I find this used several times in the popular Ming Dynasty novel, the Journey to the West, ("Record of the Western Journey"), always to express the idea that some action is impossible. At one point we get it in a bit of verse:

No thread can be spun from a single strand;
Nobody can clap with a single hand.
[Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 1993, 2007, Volume IV, p.1775]

A well read person in Japan could well have been aware of this. And if a novice monk might not have been, I suspect that Hakuin was, and it may be where he got the idea.

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Zen and the Art of Divebombing,
or The Dark Side of the Tao, Note 2


Herrigel did not mention the name of his teacher in the book, and for many years there was considerable perplexity and debate about who his teacher was, or even if there was one. There was indeed a teacher, who now has been identified as Awa Kenzô (1880-1939). Unfortunately, Master Kenzô, although a teacher of archery, was not a teacher, and did not pretend to even be an adherent, of Zen Buddhism. What Kenzô calls the "Great Doctrine" in the book was not Zen but his own original practice, the Daishakyôdô, the "Way of the Great Doctrine of Shooting." When Herrigel wrote about his experience in 1936, he did not characterize his lessons as a form of Zen. What changed was when he read D.T. Suzuki in 1938. Then he decided that Kenzô's teaching actually was Zen. Suzuki obviously endorsed this identification, since he wrote the introduction to the post-war edition of Herrigel's book. Modern scholarship on Zen has come to regard Suzuki's own reading of Zen as idiosyncratic and not well grounded in the traditions of the School. So what does this add up to? Does Zen in the Art of Archery simply have nothing to do with Zen? Should it be dropped from consideration in an essay like this?

Well, no. However idiosyncratic or personal Suzuki's interpretation of the Zen tradition, it was an influential interpretation in Japan both before and after the War, and very much of a piece with the ideological climate in both periods, as an adjunct both to the pre-War militarism and imperialism and the post-War yearning for irrationalism on the part of Westerners, of whom Herrigel was a forerunner. More importantly, what distinguishes the approach of Suzuki, Herrigel, and Master Kenzô himself remains the development of the Taoist features of the tradition. Whether this was a specifically Zen tradition or not, there is no doubt that what characterized and differentiated even Chinese Ch'an Buddhism was already a Taoist admixture. In those terms, Kenzô's teaching has Zen features, whether he wanted to call it that or not.

Thus, while Herrigel and Kenzô are often now said to have sometimes simply misunderstood each other, these instances actually are poor counterexamples to the general tendency. Thus, the famous scene, reproduced in James Clavell's novel Shogun, when Kenzô shot two arrows out into the dark, where the first hit the target and the second split the first, is now said to represent poor technique, and Kenzô's silence about it embarrassment rather than quiet countenance. Be that as it may, it impressed the hell out of Herrigel and anyone else reading the book (or Shogun) ever since. In Taoist terms, that got the job done, whatever Kenzô's conscious expectations. More importantly, this possibly awkward moment is far from exhausting the examples of "silent teaching" in Zen in the Art of Archery. The most telling case comes at the end of the book, when Herrigel asks if Kenzô would like to hear from him after he returns to Germany. Kenzô says that Herrigel should just occasionally send a photograph of him holding the bow. From that all else will be plain. Perhaps Kenzô didn't want to bother with getting letters translated, or perhaps, as I suspect, words were unnecessary. This was not as "mystical" as the magical arrows, but as solidly Taoist as one can get.

[My thanks for information in this area goes to articles and translations by William Bodiford of the Department of Asian Languages & Cultures at UCLA.]

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Zen and the Art of Divebombing,
or The Dark Side of the Tao, Note 3


Curiously there is a verse of the Qur'ân that sounds something like this. Sûra 8:17:  , wamâ [and-not] ramayta [you-shot] idh [when] ramayta [you-shot] walakinna [but] llâha [God] ramay [shot], "You did not shoot, when you shot, but God shot."

This was used as a proof text for "Occasionalism," the doctrine that the apparent causes of the world are not causes at all, only the "occasions" for the actual causality of God. Of course, unlike either Zen or Taoism, Islâm has God as the hidden cause of everything. Not the Tao or a Buddha Nature.

Qur'ân 8:17 actually begins with this statement:  , walam [and-not] taqtulûhum [you-kill-them] walakinna [but] llâha [God] qatalahum [killed-them], "You do not kill them, but God killed them." Thus, the verse begins with something that is a bit more blunt and shocking than what follows.

The verb ramay in Arabic can mean "throw" as well as "shoot" or "fire." There is a Tradition that the Prophet here has not done any shooting but that before battle began he threw some dirt or sand towards the enemy, either in defiance or perhaps to blind some of them. Commentaries on the Qur'ân tend to offer this interpretation and the translation may reflect it. However, Muhammad would have not thought he had killed the enemy by throwing dirt. So if we take the two parts of the verse together, it seems more reasonable that shooting rather than throwing was involved.

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Bibliography


Autumn Lightning, The Education of an American Samurai, Dave Lowry, Shambhala, 1985

Behind the Mask, on Sexual Demons, Sacred Mothers, Transvestites, Gangsters and Other Japanese Cultural Heroes, Ian Buruma, A Meridian Book, New American Library, 1984

The Book of Five Rings (Gorin no Sho), Miyamoto Mushashi, translation and commentary by Nihon Services Corporation: Bradford J. Brown, Yuko Kashiwagi, William H. Barrett, and Eisuke Sasagawa, Bantam Books, 1982

"Death, Honor, and Loyalty: The Bushidô Ideal," G. Cameron Hurst III, Philosophy East and West, Volume XL, No. 4, October 1990, University of Hawaii Press, pp. 511-527

The Enigma of Japanese Power, People and Politics in a Stateless Nation, Karel van Wolferen, Alfred A. Knopf, 1989

The 47 Ronin Story, John Allyn, Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1970, 1988

The Fox and the Jewel, Shared and Private Meanings in Contemporary Japanese Inari Worship, Karen A. Smyers, University of Hawai'i Press, 1999

Hagakure, the Book of the Samurai, Yamamoto Tsunetomo, translated by William Scott Wilson, Discus Books, 1981

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IAI, The Art of Drawing The Sword, Darrell Craig, Lotus Press, Tokyo, 1985

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Original Enlightenment and the Transformation of Medieval Japanese Buddhism, Studies in East Asian Buddhism, No. 12., Jacqueline Ilyse Stone, Kuroda/University of Hawai'i Press, 1999

Practically Religious, Worldly Benefits and the Common Religion of Japan, Ian Reader and George J. Tanabe, Jr., University of Hawai'i Press, 1998

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The Samurai Sword, A Handbook, John M. Yumoto, Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1958, 1977

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This is Kendo, The Art of Japanese Fencing, Junzo Sasmori and Gordon Warner, Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1964, 1974

The Unborn, The Life and Teaching of Zen Master Bankei, 1622-1693, translated and with an Introduction by Norman Waddell, North Point Press, San Francisco, 1984

The Way of of Zen, Alan W. Watts, Vintage Books, 1957

Warriors of the Rising Sun, a History of the Japanese Military, Robert B. Edgerton, Westview Press, Boulder (Colorado), 1997

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig, Bantam Books, 1974, 1975

Zen and Japanese Culture, Daisetz T. Suzuki, Bollingen Series LXIV, Princeton University Press, 1959, 1970

Zen and the Way of the Sword, Arming the Samurai Psyche, Winston L. King, Oxford University Press, 1993

Zen at War, Brian (Daizen) A. Victoria, Weatherhill, New York & Tokyo, 1997

Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, a Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings, compiled by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki, Shambhala, Boston & London, 1994

Zen in the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel, with an introduction by D.T. Suzuki, translated by R.F.C. Hull, Vintage Books, 1989

The Zen Koan, Its History and Use in Rinzai Zen, Isshû Miura & Ruth Fuller Sasaki, A Harvest/HBJ Book, 1965

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