Some years ago, I read a surprising anecdote about a Vietnamese soldier who had been a Christian, but, when war came, decided he had to fight, and, therefore, had to renounce his faith, since a Christian cannot kill.
The story seemed strange on a number of levels. First, as a westerner, I know quite well that, whatever Jesus might have said or done two thousand years ago, and whatever a few small sects might continue to believe and practice, Christianity, for the most part, left pacifism behind a long time ago. It was, in fact, my own predominantly Christian nation that was dropping seven tons of bombs on Vietnam.
What was all the more mystifying to my post-modern, post-hippie, dedicated meditation- and yoga-practicing western sensibilities, however, was that this soldier lived in a predominantly Buddhist nation—Buddhism being, along with yoga, one of those truly peaceful traditions that disaffected westerners, from the Beat Generation to the 60’s counterculture and later new age movement, have turned to in the face of, among other things, the war in Vietnam.
And such a view of the belief systems of the east as antidotes to the warlike tendencies of the west seems stronger than ever, as evidenced during the recent elections here in the U.S., as so many of Buddhist and yogi Facebook friends shared and liked quotes by Marianne Williamson—No matter who wins the election, we need a collective leap in consciousness in order to take our country and our world in the direction of peace and love—as well as the Dalai Lama, himself—If every 8 year old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation. Clearly we don’t need to get our hands dirty with politics; the practices, philosophies, rituals, and beliefs of those gentle people in the saffron robes will give us all we need to create a new paradigm.
So, how is it that this idealistic young man, so close to the boundless font of eastern ahimsa, would associate pacifism with, of all things, a western religious tradition?
As religious scholar Jeffrey K. Mann makes clear in his scholarly yet very readable new book When Buddhists Attack: The Curious Relationship Between Zen and the Martial Arts, there’s a lot more to historical Buddhism than peaceful monks living in harmony with the world around them. In fact, the story of Buddhist ahimsa, in Mann’s account, seems in places remarkable similar to that of the pacifism of the early Christians. In a nutshell, once large numbers of people get interested, and, particularly, once those in positions of power got involved, theories of just war soon follow. And, as such, it was only a matter of time before Pure Land Buddhists began going into war with attitudes similar to those of Christian Crusaders or Muslim Jihadists, convinced that dying for the righteous faith would gain them instantaneous heavenly rewards.
More interesting are the ways in which ideas and practices of Buddhism, and, particularly, Zen, became essentially entwined with violence in the training and lives of Japanese samurai and the martial arts. An in-depth exploration of this relationship makes up the bulk of the book. Specifically, it focuses on the ways in which the mindfulness practices inherent in Zen meditation came to be used to overcome not only fear of death but all forms of conditioning in order to attain the presence of mind and freedom of response essential to effectiveness as a warrior in hand-to-hand combat.
Further complicating the mix is the place that violence has played even in the traditions of monastic Zen. Mann recounts familiar legends of Bodhidharma cutting off his eyelids and various Zen patriarchs committing acts of shocking violence in order to instill lessons in their students, as well as the long tradition of Zen masters beating their students for the slightest offense. Then there’s the continuing use of the kyusako—the large stick used to “assist” meditators in mindfulness. In my own brief experience at the Rochester Zen Center, the stick was used very lightly, and only if requested. As Mann makes clear, far harder, and unwanted, hits are common in many temples. And that’s not to mention training regimens that make a typical military boot camp sound tame by comparison—in some cases allowing no sleep whatsoever in the first week. As such, it’s not surprising that such traditions, despite any goals involving inner peace, might appeal to those interested in turning boys into warriors.
The book describes how the martial arts have evolved through history—from, initially, using Zen-influenced disciplines for the purposes of war, to coming almost full circle, once guns and modern warfare made such techniques obsolete, to a far greater interest in consciousness, to the modern day in which they’ve largely become competitive sports. Notably, controversies over martial arts as competitive sports seem to closely echo similar disagreements in the world of yoga. And, I thought as I read, the transformation from actual fighting disciplines that happened in Japan centuries ago may be said to have repercussions in a modern world in which women have learned karate for self-defense only to find that countless hours of controlled sparring have left them woefully unprepared on the streets—leading to the creation of new techniques specifically focused on disabling rapists.
Beyond all of this rather frightening stuff, the book gives a very lucid introduction to Buddhism in general, Zen, and mindfulness in the context of martial arts. While, admittedly, I’m still a bit confused about the difference between mindfulness, mushin, zanshin, and fudoshin, I don’t blame that on the author. As is usually the case in books about Zen, an author, and reader, can only do so much when taking on the task of describing the indescribable.
The book ends with a chapter asking a question that runs throughout: Is it really Zen? Not surprisingly, the author’s answer is somewhat equivocal, and, no doubt, bound to be controversial : Even fragments of Zen are still Zen. As such, Buddhism might be represented by both the most devoted practitioner of ahimsa, as well as the soldier.