April 18, 2011

Where is the ethical dimension of Buddhist meditation in Zen?

In a recent edition of The Eastern Buddhist, Professor Brian Victoria continues his criticism of the writings of D. T. Suzuki. (The article is here, in PDF. The Eastern Buddhist is published in Kyoto and the original organization was founded by D. T. Suzuki in the 1920s. TEB's openness to debate on Suzuki's writing and record is to be commended.)

Discussing the claim that Zen meditation is "value-neutral," Victoria writes, "Controversially to be sure, I assert that while [Kemmyo Taira] Sato (and Suzuki) are quite correct about the value-neutral nature of Zen meditation, this is actually the crux of the problem. That is to say, when Zen meditation is regarded as completely value-neutral (as it typically has been in Zen history) it is NOT Buddhist meditation!" He continues:

My research leads me to conclude that the Zen school failed many centuries ago to recognize that Buddhist meditation is not "value-neutral" in the sense that Buddha Sakyamuni did not recognize every form of meditation as an expression of the Buddha-dharma. The very essence of Buddhist meditation is to promote, or better said, to realize the identity of self and others, all "others." How then, could one, having genuinely had that recognition/experience, either engage in or promote warfare that seeks to destroy others? To be unaware of this truth is a singular and manifestly dangerous misunderstanding of the Buddha-dharma. Fortunately, this danger is recognized in the Theravada tradition and is furthermore entirely consistent with Buddha Sakyamuni's fundamental teachings of compassion and nonviolence. The question is whether Mahayana adherents, most especially in the Zen school, will admit their error and embrace this teaching?

Leave aside for now the idea that Mahayana practices that do not map to the words of the historical Buddha are errors, or misunderstandings. I was struck by the line: "The very essence of Buddhist meditation is to promote, or better said, to realize the identity of self and others, all 'others.'" I asked Thai forest monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu where in the Pali Canon this idea was expressed. He replied:

The Pali Canon contains no teaching to the effect that the self is identical with others, or that the purpose of meditation is to realize such an identity. The Gopaka Moggallana Sutta [which Victoria cites in his article] does contain a passage to the effect that not all meditation / jhana was praised by the Buddha. The passage is this:

“It wasn’t the case, brahman, that the Blessed One praised mental absorption of every sort, nor did he criticize mental absorption of every sort. And what sort of mental absorption did he not praise? There is the case where a certain person dwells with his awareness overcome by sensual passion, seized with sensual passion. He does not discern the escape, as it actually is present, from sensual passion once it has arisen. Making that sensual passion the focal point, he absorbs himself with it, besorbs, resorbs, & supersorbs himself with it.
“He dwells with his awareness overcome by ill will ....
“He dwells with his awareness overcome by sloth & drowsiness ....
“He dwells with his awareness overcome by restlessness & anxiety ....
“He dwells with his awareness overcome by uncertainty, seized with uncertainty. He does not discern the escape, as it actually is present, from uncertainty once it has arisen. Making that uncertainty the focal point, he absorbs himself with it, besorbs, resorbs, & supersorbs himself with it. This is the sort of mental absorption that the Blessed One did not praise."

Thanissaro Bhikkhu also pointed out that Udana 5:1, which ends with the justly famous phrase, "So one should not hurt others/if one loves oneself," while not dealing specifically with meditation, provides sound support that those seeking an end to their own suffering should not harm others, and that it reinforces "the values that underline the practice of meditation, and in Theravada these values are not discarded on the meditative level." I am very grateful for his valuable insight in this discussion.

We should remember that the Japanese Zen establishment is not the only example of Buddhist monks advocating violence. Theravadan monks in Sri Lanka have also been known to beat the drums for war, and much more recently. This seems to be another example of nationalism or politics tragically trumping religion. But we would be mistaken to condemn the entire country's institutionalized Buddhism, root and branch. Experience and the dharma should tell us that this is not likely to be the proper approach.

More on Sato and Victoria's debate can be found in the pages of The Eastern Buddhist and also in the Tricycle article, "The Fog of World War II."

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jjwalker7730's picture

From the Teaching of the Sixth Chinese Patriarch
Hue Neng
In order that prajna (wisdom) which is self-possessed can manifest itself, it is imperative that we make the ‘three studies’ which are essential for our self-cultivation for realizing our minds. They are: Sila (morality-discipline), Samadhi (mental imperturbability) and Prajna (wisdom) and we should know that Sila begets Samadhi and that Samadhi begets Prajna. They are like the legs of a tripod which cannot stand if one of them is lacking.
Repentance and reform are the pre-requisites of Sila, because without repentance and reform, we shall never be able to practice Sila, which alone enables us to put an end to our feelings and passions and to realize singleness of mind, that is a mind free from disturbances, or pure mind. This imperturbable state of mind is called Samadhi, which alone enables our self-natured Bodhi to manifest itself. Samadhi is the state of an enlightened mind and wisdom is its perfect function. The Patriarch compared Samadhi and Wisdom to a lamp and its light and to a body (substance) and its correct function.
When Samadhi and Wisdom are attained, the practiser is liberated from all worries, anxieties, distresses, troubles and whatever causes them, and will attain the state of Nirvana.
For this end, the Patriarch taught us how to take the four Universal Vows that consist in saving the countless living beings of our minds, in putting and end to the boundless troubles (klesa) of our minds, in studying the endless Dharma doors to enlightenment which are immanent in our self-nature an in achieving the attainment of Buddhahood inherent in our self-nature.
We can be certain that if we are ‘stubborn’ in our practice and if we succeed in disentangling our minds from externals, we will make appreciable progress in the right direction, will at least enter ‘the stream’ and will set up a bridge-head for our fundamental thought for an instant and if we follow his teaching seriously and refuse to stray from this thought of our self-nature, we will achieve something that will surpass all our expectations.
One day, the Fifth Chinese Patriarch summond all his disciples and said: “The question of birth and death is a great one. All day long, you look only for blessings and do not try to get out of the bitter ocean of birth and death. If your own nature is deluded, blessings will not save you. Now go away and look into your own wisdom; use the prajna-wisdom of your own minds and each compose a gatha for me to see. He who understands the great meaning, will inherit the robe and Dharma and will be the sixth patriarch. Go away quickly and don’t linger over the gatha; thinking and reasoning will be of no use for he who can perceive his (own) nature, should do so at will. Such a person will perceive it even while brandishing a sword on the battlefield.”

onezenzoo's picture

B. Victoria,

First, I make no claims, no statement of absolutes, only wish to acknowledge true Dharma, which exists beyond the minds ability to comprehend. That which no level of research will get you. My Zazen has no violence. I do not belong to this or that. I am everything you are. No self separate from me are you.

It sounds like politics to me. Trash, garbage to be composted, not real. It is a mind trick. Cleverness is not Awakening. Pointing out the mistakes of others, does nothing to stop you from your suffering. It is just a distraction. Many miss the point of "just sitting" and then in their claim of expertise attach meaning where there is none, all to feed their distorted mind. You may debate imaginary dialogue between so called traditions, if you want. It is only your life that is passing by.

Protest, demand that things are your way, try to make the fluid solid, freeze it as long as you can!
I'd rather be non-doing than doing nothing!

Sentient beings are Numberless, I vow to save them.
Desires are Inexhaustible, I vow to end them.
The Dharmas are Boundless, I vow to master them.
The Buddhas way is Incomparable, I vow to attain it.



bvictoria's picture

Dear Will,

Thank you for having taking the time to comment. I share with you a commitment to all four of the Bodhisattva vows.

In friendship,

Philip Ryan's picture

Thank you both for your replies, Rob and Professor Victoria! The conversation on facing up to misdeeds by members of the Buddhist community is very important, and we owe much of the recent truth-facing to Professor Victoria. I'm very pleased to have continued this conversation, in however slight a form, on this blogpost! - Phil

bvictoria's picture

Friends in the Dharma,

Let me begin by publicly expressing my gratitude to Phillip Ryan for the very skillful, yet critical, manner in which he introduced my latest article on D.T. Suzuki, most especially because he focused on what is for me one of its most critical components, i.e., a discussion of the nature, especially the ethical nature, of Buddhist/Zen meditation.

I am also grateful to Thanissaro Bhikkhu for his critical comments, most especially his insight that ". . . in Theravada these values [of not harming others] are not discarded on the meditative level." I only wish this were equally true in both theory, and most especially in practice, of ALL Buddhist traditions, most especially the Zen school to which I belong.

Perhaps one day it will be, but not, I suggest, until Zen adherents truly and forthrightly admit the manner in which "value-neutral" meditation has allowed the very real mental/spiritual power derived from the practice of meditation, i.e., samadhi-power, to be employed over the centuries in the same old game - the game of death. What happened in militarist Japan of the 20th century was, in retrospect, only the latest chapter in that story, a chapter that contributed to the massive loss of life. This is a karmic legacy that can only be overcome by honestly acknowledging the past, carefully examining its causes, and then pledging and, more importantly, acting to overcome it. Simple denial, or disinterest, not only prevents change but serves to perpetuate and reinforce the error, ensuring it will be repeated into the future.

This is said in full awareness that the Zen tradition is certainly not the only Buddhist school to have condoned warfare. As the 2010 book, "Buddhist Warfare," to which I contributed a chapter, reveals, all major schools of Buddhism, at one time or another, have joined in the same old death game, using one or another "enabling mechanism" to justify killing, e.g., "in defense of the Dharma," "compassionate killing," etc.

And, needless to say, all of this can be said a thousand times over when it comes to examining the bloody history of ALL of the world's major faiths.

However, as the ancient Chinese adage states, it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. It is in this spirit that I would like to join with fellow Buddhists in contributing to a process whereby all schools of Buddhism, including Zen, can rededicate themselves to their Buddhist heritage of non-violence, non-killing, free of their longstanding subservient to oppressive institutional structures, most especially those of the state and its rulers, and free of the myriads of excuses that can always be found to justify the demonization and destruction of others.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu has said that the Pali Canon contains no teaching to the effect that the self is identical with others, or that the purpose of meditation is to realize such an identity. Yet, as the well-know verse from the Dhammapada states: "All men tremble at punishment, all men fear death; remembering that thou are like unto them, do not strike or slay. All men tremble at punishment, all men love life; remembering that thou are like unto them, do not strike or slay."

Is this admonition on the part of Buddha Shakyamuni not built on a clear recognition of the essential identity of self and others, even, or most especially, with our alleged 'enemies'? And how did Buddha Shakyamuni come to this recognition if not through meditation? Here, at least, is one instance, among many, in which the Mahayana school, including Zen at its best, has a vital insight to share with our Theravadan brothers and sisters.

In conclusion, I very much look forward to a robust discussion on this blog and elsewhere on these and related issues that are of such great importance for those of us, Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike, who live in a country now in a state of perpetual war. Will we work to bring an end to the death game, most especially within our own faith, or will we watch, or even participate in, its perpetuation into the future? As I wrote in my book, "Zen at War," each and every Buddhist does have a choice to make.

In friendship,

Rob_'s picture

And here is Sato's response to Brian Victoria's latest article on D.T. Suzuki


As pointed out in Sato's response, Victoria seems to have some issues being forthright in his research and presentation.

And one blurb from Sato's piece in regards to value-neutral zazen ...

"One further issue that should be addressed, however, is the exception Victoria takes to my claim that zazen is value-neutral:

Satō goes on to claim that the reason Zen, as simply meditation, can be linked to fascism or any other “ism” is because it is “value-neutral” and as such, “it can be employed equally for either good or evil.” This assertion raises the critically important question—is Buddhist meditation (as compared to other meditative traditions)
really value-neutral?

Not unexpectedly, Victoria misrepresents my actual statement:

Being prior to the arising of good and evil means also, of course, that it is value-neutral, with all the dangers that accompany this. It can be employed equally for either good or evil; when misused it can enable killing unrestrained by pangs of guilt or conscience, but when used in conjunction with an ethical system that stresses benevolence, magnanimity, and compassion, it can provide an important spiritual foundation to that system and help minimize the ego concerns that form “the root of all quarrels and fightings.”
Hence Suzuki’s constant emphasis on the moral aspect of training."