Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Myth of Buddhist Peace

This is something I wrote just now for the MD and I just wanted to save it. It isn't extensive when it comes to my thoughts about this, but it logs in some of my suspicions about a prevailing idea.

Anthony McWatt, following Northrop, made a link between the recognition of the aesthetic componet of experience and being peaceful and said, "As such [with recognizing the aesthetic component of experience], it sounds like a good idea that everyone should become Zen Buddhists or Taoists with strong interests in fine art, nature conservation and politics as soon as possible. What do you reckon?"

This was my reply:

Well, you know what I think about that. I still don't think becoming a member of any philosophical tradition is going to stave off war. I mean, I could say that we wouldn't need to become specifically Buddhists, we could just become Deweyans (the Art as Experience Dewey), but I don't think that would make much difference either. I don't think it would make us more predisposed to art, nature conservation, or political conversations. I do think more of all three (particularly the last two) would help a great deal, but I don't see how that connects with philosophical disposition. I am also very suspicious of the idea that philosophical disposition links to peace vs. war. I think life and people are just far too complicated for it to be all that simple.

As an example, which tends to contradict Northrop and Pirsig's suggestion that (in Northrop's words) "as cultivated by the Orient, the indeterminate aesthetic continuous component in man’s nature and in the nature of all things has demonstrated itself to be a factor which pacifies men, giving them a compassionate fellow-feeling not merely for other men but for all nature’s creatures, and serving to keep them more at peace with each other," I would point out the work of Brian Victoria in his books Zen at War and Zen War Stories. I haven't read them, I only saw them pass through where I work (don't ask), but here's a few snippets from Amazon about the books:

Book description for Zen at War:
"Zen at War offers a penetrating look at the close relationship that existed between Zen Buddhism and Japanese militarism prior to World War II. Using the actual words of leading Japanese Zen masters and scholars, the author shows that Zen served as a powerful spiritual and ideological foundation for the fanatic and suicidal spirit displayed by the imperial Japanese military. At the same time, the author tells the dramatic and tragic stories of the handful of Buddhist organizations and individuals that dared to oppose Japan's march to war. He follows this history up to the recent apologies of several Zen sects for their support of the war, and the reemergence of what he calls corporate Zen in postwar Japan."

Book description for Zen War Stories:
"Following the critically acclaimed Zen at War (Weatherhill Publishers, 1997), Victoria now explores the intimate and supportive relationship between Japanese institutional Buddhism and militarism during the Second World War. He reveals for the first time, based on the wartime writings of the Japanese military itself, that the Zen school's view of life and death was deliberately incorporated into the military's programme of 'spiritual education' so as to develop a fanatical military spirit in both soldiers and civilians. Furthermore, it is revealed that D.T. Suzuki, the most famous exponent of Zen in the West, was a wartime exponent of this Zen-inspired viewpoint which enabled Japanese soldiers to leave for the battlefield already resigned to death. Victoria demonstrates how even champions of Japan's new religions strove to inculcate service to the state and loyalty to the emperor in generations of pre-war Japanese school children. The book also examines the relationship to Buddhism of Japan's seven class-A war criminals, hung by the. Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. A highly controversial study, this book will be of interest not only to those studying the history of the period, but also to anyone concerned with the perennial question of the 'proper' relationship between religion and state."

Comments about Zen at War:
"Zen at War is a wake-up call for all Buddhists. Brian Victoria has shown in a passionate and well documented way that Buddhism is not immune to the kind of distortions that have been used throughout human history by virtually all of the worlds religions to justify so-called holy wars."
John Daido Loori, Roshi, Abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery Author of The Heart of Being

"Zen at War is a stunning contribution to our understanding of Japanese militarism and the broader issue of war responsibility as it continues to be addressed (and ignored) in contemporary Japan. Brian Victoria's great sensitivity to the perversion and betrayal of Buddhism's teachings about compassion and non-violence makes his indictment of the role played by Imperial Way Buddhists in promoting ultranationalism and aggression all the more strikingand all the more saddening."
Professor John W. Dower, Harvard University Author of War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War

"In this carefully documented study, Brian Victoria discloses the incredible intellectual dishonesty of Japanese Buddhists who perverted their religion to a jingoistic doctrine of support of the emperor and imperial expansion during the period 1868-1945. Good job! We must face this dark side of our heritage squarely."
Robert Aitken, Roshi, Honolulu Diamond Sangha Author of The Mind of Clover and The Practice of Perfection

My point is that of Loori: "Buddhism is not immune to the kind of distortions that have been used throughout human history." For Buddhism the same as Christianity. Buddhists preach benevolence, real people fall short. Christianity preaches love, real people fall short. Life is just too complicated to think that if we all held a series of specific philosophical views life would be better. We are creating better and better cultures for creating better and better people, people who will care about nature, art, and politics (and using politics to help people), but I don't think creating Buddhists will help anymore than creating Christians, Pirsigians anymore than creating Deweyans. That kind of hope, when pushed too far, is what created Plato: if we all followed his philosophy, true justice would prevail.


  1. Ant was joking of course.

    Interestingly, Struan writes on the subject of Buddhist suicides.

    This is getting perilously close to the "soup of sentiments" argument, but here goes ...

    Clearly "joining a school of philsophy" doesn't prevent wars occuring, but surely there is an essential truth that living a life that sees a joined up balance of differences between all things, sees less conflict and less reason for war ?

    And if you have unfortunately find you have a "war" surely "the art of war" suggests that avoidance of conflict is the wisest way to wage war, etc ...

  2. I'm not sure Anthony was exactly joking. I mean, the sentiments in Pirsig and Northrop are there, that the East is less disposed to war and violence and stuff than the West because of there overarching philosophical dispositions (rooted in Eastern religions). But I just don't think its as clear as all that.

    And the thing is, I think Pirsig is totally off the mark when he attacks the "soup of sentiments." That _is_ exactly what pushes us morally forward as cultures. It ain't no spurious notion of "rational argumentation" that Pirsig suddenly seems to endorse against the sloppy soup. I have no idea why Pirsig suddenly regresses from all the things he says in ZMM and most of Lila (actually, I do have some ideas, but those are for another time).

    I agree with you that growing up thinking such soupy things as "a joined up balance of differences between all things" is better. But I think it is soupy, and I don't think "the good life", Sam's eudaimonia, includes indoctrination of specific forms of life _except_ for that peculiar form of life we call democratic life which preaches that the proliferation of forms of life is okay, even desired (putting it that way breeds the "liberal contradiction", but it can be massaged out easily enough with more space).

    Aside from a democratic form of life, all I think we need is to keep getting our soup to be a better and better mix and consistency, a better and better recipe. Buddhists are good for the mix, but so are Christians. I think it would be a pretty tough call to say why the Buddhist pepper shaker should be used instead of the Christian salt shaker. As far as I'm concerned, it tastes better with pepper and salt.

    I don't think I'm saying anything you disagree with, but these are the kinds of things that lead me to suggest that philosophy isn't the best place for getting a better world--or at the least, it sure as hell isn't the only vinyard we should be working in. Its the kind of sentiment that Northrop uses in the quote that suggests that they think philosophy is some overarching medicine cabinet. That still holds too much in common with Kant's idea of a superscience and both strike me as running afoul of Rorty's strictures against Yeats' image of trying to hold justice and reality in a single vision.

  3. I agree (as you say you're not saying much I disagreed with anyway)

    I think Pirsig was probably right when he said wars were not "fought over" eastern religions, compared to the western ones, but it is dangerous to generalise that as the idea that easterners are culturally less war like per se.

    Anthony was joking in the sense that he simplified it to the glib idea that all we'd have to do is convert to Zen and take an interest in aesthetics and everything would be peace and harmony. He was exaggerating the myth the make his point.

    I find myths are always double edged - true both ways.

    The main point of my response - I'd still stand by the idea that people of a Zen outlook on life must be less prone to war-like conflict. Not all "Easterners" have that outlook of course, (or apply it to their lives as a whole) and that is the trap of the cultural generalisation.

    BTW I support the "soup of sentiments" - defend it against those who knock it, Pirsig was attacking the "soup" - bringing some framework of rationale to the sentiments, surely. I was just conscious my argument was a highly subjective claim (whereas your's had been historical experience). It was an aside to the point.


Want to get in touch with me but are too scared to universalize and eternalize your comments for all everywhere and always to see? Just e-mail me: