Friday, February 10, 2006

Zen and compassion: uncomfortable questions

There's an interesting debate going on over at Brad's blog on Zen and War. Brian Victoria has documented the involvement of Japanese Zen in militarism and imperialism before WW2. This got me back to thinking about Zen's approach to compassion and ethics generally.

Zen was clearly used as a political/ideological device by the Japanese state. But if Zen cultivates wisdom and compassion why didn't those roshis who dedicated their lives to Zen see through all tht in their wisdom and compassion and detachment? Were they as awakened as they were supposed or were they political puppets? I don't know any stories of such abuses in Zen's native China. Even its incorporation into the warrior arts of the Samurai was a distortion of its original form. Buddhism emphasises compassion and avoidance of killing. So of course this raises some challenging questions for Zen.

To incorporate Buddhism into deadly fighting arts it has to be distorted. Again in Buddhist philosophy we see this apparent duality between relative and absolute with regards to ethics. On one hand we must abide by precepts and on the other hand ultimately there is no inherent right and wrong. The idea here is that precepts are a code of conduct for students to follow, but not absolute moral principles and that as we become 'awakened' such rules can be put down, replaced with a natural and intuitive understanding of what is the right thing to do. 'Right' in this case is not determined in reference to some external moral principle but just means according to wisdom and compassion. But this 'freedom from good and evil' has been exploited militaristically by the Japanese up to WW2 and hedonistically by American Zen masters. We could argue that to cling to this ultimate perspective is not true understanding of Zen - the precepts are still there to be followed. And I think there is validity in this. But we have to think about how actual Zen practice influences actual behaviour in the real world.

Of course its all too easy to separate ourselves from such uncomfortable events by saying 'ah but that's not TRUE Zen'. But whether we can provide arguments as to whether these people are 'true practitioners' or not, at another level this is just another example of the 'No True Scotsman Fallacy' which is used by Christians and Muslims to distance their belief-system from the actions of some of its adherents. Either practicing a religion (or a 'religion' in the case of Zen) makes people on average more 'good', less good or neither. It's that simple. And surely that has to include ideologically distorted versions, since if the original version wasn't there it couldn't be distorted for other ends.

Wisdom in Buddhism is the loss of dualistic delusions. What about compassion? Many forms of Buddhism teach meditations to directly cultivate compassion. In Zen however, there is really only one meditation - Zazen - which aims to reveal our true nondualistic nature. The idea here is that revealing this nature will also remove all barriers for our natural happiness and compassion.

While I can with some degree of confidence accept the idea that we all naturally like to be happy and will be happier if obstacles to it are removed. And I am happier since I began practicing (although strictly I can't know exactly why since a number of other things have changed in my life). However, the idea that we become naturally more compassionate seems more tenuous. What is the basis for believing we are naturally compassionate? Our understanding of evolution would suggest that naturally we come in a range of demeanors. Perhaps someone who is happier is also inclined to be kinder to others? Actually I read some recent research which suggested that depressed people (surprisingly perhaps) were more sympathetic. Perhaps happy people are less inclined to be 'troublesome'? That seems likely, but of course sometimes being 'troublesome' in the short term can serve a greater good (meaning reduce suffering) in the longer term. Perhaps happy people are also less passionate about political and ethical issues? I don't know.

In original Mahayana Buddhism compassion is directly cultivated such as with Metta Bavanah meditation. If our practice is to directly to cultivate compassion then the temptation is strong to engage in repression and self-deception - to act compassionate when we don't feel it. And indeed I've met a number of Buddhists with that sort of dishonest over-nice quality that I usually associate with Christians.

I suspect that Zen abandoned such practices (along with excessive ritualism, chanting, offerings etc) as extraneous to the core and 'pure' practice of observation. But in their search for 'unadorned purity' could they be throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Zen practice does not exist outside of multiplicity and complexity, even zazen is an action. Perhaps it is necessary to develop selflessness of the heart as well as selflessness of the mind?

However, the Zen approach only works if our 'true nature' is compassionate, which I have no reason to believe. According to Buddhism, in fact, nothing has an inherent nature, so humans have no 'original' qualities compassionate or otherwise. Everything is a product of the conditions it is dependent on - and the nature that is expressed is nothing more than that, including whether compassion has been cultivated or not.

It's for this reason that I supplement my zazen with Metta Bavanah, but I also always try to be very honest with myself about how I feel and to be responsible to myself and others for how I behave.

In response to the idea of Metta meditation some Zen practitioners question whether compassion can be cultivated at all. I can assure them that it can - the feeling can be very powerful. Have they tried it?

Sometimes talking to Buddhists about 'social engagement' they say that action at a political or social level is unneccessary and that all you need to do is to gradually change yourself and the positive consequences emate from you like ripples on a pond. While that's a lovely image it begs questions about whether passively being a good Buddhist necessarily makes other people's lives better.

Buddhism is a tool for making positive changes in yourself. Buddhism has never really been about changing society - except in so far as you act compassionately and help others to change themselves. However, in Buddha's day ordinary people did not have as much power as they do now. Since we do, we should use that power compassionately and wisely.

Given the quite profound re-evaluation that Buddhism is undergoing in its adaptations to Western and modern culture, might this be a good time to re-evaluate Zen's approach to compassion, perhaps, if nothing else, to help prevent its exploitation by militaristic powers in the future.


  1. Hi Justin,
    Victoria's book and other writings are very important. As you imply, it raises questions about enlightenment and lineage, as well as war and peace.

    I'm not sure, however, that it answers those questions. Did the Japanese Zennists go astray because they had elastic views about good and evil? Or did they lack a doctrine of a just war that would have allowed them to identify an unjust war?
    May all beings benefit

  2. All valid questions to mull over.