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Editor, John Evans

Midweek Mysticism: How Zen created Bushido warriors


Taken at face value, there is no more peaceful religion than Zen Buddhism, based as it is on bringing a meditative calm to every aspect of life. Even to call it a religion is not quite right. Much of Zen’s activity is unorganised non-activity — seeing into the truth by adopting a quiescent attention simply to “what is”.

And yet every human grouping has its weaknesses. In Zen’s case it was the growth of Bushido, a militaristic training movement for the soldiers of emperors.

Bushido was a code of honour for samurai warriors. It has similarities with western chivalry but is culturally very different. Followers of “the way of the warrior” dedicated to Bushido were taught fine skills with both sword and bow. They could withstand great pain and discomfort.

As in many martial arts, Bushido emphasises courage, bravery, and unquestioning loyalty to its superiors. Its soldiers were widely feared for their proficiency in combat and their lightning-fast swordsmanship.

Although Zen was well understood in Japan, and as Ch’an in China and Son in Korea, its offshoots moved far from the original intent. Paradoxically, Bushido incorporated the very meditative techniques of Zen into the creation of an unchallengable warrior class.

Young men in particular will rarely be content to sit still and do nothing. Religions have never been far from almost all the major wars in history. Even Nazism grew from a Bushido-like German warrior cult and operated as a perversion of religion throughout its ten-year period of dominance over Europe.

In our time, Zen Buddhism is what it always has been, a poet’s religion. Although its objectives are beyond words and concepts, yet words are among the expedient means it uses to take the voyager to the “other shore”.

For a “scripture without words” it has generated billions of them over the centuries, including pithy koan, said to precipitate enlightenment, and haiku, a 17-syllable poetic form which is intended to awaken in the reader a direct perception of a timeless moment. For example:

An ancient pond,
A frog jumps in,

The onomatopoeic “plop” gives us a pleasurable shock of recognition, bringing the scene to life. In the original Japanese the last line is Mizu-no oto!, or “the sound of water”, which is not a patch on the English version.

Beyond haiku and koan, the famous impenetrability of Zen verse mostly revolves around a single principle: students practise assiduously to enlighten their minds, BUT — and this is the great secret — their minds are already enlightened.

It’s only when they realise this — a long struggle sometimes — that they can declare themselves enlightened. The following conversation illustrates a common teaching method:

Pupil: What are you doing, Master?
Master: I am polishing this brick, as you see.
Pupil: But why, Master?
Master: To make a perfect mirror.
Pupil: But you’ll never succeed. It’s impossible!
Master: The same is true of the mind. No matter how much you polish it, it will never be other than it is.

A little explanation is needed here because in the original language, the words mind and heart are rendered by the same word.

My own usage is that “mind” is the contents of consciousness: thoughts, impressions and feelings, whereas what the master is referring to is “consciousness” itself, principally, personal consciousness (soul), but also impersonal consciousness (God, the Absolute, the Buddha-mind).

The Sixth Patriarch of Zen, Hui Neng — supposedly illiterate, although far from it — would later assert that to practise meditation by sitting quietly without ideas arising in the mind (consciousness), ranks the meditator with inanimate objects.

The only right way, he said, is to free the mind of attachment to objects and forms. All other methods put oneself “under restraint”. He castigated those teachers of meditation who instruct their pupils to attempt to slow down the activity of the mind.

This way can lead, in rare cases, to insanity — a point also made forcefully by Carl Jung in our own times, following the fate of his collaborator, Richard Wilhelm after half a lifetime spent translating texts from the Chinese.

Another of Jung’s contemporaries, Dr D. T. Suzuki, agreed, seeing in it the turning point from which Zen developed in its modern form. If the Buddha-mind is originally pure and undefiled, he asked, why is it necessary to clean it by wiping off non-existent dust?

Moreover, if from the Mind arises this world, why not let the latter arise as it pleases? The most natural thing to do in relation to the Mind would be to let it go on with its creating and illuminating.

The so-called Northern School, he implied, was just creating a Buddha-mind which stands against everyday mind, thus ordaining a dualism which does not exist.

Hui Neng, who instituted the sense of non-dualism in Zen, said: “As long as there is a dualistic way of looking at things there is no emancipation. Light stands against darkness, the passions against enlightenment. … The main point is not to think of things as good or bad, thereby restricting oneself, but to let the mind move on as it pleases to perform its inexhaustible functions. This is to be in accord with Mind-essence.”

It is more than likely that this refusal to make moral judgements about anything, while essential for spiritual progress towards enlightenment, also led more worldly types along the path of the martial arts and the philosophy of Bushido.

After Japan’s near total destruction in World War II, in which Bushido played a large part, the obsessive pursuit of peace has returned to the land.

The question for us now is will China’s sabre-rattling over territorial control of some remote islands, and the threatening behaviour of its client state North Korea, tempt the Japanese back to the Way of the Warrior.

As the horrifying events in Woolwich this week illustrate, any religion is capable of harbouring a kind of Bushido of the soul which releases the dark side of human nature.

Discussion: #zenbushido

John Evans

… who is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.

Coming eventually: Mystology: A different way of looking at the world. Also a website,

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