Politically, Zen is revolutionary terror: born on the blades of swords wielded by the Medieval Samurai class. The focus is on inner peace while the universe, or society, is constantly changing, or habitually at war.
The perverse core is, in fact, that Zen is assumed to be the opposite of this, and only just the opposite. If Zen is “Your everyday mind,” as D.T. Suzuki says, to what purpose can Zen lend itself? To the Zen warrior, for example, war is a necessary evil performed to being about the greater good: “battle is necessarily fought in anticipation of peace”. This is accompanied by a more radical line of reasoning in which, much more directly, “Zen and the sword are one and the same.” We ordinarily would interpret this as benignly spiritual as possible, but there is ample reason to interpret it in the alternative and practical framework I have provided. After all, as Alan Watts said, the answer Zen gives to all practical questions is spiritual in nature. And its answer to all spiritual questions is practical in nature.
This is a common Lakatosian “protective belt” in Zen promulgation. Yet I do not want, as is popular to do with Christianity, to talk about the way in which Zen is commonly practiced and conclude something about the history of Zen at war. The way in which it is practiced is given credence by the philosophical structure of Zen itself.
Zen and the sword. They are one with each other.
Assume we interpret this to mean “selflessness” or “no-self”. This reasoning is based on the opposition between the reflexive attitude of our ordinary lives (where we fear death, live for pleasure and profits, etc.) and the enlightened stance in which the difference between life and death ceases to matter. We regain the original selflessness and the unity of, not just swords, but people too, especially our enemies. When we are one with the sword, we are action, we are the act of swinging the sword itself. A popular Zen koan says that the puddle at night doesn’t think about reflecting the moon. And this is the spontaneity, which arose out of the samurai need for agility and immediate responses to attacks. Militaristic Zen embraces the basic tenets of Zen and tells us these are the same things as fidelity to military officers, obedience to authority with cat-like immediacy, and the perform of duties without reflecting on the possibility of death.
The warrior no longer acts as a person because he is thoroughly subjectivized. As D.T. Suzuki says, “It is really not him, but the sword itself which does the killing. He had no desire to do harm to anybody, but the enemy appears and makes himself a victim. It is as though the sword performs automatically its function of justice, which is the function of mercy.”
Doesn’t this description of murder provide the ultimate justification of the phenomenological attitude in which things just appear as they are? It’s the sword itself which does the killing, it’s the enemy himself who just appears, and makes himself a victim–I am not responsible. I am reduced to the passive observer of my own acts.
This illustrates how Zen and Zen-like attitudes of anti-normativity could very well function as the support of the most ruthless killing machine. As if its goal were to create an army of “Zen-mind” warriors who act merely as vessels of justice.
Is it too simple to conclude that the militaristic perversion of Zen is the true message of Zen. The truth is much more unbearable. What if–in its very kernel–Zen was ambivalent, or, rather, utterly indifferent to this alternative? What if–a horrible thought–the Zen meditation technique is ultimately just that: a spiritual technique, an ethically neutral instrument which can be put to different sociopolitical uses, from the most peaceful to the most destructive?
So the answer to the torturous question, “Which aspects of the Buddhist tradition lend themselves to such a monstrous distortion?” is: exactly the same ones that emphasize compassion and inner peace. It’s not a wonder why business owners are beginning to whip their workers into Zen-like obedience to their command. In Japan and the USA we have seen the emergence of “training” for corporate employees designed to quell dissatisfaction and discord. Militaristic Zen appears to have been resuscitated. It is no wonder why ninja movies were so popular during the eighties, when a quick, Zen-like response was a necessary mindset to defeat the communists. No wonder, then, that when Ichikawa Hakugen, the Japanese Buddhist who elaborated the most radical self-criticism after Japan’s shattering defeat in 1945, listed twelve characteristics of the Buddhist tradition which prepared the ground for the legitimization of aggressive militarism, he had to include virtually all the basic tenets of Buddhism itself: the Buddhist doctrine of dependent co-arising or causality, which regards all phenomena as being in a constant state of flux, and the related doctrine of no-self; the lack of firm dogma; the emphasis on inner peace rather than justice…
If external reality is ultimately just an ephemeral appearance, then even the most horrifying crimes eventually do not matter. This is not an argument against moral relativism. This is an argument against philosophical idealism.