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Monday, June 02, 2008

The Religion of the Samurai -- Zen & Reality: A Comparative Analysis

The book I am reading right now "Zen: The Religion of the Samurai" by Professor Kaiten Nukariya is a complex examination of Zen, its origins in China, its transport to Japan, and its impact on the Bushido philosophy. Nukariya explains early in the book about the two main schools of Zen that evolved from the core Buddhism as it originated in India and China. The Hinayana Tripitaka and the Mahayana Tripitaka evolve from the desires of monks to explain the mysteries of Buddhism into more practical methods. The origins of Buddhism in China are explained from a sketchy history, since many of the documents that held the facts of that history have been lost through the decay of history, and most of what survives from the origins come from a rich oral tradition. The title of the book is a bit misleading. The mention of the Samurai/Bushido mentality/philosophy is not mentioned until page 30 and that for a small paragraph. The book goes back to history of the religion in general, and then a brief comparison of Zen monks and Samurai warriors as being more similar than it originally appears. The Histories are, of course, interesting, and I have learned a great deal about Buddha in general, as I did when I read "An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World" by Pankaj Mishra.

Professor Nukariya offers a definition of Enlightenment that is a bit confusing; it appears more a Zen koan than a real definition, since it is composed of a revolving/circular reasoning that leads to its own premise. His explanation is more an effort at discouraging a definition of Enlightenment in general. As Louis Armstrong said once when asked about the meaning of Jazz: "If you have to ask what it is, you'll never know."

The different levels of spiritual and objective reality are examined closely from the Zen perspective. The question of what constitutes spirit and how it connect all things appears in this book as over-simplistic, but someone who may not know about Zen can definitely appreciate such. All things, explains Nukariya, are alive and connected--even inanimate objects! He challenges the idea using the premises of sub-atomical structures that dictate that even inanimate objects are constantly on the move at that level, and that their moving is as chaotic as fate is to knowing animals (humans). Sub-atomic composition is, for Nukariya, a level of spirituality, a soul of sorts. I am afraid to ask one of our Physics Department professors for fear of being laughed at. They'd probably turn me away telling me not to ask questions that concern the soul. I can appreciate that.

All of this reminds me of my study of Kitaro Nishida's "An Inquiry into The Good" when I lived in Japan in 1994. The introduction, written by Yale Professor Masao Abe, explains how the question of whether or not there's "real" philosophy in Japan has been asked over and over again. His premise is that if you look for Western-based philosophy (objective/rational inquiries) in Japan, you'll only find Nishida as the originator of a philosophy based on Zen but aimed at explaining phenomena objectively. So, all in all, Nishida's book aims to incorporate both schools. He uses the principles of Hegel, James, Heidegger, etc., but gives it all a Zen twist. What I remember the most from this book is Nishida's introduction to the idea of "Pure Experience." As he explains it, "Pure Experience" takes place in the instant we see some object, but cannot know what it is for. For example, a person looks at a tool but doesn't know what the tool is for. Well, before he can tell what it is for, he or she can tell it is a tool, that it is grey in color with red handgrips, etc. That, in a sense, is post-judgment. But if we to "freeze-frame" the moment his or her eyes first encounter the instrument/tool, before any type of judgment is made about it... that, in a nutshell, is "Pure Experience." That, of course, is an over-simplistic example, but looking deeper into "Pure Experience" and applying it to different more serious situations, we find that "Pure Experience" is an area of inquiry worthy of study, as much as, perhaps, pragmatism, absolutism, etc. are. One other example of this might be the encounter (First Contact) that occurred recently between "modern" men in an airplane and a tribe of natives in the deep forest of the Amazon. Whatever it was that the tribe first saw, before they could even react to the plane as a threat and, as they truly did, started shooting arrows at it, it was "Pure Experience." Before it was a threat, before they ran for cover because they felt threatened, the tribe must have looked up in wonder at the thing flying above them. That is "Pure Experience."

The fact that the tribe connected the plane to a threat touches back to Nukariya in "The Religion of the Samurai." Humans need a complete detachment from phenomena to achieve "Pure Experience." Which develops into an even more interesting question or questions: What, besides First Contact, can bring about "Pure Experience?" How is the world of technology helping to expose us to "almost everything," making us unable to see "Pure Experience." Do we already see that technology as predictable? Has the Internet made our possible encounter with "Pure Experience" null?

Going back to Zen in general, a few things are worth mentioning further. The main differences between Hinayana and Mahayana is that they are considered polar opposites. That is to say, Hinayana is considered pessimistic in nature, while Mahayana is more associated with optimism and positive outcomes. It is because of this that some Zen sayings are considered (incorrectly) as nihilist. Further notes about Zen and spirit yields another conflict with Western ideas of the soul. Zen problematizes the fact that the Western "soul" continues to carry with it the personality, irks and quirks, peccadilloes, etc. of the individual who has just expired. Buddhism in general urges the opposite: detachment, separation, "egolessness," etc. Egotism, argues Nukariya, makes people selfish enough to consider they need to continue to exist in their souls, ad infinitum. This is the cornerstone of egotism as it is known in the West.... what is considered the ultimate betrayal to the Truth in Buddhism.

"The Religion of the Samurai" in general has a lack of connection to how Zen applies to the Samurai and how Zen ended up being part and parcel of the warrior spiritual life. It's already page 90 out of 127 and the link to Bushido has not been clearly established. Perhaps Nukariya has saved the best for last. Next on my reading list: a re-read of Umberto Eco's "Foucault's Pendulum."

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At 7:19 AM, Blogger Riglin said...

Hi, for your interest in Zen you should read Zen At War by Brian Victoria. The author is a Zen priest and he has dig deep enough to reveal the shocking truth about some famous Zen masters during WW2.

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