Charles Johnson’s Dharma Light

I appreciate “A Sangha by Another Name” by Charles Johnson. Like other African-Americans, my sense of social justice was honed in the Christian church. Now, I am also drawn by Buddhist practices to bring more mindfulness and serenity into my life. African Americans—and all other groups—are finding in Buddhism the “good medicine” to handle the changes of today’s world.

Sandra D. Madden

Wild and Wise

I’m grateful to Diana Rowan for her description of the “Wild and Wise” conference, in the Winter issue, and I’d like to add some information. In original Buddhism, which is the foundation of all the lineages, we have a number of named women who were enlightened practitioners during the Buddha’s lifetime, were students and colleagues of his, and some of whose interactions with him are recorded in the canon. There was also a viable nuns’ lineage, established by the Buddha, existing for a thousand years in India. You can read the women’s names and their words in a volume called the Therigatha. These are the enlightenment songs of the Theris (female elders), women alive during the Buddha’s lifetime. (The Therigatha is among the official books of the Pali Canon.)

Sandy Boucher
Oakland, California


Jack’s Back

I was introduced to American Buddhism when I listened to an NPR report on the Tricycle issue featuring an excerpt from Jack Kerouac, the one with the baseball on the cover [Summer 1993,] and I had to check it out. Over the subsequent years I have been reading Tricycle, and it always seems to strike exactly at an issue I am having at the time, whether I know it or not, with uncanny precision.

Also, I enjoy knowing where the people writing your letters to the editor live, and I find it disappointing when it just says “e-mail.” I encourage you to request and include people’s city of residence, regardless of how they transport their writing to you.

George Voellmer
Takoma Park, Maryland

Yasutani: Good, Evil, or Beyond Good and Evil?

At its best, Brian Victoria’s criticism of Zen—in Zen at War and, in Tricycle, on Yasutani Roshi’s anti-Semitism—is a valuable contribution to the dharma dialogue, a chastening reminder that Zen, like all other spiritual practices, is a human and therefore an imperfect strategy that can sometimes lead, as it did in the case of Yasutani Roshi’s anti-Semitism, to grotesque contradictions of itself. On the other hand, Victoria often loses his objectivity and succumbs to an anger that subverts his inquiry as much as Yasutani subverted his. In his recent letter to Tricycle, he quotes “a famous Chinese writer” who stated that Zen or Ch’an teaches “‘that neither good nor evil has any significance,’” and asks, “Over the intervening thousand-plus years, how many . . . sentient beings have been drawn to their deaths by this view?” I challenge Victoria to find me one reputable Zen or Ch’an teacher who ever endorsed this nihilistic view. It’s true that Zen, like Buddhism in general and, for that matter, many other spiritual practices, is rooted in an absolute truth that is without distinction between good and evil, but as any beginning student knows, its fundamental paradox concerns the identity between the absolute and a relative point of view within which the distinction between good and evil is a matter of life-and-death importance. As a Zen monk, Mr. Victoria must be aware that no Zen teaching is inconsistent with the Fourth Noble Truth and its rigorous morality. The fact is, Yasutani did not make his unforgivable remarks because he disavowed the distinction between good and evil but because he did not. In the selection from his writing chosen by Victoria for Tricycle, he writes, “. . . in order to carry [Buddhist] compassion and filial obedience through to perfection it is necessary to assist good and punish evil.” Isn’t it obvious that if Yasutani had not though Jews bad and Japanese good, he’d never have fallen into the bigotry he displayed in his book? If anything, he suffered from an excess of the point of view which Victoria claims he rejected.

One doesn’t have to forgive Yasutani to understand that, if he betrayed his practice at certain points in his life, it was not because he was, as Victoria seems to believe, a fraud or a criminal, or because Zen is a dangerous, nihilistic doctrine that endorses bigotry and murder, but because Zen masters, like Zen students or any spiritual practitioners, are human beings with dualistic minds, suffering all the delusion such dualism engenders, and because Zen, like all human behavior, is an imperfect attempt to deal with the suffering which is our birthright. Does Victoria think that Zen invented violence and nationalism? That it invented the delusion that causes us to separate the absolute from the relative? Why else would he make the absurd statement that Zen, in a world which has seen no end of violence and genocide, caused the death of thousands? Let him consider the history of religion and spiritual practice before he takes aim at Zen. Let him cite any practice, religion, philosophy, therapeutic strategy, or political system which did not fall prey to the sort of contradictions we see in Yasutani. When Victoria remembers that Zen is part of the human condition rather than the source of it, his work is not without value. When he forgets it, he sounds like a child in the midst of a temper tantrum, blaming his parents because life bewilders him.

Lawrence Shainberg
New York, NY

I’d like to congratulate you for publishing the article about Yasutani Roshi. Your willingness to explore this painful subject is a tribute to your editorial integrity. Such critical inquiry bodes well for the future of Buddhism in this country.

For me, the most interesting—and disturbing—parts of the article were the various responses to Brian Victoria’s book. I found Bernie Glassman’s response particularly unnerving. Glassman displays the same sort of clouded, convoluted thinking that is so abhorrent in Yasutani’s wartime writing. When Glassman writes “if your definition of enlightenment is that there’s no anti-Semitism in the state of enlightenment, you better change your definition of enlightenment,” does he mean we should change our definition of enlightenment to equate it with ignorance and hatred? This is a terrible abuse of language. When words are so carelessly redefined, intelligent communication becomes impossible.

Perhaps Yasutani Roshi’s most important—and inadvertent—lesson for us is that there can be no “masters.” No one should be above criticism (Put no head above your own!), and we shouldn’t bend over backwards to defend egregious words and actions. Maybe one day, if we are lucky, a genuinely American strain of Buddhism will flower here, a Buddhism without priests, gurus, or masters of any sort. Instead, let’s hope for a community of equals, fellow practitioners with the maturity to recognize our common humanity, our flaws, and our remarkable ability to learn and grow.

Tim Folger
Gallup, New Mexico


I found the Fall issue of Tricycle to be quite a strong one. In particular I found the article on Yasutani bracingly frank and challenging. I would like to submit the following as a response to the discussion: In his response to the material Brian Victoria has presented about Yasutani Roshi’s nationalism and anti-Semitism, Bernie Glassman believes he can explain how Yasutani’s enlightenment is compatible with the shocking views he expressed during the war. The key, he thinks, is to realize that enlightenment is compatible with all sorts of changing, culturally conditioned opinions and views.

But it is facile sleight of hand to suggest that the solution of the problem lies in assuming that Yasutani Roshi’s wartime views are just like any others. We need to confront the challenge presented by his views in all its sharpness—as if it were a kind of koan. We do not attempt to explain away the paradox or contradiction of a koan by resorting to generic rationalistic or relativistic explanation. We face it head on, with a readiness to embrace the paradox and contradiction, and to work through it until there is a breakthrough insight. In particular we need to acknowledge how intimately the abhorrent views expressed by Yasutani Roshi relate to his understanding of Zen. Yasutani Roshi argued that Zen was the very essence and spirit of Japanese culture, and that Japanese civilization was superior to all other Asian civilizations precisely because of this Zen-informed spiritual culture.
And further, that this spiritual-cultural superiority was what justified the conquest of all Asian countries and their incorporation into the Japanese empire—it was the spread of the Buddhist Pure Land! All who stood in their way were enemies whom the Japanese had the right to destroy. Jews were enemies par excellence because they were the cultural source and engine of individualism in the world: They encouraged individuals to believe they had rights over the state, and to exercise their individual critical judgment on the moral authority of the state.

The problem posed by Yasutani Roshi’s wartime views—and the koan they pose for us—resides in the evident fact that he was both enlightened and deluded at the same time. And that his delusion had to do with the way he understood his enlightenment, and the enlightenment of the Zen way generally, particularly as it relates to authority, the individual, and critical reflection. Furthermore, the “koan” character of this disturbing, embarrassing historical episode is extended and sharpened by its challenge to a basic feature of Zen culture—its view of intellectual thought and criticism as something quite extrinsic to enlightenment, and even perhaps an obstacle to it—as something that one must put aside, something one must be liberated from, to attain enlightenment. On these assumptions, the case of Yasutani Roshi seems to point us to what appears to be a contradiction: that any form of enlightenment that suggests, or explicitly asserts, that it is incompatible with individual critical reflection, or that calls for the sacrifice of individual critical reflection, is susceptible to the same kind of coexistence of enlightenment and delusion—to what is ultimately a deluded enlightenment.

James Beckman
Toronto, Ontario


After reading the article in your Fall 1999 issue by Brian Victoria on Zen master Yasutani I was motivated to read Mr. Victoria’s book Zen at War. Finding quotations in it from officially designated enlightened Zen masters such as “Killing is an exercise in Buddhist compassion,” made me shudder. Even though a Zen dharma teacher, I momentarily questioned my own understanding of Zen. After some contemplation in the matter I reached the following conclusions.

Our Original or Buddha-mind is nondual, nonjudgmental, even nonlogical, and childishly innocent. It is incapable of distinguishing between good and evil. In short, unawakened Buddha-mind is amoral.

This leads to a crucial question. If access to this amoral consciousness is what helps make for an enlightenment state, is that state amoral? The answer is an absolute no. Access to our nondual mind does not mean surrendering normal dual or judgmental mind. If it did, the so-called enlightened person would simply be regressing to infancy, not Buddhahood. To be in an enlightened state requires that our judgmental everyday mind and nonjudgmental Original mind mutually support one another. The prerequisite for awakening Buddha-mind, therefore, is a judgmental mind that has perfected itself to a highly ethical state.

Unfortunately, though, the awakening of Original mind does not require preliminary ethical cultivation. This can generate a serious spiritual problem. If access is gained to the Original or amoral mind by the ethically immature, or worse, the totally unethical person, demonic mind, not Buddha-mind, can be awakened. I have purposely used the term demonic to represent the involuntary or voluntary corruption of, or reversal of, the sacred. Access to the nondual mind ought only to be for the sacred purpose of enhancing all human welfare, not for harming humanity.

This brings us to the issue of the relationship between Zen and Japanese imperialism. From an ethical point of view the following questions ought to be answered: How could a spiritually oriented hierarchy that was trained to teach the compassionate nature of enlightenment have willingly propagandized for the nationalistic aggression of Japan? How could supposedly enlightened Zen masters, individuals believed to have awakened Buddha-mind, have openly encouraged people to be better killing machines and do so in the name of the Buddha? While there are indubitably a variety of possible answers to these questions, I will offer two that may have applied to some of the masters in that hierarchy.

First, one of the dangers in Zen is a tendency to regard having one or more enlightenment experiences (kensho or satori) as the main criterion for an enlightened person. Yet anyone can have such experiences. But as previously stated, to be considered a truly enlightened person one should have attained the highest possible degree of moral perfection. I believe that the support given to the war effort by some Zen masters is an indication that they had not attained that spiritual perfection.

Second, I believe that there is ample evidence to show that many in the Zen hierarchy, both in the twentieth century and in past ones, having been born and raised in Japan’s traditionally militaristic culture were, at least, predisposed to involuntarily fall into demonic mind instead of Buddha-mind.

The issue of demonic mind is important not only in understanding extraordinary corruptions of Original mind, but because it helps explain why reaching the Original mind is so difficult. Considering the overwhelming violence of which our species is capable, is it not safer that Original mind be so difficult to access?

We must also remember that every religion is corruptible because its followers are corruptible.

Rev. Vajra Karuna McClelland
International Buddhist Meditation Center
Los Angeles, California

This is written to express my thanks to Brian Victoria for writing, and Tricycle for publishing, the article on Yasutani Roshi (Fall 1999).

It was interesting to see that in all the discussions it was hard to avoid the question: “Was Yasutani Roshi right or wrong?” We might find that if we avoid phrasing our own questions about Yasutani in a dualist reference, we could avoid the same pitfall we are assessing in him. However, within that context we could agree that it is possible for a German fascist to partake in an effort to exterminate those he opposed, and still have a “happy” family life.

Now, if we do not couch the question as to the degree of enlightenment that Yasutani expressed at various times in his life, it would seem that the situation answers itself; that a person who desires the annihilation of those he perceives as his enemy is incapable of manifesting love to all sentient beings. Brian Victoria has alerted us to be cognizant of a person’s past actions, which offers us the opportunity to have this tool in evaluating their current behavior and thinking. When aware of their immediate beliefs we are in a position to determine their potential as a teacher with whom we may or may not wish to interact.

Carole I. Binswanger
Sedona, Arizona

I want to comment about Yasutani Roshi and his teaching and views before and after World War II. I will be as brief as possible. I came to Buddhism because, unlike in some other religions, I heard that a person like me could change. Like Angulimala, I have hurt a lot of people in the past. While in prison I have done a lot to change my ways of behaving. Buddhism is just one of the ways. I can understand how living under one set of circumstances one can believe one thing and in another circumstance believe and behave another way.

As with the things I have done in the past, I could not condone what Yasutani Roshi said but am very happy to see that since then he had changed. I use that to build on my strength to change and live a life to heal and not to hurt.

Thomas Haney
Dallas, Pennsylvania

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