I Like Trike

I continue to be amazed by Tricycle—its intelligence, its emotional impact, and the thread of compassion that weaves through it. I am impressed, delighted, angered and frustrated by Tricycle—and I learn from it. The articles on Yasutani Roshi’s anti-Semitism are notable in this respect.

Chogyam Trungpa, speaking on the need for a teacher, said you can learn from a book but a book can’t teach you, the reason for this being that a book will never tell you what you don’t want to hear. I believe this and I’ve cited it often for my students.

Yet Tricycle succeeds in getting me to listen—to what I want to hear and to what I don’t. And I learn.

Sydney Musai Walter, Sensei
Santa Fe, New Mexico

As One of the Contributors

In connection with your recent article on Yasutani Hakuun, I would point out, as one of the contributors, that the fundamental problem is not with Yasutani Hakuun himself no matter how fanatical a militarist, ethnic chauvinist, sexist and anti-Semite he was. Rather, I suggest the fundamental issue goes far deeper than any single Zen master. That is to say, what needs to be addressed lies much deeper in Zen doctrine and practice. How so? As early as the eighth century, a famous Chinese writer by the name of Liang Su (753-793) wrote the following critique of Ch’an (Zen): “Nowadays, few men have true faith. Those who travel the path of Ch’an go so far as to teach the people that there is neither Buddha nor Dharma, and that neither good nor evil has any significance. When they preach these doctrines to the average man, or men below average, they are believed by all those who live their lives of worldly desires. Such ideas are accepted as great truths which sound pleasing to the ear. And the people are attracted to them just as moths in the night are drawn to their burning death by the candlelight.” Over the intervening thousand plus years how many more sentient beings have been drawn to their deaths by the Zen insistence that “neither good nor evil has any significance”? In the ‘good old days,’ it was perhaps possible to rationalize all of this killing by claiming that at least as far as Japan was concerned, it was Zen-inspired professional warriors, i.e. samurai, who were so ‘selflessly’ destroying each other. Today, however, with the arrival of the age of ‘total war,’ things have changed. As the December 1937 “Rape of Nanking” so graphically demonstrates, Japan’s Zen-endorsed warfare recognized no difference between soldier and civilian, man and woman, adult and child. Inasmuch as all four respondents from the Yasutani tradition failed to address the “war responsibility” of Zen doctrine/teaching itself (i.e. those Zen doctrines used to validate the killing of others) I can only repeat my earlier assertion: “modern-day variations of imperial-way Zen and soldier Zen are now to be found in the West as well as in Japan.” How profoundly sad.

Brian Daizen Victoria
Adelaide, Australia

letters 7 winter 1999

Brian Victoria, in his response to his own article (“Yasutani Roshi: The Hardest Koan”) suggests that when Yasutani Roshi “proferred the entirety of the Buddhist faith” to his government and identified “the true Buddha-dharma” with imperialism and anti-Semitism, he went “even further than the Japanese government of his day.” This seems difficult to reconcile. The government of Japan in 1943 went all the way in demanding that everyone in the country give everything to the glory of the state. Yasutani could hardly have gone further than that.

I do not make any excuse whatsoever for Yasutani, but if Victoria thinks that Yasutani could have rendered unto Caesar only what was Caesar’s, he misunderstands the subject he has studied. There was nothing that did not belong to the Japanese government, and that went double for spiritual truth.

It is true that some religious groups in Japan (Nichiren Buddhists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, especially) refused to give the state an inch. Other groups gave an inch, but balked when requested to give a mile (e.g. Roman Catholics.) They were jailed, too. Yasutani caved to a demand to compromise the integrity of his faith. This is not exemplary behavior. But let us not underestimate the force of the demand he failed to resist.

Miles Fowler
Clifton Park, NY

I find it disconcerting that in an article dealing with prejudice, such as “Yasutani Roshi: The Hardest Koan,” all the responses are written by males. This is especially disheartening when Bodhin Kjolhede writes, “’I have never met him, but had been exposed to bits of his writings’” and Lawrence Shainberg writes, “I never had the luck to study with Yasutani Roshi.” I would be very interested to hear from the women who did have the luck to study with Yasutani or at least had met him.

I would also be very interested to hear from women concerning militarism. Your article states that, “…in the event of being drafted for the Vietnam War, Yasutani replied, “‘If your country calls you, you must go.’” How do practicing Buddhist women view this response from Yasutani Roshi?

In the introduction to this article it is stated that the intent is, “…to initiate a conversation that may prove helpful, if not cautionary, to the unfolding of dharma in the West.” A conversation that may prove helpful and cautionary surely should include women.

Charles Birx

We agree. Unfortunately the women we invited to participate in this discussion declined to respond. Perhaps that in itself is worth exploring.—Ed.

I was struck by the fact that some of the responses to Yasutani’s anti-Semitism were such longwinded and overly intellectual analyses of why it doesn’t really matter that a so-called master was obviously such a narrow minded bigot. The fact that the Japanese committed horrible atrocities starting with pearl Harbor is directly relevant to this “master” because he supported those activities. No amount of Buddhist doublespeak can avoid the simple truth that he supported evil, including the war effort of Japan that killed millions of innocent people, let alone Americans.

On a more personal level, your article made me confront my own feelings of prejudice. My practice is to deal with these feelings and work through them. My feelings are wrong and indefensible; I would rather be a Buddha than a Buddhist! Thank you for helping me on that path.

Tom Chaves
Maplewood, New Jersey

No Excuses

I found your article on Yasutani Roshi’s anti-Semitic comments, and the responses to it, extremely disturbing. I am a student in one of his lines, and this piece hits very close to home. I am most troubled by the various teachers’ responses, most of which were, in one way or another, apologies.

We should acknowledge circumstances for what they are. Yasutani’s comments were inexcusable. This is especially so given their timing (almost coincident with his certification to teach,) and given his expression of related sentiments later in life.

Why do these teachers feel compelled to apologize? My best guess is that they are concerned lest the validity of Yasutani’s enlightenment (and hence their tradition) come into question.

I do not question the validity of Yasutani’s experience of emptiness. But the connection between realization of emptiness and the actualization of ethical behavior is much more tenuous than is commonly acknowledged. There is some correlation, but it is ambiguous. Realization does not by itself produce morality; we must work at both in parallel.

I believe Japanese Zen Buddhism has done us the great service of preserving the true experience of emptiness, passing it down through the generations. Japanese Zen has not done as good a job with ethics.

It is said that a student who is the equal of his or her teacher has half the teacher’s power. If we in the West are to carry Zen forward, it is our job to build a much stronger ethical practice, without diminishing the direct experience of clear shining nothing. It is primary to acknowledge when something is truly wrong.

Stephen Lucas

Yasutani Roshi’s wartime political views were of course disappointing. However, I fail to understand how anyone familiar with the history of the world’s religions would be shocked. There is something grandiose about expecting Buddhism to confer special moral superiority on its followers.

The real issue of the Yasutani Roshi story is that we must never stop looking deeply in the mirror at ourselves.

Stephen Karakashian

I had the good fortune to go to a sesshin with Yasutani Roshi over thirty years ago and I am grateful to him. I have long since digested the fact that some of my Lutheran ancestors were Nazi collaborators. Why did we think that our Buddhist teachers were above making mistakes?

Charles Skallerud

In hindsight, it should not be surprising that anyone raised in prewar Japan would have such values as Yasutani’s inculcated in them since childhood. In fact, many Japanese continue to share an inward-looking culture with strong racist and nationalist undertones.

We should not try to obscure Yasutani’s enlightenment or his cultural and political values. Yasutani was indeed probably one of the greatest Zen teachers of this century, and it is also true that his particular cultural and political values were antithetical to how Buddhists ought to think and act, then or now.

It should not be that difficult to extol the good without having to discount the bad in this man, or to condemn his evil pronouncements without having to denigrate his shining achievements. If we cannot accept both sides of the man for what he was, then I think it will be hard for us to accept ourselves. Good and evil aspects are in all of us. That does not mean we stop condemning evil, but just recognize the universality of it.

Mike Morgan

Who’s Sorry Now?

Aitken criticizes Victoria for presenting Yasutani’s “superficial” anti-Semitism “Out of context,” and Kjolhede raises concerns about translation accuracy. While these distinctions border on “shooting the messenger,” I also believe they would be lost on any Jewish recipient of Japanese hatred that was inspired by Yasutani’s published words.

All respondents note that Yasutani had many Jewish students, with whom he never shared his anti-Semitism. Why would he? “After all,” says the anti-Semite, “some of my best friends are Jewish.”

Several suggest Yasutani was victim of circumstance: his painful childhood, cultural and educational indoctrination, perhaps being forced to write what he did. Shainberg wonders about the destabilizing nature of zazen. Kjolhede admits Yasutani’s other political views were out of step; however, is anti-Semitism really a “political view?”

Glassman challenges us to consider how a Nazi war criminal can elicit love from his grandchildren. In this vein, he (and Aitken) express their deep appreciation for Yasutani’s impact on their personal and professional lives, and on the development of Western Buddhism. Before accepting this analogy, however, we ought to know if that Nazi chooses not to disclose his past, or offers himself as a spiritual teacher to hundreds of vulnerable young people.

Most troubling is the suggestion that our limited understanding of enlightenment is responsible for our reactions to Yasutani’s anti-Semitism, not his anti-Semitism itself. That many respondents are originally Jewish makes this facile explanation especially chilling. Are we witnessing a malignant transformation of Jewish assimilation into an acceptance of anti-Semitism as a sign of Buddhist enlightenment?

All the respondents assume Yasutani changed his anti-Semitic views. Where’s the evidence for this? Shainberg would have “kicked his ass,” and Glassman isn’t sure he’d take Yasutani for a teacher if he knew then what he does now. Instead, let’s follow Kjolhede’s advice and closely investigate Yasutani’s words for ourselves. We would ask Yasutani these simple questions.

Why did you say those things? Did you mean them? Why didn’t you share them with us? Do you believe them now? Are you sorry? How have you made amends? Only by considering his answers can we decide whether Yasutani is the sort of man we would want to call our teacher.

Rick Strassman
Port Townsend, WA

Brian Victoria’s straightforward accounting of Yasutani Roshi’s anti-Semitism and violent nationalism is a fitting tribute to a magazine that will not wear cultist blinders. The responses, to say the least, have not been satisfactory. Most unsettling is Robert Aitken’s petulant reprimand of Victoria’s “implacable condemnation.” Implacable?! What are we talking about here, a debate on parking laws? We are talking about the Holocaust, aren’t we? Can Aitken bring himself to call Yasutani’s words implacable? The best he can do is : “disappointing.” But, of course, we don’t even need to bring in the Jews to illustrate the moral horror implicit in Yasutani’s words. What about the Rape of Nanking?

Aitken’s rationalizations have a familiar ring. As a variation on the “Good German,” he offers the Good Japanese, who was only taking the required cues from his emperor.

Then there is the out-of-context argument. Victoria, we are told, “extracts the words and deeds from their cultural and temporal context and judges them from a present-day, progressive Western point of view.” Oh, really? We are asked to assume that revulsion for genocide is an exclusively Western quirk, one that leads to hyper-criticism.

Of course, the bad childhood explanation is brought in to let us know that the speaker of the words should not be held accountable for their content, so long as they are distasteful.

Finally, this whitewash would not be complete without the old some-of-my-best-friends-are-Jewish disclaimer. How heartening to know that after Japan lost the war, Yasutani Roshi “accepted students who had Jewish antecedents.

Although Aitken acknowledges that the “notably right-wing views” espoused at the end of Yasutani’s life are “disappointing,” we are assured that these views in no way contaminated his Zen teachings. But, if Buddhists are people in-the-world, then the events of humankind and their moral implications cannot be regarded as something apart from practice. Buddhism has helped me take responsibility for even the most subtle experiences of anger. Certainly, I cannot dismiss with breezy rationalizations a Zen master’s call for mass carnage.

Thomas Wagner
New York, NY

It was sad to read the soft-pedaling of hate by noted Zen teachers and practitioners Aitken, Glassman, and Shainberg. Each offered in defense of Yasutani Roshi a version of “Some of his best friends were Jewish.” Pathetic. In relation to beloved teachers all of us are likely to have a blind spot. But Yasutani never repudiated his violent views and intellectual honesty demands that we take them at face value. Instead, we read a definition of enlightenment that includes Jew-hatred. It won’t wash.

Rodger Kamenetz (author of The Jew in the Lotus)

Dharma for Sale

I was disappointed with Peter Trachtenberg’s article on Buddhism in relation to consumerism. How can anyone address this subject in the pages of Tricycle magazine and not bring at least a modicum of critical reflection to bear on this very magazine’s pages and pages of slick advertising for expensive dharma paraphernalia?

Ours is, to be sure, a morally complex world, and there is no obvious conclusion to which such critical reflection should lead. I am not, then, wishing simply that Trachtenberg had condemned the consumerist dimension of the dharma industry outright. Nevertheless, it’s abundantly clear that the pages of Tricycle reflect, among other things, the commodification of Buddhism, and that the purveyors of dharma-wares who advertise here deploy sophisticated advertising techniques to foster desire for everything from Tibetan tchotchkes to equanimity. Not only was this phenomenon not questioned, but the only consideration of Buddhist consumerism (i.e., that of the Rato monastery’s handicrafts) positively valorized Buddhist capitalists.

Again, there is no obviously correct conclusion to draw with respect to this. But the failure even to raise the issue shows a lack of self-awareness that is most unbecoming to a Buddhist magazine.

Dan Arnold
Chicago, IL