In a recent edition of The Eastern Buddhist, Professor Brian Victoria continues his criticism of the writings of D. T. Suzuki. Discussing the claim that Zen meditation is “value-neutral,” Victoria writes, “Controversially to be sure, I assert that while [Kemmyo Taira] Sato (and Suzuki) are quite correct about the value-neutral nature of Zen meditation, this is actually the crux of the problem. That is to say, when Zen meditation is regarded as completely value-neutral (as it typically has been in Zen history) it is NOT Buddhist meditation!” He continues:

My research leads me to conclude that the Zen school failed many centuries ago to recognize that Buddhist meditation is not “value-neutral” in the sense that Buddha Sakyamuni did not recognize every form of meditation as an expression of the Buddha-dharma. The very essence of Buddhist meditation is to promote, or better said, to realize the identity of self and others, all “others.” How then, could one, having genuinely had that recognition/experience, either engage in or promote warfare that seeks to destroy others? To be unaware of this truth is a singular and manifestly dangerous misunderstanding of the Buddha-dharma. Fortunately, this danger is recognized in the Theravada tradition and is furthermore entirely consistent with Buddha Sakyamuni’s fundamental teachings of compassion and nonviolence. The question is whether Mahayana adherents, most especially in the Zen school, will admit their error and embrace this teaching?

Leave aside for now the idea that Mahayana practices that do not map to the words of the historical Buddha are errors, or misunderstandings. I was struck by the line: “The very essence of Buddhist meditation is to promote, or better said, to realize the identity of self and others, all ‘others.'” I asked Thai forest monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu where in the Pali Canon this idea was expressed. He replied:

The Pali Canon contains no teaching to the effect that the self is identical with others, or that the purpose of meditation is to realize such an identity. The Gopaka Moggallana Sutta [which Victoria cites in his article] does contain a passage to the effect that not all meditation / jhana was praised by the Buddha. The passage is this:

“It wasn’t the case, brahman, that the Blessed One praised mental absorption of every sort, nor did he criticize mental absorption of every sort. And what sort of mental absorption did he not praise? There is the case where a certain person dwells with his awareness overcome by sensual passion, seized with sensual passion. He does not discern the escape, as it actually is present, from sensual passion once it has arisen. Making that sensual passion the focal point, he absorbs himself with it, besorbs, resorbs, & supersorbs himself with it.
“He dwells with his awareness overcome by ill will ….
“He dwells with his awareness overcome by sloth & drowsiness ….
“He dwells with his awareness overcome by restlessness & anxiety ….
“He dwells with his awareness overcome by uncertainty, seized with uncertainty. He does not discern the escape, as it actually is present, from uncertainty once it has arisen. Making that uncertainty the focal point, he absorbs himself with it, besorbs, resorbs, & supersorbs himself with it. This is the sort of mental absorption that the Blessed One did not praise.”

Thanissaro Bhikkhu also pointed out that Udana 5:1, which ends with the justly famous phrase, “So one should not hurt others/if one loves oneself,” while not dealing specifically with meditation, provides sound support that those seeking an end to their own suffering should not harm others, and that it reinforces “the values that underline the practice of meditation, and in Theravada these values are not discarded on the meditative level.” I am very grateful for his valuable insight in this discussion.

We should remember that the Japanese Zen establishment is not the only example of Buddhist monks advocating violence. Theravadan monks in Sri Lanka have also been known to beat the drums for war, and much more recently. This seems to be another example of nationalism or politics tragically trumping religion. But we would be mistaken to condemn the entire country’s institutionalized Buddhism, root and branch. Experience and the dharma should tell us that this is not likely to be the proper approach.

More on Sato and Victoria’s debate can be found in the Tricycle article, “The Fog of World War II.”

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