Zen and Nationalism


Like many, I struggle daily with making sense of the rash of changes in the world. Down seems up, up seems down and no one seems certain of their footing. It’s tough to remain optimistic when every day brings some new frightening development, blunder or outrageous action by the current administration in the U.S. Reasonable people are asking ‘how did we get here?’ and feel that this isn’t the country they thought it was.  Optimism seems at an all-time low and there are legitimate fears about what the leader of the free world will do at any given moment.

Once again, I point to Zen.

Zen teaches us to embrace change and zazen (zen meditation) is a powerfully useful tool to help with this. However, meditation by itself may not be enough; fortunately, as with many things in life, history can provide some lessons or offer some hope that we’ve been here before – and will come through it again.

Zen has an interesting – and somewhat unfortunate – history related to the rise of Emperor Hirohito in the 1920s and 30s. During this time, zen priests and leaders were strangely silent. Zen temples throughout Japan opted instead to ignore or even encourage the country’s fascist regime bent on a path of oppression and destruction.

One such example is the Myoshin-ji temple where members followed the invading Japanese army across Asia and “established branch headquarters and missions in conquered areas, even conducted fund-raising drives to purchase military aircraft” (from the New York Times, 2003). It wasn’t until September 27, 2011 – just a few short weeks after 9/11 – that the Myohsin-ji temple issued a formal apology for involvement in the militarism of Japan during World War II. Their statement event drew a comparison between their behavior and that of Islamic fundamentalists.

One of Zen’s most important voices – D.T. Suzuki – used his prestige as a scholar in Japan to assert that “Zen’s ascetic tendency teaches the Japanese solider that to go straight forward and crush the enemy is all that is necessary for him”.

A great book – Zen War Stories by Brian Daizen Victoria explores this history further. He said Suzuki and others helped by ”romanticizing” the tie between Zen and the warrior ethos of the legendary samurai and they stressed a connection between Buddhist compassion and the acceptance of death in a way that justified collective martyrdom and killing one’s enemies:  ”In Islam, as in the holy wars of Christianity, there is a promise of eternal life,” Mr. Victoria said in an interview. ”In Zen, there was the promise that there was no difference between life and death, so you really haven’t lost anything.”

What does all of this have to do with Zen Selling? Nothing and everything…

We all exist in the real world and must make our lives and our living in the situation as it exists. Some may be struggling with how to cope with the tumultuous news constantly coming out of Washington. We must all remain focused on what we can do right now to improve the lives of those around us – whether that means getting involved politically or simply listening more attentively.

There’s an app for that

I’m here in Austin for SXSW and am blown away by how many companies are focusing on mindfulness. Lots of startups with all types of meditation apps are exhibiting and the lines to their booths are long. 

I’ll write more later on some of the different companies but wanted to share some great swag from one of them…