Peter Haskel’s study of the Zen monk Takuan Sōhō (CE 1573–1645) provides a nuanced, in-depth analysis of a topic that is all-too often dominated by nonsense. As a professor of medieval Chinese history told me recently, despite the enthusiasm of undergraduate and graduate students to investigate the connection between Zen and the martial arts, until recently almost no legitimate studies of the connection existed. Like Nikolas Broy in a recent article,Haskel is to be praised for remedying this hole in scholarship, and even more for doing it so well.

Haskel’s study consists of three parts. His rich introduction sketches how and why a Zen monk like Takuan could be writing on the art of swordmanship, certainly a strange notion if one remembers the Buddhist prohibition against killing. Haskel, however, is not interested in such purely doctrinal approaches, and instead portrays a vibrant interaction between Zen Buddhism and samurai ethics through his examination of the religion between Takuan and such daimyō as Yagyū Munenori (author of another classic work on swordmanship).We learn, for example, that Buddhism had catered to increasingly powerful feudal lords almost from its initial arrival in Japan, and thus got drawn into the civil war that would envelop the region until the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate (CE 1600). In Takuan’s Japan then, Buddhist temples fielding armies or Zen abbots acting as generals were not an extraordinary phenomenon. Therefore, Takuan’s formulation of a Zen swordmanship was nothing really extraordinary. We find these writings translated in the middle of the book, followed by a compiled biography of Takuan, drawing on various premodern sources.

Before, I was convinced that the connection between Zen and the martial art was a modern phenomenon: Brian Victoria has documented elaborately how Zen Buddhist apologists catered to the needs of Japanese jingoists, and Robert Sharf has shown how concepts like bushidō (the “Way of the Warrior”) are largely twentieth century creations. I was thus surprised by how developed the connection already was in pre-modern Japan. Although hat in no way excuses what people like Daisetz Suzuki wrote before and during the Pacific War, it does make the discussion more interesting. For me, it greatly enriches the dissertation chapter I am working on right now, in which I study how Takuan appears in Eiji Yoshikawa’s very popular novel Musashi. After reading Haskel, I now know that Takuan was a relatively fashionable historical figure in interbellum Japan, where his calls to keep the mind “unobstructed” were taken to mean that one should not question orders. What I’m wondering about is how much of this fascist not-questioning-order stuff is intrinsic to Zen. Surely the host of sexual abuse scandals that have haunted US institutions provide another striking example of how Zen’s relinquishment of traditional Buddhist morality (not to kill, not to engage in sexual relations as a monk, etc.) leads to more suffering. I find myself somewhat sympathetic to Sharf’s warning that mindfulness, when taken on its own without proper framing, can be as destructive as it is healing. I doubt that the Zen patriarchs foresaw this when they railed against Buddhist scripture and tradition as blocking the path to enlightenment. But the rhetorical path they took did, I suspect, have far-reaching consequences.

That is not to say that Zen Buddhism is the only Buddhism that can be adopted to further the cause of hate and destruction. One need only look at contemporary developments in Burma to see that Zen is far from unique. Yet in view of the popularity of mindfulness in the west, we need to pay attention to the history of mindfulness without ethics. And the Zen tradition has been struggling with this question for over a thousand years.

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