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Tuesday, March 3, 2015
Spirituality ... Zen ...

Although I belong to a local Zen sangha and attend their zazen meditation service every week, I don’t really consider myself to be fully involved with and devoted to the Zen tradition. I don’t have a guiding teacher whom I meet with regularly, I don’t take time off for weekend or full-week retreats, I’m not studying the Buddhist precepts with a group or sewing together a prayer bib . . . basically I’m doing my own spiritual thing (which I’ve always done).

Still, I have good feelings about the overall Zen establishment and I appreciate the tolerance of the local group in allowing me, something of a Zen non-believer, to rub elbows with the devotees. Even if I don’t consider myself bound to Zen, I am still quite interested in it. And when I’m interested in something, I try to learn more about it, eternal student that I am. So over the past month or two, I’ve been pecking occasionally through a big old book about the history of Zen in Japan, picking up a few random details about a particular setting or group or figure who played a significant role in Zen’s thousand years or so of existence.

I thus took something of an interest not long ago in a Zen master from the late 1500 / early 1600’s named Takuan Soho. Soho is intriguing to me in that he was actually a rather scholarly and worldly figure, unlike the classic Zen luminaries who devote all of their energies to Zen practice, monastic life, and the temple rituals. Many of these roshi’s also dabbled in poetry (usually haiku style) and painting (usually brush imagery), but they didn’t get very involved with scholarly study or advising political leaders. Those things seemingly goes against the grain of Zen, given its focus on the simple, the concrete, and the quiet.

But that didn’t seem to stop Soho. Despite being an honored monk, abbot and temple priest, Soho had various involvements with local scholars and regional leaders. He also had connections with the shogunate, which got him into trouble for a while (he got involved in a dispute over whether the Edo government could control the appointment of abbots to monasteries and temples, and was sent into exile for several years). He maintained a close friendship with the sword master to one of the shoguns, and maintained correspondence with other regional and national big-wigs, including shogun Iemitsu. As to academics, he wrote learned treatises on the New-Confucian doctrines that were gaining popularity in Japan, which were challenging established Buddhist thought. He wasn’t afraid of digging down into metaphysics, and attempted to establish the ultimate harmonies among seemingly different human viewpoints as to what the universe was all about.

Interestingly, Soho also had at least one pen-pal who was a converted Christian (Kuroda Nagamasa, who was also a Daimyo or local governor). In at least one of his works, Soho talks about the Shinto tradition in Japan, with its focus on “kami” or divine spirits worthy of worship (as with Hinduism, there were many different divine beings to be worshiped, with various sects focusing on one or two particular gods). Interestingly, he says that focusing on a particular kami at a regional temple unjustly neglects the “kami without names”. According to the author of the history book that I am reading (Heinrich Dumoulin), Soho says that the honoring of all kami is “true devotion to God” [Dumoulin, Zen Buddhism: A History, Volume 2 Japan, p. 282].

Hmmm . . . is something lost in translation here, or did Takuan Soho, Japanese Rinzai Zen abbot of the 16th Century, really believe in a “God” that would be understood in the modern Christian, Hebrew and Islamic traditions? That doesn’t seem very Buddhist, of course. I have no access to the work by Soho that Heinrich is referring to, so I cannot double check the context in which the word “God” is allegedly used (and remember that Dumoulin was a Jesuit priest, who may have had his own theistic axe to grind here). And then there is the further problem of whether an English translation of Soho’s work accurately conveys his meaning expressed through his native language. But still, given Soho’s possible awareness of Christianity and his scholarly openness to a variety of traditions, it might be possible that Soho was equating the sum of all local Shinto deities, known and unknown, as the earthly manifestations of a transcendent and yet personal master God, a God not far from how modern Christians might understand the notion.

Although the comparison is quite imperfect, Soho reminds me just a bit of Thomas Merton, the 20th Century Trappist monk, scholar and author. Merton himself was not content to stay within the usual “monastic box” that the Church provided him with (despite his initial fervent conversion and devotion to that box). He too reached out to scholars and figures from other faith traditions (including Buddhism and Zen), and dabbled a bit with political involvements in his support of 1960’s anti-war activists. This is rather the opposite or inverse of Soho’s political involvement with the chief swordsman for the shogun! Soho seemed to admire the sword (something not unheard of in the Zen tradition), whereas Merton wanted to beat them into plowshares.

But both Merton and Soho were travelers, men who tried to settle down but ultimately had to get back on the road as to mingle and interact with those beyond the temple or monastery gates. And both shared something of a pessimism about “the normal life”. According to Dumoluin, Soho felt it was impossible to lead a normal life in the world while following the way of Zen. Merton too spoke of the insanity of normal American life, especially while American atom bombs threatened the end of all life. Not exactly something Jesus would look favorably upon.

So, that’s a little bit about Takuan Soho, Rinzai master of the late medieval / early modern transition period in Japan. I found his story to be a bit more colorful than those about the usual Zen luminaries of the past, such as Dogen or Hakuin. His story seems to show that Zen wasn’t always about a remote, esoteric, inscrutable and ascetic way of living / thinking / talking. The Zen stories we Americans mostly hear today seem to emphasize the attainment of wisdom through shock, i.e. that Zen can only be attained by throwing away our common sense and intellectual curiosity and spiritual inclinations, and letting the roshi’s re-shape our minds. Takuan Soho himself was probably NOT an easy master to learn under (his Rinzai tradition was horribly strict), but his story says to me that the Zen heritage is a “big tent”, and that it need not be restricted today by a small band of American teachers who try to be “more Japanese than the Japanese”.

According to Fr. Dumoulin, Takuan Soho “speaks clearly for tolerance and intelligence in religion”. If so, then maybe I’m not such an “outsider” after all!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:24 pm      

  1. Jim, Obviously, you’ve been doing some serious and useful reading on Zen Thought. It’s always a very good thing to go back to the early stages of such a group, and it seems that’s just what you are doing.

    Interesting that back in the 1500s Soho was possibly influenced by Christians (or maybe not) and came up with the idea that all the “local Shinto dieties, known and unknown” might be the “earthly manifestations of a transcendent and yet personal master God”!

    While, as you say, it may be that Soho was influenced by the Jesuit priest, it still says something about the fact that Soho might be considering the possibility that there might be a “transcendent” but also “personal” *master* God.

    The Egyptians under Akhenaten also, for a period of time, worshipped one God. (I simplify here.) It seems that through time, the idea of “God” keeps popping up. It’s enough to make one think there might be something to the idea of “God”. And your search continues, to which I can only say, good for you! MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — March 3, 2015 @ 7:05 pm

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