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Thursday, April 16, 2015
History ... Zen ...

My Zen group recently held a “zazen-kai”, which is basically a long day of meditation and other Zen ceremonial accoutrements. Our normal weekly zazen service lasts 2 hours; zazen-kai goes about 6 and 1/2. Most of the extra time goes to sitting quietly in meditation. And that’s a good thing, as far as I am concerned. But some of it goes into more chanting, more walking around (i.e. “kinhin”), breaking for refreshments (in silence, thank goodness), and listening to the wise teacher ruminate on the contrarian glories of the Zen / Buddhist traditions. During our zazen-kai, our sensei talked about the traditional December sesshin commemorating the anniversary of the Buddha’s enlightenment. The last day of this week-long ceremony marks the morning when Buddha awoke before dawn, saw the morning star (the planet Venus) shining brightly over the horizon, and decided that he was finally seeing the big picture. I.e., the Buddha realized enlightenment.

Enlightenment is the holy grail of the whole Buddhist enterprise, so the date on which this happened is treated as a holiday in many parts of the East. During his talk, sensei named the date on which the big man supposedly had his great celestial insight — i.e., December 8th. Being a supposedly anti-intellectual tradition, it’s a no-no in Zen to stimulate the mind (or let it be stimulated). But my mind was nonetheless stimulated by this little factoid. December 8th — pretty close to December 7th, the day of infamy, Pearl Harbor Day.

Hold on a minute — Zen is largely a Japanese tradition; it has ancient historical roots in China and India, but Japan is where it all came together during the Middle Ages, where the legendary Zen masters such as Dogen and Hakuin flourished, and where the old roshi’s who started the American Zen movement after World War 2 hailed from (e.g. Suzuki, Mazumi, and Soen). And the 1941 surprise attack on the American Naval base in Pearl Harbor had more than a little to do with Japan. So, I wondered if it was just a coincidence, or were the Japanese leaders who planned the attack influenced by the Buddhist tradition?

I did a bit of web searching, but not a whole lot of material pops up about that question. Japanese Emperor Hirohito was greatly involved with General Tojo and Admiral Yamamoto in planning out the assault, which was under discussion for many months. An Imperial Conference on July 2, 1941, confirmed Japan’s overall decision to attack the Western powers. In early September, the Emperor declined to overrule the decision to go to war. Yamamoto alone came up with the idea of including the Pearl Harbor attack into Japan’s war plans and lobbied vigorously to get it approved. But Hirohito had the final say.

Hirohito gave his approval to the plan on December 1, 1941. That would have been a Monday. By this time, Yamamoto’s Pearl Harbor attack force was already at sea. Selecting the first Sunday morning following the “green light” from the Imperial Palace would make sense, both from the point of view of maximizing the surprise against the enemy, and in terms of the logistics of getting the forces ready and in place. From that perspective, then, it doesn’t look like Pearl Harbor Day had anything to do with Buddhism.

And hey, isn’t Buddhism supposed to be radically pacifist, the one world religion that never went to war? That’s what many Buddha-enthusiasts here in the US seem to think. The FIRST of the Five Great Precepts of Buddhism requires all Buddha-followers to “abstain from killing”, plain and simple. But of course, reality always has a way of confounding simple expectations, both in the past and in the present. I won’t go into all the ways that those loyal to Buddhism have taken up the sword or gun in anger and have spilled blood over the course of history, but the list is long and goes into the present (especially in Myanmar/Burma). Despite its strong affiliation with Buddhism, the Zen tradition in Japan became deeply intermingled with the nation’s martial elements, and was used to inspire and train the Meiji samurai swordsmen as well as the kamikaze pilots of the mid-1940s.

So, back to December 7 and Pearl Harbor . . . or actually, December 8 and Pearl Harbor. By the time the early-morning attack was underway, Japan itself was in the wee hours of December 8, being on the other side of the date-line. Hmmm . . . so, as far as anyone on the home islands was concerned, the big attack against the American and British enemy started on Buddha’s enlightenment day. (Recall that Pearl Harbor was not the only point of action; the Japanese simultaneously attacked American bases in Guam, Wake Island and the Philippines, and invaded the British crown colony of Hong Kong and also Thailand, where the Japanese continued on down the peninsula to take British Malaysia.) That certainly could help to rally public support by tapping into the Zen warrior spirit — despite the supreme irony of invoking the Buddha’s enlightenment, the inspiration for the Buddha’s pacifist teachings.

However, I found only one potentially credible source that believes this to be more than just a coincidence. In his book “Tracking Bodhidharma: A Journey to the Heart of Chinese Culture”, Andy Ferguson (a Chinese translator and writer of various books on Chinese and Buddhist topics, who has lived in Singapore and Hong Kong and is a graduate of the Chinese Language and Literature program at the University of Oregon) states that “The date was not serendipitous. Emperor Hirohito selected December 8 as particularly auspicious and meaningful, for according to Japan’s Buddhist tradition, that date corresponds with Buddha’s enlightenment day . . . the symbolic date of the attack punctuates the role that Buddhism and its doctrines played in Japans militarist and imperial ideology.”

So, the connection between Pearl Harbor and the Buddha is a great big “maybe”. Nonetheless, December 8 remains a powerful day in human history for whatever reason (perhaps it’s just a mix of coincidences). The Catholic Christian tradition celebrates December 8 as the feast of the Immaculate Conception, when the Virgin Mary was conceived without original sin (not to be confused with the day Mary got pregnant with Jesus, however and whenever that happened). The Catholic Church teaches that Mary herself was conceived by normal biological means, but that her soul still got a pass from the “sin of Adam”, which all the rest of us must deal with.

In modern times, founding Beatle member John Lennon was killed in Manhattan on December 8, 1980. Also, American entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. was born that day, and the US and Soviet Union had signed an Intermediate-range Nuclear Force (reduction) Treaty in 1987. This was under Mikhail Gorbachev, the last decent leader that Russia had, and perhaps the only decent Russian leader of the 20th Century, save maybe for Nikita Khrushchev, who despite his bluster managed to stay cool during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and avoid World War 3.

Well, every day is special in some way. But December 8th is definitely one of the more interesting ones from both a modern and ancient perspective . . . the Japanese went to war, the US and Russia took a step away from war, Sammy Davis Jr. was born, John Lennon was killed, the Buddha saw the star, and the Virgin Mary was conceived without Original Sin. I can’t say for sure if there are any direct connections between these interesting and varied events, but somehow they are all threads weaving together into the crazy, convoluted fabric of humanity. Maybe December 8 should be remembered (but not celebrated) to ponder how interesting, special and in many ways paradoxical the human race and human society is, what a mixed bag of goods and bads we represent.

We humans have a lot of terrible things to account for; in our greed and stupidity we inflict a lot of unnecessary suffering, and we have made a mess of the natural world from which we were birthed. And yet, until some other form of conscious awareness is discovered, we are the senses and emotions of the universe; we are the sole entity in the cosmos that feels wonder and love, we are the connoisseurs who appreciate the very being and fabric of reality itself. December 8 might just be a good day to think about that. I’m sure that Buddha and Mary and John Lennon would agree, probably Sammy and Mikhail too. And maybe even Emperor Hirohito, who was allowed to live despite the terrible devastation and suffering that he helped to cause, and who after the war became a respected marine biologist. Like humankind itself, he was definitely a VERY mixed bag of bads and goods.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:34 am      

  1. Another penetrating insight. Thank you, Jim! Humanity never ceases to astound, frustrate and amaze me. Religion has been used and abused for myriad ’causes’ and to justify so much evil, yet at the same time, its adherents vehemently declare that this or that ugly action is not part of the “true” religion and only a minority are guilty of committing the heinous deeds. I sigh whenever I am confronted with the “but it’s not me!” declarations – because at the bottom of it all, humanity in its entirety is guilty of the whole mixed bag of bads and goods!

    Comment by bunnyhopscotch — June 29, 2015 @ 4:40 am

  2. Thanks for the nice shout-out, DJ, always great to hear from you! Jim G

    Comment by Jim G — July 1, 2015 @ 8:32 pm

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