September 29, 2007

zen and the art of starting wars

Filed under:, , , — cwage @ 12:03 pm

In a conversation with my friend Paul last night, we were talking about Salman Rushdie and wandered on over to Chris Hitchens. I talked about my respect for both as atheists and their respective different attitudes and revulsions towards religion. I pasted this clip of Hitchens talking about religion. It's admittedly not Hitchens at his best, but I think it's still a hilariously entertaining take on religion. Anyhow, we talked a bit about radical Islam and fundamentalist Christianity, and he half-jokingly said that we should just let the Buddhists run everything.

I encounter this sentiment a lot -- that while most organized religion has at some point been corrupted towards murderous applications, Buddhism has somehow historically been immune to this. Perhaps because of some intrinsic superiority. Now, I'm not looking to get into a religious debate about the relative merits of Buddhism versus other religions -- it's pretty clear that it's at least less whack than others. But the idea that it is or has been immune to dangerous applications is patentedly false. Does no one remember, like, World War II? You know, the war where Zen Buddhism was the backbone of an entire country bent on a fanatical suicide march of world domination and colonialism? Remember that? Okay, so at the time Shinto and Bushido had as much to do with it as Buddhism, but Buddhism and Zen played its part, and until recently the Buddhist temples' complicity and support of the war has gone unnoticed. But it's slowly being unearthed:

"Zen was a large part of the spiritual training not only of the Japanese military but eventually of the whole Japanese people," he said in an interview. "It would have led them to commit national suicide if there had been an American invasion."


Both of Mr. Victoria's books peel back layers of the career of D. T. Suzuki, who taught at Columbia University in the 1950's and remains the best-known Japanese advocate of Zen in the West. In 1938, however, Mr. Suzuki used his prestige as a scholar in Japan to assert that Zen's "ascetic tendency" teaches the Japanese soldier "that to go straight forward and crush the enemy is all that is necessary for him."

"What Brian Victoria has written is mostly right," said Jiun Kubota, the third patriarch of Sanbo-kyodan, a small Zen group outside Tokyo that has also issued an apology. "I dare say that Zen was used as the spiritual backbone of the military army and navies during the war."


Traditionally, Zen stresses an inward search for understanding and mental discipline. But Mr. Victoria said that imperial military trainers developed the self-denying egolessness Zen prizes into "a form of fascist mind-control." He said Suzuki and others helped by "romanticizing" the tie between Zen and the warrior ethos of the samurai. Worse, he charges, 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."

August 6, 2007

historical error

Filed under:, , — cwage @ 10:17 pm

Instead of reviewing books I think I'll just start quoting at length from them. Best blogger ever. From God and the State:

But from the moment that this animal origin of man is accepted, all is explained. History then appears to us as the revolutionary negation, now slow, apathetic, sluggish, now passionate and powerful, of the past. It consists precisely in the progressive negation of the primitive animality of man by the development of his humanity. Man, a wild beast, cousin of the gorilla, has emerged from the profound darkness of animal instinct into the light of the mind, which explains in a wholly natural way all his past mistakes and partially consoles us for his present errors. He has gone out from animal slavery, and passing through divine slavery, a temporary condition between his animality and his humanity, he is now marching on to the conquest and realisation of human liberty. Whence it results that the antiquity of a belief, of an idea, far from proving anything in its favour, ought, on the contrary, to lead us to suspect it. For behind us is our animality and before us our humanity; human light, the only thing that can warm and enlighten us, the only thing that can emancipate us, give us dignity, freedom, and happiness, and realise fraternity among us, is never at the beginning, but, relatively to the epoch in which we live, always at the end of history. Let us, then, never look back, let us look ever forward; for forward is our sunlight, forward our salvation. If it is justifiable, and even useful and necessary, to turn back to study our past, it is only in order to establish what we have been and what we must no longer be, what we have believed and thought and what we must no longer believe or think, what we have done and what we must do nevermore.

So much for antiquity. As for the universality; of an error, it proves but one thing - the similarity, if not the perfect identity, of human nature in all ages and under all skies. And, since it is established that all peoples, at all periods of their life, have believed and still believe in God, we must simply conclude that the divine idea, an outcome of ourselves, is an error historically necessary in the development of humanity, and ask why and how it was produced in history and why an immense majority of the human race still accept it as a truth.

Bakunin sure had a way with words for a guy who went around starting fights. He's definitely not afraid of a few run-on sentences, though.

November 16, 2006

original sin

So, in a post talking about whether or not Christians are "under attack", in discussing South Park's eviscerations of Christianity and other religions, John Carney says this:

They had a storyline which made fun of fundamentalists for opposing the teaching of evolution, but also mocked the atheist viewpoint that everything would be so much better if we didn't have those darn religious people mucking things up. In "South Park"'s projected future, the atheists have done away with religion, only to fall into their own holy wars between various factions of atheism. The problem is not religion, they seemed to be saying, it's human beings.

And, I disagree. I mean, that is -- it may be an accurate description of what Parker and Stone are going for, though I tend to think a better description is just that they are blissfully irreverent, but whatever.

But I hate the sentiment of the last sentence, which seems to have gotten a good reaction in the comments. The implication in saying "the problem is .. human beings" is that human beings are ultimately, innately flawed. I admit my gut reaction to this was to find it ironic that this itself is actually a concept deeply rooted in the Christian ethos. The idea of "human nature" as being a flawed or corrupt existence is a pervasive one in the Christian religion. In most sects of Christianity, I'd argue that it's taken as a given that humans are flawed beings who require God's mercy and salvation, and you can see this reflected back to Hobbs and his idea of a nasty, brutish, short "state of nature", and even further. It's a very powerful idea -- powerful because it's an excellent tool for reinforcing authority. If it's a given that human beings are cruel, evil and flawed when left to their own devices, it's easy to justify authority (whether the church's or, now, a state's) in reigning us in. (This is somewhat related to my opinion that Christianity can be difficult, but not impossible to reconcile with Libertarianism. Aunt B and I and others had a conversation about Glen Dean or something at one point, but I can't find it. I also have noted in the past the opposite: Christianity used as a tool to refute libertarianism in favor of authoritarianism. This, also, is another blog post.)

Anyways, so .. I checked my thoughts at this point: my knowledge of this flawed-human guilt complex is mostly limited to Christianity, but it would be silly of me to assume it hasn't appeared in other religions. I would, however, argue that it is probably most pervasive in the Christian religion. While I considered this, my thoughts wandered to probably the most extreme instance of Christian self-flagellation in history, which was .. well, self-flagellation. Mortification of the flesh. They loved this shit in the middle ages. This practice of self-inflicted flogging was rooted in the idea that by inflicting pain and suffering upon yourself, you absolve your sins and become closer to god, or something like that. It was also deeply rooted in the fundamental idea that humans are bad (mmkay), e.g. “Put to death what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” (Col 3:5).

So I found myself wondering if there were parallels of this in any other religions. One that came to mind was "zanjeer matam", a Shiite ceremony involving flagellation with a chain & curved knives to commemorate the day of Ashura. This is similar on its surface, but appears not to be entirely the same. The goal of this symbolic act is to sympathize with the suffering and death of the martyr Husayn, which is similar to the Christian goal of relating to Christ's crucifixion, but it appears to lack the whole "put to death what is earthly in you" element. Maybe.

So, the question: do you agree that the concept of "human nature" as a flawed state is most pervasive in the Christian religion? Are there others in which it's more pervasive?

May 4, 2006

national day of prayer

Filed under:, , — cwage @ 10:22 am

Today is the National Day of Prayer. Pray that Hank doesn't kick the shit out of you: