Saturday, January 24, 2015


Zazen is a posture which enables us to see through the illusions of our thinking selves.

Kosho Uchiyama 
The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo 

Monday, January 19, 2015

Zen Wars

Some Zen priests during WW2 twisted Zen lingo in order to encourage warfare, chauvinism, and fascism. Brian Victoria's book Zen at War, thought it has some flaws, brought this to all of our attention. In some cases the revelation was shocking, as in the case of Yasutani Roshi, who was revered as an enlightened being by many in the West. That storm has mostly passed, but the book has otherwise gotten quite a bit of attention in the years since its writing. Some of this attention, I feel, is excessive or wrongheaded, and I wanted to share some thoughts on that. 

I am certainly not opposed to Brian Victoria's book in principle, and agree that misbehaviour and delusion among Buddhist masters past or present needs to be faced and discussed. I just think the attention this issue has gotten is excessive and, frankly, that it is being pressed into the service of ulterior motivations. Why do I think the attention its getting is excessive and inappropriate?

Well, first of all, the words of Zen priests in Japan legitimizing violence and chauvinism are often treated as an "embarrasment" to Soto Zen, or worse as a condemnation by association of Zen doctrines themselves. Is that logical? 

First off, it is not an embarrassment to Soto Zen. It is an embarrassment to many members of the Soto establishment who were in positions of authority, or were teachers, at that time.  Japan's actions during WW2 were not motivated by Buddhism in any sense. The ideology behind Japan's aggression was a mixture of racism, greed and imperialism, and was given its core ideological justification by State Shinto, not State Buddhism. Even if it has been State Buddhism, however, so what? Mainstream Buddhist doctrines, especially in Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, are the most nonviolent of any religious doctrines in human history (with the exception of Jainism). The fact that even Buddhist doctrine can be twisted into the service of greed, hatred and delusion is not a condemnation of Buddhism or of religion, but of the darkness of the human heart itself.

Second, to examine the issue a little more closely, is what happened in Japan a condemnation of Zen as inherently tending towards the legitimization of violence? Some have suggested that the intense asceticism, hierarchy, or nondual philosophy of Zen encourage emotional attitudes of machismo, abuse of authority, amorality or nihilism. I would be more likely to agree with Professor Bob Thurman, who suggested years ago that there is a correlation in societies who are shutting down their monasteries (as Japan has been slowly doing for centuries and much of Europe did five hundred years ago) with rising militarism and imperial expansion. 

The sad fact is that every religion on the planet has been been used as a justification for violence and other immoral acts (immoral by Buddhist standards, anyway!). Is this because "religion poisons everything"? Well, if that was true, than we would expect non-religious countries or atheistic governments to be more peaceful. Let's see- Nazis? Nope. Maoists? Nope. Saddam Hussein? Pol Pot? Kim Jong Il? Joseph Stalin? Wait, these governments have been many times more brutal than any religious government or society, and been responsible for a massive amount more deaths. There goes that theory. Actually, it seems like religious countries, although sadly still violent, may on the whole be less violent. 

Is the problem organized religions? Maybe indigenous peoples and pagans were peaceful. Some think so. But is this true? Wait, wasn't Japan in WW2 energized by the use of Shinto, a "pagan" religion? Wasn't Hitler fascinated with the Occult and pre-Christian Teutonic Paganism? What about brutal world conquering Ancient Rome. What about the endless wars of blood vengeance among Aboriginals in New Zealand or the abduction and counter abductions and ceremonial torture among Canadian First Nations peoples? What about Mayan human sacrifice? Nope, Pagans all. 

So where does that leave us? It seems that organized religion is to blame, and disorganized religion, and atheism, and secularism! Hmmn. Maybe we're missing a common factor, something besides religion or irreligion, something else present in all of these cases and instances. What could it be? What or who was there all the time?

Satan? No, us. Yes, that's right, human beings. Human beings who hurt and kill other beings for the sake of power, or security, or out of greed, hatred, anger, or vengeance. Human beings who are probably in most instances just trying to be safe, or have a good life, and woefully confused about what will bring that about. In a world determined not by wishful thinking but by causes and conditions, confusion kills.

Maybe if we could understand our interconnection, let go of our self-defensiveness, and reduce  our greed, hatred and delusion we'd be better off. Maybe if we embraced non-violence and compassion and tried to stop reifying our own point of view and began training our minds we could overcome these tendencies. If only we had a religion that taught those things. Wait! We do!

If Buddhism generally, and Zen specifically, teaches these things, how could it be that some Zen priests in WW2 advocated warfare, racism, and fascism? Well, you see, the weakness of Buddhism is that is has to be understood properly and practiced properly to work. Even more difficult, the practitioner also has to use it as a light to shine on themselves in every nook and cranny. The honest truth is that all of us fail at this more than we succeed, because it is very difficult. Buddhism itself does not claim that it is easy, but explicitly says that this is very difficult. 

The Buddha himself warned that even ultimate truth, healing truth, wondrous truth, if used the wrong way, is a snake that will bite you (Alagaduppama Sutta). In the words of the immortal bard (Willam Blake): A truth told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent. 

So one reason the focus on Zen at War bothers me is that it can cause doubt and suspicion to arise and be directed in the wrong direction, away from our own hearts and towards one of the very things that can help us- Zen practice. Another reason reason is that the events in Victoria's book are in the past. We would do better to study what evil we are legitimizing or overlooking today. 
How do I think we should respond to the delusion and bad conduct of Zen priests in WW2? Well, I do think we should try to understand where they went wrong. We should then see if we are going wrong in similar ways today, as communities or individuals. It is not the doctrines they believed, but how and whay they twisted them that we need to examine. If there is anything in the structures of their communities that we can demonstrate empirically, not speculatively, to be at fault, than we should look at how to change that. We should not discount everything good that person ever did, although we should certainly treat them with greater suspicion, particularly if they never repented (unlike Kodo Sawaki, for instance, who did).

We should then get on with the great matter of the present moment.

I'm sure that many in the Zen community have acted exactly as I just prescribed. If I had focused on them, however, I would have had nothing to complain about today. 


Friday, January 16, 2015


"Religion" is to live out the ever fresh self, which is not decieved by anything."

-Kodo Sawaki, quoted in The Zen Teachings of Homeless Kodo 

Saturday, July 6, 2013

New Article on Elephant Journal

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Truth Beyond Us And Them

When I was younger I used to go to protest marches. Although initially energized by the solidarity and sense of positive power that gathered around the protesters I usually found that by the end of the march I felt alienated and dispassionate. I felt that way not about the cause, but about the gathering. It was hard to put my finger on what the problem was at first. Something about the tone: angry, self-righteous. Confrontational. In one phrase: Us against Them.

I don't deny the existence of bad guys in the world. But I do think they are exceedingly rare. Duplicity, self-absorption ignorance, opportunism- these are very real, and all of us are guilty, or at least I am. But real villains- they are few and far between. What I disliked about the energy of the protests was the sense that we were on the side of heaven- righteous, possessed of the truth, and in a holy wrath- and our opponents were benighted, evil, ignorant, and even subhuman- "pigs", as you-know-who were repeatedly referred to at one march.

There are three things I dislike about this approach. 1) It is not true. 2) The sense of righteousness- the sense of moral and intellectual superiority- can itself become an addicting brew, intoxicating the conscience and leading one to a view life through a distorting glass that renders everything falsely black and white. 3) This approach, so often hostile and dehumanizing, is both violent and ineffectual. It is violent because it is tainted with ill-will, and ineffective because it blocks off communication between parties in conflict and instead of reaching out to and activating the good in the other side. It provokes defensive postures with all the blindness they also bring.

Of the three the last may be most serious. As long as we demonize our opponents we will provoke them to withdraw behind defenses and in turn demonize us.

Gandhi developed a strategy of political transformation which worked in precise opposition to the above dynamic, which he called satyagraha. It consisted of a combination of a commitment to non-violence with an appeal to what was highest in one's opponent. "I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and compassion....there must be no impatience, no barbarity, no insolence, no undue pressure." (Prabhu and Rao, The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi).

Interestingly, Jesus used a similar method. A case in point is the story of Jesus and the tax collector Zaccheus (Luke 19:1-10). In this story Jesus is passing through Jericho on the way to Jerusalem, having avoided the town's desire to give him hospitality. A chief tax collector (ie. a wealthy Jewish colloborator with the Romans) runs ahead of Jesus and climbs into a tree to see him. Jesus, seeing Zaccheus, tells him that he will stay at his house. The crowd, up until now in love with the new celebrity preacher, becomes incensed. They would have expected Jesus to upbraid Zaccheus for being of the "1%" and lecture him on how he should quit cooperating with Rome and make restitution to his own people, afflicted with poverty and crushed beneathe the heel of the Romans. But he doesn't do that- instead, recognizing the potential good in Zaccheus, he appeals to that, showing the man honour and going into his house. Zaccheus, moved, in fact does pledge to make restitution to his impoverished people, and of his own free will.

As the great African-American mystic Howard Thurman, colleague of Martin Luther King, Jr., pointed out in Jesus and The Disinherited, it is surely a very important fact that when God's messenger arrived he was born as a dirt poor member of an oppressed minority living under colonial domination. As such Jesus made three important choices: 1) between resistance and accomodation he chose resistance; 2) between violence and non-violence he chose non-violence; and 3) rather than hating his enemy and cataloguing their wrongs he preached, "Love your enemy" and catologued his own people's wrongs.

This takes courage. When the Roman government is taxing you to death, outlawing your religious freedoms, killing your leaders as political dissidents, and who knows what else, it takes an amazing hutzpah to wander the villages pointing out to your fellow Jews what they need to do to set their own spiritual and moral integrity in order.

What most interests me about Jesus and Gandhi's approach is the way it undercuts the us versus them approach on two counts: 1) it disembowels the two-headed beast of self- glorification and demonisation of others, with all the blindness it brings in its wake; and 2) makes room for dialogue through appealing to common humanity.

It is so nice to feel one is on the side of angels. Canadian and not American where I come from. A worker and not a boss. With the Palestinians and against the Israelis. A treehugger, not a resource manager. An atheist and not a religious nut. Or vice versa. But people, and life, are endlessly more complicated. Only with a careful, loving understanding can we come to anything like the truth of our common humanity, common needs, common guilt.

And why do we need the truth? An old Jewish saying points out that the Hebrew word for truth (אמת) when written in in Hebrew, uses three letters that all have two legs. Falsehood, by contrast (שקר) is written with three letters that each have one leg or sit on a curve. The lesson? Falsehood is a bad foundation; only truth lasts.

Matthew Gindin April 2013


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Articles On Elephant Journal

I've recently published a few articles on Elephant Journal, a grassroots Yoga webzine. The first covered the question, "When Does Yoga Stop Being Yoga?" The second discusses actionless action and violence in the Bhagavad Gita, and the third Ayurvedic Healing and romantic relationships.

The fourth and most recent article advocates keeping Kirtan, a communal devotional practice in Hinduism and Sikhism, on a donation basis, or on other words, free to attend. This last article, called "Paying to Pray" has provoked surprising amounts of hostility, as well as some interesting debate and some happy agreement.

All four can be found here:

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Pole Dancing Yoginis Raise Questions

New piece published on Elephant Journal: