Throne of Blood

The Samurai MacBeth

Japanese director Akira Kurosawa got a lot of mileage out of Shakespeare, transforming the Bard's plays into samurai epics. One of these is “Throne of Blood,” Kurosawa's samurai version of “MacBeth.”


The “Warring States” era in Japanese history was the time between the Onin War (which led to the collapse of central authority) and the eventual reunification of the country under Hideyoshi, Nobunaga and finally the Tokugawa shoguns. This “Warring States” period lasted for a century or so, depending on when you say it started and ended. The defining feature of the era was said to be “the low oppress the high,” meaning that many samurai disregarded the call of loyalty and overthrew their own masters to seize power for themselves. That makes it the perfect era for a retelling of MacBeth, with Toshiro Mifune as a samurai tempted to betray his lord and seize his province at the instigation of a creepy old ghost in the woods.

Samurai women often received martial training of their own, and were expected to cultivate the same kind of warrior mentality as the men. However, they were given no political authority at all. That's the perfect recipe for creating a samurai equivalent of Lady MacBeth- ruthless, unscrupulous, manipulative and determined to exercise power from behind the scenes.


All the ingredients were in place, and all Kurosawa had to do was to get a good script together, use some great actors, and apply his own directorial genius. The result is “Throne of Blood,” my personal favorite version of the story of MacBeth.






Zen Enlightenment and Its Dark Side

The Zen term most commonly translated as “enlightenment” is actually “kensho.” The term “satori” refers to the subjective personal experience you might have when you enter kensho. Satori is frequently described in terms of bliss and euphoria, but kensho is supposed to be characterized more by clarity. It's part of the tradition of Zen that your kensho can be acknowledged by a certificate of Dharma transmission, which makes you a bona fide Zen master.

But here's the problem. Many (but not all) writers on the topic of Zen have seen kensho as permanent and all-encompassing, so a genuine “enlightened Zen master” with all the right papers should in theory be a person you can trust explicitly with your own spiritual well-being. Often you will be told that you should set aside your own judgment almost completely, because your Zen master can see more clearly than you can and always has your best interests at heart. To try to seek for kensho on your own will only lead to be deluded by your own ego.


The reality, though, is that Zen masters are fallible human beings like everyone else. There have been Zen masters who pressured their students into sexual relationships. A number of Zen masters have been alcoholics. Some have been physically violent and abusive drunks under the cover of “waking the student up” by shouting at him and hitting him. Some very prominent Zen masters of the past fifty years had backgrounds as militarists and fascists. So, as dangerous as it might be to be deluded by your own ego on the spiritual journey, is it really any more dangerous than being deluded by someone else's ego? The idea that Zen masters can do no wrong is manifestly untrue, but is still too widely accepted among Zen devotees. You should never surrender your critical thinking skills for anyone- no matter how “enlightened.”




Zen and Militarism

The Grass Is Not Always Greener On The Other Side Of The Fence


I've had several conversations with friends and family members who have expressed the opinion that militarism and authoritarianism are somehow “Western,” a product of “Western patriarchal thinking” or of Christianity. These same friends and family members tend to hold up Buddhism as an example of the “Eastern alternative” to our violent Western ways.

Those people need to read “Zen at War,” a recent history of the role of Zen Buddhism in actively supporting fascism, militarism and racism in Japan, before and during World War II. The book is by a practicing Soto Zen cleric, so it certainly isn't written by an enemy of Buddhism. It does represent a healthy corrective to the “grass is always greener” mentality of a lot of Americans, who seem to want to see their own culture as the root of all evil and Asian cultures as idealized alternatives.


The historical fact is that the Shaolin Temple, where Zen Buddhism originated, maintained an army of its own and participated in several wars. The Tendai Buddhist temples of Japan all fielded large armies of warrior monks in every major conflict that occurred in that country over a period of several centuries.


In World War II, both major Zen sects were enthusiastic supporters of the military regime and its imperialist ambitions. Some of the most influential Zen masters of the post-war period composed fascist and Anti-Semitic propaganda during the war, in which they twisted the doctrines of Buddhism to support everything from the conquest of Manchuria to the Rape of Nanking to Hitler's treatment of the Jews.


It's not that Zen Buddhism is somehow bad or corrupt, although I would argue that the people who committed those acts certainly were. It is simply that human beings are human beings wherever you go. Caucasian or Asian, Christian or Buddhist, male or female- people everywhere fall short of their ideals, and twist those ideals in the service of power and profit. We need to stop seeing Zen or any other aspect of Asian culture through rose-colored glasses.




Esoteric Buddhism

Despite the close association between Zen and swordsmanship in the popular mind, the Mikkyo sect of Buddhism was actually much more closely connected with the classical Japanese martial arts. Most of the Japanese sword traditions include instruction in Mikkyo at their higher levels, or once did before that information was lost.

So what is Mikkyo? Mikkyo is “esoteric” Buddhism, a version of Vajrayana practice. It involves a lot of traditions that would generally be seen as occult or magical by most modern people. Mikkyo practitioners use everything from special hand symbols to elaborate visualizations to magic spells to achieve their goals. Those goals are ultimately part of the quest for enlightenment, as in every other form of Buddhism. However, they can also be used for more mundane purposes.


For instance, if you know you have to go into battle the next day, you can perform a Mikkyo visualization to invoke the power of a warrior deity, cleansing yourself of fear before facing combat. Mikkyo practices are frequently a type of self-hypnosis or cognitive therapy, in which the practitioner uses the ritual to alter his own thought patterns in some beneficial way.


This accounts for the popularity of Mikkyo among the samurai. Because Mikkyo practices were literally believed to have occult powers, they could be used as a highly effective method of psychological self-discipline, increasing the chances of surviving combat.


Zen, which eschews any kind of supernatural talk and emphasizes the need for decades of meditative discipline, just couldn't offer such quick and practical results.




Non-Thought In Japanese Martial Arts

“Mushin” is a Zen-influenced concept in the Japanese martial arts, particularly the art of swordsmanship. The opponent moves to attack you and you suddenly perform a technically perfect counter that cuts him down with a single strike, yet you never consciously think about what strategy you're going to use. That's called “mushin” or “non-thought.”

It doesn't literally mean the absence of thought, because if you perform some technically complex fighting technique with perfect timing and application, thought of a highly efficient kind is obviously involved. What it means is that there's no conscious thought, no self-awareness to interfere with the technique. It almost seems like it happens on its own, although its actually the result of years of training and discipline.


This isn't really as esoteric as it probably sounds. Do you think an NBA player is consciously thinking out every detail as he sinks his tenth basket of the night? No, of course not. In the course of his career, he's put the ball through the basket so many times that he doesn't need to consciously think about it. He just does it. That's “mushin,” and it works the same way in swordsmanship.


After years of technical training, the swordsman absorbs technique so deeply that he can perform perfectly under high stress without thinking about technique. If he didn't learn the technique first, he wouldn't be able to do that. That's why untrained pseudo-swordsmen who fantasize about starting their own sword style are generally not taken very seriously in the world of Japanese martial arts. Mushin is something that happens after a lot of training, it's not a substitute for it.



The Sword and Zen

According to Takuan Soho

In my last blog, I discussed the concept of “ken zen ichi nyo,” or “the sword and Zen are one.” While this sentence is not entirely accurate in the historical sense, it does have some validity as an analysis of the type of thinking required to survive a sword combat.


“The Mysterious Record of Immovable Wisdom” is a work by the very influential Zen master Takuan Soho, in which he uses the mentality of sword combat as an analogy for the Zen mindset. He chose this particular analogy because the work was written for a student of his who was a famous sword instructor. In all likelihood, if he had been writing to a musician he would have used music as an analogy just as readily.

According to Takuan, the swordsman must never allow his mind to become “stuck” on some detail of the combat, such as the opponent's guard position or the look in his eyes or even the swordsman's own plans and strategies. If your mind gets “stuck,” a skilled opponent will seize on your lack of flexibility in the moment, and will cut you down while you are distracted by your “stuck” thoughts.


Thus, the secret to high-level competence in a sword combat is the same as the mindset of Zen- a fluid, adaptive type of thinking that never gets “stuck,” but continuously and spontaneously responds in the most appropriate way to every circumstance. The history of Japanese swordsmanship doesn't fully support the idea that swordsmanship and Zen are one- but according to Takuan, the nature of swordsmanship itself does.


Ken Zen Ichi Nyo

Are The Sword And Zen Really One?

“Ken zen ichi nyo” is a phrase often repeated in karate circles, where it is usually translated as “the body and the mind are one” or “the fist and Zen are one.” As “ken” means “a sword” in Japanese, it clearly doesn't mean either of these things. What it means is “the sword and Zen are one.”


This is essentially a cliché of Japanese swordsmanship, often repeated by people without any extensive experience of either Zen or swordsmanship. Historically, most Japanese swordsmen were not particularly familiar with Zen Buddhism, but would be expected to have some understanding of Mikkyo or “esoteric” Buddhism. Mikkyo contains a number of magic charms and spells to overcome fear or survive dangerous situations, so warriors were interested in using Mikkyo for what they believed to be practical purposes. Zen enlightenment was, to put it mildly, above their pay grade.

The connection between Zen and swordsmanship came about because a handful of extremely talented swordsmen personally saw a connection between the Zen mindset and the mindset needed to survive a sword combat. These swordsmen- including members of the famous Yagyu family, Miyamoto Musashi and Yamaoka Tesshu- wrote about swordsmanship using terms and analogies drawn from Zen. Some of them, including the founder of the Mugai Ryu tradition, actually used the phrase “ken zen ichi nyo.” Because of the influence of these famous swordsmen, the concept became extremely popular late in the nineteenth century before devolving into a cliché.


The irony is that like many clichés , it's actually true if fully understood. It's only a distortion if understood superficially. To gain more insight into “ken zen ichi nyo,” a good place to start is in the writings of Takuan. Takuan was a famous Zen master who used analogies drawn from swordsmanship- a reversal of the process I've described here.



What Is A Koan?

The Question That Really Can Be Answered

What is a koan? Most people with an interest in Zen have heard of koans, but not everyone has a clear understanding of what they are. Most people think of them as being a type of “Zen riddle,” but most of the classic compilations of koan (such as the “Blue Cliff Record”) are anecdotes, not questions.


Some people think the koan is a type of nonsense question designed to shock the mind into enlightenment, but there are right answers and wrong answers to koan questions, so how can the questions be nonsense?


Other people think that since collections of “koan answers” have been published, earning your “Zen master diploma” should be as easy as memorizing all the answers- but trying that with a real Zen master is liable to get you whacked with a stick.

So, what is a koan? Essentially, a koan is a story illustrating some aspect of Zen Buddhist thought. Koans are supposed to be anecdotes about actual conversations between Zen masters, usually in ancient China. All Zen sects devote some time to studying these anecdotes.


The Rinzai sect of Zen- as well as some non-Japanese sects- uses specific lines from some of the koans for meditation. These “koan questions” do function somewhat like riddles, as the disciple is supposed to present his understanding of the koan to the Zen master in weekly interview sessions. Collections of “koan answers” won't help, because the answers aren't definitive- the same answer can be right or wrong on different days. Why? Because the Zen master is really assessing the person giving the answer, not the answer itself.


He can (in theory) tell immediately whether you actually get the point of the koan or not. If you try to give a nonsense answer, you don't get it. If you try to give an answer that shows your intellectual understanding of Buddhist doctrine, you don't get it. On the other hand, if you do get it, there are any number of ways you can show it, some of which might appear nonsensical on the surface.


Rinzai Zen has an entire curriculum based on koan questions- once you've answered them all, you get your diploma. Soto Zen doesn't use them at all. Vietnamese, Korean and Chinese sects of Zen all use them in different ways and contexts.



Japanese Minimalist Aesthetic

“Wabi-sabi” is a Japanese expression that can be roughly translated “cold loneliness” or “withered isolation.” Wabi-sabi is a uniquely Japanese concept of artistic beauty, and even though it doesn't have anything to do with Zen strictly speaking, it has a major influence on art forms traditionally associated with Zen such as the tea ceremony or rock gardening.

Wabi-sabi refers to an artistic quality that is not completely finished or not completely symmetrical. Unlike in Western art, where a garden might be considered especially beautiful if it was perfectly symmetrical in design, a garden designed according to the principle of wabi-sabi would be deliberately off-center. It would also be likely to give the feeling that something was missing. For instance, the design might draw your eye to an area of the garden where you would expect to see something such as a rock or a small bush, but the expected object would not be there.


If an artistic creation has wabi-sabi, it will evoke a feeling of loss or yearning or melancholy along with the feeling of beauty. Wabi-sabi is all about the beauty of impermanence, which is a fundamental concept in Buddhism. This is why wabi-sabi is associated with Zen, even though impermanence is no more important to Zen than to any other sect of Buddhism. Wabi-sabi art-forms are minimalist, understated, dignified and quietly serene. “Too much is never enough” is almost exactly opposite from the feeling of wabi-sabi, which could perhaps be summarized as “not quite enough may still be too much.”


Zen Swordsman Tesshu

Samurai, Calligrapher, Zen Master


Yamaoka Tesshu was a great Zen layman, master calligrapher, swordsman and statesman of the Meiji Restoration era in Japanese history. Tesshu was a genius in several areas of life. He was considered one of the greatest swordsmen of his time, the headmaster of two branches of the Itto Ryu style and founder of the Muto Ryu style of swordsmanship.


He was also considered one of the top calligraphers of the time, and his calligraphy fetched so much money that Tesshu's many creditors often preferred to hold on to his IOUs rather than cash them in- the IOUs written by Tesshu's brush were actually worth more than what he owed them!

Tesshu was involved in the transition of power from the Tokugawa shogunate to emperor Meiji, and is credited with negotiating with the Meiji forces to spare Tokyo from destruction. He later went on to work for the new emperor himself. Because he had worked for both sides- although for patriotic reasons- there were fanatics on both sides who wanted him dead. Tesshu survived several assassination attempts without harming his assailants, and some of them went on to become his students. In fact, despite engaging in several duels with sharp swords, Tesshu never killed a man in all his battles.


Along with his many other achievements, Tesshu achieved enlightenment in Zen Buddhism, using his memories of a particularly tough opponent as his own personal koan or Zen riddle. Tesshu, however, was no saint- he seems to have been an alcoholic and what we now think of as a sex addict, spending much of his time in the pleasure quarters when he wasn't sword-fighting, doing calligraphy or working for the emperor. Tesshu is one of those rare examples of an undeniably flawed but still incredibly impressive human being.