January 2012

"Buddhism Isn't A Religion"

Well... actually it is

“Buddhism isn't really a religion. It's more of a philosophy or a way of life.”


“There are no gods in Buddhism.”


“Buddhists don't believe in heaven or hell.”


These are some of the statements you typically hear in the West from people who either practice a Westernized form of Buddhism (consciously redesigned to be more acceptable to modern Westerners) or who are generally friendly to Buddhism but do not practice it. All of these statements are also false. They are basically just part of a marketing campaign to make Buddhism into something that anti-religious Western bohemians and intellectuals will find appealing. The reality of Buddhist practice in Asia is very different.


Korean Zen

Because of the prominence of the sect in Japan, people tend to think of Zen as being Japanese. It's actually a uniquely Chinese form of Buddhism (most scholars don't accept the view that Zen was ever brought from India) and it spread out from China to several other Asian countries, of which Japan was just one.

Shaolin Warrior Monks

Fact and Fiction

The image of the Shaolin warrior monk is revered by many, seen as a cartoonish stereotype by some, and given serious historical investigation by very few. According to the so-called legend of Shaolin, Bodhidharma brought Zen from India to China, but when he tried to each it to the monks at the Shaolin temple, he found that they were took weak for the discipline of serious meditation. So, he invented Shaolin kung fu to strengthen the monks, and for centuries afterward they used it to battle the forces of evil as enlightened super-heroes.

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.


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.

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.