Saving Zen from Moral Ineptitude: A Response to "Zen Social Ethics: Historical Constraints and Present Prospects"

By Maraldo, John C. | Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Annual 2006 | Go to article overview
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Saving Zen from Moral Ineptitude: A Response to "Zen Social Ethics: Historical Constraints and Present Prospects"

Maraldo, John C., Journal of Buddhist Ethics

The four articles on the historical constraints and present prospects of a Zen social ethics are ethical essays in an exemplary sense: although they reflect on what Zen social ethics actually is or has been, their primary concern is with what a Zen social ethics could be or should be. Insofar as the papers are descriptive, they describe a lack or a failure of ethics in the Zen tradition, the failure for example to avert complicity in Japanese militarism and the suffering caused from it. Even where they point to ethical resources within the Zen tradition they do so in the awareness that such resources were not explored, much less utilized, in the past. Yet ...

Saving Zen from moral ineptitude is like saving fish from drowning.

There are at least three possible senses to this saying:

(1) It is nonsense to save fish from drowning and so it is unnecessary to try. From an inherentist perspective, the nature of water is everywhere and there is nowhere it does not reach (like Pao-ch'e's wind in Dogen's Genjokoan, or like Thales' water). (1) The only thing that needs to be done is to get rid of the discriminative thinking that is like putting an oxygen mask over our gills.

(2) From an externalist perspective, it is not our concern where the fish--or Zen if you like--finds itself. Not that Zen is good and safe but that it will go the way it goes. It is not our job as scholars to be trying to save it. We can critique its failings but we're not reformers.

(3) Our four authors do not speak from either of those two perspectives. Rather they take a kind of internalist perspective--not that they necessarily speak from within the Zen tradition or for it, but rather that they speak as concerned scholars and world citizens. They would say, yes indeed fish can drown. "A fish out of water is out of its element"; it cannot extract life-sustaining oxygen from the hydrogen in water--it cannot breathe. Traditional Zen, as Tom Kasulis intimates, just might drown if it forces itself into a culture with a predominately different ethical orientation--one based on integrity and responsibility rather than intimacy and responsiveness. Or, as Jin Park implies, if it is forced into the atmosphere of traditional normative ethics where clear distinctions between right and wrong are deemed essential. (On the other hand, it might teach normativists a new way to breathe if they take the plunge.) Or, as Dale Wright suggests, Zen might drown if it doesn't change, go beyond itself, and evolve its notion and practice of enlightenment to include competence in ethical reflection. Or indeed when in Christopher Ives' view we are the fish, we can drown in our own ideologies, much as Japanese Zen nearly did before and during World War II.

In any case, something needs to be done. Zen needs to do something, or we need to do something with Zen. This is the contention of the four essays in this special issue. And to start off I will agree. I will also accept the convention of identifying a vast array of divergent teachings and practices simply as "Zen," as well as the assumption that Zen so identified is a living tradition that has the potential for change. Being ethicists, we want to know, how should things change? What can Zen be? Our authors make suggestions with a good deal of caution and a heavy dose of historical consciousness of what can go wrong. Together they challenge common stereotypes, often perpetrated by Zen Buddhists themselves, that Zen is beyond good and evil, that wisdom and compassion naturally facilitate one another and enlightenment inherently has a moral dimension so morally blind Zen masters don't count as "true" Zen masters, or that, not relying on words and letters, Zen has detached itself from the realms of politics and social ethics, or that Zen has been of one piece with core Buddhist values. Critical scholars of Zen of course have already exposed these stereotypes as rhetoric removed from reality.

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Saving Zen from Moral Ineptitude: A Response to "Zen Social Ethics: Historical Constraints and Present Prospects"


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