Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Introduction to "Zen Social Ethics: Historical Constraints and Present Prospects"

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Introduction to "Zen Social Ethics: Historical Constraints and Present Prospects"

Article excerpt


This is an introduction to each of the four papers, to the response, and to the discussion generated in the context of their first presentation.


This collection of papers is from a panel organized by Chris Ives for the Ethics Section of the American Academy of Religion meeting in Philadelphia in November, 2005. As Chair of that panel I offer this brief introduction. The topic addresses a clear concern, apparent to scholars but also to many practitioners, about the problematic approach to ethics of the Zen Buddhist tradition and the place of ethics in its modern context. One major impetus for this concern is the challenge to Japanese Zen from Brian Victoria in his Zen at War, and the revelation of the active support by eminent Zen figures for Japanese militarism and jingoism before and during World War II. One assumption of these papers is that Zen's historical ethical failings may be symptomatic of internal problematics in the very structure of Zen philosophy and discourse, perhaps more heightened in its interface with the West and modernity.

The paper by Tom Kasulis proceeds from the embeddedness of religious traditions in the ethical systems of their cultures. He argues that Zen Buddhism did not need to develop its own ethical construct since it was basically in harmony with the Confucian ethical system of East Asia. But in the shift to the West, and modernity, Zen Buddhism must adapt to a significantly different ethical (and epistemological) paradigm, and risk losing part of its own traditional identity, or retain its previous ethic, and risk becoming anomalous. Kasulis' stimulating definition of this paradigm shift is the move from the East Asian "intimacy" model of ethics, based on a world-view of interdependence, with a consequent contextual emphasis and a value of responsiveness. The new Western "integrity" model, on the other hand, is based on a world-view aimed at objective independence, in which different persons are seen as autonomous identities all equally subject to abstracted moral rules, with a consequent value of responsibility, as opposed to situational responsiveness.

Dale Wright in his paper directly confronts the issue of Japanese Zen masters' role in World War II and makes the case that morality is incidental to Zen enlightenment itself. He argues that Zen emphases on "no-mind" and non-duality, along with disdain for discriminative thinking, have been inimical to moral reflection. Wright claims that none of the stories in the koan literature deal with ethical dilemmas, and values of skillful means and wholehearted presence lack an ethical dimension. He proposes that Zen training programs do not address ethical issues, and that for those historical Zen figures who have demonstrated moral stature, this resulted from other incidental factors aside from their training. Wright argues that for Zen to find its moral bearings and be relevant to a modern context it must engage in critical thinking and reflection, and recover elements in its Mahayana roots that support such considerations.

Jin Park examines and compares teachings of the Korean masters Chinul from the 12th century and Songch'ol in the 20th century as a focus for addressing issues in the interrelationship of wisdom and compassion in Zen thought, and questions about the processes through which compassion arises. She highlights and considers four problems for Zen ethics. The first, derived from non-dualist negation of secular distinctions, is the ambiguity of ethical categories. The second is the subjectivism of Zen practice due to the individualistic nature of realization. Third is the ambiguity of whether the ethical agent is the essential (enlightened) mind, or rather the existential (unenlightened) mind. Fourth is the public meaning of awakening; how is it expressed to respond to suffering in the mundane realm? In the nuanced discussion that follows, Park addresses the tension between reclusion and compassionate activity, and the implications for Buddhist social action of the modern Korean Minjung movement (Buddhism for the masses). …

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