Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Satori and the Moral Dimension of Enlightenment

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Satori and the Moral Dimension of Enlightenment

Article excerpt


This essay addresses the question posed by Brian Victoria's description of "moral blindness" in twentieth-century Japanese Zen masters by claiming that since Zen monastic training does not include practices of reflection that cultivate the moral dimension of life, skill in this dimension of human character was not considered a fundamental or necessary component of Zen enlightenment. The essay asks what an enlightened moral sensitivity might require, and concludes in challenging the Zen tradition to consider reengaging the Mahayana Buddhist practices of reflection out of which Zen originated in order to assess the possible role of morality in its thought and practice of enlightenment.

This essay responds to Brian Victoria's critique of Zen social ethics by attempting to answer his question about Japanese Zen masters before and during the Second World War: how could they seemingly act without moral conviction in confronting the crisis of their time? How could Zen "enlightenment" manifest itself in anything less than morally admirable actions? By assessing the role of morality in Zen tradition, the paper considers how the Zen tradition might extend itself in response to the moral impasse that these questions bring to light.

Although himself a fully ordained Zen priest in the Japanese tradition, Victoria's publications have shaken the world of Zen in Japan and in the West. His books aspire to document how Zen masters became advocates of Japanese military values, co-opted by the Japanese government into rationalizing the militarization of Japanese society in the 1930s and 40s by proclaiming the "unity of Zen and war." (1) Beyond this willingness to construct ideological links between military aggression and the teachings of Zen, Victoria describes how certain acclaimed Zen masters showed "complete and utter indifference to the pain and suffering of the victims of Japanese aggression." (2) He asks how it was possible that acknowledged Zen masters had witnessed "what were so clearly war atrocities committed against Chinese civilians, young and old, without having confronted the moral implications of (...) this mindless brutality." (3)

Some have responded to this critique of twentieth-century Japanese Zen by saying that those who demonstrated such "moral blindness" were obviously not enlightened--they were not true Zen masters. (4) Given the sheer numbers of authenticated Zen masters whose actions in the war fit this pattern, however, and the scarcity of those who can be held up as exemplars, this response is inadequate. In my judgment, a more honest and historically disciplined conclusion would be that these Zen masters were indeed "enlightened" according to the tradition's own criteria, but that, by these internal, defining criteria, Zen enlightenment has tended not to include a substantial moral dimension. This understanding will of course be counterintuitive for many of us because by "enlightenment" we want to mean an attainment of human excellence that is comprehensive and complete. That desire, however--to interpret particular concepts of enlightenment in terms of contemporary ideals--undermines our efforts to understand them historically. Historically considered, every attainment of enlightenment, like everything else human, has a particular character, one that takes different forms in different settings, cultures, and epochs. And in Zen, enlightenment has often been conceived and experienced in a way that does not include morality as a substantial or central element.

This is not to say, of course, that Zen masters are necessarily immoral, or even amoral. No doubt some masters in Zen history have been moral exemplars in their communities. But I conclude, following Tom Kasulis, Chris Ives, and others, that this is not directly attributable to their Zen training so much as it is to their participation in the traditions of East Asian Confucian morality, as well as to the moral teachings of the broader Chinese Buddhist tradition. …

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