Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Not Buying into Words and Letters: Zen, Ideology, and Prophetic Critique

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Not Buying into Words and Letters: Zen, Ideology, and Prophetic Critique

Article excerpt


Judging from the active participation of Zen leaders and institutions in modern Japanese imperialism, one might conclude that by its very nature Zen succumbs easily to ideological co-optation. Several facets of Zen epistemology and institutional history support this conclusion. At the same time, a close examination of Zen theory and praxis indicates that the tradition does possess resources for resisting dominant ideologies and engaging in ideology critique.


D. T. Suzuki once proclaimed that Zen is "extremely flexible in adapting itself to almost any philosophy and moral doctrine" and "may be found wedded to anarchism or fascism, communism or democracy, atheism or idealism, or any political or economic dogmatism" (1973:63). Scholars have recently delineated how, in the midst of Japan's expansionist imperialism, Zen exhibited that flexibility in "adapting itself" and becoming "wedded" to the reigning imperial ideology. And for all of its rhetoric about "not relying on words and letters" and functioning compassionately as a politically detached, iconoclastic religion, Zen has generally failed to criticize ideologies--and specific social and political conditions--that stand in tension with core Buddhist values.

Several facets of Zen may account for its ideological co-optation before and during WWII. Since its full introduction to Japan in the late twelfth century, Zen has been highly embedded in Japanese society and maintained a symbiotic relationship with those in power. This enmeshment has been exacerbated by a religious epistemology centered on "becoming one with things" (narikiru), (1) the doctrines of no-soul (muga) and indebtedness (on), and Zen appropriation of Confucian social ethics, with all the emphasis on hierarchy, loyalty, and obedience. Cognizant of these factors, postwar Zen ethicist Ichikawa Hakugen argues that Zen has generally remained stuck in its contemplative peace of mind (anjin), in its "elite intuition that formerly directed actions in the face-to-face relations in medieval villages" (1992:457).

Despite the historical record, Zen and the larger Buddhist tradition of which it is part do offer resources for avoiding co-optation and responding to dominant ideologies, and in recent decades Buddhist ethicists have started drawing from these resources to engage in ideology critique. Arguably, the criticism of those ideologies and Zen entanglement in them is the prolegomenon to the construction of a rigorous Zen social ethic.

For the sake of this article, "ideology" can be defined as a system of representations that serves the interests of a group. (2) Ideologies hinder our ability to see reality clearly, for they usually distort or obscure certain things. They may portray certain values, practices, and institutions--and perhaps even the ideology itself--as archaic, (3) or as natural, in the sense of being rooted in nature and hence inevitable. (4) The representations comprising an ideology come to appear self-evident and commonsensical. (5) Further, ideologies tend to reify certain things. They also function to shape and control people; in particular, they unify people, offering a sense of identity in opposition to other groups or conditions perceived negatively. Finally, though never monolithic or unchanging, ideologies are conveyed by various practices, institutions, and media, all of which are inscribed by power relations.

Buddhist and especially Zen analyses of suffering focus on dimensions of human psychology that parallel these facets of ideology. Much of the historical Buddha's analysis of human suffering focuses on "views," in Pali, ditthi (Skt. drsti). Thai scholar-monk Ven. P. A. Payutto highlights the individual and social connotations of ditthi (2002:89):

   This term covers all kinds of views on many different levels--our
   personal opinions and beliefs; the ideologies, religious and
   political views[,] espoused by groups; and the attitudes and
   worldviews held by whole cultures and societies. … 
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