Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Zen & The Japanese

How do the simple teachings of the correct method of realigning one's psyche to the cosmos by a foreign teacher in a foreign land can so readily be accepted by the xenophobic Japanese who then made them distinctively their own? Is it because those teachings fit exactly into the Japanese shared experience of Earth and how Mother Nature can both be giving and neutral.

Zen is the end-result of the teachings of a 6th century master who went to China to correct the way for practicising Buddhism. There was much doggedness and flippancy, and the way out was flexibility and focus. That flexibility which juxtaposes prolonged silent sitting with controlled focused movement and the later gives rise to the famous Shaolin monks. The focus is made in all conscious efforts, whether it be sitting or moving, and the first trick is to understand and accept what comes without acting further to aggravate the situation, and the final trick is to understand that it is all in the mind and nothing else which could in modern science be simply called "neutral".

The big name in Chan is Huineng who was a butcher who left his poor old mother to the care of neighbours in order to work in the kitchen of the temple. Huineng demonstrated his understanding with a few lines on the wall scribbled in the middle of the night, whose handwriting the master recognised who then gave him the authority to be the next master and told to leave the temple immediately that very night so that the competitor could not kill him. From Huineng arose several schools of Chan, and it was the Linzi school which probably had had the biggest influence on the Japanese, who enunciated it as "Zen". I highlighted Linzi because it is the school which beats its disciples with a stick during meditation if the master finds the disciples to be drifting.

The Japanese make a big deal out of Zen because they are perfectionist. If they really want to be "truly unperturbed" they must make a real effort in a equal and opposite response to what must have been a terrible environment for them - the warlords, the serfdom, the fightings and wars, and servitude in addition to natural calamities such as volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis.

The extreme nature of Japanese stoic-ness could be a Malaysian perspective, as we tend to be soft and forgiving, not only to others but particularly to ourselves and our communities. Everything seems to be an excuse for a good giggle.

In Zen, the final lesson is this: In the face of even the most unpleasant external environment, the only response is not to respond. "Be a stone", as an ex-Japan resident used to tell me. Keep still, do not react, do not retaliate - not only in body, but also in mind and spirit and soul.

I think it was only with the deepest inability to contain his emotion when the Governor of Fukushima, Yuhei Sato, said on national television on 16th March 2011, "The worry and anger of the people of Fukushima has been pushed to the limit." This is very unZen-like, but how poignant.


walla said...


In fact, one can see that dual nature in the fine calligraphy of the japanese aggressors recorded in their notebooks behind the glass cases of the war exhibits in the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall at 418 Shuiximen Street. Together with the bones and bayonets.

Indeed one suspects the japanese have more than zen. They also have Toyotomi Hideyoshi, their first peasant to become their supreme ruler, nowadays revered in stone at some of the public parks and gardens in Japan as well as their national icon in some video games.

Born frail and with simian-like deformities, he had shown so much cunning in court intrigue that today his state and political management methods have been celebrated in a book called the swordless samurai.

But it was during his reign that he had mounted two invasions on Korea with view to conquering China. The brutality that his troops had rained on both the korean and supporting chinese armies was more than equal to the brutality that he had visited on his rivals and their families in his own circle.

Perhaps it is still there in Tokyo. ....a hillock buried with the noses of some thirty thousand prisoners that his troops had cut off to bring back as proof of victory........

One is however mindful that in today's domain of no-mind, it is still possible to note there has been some show of contrition by the japanese in the wired aid and soft loans that they had given the rest of Asia in line with their flying geese co-prosperity sphere.

A modern-day analogy is the recent reduction of the NDP toll from rm1.60 to rm1.00 as a CNY gift. In this example, one would have thought that the original toll constructed by worst-case projection of revenue traffic would have accommodated the risk of the concession in which case no one cannot be excused for thinking that the new concession was to bail out the toll concessionaire because they couldn't make their figures owing to the worst case really happening. That bail-out cost the rakyat rm90 million. So that it's more than a 'gift'. A steal, actually?

Maybe someone in his look-east policy had really read the swordless samurai and passed on some interesting lessons from the only asian country to be admitted into the white man's club. Gandhi aside, India is still at the door and according to independent publications like The Economist, China and dogs are still not allowed. But that's just geopolitics, some will say.

walla said...


But, unfortunately for all of us, the real lessons that should have been passed on - beyond the intrigues and manipulations - should have been things like precision engineering, global marketing, conjoined and relentless focus on success factors, civic consciousness, perfectionism and creativity.

That the same legacy is however continuing in spun form in all but name today attests to the doubt those real lessons have been learned at all.

Otherwise how does one explain the new Sg Buluh MRT is slated to cost USD133M/km versus the US16M/km for the Beijing-Shanghai bullet-train line , manpower and land costs withstanding?

The only thing left is to celebrate the one legacy from the last century that carries on even today - the humanity and compassion shown by so many throughout Asia and beyond to the descendants of their aggressors.

One suspects that in doing so, much zen would have to be expended otherwise the suffering and flow of blood in the past would have been a vicarious vain.

Let humanity, compassion and fairness triumph in individuals all the time. Because one can never be too sure that damn moral compass won't be missing at the checkpoints of life from one trying to forget even when one has forgiven.

It remains to quote Vasily Grossman, the russian war correspondent whose notes on the war at the russian front had to be smuggled out by the nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov:

"...only one form of retribution is visited upon an executioner — the fact that he looks upon his victim as something other than a human being and thereby ceases to be a human being himself, and thereby executes himself as a human being. He is his own executioner... (Forever Flowing)"

Applied to swordless samurai's, that would be a fitting reflection of real zen.

walla said...


Perhaps zen is a state of no-mind.

For it is the mind which reacts to the world and residues tensions within each person that will in turn distort his perception of future events leading to more miscalculations.

In effect, no-mind itself is a scale.

At one end, it protects the individual. When one suffers adversity, it acts like a buffer to cushion the effects of adversity. When one enjoys success, it with equal ease acts like a dampener to provide balance and to control one's response.

As it moves to the other end, it passes a checkpoint. If at that checkpoint dangles a moral compass, personal conscience will be triggered so that actions taken will be in accordance with humanity and fairness.

However, if the moral compass is missing or subordinated, no-mind can instead be calamitous onto others because the doer will remain just an automaton prompted by other considerations.

For instance, just as the wehrmacht soldier on the russian front was as equally brutal on peasant civilians as his schutzstaffel counterparts, the japanese imperial soldier in old Malaya and many other countries in Asia had rained death and devastation on thousands of innocents, perhaps with the same sangfroid and dedication as his military doctors of Unit 731 at Harbin who had bombed entire villages with epidemic viruses and clinically annotated their observations of a prisoner as he was being vivisected alive and without anesthesia.

Indeed, after that war had ended just down the road more than half a century ago, the japanese soldier did lay down his arms and surrendered himself to sweep roads assiduously, accepting his fate with the same zen-like relinquishment without as within his uniform.

Yet, seeing his condition, the same people whom he had mistreated and who had lost countless family members came out to offer him what little food, water and shelter they had.

Over in China, it was understood that when the japanese occupiers were separated by circumstances from their children on their defeat, the locals had taken upon themselves to take care of those children who were later returned unharmed and chubby to their parents.

However, by some quirks of insensate fate, the doctors of Unit 731 escaped war crime punishment by parlaying their notes to the US army for personal salvation and later became industrialists and business leaders in their Keidenren and LDP.

Similarly, the one relative of the japanese imperial court who was a commander at Nanjing during the massacre had ended up playing golf to a ripe old age thereafter.

So that in these examples, the aggressors did indeed practice zen while the victims had practiced humanity.

Perhaps that would explain the dual nature of Nature - neutral and giving.

semuanya OK kot said...

Like the governor, one may need to go all out in the course of duty, even feigning anger or being abusive to be effective with certain people (To mak this easy to understand, consider how to EFFECTIVELY promote immdiate preparation for climate change in this country).

Even where feigned, up such an approach will be at a cost to oneself. This is familiar to actors who take up roles that call for sustained anger, despair, etc.