This article first appeared in the spring 1984 issue of Spring Wind, the publication of the Zen Lotus Society (now called Buddhist Society of Compassionate Wisdom), based in Toronto. The Zen Lotus society is headed by Samu Sunim, a Korean Zen Master of the Chogye order. We reprinted this article in July 1988, with permission. Although the world scene has changed a great deal since then, many of the questions raised are still on people's minds as they face the problems of factional fighting, terrorism, and many forms of bigotry. Finding a way to look at problems like these directly and without flinching while maintaining solid footing in practice can be a constant challenge, so we decided to offer this article again. It can be useful to consider rephrasing some of the koans at the end of the article around current issues that can drive us to distraction. -ed
In the Zen Buddhist Temple in Ann Arbor there is a Zen student who is a Vietnamese War veteran. During his service in Vietnam he was attached to a transport company. He drove an army truck delivering military supplies to the outposts. Along the route he regularly took there was a Buddhist temple. The temple was always quiet and deserted. He thought the monks must have evacuated the temple because of the war. One day while driving by the temple he glanced at the temple buildings unmindfully. There to his great surprise he saw through open doors monks sitting very quiet and very still. About four hours later when he was driving back along the same route he saw the same monks still sitting very quiet and very still.
The calmness and serenity of the monks living in the midst of war activities profoundly impressed him. It seemed that the monks were not only unaffected by the war going on around them but also that they had transcended the fear of death. Years later he learned that it was meditation the monks were doing at the temple. His spiritual journey eventually took him to the Zen Buddhist Temple in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he now sits in meditation - a student of peace and wisdom.
Face to face with war and destruction you become fully aware of peace or rather the lack of peace. Likewise, in the grip of illness, you think only of health and how to regain it. War, destruction, or grave illness make you desperate, you search for peace or safety or health with single-mindedness. So you discover peace and health through war and illness. Destruction and illness, however, are only two aspects of the impermanence which surrounds us all the time. So whether you live in troubled times or in peaceful times, as long as you lack inner peace and freedom you are not spared from anxiety and trouble. It is only that you are not aware of it.
This lack of awareness is the very enemy that slays man while he yet lives, warn the Zen Masters. Thus, the advice to Zen students in the Essay on the King of Samadhi:
Over the centuries Zen teachers have devised different methods to train their students and to urge them to wake up to every situation they face. A wooden board hangs at the entrance to the Zen monastery and the characters on the board read, "The matter of birth-and-death is a grave one. Impermanence will be upon us too soon. Each of us should strive for Enlightenment with diligence."
One duty monk was specially assigned to walk around the monastery grounds every two hours clapping two wooden blocks for attention and then shouting in a mournful voice, "The matter of birth-and-death is a grave and imminent one. Impermanence will catch us all too soon..." Hearing the voice and those words arouses a strong sense of urgency in the listener to devote every minute to the cultivation of the Way of Enlightenment. But hard and selfless practice for one's own Enlightenment ultimately concerns the salvation of all beings because of the Buddhists' attitude towards all life and their Bodhisattva vow. Thus the temple bells in Korean monasteries are sounded every morning and every evening for the enlightenment of all beings.
There was a lieutenant of the South Korean army who was on duty with his men near the 38th parallel when the Korean war broke out. When the more powerful and heavily armed North Korean Communist army suddenly invaded the south, storming across the 38th parallel, the unprepared South Korean army had to retreat. The defeated South Korean army regrouped south of the Han River near Seoul in their attempt to halt the North Korean advance. But the superior North Korean forces broke the resistance line and overran the South Korean army posts. It was night and dark. The lieutenant lost all his men and got wounded in the leg himself. He crawled down to the river in order to avoid capture.
However, it was clear that he would be exposed and captured as soon as day broke. So he thought to himself that it would be better to kill himself than to suffer the humiliation of capture and torture. He was just about to shoot himself when he suddenly heard the "boom" of a temple bell. Instantly he thought of his mother who was a devoted Buddhist. With a desperate effort the wounded lieutenant dragged himself in the direction of the sound. He did not know how he arrived at the small temple on the hill and pounded its gate. He was taken inside by an old monk who treated his wound and looked after him until the allied forces recaptured Seoul.
The lieutenant learned afterwards that his mother had started chanting the Great Compassion Dharani at the outbreak of the war. She continued to chant throughout the war and was chanting the Great Compassion Dharani at the time when her son was trying to commit suicide out of despair. Monks intone the following meditation prayer while striking the temple bells in the morning and evening: "O ye who suffer, may the sound of this bell wash away your pain and sorrow, may you attain peace and enlightenment."
In the latter part of the 13th century the Mongols had already overrun much of Asia and part of Europe and had subjugated Korea by 1258. They were preparing a major invasion of Japan, a country which had refused the Mongol demand for submission in 1266. The Japanese had heard of their formidable enemy whose cavalry tactics and superior weapons had played such havoc with local armies wherever they went. Fear rippled through the high and low offices of the Bakufu Government and the country was thrown into a panic.
When the threat of Mongol invasion became imminent, Regent Tokimune visited his Zen teacher who gave him the three Chinese characters meaning "No delusive thoughts!" The teacher said, "This spring and summer there will be great fighting at Hakata where they will seek to land, but have no anxiety about it. No delusive thoughts, no delusive thoughts! No hesitation in yourself, no indecision, and then what cause for grief anywhere?" That year in May the Mongol armada sailed for Japan, and when the news came, Tokimune in armor went to see the teacher, saying, "The great thing has come," to which the teacher replied, "Can you somehow avoid it?"
Tokimune calmly stamped his feet, shook his whole body and gave a tremendous shout of "Katzu!" The teacher said, "A real lion cub, a real lion roar. Dash straight forward and don't look round!"1
Tokimune's teacher was the Chinese Zen Master of Southern Sung Tsu-yuan (J. Sogen, 1226 - 1286) who came to Japan in 1280 at the invitation of the Regent Hojo Tokimune. After the defeat of the Mongols Tokimune built Engaku-ji Monastery in Kamakura in 1282 and installed the Master as the first abbot of the monastery. During his six years in Japan Sogen helped establish Rinzai Zen in Japan.
|"Each of us is not separate from the universe we live in, so each of us is totally responsible for whatever happens ... Thus, there is nothing that can really destroy us. Or, do you still have private and personal attachments and fear?"|
The Mongol invasion helped shape two national characteristics in the Japanese mind. One is the spirit of kamikaze or "divine wind." During the Mongol invasions in 1274 and 1281 respectively typhoons struck both times destroying much of the Mongol fleet and forcing the remainder to retreat. This incident has remained very large in the historical memory of the Japanese and confirmed their belief that Japan was indeed a unique and a "divine" country. This belief fostered in the Japanese people a strong sense of nationalism. The other characteristic is warrior Zen. When Zen was introduced into Japan it attracted the attention of the warrior class who found the simplicity, frugality and self-discipline of Zen monks almost in complete accordance with their lifestyle. However, it was concentration and freedom from fear and death that these warriors wanted most from Zen meditation and training, as they had to face fighting and death almost daily. The subtle influence of Zen has gradually permeated many different facets of Japanese expression such as art, behavior, sentiment and thought, so much so that Zen has become synonymous with the finest in Japanese culture.
It is significant in other aspects as well that Zen was introduced into Japan during the Kamakura period. The Kamakura period was ruled by the military class who faced foreign invasion. The Kamakura Zen practiced by Japanese who faced this foreign invasion produced Kamakura koans that reflected the crisis of the time.
Today all of humankind faces a similar situation, different only in magnitude. We are all faced with the real threat of nuclear war and total annihilation. No one is exempt from this global crisis. This threat of nuclear warfare is raising the consciousness of many. People organize peace workshops, concerned people travel widely in order to reach people with their peace messages, and millions of people attend peace rallies throughout the world. Many take part in protest meetings against cruise testing or against the distribution of the Pershing II missile in Europe. Others hold peace vigils in front of military installations or industries that manufacture parts of nuclear weaponry. Still others hold prayer and meditation meetings for peace.
Ordinary people of the world forget traditional animosities and differences and come together in solidarity for the common objective of peace. There is a strong sense of crisis developing in the minds of people about the real possibility of the total self-destruction of humanity. Much education and awakening is going on to avert the possible tragedy. It is as if the whole world is suddenly awake for peace. In no other time of human history have so many people been awakened for peace. Along with this however, there is growing pessimism and widespread despair. Many feel helpless and hopeless before the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the ever increasing threat of nuclear war; many feel frustrated with the political and military situation of the world today. It is even infuriating to realize that a few people in political power can control the fate of all beings in the world. Our predicament now is that people are awake to the nuclear situation, but we have not found any real solution to our problem. In the meantime, the danger of nuclear war looms ever larger.
Can we mobilize all our political and social energies and translate them into spiritual aspirations? Can we transform our despair and crisis into spiritual awakening? Can we help ourselves despite external circumstances? Each of us is not separate from the universe we live in, so each of us is totally responsible for whatever happens because the universe does not exist aside from us. Thus, there is nothing that can really destroy us. Or, do you still have private and personal attachments and fear? If so, these are koans or hwadus (spiritual problems) which you can work on and solve.
People today face a nuclear war. Their anxiety runs high and they are in a great panic. They need help desperately. How will you help them? Say!
If a nuclear war breaks out, all living beings will be killed in an instant. So you must stop a nuclear war. How do you stop a nuclear war? Say!
You are dying, a victim of a nuclear explosion. People who are in the same death agony from nuclear fire and radiation ask you urgently, "How can I attain perfect peace before I die?" What will be your answer to them? Say!
People are dying innocently. They have to be saved from any retribution. What will be your sermon to save them from retribution? Say!
You enter hell and find the key figures of the two super powers. They too have to be saved, for all beings have to be saved. What will be your sermon to save them? Say!
These are koans in our nuclear age that require immediate attention. The peace of the whole world hangs on the solution of these koans. So, work hard and discover answers.