Zen and the Japanese Culture book review, thoughts on Death and Martyrdom

Zen and the Japanese Culture
book authored by: Daisetz T. Suzuki first published  1970
Newer editions contain an added chapter on ‘the sword’

This most excellent and informative book is well worth a read by anyone interested in Zen,  as the title implies. But Oh, there is So much more to be gleaned from this treasure trove of written lore. It takes us through the ages, and lets us wander through the kingdoms of China as well as Japan, to meet the great Zen masters of old. To follow the tendrils of Buddhism, and see why and how they develop, spreading their influence amongst the peoples of the realm. Rather than a dry and boring text-book, this tome introduces us to the many expressions of art and culture which Buddhism and more particularly; Zen helped to foster. Here we are even visited briefly by the schools of Daoism, and look in on the great song dynasty as well.

But enough of that! My intent today is not so much to write a book review, but rather, to express some thoughts and impressions which this book has prompted in me. It’s quite the thought-provoking book. Heres the excerpt which got my mind a whirling:

page 79 …. This is readily explained from the behavior of the Zen masters themselves, who sometimes even seem to make sport of death. Shingen‘s Zen teacher was Kwaisen, Abbot of Yerin-Ji, in the province of Kai. After Shingen’s death, the monastery was besieged by the soldiers of Oda Nobunga on the 3rd of April 1582, because the Abbot refused to give up Nobungas enemies, who had taken refuge in it. The soldiers forced all the monks, including Kwaisen himself, to go up to the top story of the monastery gate. The plan was to burn the recalcitrants alive by setting the whole edifice on fire.

The monks quietly gathered and sat cross-legged, taking their seats in due order in front of the Buddha image. The Abbot gave his last sermon in his usual manner saying, “We are now encircled by the flames, and how would you revolve the Wheel of the Dharma  at this critical moment? Let each one of you say a word.” Thereupon, each expressed himself according to his light of understanding. When all were finished, the Abbot gave his view and all entered into the fire-samadhi.

The Abbots words were these:

For a peaceful meditation, we need not to go to the mountains and streams; When thoughts are quieted down, fire itself is cool and refreshing.

Being a bit of a history buff, I obviously have some romantic idealized notions about life in times past. I think all ‘buffs’ do to one extent or another. Of course my logical brain knows that life in long by-gone eras was brutal, even more so if one happened to be female. never-the-less as I sit in the comfort of my air-conditioned house, enjoying my care-free lifestyle of freedom, I cant help but wistfully think I would enjoy living in a time when all things were simpler. Or as the lyrics of this song say, “a time when all boys became men.”

Flipping through the channels of my satellite T.V. I am impatient if I have to wait even 3 seconds for the channel to load itself. I’m watching an action adventure. We have all seen this type of movie, with its popular recurring themes: a political prisoner or some other unjustly persecuted person, seeks shelter in a church. The church, or those who sympathise not only fight for, and shelter the refugee, but often willingly give up their lives. Fighting for a cause, fighting against injustice. It’s easy to relate to such themes. It’s easy to relate to fiction.

I can even relate to and see myself as a willing participant in many potential death facing scenarios of real life.  Where I to go back in time, to Americas sordid history, I would eagerly join with Harriet Tubman, traversing the darkness of the deep south to escort runaway negro slaves, to safer harbors. I would thrill at the idea.

I would die for my country, I would die fighting, with a gun in my hand and murder in my eyes. But again, this would be a cause of clear distinction and quiet possibly, opposite what it means to walk the ‘enlightened path’. Would I as eagerly die, if the cause was not so clear?

Zen. The path which is not a path. The something which is a nothing. It could be said that the path of the Buddhist is a peaceful one. Buddhists monks do not become known for spearheading great battles. (Though indeed many great samurai were followers of Zen) As a novice, I barely qualify to even have an opinion on this matter. Yet I ask myself, would I willingly die, simply because my master told me it was time, as did the monks of Yerin-Ji did? Would I die for a cause which is not a cause?

Putting myself in their shoes, I must call myself a very shallow person indeed. For the idea repulses me, and it takes me no time at all to decide that, NO! I would not just sit there peacefully meditating… I’d get the Hell outa there! I would abandon that Zen path like it was made of hot coals. (and in this case it was.)

But thinking thus: my romantic idealism overtakes me.

I slip myself more deeply into the shoes of these monks.

Now, I am in a world where things are clearer. A man may pursue to the exclusion of all else, the path before his feet. A time when all boys became men.

This time…

I take my place beside the others, before the Buddha statue. and I speak… my final words.


I know life was not simple to those who lived in times past. But frankly, I’m rather fed up with the feeble expressions of faith I see so abundantly displayed by my fellow-man in religious settings. Where is the man of Faith or Fortitude? Where are those who live what they preach? They are so few and far between,

… regardless of the name they call their God.

I long for simple times.


6 thoughts on “Zen and the Japanese Culture book review, thoughts on Death and Martyrdom

  1. So many points to ponder. I love the line “the path which is not a path.” That is so cool and thought-provoking. And I, too, get fed up when people speak out in the name of faith, when they aren’t really living out those words in reality at all. Thanks, Sara, for letting us know about this book. Sounds like a great one.

  2. Sounds like a great book Sara.
    I once read a book about death in Japanese, it also contains things related to Zen. They way they embrace death is very interesting

    • Hi there. 🙂 Between the storms from the coast and being able to see mount Fuji all the time, I imagine death was an ever present reminder and made life all the more special.

  3. Beautiful blog 🙂 i love how you think…i would fight in a just cause, for the sake of the oppressed, and for reasons that are righteous and holy, but ideally i seek to abstain from fighting. i do not desire war nor do i seek it, but sometimes it is necessary, unfortunately. The true zen path has been lost to most. Like you said, most people who claim to be religious are hypocrites and most people who claim to follow the zen way do not completely understand it. I bow to no man nor will i obey anyone’s order to go to war and kill. Only the One and Only ALONE commands. Only the One and Only alone…this is the way of zen.

  4. Far from being a sensationalized event full of honor, glory, and pride… in truth, war is an ugly, even insane thing. So many idealistic youths find out this reality the hard way, becoming changed and hurting individuals. Then, there are the peoples of history who lived at peace yet had war thrust upon them. No easy answers, and first one must learn to see . Thank you for your thoughtfull words. Very well spoken.

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