Practicing in Times of War

I was asked by one of my supporters on Patreon to write something about “how students can remain committed to the precepts and teachings in a politically charged environment.” With all of the stuff going on in Iran right now, this seems like a good time to do that.

I was in Japan when the invasion of Iraq happened during the presidency of George W. Bush. Nishijima Roshi occasionally expressed his opinion on that and about the subsequent war, but only when he was specifically asked about it. I can’t recall him ever speaking about the war or the invasion unless someone else brought it up. But when he was asked, he said that he was in favor of the American actions at the time and that he believed they contributed to the stability of that region and to the overall peace of the world.

As you can imagine, this did not sit well with some of us who practiced with him — myself included! Probably the only reason I didn’t stop attending his events around that time was that I very much valued the practice and valued his interpretations of Dogen and other classical Buddhist philosophy. Plus, as I said, he only expressed his opinions about this stuff in response to his students’ questions. Unlike a number of American Buddhist teachers today, he never used his platform as a Buddhist teacher to advance his political ideology. I also liked the fact that he wasn’t shy about expressing his honest opinions, even if his students didn’t like them.

When events like these happen, a lot of Zen students get upset by them. That’s understandable. Often people find it difficult to maintain their commitment to the practice and teachings when they’re hearing about all sorts of terrible things going on around the world.

When I feel like that, I remind myself that the teachings and practices of Buddhism developed in times and places where the political climate was far hotter than it is today. 

There’s a tendency among contemporary American Buddhists to romanticize the world in which our ancestral teachings developed. The ancient Buddhist literature that we read doesn’t concern itself very much with the politics and wars that were going on when it was created. If you only know that part of the story, it’s easy to imagine that everything was peaceful and nice in those days.

At the time that I first began studying Buddhism I was also studying history as my major at Kent State University and at the University of Illinois. Because of my interest in Buddhism, I also took as many classes as I could about the histories of India, China, and Japan. I used to look at the dates of some of the Buddhist literature I was studying and compare them with what I knew of those times from the secular histories I was studying at the university. 

It was often pretty shocking to realize what was going on at the time those great works of Buddhist philosophy were being composed. Someone ought to do a book about that! Maybe it should be me. We’ll see…

Those times were far from peaceful and idyllic the way so many of those who practice in the West today imagine they were. Dogen’s father was assassinated in a political coup. He moved his temple out of Kyoto because, he said, the main river through town was full of human blood and other debris from the constant battles raging through the region. The histories of the times when the other great Buddhist masters of the ancient world were alive are all similarly horrifying.

Yet we in the West are often blissfully ignorant of this history and imagine that those ancient Buddhists were practicing in a world where their only concerns were cultivating inner peace and tranquility.

If you’re concerned with how to remain committed to the precepts and teachings in a politically charged environment, I suggest you study some of the history of the times when those precepts and teachings were originally developed. If you think things are going crazy now, you should see how crazy things were back then. It’s a wonder anyone was able to practice at all. 

I know there’s a sense that the stakes are bigger now, that we could bring about the end of humanity or even life on the planet with the tremendous technology we have today. That’s true. But in those days, things were far more personal.

For example, we’re able now to get minute-by-minute updates on events half a world away that could affect us in the future. In the times that our practice developed, you might not even know there was a war going on until suddenly one night a bunch of soldiers showed up and started ransacking your temple.

Folks back then must have lived in a constant state of fear of attack. What we call “PTSD” today was probably just life as usual for anyone in those times. There are plenty of studies that show that, in spite of everything we hear on the news, our times are actually far more stable and peaceful overall than they were at any time in the past.

It’s much easier for us nowadays to remain committed to the teachings and precepts than it was for those who developed those teachings and precepts. When I get concerned about how I can remain committed in the face of news like I’m reading lately, I always reflect on the fact that the people who came before me on this path had a lot worse things to deal with than I do. And yet they remained committed.

If they did it, with all the terror they had to face every day, then surely I can too.


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