Hakugen’s Critique of Zen

Another excerpt from a work-in-progress on Ichikawa Hakugen

Hakugen’s critique of Zen primarily focuses on conservative interpretations of Zen Buddhist ideology which were common in Japanese society in the Meiji and early Showa era; these interpretations were used to support the security of Buddhist institutions by justifying socioeconomic discrimination in society, exploitation of the working class, and the militaristic actions of the state. In my reading of Hakugen’s critique, the majority of the problems in Zen ideology he points out are those which lead Buddhists to take a stance of “accommodation-ism”, or “actuality-ism”, in which Buddhists either take an aloof or actively supportive relation to state politics, seeking the good of an enlightened “peace of mind” (anshin; equanimity) — and the material security (anzen) needed to pursue it —  at all costs, rather than seeking a worldly, “peace on earth” available to all, which must eventually require opposition to the state, which anarchists hold is itself greed and violence incarnate. In other words, he claims that these ethical stances lead Buddhists to adopt a stance of “passive-ism” in the face of oppression, rather than true “pacifism”, which Hakugen stressed is a stance in which Buddhists must take responsibility for “performing acts in everyday life” to preserve and expand peace and which ought to lead to Buddhist action towards “shrinking and eliminating the power of the state”, thereby eliminating the greatest material source of violence in history. Hakugen believed that passivity towards political power and injustice leads to the formation of a symbiotic relationship between Buddhist institutions and the state, and therefore the uncritical support for state policies, insofar as these policies are good for Buddhist institutions. His critiques can be roughly divided into two major categories: 1) inappropriate applications of Zen non-dual philosophy and 2) authoritarian traditions which modern Zen inherited from Indian, Chinese and Japanese history, such as patriarchy, Confucian social ethics and association with the violent ideology of the Samurai warrior caste. These ideologies may have helped Buddhism ride the turbulent tides of history, but did not support the development of a Buddhist praxis of social justice.

Hakugen saw Buddhists as having three options when confronted with historical injustice: opposition, avoidance, and accommodation. Until modern times they almost never chose opposition, instead opting for avoidance and accommodation in the vast majority of instances. Hakugen suggested that the cause for the historical complicity of Buddhist institutions could be reduced to four main points:

  1. Its fundamental standpoint is based on emptiness rather than being; on non-duality rather than dualism;
  2. It is a religion of peace of mind…not a religion focused on ethics;
  3. It either isolates itself from state power or abides in a peace of mind within the [state] system; and
  4. It depends on the patronage of and [funds gained through] memorial services performed for the middle and upper classes, from which its priests come and among which they live.

In other words, because Zen chose to concern itself with its ultimate truths of emptiness, non-duality, and nirvana, over relative concerns such as justice and freedom, it saw the project of reducing material suffering through grassroots social change as an impossible task. Its main concern remained the cultivation of individual religious virtue towards the ends of liberation or favorable rebirth, not with the welfare of society. Insofar as it did concern itself with these things, it found that it was best to pursue them through an alliance with the state, sensibly valuing political stability and material security through coercive governance over the chaos of incessant dynastic warfare which so often consumed the land and destroyed the common people. 

This trend stretches all the way back to the Buddha’s India, where, Trevor Ling writes, “What seems to have been abhorred more than anything was political anarchy. The social evils of this are depicted in the ancient texts, brahmanical and Buddhist, in a way that suggests that the common view of society was one which saw it as an aggregate of aggressive, violently self assertive individuals whose mutual destructiveness could be held in check only by a single controller possessing the authority and the power to punish.” Buddhists have long valorized the idea of a Chakravartin, or a “wheel-turning monarch”, a ruler like Indian emperor Ashoka, inspired by Buddhism, who will share the wealth of the state with the common people, and will somehow renounce war and violence while maintaining control of his kingdom. As an anarchist might expect, such a ruler has never emerged. Even the much-lauded, “socialist” welfare king, Ashoka, maintained standing armies, police, prisons and the caste system, and necessarily secured his rule through violence (until not long after his death, when other, more violent dynasties came to power). Hakugen noted that under the arbitrary rule of kings and the threats of natural disaster and disease, peace of mind, for many ancient Buddhists — particularly the educated elites of the early Ch’an (Zen) sect in China — was in some cases the only means to avoid “being crushed by the dangers and insecurity that emerge in the tumult and vicissitudes of actuality”. By emphasizing security, Zen Buddhists became increasingly isolated from the people, and that as a result, “insofar as liberation was understood to be an individual not communal matter…Zen drifted further from the vow to save all beings.”

In this history, Zen institutions came to value themselves, their property, and their status over freedom, if indeed they were ever particularly concerned with it. Its focus on the otherworldly concerns of the privileged members of class society and its reliance on their patronage secured Buddhist institutions and individuals a social position which insulated them from the concerns of the oppressed, at best leading healthy, wealthy, influential monks to express compassion and sympathy for the masses while continuing to participate in the exploitation of their labor, and at worst leading them to seize the reigns of rule themselves (as they did in feudal Tibet), establishing “enlightened” feudal theocracies which waged war against rival sects in the name of “peace”. As an institution, Zen’s primary concern, over and above the concern of any particular individual within its hierarchy, was its own survival, growth and reproduction, the exact same logic which governs the actions of states and other large corporate entities. It is no surprise that such an institution found itself not only subservient to the state, but “seeing like a state” itself. Despite their compassion, from their positions of authority and privilege the Zen masters overlooked the “the impoverished straits of the lower folk…due to a fatalistic and trans-secular detached insight,” which “is possible only on the basis of material disinterestedness… the ‘spiritual freedom here is completely unrelated to the freedom that creates human history and redraws the world’s maps” The basic problem of Zen ethics and history, Hakugen believed, was that Zen must be able to honestly ask itself how it might “close the gap between its religious character of ‘eternal revolution’ and its traditional conservative Buddhist ethic, its reactionary character in which customs and authority hold sway?”

Ives elaborates on Hakugen’s ideological critique from a systemic perspective, pointing to the performance of rites, rituals, magic, prayer, and ideological indoctrination, a “Buddhism for the protection of the realm,” as the service Buddhist clerics were expected to render to the state in exchange for financial support and military protection. Numerous Japanese Buddhist leaders, from Dogen to Shinran, wrote treatises for political leaders outlining the many ways that support for the Buddhist Sangha would benefit the state, from protection against natural disasters to success in battle against rival lords, rebellions and foreign armies. This relationship is not unique to Japan, as James C. Scott points out in The Art of Not Being Governed, Buddhist epistemologies of rule and monastic institutional power were among the primary tools of lowland agricultural states in Southeast Asia for subjugating, assimilating, and “civilizing” the numerous stateless peoples living in the upland valleys and hills. In this sense, Ives points out, Buddhism has always been a “socially engaged” tradition. 

Indeed, despite Engaged Buddhism’s typically left-liberal orientation, is there anything besides social convention which disqualifies someone like Bikkhu Wirathu —  featured on the cover of Time magazine as the “Face of Buddhist Terror” for his support for anti-Muslim pogroms in Myanmar — from being considered an “engaged” Buddhist? Surely Wirathu, however deluded by his nationalist, xenophobic, religious-fundamentalist worldview, believes he is acting from a place of compassion and religious insight to defend Buddhism against the real or imagined threat of violent Islamic terror. An orthodox reading of Buddhist political theory would be about as likely to support his actions as to condemn them. This and many other examples support Hakugen’s insistence that the inclusion of a clear and coherent social ethic — for him, anarchist communism —  is absolutely necessary for Buddhism to actualize its compassion and effectively make the world more peaceful through social activism. 

Simply being “engaged” or “compassionate” amounts to very little when confronted with complex social problems. Hakugen claimed that “insofar as compassion takes as its sole task the spiritual salvation or liberation of human beings, it has no essential connection to social justice. It is not impossible for the practice of compassion, in its promotion of the path of spiritual self-awakening, to contribute to the continuation if not exacerbation of social injustice by playing a conservative, reactionary role and cultivating a harmonizing, paternalistic ethic… the practice of altruism on the basis of Buddhist teachings can contradict altruistic actions in terms of social ethics.”  In his study of the war, Hakugen noted that Buddhist and even military leaders used the rhetoric of “compassion” to promote the growth of the Japanese empire under the guise of a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”, claiming that their military aggression and occupation — which lead to the death, slavery, rape and displacement of millions of civilians — was necessary to “liberate” other Asian nations from Western imperialism. Many “enlightened” Zen leaders at the time supported this narrative, which leads one to question whether or not morality or ethics are necessarily the product of Zen insight, or if, as Ives asks, compassion can really qualify as an ethical stance at all, rather than a mere virtue among many necessary ethical virtues. Hakugen believed that for many historical Zen figures, compassion was purely a detached religious attitude, “not a matter of practicing justice and love for all humankind in the dimension of social humanism.” This may have changed for contemporary Buddhists, but is likely to have less to do with any inherent features of Buddhist compassion than with Buddhists coming into contact with contemporary ideologies that promote more specific kinds of compassion, particularly liberalism, which appears to be the dominant ideology of Western Buddhism. It seems that traditional, unadulterated Buddhist practices of compassion are not sufficient to give birth to truly ethical social action (at least from an anarchist’s point of view).

Ethical action requires the ability to think clearly, establishing principles one believes to be either true or false, good or evil, effective or ineffective, and then having the courage to hold them firmly even when one faces opposition. This amounts to the self-conscious adoption of an ideology to establish one’s actions in. Ideology can be tricky to define exactly. In this instance what I mean by ideology, anarchist or otherwise, is a set of “ideas, motivations, aspirations, values, a structure or system of concepts that has a direct connection with action – that which we call political practice.” Alternatively, believing themselves magically outside the reach of worldly ideology, Buddhists risk making themselves the pawns of whichever ideology dominates the societies in which they live, be it neoliberalism, monarchism, state communism, or fascism. Just by virtue of being raised in a particular social, political and economic context, or by coming to live in another one, one adopts parts of its ideology as a result of the social-construction of the self. If you think you don’t have an ideology, it’s probably the case that an ideology has you. Hakugen disagreed with the notion that the ineffable prajna (wisdom) of awakening was sufficient to overcome ideology or construct ethics: 

“To attain the unconscious or transcendental origin of good and evil is of vital importance for us all. However, to bring out our unconscious fallacies (settled through all sorts of prejudices, illusions or false educations, in our unconscious depth ever since our childhood), and to examine them is nonetheless important for the establishment of the social ethics in Buddhism…No matter how much a Zen Buddhist lives from a transethical source, as a social existence he will encounter, in the place of ethics, other individuals, collectives, society, and the state,” therefore, “social justice is not a matter of ‘non-abiding’ or ‘no-standpoint;. It is not some unprincipled, fluid shifting of standpoints. Rather, it entails a commitment to establishing a firm standpoint, and from there, guided by one’s principles and standards, resisting and fighting. It is a standpoint that entails organizing and planning.” 

For Hakugen, Zen ideology lacked such a firm standpoint from which one could engage in critical thinking. Critique requires distance, a recognition of the validity of  the subject-object dualism negated by Zen prajna. Zen frequently instructs students to “become one with” objects, to live in “harmony” with all circumstances , and emphasizes the importance of seeing oneself as a mere ”part” of an interdependent “whole”. None of these stances are particularly problematic in regards to experiencing peaceful mental states, and indeed might incidentally produce the virtues of “selflessness, magnanimity, fairness, freedom and equality” in certain individuals predisposed to them,  but when applied to the problems of ethics, particularly in an oppressive social or political environment, they may become hindrances, unable to realize the virtues of “rejection” or “resistance”. For example, regarding Buddhist virtues of harmony and tolerance, Hakugen writes, “With what has modern Japanese Buddhism harmonized itself? With State Shinto. With state power and authority. With militarism. Accordingly, with war. Toward what has modern Japanese Buddhism been non-resistant? Toward State Shinto. Toward state power and authority. Toward militarism. Toward wars of invasion. Of what has modern Japanese Buddhism been tolerant? Of those with whom it harmonizes. Of its own responsibility for the war.” 

Murray Bookchin, while critiquing this same stance of contemplative tolerance and harmony in Heiddegger’s philosophy (which was both influenced by and influenced modern Zen via the Kyoto school), writes that it advances a “message of passivity conceived as a human activity, an endeavor to let things be and ‘disclose’ themselves. ‘Letting things be’ would be little more than a trite Taoist and Buddhist precept were it not that Heidegger as a National Socialist became all too ideologically engaged, rather than letting things be’ when he was busily undoing ‘intellectualism’ democracy, and technological intervention into the ‘world’”, to which Hakugen might add, that because “the subjectivity of a Zen person simply reflects actuality like a mirror… it does not even begin to consider resisting societal evils.” It is interesting to note that many of the Kyoto School philosophers whom Hakugen critiqued for their critical support of Japanese fascism in the 1930s studied directly under Heidegger or were influenced by his works. That is not to say that Kyoto school philosophy nor Heidegger’s is inherently fascist, merely that it may have contained elements which were amenable to “harmonizing” with fascism, or supported an ineffectual “immanent critique” to it rather than resistance once fascism had manifested and taken power historically.

Petr Kropotkin offers an alternative vision of “harmony” from the anarchist tradition, one which is also more in agreement with the Buddhist principle of anicca, impermanence: “Harmony… appears as a temporary adjustment, established among all forces acting upon a given spot — a provisory adaptation; and that adjustment will only last under one condition: that of being continually modified; of representing every moment the resultant of all conflicting actions. Let but one of those forces be hampered in its action for some time and harmony disappears.” Rather than ancient ideals of harmony as an unchanging, repressive support of the status quo, Kropotkin imagined a dynamic, natural, living harmony, which, while unable to secure an absolute peace in the social realm, was able to adjust itself and remain in a relative equilibrium of the maximum possible peace. In contrast, the eternal peace and harmony which states claimed to be able to secure by domination is seen by Kropotkin as little more than a temporary delusion, maintained with a much greater violence than the natural flow of harmony, and which would always eventually succumb to an equally dramatic change as equilibrium reasserted itself like the “eruption of a volcano, whose imprisoned force ends by breaking the petrified lavas which hindered them to pour forth the gases, the molten lavas, and the incandescent ashes.” Kropotkin concludes this metaphor by noting that the same natural law of dynamic harmony — anicca, in the Buddhist worldview — causes the eruption and apparent disorder brought about by all of the “revolutions of mankind”.

Hakugen also identifies the Zen idea of “becoming one with things”, as a philosophical cause of passivity towards injustice and even active support of war. On the problem of “oneness” Hakugen says, “In the subject’s merging with the object there is true discernment and contemplation but no critical evaluation. Only when subject and object separate and the subject stands apart from the object does one secure a position for critically evaluating the object.” In Zen practice, this non-dual stance of oneness is a means of salvation from suffering, essentially transcending not only I-and-it, but even I-and-thou relationships with the external world, a practice most famously summarized by Dogen: ​​”To learn the Buddha Way is to learn oneself. To learn oneself is to forget oneself. To forget oneself is to be realized by all things. To be realized by all things is to cast off the body and mind of self and others.” Dogen encourages students to see their fundamental unity with clouds, rivers and mountains, which themselves are constantly flowing into and actualizing us, but Hakugen retorts that, “drifting like clouds and flowing like water is a way of living akin to riding ever-shifting sand. This is the way of thinking of a mindless infant. Upon drifting sand or in the play of an infant, however, we cannot achieve social justice.”

As Hakugen points out, absolute non-duality is not always an appropriate attitude to take when dealing with ethical problems in society and in everyday life. This is in part because it may reduce the dialectical process of “becoming” to a mere monistic “being” or “non-being”. Hegel’s theory suggests that it is actually out of the fundamental contradiction and equality of abstract being and nothingness (or of phenomenal “form and emptiness”, to put it in Mahayana Buddhist terms) by which the emergence of becoming, change, and development are made possible, but only so long as the two remain in motion and conflict, constantly changing into one another, something which some interpretations of non-duality do not emphasize or allow for, instead choosing to focus on an “absolute nothingness” which precedes both being and non-being and is their source. Hakugen devotes considerable time to criticizing the non-dual logic of identity, or soku-hi (“non-other-than/is-not”) employed by Kitaro Nishida and D.T Suzuki for keeping Zen thought stuck in exactly this reductionist standpoint. Bookchin affirms Hakugen’s critique, as well as his hope for an alternative, when he writes of a “politically radical” contemplation which “achieves a sense of direction only insofar as it moves from the existent to the possible, from the ‘what is’ to the ‘what could be’”, rather than a static state of being which “yields an all-embracing placidity that dissolves anger into love, action into contemplation, willfulness into passivity.” Unless its role as the source of all potential, will, change and freedom is emphasized, a non-dual source of absolute nothingness appears to have little value as a standpoint for criticism of the existent beyond the simple negation/affirmation of what is rather than what ought to be.

This apparent inability to criticize and resist from a non-dual perspective amounts to endorsing oppression and violence, or as Hakugen put it, “the rejection of confrontation and the glorification of war are two sides of a coin.” Without this resistance, Zen could not find the intellectual courage needed to resist the present, or even hope for establishing a better, more rational and ethical society. Alternatively, Zen logic of oneness may even be appropriated by the agents of authoritarian systems to produce passive, obedient, compliant subjects. Instead of teaching the oppressed to “penetrate and thereby extricate ourselves from insecurity and anguish by becoming one with them,” Zen, or the mindfulness now so popular in corporate America, can be misused to help people identify and become with their oppression rather than the basic sensory experience of distress.  Hakugen presciently suggested that “this [becoming one with things] may support the formation of organization men by contemporary large-scale industrialism”, something which Ronald Purser has written about in the aptly-titled book McMindfulness. 

The mobilization of non-duality and mindful contemplation for corporate and military brainwashing which Hakugen identifies, in Bookchin’s words,”tends to be totalistic: it stakes out its sovereignty not only over surface facets of the self but also over its innermost recesses. It seeks complicity not only in appearances but also from the most guarded depths of the human spirit. It tries to mobilize the very dream—life of the individual—as witness the proliferation of techniques and art forms for manipulating the unconscious. It attempts, in short, to gain command over the self’s sense of possibility, over its capacity for Desire.” In this case, the Buddhist goal of freedom from the negative results of desire, craving and thus suffering, is mutated by ideology and the very same meditative technologies which support this freedom, into a subconsciously enforced inability to desire change towards the good, including freedom from oppression and freedom to live one’s life ethically with others, instead only desiring the “good” of whatever institution the faithful employee, soldier or citizen has become one with. This deployment of meditation in support of neoloberal ideology gives an eerily Zen ring to Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictum that “There is no alternative”. In an equally chilling speech, Zen master Harada Sogaku utilized Buddhist rhetoric to encourage soldiers to “become one” with the work of imperial war and colonization: “In accord with each situation one should forget all things and the self, and become one with the Way in that situation. March: tramp, tramp, tramp. Shoot: bang, bang, bang. This is a bold manifestation of the highest wisdom. The unity of Zen and war of which I speak extends to the farthest reaches of the holy war.” Hakugen, in response to this misuse of Zen form and absence of Buddhist ethical content, writes, “In the true scenery of Zen, the land of tranquil light, does the act of producing poisonous gas become ‘poisonous-gas-production-samadhi’ and the production of napalm become ‘napalm-production-samadhi’? Is it a matter of soldiers experiencing ‘combat samadhi’, the dropping of the atomic bomb becoming ‘atomic-bomb-droping-samadhi’, and the citizens of Hiroshima experiencing ‘flash-boom samadhi’?” 

In addition to Zen interpretations of non-duality, Hakugen also questions uses of the Buddhist doctrine of interdependence by political and religious authorities in Japan. Interdependence is another way to explain the process of pratityasamutpada, or dependent origination, by which all phenomena are caused and conditioned by prior phenomena. The most basic formula of this theory goes, “because that is, this is; because that is not, this is not.” It contains the Buddha’s theory of how various causes and conditions interrelate and effect each other, driving forward the cycle of birth, sensory experience, craving, aversion, and on to death and endless rebirth. It is essentially his theory on the process leading to the origin of suffering and an explanation for how the causes of suffering in the cycle can be interrupted. 

Interdependence is a use of this theory to explain the fundamental relatedness and mutual causality of all phenomena in the universe, particularly the flow of matter and energy between objects over time, and thus their lack of an inherent, essential, enduring self. Thich Nat Hanh uses the metaphor of a piece of paper, which, by nature of its dependence on trees, clouds, water, loggers, paper mills, and so on, for its existence, can be said to be entirely “made of non-paper elements”, elements which are themselves further dependent on other processes and objects without end. The same logic is used to explain the non-identity of the subjective self, or its ”emptiness”; a being which appears to have an independent self-existence, and which does display many characteristics unique to its particularity, but which is ultimately composed of non-self elements, including evolution, the body, the society, the environment, the ideology, the family, the life circumstances, and the habit patterns in which it lives. In this sense, Thich Nat Hanh emphasizes, emptiness is none other than fullness, including seeing the entire cosmos in a single being or sheet of paper. This emphasis in Thich Nat Hanh’s engaged Buddhism is meant to support the individual in recognizing their connection to society and nature, and thereby inspiring feelings of care, nurturance, and responsibility towards other beings, manifested as social action. 

The problem, Hakugen points out, is when this same theory is used to marginalize, or even erase, the significance and autonomy of the individual, or the part, in favor of the whole. This discourse takes historical human institutions, such as the state, the imperial household, the nation, religion, or the patriarchal family, and projects them on nature as an organic part of the cosmic order. Therefore, to criticize these institutions is said to go against natural law, very similar to the ideology of social Darwinism, which projected particular institutions of human competitiveness and hierarchy onto all of natural history. Hakugen observed the result of this ideology in Japan as constituting a kind of “big-family-system cooperationism”, in other words an “organic” totalitarianism, in which the nation was viewed as a “natural” or “heavenly” patriarchal household, with the emperor as the “father” of the nation, and the people as children, indebted to the imperial household’s centuries of benevolent parenting. This ideology erases distinctions between capitalist and laborer, military and civilian, individual and the nation. This strategy was not entirely dependent on Buddhism, but was largely developed in the fascist philosophical circles of the military and the creation of State Shinto as the national religion of Japan, but Hakugen noted the Buddhists collaborated with it, starting from an epistemology of “insight into the true form of things” in which one “sees the universal principle in the individual thing”, to support calls for the individual to annihilate the self in military or industrial sacrifice for the sake of the nation, and to repay one’s debt of gratitude to the emperor, the gods and the Buddha.

Hakugen wrote that “the Buddhist philosophy and ethic of no-self developed not in the direction of respect for the dignity of the individual but in the direction of protecting the structures of totalitarian societies”  and “the doctrine of no-self provided no basis for establishing the autonomy of the individual human personality… it offered no principles analogous to natural law that could serve as the foundation for modern human rights and justice.” He notes that no-self has a potential to emphasize the rights of individuals, as seen in Thich Nat Hanh’s interpretation of interdependence, but that without the inclusion of additional, protective ethics, such as anarchism — that is without “no-masters” — this would be the result of “no-selves”.

The concept of interdependence and selflessness is also frequently employed by deep ecologists like Joanna Macy and Gary Snyder to illustrate the absolute reliance and mutuality between humans and natural systems, and therefore the harm we do to ourselves by exploiting nature. Bookchin, however, identifies that favoring the whole, or the system, over the parts has lead some deep ecologists to commit to a stance of anti-humanism, which takes human exploitation of nature as evidence that humans in general are akin to a disease of the biosphere (and thus population controls, famine, disease and war amount to nature reasserting balance and are not in need of human intervention, a view which has significant colonial and racist implications), rather than particular institutions such as hierarchy and capitalism; it is a view which denies the unique and positive qualities of human existence or our potential for change towards an ecological social ethic which supports the mutual flourishing of human and non-human nature. Without an important role for the individual self within the whole of nature, Bookchin feared that great atrocities could be supported or even committed in the name of ecology.

As with most of his critiques, Hakugen does not entirely write off the value of the non-dual perspective of enlightenment. In fact, he affirms its necessity for experiencing true existential freedom and joy. However, despite its necessity, he sees it as incomplete, or insufficient for actualizing social ethics.The problem is a matter of content/interpretation rather than form, or “attitude”: 

“Zen is not necessarily something that prescribes or produces the concrete content of our thought and daily lives. Rather, it offers an attitude for daily life. This attitude has been expressed as ‘becoming one’ or [practicing] ‘samadhi’ with received convention. The problem here is that of what we become one with and what we enter into samadhi with,” to which he responds, “one might reply that we become one with the specific situation in each and every time and place. But if this is what is entailed, what is different between that way of living and the life of other animals?… More than living lives of instinctual intuition, humans live through intellectual analysis and synthesis, emotional and volitional evaluation, and decision making. In our social lives we constantly enter into situations that call for our volitional intellectuality to discriminate and make choices.” 

Proponents of deep ecology, and other politicized spiritual philosophies, inspired in part by by Zen non-dualism, might reject the necessity or the value of this discrimination and distinction, opting instead for an absolute “biocentric equality”, derived from a real or imagined experience of mystical unity, in which all beings “are equal in intrinsic worth”. This is a view which Buddhism would appear to support, but a brief examination uncovers a contradiction. While Buddhism recognizes all beings as interrelated and united in their transmigration and suffering in the six realms of existence — gods, demi-gods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts and hell beings — and therefore equally worthy of compassion and in need of liberation, it recognizes the human realm as exclusively conducive to attaining enlightenment, precisely because of the unique faculties of humanity which Hakugen names, faculties which enable humans to respond to our environment and mediate it to the extent that we are able to experience scarcity and plenty, pain and pleasure, love and hate, in equal enough measure, and may thereby learn of their drawbacks and escape from the cycle of pursuit and avoidance which drives the wheel of samsara. 

In response to biocentrism, Bookchin writes of human beings “They are immensely superior to any other animal species, although deep ecologists equate superiority with being the ‘lord and master of all other species’, hence an authoritarian concept. But superior may mean not only higher in rank, status, and authority but ‘of great value, excellence; extraordinary’, if my dictionary is correct. That superiority can simply mean ‘having more knowledge, foresight, and wisdom’ — attributes we might expect to find in a teacher or even a Zen master.” Bookchin further criticizes the possibility of attaining more than a subjective sense, or attitude, of oneness with non-human nature, pointing out that “If the self must merge… into rain forests, ecosystems, mountains, rivers ‘and so on’, these phenomena must share in the intellectuality, imagination, foresight, communicative abilities, and empathy that human beings possess”. While one may imagine communicating with animals, plants and landscapes, and may even learn valuable lessons about oneself and the world from such practices, at best they cannot ultimately amount to more than a careful, attentive, even loving, observation of the phenomena we experience and mediate through our senses and language, qualitatively different from the relationships we can have with other human beings; at worst it can become a form of human projection which erases the unique forms of consciousness and natural history embodied by different beings and replaces it with our own. 

In Bookchin’s thought, this distinction between beings entails a paradigmatic shift in how we think of equality and freedom: “To assume that everyone is “equal” is patently preposterous if they are regarded as “equal” in strength, intellect, training, experience, talent, disposition, and opportunities. Such “equality” scoffs at reality and denies the commonality and solidarity of the community by subverting its responsibilities to compensate for differences between individuals. It is a heartless “equality,” a mean-spirited one that is simply alien to the very nature of organic society. As long as the means exist, they must be shared as much as possible according to needs — and needs are unequal insofar as they are gauged according to individual abilities and responsibilities.” 

Instead of a delusional, reductive equivalence of beings, analogous to exchanging various commodities “equally” in a marketplace, represented by Justitia, the blindfolded, scale-wielding Greek deity of justice, Bookchin identifies the communist concept of freedom as a recognition of the “equality of unequals”, and thus the slogan, “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs”, an ideal which recognizes — and even celebrates– inequality, diversity and difference while ever-seeking to complement, balance and harmonize these differences for the good of each and all. The reigning principle of justice and equality in society today is exactly the opposite: an “inequality of equals” in which difference is ignored by the blind goddess Justistia, who merely judges equivalent, exchangeable, and therefore commodified beings impartially on her tilted scales, which can only ever “reduce qualitative differences to quantitative ones.”

When he addresses emptiness and ecological thought Hakugen employs the Mahayana doctrine of Buddha nature, specifically the Zen saying that “even plants and earth can become Buddhas” (because of their developmental potential for awakening) to criticize anthropocentric thinking which would deny the basic “unity-in-diversity” of humans and nature. This is a view which abolishes “centricity” entirely in favor of the “whole”, in Bookchin’s words, which, unlike the “oneness” of deep ecology, is not a closed system, and cannot be reduced to any “one”, “zero” or even the “Absolute” of Hegel, much less a mere duality. 

This “wholeness” is perhaps most congruent with the positive, generative, boundless and abundant perspective of development from emptiness. Most often Buddhist philosophy and practice favors a “return” to emptiness, an interpretation which calls for the dissolution of thought, the end of birth, and the reduction of being into nothing. But emptiness is neither empty nor static. It is also the “womb”, or the “sky” from which all being, potential and development springs from, and to which beings may self-consciously inhabit once we have grown in wisdom. In the language of the Mahayana school, this is the movement of the bodhisattva from the void and into the world, armed with wisdom and compassion to aid the suffering and the ignorant. If even emptiness is empty, then this wholeness is the result of its self-negation and reconciliation with life and becoming. Thus, we arrive at the classical conclusion that samsara and nirvana, or the mundane and the mystical, the immanent and the transcendent, are one and the same without forcing a reduction of physical and subjective reality to this simple unity.

The Buddha-nature is an equality which appears to support an equality of unequals. The equality which is recognized, the potential for enlightenment, the basic goodness and wisdom within each being, is not easily quantified, nor is it exchangeable (how can one exchange emptiness for emptiness, or infinity for infinity?). It does not avoid looking at the differences between beings, and suggests a praxis of liberation which employs expedient means (upaya), tailored to the diverse abilities and needs of each being, to bring all towards enlightenment. It frames liberation negatively by achieving freedom from suffering, rebirth, craving and attachment, and positively by attaining the freedom to live happily and to experience wholeness and full human flourishing (eudaimonia) in this and any future lives which may or may not occur. 

Of course, this is once again an interpretation rooted in an ideological standpoint. Historically, conservative Buddhists have used their own interpretations of  emptiness and the law of karma to mitigate the implications of an equality of unequals rooted in Buddha-nature and emptiness. The slippery non-dual logic of soku-hi once again makes an appearance, this time deployed as the formula,”discrimination is none other than (soku) equality; equality is none other than (soku) discrimination”. Some have gone even further, arguing that because beings are ultimately empty, and therefore non-existent, that killing is none other than non-killing, or that “the sword that kills people is none other than the sword which gives life”. This nihilistic attitude has been used to make Buddhist arguments for “just” wars, capital punishment, and assasinations. However, the very same logic could be applied to state that killing someone else is none other than killing oneself. This flexibility demonstrates just how inappropriate and dangerous it is to apply non-dual logic to complex ethical issues.

Karma and rebirth are also used to turn the Buddha’s equality of unequals back into an artificially imposed inequality of equals. By reducing people to a generic religious “equality” in emptiness and then explaining away social inequality with the “natural law” of karma, which assigns the circumstance of birth to a person’s past misdeeds or virtues, thereby shifting responsibility from the social to the individual and from the oppressor to the oppressed, Buddhist ideology has been used to convince people that their oppressed circumstances are “karmic fruits,” not “human creations in class societies.” This use of karma plays the (de-personified) role of Justitia judging unequal equals with her “blind” justice of the state and market. As socialist thought became more popular in Meiji Japan, Buddhist leaders like Toyoda Dokutan and Hakuun Yasutani head of the Myoshinji branch of the Rinzai school even “attacked socialism as a philosophy of evil equality (aku-byodo) that would level mountains to fill in rivers.” Hakugen writes that this ignorance of the dual nature of equality fails to recognize that socialism is based on a recognition of difference, discrimination, and the need to institute an equality of unequals. In their ignorance, blinded by statist ideology, Hakugen wrote that these same Buddhists “never decisively criticized as ‘evil differences’ the extreme discrimination that permeated the Japanese conceptualization of the peoples of Taiwan, Korea, Manchuria, and Mongolia, nor did they criticize as ‘evil equality’ the campaign to turn those others [equally] into imperial subjects, a campaign that was coupled with discriminatory policies.”

Hakugen believes that this interpretation of karma comes from a cosmology of “pan-naturalism” or “pan-moralism” found in Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism which “projects the differences and order of the human world onto the natural world” and then assumes these projections to be representative of nature itself. From this assumption rulers could then find justification for their rule and the people justification for their oppression in this distorted cosmology of class society projected onto the natural world. In fact, there are no social hierarchies in nature which are comparable to human class divisions. The lion is no more king of the jungle than the ant queen “rules” a colony; they are simply animals acting according to instinct and desire, while humans have self consciousness, self-control and discriminating rationality, giving us the ability to choose how we would like to live together. This is another important distinction made by Bookchin’s social ecology, which criticizes most human attempts to derive morality from nature as self-referential projections rather than an objective study of nature which can tell us anything about how to live. In most cases, this approach is used to justify the status quo. Hakugen agrees with this criticism, writing that “In this political philosophy, the order of the universe and the order of the state…the laws of nature and of human ethics, correspond and constitute a single entity.” 

This interpretation of karma has been widely rejected by modern and progressive Buddhists, from D.T. Suzuki to B.R. Ambedkar, who wrote that “The Law of Kamma has to do only with the question of general moral order. It has nothing to do with the fortunes or misfortunes of an individual.” Ambedkar also explains that contrary to popular belief, even in Buddhist metaphysics, karma does not actually explain all causality. The Abhidamma theory of Theravada Buddhism explains causality with five niyamas (natural laws), of which karma, or volition, is only one, alongside natural physical law,, biological inheritance, and mental activity. Ven Kobutsu Malone writes that “If we are to clarify our understanding of causality, we are required to pay attention to socio-political, economic, and ecological sciences. A sixth ‘Niyama’ could even be brought into the picture to account for the social structures that have spontaneously or deliberately formed in all communities of sentient beings.” Adoption of the niyama doctrine may be helpful for inserting social science into Buddhist theory where deliberate insertion is needed, but it may be unnecessarily clunky when Buddhists can simply accept the validity of other fields of thought rather than stretching ancient doctrinal categories to make them fit. Modern Buddhists have even begun to question the very existence of rebirth and karma as outdated metaphysics. This obviously raises some problems with core Buddhist doctrines, but it simultaneously abolishes the need for practices of merit-making and the naturalistic injustice of karmic rebirth, and is certainly an idea worth entertaining. I think it is preferable to Suzuki’s response to the social hierarchy of karma, which condemns everyone who believes in it as ignorant, superstitious, fake Buddhists. Going by the historical record, Suzuki and the modernists would appear to be the “fakes”. But I don’t want to play that game. Arguments from authenticity tend to be fallacious at best and deeply reactionary at their worst.

Hakugen criticized his fellow Buddhist’s tendency to interpret the influential Mahayana scholar Nagarjuna’s “middle way” (Mādhyamika) philosophy as a compromise between all extremes, especially worldly ones such as politics, economics and social justice. By deploying Mādhyamika doctrine as a political philosophy, Buddhists avoided conflict and confrontation, opting for “middle-of-the-road-ism” between tyranny and freedom, rather than between philosophical schools or ascetic practices. Bookchin writes, “The ‘Middle Way’ imputed to Nagarjuna becomes not the “blessed life” of Buddhism but the queasy liberalism of social democracy, with its parliamentary commitments and its laissez-faire approach to patently conflicting ideas and their consequences”. Hakugen takes a similar criticism to the Buddhistic social democracy espoused by the Sokka Gakkai International (SGI) and their Komei party in Japan, which he argues is based on a “fetishism” which worships the Nichiren sect’s artifacts, the SGI chairman, and promises worldly profits without requiring serious study and effort. He describes its political ideology as a “social reformationism which tries to establish a welfare state under the present system without taking any notice of the structural contradiction of the capitalistic way of production and circulation system which considers man power [labor] as a merchandise [commodity]… It is nothing but conventionalism which intends to manage any and all oppositions and contradictions, case by case with the spell “Open Sesame!” of the middle path.”

Hakugen’s final criticism of misuse of non-dual philosophy pertains to the notion that Zen wisdom is somehow beyond good and evil. In the light of non-dual wisdom this merely means that good and evil are not separate; they are mutually dependent opposites, both continually emerging from and dissolving into the void of sunyata. However, when taken from this context and applied to real life, Zen’s claim to enlightenment being beyond good and evil can lead to a disregard for ethical considerations or grounds for moral critique of the actions or words of supposedly enlightened masters. It is clear from the behaviors and words of many such masters in modern times that Zen enlightenment does not automatically make one’s actions ethical. Acting from a place of absolute wisdom and compassion may not automatically lead to wise or compassionate results. To practice Zen freedom very much depends on doing good rather than evil in mundane life, at the beginning, middle and end of the path. Getting caught up in a mind of absolute truth and wisdom, it is possible to look down on others from this “solitary aloofness” and ignore or forget everyday practical wisdom, intellectual discrimination and kindness towards others in society and intimate relationships. Instead, Hakugen insists that Zen awakening’s quality of going beyond good and evil can support social justice by freeing one’s mind from the conventional morality of an unjust, immoral  society. This, “freedom from [conventional] morality is the presupposition and foundation of the freedom to be ethical and moral, and it is the fountainhead of a new kind of knowing and acting.” Had this freedom been realized by Japanese Buddhists of Hakugen’s time, they may have been able to distance themselves from the morality of Japanese fascist ideology, and might have been capable of mounting a mass collective resistance to it.

In fact, nearly all of Hakugen’s critiques of non-duality (and Buddhist metaphysics) could be summarized in this one quote: 

“To make light of the mundane world is to be negligent in accurately discerning the mundane”

By falling into these spiritual traps of avoidance, ideology and interpretation, what we might call today “spiritual bypassing”, Buddhists can easily lose sight of mundane ethical considerations, rational thought, critical thinking, responsibility towards others and the need to resist injustice in society. The “inner” wisdom attained through Buddhist methods may appear so seductively profound that advanced practitioners may be tempted to apply them to all “outer” circumstances, and even “inner” ones such as psychological trauma and addiction which might be addressed more responsibly with clinical-therapeutic interventions. This unbalanced perspective may have contributed to Zen’s popularity in the West, particularly America, where there is a strong anti-intellectual current in religion and philosophy which quickly latched onto Zen’s perceived spontaneity, anti-rationalism and immediatism in the 1950s onward. Bookchin criticizes some modern anarchists for adopting this tendency, accusing them of “‘decentering’ of the social in favor of the personal, of intellectual analysis in favor of intuition, of reason in favor of feeling, and of a public life in favor of personal ‘authenticity’ — all, taken together as a cultural, even an aesthetic agenda for the turn of this century, constitute a major ideological subversion of any endeavor to achieve a rational society.” Essentially, Hakugen thought Zen wisdom was insufficient for explaining the entire world, a view incompatible with the totalizing imperative of religions, which see themselves as complete, sufficient systems of knowledge and morality capable of explaining both is-and-ought, or “life, the universe and everything”.

In his book A Critique of Western Buddhism, Glenn Wallis identifies this phenomenon as the myth of “sufficient Buddhism”, which rests on the claim that Buddhism is “regulated in accordance with a principle higher than that of Reason.” This higher principle — in the case of Buddhism, prajna/wisdom — requires that “in every inquiry into or contestation of knowledge,[Buddhism must] intractably posit itself, its own premises, values, recommendations, conclusions, and so on,” a view which, rather than the apparently empirical skepticism of the Kalama sutta, or Buddhist appeals to scientific empiricism, demands the “primacy of Western Buddhism over all regional knowledges” including “non-Buddhist disciplines such as psychology or ethics.” Becoming disenchanted with the myth of sufficient Buddhism leads Wallis — and Hakugen — to question the deeply held beliefs of faithful Buddhists, such as the supposed “omniscience” of the Buddha. In The Problem of Buddhist Socialism in Japan, Hakugen writes, “Understanding that Buddhism is only one of many religions, Buddhist socialism will penetrate into history and form a flexible system which grows and breaks from convention through mutual criticism and study of other religions, theories, and isms. It means that we must overcome the first principle of the R.Y.B.U. ‘we admire and respect Buddha Sakyamuni as the highest truth…’ in the religion and philosophy of sunya.” He goes on to compare this “overcoming” with the third of the great bodhisattva vows of Zen, “However limitless dharmas are, I vow to study them”. It is an approach which hearkens back to the famous Zen admonition to “kill the Buddha” if one encounters him on the path, an example of the iconoclastic spirit infusing Zen literature which Hakugen thought should become more explicitly practiced in its institutions, up to and including questioning the extent of the Buddha’s enlightenment (or the texts we have received which claim to speak for him). It is a heretical view, even for the iconoclastic Zen tradition, which has profound implications for the religion of Buddhism, despite being largely in agreement with the Buddha’s own opinion on the matter. Wallis concludes that if Buddhism were to take rational thought seriously, it would ​​become “more akin to something like a phenomenological science, a psychological theory, or a rigorous (thus nonsufficient) philosophy.” To accept that Buddhism is insufficient actually does no great damage to Buddhism as a religious practice. In fact, it increases its rigor and accuracy, perhaps at the expense of the power of some traditions and institutions, and “decomposes” it into forms which are “bio-available” for uptake and appropriation by social movements. But for some reason we tend to find this less satisfying. Why can’t there just be one system, one ideology, one worldview, which can finally give us all the answers to life’s problems? Taking the “leap of faith” into one of these worldviews can be very comforting, but it comes at the expense of commitments to truth and justice.

Insufficiency does not have to entail the diminishing of an idea when paired with the principle of necessity. When imagining a good society or a just, accurate and life-giving philosophy, commitment to reason will not allow us to submit to a totalizing system. Instead it suggests adopting an active gestalt of views pertaining to various topics which individually cannot constitute a rational or just whole, but the irreducible combination of which is greater than the sum of its parts. In this gestalt we appear to arrive at a negation of the Buddha’s assertion that various metaphysical hypotheses form a “thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views” and that “​​A ‘position,’ … is something that a Tathagata has done away with.” Perhaps from the perspective of emptiness, the mind of a Buddha, such views do indeed fade away, but in the ordinary world they are indispensable if we are to avoid treating moral issues with a mind of “drifting clouds and flowing water” or “the shifting of sand” and the “play of an infant”. In contrast to Buddha’s thicket, we might do well to substitute an ecology of views, which accepts the inherent messiness of reason, desire and their limitations, but sees the “forest for the trees”, or the whole, and can self-consciously develop into forms of greater and greater complexity, morality and subjectivity.

Some other Zen Buddhists have tried to correct the perceived imbalance of wisdom and reason, such as Hakugen’s teacher Shin’ichi Hisamatsu, who emphasized the need for critical study of a wide range of topics relevant to peace and justice in the modern world as a necessary complement to rigorous zazen practice. Hisamatsu and his students founded the FAS society, a Zen community whose members, based on their Zen awakening, “vow to discern the grave crisis in the modern world and its source… through a thorough uniting of study and actual practice.” 

According to Hisamatsu “​​The acronym FAS in the name of our society refers to the three inseparable dimensions of our existence: self, world and history. “F” stands for the Formless self, “A” for taking the standpoint of All humankind, and “S” for creating Supra-historical history. Hisamatsu’s thoughts on intellectualism and a Zen philosophy of history clearly influenced Hakugen, who agreed with Hisamatsu’s belief that “intellectual cultivation can give a correct direction and effectiveness to [zen’s] pure and simple praxis”, but also problematized the value of creating history “supra-historically”. Because this view of history, and therefore taking action from it, requires a degree of Zen enlightenment, which is quite rare in any society, it creates an elitist perspective, moreover one which is prone to simply floating around aimlessly in the sea of “transcended” history, which may blind Zen activists to the need for a “precise, realistic criticism of the movements in history which center around political power” and the more mundane practice of  “creating a people’s history for the people by means of the people” based on ordinary reason and ethics. Because no supra-historical wisdom actually emerged to prevent or ameliorate the outbreak of war or the rise of fascism in Japan, a situation which was ended by conventional means, Hakugen concluded that in the end, “the suprahistorical was saved by history”. Hakugen also criticizes the view of Hisamatsu and other religious activists of various faiths that “the rifts, conflicts, and anguish of the world…derive from self-centered discriminating consciousness and self-contradictions of competitive volition,” something which may be ultimately true, but is not a prudent site for strategic political intervention in the modern world, because in this view, to struggle for a better world requires universal human enlightenment and moral perfection as a prerequisite, rather than systemic changes to social, political and economic structures which may support the general moral improvement of human kind over time by reducing the structural causes of interpersonal violence. As the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta once summarized, “To transform society men must be changed, and to transform men, society must be changed.”

One last doctrinal critique of Hakugen’s I will mention is the idea of debt//obligation (on). This idea was present in early Buddhism; the Buddha, despite encouraging serious seekers to leave family life altogether, often insisted on respect for one’s parents and teachers, and the notion that children bear parents a debt of gratitude, because ​​”even if children were to carry their parents on their backs their entire lives, or let them be kings and queens of the country, they would still not have repaid the large debt to their parents.” This view found a much more influential role when Buddhists sought resources to legitimize their beliefs when challenged by Confucian social norms, such as filial piety and ancestor worship, in China, and later Korea, Japan and Vietnam. Here it was traditionally formulated as a debt to one’s “parents, lord, [all other] sentient beings, and heaven and earth,” or to “Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha”. Hakugen writes that in “Japanese patriarchal theocracy, the idea of obligation was switched over to the emperor and was strongly emphasized so that obligation towards sentient beings was almost ignored.” Buddhists further adapted this view to be applied toward the modern nation-state, with the emperor being identified as the “father” of the nation, and his subjects as children, who bore an incalculable debt to the blessings he supposedly bestowed upon them (by sending armed men to take half of everyone’s grain on a yearly basis), a debt which in some cases could only be repaid if a citizen were to sacrifice their lives to the state in battle. Robert Aitken, in a defense of his teacher Hakuun Yasutani’s pro-imperial writings, says, “The Japanese emperor has historically been at the center of Japanese society and all authority, however it has been delegated, has derived from him. Until the end of World War II, Japanese subjects were clearly Japanese first, and Buddhist—or whatever—second. They understood the will of the emperor to be their karma.”

The anthropologist David Graeber also notes interesting relationships between Buddhist doctrine and historical economic debt in medieval China, which he describes as “the economy of infinite debt”. Buddhist schools, beginning with Nagarjuna in India, and in China, the School of Three Stages (三階教) emphasized that an individual’s “karmic debt” — the outstanding  accumulation of sins in one’s infinite past lives, or the “milk-debt” to one’s mother which could not be repaid even if you were to “cut off your own flesh to offer her three times a day for four billion years” — could be completely abolished by making donations to the temple’s treasury, a scheme Graeber calls “salvation on the installment plan”. This practice became so popular that monasteries  became centers of “concentrated finance capital” collectively managed by “monastic corporations”, handing out low (and high) interest loans, sponsoring local business ventures and elaborate festivals. Eventually these treasuries became so vast that the Chinese government began to run out of metal. When government officials investigated this problem, they found that monks had been melting down vast quantities of gold, silver and copper coins to produce colossal Buddha statues, a practice which drove up the price of metals and eliminated coins from local markets. This drove merchants and peasants into greater debt with the monasteries, which often employed them and their families as indentured laborers on various development projects they oversaw. This led to severe government persecution of Buddhism, in which thousands of temples were destroyed and their assets seized for making coinage. 

Graeber speculates that Buddhism’s roots as a religion of the merchant class in ancient India lead it to develop a “genuine theology of debt…an attempt to apply the logic of exchange to questions of eternity…The notion of infinite debt comes in when this logic slams up against the Absolute, or, one might perhaps say, something that utterly defies the logic of exchange.” The supposed exchangeability of debt led to the development of merit-making, in which, in the words of the monk Tu Mu, “One purchases felicity, and sells one’s sins, just as in commercial operations.” This system of commodified merit, exchangeable for material donations to temples, has come to dominate popular lay Buddhism across South and East Asia in the present day, contributing significantly to the cultural maintenance of social hierarchy and class oppression. Graber notes that, as discussed above, an exchange requires an equivalence which can not exist between sentient beings, such as mothers and children, or between organisms and the Earth. Such a debt is literally incalculable. An incalculable, unpayable debt is probably better thought of as a gift (though one with strings attached). Thus even karmic debt and the exchange of merits is really founded on a gift economy of compassionate relations with others, an arrangement which ultimately amounts to “communism” — in Graber’s words, the basic communism of “a mother’s love, true friendship, sociality, humanity, belonging, the existence of the cosmos”. This communistic pool of infinite generosity was later deified by Buddhists in the form of a pantheon of buddhas and bodhisattvas, whose cult of worship became the main practice of popular Buddhism only a few centuries after Gotama’s death. The bodhisattva-deity-debt cult was then given a worldly incarnation in the vast communal wealth of the monasteries, in which the faithful donors were all seen as spiritual shareholders, and which, according to Graeber, paradoxically “became the basis, in turn, of something very much like capitalism”, due to its need for “constant expansion” to propagate the dharma. All of this was a far cry from the nomadic lives of the early sangha and the Buddha’s relatively simple teaching of morality-through-poverty, mental cultivation and wisdom.

Might it be possible for modern day Buddhists to shift the emphasis of karma, merit, and debt back towards the communistic practice of the gift? The Diamond Sutra speaks extensively on the perfection of giving, and instructs bodhisattvas to practice generosity without any attachment to the “gift, the giver or the recipient”, a practice which the sutra states is immeasurably greater than any possible material donation one could make to religious figures or institutions — No gift can possibly exceed the infinite value of the gift of liberation, or, because liberation cannot be given, but must be realized for oneself, the gift of solidarity. Ven. Hsuan Hua compares the practice of self-interested generosity to “boiling sand to make rice”.This is clearly not an easy practice, but perhaps Buddhists could get a better grasp of it if they established a communist economy of open-hearted giving between themselves and in society. Such economies were the norm for egalitarian societies in history, which operated without money or barter, and instead were bound together by the unpayable debt-bonds of giving and receiving, a practice which much later, with the imposition of money and hierarchy, became the practice of payable debts, slavery, legal contracts and the so-called criminal justice system.

Hakugen suggests that a shift in emphasis, based in the theory of dependent origination, can free Buddhism from the economy of infinite debt and encourage the development of an economy of infinite giving. He suggests that debt to particular persons, such as parents and lords, be dropped; instead, we should recognize that “we are being kept alive by the favor and sacrifice of man and nature in cosmic history” and that we should reject the institution of private property in favor of usufruct because “any and all fortunes belong to the people and the spirit of the three worlds”. Essentially, because all becoming is dependent on others, there is nothing we can permanently claim to be me or mine, only possessions and relations which we rely on to satisfy our present needs.The blessings of the world which freely give us life are impossible to repay, therefore we should strive to keep on paying it forward. The wealth of the world was created by all, therefore it should belong to all; but it has been appropriated by the few, and must be expropriated for the benefit of the many. In Hakugen’s logic, perhaps the ethical precept of not-stealing includes a provision for liberating that which has been stolen. In Kropotkin’s words, “The means of production being the collective work of humanity, they have to go back to the human collectivity from which they came.”

Beyond Buddhist religious doctrine, and in light of his emphasis on the mundane and the rational, Hakugen pointed out that Zen’s potential for social justice was also restricted by its lack of a theory of which could explain its origin, class relations and development. He proposed a Marxist historiography of the birth of Zen amidst the dynastic warfare and “centralized despotic feudal system” of medieval China. 

He also pointed out that when considering themselves as agents in history, Buddhists must reckon with the degree to which “the movements that shaped modernity have seeped into all of us. Though a Zen person may speak of ‘drinking tea when one encounters tea and eating rice when one encounters rice’, what we encounter is not rice or tea, but war, peace, Americanism, Sovietism.” Religion claims to give its adepts the ability to transcend worldly matters, including such “unspiritual” forces as ideology, but, Hakugen stressed,  “even everyday matters like tea and rice are connected to ideology”. Despite Zen claims to transcendence, Hakugen emphasized the radical immanence and entanglement to which even the most enlightened minds were subjected by the relative reality of the material world: “Subjective sincerity or spiritual peace alone is not qualified for revealing moral truths. Non-ego or super-self does not exist as mere non-ego or super-self in our society: selfless self lives in reality as an individual self; likewise, formless self, when it feels, thinks and behaves here on earth, cannot but take certain forms under certain situations.“ Because he believed that Zen enlightenment was not enough to develop a sufficiently radical social ethic in individual Buddhists nor able to bring peace to the world on its own, Hakugen began exploring how the freedom attained through Zen related to or conflicted with other forms of freedom developed by humans thinking and struggling against oppression in history.

Hakugen believed that it was important to focus his critique on Buddhist ideology because, in his view, “Buddhist responsibility for war boils down to responsibility for Buddhist ideology.” If Buddhists engaged in thoughtful, historically informed self-criticism, Hakugen hoped that Buddhism could be reformed in ways which would make it impossible for them to support war and oppression in the future. Hakugen felt that these reforms would have to bring a mundane, rational, social element to the individual ethics and wisdom of Buddhism. He proposed anarchist communism because he believed that it was the most virtuous and coherent system of social ethics available, and which he believed to be compatible with, and even complementary to, the ethical heart of the Buddha’s teaching if human beings were to attain actual liberation in this world.

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