Zen and the earthquake

I would like to introduce you to Dainin Katagiri. He’s a zenmaster and he was born in Osaka in 1928, that means he was a teenager in Japan during the Second World War. He remembers:

“(…) The next moment I heard the bomb coming down. (…) At that moment I noticed that I was practicing the invocation of Buddha’s name.”

Katagiri had been taught this practice by his parents. “My subconscious mind made me think,” he says: “I want to live. I have to live.” So he made an invocation of the Buddha’s name and his mind asked “Please help me.”

Nothing happened.

“The invocation gave me no help. It was just an invocation, that’s all. Fortunately, it was just a flare that dropped, not a bomb, so I survived.”

I think we can happily live your lives, read a bit of zen poetry and philosophy and have some lofty discussions about it. And that is absolutely fine. I, for one, love to do all that. But if I’m asked to put my faith in a practice, I would like to know what happens if war breaks out. Our existence is easily threatened and we notice that as soon as we let go of some false securities. Or is it?

{{Creator:Ichiyusai Hiroshige}} Source: http://visipix.com/ {{PD}}

{{Creator:Ichiyusai Hiroshige}} Source: http://visipix.com/ {{PD}}

Katagiri later trained at the famous Eiheiji monastery. There, he witnessed an earthquake: “The monks immediately ran away to some huge cedar trees in a vacant lot, where the big tree roots could protect them from the breaking ground. Even famous men ran to the trees. Nobody seemed to notice that a candle was burning on the altar, but one roshi went back into the zendo and blew it out. This roshi was a monk whom others always looked down on because of his particular characteristics. But when the great zen masters ran away, only he took care of the candle.”

“From these stories, I hope you understand,” Katagiri says, “that when something happens you didn’t expect, you cannot always control yourself with a calm mind. When the earthquake happened, many monks and Zen masters were upset and ran away.”

The earhquake compelled them to run; it was beyond their intellectual control.

He goes on to explain conditioned origination, but that is well beyond the scope of this blogpost. If you want to explore, the book is called: “Each moment is the universe” and it deals with Katagiri’s thoughts on time.

Katagiri Each moment is the universe

Katagiri “Each moment is the universe”

What comes next is the best bit, I think:

“(…) According to our usual sense, we believe that something substantial does exist – Zen master. Then our usual sense starts to judge: He is a good Zen master because he was calm. He is not so good because he ran away.”

I certainly judged it when I read this story first. Good zenmaster, bad zenmaster. And I’ve never even witnessed an earthquake happening firsthand.

“It is not necessary to judge the zen master as good or bad. Conditions came together around him, and the vivid moment compelled him to do something.”

According to Katagiri, that is why we have to practice zazen. Not because we have a choice when the bombs start to fall, but to train our ability to face impermanence.

Katagiri died in 1990.

This blogpost was inspired by a discussion I had with “bloggingisaresponsibility” last night, on meditation. If you would like to comment on this, please do.

About Pipteinpteron

Catch a falling feather. Don't keep it.
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11 Responses to Zen and the earthquake

  1. Great post, thanks, It is one of the hardest things to do, to blow out the candle rather than run. Fortunately, we are given a new moment every instant to practice this.

  2. David Yerle says:

    I don’t see what’s wrong with running. I mean, yes, Buddhism encourages you to get rid of the self. But Buddhist monks still look before crossing the road. One thing is to not be afraid of death, another is encouraging it!
    On an unrelated note, I believe a Taoist would have no problem with running. They are all for unleashing “the natural instincts” of people. I am quite sympathetic to their view…

  3. Thank you for your comment. I don’t see a problem with running. I think Katagiri wants to show there’s a problem with judging instead.
    You make quite an interesting point about taoism. I talked with a sinologist zen practitioner recently and he said that underneath the Japanese veneer, zen was really all Taoist. (Zen came to Japan through China.) I would like to investigate that further. I’m also quite sympathetic to that way of looking at it.

  4. Robert F says:

    And are you aware that while Shinto remained the religion of the masses and most of the aristocracy in Japan, Zen was adopted by the warrior class, the samurai, and this because it supported an attitude of acceptance of impermanence and indifference to life and death, a useful trait for a hired gun (which is what the samurai were) in killing and dying? And that this same ethos of embrasure of impermanence and indifference to life and death led the vast majority of Zen masters, including D.T. Suzuki, to gladly support the militarization of Japan before WWII and the militaristic aggression of Japan during WWII? Perhaps more of them should have started running when the war machine was taking shape, but then they were too busy training themselves to face impermanence to undertake a moral challenge of that magnitude.

    • Hello Robert F. Thank you for commenting on my article.
      I am aware of the role Zen masters and practitioners played in WWII and I know about D.T. Suzuki’s role. I am not so sure that what you write makes Shinto the ‘good guys’ and zen the ‘bad guys’ in this particular story. I remember the controversies in recent years when the heads of Japanese government visited Shinto military shrines, for instance. To many people, this signalled how modern day Japan has not exactly made a ‘clean break’ from the militarist era.

      I would like to know what your point is; what would you like to tell me? That zen is wrong? That my view is wrong? My aim in writing the article was that there are many ways to look at a situation and that zen can aid you in doing so. My point was not to say that zen is always right, or good, or even that I myself am a believer. So if you could please elaborate on that?

  5. Robert F says:

    From long practice and also from the history I know that although meditation may lead to states of equanimity it does not lead to ethically intelligent attitudes or a more human condition. But I see from your recent posts that you are moving toward the more than human, although I would consider most of what Nietzsche had to say a step backward from Zen, especially since he himself in some of his later work, before his last insane rantings, was beginning to perceive the self as a process in constant flux, which taken to its logical and existential conclusion would have moved him toward something like the Buddhist teaching of no-self, since he was not a philosophical materialist or scientific reductionist.

    I said nothing about Shinto being the “good guy”; I was pointing up the moral contradictions and indeed ethical antinomianism that practice of the awareness of impermanence can lead to, sans a coherent ethical framework, and how such practice is in fact logically compatible with ethically insupportable behaviors, as exampled by the violence-supporting history of Zen in Japan.

    • Thank you for your comment. The reason I use words like ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’ is that I really could not take your first comment seriously. You are welcome to express your opinions on this blog if you can do so in a manner that is polite and respectful. Please keep in mind that from reading one or two articles there really is no way you can ‘know’ me, and certainly no way for you to jump to conclusions about knowing better than me.

      Please elaborate on how you perceive Nietzsche to be a step backwards from zen, but only if you can do so without namecalling. It’s a bit hard for me to see anything echoing a coherent ethical framework in what you’ve written up to now.

  6. Robert F says:

    I find it ironic that you are so positively interested in Nietzsche, who did not hesitate to be impolite in the expression of his philosophical critiques of the status quo, but loathe to have a little strong language thrown into your blog dialogue.

    Most of Nietzsche’s body of work presupposes a very important place for a strongly self-affirming sense of individuality; when he later started to experience that the self is actually part of a world that is always in dramatic flux, he had embarked down the perceptual road that would of necessity have led away from the self and its self-creation as the center of his philosophy, but he did not live long enough to follow his thinking to its conclusion. He was a brave enough thinker to have done so if he’d had the time.

    • I anticipated this. Let me explain, again. I have no problem with a ‘little strong language in my blog dialogue’. I do have a problem with the tone of your first and subsequent comments on my article. To me, being polite really adds merit to a comment. It’s a sign of taking oneself and the person one communicates with seriously. So far, I have met few people in the bloggosphere who did not intuitively understand this.
      Frankly, I don’t see what Nietzsche has to do with any of this. I hope you do not expect the kind of respect that I would grant him, because respect is something that has to be earned. By quality of writing, for instance.

      I’ve asked an authority on the subject to comment on what you suggest the ‘conclusion of Nietzsche’s thinking’ would have been, had he lived long enough. I guess we’ll both have to wait and see whether he thinks this matter merits his attention.

  7. To allow our imagination to go into overtime mode and hypothesize about what might or might not have have been the “conclusion of Nietzsche’s thinking” had he lived longer isn’t a subject matter one should be terribly interested in and waste a lot of time with — simply because conjectures of this sort would very likely reveal much more about us than about Nietzsche and his philosophy. Such action might be worthwhile as an exercise in applied psychology and self-analysis, but can hardly be of any value when it comes to understanding Nietzschean thought. What we can and should do, on the other hand, is to pick things up where Nietzsche had to leave them and go our own way. As Euripides remarked a long, long time before Nietzsche, the wisest men follow their own direction.

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