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A comment in Readers' Comments
10/26/99--From Marsha Angus: Dear David, Here’s the letter my friend Fred and I wrote. I bit self indulgent but pure of heart and lots of fun in the writing.

The more I visit your web site the more I remember that great day at your house. I am so glad that you are doing this for all of us. Take care marsha September 22, 1999 
[My pleasure.--DC]

Tricycle: The Buddhist Review 92 Vandam St. New York, NY 10013

Dear Ms. Tworkov,

After reading Yasutani Roshi: The Hardest Koan in your Fall Issue, we felt compelled to respond to the article and especially to the statements by Yasutani’s students and disciples. What follows is the result of our own conversation after reading the article. We want to express our appreciation of the forum you are creating in printing such an article. What did you do during the war Sensei? Brian Victoria’s expose on Zen Master Yasutani does all practitioners of the Buddha dharma a great service in initiating a conversation addressing the resistance on the part of Westerners to confront the dark side of their tradition. We are struck by how many levels resonate simultaneously around this issue. The questions Victoria asks are worth careful consideration: We are struck by several of them and time and space require us to focus on but a few. … Did young Americans need and want their teachers on a pedestal? [Pg.62] … Did they want to keep any Zen & the Military information under cover? [After all, we have the example of Katagiri Roshi’s stories of his life as a soldier in WWII.] … Does Yasutani’s hate mongering mock our respect for his enlightenment? … Can words of compassion and words of prejudice utter forth from the same person? And does one obliterate the other? … To what extent can the embodied human or the container for enlightenment be expected to transcend parochial cultural values or aggressive nationalism? … If we accept Yasutani’s subordination of the Buddha dharma state, how does this change our experience of him is a teacher? … How do we respond to Shainberg’s gratitude [pg71] and his assumption that, in fact, Yasutani emerged from such a miserable delusion? What does he take as evidence?

Why did Yasutani never use his beliefs of 1943 as a teaching tool but rather continued to keep them hidden? If Yasutani kept his earlier beliefs hidden intentionally, he is deluded to think it is not significant and he is breaking the precepts. If his beliefs were hidden unintentionally, he does not recognize that it is never Buddhist to be racist and then he has clearly not emerged from such a delusion. Further, in response to the evidence Robert Aitken gives re Yasutani accepting Jewish students in the 1960’s and his comments referring to “nationalism as egocentricity written large”; we agree that these show signs of change. However, this evidence still falls short of confronting his past in general and racism in particular. We are reminded of the wisdom in the adage, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”. Because if we in the West, adopt wholesale, Asian traditions of hierarchical empowerment, blur distinctions between church and state and the value that it is good to abdicate the questioning of authority, then we are surely sowing the seeds of duality. We need to remember, as Bodhin Kjolhede suggests, that it is the enlightenment teaching we seek and not the teachers who shroud themselves in the robe of enlightenment proclaiming to own the Dharma. Therefore, we must demand that our spiritual teachers (to whom we offer our respect) repudiate their outgrown delusions. We need to see exemplified the real human movement from darkness into light, which often requires a humbling moment. Bodhin Kjolhede is wise to remind us not to believe in anything “on the mere authority of your teachers or priests but instead to accept as true whatever agrees with your own reason and your own experience.” It is not enough, however, to suggest “that those of us sobered by the revelations about Yasutani Roshi “turn our attention back to ourselves unflinchingly.” We must condemn racism and hate mongering whenever and wherever we see it, especially in those purporting to have the authority to teach the Dharma.

How do we respond to Shainberg’s gratitude and his assumption that Yasutani emerged from such a miserable delusion? Lacking in the responses to Victoria’s thesis is any clear evidence that Yasutani emerged non-deluded. Glassman and Aitken both suggest that we should make allowances for cultural influences. This is insufficient for isn’t the true Buddhism transcendent of cultural issues? Or as Shunryu Suzuki once said, “Buddhism is Buddhism”. It is also important to acknowledge the inherent conflict of interest in each of Yasutani’s disciples when they respond to Victoria’s thesis. It is interesting to note that none of them acknowledged even the possibility of such a conflict, in that rationalizing Yasutani’s behavior would appear to be serving of their own interests in preserving his legacy unblemished. How is it that none of them report ever inquiring of Yasutani what his participation was in World War II?

It is inferred that he supported the Vietnam War, in the 1960’s, for the same reason that it is essential to support the emperor in the 1940’s. Is the blind faith of following one’s government to be wrapped in the Dharma? Is he stretching Dogen’s alleged reverence for the emperor that we follow the laws of our nation? It is quite disturbing, at millennium’s edge, to hear echoes of “USA love it or leave it.”

As Western Buddhists we need to inquire: “How should we live amidst the conflicts of values and morals? In Yasutani’s view, ideas advocating freedom and equality are seen as subversive and evil…”demonic teachings of the scheming Jews.” Ironically, these ideas appear in the Bill of Rights and in The Talmud. As Westerners, we must reconcile individuality with Annata (Pali: Selflessness) so that selflessness does not get co-opted by a clergy that re-writes the Dharma to suit its nationalistic agenda.

Throughout history, religious doctrine has been used as an excuse for killing and demonizing those with divergent beliefs. Victoria’s explication and demonstration of Yasutani’s use of religious doctrine is beautifully portrayed by quoting Yasutani’s words in describing the Jews’…”treacherous design to usurp [control of] and dominate the entire world, thus provoking the great upheavals of today. It must be said that this is an extreme example of the evil resulting from superstitious belief and deep-rooted delusion.” Victoria further demonstrates Yasutani’s co-opting of religious doctrine in his section on the precepts in which he quotes Yasutani discussing …”the spirit of the Mahayana precepts”…in reference to…” the first precept that forbids the taking of life.” He goes on to quote Yasutani, “However, in killing [the enemy] one should swallow one’s tears, bearing in mind the truth of killing yet not killing. Failing to kill an evil man who ought to be killed, or destroying an enemy army that ought to be destroyed, would be to betray compassion and filial obedience, to break the precept forbidding the taking of life. This is a special characteristic of the Mahayana precepts. (Special characteristic indeed!)

Every religion has made scapegoats of the Jews. Buddhism is not unique and so then the question is why should it be? Essentially our “BIG” view of the Buddha’s teaching of non-duality is one of great inclusivity vast enough to dissipate any separatist philosophy of us versus them. What we see, in the temporal world of human affairs, is a very unsympathetic human power play wherein corruption prevails. Sadly, where absolute power prevails in the unholy alliance of warriors and priests, we see absolute corruption and the inability to say it’s so! We saw, in The Crusades and in the Inquisition, how “accepting Christ” became the excuse for killing. It took a long time but today The Catholic Church is soul searching its role during the Inquisition and it’s “crimes of silence” during the holocaust. Concurrently, we are seeing German society go to great lengths to cleanse the cultural conscience of their Nazi past. In stark contrast, the Japanese addiction to saving face disallows a true admission and apology for “The Rape of Nanking” or for that matter a repudiation of the false history of World War II taught for two generations to Japanese school children. Even more insidious than the crimes of silence is, in Yasutani’s case, the veritable forging of a militaristic and racist rationale to dominate others while wrapping all this in a perversion of the Dharma. It is astounding that discernment itself, one of Zen’s great gifts, lies in a shambles: notably, Glassman’s last words stating that Yasutani’s [virulent, deluded and hateful] remarks of 1943 are equally as enlightened as Primo Levi’s Survival at Auschwitz.

In Alcoholics Anonymous, which Glassman mentions specifically as metaphor, there is a stage of “seeing the light “ that leads to a “making of amends.” We don’t see this here in Yasutani’s case and so we are left with the impression of a stoic “co-dependent” ego bound community instead of an inspirational example of selfless service to a more compassionate humanity. More than ever, we need today to examine the Dharma without the hype of American spiritual materialism so rampant in the West and without the hierarchical authoritarianism inherent in the East. What we need is a sober view of the essential Buddha dharma, which includes the questioning of authority for authority’s sake and the cultivation of our ability to surrender to the truth.

In this way we can avoid this kind of problem in the future.

Fred Mitouer, Ph.D. Gualala, California Marsha Angus, M.A. Mill Valley, California

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