Zen for Americans, by Soyen Shaku, , at sacred-texts.com
I AM requested here to-night to speak concerning our brethren who fell in the greatest and most sanguinary war of modern times,--the war that only recently was brought to a conclusion. But what shall I say? Shall I eulogize the glory of their death? or shall I depict to you the unimaginable horrors of war? or have I to praise the prowess and success of our Japanese army and navy? or have I to dwell upon the innumerable sufferings of our people at home which have been brought about by the war? I am not, however, an orator in any sense of the word, and am utterly disqualified for the task laid down before me, either to glorify the dead or to denounce war. All that I can do is to look upon the matter from a purely religious viewpoint and to express my own ideas concerning those unfortunate dead who fell in the defense of our fatherland. And, if I can, let me try to make their departed spirits calmly repose where they fell, while I demonstrate to those left behind
the fact that the immortality of the soul consists in the realization of noble deeds, and not in the continuation of personality after death, if such a thing be at all possible
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When we are talking in the abstract we are apt to see only the bright side of war--its inevitableness, its sublimity, its awe-inspiring scene, its perfect organization, its earnestness, its patriotism, and so forth, and we forget at what price these glorious things are bought, we forget that war is the most horrible evil of human life, that killing one another with whatever beautiful excuse is a proof of moral depravity, that our mission here under the sun is not to destroy life, but to preserve and develop it. Are we not here to realize the ideals of universal brotherhood and eternal peace? Are we not here to help one another and to promote our mutual welfare? Are we not here to make a grand universal home in which everybody is respected, believed, and loved? Let me ask, then: Does war in any way subserve this end? does it augment our happiness? does it make us respect one another? does it bring more life into the world? Let those who would answer affirmatively these questions go to one of those bloody battlefields in Manchuria and tell us what is disclosed before their unprejudiced eyes.
This is one of the most hotly contested hills around Port Arthur. Battles have been fought
all morning and all afternoon, positions have been alternately taken by our soldiers and enemies. Battalions after battalions have been rushed forward only to fall under the veritable showers of death-dealing missiles, while those fortunate ones who have escaped the hell of fire are greeted with a phalanx of cold steel. And what do we see before us now? Hundreds of hundreds of dead and wounded are scattered all over the hill, friends and foes indiscriminately. Are not some of them yet writhing in their last agony? Where does that faint groaning come? Were not those stark corpses the most lively, most briskly moving bodies a few hours ago? Were not a courageous heart and a noble mind abiding in each one of them? The moon is just rising, and her pale light but enhances the ghastliness of the sight. The perfect stillness of horror! And I speak of this from my personal experience.
Now let me again ask: From where do these soldiers come? They must have parents--some of whom are aged and perhaps decrepit--sisters and brothers, and some of them must be even husbands and fathers on whom tender women and helpless children are depending. Now that their mainstays are gone and their beloved are forever departed, grief and suffering indescribable must be reigning in all these thousands of homes. Some of them, reduced to abject poverty and utter helplessness, must go begging
or to self-destruction to save themselves from shame. What wrong did they commit to be thus terribly punished? The wrong, if it be so called, was that they had able-bodied, strong-minded sons or husbands. What a heart-rending ordeal they have to pass!
This most saddening fact is brought home more forcibly when we are personally related to the unfortunate dead.
News of victory is welcome and we feel elated over it. But think of the price we have paid for it with thousands of precious human lives. And especially when we find some of our personal friends and acquaintances mentioned among the dead or seriously wounded, how depressingly the news weighs upon us! I often spend many hours at a time brooding over the sad event, my thoughts being deeply buried in the unfathomable problems of philosophy and religion, which have baffled many a wise man ever since the dawn of intellect. Though I have formed in my humble way my own welt- and lebensanschauung with which I interpret the affairs of the world and the phenomena of soul-life, I cannot help being struck with the calamities which follow in the wake of war. I am not necessarily absorbed in pessimism, but I feel an unspeakable feeling at the bottom of my heart and with wonder and awe think of a power by whose hand the course of this life and the destiny of the universe are directed.
Why is human life so cheap? Why can it not be made to resist flying lead? Why is it so frail as to succumb to the thrust of cold steel? Why was it not made invulnerable, so that water could not drown and fire could not consume? Man, how conceited thou art when thy pulse beats and thy blood is warm! How haughty, god-like, immortal thou art when thou sittest alone and uninterruptedly pursuest thy egotistic schemes and intrigues! But, alas! thy dreams depart and thou must face cold, brutal realities. What a pitiful sight thou presentest now! Thou runnest against a mass of granite, cement, and steel, or against the exploding nitroglycerin, which is thine own handiwork, and thou art reduced to atoms, thou art blown to nothingness, whence thou perhaps didst come. How fragile thou art! Is this not the thought that agitates those who reflect upon the horrors of war and the destiny of mankind?
But are we not made for some other and better purposes than being merely material, physical, sensual, earthly, corporeal? Has not human existence more significance than a mere sentient organism whose life is as delicate as a drop of dew? Are we not capable of being more than what we appear to the senses? Are we not also living in a realm which transcends the world of sense and perception? To these questions I answer most definitely, and say "yes." However weak and helpless and flickering like a
solitary lamplight before the wind, we are most assuredly more than a corporeal existence. Our limbs may be torn to pieces, our brains be smashed to nothing, our bones be ground to powder; but our deeds, our thoughts, our feelings will survive. It is in the realm of sense and perception that we are born and die. In the realm where our true being resides there is no such thing as birth and death. In the spiritual -kingdom ours is an eternal growth, a perpetual unfolding, a never-ending development. The flesh will decay and return to dust, but the spirit which consists of our noble deeds and thoughts forever rejuvenates itself. It is like the snake's shedding its skin: the bodily existence is the skin, which is cast off whenever the spirit so desires. It is immaterial how the body fares, for the spirit is the master and its commands have to be obeyed at all hazards. The spirit decides when and how its outer integument shall be renewed. To be more exact and literal, the spirit which is immortal has limited itself to effect its own differentiation and development under the bodily condition. The body is therefore needed to complete the mission of the spirit, but the body is so created as to be subservient to the spirit and to be willing to carry out what the latter wills.
In ancient Oriental mythology we have a divine phenix, the only one of its kind and of remarkable beauty, that living five or six hundred
years in the Arabian desert built a funeral pile of spices and aromatic gums, ignited it with the fanning of its wings, sang a melodious dirge, and burned itself in the all-purifying fire, only to come out again in the freshness of youth and to continue its former life. Is it not a wonderful bird, this divine phenix of eternal life? But more wonderful indeed is our spiritual life.
I believe all Japanese are familiar with the story of Kusunoki Masashigé, who exclaimed in his last moment that he would be reborn seven times and protect his royal family against the enemy. You also know well the anecdote of the late Commander Hirosé, who expressed the same sentiment in one of his last poems. But in point in of fact these heroes are not only seven times reborn, but infinitely, so long as this universe endureth and humanity survives. Do not think for a moment that this is merely theoretical and has no concrete significance. Far from it. We who are breathing to-day the spirit of the illustrious general and the valiant sailor are no more nor less than their reincarnations. Those who come after us and become possessed of the same sentiment are their and our spiritual descendants. Rebirth does not mean the reawakening of the dead. Reincarnation does not mean the resuscitation of a dried-up mummy. The immortality of the soul does not mean the continuation of the individual soul as conceived by most religionists. The spirit is not a thing material
and sensual, however ethereally or astrally you may conceive it. It is a transcendental existence, which knows no limiting conditions such as space, time, or causation. Where you feel a noble feeling, where you think a beautiful thought, where you do a self-sacrificing deed, there is the spirit making itself felt in your consciousness.
There is but one great spirit and we individuals are its temporal manifestations. We are eternal when we do the will of the great spirit; we are doomed when we protest against it in our egotism and ignorance. We obey, and we live. We defy, and we are thrown into the fire that quencheth not. Our bodily existences are like the sheaths of the bamboo sprout. For the growth of the plant it is necessary to cast one sheath after another. It is not that the body-sheath is negligible, but that the spirit-plant is more essential and its wholesome growth of paramount importance. Let us, therefore, not absolutely cling to the bodily existence, but, when necessary, sacrifice it for a better thing. For this is the way in which the spirituality of our being asserts itself.
This being the case, war is not necessarily horrible, provided that it is fought for a just and honorable cause, that it is fought for the maintenance and realization of noble ideals, that it is fought for the upholding of humanity and civilization. Many material human bodies may
be destroyed, many humane hearts be broken, but from a broader point of view these sacrifices are so many phenixes consumed in the sacred fire of spirituality, which will arise from the smouldering ashes reanimated, ennobled, and glorified. The spirit which dwelt in them and brought them to the altar now assumes another material expression in the form of coming generations. Those fallen in the field are returning to dust in order to nourish vegetation, or, as the Japanese would express it, to fill- the hungry stomach of the wild dog. But this is true only of their particular bodily forms. As to the spirit, it has not gone up to a mythical region which some religious people call heaven. It has not vanished into the air in the fashion of a ghost. Nor is it sitting by the so-called Heavenly Father encircled by a host of angels. We Buddhists are not believers in fiction, superstition, or mythology. We are followers of truth and fact. And what we actually see around us is that the departed spirits are abiding right among ourselves, for we have the most convincing testimony of the fact in our inmost consciousness which deceives not. They descend upon us, they dwell within us; for are we not being moved by their courage, earnestness, self-sacrifice, and love of country? Do we not feel supernaturally inspired and strengthened in our resolution to follow them and to complete the work they have so auspiciously started? Personally and individually,
we may grieve over their being no more among us in their material garb, but superpersonally our life is enriched and illuminated by their death.
We understand, therefore, by the immortality of the soul the perpetuation of spiritual life, not individually but supra-individually. The life runs in and through individuals, but it is more than the totality of them. It does not die with their annihilation, it survives them, and wears another garment of bodily existence, making itself ever younger, stronger, and nobler. In this sense, Japanese belief in the ancestral shades is justifiable. They are not really vanished in the haze of bygone ages; they are living in the freshness of youth in our midst, and what we worship is not their ghostly presence but their living spirit. Those who fell in the late war are not really fallen; they are still alive in the minds and hearts of their friends and worshipers. From the world of sense they are forever departed, but they have found their enduring home in the supra-individual realm. Their bones are crumbling in the dust, but their spirit is enkindled in our hearts. This, one of the plainest facts in the world, will be doubted only by those near-sighted, grossly material egoists who refuse to see the significance of human life.
I am by no means trying to cover the horrors and evils of war, for war is certainly hellish. Let us avoid it as much as possible. Let us
settle all our international difficulties in a more civilized manner. But if it is unavoidable, let us go into it with heart and soul, with the firm conviction that our spiritual descendants will carry out and accomplish what we have failed personally to achieve. Let, therefore, the dead quietly repose in their last sleep. Nobody will dare stir their glorious ashes. As for us who are left behind, no superfluous words are in place, only we must not disgrace the honor and spirit of the dead who have solemnly bequeathed to us their work to perfect. Mere lamentation not only bears no fruit, it is a product of egoism, and has to be shunned by every enlightened mind and heart.