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Zen for Americans, by Soyen Shaku, [1906], at

p. 170


ONE of the features peculiar to Buddhism and which appeals most powerfully to Oriental imagination is that man's life is not limited to this existence only, that if he thinks, feels, and acts truthfully, nobly, virtuously, unselfishly, he will live forever in these thoughts, sentiments, and works; for anything good, beautiful, and true is in accordance with the reason of existence, and is destined to have a life eternal.

It is not the ideal of the Buddhist life to escape worldliness and to enter into eternal stillness, as is sometimes understood by Occidental scholars. Buddhists do not shun struggle and warfare. If a cause is worth contending for or defending, they will not hesitate to sacrifice for it not only this life but all of their future lives. They will appear upon this earth over and again and will not rest until they have gained the end, that is, until they have attained the ideal of life. Man, therefore, lives as long as his ideas and feelings conform to the reason of the universe. This is the Buddhist conception of life eternal.

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If I am not mistaken, it was at the time of the Independence War, or it might have occurred somewhere in the Old Country,--you will pardon my imperfect memory--but the fact is that a military officer who served as a spy for his native country was caught by the enemy and was sentenced to be hung. At the execution the officer exclaimed, "The pity is that I have only one life to sacrifice for my country." Pity indeed it was that the officer did not know the truth and fact that from his very corpse there have risen so many patriotic spirits breathing the same breath that he breathed. He was not dead, he was never hung, he did not vanish into an unknown region; but he is living a life eternal, he is being born generation after generation, not only in his own country, but also in my country, and in your country, and in fact all over the three thousand worlds (as they were believed to be existing in Hindu mythology).

In this respect a Buddhist general quite famous in the history of Japan had a decided advantage over the Christian officer just mentioned. The general is still worshiped in Japan as the type of loyalty and patriotism. He lived about six hundred years ago. Before the Emperor of the time came to know him, he was a rather obscure general and would have died without imprinting his immortal name on the pages of Japanese history. But Fate decreed otherwise, and he was requested by the Emperor to lead his royal

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army against the invading enemy, who greatly outnumbered his forces and was led by a very able general. Masashigé, which is the name of our hero, had his own plan as to how best to make a stand against the onslaught of the overwhelming enemy. But some ignorant court favorite influenced the Emperor and the hero's proposition could not prevail. He then knew he was going to fight a losing battle, but determined to do his best under the circumstances, if necessary to fight to the bitter end. At last came the day, and the enemy developed the plan as he had calculated. There was nothing for him to do but to check the advance of the enemy as long as he could, so that the Emperor could find time enough to make his safe escape from the capital. He fought most gallantly, and repeatedly repulsed the furious attacks of the enemy. But many times outnumbered, and occupying a strategically disadvantageous position, and himself covered with many wounds, he saw the uselessness of further resistance. He then gathered his commanding generals around him and asked them if they had anything to desire in this life before they bid farewell to all things earthly. They replied that they had done everything within their power, their obligations were completely filled, and there was nothing more to be desired. But our hero, Masashigé, made a solemn utterance: "I pray that I be born seven times on this earth and

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crush all the enemies of our Imperial House." They all then drew their daggers and put an end to their present lives.

I do not know how this story strikes you Christian audience, but upon us Buddhists it makes a very profound impression. It seems to be pregnant with a great religious significance. It is not altogether necessary to specify how many times we are to be reborn. Let us only have a thought or feeling that is worth preserving and actualizing, and we shall come to this life as many times as is necessary to complete the task, even to the end of the world. Let us only do what is in accordance with the reason of things, and the work, which is no more than the world-reason actualized, will create a new agency as needed through successive generations. This corporeal existence, this particular temporary combination of feelings and thoughts and desires, may dissolve, may not last forever as it is, for it is no more than an agent in the hands of the world-soul to execute its own end. When it decrees that its agent must put on a new garment, this will take place as it is willed. "Let there be light," it commands, and behold there it is!

It is not Buddhistic, therefore, to hanker after personal immortality and to construct diversity of theories to satisfy this illegitimate hankering. Do whatever you think right and be sincere with it and the work will take care of itself, hankering or no hankering after immortality.

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[paragraph continues] My Japanese hero gave an utterance to his inner feeling and conviction only to make his generals perfectly understand the significance of his and their work. He did not mean to come to this life exactly seven times, nor did he mean to continue his personal existence as he was individually. He did mean this, that his work should find its new executors in the form of a worshiper or an imitator or a successor or a disciple or a friend, who would be inspired by that noble example. And most certainly did he find a legion of his selves following closely behind his back. Are not all loyal and patriotic soldiers and sailors who died in the recent war with Russia all the incarnations of our most beloved hero-general, Masashigé? Did he not find his selves in all those brave, courageous, self-sacrificing hearts? Was he not leading in spirit all these soldiers to the execution of the work he once planned? Who says, then, that the hero breathed his last when he fought this losing battle some six hundred years ago? Is he not indeed still living in the heart of every patriotic and loyal citizen of Japan, nay, of any people that aspires to be a nation?

When the late commander Hirosé went to blockade the entrance to Port Arthur, he must have been inspired by the same sentiment which he expressed in his swan song; he must have become conscious of the immortality of the work in which he has thoroughly incarnated himself.

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[paragraph continues] In his last utterance he put this in verse: "Though I may die here while executing this work, I will come back seven times over and again to discharge my duties for my country. I have nothing to fear, nothing to desire at the present moment. Calmly and smilingly I embark on this fated boat." 1 Can we not say here that the idea which was our long deceased hero himself, found its conscious expression in this brave Commander? Those who fell in the field and on the water were equally his incarnations, only with this difference that the former gave utterance to his conscious sentiment, while the latter remained mute, though in their inmost hearts the same sentiment was moving. If otherwise, how could they enjoy that serene contentedness which characterized every stricken warrior of my country in the recent war?

Some may say that this is fatalism or determinism, but every clear-headed thinker would see in this not a fatalistic conception of life but a hopeful solution of existence, a firm belief in the final triumph of good over evil, and the calm assurance that the individual lives as long as it identifies itself with a noble thought, worthy work, exalted sentiment, uplifting impulse, in short, with anything that cements the brotherly tie of all mankind. Those who are used to look at things from the individualistic point of view may not understand very clearly what I have so

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far endeavored to explain to you; but the fact is, however tenaciously we may cling to our individual existences, we are utterly helpless when that which comprehends everything wills otherwise than our selfish desires; we have but to submit meekly to the ordinance of the unknown power and to let it work out its own destiny regardless of ourselves. When Schleiermacher defines religion as a feeling of absolute dependence, he has rightly laid his hand on that indefinable, uncertain sense which lurks in the dark recesses of every conscious mind,--the sense which intuitively recognizes the weakness of individuals as such, but which feels an immense strength in their identification with a supraindividual being or power. In this, it must be evident to you, there is nothing fatalistic nor fantastic.

All sincere Buddhists are firmly convinced of the truth of non-egoism, and they do not think that the value of an individual as such is ultimate. On account of this, they are not at all disturbed at the moment of death; they calmly accept the ordinance and let the world-destiny accomplish what end it may have in view. This freedom from the individualistic view of life seems to have largely contributed to the perfection of the Japanese military culture known as Bushido. Old Japanese soldiers, nobles, and men of letters, therefore, displayed a certain sense of playfulness even at the most critical moment

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when the question of life and death was to be decided without the least hesitation. This playfulness, as I view it, stands in a marked contrast to the pious, prayerful attitude of the Christians in their dying moments.

Ota Dôkwan, a great Japanese statesman-general of some four hundred years ago, was assassinated in his own castle by a band of spies sent by his enemy. They surrounded him when he was altogether unarmed. He was stabbed, and he fell on the ground, covered with wounds and helpless. One of the assassins approached closer, and applying the dagger at the victim's throat to finish their cowardly work, he asked what the unfortunate general had to say before he bade farewell to this world. The general most calmly answered:

"At the moment like this
It must be a struggle indeed
To part with this life so dear,
If I had not abandoned altogether
The thought of ego, which is a non-reality."

Finding peace of heart in this solution of life, Buddhists, whatever their social positions, are ever ready to sacrifice their lives for a cause which demands them. They know that the present individual existences will come to an end, they will not be able to see the faces dearest to them, to hear the voices tenderest to them, as they depart from this world; but they know at the same time that spiritually they live for

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ever and are in constant communication with their friends, that they never lead a solitary, unconnected life in some invisible region. What Buddhism has contributed to Japanese culture is its higher conception of life and nobler interpretation of death.

Buddhists do not think that "I" is "I" and "you" is "you" when each of us is Separated from the other. "I" is possible when "you" exists, so with "you" who is possible through the existence of "I." This consideration is very important, as it constitutes one of the fundamental principles of Buddhist ethics. For according to Buddhism an unconditional assertion of egoism is due to the ignorance of the significance of the individual. Most people imagine that the individual is a final reality, stands by itself, has nothing to do with other fellow-individuals; in fact their existence is tolerated only so far as it does not interfere with his own interests. They first build a formidable fort around individualism and look down at their surroundings, thinking that the position must be defended at all costs. For it is their conception of life that with the downfall of individualism the universe goes to pieces.

The Oriental mode of thinking, however, differs from this. We take our standpoint first on that which transcends individuals, or we take into our consideration first that which comprehends all finite things, that which determines the

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destiny of the universe; and then we come down into this world of relativity and conditionality, and believe that the earth will sooner or later pass away according to the will of that which controls it. That is to say, individuals will not stay here forever, though the whole which comprises individuals will. Therefore, Oriental ethics considers it of paramount importance to preserve the whole at all hazards, whatever may be the fate of individuals.

For instance, suppose my country is threatened by a powerful enemy, and I will, when called for, sacrifice everything personal and try to do my best for the conservation of my national honor and safety. This is what is called patriotism. My parents are old and they are not able to take care of themselves, and I will do everything for their comfort and alleviate the loneliness of their declining age. Did they not bring me up to this stage of manhood? Did they not go through all forms of hardship for my sake? Did they not care for me with infinite tenderness of heart? Do I not owe them all that I am to-day? Did they not help me to this position and enable me to do whatever is within my power for the welfare and preservation of the whole to which I belong? When I think of this, the feeling of gratitude weighs heavily on me, and I endeavor to be relieved of it by doing all acts of lovingkindness to my parents. This is what you call filial piety, and the same consideration will apply

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to the cases of teachers, elder people, friends, and family.

Whatever be the defects of Oriental ethics,--and I think they are not a few,--I firmly believe that what makes Oriental culture so unique is due to the emphasis laid upon patriotism, filial piety, faithfulness, and abnegation of self.

*      *      *

Before concluding, I wish to add a few words as a Buddhist subject of Japan. All the world knows what Japan has achieved so far in the history of mankind, especially what she has accomplished in her gigantic struggle with a most powerful nation of Europe. There must have been many causes and conditions through a happy combination of which Japan was able to do what she has done; and among those conditions I would count the influence of American friendship and sympathy as one of the most powerful. If America had tried to play some high-handed diplomacy, imitating some of the European powers, she could have easily seized my country and held it under subjection since Commodore Perry's entrance into Uraga. The fact that the United States did not stoop to play a mean trick upon Japan helped not a little to lift her to the present position. For that reason, we, people of Japan, owe a great deal to you, people of the United States of America.

As a Buddhist I have been long thinking how best to repay this special favor received from the

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friendly people among whom I am traveling now. You have everything you need in the line of material, industrial, commercial civilization. By this I do not mean that you are wanting in spiritual culture and moral refinement, but I am inclined to think that it would not be altogether inappropriate to ask you to get more and more acquainted with what constitutes Oriental culture and religious belief. And it shall be my duty and pleasure to make such an opportunity of mutual understanding readily possible in every way. Accordingly, I thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for your efforts which have resulted in this enjoyable meeting with each other.


170:1 Address at the George Washington University, April, 1906.

175:1 From memory.

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