I still remember the first time I was asked by a museum patron, “What is Zen?”
My completely honest reply was to burst into laughter. Of course I could have provided a completely passable explanation of Zen, or suggest a book that would give a more reserved account of a somewhat misunderstood branch of Buddhism, or even told them the one about the Zen teacher who walks into a bar and…hilarity ensues. But even I know that you’re not supposed to turn it into a joke–this is serious stuff, and as befitting a complex subject, the answer to such a question is seldom simple.
And so I am asked, “How can a samurai be a Buddhist?”
The code of the samurai holds him more strictly than the bond of life and death; for even after his death, his honor redoubles. In life, death is to be meditated upon, to be accepted as fact. Given that Buddhism is giving up desire, it follows that the samurai is the penultimate Buddhist.
However, because he must also kill, is he not the worst kind of Buddhist?
D.T. Suzuki says no, and even makes the point that a samurai’s nature feeds the intensity of his practice and that Zen is the only path for the samurai: “Morally, because Zen is a religion which teaches us not to look backward once the course is decided upon; philosophically, because it treats life and death indifferently.”
On second thought, maybe the answer is simple. But considering that I’m about to begin reading Hagakure, maybe I’ll be changing my mind about that last statement.
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