The Sword That Kills: Spiritual Warriorship and the Middle Way

From a talk delivered at the Zen Center of Denver on Sunday, Feb. 6, 2022. Listen on the ZCD’s website at

Harada Daiun Sogaku, a teacher in our lineage whose name we recite in our Ancestral Teachers chant, wrote in 1934:

The spirit of Japan is the Great Way of the [Shinto] gods. It is the substance of the universe, the essence of the Truth. The Japanese people are a chosen people whose mission is to control the world. The sword [that] kills is also the sword [that] gives life. Comments opposing war are the foolish opinions of those who can only see one aspect of things and not the whole.

Politics conducted on the basis of a constitution are premature, and therefore fascist politics should be implemented for the next ten years…. Similarly, education makes for shallow, cosmopolitan persons. All the people of this country should do Zen. That is to say, they should all awake to the Great Way of the Gods. This is Mahayana Zen. (qtd. in Victoria 137)

“The sword that kills is the sword that gives life.” Few phrases in Zen have been so abused. Here a master in our own lineage—praised by Philip Kapleau and Taizan Maezumi, among others—used it to defend fascism and Japanese imperialism. If the central insight of Zen is that form is emptiness and emptiness form, and everything else amounts to “the foolish opinions of those who can only see one aspect of things,” then it seems Zen can be twisted to any purpose whatsoever. What then are we to make of Zen training and realization?

Continue reading

Prism and Prison

My latest in Birdy Magazine, “Prism and Prison.” It’s fascinating how metaphors – which is to say, stories – can both offer new perspectives and lock us into just one. Ultimately all concepts fall short of reality, and the universe is always greater than our thoughts about it; but this is not to say it is something concrete, but rather is infinitely labile, wood turning to smoke, gasses condensing into planets.

Humans are not machines, she told herself. The brain is not a computer.”

Fudō Myōō, Champion of the Middle Way

Fudō Myōō, Champion of the Middle Way.

A few weeks ago I was feeling bored and restless (as one does during a pandemic), when I suddenly remembered: I know how to draw! So I broke out my Prismacolors, as I have not done in many a moon, and with little forethought drew this Fudō Myōō. Known as “the Immovable Wisdom King,” Fudō Myōō is most often depicted seated on a stone to symbolize that immovability, but here is shown seated on a lotus amid the flames, a symbol of the Middle Way of Buddhism. It may be that many people conceive of Buddhist practice as little more than navel-gazing, but don’t be deceived: to face life directly requires a fierce and steadfast spirit.

On a technical note, I’m afraid the photo can’t really do justice to the image, and you’ll just have to take my word that the colors are astonishingly vibrant. This was my first time using Prismacolor markers in combination with the color pencils, and I was amazed at the saturation. Feel like it’s what I’ve been looking for for years.


I find the name revealing: okcupid,
all lower case, as though its creators want
to lower expectations from the outset. Don’t ask
too much, they gently hint. Our silicon love-
god is only okay. If you want a heart on fire,
you’ll have to work to light the arrow.

Or, to be more accurate, a hundred arrows,
shot with thumbs alone by a glazed-eyed Cupid
ensconced on the couch, belly full of ice cream, firing
off messages at a crowd of tiny pixels, wanting
to sound clever, funny, honest, worthy of love
and attention, pondering the right thing to ask

someone he knows very little about, while asking
whether it’s worth it, given the slings and arrows
of our current outrageous fortune, the likelihood of love
during a pandemic. And incidentally, why is Cupid
a fat little baby, anyway? I don’t even want
kids. Shouldn’t he (or she) be some Polynesian fire-

dancer, sweat-damp skin gleaming, torch fires
spinning in the ocean-scented dark? Let’s ask
more from our match- and myth-makers. I want
a passion cosmic, our bodies comets, bright arrows
arcing across sheets of night, a belted Cupid
usurping Orion to bestride the skies with love.

Or, equally, a simple, unencumbered love,
someone with whom I can sit by the fire,
talk about books, make out, mock okcupid,
go dancing, do yoga, take long walks, ask
intimate questions, watch fucking Arrow
on late-night if that’s what we want.

(Probably not. Terrible show.) Point is, I want
what anyone wants: an ordinary transcendent love
that today, alas, is found by pressing the arrow
keys to scroll up and down, inserting fire
emojis like ammo in a catapult, asking
one last favor from an artificial Cupid.

Let’s finally fire whoever runs okcupid.
Message me, ask whatever you want.
Make a joke about arrows. Fall in love.

Darcy Goes Dating

MY DEAR ____, — Desperate times call for desperate measures, and as it appears social calling, much less the merry magnificence of a ball, has been eradicated by the State and indeed by Necessity, I am setting out this letter like a castaway throwing a message in a bottle upon the waves. I am told that goddesses are often born upon the foam, so perhaps you will spy it amid much other storm-tossed debris; but perhaps I have been reading too much of Mr. Keats and Mr. Defoe.

In truth I do not find solitude burdensome as a rule; to the contrary, when one is at peace with oneself, dwelling alone is domestic bliss. Yet any good thing may be taken to excess (Meden agan, reads the Delphic temple), and the spirit left too long alone begins to grow inward, like a rootbound plant, stunting its growth. And growth is the essence of love, it seems to me, each encouraging the other like devoted arborists.

Of course, to intertwine our sylvan limbs in these divided days requires reaching a little further. The space between us may seem insurmountable, but think of the joy, nay, the ecstasy, such surmounting brings. A flutter of the fingers (upon your keys), a few strokes (with a pen), can bring every bough to fruition, every bud to unfold, every fruit to fall satisfied upon a bed of fragrant flowers. The clouds part, the sun shines in splendor, the earth is born anew.

But if you find such language overheated, let us get down to brass tacks. I am forty-three years old and in exceptional health, exercising daily. I stand five feet nine inches and weigh one hundred and fifty-five pounds. You know I am of good family, and while it is perhaps vulgar to mention, my estate at Pemberly provides a comfortable income, and expansive grounds for riding or other entertainments. In summer the gardens are green as emerald, and in winter we often have recitals in the parlor. You could make a home here, or just come for a night or two.

I hope I have presented my views, my person and my heart’s longing as directly or sidelong as the occasion requires. Words are poor substitutes for the immediacy of the senses. Perhaps someday we will meet, in a park or sidewalk cafe, let fall our masks and gratefully receive each other’s expressions of spontaneous delight. Then these obstacles will prove mere markers on the path, this waiting a whetstone, and the pandemic itself a portal for something rare and wondrous.

Until then I am, devotedly,


P.S. I hope you will not listen to any rumors that my estate is greatly exaggerated, my horses phantasms, and my actual income a pittance. There are all kinds of characters out there, spinning airy fictions in the hope of a moment’s amusement.