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?

As Brian Victoria shows in his book Zen at War, Harada’s attitude was no aberration. Throughout Japanese Buddhism, and including all branches of the Zen sect, priests embraced so-called “Imperial Way Buddhism” as the natural extension of an utterly rigid hierarchy that invested the emperor not only with all secular authority but all spiritual authority as well. In this Buddhism proved itself little different than most religious institutions in times of war, which frequently serve to uphold and defend the state. In a way this makes sense, since dominant religious institutions typically are closely tied to (and regulated by) the state, and this was especially true in early 20th-century Japan. We must further recognize that it requires extraordinary fortitude to voice political objections when doing so may land one in a jail cell or worse. On the other hand, political revolutions have often been rooted in challenges by religious institutions; and if the clergy, as moral exemplars, raise no objection to the rapacious actions of one’s countrymen, who will? 

As Americans in the 21st century, we are unlikely to be imprisoned or executed for declaring that the emperor has no clothes (or is a delusional megalomaniac). But Harada’s words here and elsewhere, and the statements of many other Zen priests of the time, including anti-Semitic comments by Yasutani Hakuun, another teacher in our lineage, remain profoundly troubling for those engaged in genuine Zen inquiry.

Perhaps even more than other sects of Buddhism, Zen has a strong concern for authenticity. “Practice must be true practice; satori must be true satori,” wrote Wu-men (Aitken, The Gateless Barrier, 33). In fact, what’s known as “ancestral Zen” or “patriarchal Zen” makes a remarkable claim: that the understanding of the Buddha himself has been passed down from teacher to student in an unbroken line of succession. Thus a fully sanctioned teacher today is considered, traditionally speaking, an heir to the Buddha himself, the embodiment of transcendent wisdom. Sometimes this is expressed in the principle that the teacher will not name a successor until a student equals or excels the master’s understanding, as an essential safeguard against the degradation of the teaching.

This idea was codified in the Record of Transmitting the Light (Denkoroku), written in 1300 by Keizan, one of the founders of Japanese Soto Zen. It comprises fifty-three cases of Dharma transmission, from the Buddha down to Ejo, Keizan’s own Dharma “grandfather.” This koan collection is included in the practice curriculum of many modern Zen centers (including our own), alongside The Gateless Barrier by Wumen, The Blue Cliff Record by Yuanwu, The Book of Equanimity by Wansong Xingxiu, and various introductory koans selected by the teacher. So-called “finishing” koans employed near the end of one’s formal training may also include Tungshan’s “Five Ranks,” the Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts considered as koans (Kyojukaimon), and selected cases from other collections.

Thus a full regimen of koan training can run to four or five hundred cases, most with accompanying verses and commentaries taken up at the discretion of the teacher. Even in a monastery, where a monk might meet with a teacher daily and do sesshin once a month, it generally takes many years to complete one’s formal koan training, if ever. For a lay person, this process typically takes decades, and it is simply a fact that most lay practitioners, even dedicated ones, will never complete their formal koan training. This being the case, the number of teachers in koan lineages tends to be small, and Rinzai Zen has long been dwarfed by larger numbers of Soto Zen teachers. Why then undertake it? 

One of the great dangers of regular meditation practice is habituation. We can get used to anything, it seems, and even the rigors of sesshin, wherein one practices zazen for ten or twelve or more hours a day, can become routine through repetition. The interpreting self constantly reasserts itself, incorporating new experiences into an essentially deluded, self-aggrandizing narrative, and longtime practitioners can easily turn zazen into little more than a kind of pleasant daydreaming or self-affirmation. In a way this is fine—many forms of meditation aim at little more—but it falls infinitely short of the “mind seal of the Buddha” promised in ancestral Zen, the complete, transcendent, non-retrograding enlightenment (anuttara-samyak-sambodhi is the Sanskrit term) that enables one to act in complete accord with every circumstance. 

The great Zen master Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1769) was especially critical of the “silent illumination” school prevalent in his day, which taught that as Buddha nature is all-pervading, one need not seek realization at all; and as it likewise cannot be communicated in words, there is no need for any outward expression:

People hear this teaching and try to follow it. Choking off their aspirations, sweeping their minds clean of delusive thinking, they dedicate themselves to doing nothing but keeping their minds complete blanks, blissfully unaware that they are, in the process, doing and thinking a great deal. (27)

In reaction to a stagnant Buddhism in which monks served as little more than government functionaries and temples were frequently passed on as a matter of inheritance, sons succeeding fathers not just as heirs but Dharma heirs, Hakuin preached the absolute necessity of kensho, the direct experience of nonduality, as a prerequisite for Zen understanding. Without kensho, he said, the religious practice of the inquirer is 

…all unenlightened activity, and it demonstrates abundantly that he is still trapped within samsara. He tries constantly to remain detached in thought and deed, but all the while his thoughts and deeds remain attached. He endeavors to be doing nothing all day long, and all day long he is busily doing. (27)

Hakuin is credited with revitalizing the Rinzai school and with it the koan system. All modern Rinzai lineages can be traced through Hakuin; and like Hakuin, they regard achieving kensho, “seeing the self-nature,” as absolutely essential for authentic practice. 

This presents a great difficulty. To truly experience the absolute is not a matter of reciting a certain number of mantras or even sitting zazen for some number of years. It cannot be achieved by ordinary means or ordinary efforts. To reach for it consciously is to attempt to use the self to forget the self; the result is merely a stronger sense of self. You can’t get there through conscious volition. Only a spontaneous release of the ego’s death-grip on the psyche will do. 

Harada Daiun’s answer to this dilemma, and that of centuries of Japanese and Chinese Zen teachers before him, was simple: If you want enlightenment, you have to fight for it. 

If the average person with no Zen experience were to imagine a Zen retreat, probably they would think of rows of monks sitting very still while facing a beautiful garden, periodically ringing a resonant bell or chanting deep in their throats. Certainly there are times and temples where this would not be far from the reality; but it has little in common with the sweat-lodge atmosphere of a Zen sesshin led by Harada or his immediate successors.

In the first place, the tanto (monitor) would stalk the rows of meditators during the rounds wielding the kyosaku, or “encouragement stick,” a slender two- or three-foot paddle used to strike the shoulders of the monks as the tanto sees fit. Most frequently this is done twice on each shoulder: “slap-slap, slap-slap.” However, the tanto might choose to strike any sitter to the extent he saw fit, and there are many reliable accounts of practitioners peeling off bloody robes at the end of the day.

At various times, and especially toward the end of the sesshin, the monks would give voice to their practice by yelling “Mu” with all their might. Voices would crack and fail. The teacher would offer dokusan during most of the blocks of sitting, ringing their handbell to signal students to enter the dokusan room; however, if the monk did not have a suitable presentation ready, he might in shame refuse to go, until finally he would be literally dragged there by the sesshin leaders. 

Sleep was discouraged, especially on the final night, when participants were expected to stay awake and practicing single-mindedly until the morning. At some temples they might not sleep at all for the full duration of the sesshin: seven days without lying down. Since awakening was the aim, sleep was therefore regarded as a failure of will. 

Prodded by the teacher, the monitors, and especially by the pressure of the group, each participant would raise their aspiration to its highest, even frantic peak. Amid bells, shouts and blows, sleep-deprived, one entered what could debatably be termed an altered state of consciousness. Finally, unexpectedly, the ego would crack and fall away, and present reality stand revealed as boundless and vast. As Wumen, author of The Gateless Barrier, wrote: “If you do not falter, your mind will, like a light flashed on in the dark, suddenly become bright.” 

But at what cost?

If enlightenment is gained through effort (“one hundred percent combustion,” as one teacher put it), and in fact is gained in proportion to that effort, then it must follow that only through absolute effort may one attain absolute enlightenment. To practice in such a vein is, in a phrase, spiritual warriorship. The practitioner becomes analogous to a soldier on the battlefield, with the mind’s delusion as the enemy, an opponent to be conquered first, last and foremost by the application of overpowering will. Here is Philip Kapleau’s expression:

That an intense inner energy must be aroused for the tremendous effort of reaching enlightenment, whether it be instigated from the outside by a stick or from the inside by sheer will power, has been taught by all the great masters. It was underscored by the Buddha himself in an early sutra in these words: “… One should with clenched teeth, and with tongue pressing on palate, subdue, crush, and overpower the mind by the mind, just as if a strong man, having taken a very weak man by the head or shoulders, were to subdue him, crush him, and overpower him….” (The Three Pillars of Zen, 95)

The importance of this view of exertion in the history of Zen cannot be overstated. It is no coincidence that the figure that traditionally presides over the zendo is Manjusri, the archetype of spiritual warriorship, whose raised sword cuts through delusion. Dogen, whose influence in Japanese Zen is ubiquitous, famously wrote:

The great way of the Buddha and the patriarchs involves the highest form of exertion, which goes on unceasingly in cycles from the first dawning of religious truth, through the test of discipline and practice, to awakening and nirvana. It is sustained exertion proceeding without lapse from cycle to cycle. Accordingly, it is exertion that is neither self-imposed nor imposed by others but free and uncoerced. The merit of this exertion upholds me and upholds others. …

Everything is exertion. To attempt to avoid exertion is an impossible evasion because the attempt itself is exertion. This sustained exertion is not something that people of the world naturally love or desire; yet, it is the last refuge of all (qtd. in De Bary, 369).

Without exertion, how would it even be possible to relieve dukkha, lack or suffering, which after all is the point of the Buddhist path? We must strive, we must aspire, because that striving itself is the profound expression of consciousness, the motive force that brings us to wakefulness. Without it, we fall subject to every inherited impulse, psychological, cultural, historical, even biological, the forces of causation sweeping us along like a twig on a great churning river. With exertion, however, the twig finds it has eyes, fins, a tail; it turns and begins forging its way upstream, until it reaches the source and is borne anew as a dragon, able to dive and play in the great ocean of causality with freedom and ease. 

But there is danger here as well, a deep shadow. If we compartmentalize any aspect of our lives from our inquiry, the tremendous energy aroused through zazen may be directed to ultimately destructive ends. By holding onto a fixed belief, our understanding can harden and calcify into dogma. In the ceaseless effort to swim upstream, we have to recognize when and if we have chosen the wrong tributary—and be willing to turn around and start over, no matter how long we pursued our previous course. 

Certainly humanity has been committed to the idea of spiritual warriorship for a long, long time. The warrior mythos is rooted deeply in the human psyche, present in our most ancient stories and in the newest superhero epics at the movie theater. It is in particular tied to concepts of masculinity; to be manly is to be a warrior, to fight, to exert oneself in pursuit of a goal or in defense of an ideal. But implicit in the warrior mythos is the idea that life itself is a battlefield, and your own consciousness a kind of enemy.

We become what we think; and the metaphors that guide us invariably bleed into other spheres. In the case of Japanese Zen, it was all too easy to draw a straight line from this combative style of practice to actual combat: Zen as war, war as Zen. Harada Daiun himself made this connection explicit in an article titled “The One Road of Zen and War,” published in 1939: “[If ordered to] march: tramp, tramp, or shoot: bang, bang. This is the manifestation of highest Wisdom. The unity of Zen and war of which I speak extends to the farthest reaches of the holy war [now under way].” (qtd in Victoria, 137)

Of course, our Dharma ancestors very well recognized the traps presented by fixed ways of thinking; this is the very reason for the koan system, which perpetually prods and pries the student from those places of habituation. I’ve met and trained with a number of Zen teachers now, and nearly all have a particular quality of fluid responsiveness. 

And yet, Harada and Yasutani were both koan masters. With that in mind, how could Yasutani in 1943 write these most painful words:

Everyone should act according to their position in society. Those who are in a superior position should take pity on those below, while those who are below should revere those who are above. Men should fulfill the way of men while women observe the way of women, making absolutely sure that there is not the slightest confusion between their respective roles. It is therefore necessary to thoroughly defeat the propaganda and strategy of the Jews. That is to say, we must clearly point out the fallacy of their evil ideas advocating freedom and equality, ideas that have dominated the world up to the present-day (qtd. in Victoria, “Yasutani Roshi: The Hardest Koan”).

We could say that the koan system has blind spots; but it’s more accurate to say that the koan system fosters a certain kind of understanding—the clear eye first opened in kensho—and the ability to come forth from that understanding. But this remains far from the sum of human understanding. Just because someone can readily point to their true nature, it doesn’t mean that they are a well-integrated individual in other respects, much less that their culture is wise, equitable or kind.

In the absolute there is simply nothing. There’s no this and that, no here and there: there is just undifferentiated being, beyond thought, words and memory. It exists right here, but any attempt to describe it is doomed, because analysis depends upon discrimination between concepts. What’s more, as soon as we step forward from the experience of the absolute, as soon as we act in the world, we almost immediately begin to operate in the realm of complex human relationships, which is to say, of culture, politics, society, and economics.

Yet the koans, for the most part, have little to say about culture or how the sangha is structured. This is perhaps not surprising, because it evolved in the monasteries of ancient China and Japan, which were extremely regulated in every respect. When one became a monk, one entered a cultural system that guided every action and interaction, from waking up at the bell in the morning to lying down on the futon at night. But when Zen training came to the West, those all-encompassing structures were either left behind entirely, or incompletely superimposed upon what was already there. 

Thus a large portion of our newly founded sangha culture has been left to experimentation—including critical areas such as governance, the selection of teachers, sangha economics, and more. We must pay the utmost attention to these same areas: because wherever we fail to do so, that is the exact place our inherited assumptions will lead us astray. While this is a serious responsibility, it need not be an onerous burden, but rather an opportunity for a creative, collaborative process to develop a Dharma and sangha suited to our time and place. We also need to pay particular care to how the koan system itself, and even the idea of Dharma transmission, may unconsciously foster an essentially hierarchical mindset. The Buddha said, “No one bestows enlightenment. No one owns it,” or more famously, “Be a light unto yourselves.” How do we reconcile this with the need to ensure a true depth of understanding in our teachers?

To this day, hardships and ascetic practices are an everyday part of Japanese monastic life. Some of you may know David Dunley, who trained at Bukokuji with Harada Tangen, Harada’s Daiun’s Dharma heir and adoptive son. The monastery had no heat, and so in the winter the daily cold was already extremely challenging; but in addition, the monks would periodically perform takuhatsu, ritual begging, walking through the streets with only straw sandals on their feet. If, as happened sometimes, one of the monks got frostbite, they might subsequently have to leave the monastery for treatment, giving rise to a gruesome adage: “Lose a toe, time to go.” David also told of being punched in the stomach by a fellow monk after messing up a chanting service. Certainly that monk was far out of line, but physical blows are commonplace in our Zen literature, and without any doubt abuses like this were equally common. 

Regarding these practices, in The Training of the Zen Buddhist Monk, D.T. Suzuki wrote, “Asceticism is not always negativistic, nor does it issue from a perverted view of life generally. There is something positive, manly, and self-asserting behind the mask of dry self-abnegation” (94).

This is truly a puzzling thing to find in a book about Buddhist training, because Buddhism is explicitly a rejection of asceticism. Called the Middle Way, it charts a course between asceticism and hedonism, between self-abnegation and self-gratification. It’s said that upon seeing the reality of sickness, old age, and death, Siddhartha Gautama left the palace of his upbringing, where he enjoyed every luxury, and traveled around India, learning from the great spiritual masters of his time. Finding these too ultimately lacking, he eventually undertook the most severe ascetic practices, until he grew gaunt and weak. Finally, near death, he recalled a memory of a certain day in his youth when he spontaneously entered samadhi; and recalling this, he again took nourishment, thereupon to sit under the Bodhi tree and find the Middle Way. 

Many years ago I went to Hawaii to train with Robert Aitken Roshi at Kaimu. At the time I was working on Mu. So the first time I went to dokusan with Aitken Roshi, I sat breathing Mu: Mu, Mu. And Aitken Roshi said, “Settle into Mu. Sink into Mu, and let everything else go.”

The second time I went to dokusan with him, I did the exact same thing: Mu, Mu. This time Aitken Roshi said, “You must question Mu. Ask ‘Mu?’ with all your inquiring spirit.”

He would often given encouragement in this vein in sesshin and elsewhere, gently setting his students on the Middle Way, showing us the yin and yang of practice. On the one hand, gentle release; on the other, vigorous inquiry. Neglect either aspect, and you will find yourself out of balance. Of course, ultimately they are not two things, because our earnest inquiry manifests as complete relinquishment. 

In our Zen iconography, Manjusri sits opposite Kannon, the bodhisattva of compassion. Kannon presents a contrasting archetype, one at least as ancient: the figure of the divine mother, who pours out the waters of compassion upon the seas of the world. With a spirit of acceptance and tenderness, Kannon reminds us that we have already been given the most precious gift of all, the gift of life itself, and there is nothing more to gain. We are held by the world like a child in its mother’s arms. Recognizing this, we bow our heads in the most profound gratitude and devotion. With our hearts open to the boundless beneficence of the universe, we are liberated to relinquish any belief that hinders the free flow of our naturally joyous spirit.

To refer to another icon, our own practice home here on Columbine Street is of course called the Lotus in the Flame Temple. The lotus in the flame is specifically the symbol of the Middle Way. Here is Aitken Roshi’s own explanation:

“Lotus amidst fire” – this familiar Buddhist phrase is commonly understood to mean that realization can flower in difficult circumstances. This is not a mistaken interpretation, but it is not precise enough.

The lotus is purity and the fire is the heat of desires. You yearn to be pure, but yearning without heat is merely latent aspiration. On the other hand, fire without vows can be destructive, for fire consumes all, and can get out of hand very quickly.

Furthermore, without the imperative to be pure, you would be awash in indulgence. Without the power of desire, you would be isolated in a cave of asceticism. The tension between the fire and the lotus is the Middle Way. This Middle Way is not a compromise, but “the natural determination to ascend the heavens,” the noblest possible aspiration, which we share with the trees (Encouraging Words 66).

The branches of the Dharma offer shade to all living things, not through victory in combat, but by allowing the deepest promptings of our heart to inform our lives. Our roots grow deep in the earth and mingle with others; our limbs stretch toward the sky; and by flourishing, the whole forest flourishes. 

Conversely, many trees are unable to live at all without the complex network of organisms found in well-established biomes. We human beings are no less dependent on each other. We thrive together or not at all; and here the metaphor again blurs at the edges, because we are no less a part of the earth’s ecosystem than those trees, and are just as dependent upon it. 

Periodically I have heard the suggestion that teisho or dharma talks shouldn’t be “too political.” While of course we should be careful in our speech not to alienate others through stridently proclaiming our every political opinion, this idea is fundamentally in error. If we wall off certain subjects from discussion as being too sensitive to touch, it merely begs the question of what we are walling in with us. What are the elephants in the room—elephants we may not only not acknowledge, but may not even be able to see? In other words, what assumptions underlie our culture? Our destructive prejudices by nature never rise above the horizon of consciousness; rather, they inhere in our assumptions regarding what is true and necessary. In terms of our Buddhist community, our prejudices inhere in our assumptions about what the sangha is and what it is for.

In the case of Harada and Yasutani, I have no doubt they were moral exemplars according to the lights of the Japan of their day. But by walling off political inquiry from their spiritual inquiry, they ended up walling in the entirety of Japanese imperialism with them. It was as invisible to them as the air they breathed.

Today we are not, of course, living in prewar Japan. But if you believe we do not possess our own equally destructive prejudices, then I have news for you: You are living in a country jammed with elephants. I would point in particular to our ideas about ownership, the belief that the right to property is absolute and beyond challenge. We might consider that it was ownership that was fundamentally at issue in the Civil War, and ownership remains at the heart of racial and economic inequality. Closely tied to this is our unbridled consumerism, which even now is wreaking irreversible ecological harm on a global scale. 

These tendencies are as true in our immediate sangha as they are anywhere. Like the imperialism of Harada’s day, they are the water we swim in and the air we breathe. And I have little doubt that if we ignore them, our descendants will condemn our delusive actions just as we condemn Harada’s today.

I don’t mean to suggest that this is easy. Far from it: we are all embedded in these systems, or they are embedded in us, and it will take enormous energy and sacrifice to change that. But consider what it would have cost Harada to oppose Japanese imperialism: his freedom or even his life. Did that cost absolve him of responsibility?

If we regard Zen practice as something we do primarily as individuals, then we have missed it entirely. We have pulled the claws of the Dharma lion and defanged the Dharma dragon. Effective action demands collective action, and a Dharma divorced from politics is a Dharma divorced from reality. We have to take seriously the sangha not only as a spiritual community, but as a catalyst for political, social and economic transformation. This very temple shows the kind of power we wield when we choose. How will we apply it now?

Works Cited

Aitken, Robert. Encouraging Words. Pantheon Books, 1993.

Aitken, Robert. The Gateless Barrier. North Point Press, 1990.

The Buddhist Tradition in India, China, and Japan. Edited by William Theodore de Bary. Vintage Books, 1969.

Hakuin. The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Hakuin. Translated by Norman Waddell, Shambhala, 1994.

Kapleau, Philip. The Three Pillars of Zen. Anchor Books, 1965.

Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro. The Training of the Zen Buddhist Monk. Globe Press Books, 1934.

Victoria, Brian.  “Yasutani Roshi: The Hardest Koan.” Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, 1999. Accessed 17 February 2022.

Victoria, Brian. Zen at War. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2006.

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