We are usually inclined to extremes in our ways of life: intellectualism or materialism, absolutism or relativism, eternalism or nihilism, ecclesiasticism or secularism, and so on. This kind of polarization seems to be inevitable. However, in Buddhism it is taught that this should be avoided as much as possible; it recommends us to hit the Middle Point. In this way, what we are now totally depends on what we think and do, according to the Law of Cause and Effect.
It seems that people in the West fall into this pitfall of polarization; modernization and secularization are prevalent everywhere, which have lead to the sickness and degeneration of minds and bodies, and to the destruction of the social and natural environment of the world. In the 19th century, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche stated “God is dead;” and I assume that in the 20th century, human beings died. The political, economic, racial, and religious strife between the people of monotheistic religions and their nations have become ever more intense, and there seems to be no remedy or solution for the stability of the world.
Then, what awaits us? Are we only awaiting the total destruction of the world, as the American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington predicted in his book The Clash of Civilizations? We cannot go back to the past, but we can learn some hints from the past history of Japan.
In the sixth century, Buddhism was first introduced to Japan and soon afterward became the state religion. Prince Regent Shotoku promulgated the 17-Article Constitution, where he emphasized “harmony” as a priority over all other virtues. Why? Japan is often thought of as an undivided nation of a homogeneous people, but it is not true. Like the native Americans of the United States, the Ainu are the indigenous people of Japan, and the majority of present day Japanese consist of different ethnic groups, which migrated from the Eurasian Continent and the South Pacific from about 200 B.C. to A.D. 200. After they settled in Japan, incessant warring took place and Prince Shotoku learned the importance of living together in harmony and peace. In Article 10 of the Constitution, he proclaims;
Let us cease from wrath and refrain from angry looks. Nor let us be resentful when others differ from us. For all people have hearts and each heart has its own leanings. Their right is our wrong, and our right is their wrong. We are not unquestionably sages, nor are they unquestionably fools. Both of us are simply ordinary people. How can any person lay down a rule by which to distinguish right from wrong? For we are all, one with another, wise and foolish, like a ring which has no end.
Although this constitution was based on the teachings of Buddhism, Prince Shotoku never rejected the heterogeneous element of traditional Shinto, the folk religion, which was prevalent in those days in Japan. Later on, both Buddhism and traditional Shinto existed side by side or coexisted harmoniously until the time when the Meiji government abolished this dual system of Buddhist and Shinto syncretism in 1868. This was due in part to the influence of the monotheistic religions of the West during the modernization of Japan.
When we look at the present world crisis confronting us, there seem to be many problems to be solved politically, economically, socially, and in the realm of religion. No matter how much we try our best to compromise, forgive and reconcile with each other, unless we recognize and repent our ego-centric tendencies by realizing the Oneness of All Life, we shall never solve the problems now or in the future.
In 1953, Chemical-biologists James Watson and Francis Crick of the Cold Spring Harbor Institute discovered the structure of DNA and won the Nobel Prize in the field of medical science and physiology. They revealed that irrespective of whether one is a human being or of other species, there are similar kinds of traces of DNA, although they differ with each other by chance and conditions. If this is true, how stupid are we to compete with, deceive, fight, rob, and kill each other in the name of a God who is nothing but the product of man-made ideologies!
All our belongings, our body, property, fame, etc. are nothing but the temporary borrowing of things from the world. We all are members of the world family.
The Buddhist poet Misuzu Kaneko once sang;
Out of the mud blooms the lotus
It’s not the lotus that does it
Out of the egg comes the chick
It’s not the chick that does it
These are things I’ve realized
And that, too, I didn’t do.
Since the Saddam Hussein regime’s surrender, counter attacks by remaining supporters of Hussein intensified, which in turn created the crime of domestic terrorism and criminalized any act that “appears” to them to be intimidation.
Irrespective of whether the West changes its attitudes toward the Muslim world and diligently seeks to redress the legitimate grievances of Muslim people, and the Muslim world sets aside its embitterment and forgives the West for the injustices of the past, unless both sides deeply reflect upon and repent their ignorance, and stand on the same ground of the Oneness of all life, there will be no cessation of battle with each other.
In this sense, a social critic named Davis Morse once said in the Daily Yomiuri (an English-language newspaper published in Japan), “At its core, the practice of a true religion of any kind should entail comfort for the aggrieved and brokenhearted; binding of the wounded; empowerment of the destitute; a bold declaration of beliefs to those who are willing to listen, without coercion; and an active tolerance for adherents of all other faiths to live out their creeds in a similar manner. Then and only then can the wall of intolerance be ripped asunder.”
It is a self-evident truth that revenge is not a final solution for the settlement of dispute or battle for those who are involved in it, and yet because of their ignorance they are doomed to receive counter attacks with each other. The following is such a revenge story which has been told in Japan since the Edo period (1603–1867). The Japanese novelist Kan Kikuchi (1888–1948) wrote Onshu no Kanatani (Beyond love and hate), based on this legend and published from Shunyodo Publishing Co. in Tokyo in 1919. I believe it can give us some hint for the solution of the incessant fighting which we encounter now in the world. It can be summarized as follows:
Once upon a time, Ichikuro, a servant samurai for the Lord Saburobei, fell in love with his master’s mistress and his secret love affair was detected, and he was about to be executed by his master. However, before the approaching death, Ichikuro lost his relationship with his master, he only recognized his lord as his assailant, whom he had served up to that moment, a blood-thirsty brute threatening his life by sword. He instantly made up his mind to assume the offensive and killed his master by mistake.
Ichikuro fled his master’s house in Edo, present day Tokyo, and soon pinched for money, he became a bandit, killing people in desperation. However, one day when he visited the temple in Ogaki, he was in the grip of deep pangs of conscience. He confessed all his past sins to the resident priest Myohen. Persuaded by the priest, he resolved to become a priest and was given a Buddhist name Ryokai. His subsequent life was one of strenuous efforts in pursuit of the compassionate teaching of Buddhism for himself and for others.
After a while, Ryokai, formerly Ichinosuke, left the temple and as a wandering priest he reached Yabakei Gorge in Kyushu, the southern tip of Japan. When he heard that the villagers there had difficulties in crossing the mountain, he determined to dig a tunnel for their convenience. The villagers felt sorry for his vain effort and yet as year followed year he continued digging, and by the end of the ninth year the cave he had bored measured 130 feet in length from the entrance. For the first time, the villagers realized that his undertaking might be possible.
By this time, Jitsunosuke, the son of Saburobei who was killed by Ichikuro, was searching for his father’s enemy for vengeance. In those days in Japan, family vendettas were a fairly common practice (although it was declared illegal in 1837). When Jitsunosuke went to Kyushu, he happened to overhear the conversation of a fellow pilgrim about the samurai who had killed his master in Edo and fled to the pilgrim’s village. Jitsunosuke all but jumped for joy on hearing this and he rushed to the village.
Following is the climactic scene John Bester translated from Kikuchi’s book into English The Realm Beyond, published by Hara Publishing Co. in Tokyo in 1964:
Jitsunosuke finally discovered his life-long enemy Ichikuro, now the Buddhist priest Ryokai, who just emerged from the cave. Ichikuro’s flesh had fallen away to reveal the bones beneath the skin, and his legs below the knees were so ulcerated that it was impossible to look at them without flinching. Ichikuro frankly admitted that he had killed Jitsunosuke’s father and then fled. Jitsunosuke determined to kill him, saying, “Close on ten years of hunting you nationwide have I spent in the hope of killing you. Come and fight. There is no way out now!” Ichikuro said, “Jitsunosuke, kill me, pray. Wretched that I am, I planned, as you may have heard, to bore this tunnel, I shall have died happy.”
Faced with this half-dead old priest, Jitsunosuke felt the hatred that he had cherished toward his father’s foe gradually waning. Just then, five or six stonemasons came running out of the cave, and threw themselves before him to shield Jitsunosuke. They begged Jitsunosuke not to kill Ichikuro until the tunnel was completed. Looking from Ichikuro to the group and back, Jitsunosuke declared, “In consideration of Ryokai’s priestly habit, I grant your request. Yet mark me, I shall not forget your promise!”
A few days later, Jitsunosuke heard Ichikuro’s powerful strokes of the hammer shaking the cave as he entered it, and felt, he must wait with good grace the completion of the work and fulfillment of the promise. Soon after this, the form of Jitsunosuke was to be seen among the stonemasons working on the tunnel. Realizing that Ichikuro would neither run away nor hide, Jitsunosuke determined to delay the day when his life work should be accomplished. Yet even so, rather than stand by idly, it was better to lend all his strength to the great undertaking and thereby shorten, by however little, the period before the day of revenge should come. So himself joined the ranks of the stonemasons, and began to wield his hammer with them.
Finally, the tunnel was completed. Hand in hand, the two enemies sat sobbing in joy. But, soon Ichikuro drew away, “Come, Jitsunosuke” he cried. “The day of our promise has arrived. Kill me! If I die in such religious ecstasy, it is certain that I shall be reborn in the Pure land. Tomorrow, the stonemasons will stop you. Come, kill me!” His hoarse voice reverberated throughout the tunnel. Yet Jitsunosuke continued to sit before Ichikuro, arms folded, sobbing. The sight of this withered old priest, crying with joy welling up from deep in his heart, made all idea of killing him as an enemy unthinkable. His own breast was full, not with the desire for revenge, but with wonder and emotion at the mighty achievement that had been worked by the two arms of a feeble human being. Crawling toward Ichikuro, he took the old priest’s hands in his own once more. Everything forgotten, they sobbed together with an emotion too deep for words.
In this way, the rivals would recognize and share the same Oneness of their lives in such a crucial moment. Likewise, the people of rival states, ethnic groups of religions should be compelled to cooperate when they are in the same life-and-death situation.
When we look around, we are often surprised to see that many people regard others with hostility on account of clashes of interest, and this feeling is often mutual. Wars and international disputes reflect this on a large scale. In the end, everyone suffers in one way or another. How foolish human beings are! These hostilities seem to originate with our thinking that we and others have others have mutually exclusive existence. Unless we understand that all human beings are merely branches and leaves growing from the same root, I am afraid that disputes will never disappear from the world.
According to Buddhism, particularly in Japanese Buddhism, our world is nothing but the manifestation of the Oneness of Life, where all beings, animals, or inanimate, exist interdependently. People impose distinctions and separate what is mine from what is not mine. This discrimination arises from an attachment in man called blind craving that differentiates Oneness from the plurality of Manyness. Consequently, conflicts, misunderstandings, and frictions arise within people themselves. From the blind craving comes the conscious self, affirming its fundamental selfishness. Since people go against Oneness by responding to the blind craving within themselves, they create an illusory world of Manyness, which is not the real world, but a world created in their own imagination.
Therefore, Buddhism refutes such petty ego-centric vengeance, nationalism, patriotism, imperialism, and unilateralism. It rejects the individualistic and rationalistic habit of separation and confrontation; instead it teaches that our true nature is empty, dynamic, infinite, unified, pervading, and inherent. I believe that Buddhism must be able to address the present conditions of our societies and time so that it may contribute, though in a small way, to the world crisis which we are confronting now.