ZEN AND THE WAY OF THE SWORD by Winston L. King

ZEN AND THE WAY OF THE SWORD

Arming the Samurai Psyche
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KIRKUS REVIEW

 A superb analysis by King (Religion/Vanderbilt University), a renowned scholar of Far Eastern religions, of the curious marriage between Zen Buddhism and samurai fighting. The contradiction is glaring: Zen emphasizes tranquility and meditation, whereas the samurai code deals with bloodshed. How then did Zen become the religion of the Japanese warrior? King locates the roots of Zen in Taoism, whose influence led to a form of Buddhism that emphasized practicality, surprise, and irreverence. By the 13th century, Zen had been adopted by the Japanese ruling elite, and most Zen monasteries boasted their own large standing armies (this despite the Buddha's injunction against killing). Meanwhile, the samurai class rose to power under the aegis of the shogun, valuing absolute obedience, spartan self-control, and precision in killing--a perfect match for Zen's own emphasis on exactness and ``visceral awareness.'' King expands at fascinating length on Zen/samurai swordsmanship, including the startling variety of sword strokes; details of how Japanese blacksmiths produce the incomparable samurai sword (the best in the world); and a cut-by-cut account of sepukku, or ritual suicide. As he points out, the Zen/samurai spirit still flourishes in Japan, finding recent manifestation both in the kamikaze attacks of WW II and in the authoritarianism of large corporations. In a controversial but persuasive argument, King suggests that D.T. Suzuki, the most famous interpreter of Zen to the West, sanitized the Zen/samurai connection and that Zen, because it rejects the scriptural and literary traditions of more mainstream Buddhism, lacks ``intrinsic ethical quality'' and thus can be adapted to fit any orientation- -whether for peace or war. Daring and stylish--a true Zen/samurai stroke of religious scholarship. (Illustrations)

Pub Date: June 1st, 1993
ISBN: 0-19-506810-6
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 1993




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