As We Burn

‘Right there, as we burn, we come out of the fire as exactly who we are…Difficult moments that require the most of us, are also most revealing in that they allow us to see ourselves as we truly are – without the self-images we usually carry around with us. Those moments also present the greatest opportunities for change in our feeling, thinking and actions…’

In his 1998 book, Zen at War, Brian Daizen Victoria, an Australian historian and Zen Buddhist priest, discusses the involvement of the Japanese religious establishment in the Meiji Era militaristic project of national supremacy in Far East Asia. He gives numerous examples of famous (in some circles) figures who came to the US after the war to teach and popularize Zen. The same people who were engaged in government subservience, conformity and the cruelty of war that ensued, later became examples of purity among their unknowing followers in the western world.

Was there anybody who opposed the militarism of imperial Japan in the homeland? Of course there was. Of the several people whose stories Victoria recounts, I’d like to mention one priest almost no one has heard about. He paid the high price of being executed for following the call of his heart. His name was Uchiyama Gudo.

Uchiyama, a maker of wooden statues, was ordained a Zen Buddhist priest of the Soto sect in 1897 and became the abbot of a small temple in the rural region of the Hakone Mountains soon after. Around the same time, he reflected on the Chinese sangha (community – KF) of his Buddhist lineage as a model of communal lifestyle without private property (Victoria 1998, p. 41) . According to Victoria, every Fall, he distributed the harvest of the temple’s trees to the local villagers, generally poor people. He began to think of himself as an anarcho-socialist after encountering the viewpoints expressed in Heimin Shimbun, a radical newspaper published at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Writing for the paper, he stated that he was a ‘believer in socialism’ (p.41). After the anti-war and socialist forces were pushed into the underground through government persecution, Uchiyama purchased printing equipment and started a secret, illegal press in the temple he oversaw. He would use it to publish socialist papers and pamphlets and his own work. The growing popularity of the materials he distributed eventually led to his being arrested by the police for violating press and publication laws. Later, they claimed they had found explosives in the temple basement. Thus, Uchiyama was tied to the so-called High Treason Incident, in which 12 alleged conspirators were accused of plotting against the imperial court in 1911. Gudo was one of the convicted and executed, although no decisive proof of the explosives actually belonging to him was ever presented.

What is striking to me is how Victoria describes Uchiyama’s behavior at his execution. He quotes Yoshida Kiuichi as saying that ‘as Gudo climbed the scaffold stairs, “he gave not the slightest hint of emotional distress. Rather he appeared serene, even cheerful – so much so that the attending prison chaplain bowed as he passed” (p. 48). I awe at what I can only call the greatest sacrifice flowing from the conviction Gudo still firmly held in his heart in his last moments. But what does that have to do with the present, with how we approach our activism and our lives? Admittedly, Gudo’s story, even though it’s non-fictional, sounds mythical. Still, it can lead us to be attentive in places in our own lives, where we can really learn about ourselves.

I would never propose upholding oneself to some impossible standard. What I advocate is not idealism. On the contrary, it is dirty, flesh and blood realism. We have more weaknesses than we’ll ever know. I don’t put ego-driven heroism on a pedestal, far from it. At the same time, I am a believer in individual responsibility. The fact that webs of relationships make us who we are as individuals, that they make up our particularity, don’t excuse us from taking decisive stands in the world.

That goes especially for matters in which ‘cards are stacked against us’. Then and there, as we burn, we come out of the fire as exactly who we are. It is there that our cherished images of ourselves, of others, and of the world, are torn to shreds. We are, for once, pushed entirely into reality without image, into a world in which only our core reactions are manifested directly and pre-reflectively through lived experience. It is there that we are most immediately alive and awake.

We all probably have a desire for maintaining a positive image of ourselves. We’d like to think that we are, simply put, good and moral people. But it is in the fire that our wishful thinking is stripped down to nothing. And in that nothingness we stand naked, without a place to hide from ourselves. And what do we do? Don’t we try to flee this nakedness a.s.a.p.!? We put our masks right back on, we rebuild our images anew, whereas what we ought to do is stay with this painful realization of our weaknesses. And I don’t mean weaknesses in any objective, absolute sense. I’m talking about weaknesses as we know them directly – as being an essential part of ourselves that we cannot possibly avoid in our nakedness. We know perfectly well, perhaps because we had held those beautiful images that were just shattered, that this or that about us is not right… No, we know, rather, in our gut. But if we don’t stay with this gut feeling long enough to transform that weakness into something truly beautiful, if we don’t stay in that ugliness of painful awareness…then nothing changes. We’ll just build another image. Have no doubt, that one will also be burned down to the ground.

I know painfully well we’re not all like Uchiyama. I sure wish we were. The commitment, the sacrifice, the overwhelming might of the heart. I intended to finish this post by asking you to imagine what we could achieve if all of us were like him. Instead, I’ll start with the actual, with what is real, and ask: who are we? Who are you?

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1 Response to As We Burn

  1. Ebenezer says:

    What a beautiful piece. In this way Uchiyama’s sacrifice may echo across time and stop much further suffering.

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