Loyalty, like sincerity, is an overrated virtue


According to Josh Baran

“In Japanese Zen,” Toga explains, “loyalty is most important. Loyalty to one’s teacher and the tradition is more important than the Buddha and Dharma,” This makes frank debate on the war period difficult since many masters said things that could be criticized. He agrees but says that if he questions their teachings, he would have to leave the tradition. He is clearly uncomfortable with this topic. When I mention one of the more extreme quotes from Victoria’s book, where a Zen Master promoted killing as Buddhist practice, he dismisses it, saying, “no one really taught that.”

I leave with a sense of sadness. There is so much that needs to be explored, but from this discussion, I see little hope. The Buddha never taught that loyalty was more important than truth or compassion. Blind loyalty outside the zendo can and did have disastrous results. Until key assumptions can be questioned, the roots of warrior Zen remain alive and well.


In 1937, D. T. Suzuki was finishing Zen and Japanese Culture, in which he wrote that Zen “treats life and death indifferently” and “is a religion that teaches us not to look backward once the course is decided.” He wrote that Zen “has no special doctrine or philosophy. It is therefore extremely flexible in adapting itself to almost any philosophy and moral doctrine as long as its intuitive teaching is not interfered with.” Zen can be “wedded to anarchism or fascism, communism or democracy…. or any political or economic dogmatism.”

What is this “Zen” that Suzuki described? In Suzuki’s “Zen”, there is no clear moral position or teaching, you just merge with your circumstances: So, for example, when in Nazi Germany, you would be a perfect Nazi. In Suzuki’s “Zen,” once a course is set, you don’t reconsider, even if it causes pain or is foolish. And in his “Zen” killing is treated with indifference, along presumably with the suffering it creates. What a strange and heartless “Zen” this is. Clearly, this “Zen” is different from Mahayana Buddhism that teaches compassion and wisdom. Perhaps we need a new name for this. I would argue that there are two main streams in Zen in Japan: Not Soto and Rinzai, but one Zen based in the Bodhisattva path and another based in the way of will-power, non-thinking and loyalty – a way that is indifferent to the welfare of others and the law of karma.

2 responses »

  1. According to Lawrence Block in Hit Parade

    “Remember when you called me a sociopath?”

    “How could I forget? I also remember how upset you got.”

    “There are times,” he said, “when being a sociopath would make things a lot easier.”

    “What you need to do,” she said, “is meditate.”


    “Get into a place of quiet stillness and peace,” she said, “and try to get in touch with your inner sociopath.”

  2. In the 2001 book The Second Coming of Steve Jobs, Alan Deutschman describes Kobun as:

    a Zen Buddhist monk who had been Steve’s guru and friend since Steve was in his late teens. (Kobun) was a lovable, poetic, romantic personality who was known for speaking very slowly (even in his native Japanese) and giving unintelligible lectures… He was a renegade who rebelled against the strict discipline and burdensome responsibility of being a priest. He was the Steve Jobs of Zen.

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