Saturday, July 2, 2011

war and spiritual life

I am in the process of typing up a teisho, or Dharma talk, my Zen teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa once gave. Mostly, I was typing along as quickly and accurately as possible, trying to get the words and punctuation correct, trying to bring coherent meaning when things got a bit scatter-gun.

But suddenly, I was brought up short by something I had never known about my teacher. Here is his terse description:

When I was eighteen or nineteen years old, I was in the navy, stationed very close, almost forty kilometers distant from Hiroshima. The atomic bomb exploded. I was sleeping in the morning. I didn't know what time because I didn't have a watch. It was after night exercises. I was eighteen. Someone tried waking me to tell me the B-29's were coming. The B-29's were not so important to me. Sleep was more important. Then the explosion came. It burned my face. It was summertime, my face suffered much heat. My eyes were blinded by the flash. Then I saw the bright orange color.

Reading that was somehow like a knife in my heart. Atomic bombs were not just history or theory or intellectual, policy-wonk Tinker Toys. They were people. Hugely, hugely people. People who are admired. People who are disdained. But hugely, hugely people.

It made me think also of my correspondence friend and Zen monk Dokai Fukui who for years encouraged me with his letters and art work from Japan. Dokai had been captured by the Chinese during World War II and spent years (I believe it was) as a slave laborer building a railway. When he returned to Japan, his body was wracked and bowed by the pains of the past. He seldom if ever talked about it. I may even have heard his story second-hand.

Both men were men I admired -- even loved -- without ever thinking about their war experiences and yet I wonder to what extent a war may enrich a spiritual life. I wonder if such things don't make a man less prone to ego-trips and hard-core holiness and more inclined to keep his feet on the ground ... with a gritty, no-kidding kindness.

I don't know, but I wonder.

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