Related to yesterday’s discussion of race, history, and repentance, a reader sends this thought-provoking letter to the editor of Tricycle, a Buddhist magazine. Its author is a Zen monk who responds here to harsh comments a book reviewer made, condemning Japanese Buddhists who supported Japan’s imperialist savagery in World War II. Excerpt:

A more productive Buddhist lesson than trying to judge those that have lived in other times, or even consciously trying to prevent similar things from happening again, might be to first experience without a shadow of a doubt that those past atrocities are not something separate from what we are right now. It did not happen in some other time called “the past.” They’re still happening right now.

You are those Zen masters extolling the virtues of war. You are that soldier who chopped off the head of that boy. You are that boy who was made to rape his own mother, as are we all. And for all your effort to avert it, if something similar happens again the blood can be no where else but on your hands.

Before judgement in the name of Buddhism occurs we are all asked by this tradition to first realize that every activity that has ever been or will be is precisely that which makes up the very content of this moment in which we now live.

Mr. Baran seems unable to accept in any way that Buddha-Nature could be said to function in such horrific activities. Well it did, didn’t it? “How can we absorb these overwhelming contradictions?” he wrote. We absorb them quite simply through the understanding that all of us have been duped in the past, we are all being duped now and we will all be duped in the future. There is no other alternative to being duped in this world or the next. In fact, being duped continually is the very essence of this world and of all other worlds. Samsara can be nothing other than Nirvana. Nirvana can be nothing other than Samsara.

Everybody has always done just exactly what they have seen fit to do given the circumstances of their lives, no more and no less. Buddhism’s gift is not pacifism or moral superiority but to offer a wonderful insight into the irresistible charade of life and death. This gift enables us to understand and play the game without suffering from its irresistibility, or ridiculing others for the temptations they gave into. So actually it’s perfectly okay to blow your horn and lead a charge in questioning the virtues of Zen or Buddhism or the way others failed to practice it. But you should also have the courtesy to mention that the moment you open your own mouth, you’ve joined all those you rail against and have condemned yourself, and all of us, to eternal Samsara.

I don’t know enough about Buddhist thought to comment intelligently on this passage. “Samsara” is the Buddhist belief in the eternal cycle of birth and death. The monk seems to be saying that judging others for what they did only condemns oneself to eternal rebirth into suffering. “Nirvana” is the state of enlightenment, in which one has achieved complete peace of mind. I don’t know what it means to say that Samsara and Nirvana are one and the same, except that perhaps the monk is saying life will always be sinful and filled with conflict and violence of one sort or another, and to achieve peace of mind one has to accept this.

Please correct me if I’m wrong here, you readers who know something about Buddhism.

If I’ve understood this monk correctly, the objections from a Christian point of view are obvious. One must recognize sin, whether they are world-historical crimes (e.g., Japanese war crimes), or down to speaking nastily to one’s child, and everything in between. Not all sins are crimes, of course, but judgment must be made so we can determine right from wrong, and hold those who transgress the moral law responsible. It won’t do to say to the Zen monk who cheered the Rape of Nanking, “Don’t worry, everybody is responsible.” If everybody is responsible, nobody is. It is a moral obscenity to say the Auschwitz commandant is equally as guilty as the men, women, and children he sent to their deaths.

I may be misreading this monk, though. Assuming I’m not, I can nevertheless see definite parallels within the Christian approach to sin and forgiveness. The Zen monk’s words aren’t far from the idea of humility and the imperative to withhold judgment that exists within Christian thought. We see in his ministry that Jesus was particularly concerned with hypocrisy. It wasn’t that the woman held in adultery was sinless; she was, and Jesus told her to go forth and sin no more. It was that the male mob that was going to stone her for what she had done had refused to consider its own sins (there is a tradition that what Jesus wrote in the dirt in that episode was the sins of the men of that mob, and that that took the air out of their crusade). Though one cannot get through life without making necessary moral judgments, as Jesus judged the woman whose life he saved guilty of adultery, to think always on our own sins serves as a catalyst to mercy. We should treat others with mercy because we, being human, need mercy too. And — here is something that the Zen monk may be saying in a different way — we should be merciful to our ancestors in their sins, because they may have been ignorant of the evils they did in the same way we are blind to the cruelties we perpetuate today. I see a parallel between this monk’s line about to live is to be duped, and St. Paul’s “we see through a glass darkly,” to describe the limits of our knowledge. And in any case, we are not so far removed from our ancestors that we can judge them with easy consciences. In Biblical mythology, Cain, the murderer of his brother, became the first builder of cities; the point here is that civilization is founded on violence inherent in the human heart, and, as Peter Leithart points out, must work out how to use force — violence, or its threat — to prevent violence. Peace, paradoxically, can be said to depend on the ability of a civilization to use violence to punish those who break the peace. Sounds a lot like Samsara to me.

Anyway, if the Zen monk is saying that we should be very careful about passing judgment, because we are all implicated in sin in ways we may not wish to consider, then I think he has a point. He and I would draw the lines differently, as a matter of moral theology, but his is a point well worth considering. Indeed it humbles me to think about how I would have behaved had I lived in the South as a grown man in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. I like to imagine myself having taken a principled stand against segregation and its evil fruits. It is probably closer to the truth to say that I would have gone along with it, though with an uneasy conscience, because that’s what the culture into which I was thrown taught me was the way of the world.

Those people did evil, and what they did must be recognized as such. But I read that old Ebony magazine article and recognized names of white people, now long dead, who I knew somewhat growing up. They were not monsters; they were human beings. If I were being charitable, I would say most of them were duped by a culture of white supremacy that was the legacy of slavery. If it were 1950, and I were sitting here in my living room in St. Francisville reading about the slaves, and judging my ancestors harshly for the evil of slave culture, would the Zen monk appear to me and remind me that I was living in an immoral culture of white supremacy that is the direct descendant of slavery? Would he say to me, “You are implicated in this”? He should.

In the most charitable reading, my long-ago ancestors were duped into believing that black men could be held as slaves. Their descendants were duped into believing that though slavery is a relic of the past, the white-supremacist ideology of slavery was still valid, though applied in a softer way. In what way were — are — their descendants (which is to say, everybody 55 and under) duped? How can we know for sure this side of heaven?

And: if the human condition entails being eternally duped, in what ways were Southern blacks duped during slavery, during Jim Crow, and today? In which ways were, and are, white Northerners duped? As The New York Times editorialized in 2006, after an Ivy League university’s investigation:

A long-awaited report on Brown University’s 18th-century links to slavery should dispel any lingering smugness among Northerners that slavery was essentially a Southern problem.

The report establishes that Brown did indeed benefit in its early years from money generated by the slave trade and by industries dependent on slavery. It did so in an era when slavery permeated the social and economic life of Rhode Island. Slaves accounted for 10 percent of the state’s population in the mid-18th century, when Brown was founded, and Rhode Island served as a northern hub of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, mounting at least 1,000 voyages that carried more than 100,000 Africans into slavery over the course of a century.

The Brown report is the latest revelation that Northern businesses and institutions benefited from slavery. Countless other institutions might be surprised, and ashamed, if they dug deeply into their pasts as Brown has over the past three years.

Look, I’m not offering answers here. But the questions the Zen monk’s letter raises are worth pondering and discussing.