A few points to add to the discussion:
First, I wonder if folks realize that "samurai" had an evolving meaning over the centuries of Japanese history. It is more accurate overall to think of them as the governing class, rather than primarily persons engaged in the profession of arms. Early on, most samurai were simply farmers with feudal commitments to local landholders. Later in the Edo period we find them as bureaucrats, officials, accountants. In other words: they were people who, at various times, were more or less at the top of a feudal society. They weren't standing professional armies, warrior monks, templars or crusaders.
Second, it's important to remember that Ch'an and Zen did not exist on opposite sides of some strict historic divide. Aside from Japanese monks who traveled to China, we have many Chinese Ch'an masters and monks who came to Japan. Pivotal figures of so-called "warrior Zen" - people like Hojo Tokimune, who defended Japan against invasion by the Mongols - studied under Chinese masters in Japan, like Bukko and Daikaku. Records of these trainees' encounters with their teachers are available in translation and are quite interesting. They do not include anecdotes in which teacher tells student to lay down his arms in the name of right livelihood. They do include anecdotes in which these Chinese masters creatively find ways to benefit their intensely energetic and, at times, uneducated (from a Chinese perspective) students using methods that are occasionally hair-raising.
Yet leaving that aside, it seems there is an idea here that the encounter between Buddhist teachers and students whose duties included the use of force - warriors, generals, government officials and the like - was something that happened only in Japan, and then only within Japanese Zen. Is that the case?
The popular but inaccurate books about "samurai Zen" are of course misleading: mikkyo and Pure Land practices were much more popular during the samurai era, and the philosophical underpinnings of the samurai worldview for much of that era was neo-Confucian more than anything. To consider works like the Book of Five Rings or Yagyu's writings to be Zen texts is perhaps a forgivable error, given the way they've been presented in the West (and if one is unfamiliar with the genre of work which these writings actually are).
So to address the original question: of course the samurai are not good symbols of Zen. They are good symbols of, well, a period of Japanese history...the nature of which was quite different from romanticized - or movie and manga derived - ideas of what "samurai" means.
But I wonder how we could look back at the samurai, from a non-feudal time and perhaps with modern pacifistic sensibilities, and cast aspersion on the practice of those who did indeed have an interest in Zen. Is it the case that the practice of these laypersons was illegitimate? If we say so, does that mean that Tokimune was wrong to gallop off to fight the Mongols after meeting with Bukko, and that Bukko was wrong for not persuading him to stay...or for later saying that Tokimune had been someone who attained realization? What degree of right livelihood passes the "legitimate practice" test today? Does Buddhist practice have anything to offer someone - like a police officer, a soldier, a government official - whose work involves the use of force or its authorization?
Interesting questions, and the more relevant ones to me.
Last edited by Meido
on Tue Aug 20, 2013 10:55 pm, edited 1 time in total.