04/17/2014 12:05 pm ET Updated Jun 17, 2014

A Zen Response To The Japan-China Island Dispute


Both China and Japan are in an agitated nationalist mood these days, asserting what they consider their challenged identities against each other. As simultaneous major powers for the first time in history, they are near military blows. The dispute is over tiny islands in the East China Sea magnified out of all proportion into existential symbols by competing national egos.

Though mired in a thoroughly modern nation-state dispute with very real military consequences, both China and Japan also proudly draw their identities from continuous cultures that are not only thousands of years old, but also grounded in common civilizational roots.

Perhaps if they peered far enough back to those common roots, they would not be so bent out of shape over who owns a few rocks in the ocean. Looked at differently, the islands very much resemble a dry zen garden where a series of mindfully positioned rocks rest harmoniously amid a meticulously raked gravel sea of nothingness. It is here that one contemplates peace.

As Yoko Kawaguchi documents in her new book "Japanese Zen Gardens," zen came to Japan from China and influenced Japanese temple gardens from the mid-12th century onwards. So-called Zen "rock gardens" were copied from Song Dynasty gardens (960-1279), which represented the island mountain repose of Penglai where the "Eight Immortals" lived in perfect harmony with each other and nature.

Zen is the Japanese transliteration of the Chinese word Ch'an, which means meditation and contemplation. It is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism that first emerged from India around the 1st century.

One can scarcely imagine a greater distance between two concepts than that of zen and realpolitik, of harmony and the illusion of conflict versus engaging in a battle over territory to puff up the national ego.

Why don't the leaders of Japan and China consult the enlightened sages in their proud pasts on how to reach harmony instead of engaging in a 21st century arms race?

It is all a matter of how one contemplates the rocks.

If both Japan and China would look to their own ancient wisdom for answers to today's challenges, they would be better off in a future where they will be tied together as much by modern interdependence as by common civilizational roots.