The controversy roused by Zen at War and Buddhist complicity in Japanese militarism
When dawn broke over Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941 it brought with it waves of Japanese bombers. Their surprise attack on the American naval base brought the us into the Second World War and initiated a conflict that ended only when nuclear bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Every American schoolboy knows that much. But, while Americans counted
their losses and vowed revenge, Japanese Buddhists found a special cause for celebration:
‘December 8th [the date of the attack in Japan] is the holy day on which Shakyamuni realised the Way, and [for this reason] it has been a day for commemorating the liberation of humankind. It is exceedingly wonderful that in 1941 we are able to make this very day also a holy day for commemorating the eternal reconstruction of the world. On this day was handed down the Great Imperial Edict aimed at punishing the arrogant United States and England, and news of the destruction of American bases in Hawaii spread quickly throughout the world.’
These words by the Buddhist writer Hata Esho, which were published in a Zen journal called Dogen (named after the founder of the Soto Zen school), would not have surprised their readers. The Zen establishment, indeed the leadership of all the main Buddhist schools in Japan, had been enthusiastic supporters of their Meiji rulers since the late 1900s, and were wholeheartedly behind the Japanese war effort.
A generation later the sons and daughters of the servicemen who had fought the Japanese took to the streets and campuses of the us to protest against the Vietnam War. Their rebellion turned into a rejection of mainstream western society, and a whole generation looked outside its culture for guidance and meaning. Many were captivated by the mysterious tradition of Japanese Zen, with its philosophy of going beyond the rational mind – beyond all dualism – to reach the simplicity at the heart of life. They took up its practice of zazen, or formless sitting meditation; and were entranced by the benign figures of such Zen masters as Yasutani Roshi and the writer DT Suzuki.
Thirty years on, the sixties generation are leaders of the western Buddhism that has spread across Europe and the us. Many have yoked their Zen practice to their concern for social justice and have declared the emergence of a new ‘Engaged Buddhism’. But the repressed history of the complicity of Japanese Buddhism in the country’s militarism and nationalism has returned to trouble modern Buddhists. The process started in Japan, but it has spread to the West. After many years of declaring that ‘no war has ever been fought in the name of Buddhism’, western Buddhists are having to acknowledge that this is untrue.
The fuse was lit in the West in 1997 with the publication of Zen at War, a careful but implacable account of Japanese Buddhism’s complicity in the country’s fanaticism, militarism and war effort up to 1945. The author, Brian Victoria, started to practise Zen while in Japan in 1961 and formally entered the Soto Zen priesthood in 1964, receiving the Dharma name ‘Daizen’. For Victoria, commitment to Zen went hand-in-hand with opposition to violence, particularly the Vietnam War, and his activism took him across Asia. But one day Zen Master Niwa Rempo summoned Victoria to his office to inform him that he was must cease his peace protests or lose his priestly status, adding, ‘Zen priests don’t get involved in politics.’
Victoria ignored the warning and none the less remained a priest, but his interest had been aroused. What, he wondered, was the relationship between Zen and politics? As his research progressed he discovered a history that his Zen teachers had failed to mention and which they were reluctant to discuss – the deep yet hidden responsibility of his own religious tradition for Japanese militarism. Zen at War is the product of his researches over the following 25 years; he now teaches at the University of Adelaide in Australia. There is no space here to rehearse Victoria’s arguments in full, nor to present his evidence; I conducted an e-mail interview with him but I’m in no position to verify his assertions. It is worth knowing, however, that his work is buttressed by that of many other scholars, and that its essential truth has not been challenged.
The essence of the charge in Zen at War is that from the end of the 19th century until 1945, almost the entire Japanese Buddhist establishment – not just Zen Buddhists – were vigorous supporters of the war effort and the militaristic society from which it grew. For instance, during the Russo-Japanese war of 1906 the well-known Buddhist scholar-priest Inoue Enryo argued that ‘If [the Russian army] is the army of Christ, ours is the army of the Buddha’. By the 1930s Buddhist teachers were advocating an ‘Imperial Way’ Zen, based, as Zen Master Yamazaki Ekiju put it, on the belief that ‘Japanese Buddhism must be centred on the emperor. … Buddhism, including Shakyamuni’s teachings, must conform to the national policy of Japan.’
Buddhist leaders willingly dubbed Japan’s campaigns in World War Two ‘a holy war’, and played a significant role in maintaining morale: ‘If ordered to tramp: march, march, or shoot: bang, bang,’ as Harada Daiun, a famous Zen master wrote. ‘This is the manifestation of the highest Wisdom.’
As the military situation deteriorated, and nationalism merged into desperation, Buddhist rhetoric even played its part in finding volunteers to be kamikaze pilots. One Soto priest wrote in 1943: ‘The source of the spirit of the Special Attack Forces lies in the denial of the individual self and the rebirth of the soul, which takes upon itself the burden of history. From ancient times Zen has described this conversion of mind as the achievement of complete Enlightenment.’ This, for Victoria, is the culmination of the military tradition of Zen – the equation of the pilot’s willing death with the highest goal of the spiritual life.
Victoria’s charge is not simply that Zen teachers were swept along by the nationalist tide. That would be unsurprising and understandable. During the First World War, for example, belligerent European nations on both sides had the support of churches of many denominations. Virtually all religions that have become the dominant faith of a nation have had to come to terms with the military dimension of the nation’s life. But Victoria told me that his forthcoming book Zen War Stories will demonstrate even more clearly that Zen teachings played a central role in instilling the military ethos and offering moral support to the military. ‘Japanese military leaders deliberately set out to inculcate a Zen-inspired attitude in Japanese troops as they raped and pillaged their way through Asia from 1931 to 1945, killing between 10 and 20 million men, women and children. This was done with the complete and unconditional support of all Japan's Zen leaders.’
It is easy to stand in disbelieving judgement on such behaviour, and it is important, of course, to place it in a historical context. The origins of Zen militarism lie far back in Japanese history, and even in the state support of Buddhist monasteries in imperial China. But the start of the road to Pearl Harbour can be located at the restoration of the Emperor Meiji to full authority in 1868. For 268 years Buddhism had virtually been Japan’s state religion, and state patronage meant that Buddhist schools traded independence for prosperity and security. The new Meiji regime was determined that Japan should catch up with the western powers, and that all the energies of its sophisticated civilisation should be dedicated to this aim.
Japanese pride was piqued by the realisation that it had fallen behind, and that the influence of western powers was expanding in East Asia, its own traditional sphere of influence. Uniquely among Asian countries Japan succeeded in catching up, and its extraordinary achievement, in just one generation, was revealed to an astonished world by its victory in the 1906 war with Russia.
But Japan’s transition to the modern world presented challenges to its entire culture. The result was the emergence of an ideology that enabled it to benefit from western technology and the efficiency of a centralised state, but without the ideas of democracy, human rights and social justice that had developed in western countries to mitigate their effect. Japanese culture had always emphasised obedience but, with the restoration of the Emperor’s authority, loyalties that had hitherto been diffused were focused solely on him and, by extension, on the Japanese state he ruled. The forces that eventually led to fascism in Europe had reached Japan, and Meiji ideology emphasised above all the value of unquestioning devotion to the Emperor and the state.
Buddhism was caught up in the revolution. In the years after the Meiji restoration the authorities promoted Shinto, with its nationalist associations and cult of devotion to the Emperor, at the expense of Buddhism. Tens of thousands of Buddhists temples were closed, and their priests forced to disrobe. Buddhist leaders faced a choice – subservience or persecution – and, once the initial onslaught had abated, they followed instincts instilled by centuries of patronage and their ethos of deference to authority. They opted to show their rulers that Buddhism could contribute to the nation’s life by promoting loyalty, and the new concordat gave Buddhist organisations a place in Meiji society.
Two issues cause alarm in the case of Buddhist support for imperial Japan: the identity of the supporters, and the nature of their support. The first has attracted most attention in responses to Zen at War. The book reveals that in addition to being a skilled communicator of Zen teachings for a western audience, DT Suzuki was an eloquent advocate of Buddhist support for the imperial cause. But the greatest upset was caused by an article in Tricycle magazine, in which Victoria described the wartime record and political views of Yasutani Roshi. Yasutani was the teacher to Philip Kapleau, Robert Aitken, Maezumi Roshi and others, who have been the most important transmitters of Buddhism to white America. Yet Victoria revealed that throughout his life – including the years after the War – Yasutani adhered to an extreme right-wing political agenda, including theories of Japanese racial superiority and (notwithstanding the Jewish ancestry of many of his American students) virulent anti-Semitism.
These revelations stimulated interest in Victoria’s book, and forced American Zen teachers to comment, but the ensuing debate has remained focused on particular teachers. My own interest was pricked by the inadequacy of responses printed in Tricycle magazine by Aitken, and Bernie Glassman, a Dharma heir to Maezumi Roshi, and others. Aitken pleaded for understanding of the political and cultural context in which Yasutani’s views had developed. He even suggested that Yasutani’s views might be linked to the fact that ‘his mother gave him up for adoption to a Buddhist priest when he was only five years old and that he then grew up to be an angry youth and adult’.
As Victoria commented, this seems like ‘making excuses’. A Zen teacher is proclaimed as Enlightened, having gained an unshakeable insight into the truth that Buddhism teaches, and been transformed by that truth. So either Yasutani was not Enlightened, in which case his successors cannot claim authority through his transmission of the Dharma to them, or else we must revise our ideas of Enlightenment.
The latter approach was taken by Bernie Glassman, a teacher (of Jewish birth) who runs imaginative and impressive retreats and social projects in Europe and the us. Yet his apologetics seemed, unwittingly, to indicate deeper causes of Zen’s compromises, and even to express the same weaknesses. Glassman wrote, ‘What I’ve learnt from my teachers is that all of us are one body. We are the stars, the moon, the trees, the death camps, the killers, and the killed. We are enlightenment and we are delusion … everything is enlightened as it is. … So if your definition of enlightenment is that there is no nationalism or militarism or bigotry in the state of enlightenment, you better change your definition of enlightenment. For the state of enlightenment is maha, the circle with no inside or outside, not even a circle, just the pulsating of life everywhere.’
To some, such sentiments will seem profound. I think they are transcendental platitudes, confusion raised to the level of metaphysics. Glassman’s way of seeing the mundane in terms of the absolute flattens distinctions and erodes values. What is missing is ethics, and Glassman’s inclusivity seems to me to culminate in a moral failure. But his comment that this is what he learnt from his teachers returns us to questions about Zen, rather than Glassman himself. Is there something lacking in the philosophy Glassman has imbibed, and was this what led to Zen support for militarism in the first place? Is there something in Zen, and particularly its view of ethics, that disposed it to support the Japanese imperial state?
When I put this question to Victoria he believed that only by confronting it can the lessons of Zen’s history be addressed. ‘I have long hoped that one or another Buddhist organisation would focus on this topic, for sadly not a single Zen-affiliated organisation has done so. Instead, leaders of western Zen-related organisations have almost exclusively focused on the fact that Japanese masters within their own Dharma lineage have been revealed as one-time fervent militarists. Since Zen at War revealed all Japanese Zen leaders to have been fervent supporters of Japanese militarism, the compelling question is what made it possible for these alleged masters to portray the Buddhadharma in a war-affirming, totalitarian-embracing manner?’
Thus we come to the second cause for concern in Zen involvement in Japan’s wars – the apparent lack of conflict between its teachings and the army’s actions, even when these included atrocities on a vast scale. Although the debate about Japanese Buddhism’s war record is new to the West, and although there has been little general discussion of it in Japan itself, a small but determined band of Japanese Buddhist scholars has attempted to critique their own tradition. My own comments on Zen teachings will draw on their work as well as on the arguments of Zen at War.
In the Meiji period Buddhist teachers found two main justifications for their support of the country’s military adventures. Firstly they argued that Japan’s wars were just. The notion of Japanese superiority to other races is deeply rooted in the culture, and the spectacle of western powers encroaching on Asia seemed a patent injustice. Buddhists followed the popular view that Japan had a right to pursue its trade interests as it saw fit and to punish those who prevented that. In other words, as Suzuki put it, the aim of Japan’s wars was to ‘punish the people of the country representing injustice, in order that justice might prevail’.
Heathens who impeded Japan, it was argued, were also standing in the way of the progress of humanity, and deserved punishment, not least because Japan was so deeply imbued with Buddhism that opposing its interests was tantamount to opposing Buddhism. Buddhists, along with other government propagandists, argued that the expansion of Japanese power into Korea, Taiwan, Manchuria and eventually the rest of China was for the benefit of the inhabitants of those countries.
The second Buddhist justification for the war underpinned the first. This was the argument that, from a Zen perspective, other ethical considerations did not apply. Throughout its history Mahayana Buddhism has taught the doctrine of ‘skilful means’, the notion that it is permissible to break religious rules if a greater good can be obtained. Furthermore the Mahayana teaches that reality is ultimately shunya – void or empty. Seen truly, life is mysterious, it cannot be grasped or defined, and it cannot be said to have a substantial existence in any way that can be expressed. But, if this is the ultimate nature of existence, what should we make of the ‘reality’ we experience in our daily lives? And what place is there for the basic teachings of Buddhism, such as its ethical precepts, that relate to this level? Some Mahayana traditions respond by insisting that the ‘two truths’ are both valid, and that ethics and the other ‘trainings’ of Buddhist practice are indispensable. Zen, however, is concerned to avoid dualism, and the Zen adept is said to inhabit a sphere beyond words and concepts, beyond the distinctions of good and evil.
So Zen is antinomian, seeing its teachings as transcending the moral precepts, and anti-rational. Some might imagine that this direct knowing would lead one naturally to the right way of acting. But in the world of particulars one must make choices, and there is a Zen attitude to such choices. As Suzuki writes:
‘[Zen] simply urges going ahead with whatever conclusion, rational or irrational, a man has arrived at. Philosophy may be left with intellectual minds; Zen wants to act, and the most effective act, once the mind is made up, is to go on without looking backward. In this respect, Zen is indeed the religion of the samurai warrior.’
This ‘irrationalism’ has attracted many in the West – from the Beat generation’s celebration of spontaneity to contemporary aversion to ‘being judgemental’. But the danger is that it simply makes one susceptible to whatever values prevail in one’s society. It seems that in wartime Japan the very characteristic of Zen that connotes freedom and spontaneity to westerners became the call for Japanese to do their duty, happily sacrificing their lives to the imperial cause. This was not just a civic virtue, it was the fulfilment of Zen.
If this is Zen, is it Buddhism? The first and most basic of the Buddhist ethical precepts is the undertaking to abstain from taking life or harming other beings, and to act with loving-kindness. Yet in Japan Zen had long been associated with the warrior ethos of bushido. Victoria pointed out that DT Suzuki wrote approvingly of the famous 17th-century Rinzai Zen master Takuan's instructions to one of his warrior patrons:
‘The uplifted sword has no will of its own, it is all of emptiness. The man who is about to be struck down is also of emptiness, and so is the one who wields the sword. As each of them is of emptiness and has no 'mind', the striking man is not a man, the sword in his hands is not a sword, and the 'I' who is about to be struck down is like the splitting of the spring breeze in a flash of lightning.’
Victoria compared this quote with a verse from the Dhammapada, a text dating back to the Buddha himself. ‘All persons tremble at being harmed, all persons fear death; remembering that you are like unto them, neither strike nor slay.’ As Victoria commented, ‘In comparing these two quotations, it is difficult to believe that we are talking about the same religion. The alleged ability of accomplished Zen practitioners to transcend good and evil and kill as they saw fit is one of the most thoroughly un-Buddhist teachings that one can imagine.’
Zen offered the Japanese warrior class its unconditional support in return for their patronage. By the 20th century these attitudes had become coupled to a mechanised, unitary state bent on imperial expansion. Thus we find the famous Zen teacher Kodo writing an article entitled ‘On the True meaning of Zen Precepts’. This true meaning, he argues, is that when the cause is just and the mind is clear, ‘whether one kills or does not kill, the precept forbidding killing is preserved. It is the precept forbidding killing that wields the sword’. And Rinzai master Nantembo wrote there was ‘no Bodhisattva practice superior to the compassionate taking of life’.
Are such views simply propaganda, signs that ethics, like truth, is among the first casualties of war? An alternative possibility is that both ethics and truth had already been casualties of Zen. This had been argued by Zen’s critics from the time of its appearance in China, by both Confucian and Buddhist opponents. Since the war, a cogent analysis of the reasons underlying Zen’s war responsibility has been developed by Rinzai priest and scholar, Ichikawa Hakugen. Following Japan’s defeat he started to question his previous support for the war, and to consider which of Zen’s cherished doctrines had contributed to it. Zen’s appeal lies partly in its teachings of harmony and tolerance, but Ichikawa posed awkward questions:
‘With what has modern Japanese Buddhism harmonised itself? With state Shinto. With state power and authority. With militarism. Accordingly with war. Of what has modern Japanese Buddhism been tolerant? Of those with whom it harmonises. Of its own responsibility for the war.’
A more recent development has been ‘Critical Buddhism’, the work of scholars within the Soto school, who have sought to unravel the historical origins of Zen teachings that diverge from other Buddhist schools, arguing – in contrast to Zen’s anti-rational tendencies – that ‘Buddhism is criticism’. Perhaps this goes too far and creates an intellectualised religion that dispenses with Zen’s great spiritual heritage. It also ignores the fact that almost all Japan’s Buddhists shared its support for the state, and that many Buddhist schools have been compromised ethically over the centuries, often through their connection with state power.
None the less, some degree of critical re-evaluation of Zen is surely essential, given the depth of its compromise. This is needed in Japan where in the past decade the Soto school has issued statements of regret for its past actions, but the Rinzai has remained mute. It is also needed in the West where the new Buddhists are only just starting to examine the history of the schools they have joined.
For Brian Victoria a particular danger is the appeal of the warrior ethos. ‘The “natural” affinity of Zen and the martial arts has been so widely accepted in the West that practitioners of one see no contradiction in practising the other. Thus, the alleged “unity of Zen and the sword” is as alive in the West today as it always has been in Japan.’
Perhaps a more insidious danger lies in Zen’s irrationalism – a quality that is particularly appealing to intellectuals. Given the lack of ethical distinctions in Bernie Glassman’s type of Zen, how can practitioners with that approach distinguish between prevalent ideologies and the Dharma? Westerners who want to follow Buddhism must be prepared to examine the traditions inherited from Asia (not to mention those developing in the West). And they need a commitment to the ethical and spiritual values that lie at the heart of the Buddhist tradition.
Brian Victoria has moved away from exclusive commitment to Zen and says, ‘I now feel more a Buddhist and less a Zen Buddhist.’ However, he also cautions against criticising only Zen Buddhists for supporting the war. Buddhists of all schools, he points out, with very few exceptions, acted likewise, and the underlying causes relate not just to particular doctrines but to the close relationship existing between state and religion. He quoted a Japanese folk saying, ’If you rub against vermilion, you will become red.’
I find myself fully in agreement with his conclusion: ‘The moral of Zen at War is that all Buddhists, East or West, need to examine carefully the doctrines they teach to see if they promote liberation or bondage, whether individual or societal. I hope that Buddhism will always welcome a wide variety of practices that have been shown to promote spiritual growth in the individual while at the same time causing no harm to others. The mass killing of war can never be a part of this.’
The book also reminded me of George Santayana’s famous saying that has been placed above the entrance to the Auschwitz Holocaust Museum: ‘Those who do not learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat its mistakes.’
by Vishvapani: firstname.lastname@example.org
First Published in Dharma Life Magazine Issue 14 www.dharmalife.com