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Zen at War

by Brian Victoria
Weatherhill, 1997. 228 pages.
Reviewed by Vladimir K, January 2005

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Religion has often disappointed. Whether it has been paedophilic priests, suicidal Islamic terrorists, temple-burning Hindu nationalists, Jewish terrorists seeking a homeland, or self-aggrandising fundamentalist Christian presidents, the misuse of religious beliefs is starkly apparent in our modern world. Then there are the blood-soaked pages of history we can turn to with horror and disbelief at acts of utter barbarity carried out in religion's name. Buddhism, however, has managed to avoid a book cover imagereputation for war-mongering (at least in the West), being seen as a religion of compassion, peace and self-discovery. Naïve perhaps, but we must remember that Buddhism is just one hundred years old in the West and was brought by teachers who spoke a different language and came from a different culture. More importantly, access to original writings and documents of the various sects of Buddhism were difficult to find and could only be read by highly trained academics with linguistic and research skills acquired through years of university studies, leaving the congregations of lay people at the mercy of whatever teacher was available and appealed. Missionary work inevitably presents the best face of religion to bring converts into the fold. But there is always more, much more, beneath the façade of any religion.

Brian Victoria's courageous book, Zen At War, shows another face of Japanese Zen Buddhism, an ugly and disturbing picture of Zen that has stunned and even traumatised many Western Zen teachers and students alike. The book exploded onto the Western Zen scene in 1997 and has been a subject of controversy ever since. Statements of some of Western Zen's most revered teachers and masters, such as D. T. Suzuki, Harada Daiun Sogaku, Yasutani Hakuun and many others, supporting Japanese militarism, nationalism and racism have sent shock-waves through Zen centres throughout the West. A re-evaluation of Zen Buddhism's role in the Japanese wars of the Twentieth Century is long overdue and Victoria's book is but a first step in a long and ultimately painful process of reflection on the meaning of Zen.

In this review of Victoria's important work I will not give a detailed outline of the contents as many readers may already be familiar the book. I do recommend for those unfamiliar with the work to refer to David Loy's excellent review which gives a more detailed look at the contents and Fabio Rambelli's review likewise fills in the details missing in this review. It is enough to say here that Zen At War describes the unerring and uncritical Buddhist support of Japanese militarism, colonialism and racism from the Meiji Restoration in 1868 to the end of the Second World War. Zen masters twisted and perverted the teachings of the Buddha in an outrageous manner to spur on the blood-baths of the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), the Russo-Japanese War (1905-05), the colonisation of Korea, Manchuria and Taiwan and ultimately the disaster that was the Pacific war which ended with nuclear annhilation in 1945. It should be pointed out that it was not just Zen Buddhism that supported the imperial designs of the Japanese military, but all Buddhist and Shinto groups throughout Japan gave unswerving and uncritical support to the militaristic ambitions of the nation. Furthermore, it took the Soto sect over forty years to issue an apology for its actions. The Rinzai sect has steadfastly refused to face up to its complicity in the deaths of millions. Today imperial-way Zen, soldier Zen and imperial-state Zen is being transformed into ‘corporate Zen’ as a “way of restoring the traditional values of discipline, obedience, and loyalty to superiors.”(p. 182) The abuse of the Dharma continues.

Brian Victoria's book is not a polemic against Zen Buddhism but a carefully researched and documented exploration of what the Zen masters and teachers said and did throughout the period covered (1868-1945). It is, however, appropriately passionate about the topic. As a Soto priest and graduate of the Soto-affiliated Komazawa University, it took considerable courage to write this book but, as he points out, “What constitutes slander of the Buddha Dharma is of course very much in the eyes of the beholder, or the reader in this case, but I have done my research and writing on this difficult and disturbing subject with one thought in mind: truth can never be slander.” (p. 192) In the eyes of this reader, the slander of the Dharma is with masters and teachers Victoria has quoted.

But should we in the Western Zen community have been so shocked by what Victoria has revealed about the actions and sayings of the Japanese Zen teachers? Were there not signs prior to Victoria that all was not as it seemed in Zen? We put our faith and trust in these (largely) Japanese teachers and tended to accept whatever was given to us with a stunning naivety and lack of critical appraisal. The resultant abuses in Western Zen centres have become well known. (see, for example, Lachs, 1994 & 1999) That Japanese Zen perverted the teachings of the Buddha for nationalistic and militaristic purposes should not be so surprising as the signs were there even for a lay community which may not have had the resources or skills to delve deeply into the history of Japan or Zen's role in that history.

Let me explain through a simple example. Throughout Zen At War, Victoria shows how the Buddhist metaphor of the sword that takes life and the sword that gives life was perverted to become an apology for killing. The sword is a well-known metaphor and Manjusri is usually seen wielding this metaphorical sword. The link between Zen and swordsmanship was well known long before Victoria's book came out. In D. T. Suzuki's highly influential and praised Zen and Japanese Culture, published in 1959 by Princeton University, he wrote:

The sword is generally associated with killing, and most of us wonder how it can come into connection with Zen, which is a school of Buddhism teaching the gospel of love and mercy. The fact is that the art of swordsmanship distinguishes between the sword that kills and the sword that gives life. The one that is used by a technician cannot go any further than killing, for he never appeals to the sword unless he intends to kill. The case is altogether different with the one who is compelled to lift the sword. For it is really not he but the sword itself that does the killing. He had no desire to do harm to anybody, but the enemy appears and makes himself a victim. It is as though the sword performs automatically its function of justice, with is the function of mercy…the swordsman turns into an artist of the first grade, engaged in producing a work of genuine originality. (cited in Victoria, p. 110)

This stunning insult of Buddhism, which abhors any killing and teaches that one must take responsibility for one's actions, seems to have passed by uncritically in Western Zen circles and Suzuki continued to be revered as an enlightened teacher. (He claimed to have achieved kensho under the guidance of Soyen Shaku in 1896. (Fields, 1992:137-138)) Did we in the West not see the utter immorality of the above? One can only wonder what the millions of dead victims of Japanese militarism thought about ‘making themselves victims'. According to Suzuki, it was all their fault, not the soldiers wielding the metaphorical Buddhist swords. To rephrase America's National Rifle Association (which, I hasten to add, I do not support in any way) ‘swords don't kill people; people kill people’.

But we knew all this and chose to ignore it. The link between the samurai spirit of bushido and Zen has been well known for decades but we never delved deeply into this to try to understand its implications for nationalism, militarism and death. Even a cursory understanding of Zen's history should have alerted us to Zen's role in developing warriors to fight and kill on behalf of others. Tradition has it that Zen was brought to Japan by Myoan Eisai (1141-1215) during the Kamakura era (1185-1333) and a popular saying of the time was, “Tendai is for the imperial court, Shingon for the nobility, Zen for the warrior class, and Pure Land for the masses.” (Dumoulin,1990:31) Japanese Zen Buddhism has been linked to war and killing from its earliest days but the Western Zen community conveniently overlooked this and when Brian Victoria's book exploded on the scene, shock and horror ensued. But who among us asked our Japanese teachers, “What did you do during the war, Daddy?”

Zen At War asks far more questions than gives answers. The scope of the book is limited to a certain period of Japanese history but Victoria acknowledges that “Ichikawa Hakugen and other Japanese commentators [have] pointed to some longstanding beliefs, doctrinal interpretations, and practices in Buddhism, and especially in Zen, that provided the conceptual framework for the emergence of these adaptations of Buddhism to military uses and ideologies.” (p. 192-193)

In other words, the signs of Zen's perversion were there long before the twentieth century wars. This doctrinal history needs further exploration. In his Epilogue, Victoria raises a few questions which now demand investigation:

Where and when did these adaptations begin? Were they unique to Japan, or did they have antecedents that can be traced back to China or even India itself? Were these adaptations unique either to Zen or to Mahayana Buddhism in general, or are there parallels in the history of the Theravada Buddhism as well? And how do these later adaptations compare with the original teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni, assuming that it is possible to know what his teachings were? (p. 193)

I would like to add another question: What does Zen enlightenment mean? Given that ‘dropping body and mind' is a fundamental of Zen practice, what does it really mean if acknowledged enlightened and revered masters such as Harada Daiun Sogaku, Philip Kapleau's teacher, or Yasutani Hakuun, who taught Western students such as Robert Aitken the way of Zen, supported the racist and murderous policies of the Japanese military? Cultural relativism just won't do. It's not good enough to just say “Oh, these were difficult times for all”. Nor should we separate the master's teaching from his actions. If the source is polluted, the stream that flows from it will likewise be polluted. Zen's link to militarism goes back to its earliest days in Japan. One cannot cavalierly dismiss Harada Daium's call in 1944, when all but the most blind could see that the war was coming to an end with inevitable defeat for Japan, “Be Prepared, One Hundred Million [Subjects], for Death with Honour!” (p. 138) Where is the Buddha Dharma when one hundred million are asked to sacrifice themselves on the bloody alter of nationalism? If enlightened masters can make such a call, then perhaps we need to re-evaluate what the term ‘enlightened’ means.

This is, without a doubt, the most disturbing book on Zen I have ever read. I thank wholeheartedly Brian Victoria for his courage, determination and compassion for writing it and recommend it unreservedly to all Zen students. We can only advance in our practice by knowing what is right in Zen and what is so horribly wrong in it. The heart of compassion of Buddhist practice calls for forgiveness for these misguided teachers; the intellect demands that we in the West never allow our Zen practice to be perverted in this way; and the spirit just weeps.


Dumoulin, Heinrich (1990) Zen Buddhism: A History,Vol. 2, Japan; translated by J. W. Heisig & P. Knitter; Macmillan; New York
Fields, Rick (1992), How The Swans Came To The Lake: A narrative history of Buddhism in America; Shambala; Boston & London
Lachs, Stuart (1994) Coming Down from the Zen Clouds, available here
__________(1999) Means of Authorization: Establishing Hierarchy in Ch'an /Zen Buddhism in America, available here

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