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Zen War Stories

by Brian (Daizen) A. Victoria
reviewed by Professor Eric Sean Nelson,University of Toledo
Journal of Military Ethics, 2003, (2(3)) pp.25-253
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Brian Daizen Victoria's work, which follows his earlier more systematic work Zen at War (1997), narrates and evaluates a number of the personalities and events that exemplify Zen Buddhism's support of and complicity with the totalitarian military regime of Imperial Japan. The author, himself trained as a Soto Zen priest, provides a series of somewhat chilling stories, translations from wartime texts, and interviews with unapologetic survivors. This ‘case material' comes with an accompanying critical commentary.

This provocative book will interest those concerned with the ideology and psychology of late Imperial Japan and the possible uses of Buddhism in justifying ‘holy war', including political assassination, atrocities against civilians such as the Nanjing massacre, and suicide attacks. Zen War Stories should be greatly welcomed, since surprisingly little attention has been given to the political role of Zen Buddhists and lay Zen intellectuals—such as D.T. Suzuki and the philosophers of the Kyoto school—before and during the Second World War. It sheds a different light on a pacifist religion by showing how it can be employed to justify uncontrolled violence.

book cover jpgThe author argues that violence is incompatible with Buddhism's message of peace and compassion and pursues the weighty evidence of Zen's failure to live accordingly. Victoria documents the support given by Zen Buddhists to the military regime, including masters who would later bring Zen to the West. He also shows the uses that the military intentionally made of Zen, such as modeling military life upon Zen monastic practices (from the organization of units down to mess kits) and cultivating a philosophy which made Japanese indifferent to death and suffering—whether one's own or others'. If a soldier did not care about his own life and was resigned to death, how much value could he see in the life of others?

These examples raise some significant questions: given Buddhism's declared commitment to non-violence and compassion, how could Japanese Buddhists justify an aggressive and offensive holy war against the West and the colonization (in the name of liberation) of Japan's Asian neighbors? Given that the majority of Zen masters and practitioners did not passively tolerate Japanese policy but actively sought to legitimate it through Buddhism, is Zen—if not Buddhism itself—totalitarian? How is it that Zen—which is often seen as individualistic, irreverent, ironic, undogmatic, and questioning—was used to mold and inspire soldiers and citizens for total war?

Victoria contends that Zen's antinomianism and amoral attitude, since enlightenment transcends good and evil in the Zen tradition, allows it to develop nonattachment in an ethically indifferent manner. This hardness to life and death made Zen the preferred form of Buddhism for the medieval Samurai. Combat and war were not contradictory to enlightenment but could become avenues to it if done responsively without attachment, desire, or hatred. According to Victoria, this image of the ideal warrior—popularized by D.T. Suzuki and later many martial arts films—played into the military's program of ‘spiritual education' which cultivated a fanatical military spirit indifferent to the individual's fate.

Japanese scholars maintained that Japanese Zen was the perfection of Buddhism, one that overcame the pacifism and weakness of Asia. This created the strange practice of sending Zen missions to Buddhist countries. It also promoted the idea of Japanese superiority over and ‘responsibility' for its Asian neighbors. The government sought to legitimate its exploitive occupation of East and Southeast Asia in part by appealing to Zen's role in creating a ‘pan-Asian' Buddhism capable of resisting Western colonialism.

Victoria also examines how Buddhists helped war criminals evade capture and Buddhism's role as consolation for many of the war criminals hung by the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. Since many of the figures and ideas remain the same, the legacy of wartime Zen—he argues—is still at work in the ‘corporate Zen' of the postwar period.

Although a valuable contribution, this book fails to take account of the Buddhist tradition of just-war thinking which Imperial Japan appealed to and misused in order to legitimate offensive war and occupation. The author is often in danger of conflating the varieties of Buddhism in his attempt to question Buddhism as such through its Zen incarnation. To reduce Buddhism to the Japanese Zen of the wartime period—which is actually a Shinto-Zen synthesis—would be to repeat the very claim that Zen is the ‘essence' of Buddhism. Recognizing the variety of Buddhist positions on war would indicate a more nuanced approach to the more ambiguous figures presented in this book, such as D.T. Suzuki and some of the Kyoto school. Being implicated in the Zeitgeist makes one to some degree responsible but it is not identical to active engagement for a totalitarian regime. The recognition of pluralism within Buddhism would be appropriate given the significant differences that exist between Japanese Zen and Chan in China, Korea, and Vietnam.


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