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Zen at War

by Brian Victoria
Weatherhill, 1997. 228 pages.
Reviewed by David Loy

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The wartime complicity of Zen institutions is hardly news to scholars of Japanese religion, but this is the first study in English to present detailed evidence and address the important issues at length. A few years ago Rude Awakenings (ed. Heisig and Maraldo) provided a potpourri of essays on Kyoto School nationalism which offered contradictory opinions of its founding fathers impossible for a nonspecialist to adjudicate. Zen at War is a more accessible overview that focuses primarily on institutional Buddhism, especially Zen, from 1868 to the present day. During this period the relationships between Zen Buddhism and the state's military aggression were in their "most exaggerated form", but Victoria claims that makes it all the better a test of Zen's social ethics. It is a test that Japanese Zen failed, and arguably continues to fail, for the issue of wartime responsibility is still largely ignored. Since many western Zen teachers today were themselves students of figures discussed in this book, it has come as a shock to many Zen communities outside Japan. As Victoria admits at the end, it raises many more questions than it answers; those questions can no longer be overlooked.

book cover imageThe book is in three parts. The first looks at the effects of the Meiji restoration on Buddhism's relationship to the state. After a lethargic decline during the Tokugawa era, the Meiji period was a wake-up call because state Shinto, constructed as a national cult of morality and patriotism, suddenly provided a challenge to Buddhism's survival. Buddhist institutions responded with "New Buddhism", designed to show that Buddhism too could make valuable contributions to social and economic development, could promote loyalty to the throne, and was compatible with Western technology. It was the beginning of a slippery slope. During the early colonial period there was virtually no peace movement among Buddhists, while no lack of Buddhist leaders justified such aggression as Japan's duty to "awaken" Korean and Chinese Buddhists from their indifference to war, a passivity due to the "pessimistic nature" of their inferior Buddhism which preferred filial piety to loyalty. Here as elsewhere, Victoria does not address the fact that most religious institutions in the West were hardly more enlightened during this period of colonial subjugation, which still inflicted horrific suffering on the native populations of Africa and Asia. Perhaps we should not be outraged that Japan, having been forcefully opened by the West, imported not only its technology but its social Darwinist imperialism.

Victoria quotes extensively from D. T. Suzuki and his teacher Shaku Soen, a university-educated roshi who portrayed Buddhism as a "universal religion" at the World Parliament yet actively supported the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5), justifying it with the usual rationalizations: "War is not necessarily horrible, provided that it is fought for a just and honorable cause, that it is fought for the upholding of humanity and civilization. Many material human bodies may be destroyed, many humane hearts be broken, but from a broader point of view these sacrifices are so many phoenixes consumed in the sacred fire of spirituality..." When Tolstoy wrote asking him to cooperate in appealing for peace, Soen refused and visited the war front to encourage the troops, declaring that "In the present hostilities, into which Japan has entered with great reluctance, she pursues no egoistic purpose, but seeks the subjugation of evils hostile to civilization, peace, and enlightenment" (27-8).

That identification of nationalist with religious goals was echoed by countless other Zen priests. The most noteworthy protest against this was by Uchiyama Gudo (1874-1911), a radical Soto priest who taught that karma should not be used to justify social inequality. He was arrested for printing anti-government tracts and eventually executed for an alleged plot to assassinate members of the imperial family. The Soto, Rinzai and Shin authorities all apologized for his appalling crime and he was deprived of his abbotship and then his status as a Zen priest. In 1993 the new Soto Bureau for the Protection and Advocacy of Human Rights posthumously restored his status, but "through the end of the Pacific War no major Buddhist or Christian leader ever again spoke out in any organized way against government policies, either civilian or military, domestic or foreign" (54).

Part two examines the relationship with Japanese militarism. By 1930 institutional Buddhism was firmly committed to providing ideological support for all military efforts wherever they might occur. There are a few isolated records of individual resistance, yet they had no effect on the war effort. Victoria wonders what might have happened if even a few hundred priests had spoken out against the war, because Buddhism "was indeed one, if not the only, organization capable of offering effective resistance to state policy" (Ketelaar). But we will never know, because large-scale protest never occurred.

Buddhist scholars increasingly identified Buddhism with the emperor, promoting Kodo Bukkyo, Imperial Way Buddhism, and Kokoku Zen, Imperial State Zen. They argued that Japan is the most Buddhist country in Asia, for only in Japan did Buddhism attain complete maturity; in 1937 Furukawa Taigo claimed that Japan was the only Buddhist country. Suzuki's main statement on Zen and bushido was in his 1937 book Zen Buddhism and its Influence on Japanese Culture (English trans., 1959) which emphasized the iron will of Zen that could be "wedded to anarchism or fascism, comunism or democracy, atheism or idealism or any political or economic dogmatism" (110).

The Zen military ideal became personified in the legend of Lieutenant Colonel Sugimoto Goro (1900-37), an ardent Zen practitioner who died in combat -- standing up -- in northern China. The essays in his posthumously published book Taigi "Great Duty" contrasted the nonexistence of the self with the absolute nature of the emperor. The emperor does not exist for the state, but the state exists for the emperor, who "is the highest, supreme value for all eternity" (117). One might dismiss him as a benighted ultranationalist, but major Zen masters supported him and his views, including his own teacher Yamazaki Ekiju, head of the Rinzai sect by the end of the war, who praised his practice and compared him to Bodhidharma.

Particularly uncomfortable for me was the conduct of Harada Daiun Sogaku, well-known in the West due to Kapleau's influential The Three Pillars of Zen, and my own Dharma great-grandfather. In 1934 he recommended implementing fascist politics while criticizing education for making people shallow and "cosmopolitan minded". In 1939 he described the oneness of Zen and war: "[If ordered to] march: tramp tramp, or shoot: bang, bang. This is the manifestation of the highest Wisdom [of Enlightenment]. The unity of Zen and war of which I speak extends to the farthest reaches of the holy war [now under way]" (137).

Part three looks at postwar trends. D. T. Suzuki receives much attention in blaming Shinto for providing the "conceptual background" to Japanese militarism. Victoria also accuses him of offering different explanations of the war to Japanese ("a great sacrifice to awaken the peoples of Asia") and to Westerners ("a ridiculous war completely without justification"). "Nowhere in Suzuki's writings does one find the least regret, let alone an apology, for Japan's earlier colonial efforts in such places as China, Korea, or Taiwan." (150-1). Only four declarations addressing war complicity have been made by the traditional Buddhist sects, none of them before 1987; to date, no branch of Rinzai-shu has formally considered this issue. Victoria touches on the inadequate responses made by Zen figures who became influential in the West, including Yamada Mumon, Asahina Sogen, Hakuun Yasutani, Hirata Seiko and especially Omori Sogen, who enjoyed the patronage of the ultranationalist Toyama family. On the other side, he praises the efforts of Zen scholars Yanagida Seizan, Hakamaya Noriaki, Matsumoto Shiro, and especially Ichikawa Hakugen (1902-86) who published a series of influential books examining the role of Buddhism in the wartime era. Today, military Zen has been resuscitated as "corporate Zen", which uses Zen practice as part of corporate training programs, because schools no longer emphasize the old virtues of obedience and conformity.

Zen at War does not attempt to present a balanced view of Zen during the period in question, and that is one of its strengths: it is a passionate book because it addresses ethical issues that deserve more than a dispassionate evaluation -- at least for Zen students like myself. Now we need to begin considering the various implications of this complicity. For example: if Buddhist awakening truly overcomes our delusions, why didn't it do a better job of inoculating against ultranationalist propaganda? From its beginnings in the Kamakura period, Zen was compromised by its samurai patronage, but the roots of the problem go all the way back to the emperor Kimmei (539-71), who allowed Buddhism into Japan because he recognized that "it would be of service to him" (132). Buddhism never subsequently escaped state control, and however transcendental Buddhist liberation may have been in other cultures (a controversial point), it was kept very down to earth in Japan, which accepted desires as natural and used egolessness to promote social integration and deference to authority. We need to reflect further on how compatible Japanese Buddhism is with its Indian origins.


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