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Apology for What the Founder of the Sanbô Kyôdan, Yasutani Haku'un Roshi, Said and Did During World War II

Kubota Ji'un      The 3rd Abbot of the Religious Foundation Sanbô Kyôdan

On 8 January 2000 a letter arrived from a lady who lives in the Netherlands. It reported that her husband, from the age of six until he was nine, was confined in a concentration camp in the Dutch East Indies during World War II by the Japanese army, together with his mother and sister; his father was thrown into a male camp, his elder brother was forced to labor for the railway construction in Burma. The trauma of these years has remained until today; he had to undergo brain surgery, and has had psychotherapy for more than 10 years. Not only he himself has suffered a great deal, the lady says, but also his distress has had, and still has, a great impact upon his family.

       Similar tragedies have often been reported in China, Korea and other countries in South-East Asia, where Japanese militarism invaded during the war. Whenever I hear such stories, I feel great pain in my heart as a member of the nation that once initiated that horrible war; I sincerely apologize to the lady mentioned above and her husband and to all people who had to go through such excruciating experiences during the past war.

       The main reason the Dutch lady raised the question is that she had read Brian Victoria's book Zen at War and felt herself betrayed by the war-time words and deeds of the founder of the Sanbô Kyôdan Yasutani Haku'un Roshi, who repeatedly praised and promoted the war. Since she herself practices Zen contemplation under Father Johannes Kopp, a Zen teacher of the Sanbô Kyôdan, it had never occurred to her that the Zen masters, whom she deeply respected, would ever glorify the waging of war.

       I personally became Yasutani Haku'un Roshi's disciple at the age of 17 and kept receiving his instructions until his death. So I know very well that Yasutani Roshi did foster strongly right-winged and anti-Semitic ideology during as well as after World War II, just as Mr. Victoria points out in his book. If Yasutani Roshi's words and deeds, now disclosed in the book, have deeply shocked anyone who practices in the Zen line of the Sanbô Kyôdan and, consequently, caused him or her to abhor or abandon the practice of Zen, it is a great pity indeed. For the offense caused by these errant words and actions of the past master, I, the present abbot of the Sanbô Kyôdan, cannot but express my heartfelt regret.

       If I may speak as an insider, however, during the 25 years of my practice under him I never saw Yasutani Roshi ever force his students to accept his political ideology. After all, it was his Dharma that we wished him to transmit to us; never have I aspired, therefore, to learn his ideological standpoint. Furthermore, Yamada Kôun Roshi, who was to take over as the second abbot, admonished Yasutani Roshi more than a few times for the latter's ideological inclination, and reminded him of the initial responsibility of concentrating upon the reviving of the pure Dharma, the intrinsic core of Buddhism. As a result, in 1967 -- that is, while he was still alive -- Yasutani Roshi made a radical decision to entrust Yamada Kôun Roshi with the fully authorized guidance of the Sanbô Kyôdan.

       Kôun Roshi, on his part, made it manifest that the fundamental position of the Sanbô Kyôdan is to "stand at the origin point of Buddhism through the Dharma gate of Dôgen Zenji," and that our aim is to attain the salvation of humanity and to contribute to establishing world peace based on the great enlightenment experience of Shakyamuni, no matter what ethnical origin, nationality, gender or creed one may represent. This resulted in sincere dialogue with Father H.M. Enomiya-Lassalle, through whose intercession a great number of priests and sisters found their way to Zen, until Zen practice outside Japan has flourished to such an extent as we witness it today. In fact, to go back to the origin point is the only way for Japan to correct past wrongdoings and to truly contribute to the peace of the human world.

       It goes without saying that the terrible Second World War drove the Japanese themselves to a devastation unheard-of. The end of the war saw the land thoroughly destroyed, and starvation and destitution assailed the entire population, regardless of age or gender. Furthermore, countless soldiers and civilians along the Soviet borders were taken into captivity and forced labor; a huge number of them lost their lives because of hunger and cold. The victims of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki died one of the most deplorable deaths in the world; those who survived the calamities are still suffering from illnesses caused by the radiation. To whom can we appeal to alleviate their sufferings? Truly, this is the reality of war. This century has seen humanity repeating the same folly, and countless millions of people have been compelled to undergo unspeakable agonies.

       The ultimate roots of these wars lie in the ego-consciousness of human beings. Shakyamuni, through his experience of great enlightenment, confirmed that this ego-consciousness is a grave misunderstanding and delusion; he established the way of practice through which human beings can quickly wake up to the essential self of infinite and absolute oneness, as well as realize that essence in the phenomenal self. That is zazen. It is time for us to learn seriously from the experiences of the past one hundred years and to take actions based on new wisdom for the 21st century.

       On this occasion, the Sanbô Kyôdan solemnly vows never to lose the origin point of Shakyamuni and to follow persistently and energetically the path of realizing the essence of our self in this world of phenomena through our zazen practice.

(1 February 2000; reprint from: Kyosho #281 [March/April 2000],translated by Satô M.)

Further Reading:

Robert H. Sharf: The Zen of Japanese Nationalism