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The Buddha Dharma in Japan 70 Years On: Part II – Zen Master Sawaki Kodo’s Final Words

Brian Daizen Victoria

As mentioned in Part I of this article, 2015 has been an eventful year in Japan, not least of all for me. Thanks to the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat, there has been renewed interest in the war years, and a Japanese publisher offered to republish the Japanese language edition of Zen at War, i.e., Zen to Senso. In making this offer I was gratified to learn the publisher had already independently verified that the material contained in the book was accurate. The reprinted Japanese edition is due to appear no later than the first part of December 2015.

The republication gave me a welcome opportunity to write a new prefac e, allowing me to introduce relevant information I learned since the book first appeared in Japanese in 2001. Thanks in no small part to my critics, I have acquired much new material in the intervening years, especially concerning the wartime record of D.T. Suzuki on the Rinzai side, and Zen Master Sawaki Kodo on the Soto side. The additional material concerning D.T. Suzuki, including his connection to the Nazi movement both within Japan and Germany, is freely available on the Web.1

The additional material on Sawaki is also freely available. 2 I especially call readers’ attention to my most recent article on Sawaki in which I examine whether his wartime actions matched his verbal support for Japanese aggression. The article is entitled, “Sawaki Kodo, Zen and Wartime Japan: Final Pieces of the Puzzle.” It is available here: http://japanfocus.org/-Brian-Victoria/4316/article.html. Although I don’t know him personally, I was deeply touched by the heartfelt online comments concerning this article written by Jeffrey Broadbent, a longtime Zen practitioner and translator of Sawaki’s writings.

Just as I was beginning to think about the content of the book’s new preface, I received an e-mail from the abbot of a Soto Zen temple in northern Japan whom I had never met but who was aware of my work. He introduced me to the work he had done in the postwar period to promote reconciliation between Japanese and South Korean Buddhists. I was particularly glad to learn of his efforts in that so very few other Japanese Buddhist priests have attempted to do the same.

Yet, I was not prepared for the additional information this priest sent me, beginning with the November 1940 photograph of a delegation of Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth)visiting Daihonzan Eiheiji where I once trained. graphic

Following their visit, an article in the Eiheiji periodical Sansho explained how “profoundly impressed” the young Nazis had been by this “seminary for training the spirit.” This was exactly what Hitler hoped the delegation would encounter during their sojourn in Japan, for he had addressed the departing delegation as follows:

When you are in Japan, there is no need for you to be concerned about Japanese culture. There is no need for you to research Japanese politics. There is no need to investigate Japan’s economy. The only thing you need do is thoroughly experience the great spirit of the Japanese people that has arisen in their national polity.3  

What better place to learn the “great spirit of the Japanese people” than at one of the two head temples of Soto Zen. In this connection let me alert readers that I intend to translate the entirety of the highly revealing article describing the Hitler Jugend delegation’svisit to Eiheiji in the future and submit it to Japan Focus for publication.

The same priest sent me still more new information, information that even after these many years of studying Zen in wartime Japan I was not prepared for, that is to say, it shocked me. The new information concerned additional wartime writings on the part of Zen Master Sawaki Kodo, writings that revealed just how far this master was prepared to go in his absolute and unconditional support of Japanese totalitarianism. Namely, Sawaki was prepared to abandon Buddhism itself. How so?

Even casual students of Zen will be acquainted with the Four Bodhisattva Vows. Together with the Heart Sutra they can be said to express the essence of both Mahayana Buddhism and Zen in East Asia. A standard translation of these vows is as follows:

Sentient beings are limitless; I vow to save them all.
Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to extinguish them all.
Dharma gates are infinite in number; I vow to study them all.
The Buddha Way is unexcelled; I vow to realize it.

Sawaki took it upon himself to restate the Four Great Bodhisattva Vows in his 1944 lectures on the Kannon Sutra as follows:

Sentient beings are limitless; I vow to save them all.
Japan's enemies are inexhaustible; I vow to extinguish them all.
Dharma gates are infinite in number; I vow to study them all.
The Imperial Way is unexcelled; I vow to realize it. 4
      (Altered words in bold letters, original Japanese in endnotes)

While only a few words have been altered, the alterations profoundly impact the meaning of the vows. In the first instance, a Bodhisattva no longer vows to extinguish his or her own internal desires but vows, instead, to kill all of Japan’s numerically inexhaustible enemies. Then, as if turning a Bodhisattva into a mass killer weren’t sufficient, Sawaki replaced the Buddha Way with the Imperial Way of Emperor Hirohito. In so doing Sawaki literally took the “Buddha” out of Buddhism!

Are there any readers who would deny that in restating the Bodhisattva Vows as he did Sawaki had not also taken himself out of Buddhism?  

But Sawaki was not finished yet. He added:

This is truly a war to spread the Imperial Way throughout the world. The Imperial Way is the Buddha Way and must be spread. In accordance with the Imperial Way, we must destroy democracy, liberalism, and [Sun Yat-sen’s] Three Principles of the People. This is what it means to be citizens of Japan.5 [Original Japanese in Notes]

Sawaki supporters may find a modicum of solace in the fact that in the second quotation Sawaki doesn’t replace the Buddha Way with the Imperial Way but simply equates the two. But can the Buddha Way be equated with the Imperial Way of Emperor Hirohito in whose name Japan killed millions of human beings?

Sawaki also made it crystal clear that he was determined, again in the name of Emperor Hirohito, to destroy both democracy and liberal thought. Is this the teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha?

Although Soto Zen scholar Hakamaya Noriaki used different evidence to reach his conclusion, can anyone still claim that this scholar erred when he asserted, “Sawaki was not a Buddhist”? 6
Some readers may remember that following the publication of Zen at War, Soto Zen Master Nishijima Gudo Wafu defended Sawaki from the charge of war collaboration in a video as follows:

Some American man wrote the book which criticizes Master Kodo Sawaki in the war so strongly. But I think the book includes some kind of exaggeration. And meeting Master Kodo Sawaki-roshi directly, he was not so affirmative to the war, but at the same time he was thinking to do his duty as a man in Japan. So in such a situation I think his attitude is not so extremely right or left. And he is usually keeping the Middle Way as a Buddhist monk. I think such a situation is true. 7

In light of his 1944 (and earlier) writings can it be claimed that Sawaki was “not so affirmative to the war,” or “not so extremely right or left,” or most especially that “he is usually keeping the Middle Way as a Buddhist monk”? And what was the nature of the “duty” that Sawaki, according to Nishijima, was thinking to do as “a man of Japan”? Nishijima clearly bears a heavy responsibility for defending the indefensible and misleading his disciples and others concerning the nature of Sawaki’s wartime record.

The same thing can be said about others in Sawaki’s Dharma lineage who continue, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, to present this master as a paragon of the Zen school. While there can be no question that Sawaki was dedicated to the practice of zazen, it is equally true that Sawaki, like other wartime Zen masters, demonstrated that no amount of zazen guarantees the practitioner won’t become an advocate of aggressive warfare or blindly attached to the collective ego of his nation and its leaders, especially in times of war. This ought to be a sobering lesson for all Zen practitioners.

In this connection, let me mention a new article I wrote that will shortly appear in the peer-reviewed Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies (JOCBS). The article is entitled “An Ethical Critique of Wartime Zen.” Although the journal is subscription based, all articles become freely available online one year after they are published. Thus, my new article will be openly accessible in November 2016. In the meantime, an older article, entitled “Violence Enabling Mechanisms in Buddhism” may be of interest. It is already available here: http://jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/article/view/67/81.

I mention the new article in JOCBS in that it is directly relevant to the discussion here, for I address the ethical implications of wartime Zen leaders like Sawaki who willingly replaced the Buddha Way with the Imperial Way of Emperor Hirohito, etc. I also address the ethical implications of wartime Zen masters like Yasutani Haku’un who urged “kill[ing] everyone in the enemy army” as an act in accord with “the spirit of the Mahayana precepts.” 8 Can such positions be described as Buddhist? On the contrary, shouldn’t such positions be dismissed as clearly “un-Buddhist,” if not “anti-Buddhist,” or more honestly, as a betrayal of the Buddha-dharma?

This is not to claim that everything Sawaki (or other wartime masters) did or said is illegitimate. Yet, their wartime actions and writings should serve as a clear warning to later generations of practitioners. A clear warning as to how deeply deluded these masters were in their willful and unconditional identification of the Buddha-dharma with a state that was willing to kill millions of human beings in the pursuit of its own self-aggrandizement (aka “national interest”).

There can be no question that Sawaki and his war-affirming peers failed to sit zazen long enough to understand the true meaning of the Buddha-dharma. With the possible exception of the Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki, Sawaki, like all wartime Zen leaders, was a consummate Zen practitioner. But this did nothing to free either him or his contemporaries from their deadly subservience to the state. In this respect they are to be valued for having served, as the Japanese expression states, as “teachers by negative example” (hanmen kyoshi).

It was with this history in mind that I concluded “An Ethical Critique of Wartime Zen” as follows:     

This article does not pretend to have answers to the many questions that have been raised. At best it hopes to open the door to a wider and long overdue conversation in which what has frequently been camouflaged, or accepted uncritically, is addressed openly in hopes that a significantly more honest, ethical and less self-validating version of Zen Buddhism can evolve. The accomplishment of this, however, may require nothing less than a "Zen Reformation." While the nature of such a Zen Reformation lies far beyond the confines of this article, its purpose will be accomplished if the need for such a conversation is now clear. Clear not just from an academic point of view but, far more importantly, from an ethical one.

Given this, let me also end this article with the hope that it, too, will serve to open the doors to “a wider and long overdue conversation” on the ethical implications of wartime (and peacetime) Zen for contemporary practitioners, many of whom find themselves living in countries at war. Thus, once again, I propose that the conversation begins, hopefully this time without personal attack, recrimination, or subterfuge, but instead, for “the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world.”

1. See, for example: 1) "Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D.T. Suzuki," The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 30, No. 5. August 5, 2013. Available on the Web at: http://japanfocus.org/-Brian-Victoria/3973/article.html (accessed October 28, 2015) or 2) "D.T. Suzuki, Zen and the Nazis," The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 43, No. 4, October 28, 2013. Available on the Web at: http://japanfocus.org/-Brian-Victoria/4019/article.html (accessed on October 28, 2015). 

2. See: “Zen Masters on the Battlefield (Part I)," The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 24, No. 3, June 16, 2014.” available on the Web at: http://japanfocus.org/-Brian-Victoria/4133/article.html (accessed on October 27, 2015).

3. Quoted in Sansho, August 5, 1941 issue, p. 279.

4. Quoted in Niino Kazunobu, Kodo Bukkyo to Tairiku Fukyo. Tokyo: Shakai Hyoron-sha, 2014, p. 95. Original Japanese text reads: 衆生無辺誓願度、朝敵無尽誓願断、法門無量誓願学、皇道無上誓願成.

5. The Three Principles of the People consist of: 1) nationalism, 2) democracy, and 3) socialism. Sawaki’s words are contained in:Sawaki Kodo.
Kannon-kyo Teisho (Lectures on the Kannon Sutra). Tokyo, Toko-sha, November 1944, pp. 153-54. Original Japanese text reads: 誠にこの度の戦争は皇道を世界中に拡げる事である。皇道すなわち仏道を、弘めねばならない。皇道によって、三民主義・民主主義・自由主義を破らねばならぬ。これが我々日本国民なのである。 

6. For Hakamaya’s complete quotation, see Victoria, “"Zen Masters on the Battlefield (Part I)", The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 24, No. 3, June 16, 2014. Available on the Web at: http://japanfocus.org/-Brian-Victoria/4133/article.html (accessed November 2, 2015).

7. Brad Warner, “Gudo Nishijima Roshi: Japanese Buddhism in W.W. II.” Available on the Web at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qg6vdoqnTOA (accessed October 28, 2015).

8. Quoted in Victoria, Zen War Stories, p. 72.