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Zen and War: a film review

Director:  Alexander Oey,  2009  Buddhist Broadcasting Foundation of the Netherlands, 2009
reviewed by Vladimir K


It is almost a cliché today to say that Brian Daizan Victoria’s Zen at War (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1997, 2006) “sent shock waves through Zen circles”, was “startling and dismaying” and that Zen students were “surprised” (all from The Fog of War 1) by the revelation that Japanese Zen leaders supported the imperialist Japanese war machine from the late 19th Century through to the end of WWII. Victoria accused such prominent Zen teachers as D. T. Suzuki (1894-1966), Hakuun Yasutani (1885-1973) and Daiun Sōgaku Harada (1871-1961) (as well as others) of supporting Japan’s war efforts and some, like Sawaki Kōdō (1880-1965), actively engaging in warfare on the battlefield as Zen monks. Perhaps one of the most egregious was Yasutani2, who had a strong influence on Zen in America, being a teacher of Robert Aitken as well as Philip Kapleau, Taizan Maezumi and other Western Zen leaders. Yasutani not only supported Japan’s imperialist war but was an anti-Semite as well. All this is well-documented in Zen at War and Victoria’s second book, Zen War Stories (RoutledgeCurzon, 2003) as well as his numerous articles3 in various journals.

But should we have been so surprised and shocked? Zen’s affiliation with war and soldiers has been well documented for many years. Using Zen Buddhism to legitimate war and killing, to say that this is protecting the Dharma, has an extensive, inglorious history in Japan.4 Perhaps we weren’t paying enough attention to what we already knew. Zen has long been intimately entwined with samurai culture and the martial arts.5 This has been well-known by any Zen student who has done even a modicum of reading of Zen’s history in Japan. One has to ask, what were the old masters telling their samurai students about war and killing? It is inconceivable to think they would be discouraging their samurai students from killing.  In medieval Japan large Tendai Buddhist monasteries had their own armies and were not averse to attacking other monasteries that they felt were infringing on their territory or rights and killing the monks there. Zen, especially Rinzai Zen, has been closely associated with the Japanese government and centers of power for centuries. Zen-trained warriors were the cutting edge of various Japanese armies as their leaders fought for power and land and wealth.

Time has encrusted these wars in a mythology of the noble samurai, the warrior who was willing to sacrifice his own life on behalf of his lord or daimyo. Zen Buddhism taught the samurai that all was empty, that one’s own life was immaterial in the broader context of life and death. This created a much admired ethos of selfless sacrifice among the samurai. Loyalty was honoured more than life itself and to give up one’s life in the protection of one’s lord was the highest honour one could achieve. However, this disregard for one’s own life led to a disregard for others’ lives as well. If life and death is of little consequence to you, the lives of your enemy are of even less consequence. If the Zen teachers of old taught this ethos for hundreds of years to the Japanese warriors, why would the 20th Century teachers be any different? While the cult of the samurai was disbanded in the Meji Restoration of the mid-nineteenth century, loyalty to the daimyo was replaced by loyalty to the emperor and the nation and self-sacrifice was still seen as a noble calling. When the wars of the late nineteenth century occurred followed by the great Asia-Pacific War of World War Two, nothing much had changed — except that the reality of this philosophy, this Zen Buddhism of death6, became evident as the Japanese military stormed across Asia, laying waste on the land and, with an empty mind, killing millions. And that’s when we knew that in war, the Japanese military were real bastards.

Zen and War by Alexander Oey is a one-hour documentary that flows directly out of Brian Victoria’s work. A Western Zen student, Ina Buitendijik of Holland, was appalled by what she read in Victoria’s work and in 2001 wrote a number of letters to Zen monasteries in Japan asking how this support for war and killing was possible when the teachers were supposedly enlightened Buddhists. After all, isn’t Buddhism the religion of peace and compassion? While most monasteries ignored her letter, some did not and wrote back. Some apologised, often on behalf of their teachers who had long since died, and acknowledged the wrong that had occurred in the Buddhist support for the killings. The film interviews a number of Japanese Zen teachers (and one western one, Thomas Kirchner, monk and translator) as well as Buitendijik in an effort to understand what went on in the war years and how today’s Japanese teachers felt about what had occurred. However, not a single victim of Japanese aggresion is interviewed.

The documentary gives some valuable background information regarding the decline and persecution of Buddhism during the Meji Restoration period (1868-1912) when Japan rushed headlong into modernization and developed a powerful military-industrial complex. Loyalty to one’s daimyo was replaced by loyalty to the emperor and the nation. As Dr Masuharu Hishiki of Doho University, Nagoya, says on screen, one couldn’t turn the emperor into a Buddha but one could label him a god as Shinto, Japan’s native religion, has many spirits and gods. Buddhism was vilified as a foreign religion (although it had been part of Japan’s culture for over a thousand years) and monks were defrocked or became Shinto priests. Many were killed outright. Amid this turmoil, monks had to agree to be available for the military in service of the state. Kono Taitsū Roshi of Ryomon-ji (and former chief administrator of Myōshin-ji, of the Rinzai sect) notes that the Buddhists ‘had to serve their country or their school would have been dissolved’. Harada ShodoHarada Shōdō Roshi, who leads a world-wide sangha with monasteries in Japan, Germany, India and USA,7 believed that ‘the idea of the preservation of Buddhism in whatever way must have been very important in those days’; ‘they had to swallow all of the state’s demands’ and that ‘there was no compassion among Zen masters at that time’. Harada goes on to note that if one takes a ‘sympathetic view’, it was fear and ignorance that allowed this to happen but he also questions ‘why they couldn’t go beyond this?’ This reminds me of the famous Vietnam War quote from an unnamed American officer, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it”8, (this quote was later distorted to the better known, "We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”).

Thomas Kirchner raises the spectre of the Vietnam War. Accusing Victoria of being ‘one-sided’ against Japanese Zen Buddhism, of not taking into account the culture of the times, Kirchner claims that the Japanese Zen people thought they were doing the right thing in good faith. He likens this to the American attitude towards the Vietnam War where the Americans believed in what they were doing, fighting a ‘just battle’ but they were ‘not aware of a lot of quite terrible things America was doing in Vietnam.’ Therefore, they felt there was no need to apologize to Vietnam as they were involved in a ‘just conflict’. He goes on to say that Americans ‘had no facts to contraindicate that at the time’. Once they found out what had happened many Americans felt they should apologize. Likewise, the Zen monks supported their war ‘in good faith’ and, furthermore, in Japan there is resistance to criticizing one’s teachers or parents. As this war was fought ‘in good faith’ what need is there for apology? Kirchner seems to overlook the fact that the Vietnam War was the most reported war in history and entered American living rooms via television every night. Americans were not ignorant of what was going on in their name and it was this knowledge of the atrocities and injustice of the war that led to massive street demonstrations over many years that eventually led to President Nixon pulling out of the war. However, even with hindsight, America still refuses to apologise for its killing of millions of Vietnamese and the deaths of some 50,000 American soldiers. Nor has America apologised for the war crime of the atomic bombings of two Japanese cities. Like Japan, America has trouble acknowledging its mistakes.9

Kirchner says that Ina Buitendijik’s letters aroused some sympathy among some of the Japanese Zen leaders as she was not seen as attacking the Japanese but hers was a human appeal for justice. However, Kirchner believes many saw Brian Victoria’s book as an attack on the history and culture of Japan and the Japanese do not like their culture and values being attacked. Perhaps Kirchner could ask the Chinese how much they enjoyed being attacked by the Japanese or how the so-called “comfort women” of Korea felt. (Isn’t it time we buried this euphemism and called it by what it really was — sexual slavery? There can be no comfort here.) It’s not a matter of Victoria ‘attacking’ Japanese culture and traditions, but of exposing a blatant wrong. To take Buddhism, indeed any religion, and twist it so out of shape that it supports death and destruction of a perceived enemy is just plain wrong and cannot be excused by culture, traditions or a twisted ethic. This defence of distorting the Dharma in deference to the culture and context of the times smacks of cultural and moral relativism of the worst kind. Crimes against humanity cannot be exonerated by professing that they were taken 'in good faith'.

Kodo TaitsuOne Zen roshi, Kono Taitsū Roshi, had recommended some seven years prior to Ina Buitendijik’s letters that the Zen Buddhist establishment admit mistakes were made and that sincere repentance be offered to the war’s victims. His plea, however, was ignored. Taitsū has been criticised because he speaks out now and is often asked what would he do under a military dictatorship? Taitsū admits he may well remain silent but ‘now we all have the opportunity to speak freely and perhaps prevent this from happening again’. Kei’itsu Hosokawa of Myoshin-ji argues that ‘every monk [should] speak up courageously now’ to protect Article 9 of the Japanese constitution which forbids Japan to engage in war to settle international disputes and which is under attack in modern Japan. However, even though now it is possible to speak up, many Buddhists do not. To this end, Harada Shōdō suggests that it is time for all to sign a document saying ‘never again will we participate in such things…we will not get involved’ even though ‘there are many reasons to wage war but insofar as possible, we should not get involved in them.’ No such document has been signed.

One issue which is touched on in the film but which needs much more exploration is what this support for war means in a religion that professes that its teachers are enlightened beings in a lineage that stretches directly back to the Buddha himself. Harada Shōdō questions this, saying that Zen enlightenment means feeling ‘absolute love towards the universe’, a noble openness. But ‘ordinary people don’t have the almightiness of the Buddha, [they] can’t handle all the ideology at once’. Taitsū says, ‘while some people’s enlightenment can be dubious but with respect to enlightenment itself…there are no doubts about enlightenment itself’. Ina Buitendijik, on the other hand, proposes that myths need to be dispelled, including ‘myths that I believed in as well’. She says that for her, the myths that Buddhism is non-violent and that compassion plays an important role ‘has been dispelled’. The use of Zen Buddhist theology as a tool to justify war by supposedly enlightened teachers has the potential to undermine the foundations of Zen teachings, especially in the liberal West, and portends the need to re-evaluate our understandings of Zen history and the teachings of the Buddha. Brian Victoria has looked at the ethical issues enveloped within this thorny issue in the forthcoming article ‘An Ethical Critique of Wartime Zen’.

The documentary Zen and War is an interesting adjunct to Brian Victoria’s work. Whether one believes that Kono Taitsū or Harada Shōdō or Kei’itsu Hosokawa is sincere in their repentance is up to the viewer. One obvious lacuna in the film is the total absence of Brian Victoria. Indeed, his name is mentioned but once in the film and he was not even aware that the film was being made until it was finished. It would have been interesting to hear what Victoria thought about the statements made by the various Zen teachers in the film. Victoria addresses some of the issues raised by the Zen masters in the article mentioned above.

The issue here is not whether Japanese Zen masters supported the Japanese Imperialist war machine (many did) but once the war was over, what did they do about it? And the answer is, nothing. It was as if it had never happened. Some went to America to spread the Zen gospel; others stayed in their monasteries and continued the ceremonies and preaching as always. It was an unfortunate war, but this little black spot on Zen Buddhism should not be talked about or acknowledged. At least not until someone came along and exposed it and even then many denied any knowledge, or said it was the tenor of the times, an aberration. While it is true that during the Japanese military dictatorship speaking out was dangerous, this is not true after the war and yet none did speak up about the errors made by Japanese Zen Buddhism. The time is surely past when Japanese Zen needs a thorough look at itself and acknowledges what was done in its name.

What is clear through this film and Brian Victoria's work is that no religion has clean hands when it comes to war and killing. The Japanese Zen Buddhist support for war was not an aberration but a perfectly normal course of events. Christian, Hindu and Muslim support for war have a long, inglorious history. One only needs to look at today's world to see that all the major religions are supporting war and death. Buddhist Sri Lanka had a near-genocidal policy in their civil war against the Tamil minority. In Buddhist Myanmar, the Buddhist majority are suppresing the Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority, creating a refugee crisis in Southeast Asia 10. In other words, Buddhist support for war did not end with the Japanese Zen Buddhists at the end of the Second World War. What is clear is that all religions will support war if they feel it is in their interests to do so11. While the time is long overdue for Japanese Zen Buddhism to come to terms with its past, perhaps it is also time for Western Zen to take on board what has happened in the past and stop being 'surprised and dismayed' at what went on and think deeply about Zen's role in the West and how to right the wrongs that are prevelent in many Western Zen circles. There's a warning here for all of us who are involved in Zen Buddhism and we need to take heed or we, too, will slide into wrong doing.


1 The Fog of World War II Setting the Record Straight on D.T. Suzuki, Nelson Foster and Gary Snyder http://www.tricycle.com/feature/fog-world-war-ii

2 Yasutani Roshi: The Hardest Koan, Tricycle, Fall, 1999

3 For some of Victoria’s articles, see http://www.thezensite.com/MainPages/critical_zen.html

6 Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D.T. Suzuki, Brian Daizen Victoria, The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 30, No. 4, August 5, 2013,

8 There is some controversy about this quote, as reported by New Zealand report Peter Arnett. Although some deny that this was ever said, Captain Michael Miller, who was at the press conference, reports that the statement was indeed said. See http://www.nhe.net/BenTreVietnam/

9 “I will never apologize for the United States — I don't care what the facts are... I'm not an apologize-for-America kind of guy.” Statement of Vice-president George H. W. Bush, during a presidential campaign function (2 Aug 1988), commenting on the Navy warship USS Vincennes having shot down Iran Air Flight 655 in a commercial air corridor on July 3, killing 290 civilians, as quoted in "Perspectives", the quote of the week section of Newsweek (15 August 1988[1]) p. 15; also quoted in "Rally Round the Flag, Boys" by Michael Kingsley in TIME magazine (12 September 1988). Newsweek cites this phrase as said about the downing of the Iranian airliner to the group of the Republican ethnic leaders; see the citation from Bush Ethnic Coalition speech

Further Readings

Robert Aitken criticises Brian Victoria

Interview with Brian Victoria, Kyoto Journal

Violence Enabling Mechanisms in Buddhism, Brian Victoria

Buddhism and War: A Study of the Status of Violence in Early Buddhism By: James A. Stroble University of Hawai'i at Manoa December 17, 1991

Meditating On War And Guilt, Zen Says It's Sorry, Allan M. Jalon, The New York Times, January 11, 2003 

The Zen of Japanese Nationalism
, Robert H Sharf, History of Religions, Vol. 33, No. 1. (Aug., 1993), pp. 1-43