Book Review Written for Tricycle Magazine. A shortened version of this piece
will appear in the May 1998 issue of the magazine
Zen Holy War?
A book review by Josh Baran
Zen at War, Brian Victoria, Weatherhill, 228 pages, 1997, paperback,
Order here at
The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II,
Iris Chang, Basic Books, 290 pages, 1997, hardcover, $25.00
"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 ... extends to the
farthest reaches of the holy war now under way."
Zen Master Harada Daiun Sogaku - 1939
"Warriors who sacrifice their lives for the emperor will not die.
They will live forever. Truly they should be called gods and Buddhas for whom there is no
life or death. Where there is absolute loyalty there is no life or death."
Lieutenant Colonel Sugimoto Goro
"Since the Meiji period, our (Soto Zen) sect has cooperated in waging war."
Soto Zen Statement of Repentance - 1992
Think of "holy wars" and western religions come to mind. The God of Exodus
orders the extermination of the Caananites, instructing his chosen people to "show
them no pity". The commandment "Thou Shalt Not Kill" did not apply to
slaying gentiles. In 1095, Pope Urban II ordered crusaders to Jerusalem to "kill the
enemies of God." In two days, Christian soldiers slaughtered 40,000 Muslims who were
merely non-human "filth". "Wonderful sights," one crusader reported.
"Piles of heads, hands, and feet It was a just and splendid judgment of God that this
place should be filled with the blood of unbelievers." And even now, Islamic
terrorists proclaim "God is Great" as bombs explode in the Middle East.
On the other hand, Buddhism has always been portrayed as the religion of peace.
"There has never been a Buddhist war," I've heard many times over the years.
When the Sakya kingdom was threatened with invasion, the Buddha sat in meditation in the
path of the soldiers, stopping the attack. When the Indian King Asoka converted to
Buddhism, he curtailed his military escapades and erected peace pillars. When the Dharma
came to Tibet, it is said that the barbaric tribes were pacified. During the Vietnam War,
Buddhist monks set themselves on fire to protest the fighting.
And now a new study emerges that will radically shake up this view of Buddhism. Zen
at War is a courageous and exhaustively researched book by Brian Victoria, a
western Soto Zen priest and instructor at the University of Auckland. Victoria reveals the
inside story of the Japanese Zen establishment's dedicated support of the imperial war
machine from the late 1800's through World War II. He chronicles in detail how prominent
Zen leaders perverted the Buddhist teaching to encourage blind obedience, mindless
killing, and total devotion to the emperor. The consequences were catastrophic and the
impact can still be felt today.
Most western Buddhists will find this account heart- and mind-boggling. Enlightened Zen
Masters supporting war contradicts everything we know about the Buddhas teaching.
After World War II, the Japanese Zen tradition, like the nation itself, went into a
collective amnesia regarding its complicity in the war. So over 50 years of Buddhist
history have been hidden from outsiders and the Japanese themselves. They are just
beginning to confront what happened.
Zen at War could not have been written in Japan. To uncover
this information demanded a person outside the Japanese world of
loyalty who could dig deeply and ask uncomfortable questions. Victoria
was urged not publish his book. One Chinese priest suggested that
it would slander the Dharma. But, as Victoria rightly points out,
the truth is never slander. Zen at War is a major contribution
to understanding contemporary Zen and is a "must read"
for all serious Dharma students. It may be the most significant
Buddhist history book of the decade.
In facing what Robert Aitken Roshi has called "the dark side of our
heritage," we are entering some very complex terrain. First, we need to understand
the historical and cultural context. Secondly, we need the courage to explore the many
uncomfortable and difficult questions this story raises. It would be easy to dismiss this
as a Japanese wartime aberration that is long past and would never happen again. That
would be a mistake. There is a lot to learn here that could have profound effects as we
grow a Buddhist Sangha in the west.
First a little history. Buddhism became the state religion of Japan during the Tokugawa
era (1600-1868). Nearly half a million temples were built. The Buddhist priesthood became
an extension of the feudal government. Every household had to be affiliated with a local
temple. With such wealth and power came enormous liability. By the time the Meiji era
began in 1868, there was growing popular huge resentment against Buddhism. A nationwide
movement began to cleanse Japan of this "foreign religion" and to reinstate
Shinto as the only true Japanese tradition. Thousands of temples were closed, statues
destroyed and priests forcibly returned to lay life. The only way institutional Buddhism
could survive was to become part of the new imperial system.
According to Victoria, under the Shinto banner, the emperor was worshipped as a living
god -- "the selfless wisdom of the universe." Imperial law and the Dharma were
seen as identical -- "Imperial-way Zen" as opposed to the "Buddha-way
Zen." Basically, the emperor replaced the Buddha, the Japanese spirit and loyalty
replaced the Dharma, and the nation replaced the Sangha. Zen teachings were adapted to
conform to the new tradition. A famous "Zen soldier" wrote, "Seeking
nothing at all, you should simply completely discard both body and mind, and unite with
As the century began, Japan was emerging from hundreds of years of isolation. In many
ways, this war mind began in 1894 with the Sino-Japanese war and the Japanese victories in
China and Korea and later successes in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). Japan's
national pride inflated and they yearned to be a "first-class nation" - a modem
world power that could counter Western expansion and create its own empire in the east.
This island nations isolation bred an all-pervading arrogance. Japan saw itself as
divine, racially and culturally superior, "flawless" and "the only Buddhist
country". Non-Japanese were called " Jama gedo"unruly
heathens. Japan was "saving Asia" by spreading the pure Japanese, " Yamato
damashii" which took on cosmic proportions.
Japanese Zen, especially the Rinzai lineage, had long been linked to the samurai
culture and bushido, the way of the sword. For hundreds of years, Zen Masters
trained samurai warriors in meditation, teaching them enhanced concentration and will
power. Zen helped them face adversity and death with no hesitation, to be totally loyal
and act without thinking. To put it bluntly, bushido was a spiritual way of killing
infused with Zen philosophy. The sword had always been a Buddhist symbol for cutting
through delusion, but under bushido it was taken literally, evolving from metaphor
into concrete reality. The sword became an object of veneration and obsession, idealized
At the beginning of the century, bushido was permeating Japan, "the
samuriazation of the nation." Now, it expanded from feudal villages and local temples
to the battlefields of Manchuria and eventually Guam and Pearl Harbor.
Victoria pinpoints Shaku Soen (1859-1919) as one of the first Zen Masters to
enthusiastically embrace war as Zen training. Well-known as D. T. Suzuki's teacher,
Soen is revered in the history of Buddhism in the West as the first Zen teacher to visit
the United States. In the war against Russia, Soen served as a chaplain in 1904. "I
wished to inspire," Soen later wrote, "our valiant soldiers with the ennobling
thoughts of the Buddha, so as to enable them to die on the battlefield with confidence
that the task in which they are engaged is great and noble. I wish to convince them....
that this war is not a mere slaughter of their fellow-beings, but that they are combating
From Soen's point of view, since everything was one essence, war and peace were
identical. Everything reflected the glory of Buddha, including war. And since the Buddha's
main purpose was to subjugate evil, and since the enemy of Japan was inherently evil, war
against evil was the essence of Buddhism. "In the present hostilities," Soen
wrote, "into which Japan has entered with great reluctance, she pursues no egotistic
purpose, but seeks the subjugation of evils hostile to civilization, peace and
enlightenment." (Japan's invasion of Russia was entirely self-serving and hardly
reluctant.). To Soen, war was " an inevitable step toward the final realization of
Soen used the phrases "just war" and "holy war." Japan was engaged
in a "war of compassion" fought by bodhisattva soldiers against the enemies of
Buddha. As Rinzai Zen Master Nantembo (1839 - 1925) preached, there was "no
bodhisattva practice superior to the compassionate taking of life." (Soen considered
any opposition to war as "a product of egotism.") Reading these words now, they
seem clear examples of disturbed religious thinking. Buddhist teachings, language and
symbols, like any religion, can be perverted and twisted to support nationalism and
violence. It is important to note that Soen is not some fringe crackpot. He is still
almost worshipped in Japan as one of the great "fully enlightened" Zen Masters
of our time.
Shodo Harada Roshi is a Rinzai teacher and abbot of Sogenji,
the largest Zen temple in western Japan, located in Okayama. He
has dedicated his life to providing traditional Zen training to
westerners. Since his zendo has both men and women, he is considered
outside the mainstream. The presence of women disqualifies his temple
from issuing formal priest certificates. He is clearly not interested
in being part of the official system and will soon be moving his
community to Whidby Island, near Seattle.
We are having bitter green tea on a cold March morning discussing
Zen and its wartime record. This has been a big issue for him. Harada's
teacher, Yamada Mumon (1900 - 1988), was he
chief abbot of Myoshinji, the great Rinzai head temple. Mumons
teacher was Seki Seisetsu (1877 - 1945), a highly
respected Zen Master and a war champion. Seitetsu authored a book
promoting Zen and bushido. Just before the fall of Nanking,
Seisetsu went on national radio to say: "Showing the utmost
loyalty to the emperor is identical with engaging in the religious
practice of Mahayana Buddhism. This is because Mahayana Buddhism
is identical with the law of the sovereign." He then called
for the "extermination of the red devils" (Communists)
both in Japan and in China.
Seisetsu carried his message to the battlefield, visiting the Chinese
front in 1938. Throughout the war years, Mumon served his master,
accompanying him on his military trips and editing his writings.
After the war and Seisetu's death, Mumon began to express sorrow
about his participation in the war. "He told me that nothing
he could ever do could make up for his complicity," Harada
says. "Everywhere he went, he talked about peace. He traveled
to many places where Japan had caused suffering -- Guam, Borneo,
the Philippines - to talk about peace."
Mumon never criticized his master, Seisetsu, but saw his repentance
as a personal campaign for peace. Harada, who grew up after the
war, sees the entire Zen lineage in the shadow of this betrayal
of basic Buddhist principles. He agrees that Zen's war complicity
must thoroughly explored or we will have learned nothing and the
root causes will reassert themselves. He is direct and honest. Although
he wants to explain the historical context, he makes no excuses
for what happened. He feels that the head temples must take the
lead in this, but I can tell by the tone of his voice, that he really
doesnt think this will ever happen. Over and over he says,
"this is a big problem, a big problem."
Victoria identifies Sawaki Kodo (1880-1965), one of the
great Soto Zen patriarchs of this century, as an evangelical war
proponent. Serving in Russia as a soldier, he happily related how
he and his comrades had "gorged ourselves on killing people."
Later, in 1942, he wrote, "It is just to punish those who disturb
the public order. Whether one kills or does not kill, the precept
forbidding killing [is preserved]. It is the precept forbidding
killing that wields the sword. It is the precept that throws the
The "precept throws the bomb?" This is an astonishing
abuse of Zen language. Kodo also advocated, as did other Zen teachers,
that if killing is done without thinking, in a state of no-mind
or no-self, then the act is a expression of enlightenment. No thinking
= No-mind = No-self = No karma. In this bizarre equation, the victims
are always left out, as if they are irrelevant. Killing is just
an elegant expression of the koan. When Colonel Aizawa Saburo was
being tried for murdering another general in 1935, he testified,
"I was in an absolute sphere, so there was neither affirmation
nor negation, neither good nor evil." This approach to Zen
is ultimately a perverse narcissism or even nihilism. Of course,
the obvious question that was never asked -- if there is no self,
why is there any need to kill?
Victoria has brought to light the actual words of these leaders
and the written record of this period. Zen at War contains
dozens of similar passages from leading teachers, proving that this
distortion was the rule, not the exception. There were some pacifists,
but they were few. Some priests who opposed the war may have quietly
retired to distant country temples, but they probably left no record.
Shunryu Suzuki Roshi (Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind), the founder
of the San Francisco Zen Center, reportedly was involved with some
anti-war activities during World War II. But according to David
Chadwick who is writing a book on Suzuki life, the record is confusing
and, at most, his actions were low-key.
The noted Zen writer D. T. Suzuki's early writing reflected the
influence of Soen's teachings. (To be fair, by 1940, Suzuki had
changed his tune considerably). In 1896 as the war with China began,
he wrote, "religion should, first of all, seek to preserve
the existence of the state." Like his teacher, he saw the enemies
of Japan as "unruly heathens" who needed to be tamed and
conquered or who would otherwise "interrupt the progress of
humanity. In the name of religion, our country could not submit
to this." Going to war, he called "religious conduct."
Suzuki used poetic language in praise of Japanese soldiers. "Our
soldiers regard their own lives as being as light as goose feathers
while their devotion to duty is as heavy as Mount Taishan (in China).
Should they fall on the battlefields, they have no regrets."
This metaphor of "goose feathers" would become a major
point of military indoctrination, teaching recruits and the young
kamikaze ("divine wind") pilots that their individual
lives were meaningless and had no weight. Only total devotion to
the emperor would give their existence meaning. Suzuki also popularized
the bushido concept of the "sword that gives life"
that was used over and over again to rationalize killing. Years
later, the Japanese ambassador would use this phrase on "the
sword that gives life" in a speech at Hilter's chancellery
in Berlin following the signing of the Tripartite Pact on September
Victoria points out that all Buddhists sects supported the war
publicly and enthusiastically. If they didn't, the consequences
would have been severe, especially in a country that values loyalty
to the group above all else. Victoria provides numerous examples.
Both the Rinzai and Soto leadership were active in providing spiritual
support to the military leadership and the soldiers at the front.
Many well-known generals were private Zen students of famous Roshis.
Zen priests were sent to the front as chaplains and missionaries.
Sojiji, the Soto head temple, organized a sect-wide project to
handwrite over ten million copies of the Heart Sutra, some in blood,
to generate merit for the war effort. Most Zen students are familiar
with the formal dedication of merit (ekobun) after sutra
recitation. Both traditions changed their ekobun to pray
for "the continuing victory in the holy war" and "unending
military fortune." The Soto sect raised money for two fighter
planes, aptly named Soto No. 1 and Soto No. 2. Not to be outdone,
the Rinzai head temple of Myoshinji contributed three fighter planes
to the imperial navy. The Bodhisattva of compassion, Kanzeon, was
officially renamed, "Kanzeon Shogun" and invoked to bring
greater victory in the "holy war." (This would be the
equivalent of renaming Jesus Christ, Jesus General.)
Kyoto - Hanazono University - Institute for Zen Studies. I am meeting
with Masataka Toga, the director of the Institute and one
of Mumon Roshl's other successors. Hanazono is the Rinzai university
and the institute is an official clearing house for their fourteen
"The war period," Toga says, "is the most painful
topic. I wish I never had to think about it" For some years,
he has talked about it, but in a quiet personal way. He participated
in a few academic conferences. The Rinzai sect has never spoken
officially or publicly about its war time activities.
When we talk about how the Rinzai sect could discuss this more
openly, we enter into something of a clash of cultures. I ask him
if there would ever be a sectwide meeting or articles written on
the war. That is just not the way it works in Rinzai, he explains.
With so many head temples, there is no single approach or forum
to address an issue like this. There will be no open exchange. And
the war is too recent, he says, "too alive" and "too
fresh." It would be disrespectful to their senior priests to
talk of such matters while they are alive. In any case, such discussions
would be on a private level.
"In Japanese Zen," Toga explains, "loyalty is most
important. Loyalty to one's teacher and the tradition is more important
than the Buddha and Dharma," This makes frank debate on the
war period difficult since many masters said things that could be
criticized. He agrees but says that if he questions their teachings,
he would have to leave the tradition. He is clearly uncomfortable
with this topic. When I mention one of the more extreme quotes from
Victorias book, where a Zen Master promoted killing as Buddhist
practice, he dismisses it, saying, "no one really taught that."
I leave with a sense of sadness. There is so much that needs to
be explored, but from this discussion, I see little hope. The Buddha
never taught that loyalty was more important than truth or compassion.
Blind loyalty outside the zendo can and did have disastrous results.
Until key assumptions can be questioned, the roots of warrior Zen
remain alive and well.
Japans major war began in 1931 with the invasion of Manchuria.
From the mid-1930's, Zen academics and abbots embarked on an intellectual
campaign to justify their war participation. They taught that "compassionate
war" was a Bodhisattva practice and was of great benefit to
Japans enemies. As one Soto philosopher wrote, "there
is no choice but to wage compassionate wars which give life to both
oneself and one's enemy. Through a compassionate war, warring nations
are able to improve themselves and war is able to exterminate itself
" During this period, millions of Chinese were dying and cities
were being decimated.
In 1937, D. T. Suzuki was finishing Zen and Japanese Culture,
in which he wrote that Zen "treats life and death indifferently"
and "is a religion that teaches us not to look backward once
the course is decided." He wrote that Zen "has no special
doctrine or philosophy. It is therefore extremely flexible in adapting
itself to almost any philosophy and moral doctrine as long as its
intuitive teaching is not interfered with." Zen can be "wedded
to anarchism or fascism, communism or democracy.... or any political
or economic dogmatism."
What is this "Zen" that Suzuki described? In Suzuki's
"Zen", there is no clear moral position or teaching, you
just merge with your circumstances: So, for example, when in Nazi
Germany, you would be a perfect Nazi. In Suzuki's "Zen,"
once a course is set, you don't reconsider, even if it causes pain
or is foolish. And in his "Zen" killing is treated with
indifference, along presumably with the suffering it creates. What
a strange and heartless "Zen" this is. Clearly, this "Zen"
is different from Mahayana Buddhism that teaches compassion and
wisdom. Perhaps we need a new name for this. I would argue that
there are two main streams in Zen in Japan: Not Soto and Rinzai,
but one Zen based in the Bodhisattva path and another based in the
way of will-power, non-thinking and loyalty - a way that is indifferent
to the welfare of others and the law of karma.
As Suzuki wrote these words, Japanese troops were marching towards
the ancient city of Nanking. They were indeed going to act out the
Zen bushido creed and "treat life and death indifferently."
They did not look back. In December 1937, the Japanese army seized
the city, then the capital of the Republic of China. Japan was in
its sixth year of its invasion of China. Millions were dying. Japan
had already conquered Peking, Tientin and Shanghai.
Iris Chang, whose grandparents escaped the city just before
it fell, has written a brilliant and chilling account of this terrible
war chapter. The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of
World War II finally chronicles a catastrophe that many Japanese
still deny ever happened.
The Japanese invaders took full control of the city on December
13. In seven short weeks, they engaged in "an orgy of cruelty
seldom if ever matched in world history." They brutally murdered,
raped and tortured as many as 350,000 Chinese civilians. In this
bloodbath, more people died than at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.
For months, the city was filled with piles of rotting corpses.
Nearly 80,000 women were raped and mutilated, many gang-raped.
Soldiers disemboweled women. Fathers were forced to rape their daughters,
sons their mothers. All kinds of inhuman torture were practiced
without remorse. Children and the elderly were not spared. Thousands
of young men were beheaded, burned alive or used for bayonet practice.
Japanese leaders had been demonizing the Chinese for decades as
the "unruly heathens" that Soen and Suzuki spoke of. As
one commander preached to his unit, "you must not consider
the Chinese as human beings, but only as something of rather less
value than a dog or a cat." The Chinese were also referred
to as "pigs", "raw materials" and even lumber.
The barbarism was so intense that the Nazis in the city were horrified,
one declaring the slaughter to be the product of a "bestial
machinery." Chang recounts the following incident:
"In teaching new Japanese soldiers how to behead Chinese civilians,
Tominaga Shozo recalled how Second Lieutenant Tanaka instructed
his group. "Heads should be cut off like this," he said,
unsheathing his army sword. He scooped water from a bucket with
a dipper, then poured it over both sides of the blade. Swishing
off the water, he raised his sword in a long arc. Standing behind
the prisoner, Tanaka steadied himself, legs spread apart and cut
off the man's head with a shout, 'Yo!' The head flew more than a
meter away. Blood spurted up in two fountains from the body and
sprayed into the hole. The scene was so appalling that I felt I
couldn't breathe. "
This is Zen bushido in action: Killing as high art. The soldiers
are being taught the perfect etiquette in beheading -- the exact
way to cleanse the sword, the proper way to swing the weapon, the
strong virile shout. With this image in mind, consider the following
passage that D. T. Suzuki wrote at the same time as the Nanking
"... the art of swordsmanship distinguishes between
the sword that kills and the sword that gives life. The one that
is used by a technician cannot go any further than killing.... The
case is altogether different with the one who is compelled to lift
the sword. For it is really not he but the sword itself that does
the killing. He had no desire to harm anybody, but the enemy appears
and makes himself a victim. It is though the sword automatically
performs its function of justice, which is the function of mercy
the swordsman turns into an artist of the first grade, engaged in
producing a work of genuine originality."
In the light of Nanking, Suzuki's writing is grotesque. The spiritual
justification for killing and mass brutality is undeniably the worst
perversion of religion imaginable. It is truly deplorable that Zen
could devolve into this kind of glorification of slaughter. This
is pornography, not art. Also, from a Dharma point of view, this
teaching is totally ridiculous on so many levels.
Many historians have had difficulty in understanding the Japanese
brutality in Nanking. Zen at War provides some significant
missing pieces in helping us comprehend the underlying mind of the
As Chang relates: "Some Japanese soldiers admitted it was
easy for them to kill because they had been taught that next to
the emperor, all individual life even their own -- was valueless."
Japanese soldier Azuma Shiro reported that during his two years
of military training, "... he was taught that 'loyalty is heavier
than a mountain, and our life is like a feather.'
to die for
the emperor was the greatest glory, to be caught alive by the enemy
the greatest shame. 'If my life was not important, an enemy's life
became inevitably much less important.... This philosophy led us
to look down on the enemy and eventually to the mass murder and
ill treatment of captives."'
Chang's gripping investigation provides us with the actual consequences
of the twisted religious philosophy that supported and fueled the
Japanese military machine.
For Zen students in the 1970s, Phillip Kapleaus The
Three Pillars of Zen was the bible. The stars of the book were
Kapleaus teacher, Hakuun Yasutani Roshi (1885 1973)
and his teacher, Daiun Sogaku Harada Roshi (1870 1961). Kapleau
said of Harada: "He welded together the best of Soto and Rinzai
and the resulting amalgam was a vibrant Buddhism which has become
one of the great teaching lines in Japan today." What Kapleau
neglected to mention and probably did not know was that Harada was
one of the most rabid warmongers in the Zen world.
According to Victoria, as early as 1915, Harada taught "war
Zen". Using war as the main metaphor, he saw the entire universe
as being at war. "Without plunging into the war arena, it is
totally impossible to know the Buddha Dharma. It is impermissible
to forget war even for an instant," he wrote. However, by the
early 1930s, Haradas war was no longer symbolic.
"The spirit of Japan is the Great Way of the Shinto gods,"
Harada preached. "It is the essence of the Truth. The Japanese
people are a chosen people whose mission is to control the world.
The sword that kills is also the sword that gives life. Comments
opposing the war are the foolish opinions of those who can only
see one aspect of things and not the whole."
It is Harada who is equated battlefield loyalty, marching and shooting
with the "highest wisdom of enlightenment." He called
this "combat zazen, the king of meditation." As Japan
was losing, his rhetoric became even more extreme. In preparation
for a possible invasion, Harada called on the entire nation to be
willing to die for the emperor. "If you see the enemy you must
kill him; you must destroy the false and establish the true
these are the cardinal points of Zen. It is said further that if
you kill someone, it is fitting that you see his blood."
Personally, I found Haradas words the most disturbing. Over
the years, I had read his letters in The Three Pillars of Zen
many times, finding his teaching enormously inspiring. How could
someone so brilliant in one area, but so heartless in another? Is
this the mind of an "enlightened" master?
According to Victoria, Haradas main successor, Yasutani Roshi
was an ardent right-wing nationalist and anti-communist after the
war. Also using vitriolic language, Yasutani called for the universities
to be "smashed one and all" and called the unions "traitors
to the nation."
Tokyo. Soto Zen Headquarters. A six-story office building adjacent
to the Tokyo Grand Hotel, both of which are owned by the Soto sect.
With its 15,000 temples, Soto is three times larger than Rinzai.
In 1992, the Soto sect issued an official "Statement of Repentance".
And just as I arrive in Japan, the sect's English language quarterly
publishes an apology for its wartime missionary activities. The
".... The Soto Zen school as a religious organization supported
Japan's acts of aggression in China. Under the pretext of overseas
missionary activities' it supported Japanese militarism and even
participated actively in that militarism. This is extremely regrettable
from the standpoint of religious persons. Unless this negative legacy
of the School becomes the object of clear self-criticism, it will
remain impossible to take the stance of opening our hearts toward
other peoples in a spirit of true exchange."
Reading this, I recall Zen Master Dogens teaching on contrition
(sange), which is considered the first step in Soto Zen.
Before a person takes the traditional Buddhist refuges, she acknowledges
all previous wrongdoing caused by greed, aversion and delusion.
I meet with Lester Yoshinami of the International Division who
explains how the Soto leadership has been open to self-examination
for last few years. In 1980, the sect published History of the
Soto Zen Overseas Missionary Activities which was uncritical
propaganda, glorifying the sect's wartime behavior and its efforts
to spread Japanese Zen in Korea and China. This sparked a sectwide
reexamination of its war activities and all copies of the book were
recalled. Their quarterly publication is filled with critical articles
But Yoshinami tells me that the war is not currently an important
issue for the Soto school. They are focusing on the human rights
of the buraku, the untouchables of Japanese society. But there is
a willingness to face the war. "This is a hard issue for Japan,
not just the Zen school," he says. "We dont want
to acknowledge our war crimes." He talks about possible future
ways to broaden the discussion. Unlike Rinzai, there is movement
here and a spirit of self-reflection.
The Buddha once said that to understand everything is to forgive
everything. What happened in Japan must be explored fully, so it
can be both understood and transformed. Zen Master Hakuin taught,
"where there is thorough questioning there will be a thoroughgoing
experience of awakening."
It is crucial not to dismiss this as merely a Japanese political
problem. The Zen leadership did not just go along with the wartime
bandwagon, they were often the bandleaders. Placing what happened
in context of history and politics in no way reduces the responsibility
of the Zen tradition.
In Zen, there is the ancient image of a red-hot iron ball stuck
in your throat that you cannot spit out or swallow. For Japanese
Zen, the war is this iron ball. It is one gigantic living koan.
It will not go away, even when the last survivors die off. It must
be investigated honestly if Zen is to remain a meaningful and real
tradition. Truth denied is enlightenment denied.
This total betrayal of compassion did not just take place during
World War II. For six hundred years, one Zen Master bragged, the
Rinzai school had been engaged in "enhancing military power."
For centuries, Zen was intimately involved in the way of killing.
This is the simple truth. Of course, only some temples and some
teachers, were involved, but this aspect of Zen was a significant
part of Japanese culture and became dominant for nearly one hundred
years. In fact, the extremes of the war were the full flower of
this heartless Zen that had been evolving in Japan. The sword was
real and millions died. The most excessive situations show us the
inherent distortions that exist from the beginning.
For many Zen students, the most difficult aspect will be how to
face the words and actions of these highly esteemed Zen Masters.
How can we hold these overwhelming contradictions? These were the
living Buddhas of the Zen tradition -- men regarded as "fully
enlightened," who had satori experiences, underwent intense
training, received the official transmission and teaching seals.
Many were brilliant charismatic teachers and koan masters. And simultaneously,
these same Zen Masters, were swept away in nationalist delusion,
perverted Buddhist and Zen teachings, and exhibited a total lack
of compassion and wisdom. They participated directly in the deaths
of tens of millions of people. There is no greater abuse of the
What is going on here? This simply cant be ignored or casually
brushed aside as a minor matters. Either these masters werent
"enlightened" or their "enlightenment" did not
include compassion and wisdom. What Zen is this that they are masters
of? These questions are not supposed to be thought about, let alone
openly considered. If they cant bring up these questions in
Japan, then we will do it here in the West. We have to ask these
questions even if they are difficult to answer and make us uncomfortable.
It is just too important.
This is our iron ball koan. What kind of Zen we are practicing
here in the West? For too long, we have been overly na´ve and uncritical.
The Buddha never taught that we should give up our rational thinking
and intelligence. For too long, we have accepted all eastern teaching
with childlike reverence, placing our thinking faculties on hold.
Perhaps now, with these new revelations, it is time to re-honor
intelligence and questioning and look more carefully at what we
inherited and where we are headed. The noted psychologist Robert
Jay Lifton said that religion cam be dangerous. It is essential
to know the shadows of the spiritual traditions we follow. In the
light of Zen at War, shadows can have enormous harmful consequences.
We ignore or deny them at our peril.
We need to know the mechanics of how the Buddha Way can turn into
this horrific form of heartless Zen. This is not about orthodoxy
or purity: It is about compassion and insight. This is not about
condemning the Japanese, but as one Sangha, helping each other awaken
Spiritual traditions also go through periods of light and dark,
brilliance and corruption. Zen is one of the truly great traditions
in the history of religion. But it will only continue to survive
genuinely if we can face our demons.
Brian Victoria has done Zen a great service by devoting many years
to this uncovering. May it bear fruit.