Note: This piece was originally written in 1997 for Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. Because of length, Tricycle ended up editing it down. I decided to re-post the full article here, with some minor later edits. Brian Victoria subsequently published a second book, Zen War Stories, as well as writing many follow-up article. Zen at War was mostly ignored when it first came out. American Zen students were not interested in thinking about this issue. Some years later, there was more open discussion as well as controversy about Victoria's views on D.T. Suzuki and Sawaki Kodo. In addition, one of the Rinzai head temples addressed the war issues and had a public forum, so things are slowly changing in Japan... as Zen slowly fades away.
Zen Holy War?
A book review by Josh Baran
Zen at War by Brian Victoria
Weatherhill (1997) - 228 pages
"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 an estimated 40,000 Muslims who were branded as 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, nearly a thousand years later, Islamic terrorists proclaim "God is Great "as bombs explode in the Middle East and foreign capitals.
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 a totally peaceful 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 Buddha's teaching. After World War II, the Japanese Zen tradition, like the nation itself, went into a collective and willful 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 researcher/ author would need to be outside the Japanese world of loyalty so he 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 Buddhism takes root 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 worshiped 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 what had been called "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 the emperor."
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 nation's 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 hesitation or 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 and worshiped.
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 an evil."
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 enlightenment."
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 venerated 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 he teaches men and women together, 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.
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 the chief abbot of Myoshinji, the great Rinzai head temple. Mumon's teacher was Seki Seisetsu (1877 - 1945), a highly respected Zen Master and 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 openly 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 be 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 Rinzai head temples must take the lead in this, but I can tell by the tone of his voice, that he really doesn't 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 the last 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 bomb."
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 that they call 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 Zen 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 "the sword that gives life "in a speech at Hitler's chancellery in Berlin following the signing of the Tripartite Pact on September 27, 1940.
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 hand-write 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 sect's fourteen official head temples.
"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. Until this point, the Rinzai sect has never spoken officially or publicly about its war time activities.
When we talk about how the Rinzai sect could discuss their war complicity more openly, we enter into something of a clash of cultures. I ask him if there would ever be a sect-wide 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. He emphasizes that 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 Victoria's 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.
Japan's 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 Japan's 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 his major book 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." He preached that 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 Nanking, 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 massacre:
"... 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 frankly 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 false 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 Japanese military.
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 1970's, Phillip Kapleau's The Three Pillars of Zen was the bible. The stars of the book were Kapleau's 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 had been 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 1930's, Harada's 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 Harada's words the most disturbing in Victoria's book. 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? Can a person be enlightened and promote slaughter?
According to Victoria, Harada's 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, the Soto sect is three times larger than the Rinzai school, although many of the Soto temples are vacant.
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 article says:
".... 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 the words of the Japanese founder of the Soto sect, Zen Master Dogen's 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, hatred and delusion.
At the Soto Head Office, 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 publication sparked a sect-wide reexamination of its war activities and all copies of the book were recalled. Their quarterly publication is filled with critical articles and statements.
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, and how the Soto school mistreated them for centuries. But there is a willingness to face the war. "This is a hard issue for Japan, not just the Zen school," he says. "We don't want to acknowledge our war crimes." He talks about possible future ways to broaden the discussion. Unlike Rinzai, there is movement in the Soto tradition and a spirit of self-reflection.
The Buddha is reported to have said that to understand everything is to forgive everything. What happened in Japan should 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."
I believe that 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 old Zen teachers 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. 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 enlightenment 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, empathy and wisdom. They participated directly in the deaths of tens of millions of people. There is no greater abuse of the Dharma possible.
What is going on here? These contradictions simply can't be ignored or casually brushed aside as a minor matters. Either these masters weren't "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 can't 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 are we practicing here in the West? For too long, we have been overly naive 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 can 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 authentically.
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.