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Zen at War (2nd Edition) Paperback – June 22, 2006
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Praise for the first edition: In this carefully documented study, Brian Victoria discloses the incredible intellectual dishonesty of Japanese Buddhists who perverted their religion into a jingoistic doctrine of support for the emperor and imperial expansion during the period 1868-1945. Good job! We must face this dark side of our heritage squarely.... -- Robert Aitken, retired Roshi, Honolulu Diamond Sangha
Zen at War is an incendiary book and an essential cautionary tale for anyone wanting to apply Buddhist teachings. Brian Victoria is a genuinely radical historian who asks followers of Zen–and by extension all Buddhists–to look beyond the pristine, other-worldly image the tradition has presented and understand the deep compromises that came from its relationship with power. Much more than an exposé, Zen at War challenges Buddhists to think through the ethical consequences of venerated doctrines and examine them in light of the Buddha's original teaching. Despite the efforts of some Zen apologists to minimize the significance of Brian Victoria's findings, the first edition lit a fire under Zen and the new edition adds fuel by extending the book's critique back into Buddhist history. It is an important contribution to western Buddhism. -- Vishvapani, editor of Dharma Life magazine
An important and well-written work . . . This new edition significantly expands the text . . . Especially important is Victoria's well-documented contention that Buddhist involvement with buttressing political establishments is not new but can be traced to the time of King Ashoka in ancient India. . . Finally the author calls all Buddhists to thoughtful consideration and repudiation of "Nation-Protecting Buddhism" as a betrayal of the essential teachings . . . Recommended., CHOICE
Victoria's extensive research- along with translations of lengthy quotations- substantially adds to our knowledge of the relationship between Buddhism and Japanese nationalism and imperialism....the content is often very interesting..., Journal of Asian Studies
Praise for the first edition:Zen at War is a stunning contribution to our understanding of Japanese militarism and the broader issue of war responsibility as it continues to be addressed (and ignored) in contemporary Japan. Victoria's great sensitivity to the perversion and betrayal of Buddhism's teachings about compassion and nonviolence makes his indictment of the role played by Imperial War Buddhists in promoting ultranationalism and aggression all the more striking―and all the more saddening. -- John Dower, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; author of War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War
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Victoria's books are an object-lesson to anyone interested in buddhism. Not just folks interested in zen, but all schools of buddhism. Object-lesson for what, you ask...? For one thing, they are certainly a wake-up-call to quit being so naive about one's chosen authority figures. Yes, even famous ones who are supposedly "enlightened"...as Victoria reveals time and time again, Japan's most famous zen masters (and other thinkers) supported the war effort and perverted the buddhist message of compassion into a brutal militaristic form of brainwashing, twisting the traditional doctrine of "no-self" (mushin) into a exhortation to kill without reflective thinking or remorse. Certainly many Asian countries involved in the War (China, Korea, Philippines, etc.) can testify the brainwashing was highly effective on Japanese soldiers, and Japan has yet to fully acknowledge it's guilt in all the resulting brutality. Indeed, national apologies are painful to admit. Japan has come some way in acknowledging some of this inhumanity, but as Victoria reveals, and as other countries are well-aware, the efforts have come decades too late and the apologies have been feeble...
Why did all this support for militaristic brutality occur, and what happened to turn highly-regarded religious figures into war-mongers? The answer lies in the peculiar culture of Japan itself. In essence, the cult of the sword goes back to the very origins of the nation. I see several traditional influences at work here, although Mr. Victoria doesn't go into heavy sociological analysis of Japan's warrior past. One factor is, in indigenous Shinto, the early animistic religion of the island, the sword was regarded as a sacred symbol. One can easily see how easily an early belief in the divinity of the sword could play into Japan's militaristic history...and in fact did. As for Japan's long "warrior" tradition, readers need no reminding how huge the samurai image has been throughout Japan's history...it pretty much defines Japanese culture even up to today. Heck, comic books today are full of legends of swordsmen heroes that continue to inspire Japanese youth...
Another factor in shaping the W.W. II Japanese mentality was a revival of Emperor worship, which the author shows was linked with many right-wing ideologies. Japan's right wing had long been distrustful of the Meiji Period's collaboration with the West, and with what they saw as a weakening concession to Western powers. To right-wingers, Japan's entrance into the modern Western technological age heralded a loss of the nation's "spiritual" essence. As a result, these right-wing groups reacted against Westernization by insisting that the Emperor's (symbolic) ruling powers actually be restored ("tenno-syugi"). In short, a "cult of the Emperor" was seen as an antidote to foreign influences. This should NOT be seen, however, as any particular affection or devotion for the emperor; many right-wingers actually despised the empty shell the emperor role had become. While old Shinto ideas on the "divinity" of the emperor were promoted, these images were deliberately used by ultra-nationalist thinkers to foster national unity and a sense of cultural identity. Religion, after all, is a great tool for "group-think"- send the people to the shrines, and make them all think the same way...
Add to all these influences a widespread racial superiority complex, still held today by some right-wing Japanese in important positions in government and industry, and you have a recipe for potential problems.
Well, in W.W.II, all these factors merged together and produced an ugly mentality- a huge nationalistic pride, a conviction Japan was destined for greatness, and a perception that other Asians (not to mention gaijin, i.e., foreigners) were inferior and could be conquered by the "Japanese spirit". Alas, Japanese leaders made fatal errors in judging the ability of Western nations to win the war, despite the West's obvious advantage in technological and industrial might. The defeat of Japan was a crushing national psychological blow to this myth of Japanese spiritual superiority, needless to say.
But enough about W.W. II, veterans and history buffs need no reminding about the infamous Japanese military psyche. For our purposes here, what is instructive is how supposedly "enlightened" buddhist teachers in Japan were sucked into the nationalistic spiel and themselves encouraged and contributed to military brainwashing of soldiers, resulting in a brutal inhuman treatment of other nations. It is not only a dark period of Japanese religious history, the situation speaks in general of the failure of so-called "enlightenment" experiences ("satori" or "kensho") to transform a buddhist authority figure into the bodhisattva ideal they are supposed to become...in fact, tellingly, it made no difference.
Ah, well, somebody might say, that all happened in the past- of what relevance is that today? The answer is not completely comforting because, unfortunately, the same elements are still in place in Japan, lurking somewhat below the surface in the right-wing ideologies held by powerful factions in business and industry. And unfortunately, the buddhism in Japan is always susceptible to these influences. (Interested readers of Victoria's books will also find instructive an expansion of the theme of zen and Japanese nationalism in articles by buddhist scholar Robert Sharf). In saying this, one should not associate these militaristic right-wing feelings with the typical Japanese citizen, who might well be horrified at these inhuman events if they thought about it much, but of course young (and old) Japanese are reluctant to revisit a painful past.
So why should buddhists in general be humbled by all these war revelations? Apart from demonstrating that claims of "enlightenment" are no guarantee that famous teachers have transformed lives, another observation is that we see a great deal of gullibility on the part of zen students everywhere. This, in a religion supposedly teaching students how to see things clearly... Those who are familiar with numerous scandals in the United States, for instance, concerning certain teachers (American and Asian) in both the Tibetan and Zen traditions, not to mention scandals of corruption in Japan, etc., should realize buddhism hardly fares better than other religions in tales of human fraility. It is human nature to attach to one's teacher and be uncritical when the latter's behavior gets questionable, but since we now have documented proof "enlightened" masters are no better than others, one begins to wonder when buddhist devotees, particularly Western students, will learn from past mistakes about putting esteemed teachers (Asian or otherwise) on a pedestal. It was truly a shock that these Japanese heroes held in such high esteem turned out to be such brutal human beings... The entire master/student relationship as defined in traditional Asian culture, with all of the problems this cultural expectation entails when brought into Western culture, needs to be discussed regarding these naive tendencies of students. It is a fascinating topic in itself, but we don't have space here.
Wait just a minute, Christians and other religions, you're not off the hook either...there is always a tendency to venerate one's authority figure and be (sometimes willingly) blind toward the latter's faults and failings or abuses, but this gullibility needs to be addressed. There certainly seems to be something in the typical religious mentality that venerates authority figures beyond what common sense should allow, an observation that skeptics of religion see very clearly. Alas, the true believers tend not to see the problems here...just witness the blind eye believers have toward the material excesses of your typical TV evangelical preachers.
Not a desirable situation by any means. Gullibility on the part of believers; deception and greed on the part of leaders. Of course this picture does not describe everybody, but if it weren't a continuing pattern, nobody would need to bring it up.
To sum up, Mr. Victoria deserves all the acclaim and praise his books have generated; his work in uncovering the realities of the situation in Japan is a monumental effort and one many would not liked to have tackled. I'm sure he didn't like it. But honesty and integrity are obviously very important to him. What else can I say? I'm grateful. We all should be.
The war mongering and violence these people perpetrated is no better or worse than what the rest of us who profess to follow a religious pass come to. Think of "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition." We do what we would not do.
I think it is typical, too, that when we read about the philosophies or religious of another culture, we tend to see the best and forget to put it in a human context. All over the world, there are wonderful Christians, wonderful Muslims, wonderful Jews, wonderful Zen Buddhists, wonderful Tibetan Buddhists, wonderful Hindus, etc, etc. But is also just as equally true that you can find serial murderers in each group, mean spirited people, violent people, hateful people, and bigoted people. It is just the way reality cuts through the heart of things.
So, I truly enjoyed this book. What I especially liked was the painstaking research that still produced a very readable work. And it is always enlightening to see the way spiritual words can be twisted to serve this world.
I highly recommend this book.
This book shows very clearly what you get when you let someone else run your spiritual life: You get Jonestown.
I don't like what the Japanese Buddhists did during the war. I don't like what the Christians did either.
Both religions have precepts/commandments that include : Do not kill!
If you are prepared to kill if "necessary" then it's hypocritical to condemn the Japanese Buddhists for being willing to do so too. Personally, I am not prepared to kill another human being, although I waver sometimes when I think "would I kill someone to save my wife's/children's life?"
What I don't like, is the way it is almost impossible to discuss this subject in the Zendo, and I've tried.
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Of course, most official Christian bodies in the West also actively supported wars from ancient times through to post WW2 and up to the present day, when some Christian leaders support a 'just war' on ISIS.
And it is problematic to view actions in the past through the lens of current attitudes, without (somehow) taking account of the historical context. But these attitudes were only 60 years ago and involved the founders of a prominent new, post-War school of Zen.
As a committed Zen practitioner, in the Sanbo Zen tradition, this background to Japanese Zen and Sanbo Zen in particular is challenging for myself. The problem is that the two founders of Sanbo after World War Two - Harada and Yasutani - were particularly extreme and vocal in their support of killing and enslavement of non-Japanese in WW2, and they continued to be passionately nationalist and anti-liberal after WW2, when they founded the Sanbo school.
One may think that this should not matter to current day practitioners. However, I think that the facts about the deeply misguided pre-war and wartime nationalism of both Harada and Yasutani - including strong and vocal endorsement of the killing or enslavement of non-Japanese for the greater good of Imperial Japan - should be acknowledged on the Sanbo website and in its teachings. This does not invalidate Zen or the Sanbo tradition. However, arguably - and controversially - it points to the incompleteness of the Zen experience of the two founders, which is salutary for all Zen practitioners - and to the fact that 'enlightenment' must always be in the present moment: it is not a 'purifying' experience which permanently lifts someone up to a higher level. We are all beginners, from Shakyamuni Buddha to the freshest face in the zendo.
In my view, this incompleteness is evidenced in the current day because not only did these two founders of Sanbo Zen not regret, let alone apologise for, their perversion of Zen compassion - but the Japanese HQ of Sanbo since their time has not properly acknowledged nor apologised for this awkward history - and it is entirely absent from the Sanbo website. I don't think it does any good to cover up such a history. Zen and Sanbo are surely strong enough to acknowledge it (and if not, then there are implications).
Indeed, arguably, the reason for the major decline in Zen in Japan since the war is because of the largely unacknowledged complicity of Zen leaders in Japanese wartime and postwar extreme nationalism.
(The third leader of Sanbo, Kubota Jiun, did apologise for the founder: 'Apology for What the Founder of the Sanbo-Kyodan, Haku'un Yasutani Roshi, Said and Did During World War II'. This was published online and I accessed it in 2009 and 2016. However, it was not published on the Sanbo website but on that of the Maria Kannon Zen Centre (run by Ruben Habito), from which it has now been removed. The apology is also totally inadequate, since the apology was for the suffering caused by WW2 to the Japanese people, and the part which Yasutani played in this, with no mention of Harada's much greater culpability and no mention of the suffering caused to countless non-Japanese.)
Victoria's books have not been discredited, though they caused widespread consternation in Japan and have been criticised. Several leading non-Japanese Zen masters, including Robert Aitken and John Daido Loori, commended Zen at War. The former called it a 'Good job! We must face this dark side of our heritage square'. Loori wrote that 'Zen at War is a wake-up call for all Buddhists. Victoria has shown in a passionate and well documented way that Buddhism is not immune to the kind of distortions that have been used throughout human history by virtually all of the world's religions to justify so-called holy war.'
Victoria is a Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Asian Studies at the University of Adelaide. He is an ordained Soto Zen priest.
A few shocking quotes from Victoria's book regarding Zen Buddhist leaders in their writings:
- Harada Daiun Sogaku, a major Zen leader, from a 1934 article published in Chuo Bukkyo: 'The Spirit of Japan is the Great Way of the [Shinto] Gods ... The Japanese people are a chosen people whose mission is to control the world. The sword which kills is also the sword which gives life. Comments opposing war are the foolish opinions of those who can only see one aspect of things and not the whole.'
- Harada Daiun Sogaku, from a 1944 article published in Daijo Zen (when Japan was losing the war):'It is necessary for all one hundred million subjects [of the Emperor] to be prepared to die with honour ... If you see the enemy you must kill him ...'
- Yasutani, another leading Zen master, in his Zen Master Dogen and the Treatise on Practice and Enlightenment (1943):
'... of course one should kill, killing as many as possible ... Failing to kill an evil man who ought to be killed ... would be to betray compassion and filial obedience, to break the precept forbidding the taking of life.' [sic]
'In making China cede the island of Taiwan and, further, in annexing the Korean peninsular, our Great Japanese Imperial Empire engaged in the practice of a great bodhisattva.'
- In 1971, Yasutani wrote: 'Those organisations which are labelled right-wing at present are the true Japanese nationalists. Their goal is the preservation of the true character of Japan ... The universities which we presently have must be smashed one and all.'
- The sometime revered Rinzai Zen Master Yamamoto Gempo wrote in 1932 that political assassination of 'even good people' could be justified in the name of Buddhism.
Brian Daizen Victoria is a Soto Zen priest and an academic specialising in Japanese language and Buddhist Studies. Zen At War is an ambitious text in which Victoria attempts to present a history of Zen Buddhism in imperial Japan that leads up to and includes WW2. The narrative he seeks to establish is that the Zen Buddhist schools of Japan co-operated and openly assisted imperial Japan on her road to war, by creating an 'unBuddhist' philosophy that encouraged young men to kill the enemy without hesitation. In the process, Victoria sheds light on one or two very well known Japanese Zen experts who became famous in the West, teaching Westerners Zen in Post-WW2 Japan and America. He quotes pre-war texts where DT Suzuki and Harada Sogaku appear to be advising Japanese people on how to view the 'enemy' as irrelevant and non-human so that they may be killed with indifference.
As a history of militarisation in Japan, the book offers an often unique insight into the effects that nationalism and racism has on popular religion. Victoria himself makes the point that in 1868, the Meiji government not only openly issued edicts that discriminated against Buddhism as a national religion (and further edicts which separated Buddhism from Shintoism), but also elevated Shintoism above Buddhism to the position of state religion. Victoria asserts that this disenfranchisement created a political climate whereby Buddhist leaders sought to win favour with the non-democratic government of the time, and through this favour regain something of their lost institutional influence and privilege.
The text is problematic in that although Victoria covers Japan's rise to war with the West, he ignores similar social and cultural developments in the world. He fails to clearly establish the fact that the actions of imperial Japan, the intolerance, racism, nationalism and killing in war, are in no way unique to Japan, but are seen often and readily throughout history. Everything that can be said about individual Zen Buddhists in Japan prior to WW2, can be said about any individual from any religion in any country. Victoria's work, although ground-breaking in many areas, fails to establish the relative nature of the phenomena he is studying. National politics often subsume religion and change its character to meet expedient political ends, as can be seen in the contemporary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Victoria makes the occasional error in his general attempt to build a picture of Buddhist militant tendency. One example of this comes from his account of the Russo-Japaese War. Victoria quotes a story about wounded Japanese soldiers who have been lying on the battlefield for seven days. Their officer commends their bravery in such circumstances and points out that the dying men, instead of crying out, chose to chant the Buddha's name. Victoria chooses to interpret this as an example of Buddhism encouraging martial prowess, rather than a demonstration of the final acts of civility, of dying men.
The general reader might be mistaken for assuming that Victoria is suggesting that martial arts practice and Zen Buddhism have no history, or that the two disciplines should not be associated in anyway. Victoria does not include any examples in his book of general martial practice that has been civilised and spiritualised by the religious beliefs of its practitioners. Generally speaking, martial arts traditions in Japan are pursued peacefully by individuals seeking a higher spirituality. These traditions should be clearly separated from the nationalism of pre-WW2 Japan and not tainted by its racism and aggression. These criticisms however, should not detract from the fact that Victoria's book has reminded a modern Japan about its recent past, and educated many Westerners who were previously unaware of the thoughts of some of their heroes as they lived in pre-WW2 Japan.