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 Brian Victoria's account of meeting Kennett at Sojiji in 1962

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Jcbaran

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PostSubject: Brian Victoria's account of meeting Kennett at Sojiji in 1962   Sat Apr 13, 2013 9:51 am

I recently spent some time with Brian Victoria. He is the author of Zen at War and Zen War Stories. These books are truly an incredible contribution to our understanding of the reality of Zen Buddhist history during the last century. Truly groundbreaking - especially given the total denial that existed in Japan and America about this dark period. I had written a long book review essay for Tricycle Magazine when his first book came out, did three interviews in Japan as part of that. I had been in touch with Brian over the years, but we had never met face to face. Last month, I was helping on the communications / media relations for a conference on the two year anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster. The conference took place in New York City and Brian's wife is very involved with the Foundation that hosted the conference, so they both came to NYC for a few days. It was great meeting him and we would grab time during the conference breaks, lunch, etc to catch up. He spent decades in Japan, speaks fluent Japanese, is an accomplished translator and historian.

He told me that he had met Kennett way back at Sojiji and told me the story. I asked him to write it up so I could post it here.

From Brian Victoria:

"I first arrived in Japan from the US in the fall of 1961 as a short-term missionary for the Methodist church. As such, I was assigned to teach English at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, a missionary university founded by Methodists but later affiliated with the United Church of Christ in Japan. In my case, however, my primary motive for becoming a missionary was to serve two years of "alternate service duty" as a registered "conscientious objector." In preparing to come to Japan, I had been attracted to Zen by a statement that appeared in D.T. Suzuki's book, Zen and Japanese Culture, i.e., that Buddhism was a religion of compassion "and in its varied history it has never been found engaged in warlike activities" (p. 61). Though many years later I would learn, to my great disappointment, that this was an utter falsehood, at that time I was motivated to learn more about this seemingly peaceful faith by actually practicing at a Zen monastery as a layperson.

The temple I chose to practice at in December 1962 was the famous monastery of Eiheiji, founded by Dogen in the 13th century. Having read about just how strenuous Zen training could be, I worried whether I would be able to handle it., especially given my limited Japanese language ability at the time. Thus, I thought it best to try to find an experienced Western practitioner who might be able to tell me what to expect and how to handle myself. On looking for someone, I was given the name of Jiyu Kennett who I learned was in residence at Sojiji, a Soto Zen training monastery not too far from Tokyo. After calling to make an appointment, I traveled to meet Kennett and explained the reason for my visit. Her response was brief and to the point. "Are you a Buddhist?" she asked. "No," I replied. She then said, "Well, then, why do you want to train at Eiheiji?"

I then explained that while I was not a Buddhist, I was deeply attracted to the faith, most especially by its commitment to peace, but Kennett cut short the conversation. It was clear that my all too brief meeting was at an end. I thanked her for having spoken to me and left, never meet again, not least of all because of the abrupt way she had dismissed me. Fortunately, my experience at Eiheiji, especially with Tatsugami Ryosen-roshi, a priest who would become my first Zen teacher, was entirely different than my encounter with Kennett. That said, I have since wondered what caused her to act the way she did."

Note: Brian returned to Eiheji and spent five years studying there as a lay person (not becoming a Buddhist) and thoroughly learning Japanese. Then he became a monk and lived inside the training hall for two years in Eiheiji. Kennett's advice was off base and dismissive. Note Her focus on the "religion" rather than on practice. Note the lack of any personal connection or caring or warmth. As we know, many people came to Japan to practice Zen and didn't officially become Buddhists - or if they did, it happened sometime into their practice. In fact, even at Sojiji when Kennett was there, the few western students that came to sit there - when she was in charge of the foreigners - I don't think all of those folks became Buddhists per se, maybe some of them did. But as a requirement, don't think so.

Kennett's personality was what it was - and it had nothing to do with her Zen training or experiences. Also, speculation here. At that point, she was I think the only westerner studying Soto Zen in Japan. There were a few in Rinzai monasteries, but Soto, she was the only one. Kennett was competitive and easily felt threatened. It could have been that she really didn't want any "competition." Or if anyone wanted to study Soto Zen in Japan, it somehow had to be on her terms or through her. Speculation. Just another small piece of the puzzle.
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glorfindel

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PostSubject: Re: Brian Victoria's account of meeting Kennett at Sojiji in 1962   Sun Apr 14, 2013 7:35 am

Jcbaran wrote:

From Brian Victoria:

"I first arrived in Japan from the US in the fall of 1961 as a short-term MISSIONARY FOR THE METHODIST CHURCH.
(my emphasis)

I found it difficult to get past this jutting stumbling block.

Nice snippet of gossip though.

Maybe she was busy or something. Maybe not.

*yawns*

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Jcbaran

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PostSubject: Re: Brian Victoria's account of meeting Kennett at Sojiji in 1962   Sun Apr 14, 2013 10:44 am

don't have an issue with the fact that Brian originally comes to Japan as part of the Methodist Church - in the context of the times. He was raised in that church, was drawn to spirituality, and his engagement with his inner feelings - leads him to look well beyond his church... which he clearly did as soon as he got to Japan. He was a seeker and found out his seeking took him away from the religion he came in with.

This is just a snippet, a snapshot of a moment. You are right - in any one moment, who knows what any person is experiencing, what's going on. But it does fit with Kennett's personality and behavior. It is in sync with what many of us experienced.

However, I do think an account from another person - not connected to the OBC scene - becomes part of the back story - that most people in the OBC do not know. And the reason it is of slight interest is that - as we discuss here - when you drop the story that the guru is some perfect being without a personality - many ex-followers need to figure out the dynamics of that personality.

Also, since it seems fairly clear from Myozen's accounts, much of what Kennett said and even wrote about of her time in Japan was fictionalized, even distorted. So that's all about this.
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glorfindel

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PostSubject: Re: Brian Victoria's account of meeting Kennett at Sojiji in 1962   Sun Apr 14, 2013 11:35 pm

It's fair enough that you posted it. And, yes, historical context has to be taken into account.

In my view though the first few lines of his statement read like this:

"I arrived in Japan in a state of utter confusion and, possibly, quite insane with the aim of proselytising this confusion to the natives."

I wouldn't trust the memories of someone who had been in that state unless the statement began with some kind of apology or disclaimer.

Though it's possible that some recent experiences are jading my view.

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Jcbaran

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PostSubject: Re: Brian Victoria's account of meeting Kennett at Sojiji in 1962   Tue Apr 16, 2013 3:36 am

Brian became a very serious Zen student and then priest, and then a significant Zen historian - over decades. People start where they start - at that time - in the early 60s, there were few doors for people who had spiritual interests. Seekers came through the religion of their family, the limited philosophy or alternative thinking of that time, Kennett came out of the church of england, the London Buddhist society which had its own odd history - ,others came through theosophy and fringe occultism or orientalism. There weren't a lot of options and many "missionaries" were people who had a strong spiritual interest and being a missionary was a way to travel, see the world, interact with new cultures and so on... but i could simply ask Brian to elaborate more on his background and see what he has to say about this.
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ddolmar

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PostSubject: Re: Brian Victoria's account of meeting Kennett at Sojiji in 1962   Tue Sep 24, 2013 9:02 pm

Just checked back in for the first time in a long while. Thanks Josh for posting that story from Mr. Victoria. I agree with you that he seems to have done an (actually) important piece of scholarship. I've read that his portrayal of DT Suzuki and some others as being truly aggressive "Imperial Way" types is in some dispute. But that's to be expected if the work matters at all.

After reading Zen At War it doesn't seem arguable from the evidence that the machinery of Zen Buddhism in Japan WASN'T heavily involved in pro-war propaganda.
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