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 Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki

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PostSubject: Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki   Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki Empty8/5/2013, 4:45 pm

The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 30, No. 4, August 5, 2013

Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D.T. Suzuki
Brian Daizen Victoria


The publication of Zen at War in 1997 and, to a lesser extent, Zen War Stories in 2003 sent shock waves through Zen Buddhist circles not only in Japan, but also in the U.S. and Europe.

Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki ZenatWar_1
These books revealed that many leading Zen masters and scholars, some of whom became well known in the West in the postwar era, had been vehement if not fanatical supporters of Japanese militarism. In the aftermath of these revelations, a number of branches of the Zen school, including the Myōshinji branch of the Rinzai Zen sect, acknowledged their war responsibility. A proclamation issued on 27 September 2001 by the Myōshinji General Assembly included the following passage:

As we reflect on the recent events [of 11 September 2001] in the U.S. we recognize that in the past our country engaged in hostilities, calling it a “holy war,” and inflicting great pain and damage in various countries. Even though it was national policy at the time, it is truly regrettable that our sect, in the midst of wartime passions, was unable to maintain a resolute anti-war stance and ended up cooperating with the war effort. In light of this we wish to confess our past transgressions and critically reflect on our conduct.1

On 19 October 2001 the sect’s branch administrators issued a follow-up statement:

It was the publication of the book Zen to Sensō [i.e., the Japanese edition of Zen at War], etc. that provided the opportunity for us to address the issue of our war responsibility. It is truly a matter of regret that our sect has for so long been unable to seriously grapple with this issue. Still, due to the General Assembly’s adoption of its recent “Proclamation” we have been able to take the first step in addressing this issue. This is a very significant development.2

In the same year, the smaller Tenryūji branch of the Rinzai Zen sect issued a similar statement, again citing the Japanese edition of Zen at War as a catalyst leading to their belated recognition of war responsibility.

In reading these apologies, one is reminded of the “Stuttgart Confession of Religious Guilt,” issued by Protestant church leaders in postwar Germany, in which they repented their support of Hitler and the Nazis. The Confession’s second paragraph read in part: “With great anguish we state: Through us has endless suffering been brought upon many peoples and countries. . . . We accuse ourselves for not witnessing more courageously, for not praying more faithfully, for not believing more joyously, and for not loving more ardently.”3 Nevertheless, there is one significant difference between religious leaders in Japan and Germany, i.e., while the Stuttgart Confession was also issued on 19 October, it was 19 October 1945 not 2001.

It is also true that a relatively small number of German Christians resisted the Nazis, Father Maximillian Kolbe, Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer being among the best known. Similarly a small number of Buddhist priests, both within the Zen school and other sects, also opposed Japanese imperialism. The common denominator between the two groups, however, was their overall ineffectiveness.4 This is no doubt because no matter what the faith or country involved, institutional religion, with but few exceptions, staunchly supports its own nation in wartime.

The Background to D.T. Suzuki’s Wartime Role

There is now near universal recognition, including in Japan, that the Zen school, both Rinzai and Sōtō, strongly supported Japanese imperialism. Nevertheless, there is one Zen figure whose relationship to wartime Japan remains a subject of ongoing, sometimes deeply emotional, controversy: Daisetz Teitarō Suzuki, better known as D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966).5

Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki ZenatWar_2
D.T. Suzuki
Given Suzuki’s position as the most important figure in the introduction of Zen to the West, it is hardly surprising that the nature of his relationship to Japanese imperialism should prove controversial, for if he, too, were an imperialist supporter, what would this imply about the nature of the Zen he introduced to the West?

If the following discussion of Suzuki’s wartime record appears to lack balance, or shades of gray, it is not done out of ignorance, let alone denial, of exculpatory evidence concerning this period in his life. However, evidence of Suzuki’s alleged anti-war stance is well known and, indeed, readily accessible on the Internet.6 Hence, there is no need to repeat it here. That said, interested readers are encouraged to review all relevant materials related to Suzuki’s wartime record before reaching their own conclusions.

As important as Suzuki may be, the debate goes far beyond either the record or reputation of a single man. As recent scholarship suggests, Suzuki was in fact no more than one part, albeit a significant part, of a much larger movement. Oleg Benesch described Suzuki’s role as follows:

Quote :
[Suzuki’s] writings on bushidō and Zen during the period immediately after the Russo-Japanese War [1904-05] are not extensive, but are significant in light of his role in spreading the concept of the connection of Zen and bushidō, especially during the last four decades of his life. Suzuki can be seen as the most significant figure in this context, especially with regard to the dissemination of a Zen-based bushidō outside of Japan.7 (Italics mine)

While these comments may not seem particularly controversial, Benesch also provided a detailed history of the manner in which Suzuki and other early twentieth century Japanese intellectuals, including such luminaries as Nitobe Inazō (1862-1933) and Inoue Tetsujirō (1855-1944), essentially invented a unified bushidō tradition for nationalist use both at home and abroad. Benesch writes:

Quote :
The development and dissemination of bushidō from the 1880s onward was an organic process initiated by a diverse group of thinkers who were more strongly influenced by the dominant Zeitgeist and Japan’s changing geopolitical position than by any traditional moral code. These individuals were concerned less with Japan’s past than the nation’s future, and their interest in bushidō was prompted primarily by their considerable exposure to the West, pronounced shifts in the popular perception of China, and an apprehensiveness regarding Japan’s relative strength among nations.8

Benesch later added:

Quote :
The bushidō that developed in Meiji [1868-1912] was not a continuation of any earlier ethic, but it contained factual elements that were carefully selected and reinterpreted by its promoters. . . .concepts such as loyalty, self-sacrifice, duty, and honor, all of which existed in considerably different forms and contexts to those in which they were incorporated into modern bushidō theories. . . .The most important factor in the relatively rapid dissemination of bushidō was the growth of nationalistic sentiments around the time of the Sino-Japanese [1894-95] and Russo-Japanese wars.9

As this article reveals, Suzuki’s writings on the newly created bushidō ‘code’ were very much a part of this larger nationalist discourse. His personal contribution to this discourse was the presentation of bushidō, primarily to a Western audience, as the very embodiment of Zen, including the modern Japanese soldier’s alleged “joyfulness of heart at the time of death.” In 1906, the year following Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War, Suzuki wrote:

Quote :
The Lebensanschauung of Bushidō is no more nor less than that of Zen. The calmness and even joyfulness of heart at the moment of death which is conspicuously observable in the Japanese, the intrepidity which is generally shown by the Japanese soldiers in the face of an overwhelming enemy; and the fairness of play to an opponent, so strongly taught by Bushidō – all of these come from the spirit of the Zen training, and not from any such blind, fatalistic conception as is sometimes thought to be a trait peculiar to Orientals.10


Suzuki’s praise for, and defense of, Japan’s soldiers as “Orientals” is particularly noteworthy in light of the fact that only two years earlier, i.e., in 1904, Suzuki had himself invoked Buddhism in attempting to convince Japanese youth to die willingly for their country: “Let us then shuffle off this mortal coil whenever it becomes necessary, and not raise a grunting voice against the fates. . . . Resting in this conviction, Buddhists carry the banner of Dharma over the dead and dying until they gain final victory.”11

While comments like these may be interpreted as Suzuki’s ad hoc responses to national events beyond his control, in fact they accurately represent his underlying belief in the appropriate role of religion in a Japan at war. This is clearly demonstrated by the following comments in the very first book Suzuki published in November 1896, entitled A Treatise on the New Meaning of Religion (Shin Shūkyō-ron):

Quote :
At the time of the commencement of hostilities with a foreign country, marines fight on the sea and soldiers fight in the fields, swords flashing and cannon smoke belching, moving this way and that. In so doing, our soldiers regard their own lives as being as light as goose feathers while their devotion to duty is as heavy as Mount Tai [in China]. Should they fall on the battlefield they have no regrets. This is what is called “religion during a [national] emergency.”12

The year 1896 is significant for two reasons, the first of which is that Suzuki’s book appeared in the immediate aftermath of Japan’s victory in the Sino-Japanese War. This was not only Japan’s first major war abroad but, with the resultant acquisition of Taiwan, marked a major milestone in the growth of Japanese imperialism. Thus, Suzuki’s call for Japan’s religionists to resolutely support the state whenever it went to war could not have been more timely. At a personal level, it was also in December of that year, i.e., just one month after his book appeared, that Suzuki had his initial enlightenment experience (kenshō). This occurred at the time of his participation as a layman in an intensive meditation retreat (sesshin) at Engakuji in Kamakura, and shortly before his departure for more than a decade-long period of study and writing in the U.S. (1897-1908).

Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki ZenatWar_3
As Suzuki’s subsequent statements make clear, his kenshō experience did not alter his view of “religion during a [national] emergency.” Again, this is hardly surprising in light of the fact that Suzuki’s own Rinzai Zen master, Shaku Sōen [1860-1919], Engakuji’s abbot, was also a strong supporter of Japan’s war efforts.

Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki ZenatWar_4
Shaku Sōen
In fact, Shaku’s support of Japan was so strong that during the Russo-Japanese War he volunteered to go to the battlefields in Manchuria as a military chaplain. Shaku explained: “. . . I also wished to inspire, if I could, our valiant soldiers with the ennobling thoughts of the Buddha, so as to enable them to die on the battlefield with the confidence that the task in which they are engaged is great and noble.”13

Once Japan had defeated Russia, its imperial rival, it immediately forced Korea to become a Japanese protectorate in November 1905. This was followed by Japan’s complete annexation of Korea in August 1910, thereby cementing the expansion of the Japanese empire onto the Asian continent. For his part, Suzuki avidly supported Japan’s takeover of Korea as revealed by comments he made in 1912 about that “poor country,” i.e., Korea, as he traversed it on his way to Europe via the Trans-Siberian railroad:

Quote :
They [Koreans] don’t know how fortunate they are to have been returned to the hands of the Japanese government. It’s all well and good to talk independence and the like, but it’s useless for them to call for independence when they lack the capability and vitality to stand on their own. Looked at from the point of view of someone like myself who is just passing through, I think Korea ought to count the day that it was annexed to Japan as the day of its revival.14

Suzuki’s comments reveal not only his support for Japanese colonialism but also his dismissal of the Korean people’s deep desire for independence. For Suzuki, the future of a poverty-stricken Korea depended on Japanese colonial beneficence.

While no doubt many if not most of Suzuki’s countrymen would have agreed with his position at the time, readers of Zen at War will recognize in both Suzuki and Shaku’s comments early examples of the jingoism that characterized Zen leaders’ war-related pronouncements through the end of the Asia-Pacific War in 1945. Not only did Suzuki admonish Buddhist soldiers to “carry the banner of Dharma over the dead and dying,” they were also directed “not to raise a grunting voice against the fates” as they “shuffle off this mortal coil.” In point of fact, approximately 47,000 young Japanese laid down their lives in the Russo-Japanese War exactly as Suzuki, Shaku and many other Buddhist leaders urged them to do.

The Background to Suzuki’s Article

While the preceding material introduces Suzuki’s attitude to the Russo-Japanese War and his country’s early colonial efforts, it fails to clarify his attitude toward Japan’s subsequent military activities, especially Japan’s aggression against China initiated by the Manchurian Incident of 1931. This aggression would continue and expand for a full fifteen years thereafter, i.e., until Japan’s defeat in August 1945. Suzuki did, however, write an article, “Bushidō to Zen” (Bushidō and Zen), that was included in a 1941 government-endorsed anthology entitled Bushidō no Shinzui (Essence of Bushidō). With additional articles contributed by leading army and navy figures, this book clearly sought to mobilize support for the war effort, both military and civilian. While not originally written for the book, the fact that Suzuki allowed his article to be included indicated at least a sympathetic attitude to this endeavor though it only indirectly referenced the war with China.15

There is, however, yet another lengthy article that appeared in June 1941 in the Imperial Army’s premier journal for its officer corps. The journal, taking its name in part from its parent organization, was entitled: Kaikō-sha Kiji (Kaikō Association Report). Although not formally a government organization, the parent Kaikō-sha (lit. “let’s join the military together”) had been created in 1877 for the purpose of creating Imperial Army officers who were to be of “one mind and body.”16

The Kaikō Association Report was a monthly professional journal dating from July 1888. The journal contained articles on such topics as the latest developments in weaponry, mechanization and aviation but also featured yearly special editions devoted to such military events as the Russo-Japanese War and the Manchurian Incident of 1931. In addition, it regularly devoted substantial space to articles on “thought warfare” (shisō-sen), Japanese spirit (Yamato-damashii), national polity of Japan (kokutai), and “spiritual education” (seishin kyōiku), all key components of wartime ideology.

The journal’s ideological orientation can be seen in the articles that both preceded and followed Suzuki’s own contribution. The article preceding his was entitled “The Philosophical Basis of Spiritual Culture,” and included such statements as: “By comparison with Western laws based on rights, our laws are based on duties. By comparison with a [Western] world that operates according to individualism (kobetsusei), we have created a Japan that operates according to the principles of totality (zentaisei).”17 The article following his, entitled “Concerning the Indispensable Spiritual Elements of Military Aviators,” consisted of a speech by officer candidate Yamaguchi Bunji delivered at the graduation ceremony for the fifty-first class of the Japan Army Aviation Officer Candidate School on March 28, 1941.

As will be seen, Suzuki’s article fit in perfectly with the strong emphasis on “spirit” in this military journal. “Spiritual education” was one of the most important duties for Imperial Army officers. Officers were required to hold regular sessions with the troops under their command in order to introduce examples from Japanese history of the utterly loyal, fearless, and self-sacrificial warrior spirit. That the historical figures Suzuki introduced had acquired their fearlessness in the face of death through Zen practice was clearly welcomed by the journal’s editors, as it was by the leadership of the Imperial Army.18

The article was published in June 1941, i.e., less than six months before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. By then Japan had been fighting in China for four years, and while Japanese forces held most major Chinese cities, they were unable, to their great frustration, to either pacify the countryside or defeat the Nationalist and Communist forces deployed against them. The war was effectively stalemated, yet the death tolls, both Japanese and Chinese, continued to rise relentlessly as Japanese forces took the offensive in a bid to force surrender.

Suzuki Addresses Imperial Army Officers

Suzuki’s contribution took as its title the well-known Zen phrase: “Makujiki Kōzen,” i.e., Rush Forward Without Hesitation!19 Note that the complete English translation of Suzuki’s article is included in Appendix I. Some readers may wish to read the translation prior to reading the following commentary though this is not necessary. In addition, Appendix II contains the entire text of the original article in Japanese.

In the article’s opening paragraphs we find that Suzuki, like his Zen contemporaries, faced an awkward problem. That is to say, on the one hand he could not help but acknowledge that the Zen (Ch., Chan) school had come to fruition, if not created, in China, a country with which Japan had been at war for some four years. Given the massive death and destruction Japan’s invasion of China had caused, including its priceless Buddhist heritage, how could Japanese Zen leaders justify the ongoing destruction of the very country that had contributed so much to their school of Buddhism?

Suzuki addresses this issue by positing Japanese Zen’s superiority to Chinese Zen (Chan) Buddhism. That is to say, Suzuki notes that Zen’s “real efficacy” had only been realized after its arrival in Japan. One proof of this is that in Chinese monasteries meditation monitors use only one hand to hold a short ‘waking stick,’ while their Japanese counterparts hold long waking sticks with both hands just as warriors of old held their long single sword with both hands.

Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki ZenatWar_5
Long ‘waking stick’
“The meaning of the fact that the waking stick is employed with two hands is that one is able to pour one’s entire strength into its use,” Suzuki claims.

Pouring one’s entire strength into the effort, whether it be waking a dozing meditator or cutting down an opponent, was, for Suzuki, the critical element that Zen and the warrior shared in common. There was no hint of an ethical distinction between the two. Nor did Suzuki acknowledge that in the Sōtō Zen sect, masters continue to employ the short, ‘Chinese-style’ waking stick (tansaku). This last omission is not surprising in that Suzuki typically either ignored, or dismissed, the practice and teachings of this sect.

Suzuki was, furthermore, not content with simply identifying the deficiencies in Chinese Zen, but went on to identify related deficiencies in the “world at large,” including Europe with its single-handed rapiers. That is to say, when non-Japanese fighters wield the sword they do so holding a sword in only one hand in order to hold a shield in the other hand. In so doing, they seek not only to slay their enemy but also to protect themselves, hoping to emerge both victorious and alive from the contest. By contrast, a Japanese warrior holds his sword with two hands because: “There is no attempt to defend oneself. There is only striking down the other.”

Was Suzuki accurate in his implied criticism of non-Japanese fighters for attempting to defend themselves in the midst of combat? While Suzuki didn’t name the “countries other than Japan” he was referring to, when discussing this question with undergraduates in my Japanese culture class, a student well versed in the history of European knighthood replied, “As far as Europe is concerned, there is a long history of employing duel-edged “long swords” with both hands just as in Japan. Further, if Japanese warriors were so unconcerned about their own lives, why did they develop what was at the time some of the strongest armor in the world to protect themselves?”

Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki ZenatWar_6
European “long sword”
I had to agree with this student inasmuch as I had observed the same two-handed long swords when visiting the European sword exhibit housed in Edinburgh Castle in the spring of 2012. In any event, by elevating the alleged fearlessness of Japan’s warriors above that of their non-Japanese counterparts, Suzuki clearly demonstrates his nationalistic stance. A nationalism, it must be noted, that was deeply seeped in blood, both in the past and the war then underway.

It should also be noted that the Japanese military had long believed, dating from their victory in the Russo-Japanese War, that they could emerge victorious over a militarily superior (in terms of industrial capacity and weaponry) opponent. In this view, victory over a superior Western opponent, let alone China, was possible exactly because of the willingness of Japanese soldiers to die selflessly and unhesitatingly in battle. By contrast, the soldiers of other countries were seen as desiring nothing so much as to return home alive, thereby weakening their fighting spirit. Suzuki’s words could not have but lent credence to the Japanese military’s (over)confidence.

The themes introduced in his article, especially concerning the relationship of Zen to bushidō and samurai, are all topics that Suzuki had previously written about in both Japanese and English. For example, readers familiar with Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture (published in 1938 and reprinted in the postwar period as Zen and Japanese Culture) will recall that at the beginning of Chapter IV, “Zen and the Samurai,” Suzuki wrote:

Quote :
In Japan, Zen was intimately related from the beginning of its history to the life of the samurai. Although it has never actively incited them to carry on their violent profession, it has passively sustained them when they have for whatever reason once entered into it. Zen has sustained them in two ways, morally and philosophically. Morally, because Zen is a religion which teaches us not to look backward once the course is decided upon; philosophically because it treats life and death indifferently. . . . Therefore, morally and philosophically, there is in Zen a great deal of attraction for the military classes. The military mind, being – and this is one of the essential qualities of the fighter – comparatively simple and not at all addicted to philosophizing finds a congenial spirit in Zen. This is probably one of the main reasons for the close relationship between Zen and the samurai.20 (Italics mine)

While Suzuki’s officer readers probably would not have welcomed his reference to their “comparatively simple” military minds, the preceding quote nevertheless accurately summarizes the article under discussion here. And to his credit, unlike most other wartime Japanese Zen leaders, Suzuki did not actively incite his officer readers to carry on their violent profession. By contrast, for example, in 1943 Sōtō Zen master Yasutani Haku’un [1885–1973] wrote:

Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki ZenatWar_7
Yasutani Haku’un
Quote :
Of course one should kill, killing as many as possible. One should, fighting hard, kill every one in the enemy army. The reason for this is that in order to carry [Buddhist] compassion and filial obedience through to perfection it is necessary to assist good and punish evil. . . . Failing to kill an evil man who ought to be killed, or destroying an enemy army that ought to be destroyed, would be to betray compassion and filial obedience, to break the precept forbidding the taking of life. This is a special characteristic of the Mahāyāna precepts.21

While these kinds of bellicose statements are notably absent from Suzuki’s writings, the current article, when read in its entirety, makes it clear that Suzuki did in fact seek to passively sustain Japan’s officers and men through his repeated advocacy of such things as “not look[ing] backward once the course is decided upon” and “treat[ing] life and death indifferently.” This leads to the question of just how different Suzuki was from someone like Yasutani given that Suzuki’s officer readers were also encouraged to “pour their entire body and mind into the attack” in the midst of an unprovoked invasion of China that resulted in the deaths of many millions of its citizens?

Even readers who haven’t served in the military can readily appreciate the fact that there are two fundamental questions that engulf a soldier’s mind prior to going into battle. First and foremost is the question of self-preservation, i.e., will I return alive? And a close second is - am I prepared to die if necessary? It is in answering the second question, i.e., in providing the mental preparation necessary for possible death, that a soldier’s religious faith is typically of paramount importance. Suzuki was well aware of this, for in promoting Zen training for warriors he wrote elsewhere: “Death now loses its sting altogether, and this is where the samurai training joins hands with Zen.”22

In short, read in its entirety Suzuki seeks in this article to prepare his officer readers, and through them ordinary soldiers, for death by weaponizing Zen, i.e., turning Zen into nothing less than a cult of death. The word ‘cult’ is used here to refer to one of its many meanings, i.e., a religious system devoted to only one thing -- death in this instance. On no less that six occasions throughout his article Suzuki stresses just how important being “prepared to die” (shineru) is, noting that Zen is “the best shortcut to acquire this frame of mind.”

Even if it could be demonstrated that this article was not written specifically for Japan’s Imperial Army officers, little would change, for there cannot be the slightest doubt that Suzuki’s words were intended for a wartime Japanese audience. This is made clear by Suzuki’s statement later in the article that “I think the extent of the crisis experienced then cannot be compared with the ordeal we are undergoing today.” As revealed in Zen at War, by 1941, if not before, all Japanese, young and old, civilian and military, were subject to a massive propaganda campaign, promulgated by government, Buddhist and educational leaders, to accept the death-embracing values of bushidō as their own. Or as expressed by Suzuki in this article: “. . . in undertaking any work one should be prepared to die.” (Italics mine)

Here, the question must be asked as to where this Zen shortcut to being prepared to die came from? Did it come from India, Buddhism’s birthplace, or China, Zen (Chan)’s sectarian home? It most definitely did not, for, as already noted, Suzuki tells us that Zen’s “real efficacy was supplied to a great extent after coming to Japan.” And as he further notes, it was only after arrival in Japan “that Zen became united with the sword.” Unlike the studied ambiguity that typically characterized his war and warrior-related writings in English, and oft-times in Japanese as well, Suzuki was clearly not speaking in this article of some metaphysical sword cutting through mental illusion.

Instead, Suzuki was referring to real swords wielded by some of Japan’s greatest Zen-trained warlords as, over the centuries, they and their subordinates cut through the flesh and bones of many thousands of their opponents on the battlefield, fully prepared to die in the process, using Zen as “the best shortcut to acquire this frame of mind.”

Interestingly, Suzuki admits in this article that some of the famous Zen-related anecdotes associated with Kamakura Regent Hōjō Tokimune (1251-84) may not have taken place.

He writes: “The following story has been handed down to us though I don’t know how much of this legend is actually true.” Compare this admission with Suzuki’s presentation of the same material in Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture. Addressing his English readers, Suzuki wrote that while the exchange between Tokimune and National Master Bukkō (1226-86) is “not quite authenticated,” it nevertheless “gives support to our imaginative reconstruction of his [Tokimune’s] attitude towards Zen.”23

One is left to speculate what Suzuki’s officer readers knew about these allegedly Zen-related anecdotes that his Western readers didn’t know (or perhaps more accurately, weren’t supposed to know).

In any event, when reading Suzuki’s repeated claims about the similarities between Zen and the Japanese, one is left to wonder whether it was Zen that shaped “the characteristics of the Japanese people” or, on the contrary, was it “the characteristics of the Japanese people” that shaped Zen? Or perhaps there was some mystical karmic connection that led both of them down the same path – a path in which to “rush forward without hesitation” and “cease discriminating thought” came to mean “one should abandon life and rush ahead”?

Furthermore, Suzuki is quite willing to privilege his fellow Japanese with a national character that almost inherently disposes them to Zen. For example, Suzuki claims “there are things about the Japanese character that are amazingly consistent with Zen.” That is to say, the Japanese people “rush forward to the heart of things without meandering about” and “go directly forward to that goal without looking either to the right or to the left.” In so doing they “forget where they are.”

If only in hindsight, in reading words like these, it is difficult not be reminded of the infamous and tactically futile “banzai charges” of the wartime Imperial Army let alone the tactics of kamikaze pilots and the manned torpedoes (kaiten) of the Imperial Navy.

Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki ZenatWar_8
Kaiten (manned torpedo)
Yet, is it fair to interpret Suzuki’s words as expressions of support for such suicidal acts?

One of Suzuki’s defenders who strongly opposes such an interpretation is Kemmyō Taira Satō, a Shin (True Pure Land) Buddhist priest who identifies himself as one of Suzuki’s postwar disciples. Satō writes: “Apart from his silence on Bushido after the early 1940s, Suzuki was active as an author during all of the war years, submitting to Buddhist journals numerous articles that conspicuously avoided mention of the ongoing conflict.” (Italics mine)

As further proof, Sato cites an article written by the noted Suzuki scholar Kirita Kiyohide:

Quote :
During this [war] period one of the journals Suzuki contributed to frequently, Daijōzen [Mahayana Zen], fairly bristled with pro-militarist articles. In issues filled with essays proclaiming “Victory in the Holy War!” and bearing such titles as “Death Is the Last Battle,” “Certain Victory for Kamikaze and Torpedoes,” and “The Noble Sacrifice of a Hundred Million,” Suzuki continued with contributions on subjects like “Zen and Culture.”24

On the one hand, these statements inevitably raise the question of Suzuki’s attitude to Japan’s attack on the U.S. in December 1941. That is to say, what was it that caused Suzuki to stop writing about such war-related topics as bushidō in the early 1940s? Could it have been his opposition to war with the U.S. versus his earlier support for Japan’s full-scale invasion of China from 1937 onwards? Setting this topic aside for further exploration below, the question remains, inasmuch as Suzuki, at least in June 1941, affirmed such things as the acceptability of a dog’s, i.e., meaningless, death, and noted that “in undertaking any work one should be prepared to die” what basis would he have had for opposing such suicidal attacks?

Yet another of Chan’s deficiencies is that in China, Chan had been almost entirely bereft of a military connection. By contrast, it was only after Chan became Zen in Japan that it was linked to Zen-practicing warriors. In fact, Suzuki claims that from the Kamakura period onwards, all Japanese warriors practiced Zen. Suzuki makes this claim despite the fact that the greatest of all Japan’s medieval warriors, i.e., Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), was an adherent of the Pure Land sect (J. Jōdo-shū) Buddhism, not Zen. Suzuki also urges his readers to pay special attention to the fact that “Zen became united with the sword” only after its arrival in Japan.

For Suzuki it was such great medieval warlords as Hōjō Tokimune, Uesugi Kenshin (1530-78), and Takeda Shingen (1521-73) who demonstrated the impact the unity of Zen and the sword had on the subsequent development of Japan. It was their Zen training that allowed these men to “rush forward without hesitation” and “cease discriminating thought.” If, in the case of Hōjō Tokimune, it can be said that at least his was a defensive war against invading Mongols, the same cannot be said for such warlords as Uesugi and Takeda. They were responsible for the deaths of thousands of their enemies and their own forces, each one of them attempting to conquer Japan. Suzuki lumps these warlords together as exemplars of what can be accomplished with the proper mental attitude acquired through Zen training. Suzuki does not even hint at the possibility that in the massive carnage these warlords collectively reaped, the Buddhist precept against the taking of life might have been violated.
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Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki Empty
PostSubject: Re: Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki   Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki Empty8/5/2013, 4:45 pm

It is instructive here to compare Suzuki’s words with those of Japan’s most celebrated, Zen-trained “god of war” (gunshin) of the Asia-Pacific War. I refer to Lt. Col. Sugimoto Gorō, whose posthumous book, Taigi (Great Duty), first published in 1938, sold over a million copies, a far greater number than I first realized when writing Zen at War.

Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki ZenatWar_9
Lt. Col. Sugimoto
Sugimoto provided the following rationale for Zen’s importance to the Imperial military: “Through my practice of Zen I am able to get rid of my ego. In facilitating the accomplishment of this, Zen becomes, as it is, the true spirit of the Imperial military.”25 Suzuki was clearly in basic agreement with Sugimoto’s claim.

Suzuki argues that it isn’t sufficient to simply discard life and death. Instead, one should “live on the basis of something larger than life and death. That is to say, one must live on the basis of great affirmation.” But what did this “great affirmation” consist of? Suzuki fails to elaborate beyond stating that it is “faith that is great affirmation.” Yet, what should the object of one’s faith be?

Once again Suzuki remains silent on this critical question apart from stating that the way to encounter this great affirmation is to dig ever deeper to the bottom of one’s mind, digging until there is nothing left to dig. It was only then, he claims, that “one can, for the first time, encounter great affirmation.” Suzuki admits, however, that this great affirmation is not a single entity but “takes on various forms for the peoples of every country.” Yet, what form does or should it take in a Japan that had invaded and was fighting a long and bitter war with China?

As in many other instances of his wartime writings, and as alluded to above, Suzuki maintains a studied ambiguity that makes it impossible to state with certainty what he was referring to. That said, it is clear that nothing in his article would have served to dissuade his readers from fulfilling, let alone questioning, their duties as Imperial Army officers or soldiers in China or elsewhere. Had there been the slightest question that anything Suzuki wrote might have negatively impacted Imperial Army officers who were to be of “one mind and body,” it is inconceivable that the editors of the Kaikō Association Report would have published it.

In asserting this, let me express my appreciation to Sueki Fumihiko, one of Japan’s leading historians of modern Japanese Buddhism. In an article entitled “Daisetsu hihan saikō” (Rethinking Criticisms of Daisetsu [Suzuki]), Sueki first presented the arguments made by some of Suzuki’s most prominent defenders, namely, that when some of Suzuki’s wartime writings are closely parsed it is possible to interpret them as containing criticisms of the Imperial Army’s recklessness as well as its abuse of the alleged magnanimity and compassion of the true bushidō spirit. Further, Sueki acknowledges, as do I, that in the days leading up to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor Suzuki opposed war with the U.S. Nevertheless, Sueki came to the following conclusion: “When we frankly accept Suzuki’s words at face value, we must also consider how, in the midst of the [war] situation as it was then, his words would have been understood.”26

As for Suzuki’s opposition to war with the U.S., it is significant that his one and only public warning did not come until September 1941, i.e., only three months before Pearl Harbor. The unlikely occasion was a guest lecture Suzuki delivered at Kyoto University entitled “Zen and Japanese Culture.” Upon finishing his lecture, Suzuki initially stepped down from the podium but then returned to add:

Quote :
Japan must evaluate more calmly and accurately the awesome reality of America’s industrial productivity. Present-day wars will no longer be determined as in the past by military strategy and tactics, courage and fearlessness alone. This is because of the large role now played by production capacity and mechanical power. 27

As his words clearly reveal, Suzuki’s opposition to the approaching war with the U.S. had nothing to do with his Buddhist faith or a commitment to peace. Rather, having lived in America for more than a decade, Suzuki knew only too well that Japan was no match for such a large and powerful industrial nation. In short, Suzuki’s words might best be described as a statement of “common sense” though by 1941 this was clearly a commodity in short supply in Japan.

Be that as it may, when we ask how Suzuki’s Imperial Army officer readers would have interpreted the “great affirmation” he referred to, there can be no doubt they would have understood this to be an affirmation, if not an exhortation, for total loyalty unto death to an emperor who was held to be the divine embodiment of the state. The following calligraphic statement, displayed prominently in every Imperial Army barracks, testified to this: “We are the arms and legs of the emperor.” Due to its ubiquitous nature, Suzuki could not help but have been aware of this “affirmation.” Thus, whatever Suzuki’s personal opinion may have been, he would have been well aware that his officer readers would understand his words to mean absolute loyalty to the emperor.

Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that in one important aspect Suzuki did part way with other wartime Zen enthusiasts, for not withstanding his emphasis on “great affirmation,” Suzuki does not explicitly link Zen to the emperor. Compare this absence to the previously introduced Lt. Col. Sugimoto who wrote: “The reason that Zen is important for soldiers is that all Japanese, especially soldiers, must live in the spirit of the unity of sovereign and subjects, eliminating their ego and getting rid of their self. It is exactly the awakening to the nothingness (mu) of Zen that is the fundamental spirit of the unity of sovereign and subjects.”28

By not engaging in emperor adulation in his wartime writings, Suzuki was unique among his Zen contemporaries. Yet this does not mean that he either opposed the emperor system per se or lacked respect for the emperor. This is revealed by the following statement Suzuki made to Gerhard Rosenkrantz, a German missionary visiting Japan in 1939, in the library of Otani University:

Quote :
We Buddhists bow in front of the emperor’s image, but for us this is not a religious act. The emperor is not a god because for Buddhists a [Shinto] god can be something very low. We see the emperor in an area high above all religions. Trying to make him a god today means a reduction in the status of the emperor. This brings confusion to Buddhism, Shinto and Christianity.29

Thus, even while denying the emperor’s divinity, Suzuki nevertheless justified bowing to the emperor’s image inasmuch he was a personage “in an area high above all religions.”

Nor should it be forgotten that Suzuki’s article was not written exclusively on behalf of Imperial Army officers alone. As previously noted, a key responsibility of the officer corps was to provide “spiritual education” for their soldiers. Thus, they were in constant need of additional historical examples of the attitude that all Imperial subjects, starting with Imperial soldiers, were expected to possess, i.e., an unquestioning, unhesitant and unthinking willingness to die in the war effort. Suzuki’s writings clearly contributed to this effort though it is, of course, impossible to quantify the impact his writings had.


Let me begin this section in something of an unusual manner, i.e., by offering a “defense” of what Suzuki has written in this and similar articles dealing with warriors, bushidō, and the alleged unity of Zen and the sword. That said, while a genuine defense is offered, it is one that nevertheless has a “hook in the tail.”

My contention is that Suzuki should not be blamed for having distorted or mischaracterized Zen history or practice, especially in Japan, to make it a useful tool in the hands of Japanese militarists. That is to say, on the one hand Suzuki can and should be held responsible for the purely nationalistic elements in his writings, including collaboration in the modern fabrication of an ancient and unified bushidō tradition with Zen as its core. Yet, on the other hand, the seven hundred year long history of the close relationship between Zen and the warrior class, hence Zen and the sword, was most definitely not a Suzuki fabrication. There are simply too many historical records of this close relationship to claim that Suzuki simply invented the relationship out of whole cloth.

Thus, Suzuki might best be described as a skilled, modern day, nationalistic proponent of that close relationship in the deadly context of Japan’s invasion of China. Further, in his English writings, Suzuki did his best to convince gullible Westerners that the so-called “unity of Zen and the sword” he described was an authentic expression of Buddhist teachings. In this effort, it must be said, Suzuki has been, at least until recently, eminently successful.

Some Suzuki scholars attempt to defend the most egregious aspects of Suzuki’s nationalist and wartime writings by pointing out that he may have been coerced into writing them by the then totalitarian state. Certainly, there can be no doubt that Suzuki wrote in an era of intense governmental censorship, with authorities ever vigilant against the slightest ideological deviancy. Nevertheless, the most striking features of Suzuki’s substantive wartime writings are, first of all, that they were never censored, and, secondly, their consistency with his earlier writings, dating back to 1896. That is to say, over a span of forty-five years Suzuki repeatedly yoked religion, Buddhism and Zen to the Japanese soldiers’ willingness to die. Certainly no one would claim that Suzuki was writing under fear of government censorship or imprisonment in 1896.

Where Suzuki did break with the past close relationship of Zen to the warrior class was in transmuting this feudal relationship into one encompassing Zen and the modern Japanese state albeit not specifically with the personage of the emperor. It is in having done this that he can rightly be identified as a “Zen nationalist.”30 Needless to say, he was only one of many such Zen leaders, and when compared with the likes of Yasutani Haku’un, Suzuki was clearly less extreme.31

When we inquire as to the cause or reason for the close relationship between Zen, violence, and the modern state that Suzuki promoted, the answer is not hard to find. In his book, Buddhism without Beliefs, Stephan Bachelor provides the following explanation regarding not just Zen but all faiths, i.e., "the power of organized religion to provide sovereign states with a bulwark of moral legitimacy. . .”32 To which I would add in this instance, the power of Zen training to mentally prepare warriors/soldiers to both kill and be killed. Or as Suzuki would have it, to “passively sustain” them on the battlefield.

Having said this, I would ask readers to reflect on the historical relationship of their own faith, should they have one, to the state, and state-initiated violence. Was Batchelor correct in his observation with regard to the reader’s faith? That is to say, have not all of the world’s major religions, like Buddhism, provided moral legitimacy for the state’s use of violence? Is Buddhism unique in having done this or only one further example of Chicago University Martin Marty’s insightful comment that “one must note the feature of religion that keeps it on the front page and on prime time -- it kills”?33

To answer yes to any of these questions is not to excuse, let alone justify, Zen or any other school of Buddhism’s moral lapses in this or any instance. Yet, it does suggest the enormity of the problem facing all faiths if they are to remain true to their tenets, all of which number love and compassion among their highest ideals. At the end of his life Buddha Shakyamuni is recorded as having urged his followers to “work out your salvation with diligence.” In the face of continuing, if not increasing, religious violence in today’s world, is his advice any less relevant to all who, if only in terms of their own faith, seek to create a religion truly dedicated to world peace and our shared humanity?

Brian Daizen Victoria is a Visiting Research Fellow, International Research Center for Japanese Studies (Nichibunken) in Kyoto, Japan.

Appendix I (Complete English Translation of Article)

Quote :
“Makujiki Kōzen” (Rush Forward Without Hesitation).34

I think that most scholars and informed persons will agree that Zen thought is one of the most important factors forming the basis of Japanese culture. Although Zen originally came from India, in reality it was brought to fruition in China while its real efficacy was achieved to a great extent after coming to Japan.

The reason for this is that there are things about the Japanese character that are amazingly consistent with Zen. I think the most visible of these is rushing forward to the heart of things without meandering about. Once the goal has been determined, one goes directly forward to that goal without looking either to the right or to the left. One goes forward, forgetting where one is. I think this is the most essential element of the Japanese character. In this, I think, Zen is one of the strongest factors allowing the Japanese people to rush forward.

For example, the Japanese hold a sword with both hands, not one. Although I have not researched this question extensively, in countries other than Japan they use only one hand to hold a sword. Further, they use their left hand to hold a shield. That is to say, they use one hand to defend themselves while they use the other hand to strike the enemy. Although my knowledge is limited, this is what I think as I observe the world at large. However, a sword in Japan is held with two hands. There is no attempt to defend oneself. There is only striking down the other. That is to say, one discards the body and plunges toward the other. This is the Japanese people’s way of doing things. And it also happens to be the Zen way of doing things.

I became aware of this from [my experience in] a Zen meditation hall. In a Japanese meditation hall there is something called a waking stick (keisaku). A waking stick is made of wood and is about 121 cm long. It is an implement used to strike someone who is practicing zazen in a situation where their shoulders become stiff from having put too much strength into them. At that time, both hands are used to wield the waking stick.

In China, too, there is a kind of waking stick. Although I don’t know what was used in the past, the waking stick that is used today is approximately 76 cm long and is used for striking with only one hand. However, in Japan we use both hands. Given this, it may be that only at the time the waking stick first arrived in Japan was it held with one hand. Then, after coming to Japan, it became used with two hands.

The meaning of the fact that the waking stick is employed with two hands is that one is able to pour one’s entire strength into its use. That doesn’t mean that it is impossible to pour one’s entire strength into wielding the waking stick with only one hand, but I think that using both hands, rather than one, is better and enables one to more fully put one’s entire strength into the effort. In Europe there is something known as fencing which employs a thin blade using only one hand. In this instance the left hand is simply held high above the shoulder while one thrusts forward with all one’s might. However, the place at which one’s power emerges is the very tip of the blade being held with one hand. In a situation where one holds a sword with both hands, there is no doubt that, in comparison with holding it with one hand, one is better able to exert one’s full strength. While I don’t know what a practitioner of swordsmanship would say about this, seen from the point of view of an outsider like myself, this is how it appears.

Although it is said that [the famous swordsman] Miyamoto Musashi used two swords, I have heard that in an actual swordsmanship match he never used two swords though I don’t know how true that is. Furthermore, I think that in a situation where Musashi used two swords, one of them was simply used for defense.

Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki ZenatWar_90
Miyamoto Musashi
It was not a question of both swords being used independently by each hand, but a situation in which the movement of one mind expressed itself, depending on the situation, with each of two swords. For that reason it was not a question of thrusting with each one of two swords but of either thrusting with both hands or slicing with both hands at the same time. The truth is that while he appeared to use two swords, I think the reality was that he employed the swords in both hands as if he were grasping a single long sword.

Be that as it may, the character of the Japanese people is to come straight to the point and pour their entire body and mind into the attack. This is the character of the Japanese people and, at the same time, the essence of Zen.

Quote :
The Meaning of Being Prepared to Die

The Hagakure states that bushidō means to be prepared to die. That is to say, in undertaking any kind of work it is said that one must “die first.” It may be that in such a situation there is something known as a dog’s [i.e., pointless] death. It may be that when it is the right time to die one should simply die in that situation. In any event, what the Hagakure states is that even a dog’s death is all right. That is to say, in undertaking any work one should be prepared to die.

This is the way it is written [in the Hagakure], and seen from a psychological point of view this is, I think, truly the way it ought to be. In human beings there is, in general, something known as the self. The concept of an individual self is not something easily gotten rid of. In Buddhism this is something known as illusion. Illusion is made up of fine threads that are strung together in such a way as to make it impossible to move freely. Although the threads are extremely fine, one is incessantly caught in their grasp. The decision to be prepared to die means the cutting of these threads. To truly be able to do this is not possible simply by deciding to die in the course of working. There is something far deeper than this that must be done.

In this connection there is the following story. In medieval Europe there was a lady who decided to enter a nunnery to engage in religious practice, but her family wasn’t willing to let her go. Although a number of years passed, she had no opportunity to make good her escape. Then, one night a good opportunity came, and she managed to leave home. She intended to go to a monastery and spend the rest of her life in religious practice. Upon leaving home she took some money with her because she felt that without money she wouldn’t be able to buy something to eat along the way.

What can be said in this regard is that her attraction to money was a symbol of just how hard it was for her to overcome attachment to a world she claimed to have cast aside. At that point the lady thought to herself how lamentable it was that in the midst of having discarded the world, her parents and siblings in order to dedicate herself to God, she was still attached to money. She became worried about the money she had taken, thinking that she would be unable to accomplish anything. Thinking to herself that she had to cast aside the money, she decided to get rid of it. As a result, the story goes, her mood underwent a drastic change, and she acquired a frame of mind in which she was readily able to do what had to be done.

In the past, there was a Buddhist priest by the name of St. Kūya. St. Kūya constantly recited the phrase, Namu Amida-butsu [Hail to Amitābha Buddha], as he walked about. There is a story that at one point someone asked him, “What is the purpose of Buddhist practice?” He replied, “Discard everything!” as he quickly walked past. This “discard” is the main point of Buddhism and also the spirit of Zen.

Discarding a sum of money is the same as discarding one’s life. Now in the case of the Christian woman, money represented the same bond of life and death as it does to an ordinary warrior who fails to become free due to his routine mental state. In the past, a warrior was someone who discarded his life on behalf of his master. It meant that he could discard his life in the midst of battle.

It may well be that discarding one’s life in the midst of battle is relatively easy, for I think it isn’t too difficult for ordinary people to discard their lives when the entire environment calls for it. However, what is difficult is to give up one’s life in peacetime. That is to say, when the world is at peace. It is then that it is difficult to have a frame of mind in which one is prepared to give up everything one has. Yet, someone who is able to do so is completely free, though this mental state is quite difficult to acquire.

In the past they discussed this problem in China, too. A nation would fall, they said, in a situation where warriors, becoming cautious, were reluctant to lose their lives while, at the same time, government officials sought to enrich themselves. Should there be military men who were reluctant to lose their lives they would be of no use whatsoever. Should there be any like that, they ought to stop being military men. When this is applied to government officials, this is not simply a question of their loving money or fame. Rather, I believe it is possible to say that they, too, must try to discard their lives. In the past there was no special class known as government officials, for warriors were both military men and government officials. In peacetime warriors engaged in politics in government offices while in wartime they took up the sword and charged ahead. Military men became political figures, and political figures were originally military men.

In any event, it isn’t easy to acquire the mental state in which one is prepared to die. I think the best shortcut to acquire this frame of mind is none other than Zen, for Zen is the fundamental ideal of religion. It isn’t simply a question of being prepared to die, as Zen is prepared to transcend death. This is called the “unity of life and death” in which living and dying are viewed as one. The fact that these two are one represents Zen’s view of human life and the world.

In the past there was [a Zen priest by the name of] National Teacher Sekizan. A story describes a disciple who asked him, “I and others are imprisoned by life and death and cannot become free. What can we do to realize the unity of life and death?” Sekizan taught him, saying, “You don’t have such trivial things as life and death!”

Quote :
Rushing Forward Without Hesitation

At present I am in Kamakura where I live within Engakuji temple’s precincts. I would like to discuss Hōjō Tokimune and National Teacher Bukkō who constructed Engakuji temple. Tokimune became regent when he was only eighteen years old and died at the age of thirty-four. His rule of seventeen years began and ended with a foreign policy directed against the Mongols. Were something like this to take place today when transportation is readily available, I think it would be easy to get information about the enemy. However, in the Kamakura period it was almost impossible to get information about either the enemy or their disposition. Still, communication was possible through people who either went to China from Japan or came to Japan from China, so I think there was quite a lot of information available.

That said, in one sense one nevertheless encountered a large unknown. The large unknown was exactly when and under what conditions the enemy would arrive. I think that as far as Tokimune, their opponent, was concerned, it was not sufficient to be just politically or militarily prepared. One is able to fight well only when one knows both the enemy and those at one’s side. Because it was an unknown enemy, it was very difficult to determine the size of the force that would be sufficient to oppose them. Nevertheless, it was a situation in which, moment by moment, the crisis drew nearer. I think the extent of the crisis experienced then cannot be compared with the ordeal we are undergoing today. I would like to imagine the frame of mind that made it possible to surmount the hardships of those times.

At long last, a massive Mongol army invaded on two occasions. In opposing them, Tokimune never once set foot out of Kamakura. The war took place within the confines of [the southern island of] Kyushu. Today we wouldn’t describe such a place as being far away, but rather, close at hand. However, in the Kamakura period, in an age when travel was difficult, it must be said that Kyushu was indeed a distant place. Further, although Tokimune didn’t relocate the Shogunate [military] government, he was still able to gather soldiers together from throughout the country of their own free will.

Tokimune didn’t accomplish this by himself. Instead, it was the nature of Kamakura in those days that made it possible for him, due to his virtue, to unite all the people together in a harmonious whole, not simply through the exercise of his power. I think this was not something he was able to do on his own. True enough, there were Shinto shrines flourishing throughout the country, not to mention [the protection of] various gods and Buddhas. Yet, while it is fine to pray to them, the power of prayer by itself would not serve to defeat the enemy. I think one must have material goods such as tanks to counter tanks in order to accomplish this. When the Mongolian soldiers attacked, merely praying for their death would be insufficient. That is to say, it was necessary to prepare a sufficient military force. It is said there was a divine wind [kamikaze], but the blowing of such a divine wind was recognized only after the fact, not before it occurred. That is to say, it was impossible to depend on a divine wind before it had blown. If, in anticipation of a divine wind, Tokimune had failed to make preparations, it may well be that the Mongol soldiers would have advanced as far as Kyoto at some point.

Although people like myself are not familiar with strategic military terminology, I am sure Tokimune must have had a plan prepared consisting of a first, second and third stage. I’m sure he wouldn’t have done something so reckless as to construct a fortress and then tell everyone to take it easy. If this is true, then he simply didn’t remain in Kamakura unperturbed. Being the type of person he was, there can be no doubt that he must have first thought of the preparations and methods that would allow him to remain calm. It is unthinkable that it could simply be a question of his attitude or daring alone.

Without observing the other side, nothing can be accomplished. Even if there were such a thing as bravery unconcerned about the other side, there must be appropriate methods for the effective utilization of such bravery. If it were possible to pray for the death of the enemy without using appropriate methods, i.e., by means of spirit alone, it may well be that there are enemies who can be killed in this way. But it may also be there are enemies who cannot be killed through the power of prayer. This way [of defeating the enemy] simply can’t be counted on. There must be other effective methods that can be utilized. I believe it is only common sense to think that Tokimune must have possessed such methods. While my knowledge of history is limited, not to mention that I have no knowledge of military strategy, nevertheless, as someone with common sense, what I have said is quite possible when one considers the state of affairs at that time.

The following story has been handed down to us though I don’t know how much of this legend is actually true. Nevertheless, it is clear that even if a legend didn’t actually occur at the time and place claimed, there was a background to asserting that the events in the legend actually happened. If may well be that not all historical facts that have been transmitted down to us are true. But the reason we accept something that didn’t actually happen is because we must have already prepared something within our minds that allows us to accept it as fact. This becomes reflected in the environment and is transmitted to us as fact. And for this reason persons who hear facts like these can immediately believe them.

The significance of the preceding discussion concerns the moment when, having received news that the Mongolian soldiers were on their way, Tokimune approached National Master Bukkō to inform him that a fearful situation confronted him. In response National Master Bukkō immediately said, “Rush forward without hesitation!”

In addition, there is also this exchange between the two. Tokimune asked National Master Bukkō, “When various incidents occur, and I am perplexed by things that happen here, and by things that happen there, what frame of mind should I have in seeking to deal with them?” It is said that National Master Bukkō immediately responded, “Cease discriminating thought!”

Either expression, i.e., “rush forward without hesitation” or “cease discriminating thought,” is fine. Further, whether National Master Bukkō actually said these words or, instead, Tokimune expressed his own belief, is likewise fine. In any event, it is sufficient to imagine that at some point National Master Bukkō and Tokimune had a conversation like this.

These exchanges point to the fact that by the time the Mongol soldiers arrived, Tokimune was already mentally prepared. I think this means there was no need for Tokimune to make a specific visit to National Master Bukkō to show his determination. I imagine that these exchanges, like something out of a drama or novel, were created in order to effectively reveal his frame of mind. This is because Tokimune had already undergone sufficient mental training during the course of his life. This wasn’t a situation in which the matter would be resolved simply by asking something like what I should do now that the Mongols have arrived. The greater the power someone has developed is, the greater its application is to be commended. As we have all already experienced, momentary pretense is of no use.

Leaving aside the question of whether the preceding exchanges actually occurred at a particular point in time, there can be no doubt that Tokimune was wont to use “rush forward without hesitation” and “cease discriminating thought” as the core of his methods for mental training. In one sense it can be said that “rush forward without hesitation” and “cease discriminating thought” are characteristics of the Japanese people. Their implication is that, disregarding birth and death, one should abandon life and rush ahead. It is here, I think, that Zen and the Japanese people’s, especially the warriors,’ basic outlook are in agreement.

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The Essence of Things

In China, Zen served, on the one hand, as a kind of philosophy and, on the other hand, as religious belief. Although in China there were quite a few scholars, religious persons and artists who practiced Zen, it appears that it did not become the basis of Chinese life. In particular, one hears almost nothing about military men and warriors who practiced Zen. If we consider Wang Yangming to have been a military man, his main profession was nevertheless that of a scholar or, more specifically, a scholar of Confucianism. However, it is true that he did fight and was very successful. As far as military men who practiced Zen in China, he was, I think, probably the only one to have done so.

However, when Zen came to Japan things were completely different. In Japan warriors have, for the most part, practiced Zen. Especially from the Kamakura period [1185-1333] through the Ashikaga [1337-1573] and Warring States period [1467-1567], it is correct to say that all of them practiced Zen. This is clear when one looks at such famous examples as [warlords] Uesugi Kenshin, Takeda Shingen, and others. And then, with the advent of the Tokugawa period [1603-1868], we find Zen was very popular among famous painters.

I believe one should pay special attention to the fact that Zen became united with the sword. When we look at the inner essence of swordsmanship, or its secret teachings, or its oral transmission, it can be said that all of them added an element of Zen. There is no need to give various examples of this inasmuch as those who have researched this question even slightly would readily agree. That said, one of the clearest examples can be seen in the relationship between [Zen Master] Takuan and [sword master] Yagyū Tajima no kami. And while not as well known as Yagyū Tajima-no-kami, there is also the relationship between Katō Dewa-no-kami Taikō, Lord of the Iyō Ōzu [region], and Zen Master Bankei. Lord Katō of Ōzu was an expert with a spear. While I don’t know how skilled Zen Master Bankei was with a spear, given that he was a Buddhist priest I think he may not have been all that skilled. Nevertheless Katō Taikō received a secret transmission concerning the spear from Zen Master Bankei.

Whether we are talking about the inner essence of swordsmanship or that of politics, or battle, the most important question for all persons is that of the self. One must begin to discard the individual self. When you have something called a self you are slave to the self. This is because the self is something that, by nature, is born and dies. If one attempts to distance oneself from life and death, one must not have a self.

One must transcend the self. However, this is not a question of discarding or eliminating the self. In order to eliminate the self one must find something that is larger than the self. Human beings are unable to accomplish anything by being passive. On the other hand, when they actively affirm something they are able to act. By nature human beings die through negation and live through affirmation. One mustn’t simply discard life and death but, instead, live on the basis of something larger that life and death. That is to say, one must live on the basis of great affirmation. If it were simply a question of discarding that would be negation, not affirmation.

To be more precise, it is faith that is great affirmation. One must encounter this great affirmation. Depending on the person, this great affirmation can take many forms. Further, I think that it takes on various forms for the peoples of every country. Still further, I think that it takes on various forms depending on the social class of the person in question. Nevertheless, if it is a question of true affirmation, it must consist of digging deeply to the bottom of one’s mind, then more deeply and still more deeply to the point where there is nothing left to dig. It is only then that one can, for the first time, encounter great affirmation.

When this is expressed in a Confucian context it is called sincerity. In the Shinto tradition it can be called being without artifice. Whether it is called sincerity or being without artifice, these are not things that can be acquired in a whimsical manner. Nor are they things that, as ordinary people never tire of saying, can be united together. This great affirmation is something that people must experience for themselves, not bragging about it boisterously and indiscriminately in front of others. This must be thoroughly understood. Rather than rambling on about this great affirmation in front of others, it should be stored in one’s mind and taken out and used as necessary.

A 17th century] scholar by the name of Yamaga Sokō [1622-85] wrote a work entitled Seikyō-yōron [A Summary of Confucian Teachings]. In this work he defines sincerity as meaning “something unavoidable.” Sincerity, then, is something that cannot be avoided. The meaning of “something unavoidable” is that one digs deep, deeper and still deeper into the innermost recesses of the mind. Having reached the culmination of digging deep into the mind, one encounters a moving object. The moving object encountered is “something unavoidable.” That which people never tire of talking about is not “something unavoidable,” but rather something that is nothing more than an aspect of the self. Therefore, it is not a moving object that comes from the innermost depth of the mind. Further, Yamaga Sokō states “something unavoidable” is “something natural.” This “something natural” ought to be seen as the equivalent of “being without artifice.”

Finally, there is this poem. In the Tokugawa era there was a person by the name of Zen Master Shidō Bunan. Among his poems is the following:

Quote :
Become a dead man while still alive and do so thoroughly.
Then you will be able to live as your heart leads you.35

There is no need for further explanation. I leave this up to my readers to interpret as they wish.
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Rude Awakenings: Zen at War
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Posted on Mar 24, 2014
from:  http://www.wiseattention.org/blog/2014/03/24/rude-awakenings-zen-at-war/

Zen at War revealed to people in the West the extent of Buddhist collusion with the Japanese War Effort in WW2. This article explores the issues that raised with the book’s author, Brian Victoria  by Vishvapani

When dawn broke over Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941 it brought with it waves of Japanese bombers. Their surprise attack on the American naval base brought the us into the Second World War and initiated a conflict that ended only when nuclear bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Every American schoolboy knows that much. But, while Americans counted their losses and vowed revenge, Japanese Buddhists found a special cause for celebration:

    "December 8th [the date of the attack in Japan] is the holy day on which Shakyamuni realised the Way, and [for this reason] it has been a day for commemorating the liberation of humankind. It is exceedingly wonderful that in 1941 we are able to make this very day also a holy day for commemorating the eternal reconstruction of the world. On this day was handed down the Great Imperial Edict aimed at punishing the arrogant United States and England, and news of the destruction of American bases in Hawaii spread quickly throughout the world.’

These words by the Buddhist writer Hata Esho, which were published in a Zen journal called Dogen (named after the founder of the Soto Zen school), would not have surprised their readers. The Zen establishment, indeed the leadership of all the main Buddhist schools in Japan, had been enthusiastic supporters of their Meiji rulers since the late 1900s, and were wholeheartedly behind the Japanese war effort.

A generation later the sons and daughters of the servicemen who had fought the Japanese took to the streets and campuses of the us to protest against the Vietnam War. Their rebellion turned into a rejection of mainstream western society, and a whole generation looked outside its culture for guidance and meaning. Many were captivated by the mysterious tradition of Japanese Zen, with its philosophy of going beyond the rational mind – beyond all dualism – to reach the simplicity at the heart of life. They took up its practice of zazen, or formless sitting meditation; and were entranced by the benign figures of such Zen masters as Yasutani Roshi and the writer DT Suzuki.

Thirty years on, the sixties generation are leaders of the western Buddhism that has spread across Europe and the us. Many have yoked their Zen practice to their concern for social justice and have declared the emergence of a new ‘Engaged Buddhism’. But the repressed history of the complicity of Japanese Buddhism in the country’s militarism and nationalism has returned to trouble modern Buddhists. The process started in Japan, but it has spread to the West. After many years of declaring that ‘no war has ever been fought in the name of Buddhism’, western Buddhists are having to acknowledge that this is untrue.

The fuse was lit in the West in 1997 with the publication of Zen at War, a careful but implacable account of Japanese Buddhism’s complicity in the country’s fanaticism, militarism and war effort up to 1945. The author, Brian Victoria, started to practise Zen while in Japan in 1961 and formally entered the Soto Zen priesthood in 1964, receiving the Dharma name ‘Daizen’. For Victoria, commitment to Zen went hand-in-hand with opposition to violence, particularly the Vietnam War, and his activism took him across Asia. But one day Zen Master Niwa Rempo summoned Victoria to his office to inform him that he was must cease his peace protests or lose his priestly status, adding, ‘Zen priests don’t get involved in politics.’

Victoria ignored the warning and none the less remained a priest, but his interest had been aroused. What, he wondered, was the relationship between Zen and politics? As his research progressed he discovered a history that his Zen teachers had failed to mention and which they were reluctant to discuss – the deep yet hidden responsibility of his own religious tradition for Japanese militarism. Zen at War is the product of his researches over the following 25 years; he now teaches at the University of Adelaide in Australia. There is no space here to rehearse Victoria’s arguments in full, nor to present his evidence; I conducted an e-mail interview with him but I’m in no position to verify his assertions. It is worth knowing, however, that his work is buttressed by that of many other scholars, and that its essential truth has not been challenged.

The essence of the charge in Zen at War is that from the end of the 19th century until 1945, almost the entire Japanese Buddhist establishment – not just Zen Buddhists – were vigorous supporters of the war effort and the militaristic society from which it grew. For instance, during the Russo-Japanese war of 1906 the well-known Buddhist scholar-priest Inoue Enryo argued that ‘If [the Russian army] is the army of Christ, ours is the army of the Buddha’. By the 1930s Buddhist teachers were advocating an ‘Imperial Way’ Zen, based, as Zen Master Yamazaki Ekiju put it, on the belief that ‘Japanese Buddhism must be centred on the emperor. … Buddhism, including Shakyamuni’s teachings, must conform to the national policy of Japan.’

Buddhist leaders willingly dubbed Japan’s campaigns in World War Two ‘a holy war’, and played a significant role in maintaining morale: ‘If ordered to tramp: march, march, or shoot: bang, bang,’ as Harada Daiun, a famous Zen master wrote. ‘This is the manifestation of the highest Wisdom.’

As the military situation deteriorated, and nationalism merged into desperation, Buddhist rhetoric even played its part in finding volunteers to be kamikaze pilots. One Soto priest wrote in 1943: ‘The source of the spirit of the Special Attack Forces lies in the denial of the individual self and the rebirth of the soul, which takes upon itself the burden of history. From ancient times Zen has described this conversion of mind as the achievement of complete Enlightenment.’ This, for Victoria, is the culmination of the military tradition of Zen – the equation of the pilot’s willing death with the highest goal of the spiritual life.

Victoria’s charge is not simply that Zen teachers were swept along by the nationalist tide. That would be unsurprising and understandable. During the First World War, for example, belligerent European nations on both sides had the support of churches of many denominations. Virtually all religions that have become the dominant faith of a nation have had to come to terms with the military dimension of the nation’s life. But Victoria told me that his forthcoming book Zen War Stories will demonstrate even more clearly that Zen teachings played a central role in instilling the military ethos and offering moral support to the military. ‘Japanese military leaders deliberately set out to inculcate a Zen-inspired attitude in Japanese troops as they raped and pillaged their way through Asia from 1931 to 1945, killing between 10 and 20 million men, women and children. This was done with the complete and unconditional support of all Japan’s Zen leaders.’

It is easy to stand in disbelieving judgement on such behaviour, and it is important, of course, to place it in a historical context. The origins of Zen militarism lie far back in Japanese history, and even in the state support of Buddhist monasteries in imperial China. But the start of the road to Pearl Harbour can be located at the restoration of the Emperor Meiji to full authority in 1868. For 268 years Buddhism had virtually been Japan’s state religion, and state patronage meant that Buddhist schools traded independence for prosperity and security. The new Meiji regime was determined that Japan should catch up with the western powers, and that all the energies of its sophisticated civilisation should be dedicated to this aim.

Japanese pride was piqued by the realisation that it had fallen behind, and that the influence of western powers was expanding in East Asia, its own traditional sphere of influence. Uniquely among Asian countries Japan succeeded in catching up, and its extraordinary achievement, in just one generation, was revealed to an astonished world by its victory in the 1906 war with Russia.

But Japan’s transition to the modern world presented challenges to its entire culture. The result was the emergence of an ideology that enabled it to benefit from western technology and the efficiency of a centralised state, but without the ideas of democracy, human rights and social justice that had developed in western countries to mitigate their effect. Japanese culture had always emphasised obedience but, with the restoration of the Emperor’s authority, loyalties that had hitherto been diffused were focused solely on him and, by extension, on the Japanese state he ruled. The forces that eventually led to fascism in Europe had reached Japan, and Meiji ideology emphasised above all the value of unquestioning devotion to the Emperor and the state.

Buddhism was caught up in the revolution. In the years after the Meiji restoration the authorities promoted Shinto, with its nationalist associations and cult of devotion to the Emperor, at the expense of Buddhism. Tens of thousands of Buddhists temples were closed, and their priests forced to disrobe. Buddhist leaders faced a choice – subservience or persecution – and, once the initial onslaught had abated, they followed instincts instilled by centuries of patronage and their ethos of deference to authority. They opted to show their rulers that Buddhism could contribute to the nation’s life by promoting loyalty, and the new concordat gave Buddhist organisations a place in Meiji society.

Two issues cause alarm in the case of Buddhist support for imperial Japan: the identity of the supporters, and the nature of their support. The first has attracted most attention in responses to Zen at War. The book reveals that in addition to being a skilled communicator of Zen teachings for a western audience, DT Suzuki was an eloquent advocate of Buddhist support for the imperial cause. But the greatest upset was caused by an article in Tricycle magazine, in which Victoria described the wartime record and political views of Yasutani Roshi. Yasutani was the teacher to Philip Kapleau, Robert Aitken, Maezumi Roshi and others, who have been the most important transmitters of Buddhism to white America. Yet Victoria revealed that throughout his life – including the years after the War – Yasutani adhered to an extreme right-wing political agenda, including theories of Japanese racial superiority and (notwithstanding the Jewish ancestry of many of his American students) virulent anti-Semitism.

These revelations stimulated interest in Victoria’s book, and forced American Zen teachers to comment, but the ensuing debate has remained focused on particular teachers. My own interest was pricked by the inadequacy of responses printed in Tricycle magazine by Aitken, and Bernie Glassman, a Dharma heir to Maezumi Roshi, and others. Aitken pleaded for understanding of the political and cultural context in which Yasutani’s views had developed. He even suggested that Yasutani’s views might be linked to the fact that ‘his mother gave him up for adoption to a Buddhist priest when he was only five years old and that he then grew up to be an angry youth and adult’.

As Victoria commented, this seems like ‘making excuses’. A Zen teacher is proclaimed as Enlightened, having gained an unshakeable insight into the truth that Buddhism teaches, and been transformed by that truth. So either Yasutani was not Enlightened, in which case his successors cannot claim authority through his transmission of the Dharma to them, or else we must revise our ideas of Enlightenment.

The latter approach was taken by Bernie Glassman, a teacher (of Jewish birth) who runs imaginative and impressive retreats and social projects in Europe and the us. Yet his apologetics seemed, unwittingly, to indicate deeper causes of Zen’s compromises, and even to express the same weaknesses. Glassman wrote, ‘What I’ve learnt from my teachers is that all of us are one body. We are the stars, the moon, the trees, the death camps, the killers, and the killed. We are enlightenment and we are delusion … everything is enlightened as it is. … So if your definition of enlightenment is that there is no nationalism or militarism or bigotry in the state of enlightenment, you better change your definition of enlightenment. For the state of enlightenment is maha, the circle with no inside or outside, not even a circle, just the pulsating of life everywhere.’

To some, such sentiments will seem profound. I think they are transcendental platitudes, confusion raised to the level of metaphysics. Glassman’s way of seeing the mundane in terms of the absolute flattens distinctions and erodes values. What is missing is ethics, and Glassman’s inclusivity seems to me to culminate in a moral failure. But his comment that this is what he learnt from his teachers returns us to questions about Zen, rather than Glassman himself. Is there something lacking in the philosophy Glassman has imbibed, and was this what led to Zen support for militarism in the first place? Is there something in Zen, and particularly its view of ethics, that disposed it to support the Japanese imperial state?

When I put this question to Victoria he believed that only by confronting it can the lessons of Zen’s history be addressed. ‘I have long hoped that one or another Buddhist organisation would focus on this topic, for sadly not a single Zen-affiliated organisation has done so. Instead, leaders of western Zen-related organisations have almost exclusively focused on the fact that Japanese masters within their own Dharma lineage have been revealed as one-time fervent militarists. Since Zen at War revealed all Japanese Zen leaders to have been fervent supporters of Japanese militarism, the compelling question is what made it possible for these alleged masters to portray the Buddhadharma in a war-affirming, totalitarian-embracing manner?’

Thus we come to the second cause for concern in Zen involvement in Japan’s wars – the apparent lack of conflict between its teachings and the army’s actions, even when these included atrocities on a vast scale. Although the debate about Japanese Buddhism’s war record is new to the West, and although there has been little general discussion of it in Japan itself, a small but determined band of Japanese Buddhist scholars has attempted to critique their own tradition. My own comments on Zen teachings will draw on their work as well as on the arguments of Zen at War.

In the Meiji period Buddhist teachers found two main justifications for their support of the country’s military adventures. Firstly they argued that Japan’s wars were just. The notion of Japanese superiority to other races is deeply rooted in the culture, and the spectacle of western powers encroaching on Asia seemed a patent injustice. Buddhists followed the popular view that Japan had a right to pursue its trade interests as it saw fit and to punish those who prevented that. In other words, as Suzuki put it, the aim of Japan’s wars was to ‘punish the people of the country representing injustice, in order that justice might prevail’.

Heathens who impeded Japan, it was argued, were also standing in the way of the progress of humanity, and deserved punishment, not least because Japan was so deeply imbued with Buddhism that opposing its interests was tantamount to opposing Buddhism. Buddhists, along with other government propagandists, argued that the expansion of Japanese power into Korea, Taiwan, Manchuria and eventually the rest of China was for the benefit of the inhabitants of those countries.

The second Buddhist justification for the war underpinned the first. This was the argument that, from a Zen perspective, other ethical considerations did not apply. Throughout its history Mahayana Buddhism has taught the doctrine of ‘skilful means’, the notion that it is permissible to break religious rules if a greater good can be obtained. Furthermore the Mahayana teaches that reality is ultimately shunya – void or empty. Seen truly, life is mysterious, it cannot be grasped or defined, and it cannot be said to have a substantial existence in any way that can be expressed. But, if this is the ultimate nature of existence, what should we make of the ‘reality’ we experience in our daily lives? And what place is there for the basic teachings of Buddhism, such as its ethical precepts, that relate to this level? Some Mahayana traditions respond by insisting that the ‘two truths’ are both valid, and that ethics and the other ‘trainings’ of Buddhist practice are indispensable. Zen, however, is concerned to avoid dualism, and the Zen adept is said to inhabit a sphere beyond words and concepts, beyond the distinctions of good and evil.

So Zen is antinomian, seeing its teachings as transcending the moral precepts, and anti-rational. Some might imagine that this direct knowing would lead one naturally to the right way of acting. But in the world of particulars one must make choices, and there is a Zen attitude to such choices. As Suzuki writes:

‘[Zen] simply urges going ahead with whatever conclusion, rational or irrational, a man has arrived at. Philosophy may be left with intellectual minds; Zen wants to act, and the most effective act, once the mind is made up, is to go on without looking backward. In this respect, Zen is indeed the religion of the samurai warrior.’

This ‘irrationalism’ has attracted many in the West – from the Beat generation’s celebration of spontaneity to contemporary aversion to ‘being judgemental’. But the danger is that it simply makes one susceptible to whatever values prevail in one’s society. It seems that in wartime Japan the very characteristic of Zen that connotes freedom and spontaneity to westerners became the call for Japanese to do their duty, happily sacrificing their lives to the imperial cause. This was not just a civic virtue, it was the fulfilment of Zen.

If this is Zen, is it Buddhism? The first and most basic of the Buddhist ethical precepts is the undertaking to abstain from taking life or harming other beings, and to act with loving-kindness. Yet in Japan Zen had long been associated with the warrior ethos of bushido. Victoria pointed out that DT Suzuki wrote approvingly of the famous 17th-century Rinzai Zen master Takuan’s instructions to one of his warrior patrons:

‘The uplifted sword has no will of its own, it is all of emptiness. The man who is about to be struck down is also of emptiness, and so is the one who wields the sword. As each of them is of emptiness and has no ‘mind’, the striking man is not a man, the sword in his hands is not a sword, and the ‘I’ who is about to be struck down is like the splitting of the spring breeze in a flash of lightning.’

Victoria compared this quote with a verse from the Dhammapada, a text dating back to the Buddha himself. ‘All persons tremble at being harmed, all persons fear death; remembering that you are like unto them, neither strike nor slay.’ As Victoria commented, ‘In comparing these two quotations, it is difficult to believe that we are talking about the same religion. The alleged ability of accomplished Zen practitioners to transcend good and evil and kill as they saw fit is one of the most thoroughly un-Buddhist teachings that one can imagine.’

Zen offered the Japanese warrior class its unconditional support in return for their patronage. By the 20th century these attitudes had become coupled to a mechanised, unitary state bent on imperial expansion. Thus we find the famous Zen teacher Kodo writing an article entitled ‘On the True meaning of Zen Precepts’. This true meaning, he argues, is that when the cause is just and the mind is clear, ‘whether one kills or does not kill, the precept forbidding killing is preserved. It is the precept forbidding killing that wields the sword’. And Rinzai master Nantembo wrote there was ‘no Bodhisattva practice superior to the compassionate taking of life’.

Are such views simply propaganda, signs that ethics, like truth, is among the first casualties of war? An alternative possibility is that both ethics and truth had already been casualties of Zen. This had been argued by Zen’s critics from the time of its appearance in China, by both Confucian and Buddhist opponents. Since the war, a cogent analysis of the reasons underlying Zen’s war responsibility has been developed by Rinzai priest and scholar, Ichikawa Hakugen. Following Japan’s defeat he started to question his previous support for the war, and to consider which of Zen’s cherished doctrines had contributed to it. Zen’s appeal lies partly in its teachings of harmony and tolerance, but Ichikawa posed awkward questions:

‘With what has modern Japanese Buddhism harmonised itself? With state Shinto. With state power and authority. With militarism. Accordingly with war. Of what has modern Japanese Buddhism been tolerant? Of those with whom it harmonises. Of its own responsibility for the war.’

A more recent development has been ‘Critical Buddhism’, the work of scholars within the Soto school, who have sought to unravel the historical origins of Zen teachings that diverge from other Buddhist schools, arguing – in contrast to Zen’s anti-rational tendencies – that ‘Buddhism is criticism’. Perhaps this goes too far and creates an intellectualised religion that dispenses with Zen’s great spiritual heritage. It also ignores the fact that almost all Japan’s Buddhists shared its support for the state, and that many Buddhist schools have been compromised ethically over the centuries, often through their connection with state power.

None the less, some degree of critical re-evaluation of Zen is surely essential, given the depth of its compromise. This is needed in Japan where in the past decade the Soto school has issued statements of regret for its past actions, but the Rinzai has remained mute. It is also needed in the West where the new Buddhists are only just starting to examine the history of the schools they have joined.

For Brian Victoria a particular danger is the appeal of the warrior ethos. ‘The “natural” affinity of Zen and the martial arts has been so widely accepted in the West that practitioners of one see no contradiction in practising the other. Thus, the alleged “unity of Zen and the sword” is as alive in the West today as it always has been in Japan.’

Perhaps a more insidious danger lies in Zen’s irrationalism – a quality that is particularly appealing to intellectuals. Given the lack of ethical distinctions in Bernie Glassman’s type of Zen, how can practitioners with that approach distinguish between prevalent ideologies and the Dharma? Westerners who want to follow Buddhism must be prepared to examine the traditions inherited from Asia (not to mention those developing in the West). And they need a commitment to the ethical and spiritual values that lie at the heart of the Buddhist tradition.

Brian Victoria has moved away from exclusive commitment to Zen and says, ‘I now feel more a Buddhist and less a Zen Buddhist.’ However, he also cautions against criticising only Zen Buddhists for supporting the war. Buddhists of all schools, he points out, with very few exceptions, acted likewise, and the underlying causes relate not just to particular doctrines but to the close relationship existing between state and religion. He quoted a Japanese folk saying, ’If you rub against vermilion, you will become red.’

I find myself fully in agreement with his conclusion: ‘The moral of Zen at War is that all Buddhists, East or West, need to examine carefully the doctrines they teach to see if they promote liberation or bondage, whether individual or societal. I hope that Buddhism will always welcome a wide variety of practices that have been shown to promote spiritual growth in the individual while at the same time causing no harm to others. The mass killing of war can never be a part of this.’

The book also reminded me of George Santayana’s famous saying that has been placed above the entrance to the Auschwitz Holocaust Museum: ‘Those who do not learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat its mistakes.’

First Published in Dharma Life Magazine Issue 14
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PostSubject: Re: Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki   Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki Empty3/31/2014, 12:37 pm

’If you rub against vermilion, you will become red.’

Originally a Chinese saying 近朱近墨 (or) 近朱者赤近墨者黑 if you get close to vermillion you will become red if you get close to ink you will become black.

vermillion was the colour the Emperor used to mark his documents and was associated with prestige and quality, ink is the common black.

The Japanese justified atrocities against the Chinese on the grounds that Chinese were sub-human, and for the same reason they broke every treaty they signed with the Chinese during the Sino-Japanese war.

I used to be very interested in Japanese culture and Japanese "Zen" before I lived in China but after living there for 10+ years I now can't imagine why.
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PostSubject: Re: Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki   Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki Empty3/31/2014, 12:47 pm

common human issue - denigrating other groups and tribes as "less than" - as some form of animal - rate, vermin, pig, and so on. The Japanese demonstrated once horrendous example, and then institution Imperial Buddhism was used to justify.  And when we dehumanize, then it's OK to mistreat them, kill them, even slaughter them - since they are not like us.  I think I posted somewhere else on this site the book by David Livingstone Smith on this issue... very good book.  There are videos of him speaking on this topic on line.

LESS THAN HUMAN by David Livingstone Smith

Smith (The Most Dangerous Animal), cofounder and director of the Institute for Cognitive Science and Evolutionary Psychology at the University of New England, interrogates why man alone, in Mark Twain's words, can go "forth in cold blood and calm pulse to exterminate his kind." Smith explores the ancient practice of labeling rival tribes; specific ethnic, racial, or religious groups; and species as undeserving of compassion. He is intent on untangling the mystery of dehumanization: it's insufficient to merely demonize the criminals, he argues; we must understand why, say, the Nazis believed they had a "moral duty" to annihilate the Jews. He looks into possible biological bases, psychological and developmental roots, clues in paleolithic art, and how, over the ages, philosophers and artists have criticized or goaded on the practice. Vivid and horrifying examples of incidences (and consequences) of the harassment, torture, and extermination of certain groups saturate the book—from the European decimation of indigenous peoples in the Americas to Israeli soldiers' attacks on Palestinian children. Smith's compelling study and his argument that the study of dehumanization be made a global priority to prevent future Rwandas or Hiroshimas is well-made and important.

"Smith's compelling study and his argument that the study of dehumanization be made a global priority to prevent future Rwandas or Hiroshimas is well-made and important." -- Publishers Weekly
“In this powerful and original work—ranging widely and with impressive interdisciplinary scope over different epochs and cultures while remaining compellingly readable—David Livingstone Smith demonstrates that our practice of representing our fellow-humans as subhuman is both inhuman and all too human. He forces us to recognize that monstrous atrocities are routinely carried out not by monsters but, alas, by ourselves.” -Charles W. Mills, Ph.D. author of The Racial Contract, John Evans Professor of Moral and Intellectual Philosophy

“David Livingstone Smith produces a clear and illuminating vision of why human beings are the way we are and how we got this way. The scholarship is broad, the insight is deep and the prose is compelling.  Less Than Human will change the way you think about things that matter profoundly. This is dazzling stuff.-- Steven E. Landsburg, Ph.D., author of The Big Questions

“Warning: This book will challenge you! Not that it’s hard to understand -- in fact, it's wonderfully accessible -- but it raises some terrible realities. For this reason, it is all the more important that you read Less that Human. It is brilliantly written, carefully researched, and a wonderful and much-needed opportunity for us to explore what it might mean to be ‘truly human’.” -- David P. Barash, author of Payback: Why We Retaliate, Seek Revenge and Redirect Our Aggression

"This is a beautiful book on an ugly topic. David Livingstone Smith uses the newest research in cognitive science to address the problems of racism, genocide, and atrocity, presenting a provocative theory as t...

About the Author
Dr. David Livingstone Smith is a professor of philosophy and founding director of The Human Nature Project at the University of New England. He is the author of Why We Lie and The Most Dangerous Animal and lives in Portland, Maine. Visit his blog at realhumannature.com.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Palestine is our country.
The Jews our dogs.

Arabs are the same as animals. There is no animal worse than them.

“COME ON DOGS. Where are all the dogs of Khan Younis? Son of a [banned term]! Son of a whore! Your mother’s [banned term]!” Degrading taunts in Arabic rang out from behind the fence that divided the Palestinian side of the Khan Younis refugee camp from the Israeli side. Located near the southern tip of the Gaza Strip, just outside the ancient town of Khan Younis, the camp was established to house 35,000 of the nearly one million Arabs who had been displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. By the beginning of the twenty-first century its population had swelled to over 60,000 souls housed in thirteen squalid cement blocks.

The torrent of invective did not come from the mouth of an angry Muslim; it was broadcast from a loudspeaker mounted on an armored Israeli Jeep. New York Times journalist Chris Hedges was in the camp that day, and watched as Palestinian boys began to lob stones at the Jeep in a futile gesture of defiance. Hedges recounts:

There was the boom of a percussion grenade. The boys, most no more than ten or eleven years old, scattered, running clumsily through the heavy sand. They descended out of sight behind the dune in front of me. There were no sounds of gunfire. The soldiers shot with silencers. The bullets from M-16 rifles, unseen by me, tumbled end-over-end through their slight bodies. I would see the destruction, the way their stomachs were ripped out, the gaping holes in their limbs and torsos, later in the hospital.2

Four children were shot. Only three survived. One of them, a boy named Ahmed, explained to Hedges what had happened. “Over the loudspeakers the soldiers told us to come to the fence to get chocolate and money,” he said. “Then they cursed us. Then they fired a grenade. We started to run. They shot Ali in the back.”3

Khan Younis had long been a stronghold of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, and when the Israeli troops pulled out of the Gaza Strip in the fall of 2005, the bright green banners of Hamas fluttered from the asbestos rooftops of the camp. Hamas was founded in 1987 to end the Israeli presence in the region and to establish an Islamic state with Jerusalem as its capital. Although Hamas is devoted mainly to supporting schools, hospitals, and cultural activities, it is best known for its violence—its abductions, assassinations, suicide bombings, and rocket attacks against Israeli civilians. Osama Alfarra, the mayor of Khan Younis and a member of Hamas, was one of the many Palestinians who rejoiced when Israel relinquished control of the Gaza strip. “Gaza was a beginning,” he told a reporter from the British Guardian newspaper. “You know how you hunt foxes? You dig them out of their holes. The fox is gone from Gaza to the West Bank. The resistance will dig him out of his hole there.”4

Osama Alfarra and the anonymous soldiers in the Jeep stood on opposite sides of a single conflict. And yet, their attitudes were uncannily alike. Each portrayed the other as a nonhuman animal. The soldier represented Ali and his companions as dogs, unclean animals in both Jewish and Islamic lore. Likewise, Osama Alfarra’s depiction of Israel as a fox represents a whole nation as vermin, fit to be hunted down and destroyed. The sly fox, an amalgam of greed and guile, has much in common with the traditional derogatory stereotype of the Jew, as exemplified by thirteenth-century Muslim writer Al-Jaubari’s characterization of the Jewish people in The Chosen One’s Unmasking of Divine Mysteries:

Know that these people are the most cunning creatures, the vilest, most unbelieving and hypocritical. While ostensibly the most humble and miserable, they are in fact the most vicious of men. This is the very essence of rascality and accursedness.… Look at this cunning and craft and vileness; how they take other people’s moneys, ruin their lives.…

And more recently, the remarks of Imam Yousif al-Zahar, a member of Hamas, conveyed the same idea. “Jews are a people who cannot be trusted,” he remarked. “They have been traitors to all agreements—go back to history. Their fate is their vanishing.”5

The soldier in the Israeli military Jeep dehumanized his Palestinian targets, and Osama Alfarra and his comrades dehumanized their Israeli enemies. In both examples—and in many, many more that I will describe in this book—a whole group of people is represented as less than human, as a prelude and accompaniment to extreme violence. It’s tempting to see reference to the subaltern other as mere talk, as nothing more than degrading metaphor. I will argue that this view is sorely misguided. Dehumanization isn’t a way of talking. It’s a way of thinking—a way of thinking that, sadly, comes all too easily to us. Dehumanization is a scourge, and has been so for millennia. It acts as a psychological lubricant, dissolving our inhibitions and inflaming our destructive passions. As such, it empowers us to perform acts that would, under other circumstances, be unthinkable. In the pages and chapters to follow, I will do my best to explain what this form of thinking consists in, how it works, and why we so readily slip into it.

Before I get to work explaining how dehumanization works, I want to make a preliminary case for its importance. So, to get the ball rolling, I’ll briefly discuss the role that dehumanization played in what is rightfully considered the single most destructive event in human history: the Second World War. More than 70 million people died in the war, most of them civilians. Millions died in combat. Many were burned alive by incendiary bombs and, in the end, nuclear weapons. Millions more were victims of systematic genocide. Dehumanization made much of this carnage possible.

Let’s begin at the end. The 1946 Nuremberg doctors’ trial was the first of twelve military tribunals held in Germany after the defeat of Germany and Japan. Twenty doctors and three administrators—twenty-two men and a single woman—stood accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. They had participated in Hitler’s euthanasia program, in which around 200,000 mentally and physically handicapped people deemed unfit to live were gassed to death, and they performed fiendish medical experiments on thousands of Jewish, Russian, Roma, and Polish prisoners.

Principal prosecutor Telford Taylor began his opening statement with these somber words:
The defendants in this case are charged with murders, tortures, and other atrocities committed in the name of medical science. The victims of these crimes are numbered in the hundreds of thousands. A handful only are still alive; a few of the survivors will appear in this courtroom. But most of these miserable victims were slaughtered outright or died in the course of the tortures to which they were subjected.… To their murderers, these wretched people were not individuals at all. They came in wholesale lots and were treated worse than animals.6

He went on to describe the experiments in detail. Some of these human guinea pigs were deprived of oxygen to simulate high-altitude parachute jumps. Others were frozen, infested with malaria, or exposed to mustard gas. Doctors made incisions in their flesh to simulate wounds, inserted pieces of broken glass or wood shavings into them, and then, tying off the blood vessels, introduced bacteria to induce gangrene. Taylor described how men and women were made to drink seawater, were infected with typhus and other deadly diseases, were poisoned and burned with phosphorus, and how medical personnel conscientiously recorded their agonized screams and violent convulsions.

The descriptions in Taylor’s narrative are so horrifying that it’s easy to overlook what might seem like an insignificant rhetorical flourish: his comment that “these wretched people were … treated worse than animals.” But this comment raises a question of deep and fundamental importance. What is it that enables one group of human beings to treat another group as though they were subhuman creatures?

A rough answer isn’t hard to come by. Thinking sets the agenda for action, and thinking of humans as less than human paves the way for atrocity. The Nazis were explicit about the status of their victims. They were Untermenschen—subhumans—and as such were excluded from the system of moral rights and obligations that bind humankind together. It’s wrong to kill a person, but permissible to exterminate a rat. To the Nazis, all the Jews, Gypsies, and the others were rats: dangerous, disease-carrying rats.

Jews were the main victims of this genocidal project. From the beginning, Adolf Hitler and his followers were convinced that the Jewish people posed a deadly threat to all that was noble in humanity. In the apocalyptic Nazi vision, these putative enemies of civilization were represented as parasitic organisms—as leeches, lice, bacteria, or vectors of contagion. “Today,” Hitler proclaimed in 1943, “international Jewry is the ferment of decomposition of peoples and states, just as it was in antiquity. It will remain that way as long as peoples do not find the strength to get rid of the virus.” Both the death camps (the gas chambers of which were modeled on delousing chambers) and the Einsatzgruppen (paramilitary death squads that roamed across Eastern Europe following in the wake of the advancing German army) were responses to what the Nazis perceived to be a lethal pestilence.7

Sometimes the Nazis thought of their enemies as vicious, bloodthirsty predators rather than parasites. When partisans in occupied regions of the Soviet Union began to wage a guerilla ...
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PostSubject: Re: Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki   Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki Empty6/19/2014, 7:31 am

This is essay is divided into two postings.

The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 24, No. 3, June 16, 2014.

Introductory Note:This is the first of a two part series describing the wartime roles of two of Japan’s best-known 20th century Zen masters, Sawaki Kōdō (1880-1965) and Nakajima Genjō (1915-2000). Beginning with the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, followed by the Asia-Pacific War of 1937-45, these masters left a record not only of their battlefield experiences but, more importantly, the relationship they saw between their Buddhist faith and war. Additionally, each was affiliated with one of Japan’s two main Zen sects, i.e., Sawaki was a Sōtō Zen priest while Nakajima was a priest in the Rinzai Zen sect. Finally, Sawaki served as a soldier in the Imperial Army during the Russo-Japanese War, while Nakajima was a sailor in the Imperial Navy during the Asia-Pacific War.

Part I focuses on Sawaki Kōdō. Part II covers Nakajima Genjō.

Zen Masters on the Battlefield (Part I)

Brian Daizen Victoria

Any fool learns from his mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others. -- Otto von Bismarck.


A cursory glance at the writings of Zen scholars like D.T. Suzuki, with his proffered “unity of Zen and the sword,” suggests that at least in medieval Japan there is no reason to be surprised at the presence of Zen masters on the battlefield. A closer reading, however, reveals this was not the case. That is to say, Zen masters like the famous Takuan Sōhō (1573–1645) served as spiritual advisors to the samurai class, not as warriors themselves. The closest that Zen masters came to engaging in warfare are figures like Yamamoto Jōchō (1659-1719), author of the Bushidō classic, Hagakure (Hidden under the Leaves), or Suzuki Shōsan (1579–1655) who urged his disciples to develop a warrior's fortitude. Both of these latter Zen masters had earlier been samurai and entered the priesthood only after retirement, i.e., upon reaching an age when they were no longer fit for battle.

Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki 41331
Takuan Sōhō with samurai disciple

To some extent, this is not surprising, for according to the traditional Vinaya rules governing the conduct of Buddhist clerics, even going to a battlefield was forbidden, much less intentionally killing someone on it. Thus, a Zen master on the battlefield ought to an oxymoron.1 Nevertheless, it is fair to say that in Japan the restrictions of the Vinaya code have, for many centuries, been honored more in the breach than in reality.

This is especially the case when it comes to clerics involved in violence, for as early as the tenth century we see the emergence of priests who engaged in warfare, commonly referred to as “priest-warriors” (sōhei), a pan-sectarian phenomenon emerging from within the Tendai sect. Priest-warriors not only used violence to defend their sectarian institutions but also launched attacks on rivals, both secular and religious, in order to maintain if not expand the wealth and power of their sect.

In 1571 priest-warriors entered into a period of decline when the warlord Oda Nobunaga, in his quest to reunify Japan, ordered his army of 30,000 to kill the Tendai-affiliated priest-warriors located on Mt. Hiei outside of Kyoto. Somewhere between 1,500 to as many as 4,000 are estimated to have been slain. The remaining priest-warriors, now mostly affiliated with the Shin (True Pure Land) sect, were killed by Tokugawa Ieyasu. Tokugawa defeated the last of them and took control of the entire country in 1603.

Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki 41332

It was not until the Meiji Restoration of 1868 that it once again became possible for Buddhist monks, regardless of sect, to become “warriors.” This time, however, it was the newly established government that provided the impetus, making priests subject to military conscription like any other imperial subject. That said, it was possible for Buddhist priests to volunteer to become non-combatant military chaplains and, as far as the Zen school is concerned, it is here we find our first Zen master on the modern battlefield, i.e., Rinzai Zen Master Shaku Sōen (1859-1919).

Inasmuch as I have previously written extensively about Shaku’s role in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, I will not repeat that here.2 Nevertheless, it is notable that while Shaku did not engage in warfare, he nevertheless described his motivation for going to the battlefield as follows:

Quote :
I wished to have my faith tested by going through the greatest horrors of life, but I also wished to inspire if I could, our valiant soldiers with the ennobling thoughts of the Buddha so as to enable them to die on the battlefield with the confidence that task in which they are engaged is great and noble. I wished to convince them of the truths that this war is not a mere slaughter of their fellow human-beings, but that they are combating an evil and that, at the same time, corporeal annihilation really means a rebirth of the soul, not in heaven, indeed, but here among ourselves. I did my best to impress these ideas upon the soldiers’ hearts.3

Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki 41333
Shaku Sōen

On the one hand, Shaku seeks to differentiate Buddhist belief concerning “a rebirth of the soul” from its Christian counterpart. On the other hand, he invokes Christian “just war theory” in the form of “combating an evil” to justify Japan’s ultimately successful attempt to ensure Japanese, not Russian, control of the Korean peninsula.

Sōtō Zen Master Sawaki Kōdō

Unlike Shaku, Sawaki Kōdō (1880-1965) was a Zen priest who actually fought in the Russo-Japanese War. As noted above, this is not surprising inasmuch as Zen monks of military age were treated as any other draft-age Japanese male. After some initial failed attempts, Sawaki took his vows as a Sōtō Zen priest at age eighteen followed by two years of Zen training. At the age of 21, however, he enlisted in the Imperial Army where he served in the Thirty-third Infantry Regiment.

After completing an initial three-year enlistment Sawaki left the service but was immediately recalled due to possible war with Imperial Russia. Following the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in February 1904, Sawaki, aged 25, was sent to northern China to fight Russians in the summer of that year. However, he was seriously wounded with a shot through the neck on August 31, 1904 and nearly died. The severity of his wound required him to be sent back to Japan for treatment and, upon recovery, he once again returned to the battlefield in January 1905. In January 1906, aged 27, Sawaki was discharged from the military. He had served for six years and risen through the ranks to become a non-commissioned officer and squad leader. Upon leaving military service, Sawaki immediately resumed his Zen training.

In Recollections of Sawaki Kōdō (Sawaki Kōdō Kikigaki), a book first written in 1950, Sakai Tokugen (1912-96), one of Sawaki’s closest disciples, records Sawaki’s description of his battlefield experience as follows:

Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki 41334
Sawaki Kōdō

Quote :
It was at the battle Baolisi temple on June 14-15, [1904]. By comparison with contemporary warfare, fighting in those days was an elegant affair. You just shot one bullet at a time, bang, bang. There was no rough and tumble about it. That is to say, there was no raking machine-gun fire spraying bullets everywhere or big guys you had to take down. Nor were there any atomic bombs that destroyed everything and killed everyone.
Nevertheless, during the Russo-Japanese War my comrades and I gorged ourselves on killing people. Especially at the battle of Baolisi temple, I chased our enemies into a hole where I was able to pick them off very efficiently. Because of this, my company commander requested that I be given a letter of commendation, but it wasn’t issued. The commander was deeply disappointed and apologized to me over and over again for not having succeeded, saying: “It was because I wrote the request so poorly that I couldn’t get one for you.”4


Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki 41335
Back cover of Sakai's book, Sawaki Kōdō Kikigaki

In the same book Sawaki recalled the following conversation among his comrades, providing what is perhaps the first modern reference to the effectiveness of Zen training on the battlefield. Unlike centuries past, the reference does not concern a warrior who had received Zen training, but rather a Zen priest who finds himself on the battlefield. Note that even ordinary soldiers recognized the efficacy of Zen training in battle:

Quote :
Everyone was asking, “Who the hell is that guy?”
“Oh, he’s just a Zen priest.”
“I see. Just what you’d expect from a Zen priest, a man with guts!”
Saying this, they were very impressed. I also thought I was something special. Looking back at it, I was very conceited.5

Before continuing, let me briefly interrupt the narrative at this point to describe a phenomenon that has happened so often in the past, most especially when describing D.T. Suzuki’s war-related activities. I refer to the fact that present-day disciples of wartime Zen masters and scholars immediately spring to their master’s defense, Sawaki in this instance, charging that translations like the above are either incorrect or, at the very least, taken out of context. That is exactly what happened with regard to the above exchange, especially with regard to the sentence: “My comrades and I gorged ourselves on killing people.”

Readers interested in this question are invited to read a detailed discussion of this and related translation issues in Appendix I of this article. Suffice it to say at this point, these translation-related issues are far more important, at least to the disciples involved, than they might appear to be to the disinterested reader.

The reason for this is that the Zen sect claims the Buddha Dharma is transmitted through enlightened masters to their enlightened disciples. Thus, if the assumption is made that ‘enlightenment’ entails a rejection of violence, should any of the disciples’ Dharma predecessors have invoked Buddhist teachings in support of aggressive warfare, then the very authenticity of both the masters’ and their disciples’ enlightenment would be thrown into question. This in turn would bring into question the disciples’ authority or qualification to teach the “true Buddha Dharma” to others. This issue, too, will be discussed further in Appendix I.

Returning to Sawaki, in later years he described what he learned from his battlefield experience as follows:

Quote :
Following the end of the fighting I had the opportunity to
quietly reflect on my own conduct. I realized then that while as
a daredevil I had been second to none, this was nothing more than the greatness of Mori no Ishimatsu, Kunisada Chūji, and other
outlaws and champions of the underdog. However, as a disciple
of Zen Master Dōgen, I still didn’t measure up. . . .
I had been like those who in the act of laying down their lives sought something in return. . . . That is to say, I had been like those who so wanted to become famous, or awarded a posthumous military decoration, that they were ready to lay
down their very life to get one. Such an attitude has nothing to do with [Buddhist] liberation from life and death.
Such fellows have simply replaced one thing with another, exchanged one burden for another. They sought honor and fame for themselves through laying down their lives. This is nothing other than the substitution of one thing for another. Even had they succeeded in acquiring these things, one wonders whether they would have been satisfied. In any event, this is what we identify in Buddhism as being endlessly entrapped in the world of desire.

What can be said is that liberation from birth and death does not consist of discarding one’s physical life, but rather, of discarding desire. There are various kinds of desire, including the desire for fame as well as the desire for wealth. Discarding desire, however, means giving up all forms of desire. Religion exists in the renunciation of all forms of desire. This is where the way is to be found. This is where enlightenment is encountered. . . .

Quote :
Expressed in terms of our Japanese military, it denotes a realm in which wherever the flag of our military goes there is no ordeal too great to endure, nor enemy numbers too numerous [to overcome]. I call this invoking the power of the military flag. Discarding one’s body beneath the military flag is true selflessness.6

While at the beginning of the above quote it may appear that Sawaki is criticizing his participation in the Russo-Japanese war, a closer reading reveals that this is not the case. That is to say, Sawaki’s regret is not for having killed large numbers of the enemy, but, instead, he criticizes himself for having sought ”honor and fame” in the process, proof that he remained trapped in the world of desire, i.e., in an unenlightened state. Thus, it was not the killing of his fellow human beings that bothered him, but his failure to kill the enemy (and die himself if need be) with a totally selfless spirit.

In adopting this attitude, he was very close to the opinion expressed by the samurai turned Zen priest Yamamoto Jōchō in his book, Hagakure. Yamamoto believed that becoming one with death in one's thoughts, even in life, was the highest attainment of purity and focus. He felt that a resolution to die gives rise to a higher state of life, infused with a beauty and grace beyond the reach of those concerned with self-preservation. Note, however, Yamamoto was not the first to assert what some scholars have identified as longstanding East Asian (and possibly earlier) Buddhist ‘values’.

Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki 41336
Japanese soldiers in Russo-Japanese War

Furthermore, when Sawaki talked of “invoking the power of the military flag” it is important to realize that he was employing terminology normally associated with the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara. In the well-known Kannon-gyō (Avalokiteshvara Sutra) the idea is repeatedly advanced that one can be rescued from a multitude of disasters and calamities if one but “invokes the power of Avalokiteshvara” (nenpi Kannon-riki).

What Sawaki did in the last paragraph of the preceding quote was to replace Avalokiteshvara with a unit’s military flag, an object made sacrosanct by virtue of the fact that the emperor, as a divine being (arahito-gami), had bestowed it on the unit. Thus, to invoke the power of the military flag was tantamount to invoking the invincible power of the divine emperor thereby ensuring victory. That said, this particular phraseology is unique to Sawaki and reveals just how thoroughly he conflated his Zen Buddhist faith with the emperor and Imperial military.

In this connection, it is noteworthy that one of the today’s leading Sōtō Zen sect scholars, Hakamaya Noriaki, also directed his attention to Sawaki’s claim:

Quote :
When one becomes aware of Sawaki Kōdō’s [wartime] call to “Invoke the power of the emperor; invoke the power of the military banner,” it is enough to send shivers down your spine. . . . Not only was Sawaki not a Buddhist, but he also took up arms against [Sōtō Zen Master] Dōgen himself.7 

Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki 41337
Yamamoto Jōchō

This is very strong criticism coming from a Sōtō Zen scholar in that even today this sect continues, on the whole, to regard Sawaki as one of its greatest “scholar-priests” (gakusō) of the 20th century. While Hakamaya clearly has his own normative perspective on this issue, at least he cannot easily be accused of being unable to understand exactly what Sawaki’s war-related statements meant.

Although Sawaki never fought again, his support for the unity of Zen and war continued unabated. This is attested to by any number of his words and deeds during and prior to the Asia-Pacific War. For example, in early 1937 Sawaki was a professor of Buddhist Studies at Sōtō Zen sect-affiliated Komazawa University in Tokyo. Although Japan would not begin its full-scale invasion of China until July of that year, students were becoming worried about their futures as they sensed full-scale war approaching. At this juncture Sawaki addressed an assembly of Komazawa students preparing for the Sōtō Zen priesthood as follows:

Quote :
There is at present no need for you students to be perplexed by questions concerning the relationship of religion to the state. Instead you should continue to practice zazen and devote yourself wholeheartedly to the Buddha Dharma. Should you fail to do this, and, instead, start to waver in your practice, when it comes time to defend your country in the future you are unlikely to be able to do so zealously.8

As this quotation makes clear, Sawaki saw no conflict between devotion to the Buddha Dharma and defense of one’s country, even when, as in this case, that “defense” meant the unprovoked, full-scale invasion of a neighboring country. In fact, it appears that Sawaki regarded dedication to Zen training as the basis for a similar dedication to military service.

In any event, following Japan’s invasion of China proper in July 1937, the Japanese government issued a call for a “Movement for the Total Spiritual Mobilization of the People” (Kokumin Seishin Sōdōin Undō), the chief goal of which was “the enhancement of the Spirit of Japan (Yamato-damashii).” Underlying this call was the government’s realization that the successful prosecution of a war fought in the 20th century, i.e., “total war,” would require the incorporation of all segments of society, civilian as well as military, into the war effort. Of special concern was the elimination of any values that conflicted with the ideological mindset necessary to create a unified citizenry. Toward this goal all allegedly subversive Western thought had to be eliminated, first and foremost communism and socialism but extending to liberal democratic ideals as well.

Zen was seen as an important method of mobilizing the people in that, having long incorporated and propagated Confucian social ethics, it affirmed a hierarchical social order wedded to an attitude of unthinking, unquestioning and “selfless” loyalty to one’s superiors, most especially, in post-Meiji Japan, the emperor. As Sōtō Zen master Yasutani Haku’un explained: “In the event one wishes to exalt the Spirit of Japan, it is imperative to utilize Japanese Buddhism. The reason for this is that as far as a nutrient for cultivation of the Spirit of Japan is concerned, I believe there is absolutely nothing superior to Japanese Buddhism.”9

For his part, Sawaki, together with his disciples, responded to the Japanese government’s call by creating a lay-oriented Zen training center attached to the Sōtō Zen temple of Daichūji in Tochigi prefecture. Just how closely associated this effort was with the government is demonstrated by the fact that one of the major financial contributors to the center’s establishment was Prince Konoe Fumimarō (1891-1945), the prime minister who had authorized the full-scale invasion of China in July 1937. Konoe made a contribution of 1,000 yen to the training center, a substantial amount of money in prewar days.

The training center commenced operation in October 1940 when Sawaki was sixty-one years of age. As his close disciple Sakai Tokugen noted, Sawaki frequently injected the government’s wartime slogans into the Dharma talks he gave at Daichūji:

Quote :
In Sawaki’s lectures on Zen Master Dōgen’s writings, you will find such phrases as “the eight corners of the world under one roof” and “the way of the gods” scattered throughout. At that time we all truly believed in such things as “one hundred million [citizens] of one mind” and “self-annihilation for the sake of one’s country.” We were consumed with the thought of repaying the debt of gratitude we owed the state, and we incessantly feared for the destiny our nation.10

With regard to his Shinto-related comment, it should be noted that Sawaki also said: “As far as the national polity of our country is concerned, the ‘way of the gods’ is the same as ‘original enlightenment’ [in Buddhism].”11

The training center at Daichūji continued in operation until the fall of 1944 when it closed in order to accommodate children being evacuated from the cities due to Allied bombing. In spite of the danger, Sawaki returned to live in Tokyo at a Komazawa university-affiliated student dormitory. However, due to the worsening war situation, this dormitory was closed in March 1945. Sawaki then accepted an invitation to live at the home of the former Superintendent-General of the Metropolitan Police, Maruyama Tsurukichi.

Maruyama extended this invitation because of Sawaki’s longtime cooperation with Japanese police officials, part of whose wartime job was to apprehend and imprison anyone suspected of being opposed to the government and its war effort. From 1938 onwards Sawaki found time to give talks to those “thought offenders” (shisō-han) who had been freed from prison following disavowal of their previous anti-war views but were still under police supervision. He also went into prisons holding such offenders in order to convince them to cooperate with the prosecution of the war.

Sawaki was viewed as being particularly good at this kind of work not least because his own poverty-stricken childhood had contributed to a down-to-earth attitude and an ability to identify with offenders. For example, he typically began his talks with a description of his own one-month imprisonment at age eighteen when he had been mistakenly arrested as a pickpocket. Furthermore, in describing his military service Sawaki downplayed his heroism by saying: “Although I was decorated with the ‘Order of the Golden Kite’ for my meritorious deeds during the Russo-Japanese War, it was just a question of being in the right place at the right time - a time when a lot of killing was going on. I was lucky - that’s all.”12

Sawaki’s contribution to the war effort did not stop with the above. From December 23, 1939 onwards, he served on a government commission charged with promoting the martial arts among Japanese school children as part of their preparation for military service. It was only natural for Sawaki to serve on this commission, for he had long believed that “the unity of body and mind as taught in Zen was identical with the ultimate stage of the martial arts.”13 Sawaki had come to this conclusion during his late teens when he practiced both kendō (swordsmanship) and jūdō while in training at Shūshinji temple in Kumamoto prefecture.

Further, on November 22, 1941 Kōdō was appointed to serve on a government commission devoted to enhancing the physical strength of all citizens. This and related contributions led the Japanese government’s Bureau of Decorations to award a “Medal of Honor” in the form of a silver cup to Sawaki for “promoting the public interest” on November 3, 1943.

Significantly, Sawaki’s war support was not limited to Japan alone. On three separate occasions in 1941 and 1942 he traveled to the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo (Manchuria) in northern China to promote the morale of Japanese military and civilian personnel stationed there. Sawaki’s dedication led him, in May 1942, to board a truck bound for a remote rural area of Manchukuo to deliver a lecture to some three thousand armed Japanese colonists undergoing their annual military training.

While no detailed records remain of Sawaki’s talks in Manchukuo, their tone if not their content can readily be inferred from the following 1942 article that appeared in the Buddhist magazine Daihōrin. Entitled “On the True Meaning of the Zen Precepts,” Sawaki wrote:

Quote :
The Lotus Sutra states that "the Three Worlds [of desire, form, and formlessness] are my existence and all sentient beings therein are my children." From this point of view, everything, friend and foe included, are my children. Superior officers are my existence as are my subordinates. The same can be said of both Japan and the world. Given this, 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 this precept that throws the bomb. It is for this reason that you must seek to
study and practice this precept.14 [Italics mine.]
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PostSubject: Re: Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki   Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki Empty6/19/2014, 7:34 am

second part of the essay from Brian Victoria:

The idea Sawaki advanced here concerning killing was a popular position advocated by Zen exponents, including D.T. Suzuki. In his now classic Zen and Japanese Culture, Suzuki wrote:

Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki 41338
Zen Master Dōgen

Quote :
The sword is generally associated with killing, and most of us wonder how it can come into connection with Zen, which is a school of Buddhism teaching the gospel of love and mercy. The fact is that 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, for he never appeals to the sword unless he intends to kill. 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 do harm to anybody, but the enemy appears and makes himself a victim. It is though the sword performs automatically its function of justice, which is the function of mercy. . . . When the sword is expected to play this sort of role in human life, it is no more a weapon of self-defense or an instrument of killing, and the swordsman turns into an artist of the first grade, engaged in producing a work of genuine originality.15

In Sawaki’s case it is “the precept forbidding killing that wields the sword” while Suzuki maintains it is “the sword itself that does the killing.” In both cases, Sawaki and Suzuki ask us to believe that acts of violence are performed independently of the individual’s will. Were their assertions true, it follows that there could be no question of personal choice or intention, let alone moral responsibility, for one’s deadly acts, all cornerstones of Buddhist practice. This point will be revisited in Appendix I.

Be that as it may, by May 1944 Sawaki went so far as to claim that it was Zen Master Dōgen, the 13th century founder of the Sōtō Zen sect in Japan, who had first taught the proper mental attitude for the imperial military. Sawaki wrote:

Quote :
Zen master Dōgen said that we should discard our self. He taught that we should quietly engage in practice having forgotten our Self. Dōgen expressed this in the chapter entitled “Life and Death” of the Shōbōgenzō [A Treasury of the Essence of the True Dharma] as follows: “Simply discard body and mind and cast yourself into the realm of the Buddha. The Buddha will then serve as your guide, and if you follow the guidance given, you will free yourself from life and death, and become a Buddha, without any need to exert yourself either physically or mentally.” Expressed in different words, this means that the orders of one’s superiors are to be obeyed, regardless of content. It is in doing this that you immediately become faithful retainers of the emperor and perfect soldiers.16

Inasmuch as Kōdō was already sixty-five years old when he wrote these words, one must, if nothing else, admire him for his longstanding commitment to employing Zen in the creation of the selfless “perfect soldier.”

Finally, Sawaki noted that Zen monasteries and the military “truly resemble each other closely.” Among other things, this was because both required communal life styles. Sawaki continued:

Quote :
The first thing required in communal life is to discard the self. . . . In battle those who have been living together communally can work together very bravely at the front. . . . Today the state requires that we all follow a communal life style wherever we are, thus repaying the debt of gratitude we owe the state. The spirit of Zen monastic life does not belong to Zen priests alone but must be learned by all the people.17


Taken as a whole, there can be no doubt that Sawaki Kōdō was a fervent supporter of Japan’s wartime effort, constantly employing his understanding of Zen to promote “selfless” and unquestioning allegiance to the emperor and the state. His expressions of support for the Asia-Pacific War had particular strength as they were based on his own earlier wartime experiences. In other words, he truly knew what he was talking about.

Furthermore, he was also a very seasoned and knowledgeable Zen practitioner. True, he was still a neophyte Zen priest when he had actually fought on the battlefield during the Russo-Japanese War, but by the time of the Asia-Pacific War more than thirty years later he was already highly respected as an authentic Zen master. Thus, he was able to blend his own combat experiences into his “Dharma talks” producing a powerful narrative for those young Zen priests and other war-age laymen who looked to him for guidance.

This said, it would be mistaken to view Sawaki as more extreme in his support of the Asia-Pacific War than his Zen contemporaries. The equally distinguished Sōtō Zen master, Harada Sōgaku (1871-1961), for example, wrote the following in November 1939:

Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki 41339
D. T. Suzuki

Quote :
[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 of which I speak extends to the farthest reaches of the holy war [now underway]. Verse: I bow my head to the floor to those whose nobility is without equal.18

Similarly when we now read with great skepticism, if not disbelief, Sawaki’s assertion that “it is this precept [forbidding killing] that throws the bomb,” let us not forget that other wartime Zen masters, e.g., Yasutani Haku’un (1885–1973), also twisted the basic Buddhist precept of not killing into a war-affirming creed. Yasutani wrote:

Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki 4133101
Harada Sōgaku

Quote :
At this point the following question arises: What should the attitude of disciples of the Buddha, as Mahāyāna Bodhisattvas, be toward the first precept that forbids the taking of life? For example, what should be done in the case in which, in order to remove various evil influences and benefit society, it becomes necessary to deprive birds, insects, fish, etc. of their lives, or, on a larger scale, to sentence extremely evil and brutal persons to death, or for the nation to engage in total war?
Those who understand the spirit of the Mahāyāna precepts should be able to answer this question immediately. That is to say, of course one should kill, killing as many as possible. One should, fighting hard, kill everyone in the enemy army. The reason for this is that in order to carry [Buddhist] compassion and filial obedience through to perfection it is necessary to assist good and punish evil. However, in killing [the enemy] one should swallow one’s tears, bearing in mind the truth of killing yet not killing.
Failing to kill an evil man who ought to be killed, or destroying an enemy army that ought to be destroyed, would be to betray compassion and filial obedience, to break the precept forbidding the taking of life. This is a special characteristic of the Mahāyāna precepts.19

Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki 413311
Yasutani Haku'un

As can be seen in these quotations, wartime Zen masters were aware of the contradiction between the precept that proscribed killing and their fervent support of Japan’s war effort. While each master had his own idiosyncratic method of addressing this contradiction, they nevertheless shared a common conclusion, i.e., killing mass numbers of one’s fellow human beings, aka the “enemy,” was not a violation of this precept but rather fully in accord with it.

If there is anything surprising about Sawaki’s fervent wartime support it is something he shares with many other wartime Zen masters, i.e., his success in distancing himself from his wartime record in the postwar era. In the first instance this was made possible by the long-held, Confucian-derived tradition within Japanese Zen dictating that one’s master cannot be criticized, at least publicly. Coupled with this is the almost unbelievable naïveté exhibited by those early postwar Westerners and their successors who failed to question the wartime roles of those masters under whom they trained.

In Sawaki’s case, most of the Westerners who studied in his “Dharma lineage” studied with one of his disciples, e.g., Uchiyama Kōshō (1912-1998) at Antaiji temple in Kyoto or Deshimaru Taisen (1914-1982), founder of theAssociation Zen Internationale in France. A few Westerners studied with Nishijima Gudō Wafu (1919-2014), a layman who trained under Sawaki during the war years, beginning in 1940, before later entering the priesthood in the postwar era.

Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki 413312
Uchiyama Kōshō
Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki 413313
Deshimaru Taisen
Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki 413314
Nishijima Gudō Wafu

Unsurprisingly, neither Uchiyama, Deshimaru nor Nishijima revealed the details of Sawaki’s wartime record to their students. On the contrary, following the publication of my book Zen at War, Nishijima defended Sawaki from the charge of war collaboration as follows:

Quote :
Some American man wrote the book which criticizes Master Kōdō Sawaki in the war so strongly. But I think the book includes some kind of exaggeration. And meeting Master Kōdō Sawaki-rōshi directly, he was not so affirmative to the war, but at the same time he was thinking to do his duty as a man in Japan. So in such a situation I think his attitude is not so extremely right or left. And he is usually keeping the Middle Way as a Buddhist monk. I think such a situation is true.20

In light of claims like this, it is hardly surprising that Westerners who venerate Sawaki as one of their Dharma ancestors, some of whom are now Zen teachers in their own right, refuse to accept the idea that Sawaki might once have twisted Buddhist doctrine and practice into a fervently war-affirming creed. Of course, if one adopts a Critical Buddhist perspective, it was less a question of Sawaki having ‘twisted’ Buddhist doctrine than it is of his adoption (albeit in an extreme form) of certain aspects of (Mahayana) Buddhism that had been around for centuries, if not millennia. Be that as it may, Sawaki’s wartime record is clear, reminding us that we forget Bismarck’s admonition at our peril: “The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.”

Appendix I

The most sustained critique of my description of Sawaki war-related statements has been made by Muhō Nölke, a German-born, Sōtō Zen priest, who is currently the ninth abbot of Antaiji, a temple with which Sawaki was closely identified, having served as its fifth abbot. Thus, within the Zen tradition Sawaki becomes Nölke’s “great, great grandfather in the Dharma” and is, moreover, the best known of Nölke’s predecessors. In e-mail exchanges we had during the summer of 2007 (later posted on his temple website at the beginning of 2008) Nölke took issue with my presentation of Sawaki’s war-related writings.

Nölke explained why he felt the need to criticize my presentation as follows: “The reason why your presentation of Sawaki Kodo concerns me (and that is why I write this e-mail), is simply that I am translating his books and practicing in his lineage. So if it should be true that he was a war monger or a zen fascist, as he is called by some, and that this is somehow expressed in his teaching, it would be a great problem for me.”21

Despite his concern, Nölke admitted that he had not read the book in which I described Sawaki’s wartime record, i.e. Zen at War. He wrote: “I know that I shouldn't be demanding any of your time by asking questions about a book which I haven't read myself so far. I only know about quotes which appear on the internet, especially in discussion forums, from time to time.”22

Apart from internet discussion forums, Nölke used information supplied to him by Matsuoka Yukako, one of Sawaki’s postwar lay disciples. Based on these sources, Nölke first asserted that Sakai Tokugen, the author whom I quoted in Zen at War, had not accurately conveyed Sawaki’s words. In particular, Nölke questioned the validity of the two paragraph long passage previously quoted in the main text that begins with the statement: “It was at the battle Baolisi temple on June 14-15, [1904]. . .” He wrote:

Quote :
This quote seems to be from Sakai Tokugen's biography of Sawaki Kodo, which - as you know for sure - was not written or dictated by Sawaki himself, but by Sakai using the first person, thus creating the impression of an auto-biography. Only the first printing was published under Sawaki's name, all later editions mention Sakai as the author. Sakai mentions and apologizes for this in his forword [sic] in later editions. What I find interesting about this forword [sic] and the one by Tanaka Yoneki is, that while Tanaka claims that Sakai used notes by Uchiyama Kosho, Sakai makes the point that he didn't use those notes because they were full of mistakes. He also admits that his own version of Sawaki's life was contradicted by some after the publication of the book, but says that this was only about "nuiances" [sic]. This means, to say the least, that Sakai's version of Sawaki's life is not the only one, it is not generally accepted by everyone, nor is it directly out of Sawaki's mouth. Thus, the quote above is not by Sawaki, but by Sakai writing in a way that HE THINKS Sawaki would have talked.23

The key question raised by this quotation is whether Sakai’s description of Sawaki’s battlefield experiences is accurate or, as Nölke charges, was Sakai just writing “in a way that HE THINKS Sawaki would have talked.” The answer to this question is contained in the Preface Sakai wrote for the 1984 paperback edition of his book Sawaki Kōdō Kikigaki. Describing how the book first came to be written, i.e., in 1950, Sakai stated: “Everything included in the book is not only what I but anyone who had trained under the master [Sawaki] for many years had heard. Nevertheless, when it came to putting it down on paper, I checked each point with the master to make sure it was all correct.”24

It is noteworthy that Sakai was one of Sawaki’s longest and closest disciples. Additionally, Sakai, a Ph.D., was not only a professor of Buddhist Studies at Sōtō-Zen affiliated Komazawa University but, as a “scholar-priest” (gakusō), was entrusted with providing guidance in Zen meditation to all of the university’s neophyte priests over many years. I say this based on my own personal experience of having received meditation instruction from him during my graduate studies at Komazawa. By 1998 Sakai’s book on Sawaki had gone through some twenty-one printings. While it is impossible to verify the accuracy of Sakai’s book, its contents certainly concur with Sawaki’s own wartime writing, suggesting that Sakai did not write his book simply “in a way that HE THINKS Sawaki would have talked.”

Nölke’s criticism did not stop here. He went on to introduce evidence from a second book, this one carrying Sawaki’s name, that contained a passage similar yet somewhat different from that contained in Sakai’s book. This passage was included on page 414 of the first edition of Shōdōka o Kataru (Commentary on the “Song of Enlightenment”) published in 1940. Nölke translates the relevant passage as follows:

Quote :
i [sic] went to the russo-japanese war and killed people until i had my fill/enough of it/my stomach was full [hara-ippai, "gorged" - in the German version of "Zen at War," they have an expression that means "we just couldn't get enough of", which is quite wrong, as "hara-ippai" means the point where one has enough], but if you think about it soberly/normally/in peace [heijo], this is a serious matter [taihen]. today the newspaper writes about the extermination of the enemy or how we clean [sosha] them away with machine gun fire. that almost sounds like everyday household cleaning [soji]. they fire their machine gun and call it "cleaning away the remains of the enemy". imagine that would happen in the midst of the ginza: people getting "cleaned" as if you were shooting animals! it would be a serious affair. compared with today the former war was old fashioned [furyu]. We shot only one bullet at a time. That was not so gross like shooting your machine gun as if you were spreading water with a watering can, or throwing big bombs, or poison gas. i also once killed enemies at the battlefield of Baolisi, chasing them into a hole, and i was never punished for it. i even received monthly payments as a veteran [onkyu] after i came back from the war. that means that you do not always get punished for killing a person. it depends on the regulations of the time if you get punished or not. but these regulations are made by men. [sic for the entire passage]25

Having supplied this translation, Nölke comments on it as follows:

Quote :
Now I do not know what you make out of this, but at least I do not hear a Zen fascist boast about his deeds here, but rather a quite courageous criticism of unhuman [sic] ways to fight a war. In this context, the quote above hardly serves as proof for any support that Sawaki showed for the war. Also, there are many sources that say that Sawaki Roshi [Zen master] thought about the "onkyu" he received after the Russo-Japanese war as "dirty money" and wouldn't use it for his personal life, but rather to print Buddhist texts or support students of Buddhism, which is surprising, as even today many think that this war was an honourable war that saved Japan's independence against the threat of Western imperialism.26

In examining the passage in question, it is clear that the opening words are quite close to Sakai’s version as quoted in the main text of this article. However, the two passages diverge quickly and the latter passage does provide some additional insight into Sawaki’s wartime thinking. That said, and as the reader might suspect, I am not entirely satisfied with Nölke’s translation. However, before introducing my own translation, let me provide the relevant passage in Japanese, something that Nölke thoughtfully included for those readers familiar with Japanese:

Quote :
私などは日露戦争に行って腹いっぱい人殺しをして来たが、これが平常だったら大変な話だ。此の頃新聞に、どこそこの敵を殲滅したとか、機銃の掃射を したとかよく出ている。まるで掃除でもしているような気がする。残敵掃射などといって機関銃でシュウッとやるのである。これを銀座の真ん中で遊んでいる奴 を、動物掃射などと云うようなことをやったら大変なことになる。昔の戦争は、今からかんがえるとよほど風流なもので、一発一発パンパンと弾を射ったもの だ。如露で水を撒くように機関銃でバラバラやったり、大きいヤツをドカンドカンと落としたり、毒瓦斯で一ぺんにやったり、そんなに荒っぽくはなかった。私 も得利寺で敵を落とし穴に追い込んで殺したことがあったが、それでも罰を食わなかった。その上に恩給を貰ってしまった。それだから人を殺したらいつでも罰 になるとはきまっていない。罰にするとかしないとかは其の規定によるのだ。この規定は人間がこしらえるのである。27

My own translation of this passage reads as follows:

Quote :
My comrades (nado) and I participated in the Russo-Japanese War and gorged ourselves on killing people. If we had done this under normal conditions (heijō) there would have been a big fuss (taihen na hanashi). These days, newspapers often talk about exterminating the enemy here and there or raking them with machinegun fire. It sounds just like they’re describing some kind of cleaning.
Newspapers talk about such things as mowing down the remaining enemy using a machinegun to spray them with. If this were done to fellows relaxing in the heart of [Tokyo’s] Ginza area, i.e., strafing them as if they were animals or something, it would be a big deal. Looking back at it now, wars in the past were, to a considerable degree, an elegant (fūryū) affair. You just shot one bullet at a time, bang, bang. There were no machineguns spraying bullets about or big guys you had to take down with a bang. Nor was there poison gas that took care of everything. There wasn’t anything rough and tumble about it like that.
While at [the battle of] Baolisi temple I, too, chased the enemy into a hole and killed them, but I was not punished. Moreover, I received a pension. For that reason just because you kill someone doesn’t mean that you will always be punished. Whether you are punished or not depends on [society’s] rules, rules created by human beings.

Reflecting on this passage, the first question that comes to mind is why Sawaki saw fit to discuss his battlefield experiences in his commentary in the first place? That is to say, the “Song of Enlightenment” (Ch. Zhèngdào gē, J. Shōdōka) is a Zen discourse written some time in the first half of the 8th century C.E., traditionally attributed to Yongjia Xuanjue. The first commentaries on it appeared as early as the 11th century during the Song Dynasty. This discourse deals with the methods of and attitudes towards daily Zen practice and, unsurprisingly for a Zen text, emphasizes practice over sutra study. It is most certainly not a text that requires a discussion of one’s battlefield exploits.

The answer to this question is, of course, a universal one, i.e., clerics of all religions constantly seek to make the ancients texts of their faith relevant to the conditions faced by their modern day adherents. In this case, i.e., 1940, Sawaki’s readers were in the fourth year of a full-scale Japanese invasion of China albeit not yet at war with the US and its allies. Given this, Sawaki may well have felt he had a duty to make teachings relevant to the events of his day. Nevertheless, this certainly didn’t require him to teach such things as “Discarding one’s body beneath the military flag is true selflessness,” etc.

Second, when the two versions of Sawaki’s recollection of his battlefield experiences are compared, it is clear that the differences between them are, at most, a question of tone not substance. That is to say, the second version contains less of what, for lack of a better term, may be considered “bravado.” For example, in the latter version Sawaki does not refer to the conceited attitude he had about his military prowess at the time. However, given the ongoing wartime situation they were then in, not to mention his subsequent remarks as recorded above, it would not be surprising if Sawaki had, on multiple occasions, referred to his battlefield experiences exactly as Sakai records him having done.

A second question Nölke fails to address is the utter lack of reference to Buddhism or Zen in this latter passage other than, ironically, the area where the battle took place, i.e., Baolisi, the Chinese characters of which [得利寺] clearly indicate that it was a Buddhist temple. Instead of any mention of Buddhism, the second version focuses on a series of comparisons, beginning with a comparison of the consequences of killing large numbers of people during “normal conditions,” i.e., peacetime, when such actions are proscribed, versus killing them during war when they are not only encouraged but rewarded, rewarded in the form of a military pension for having done so. Many observers, both before and after Sawaki, have long remarked on this incongruity.

Sawaki makes a second comparison between the “elegant” (fūryū) manner he killed the enemy during the Russo-Japanese War, i.e., one at a time, versus the much more mechanized and massive way they were being killed in the current war with China. Yet, apart from what might be deemed his “common-sense” observations of this fact, there is no suggestion of Sawaki’s opposition to war with China let alone any dissonance he may have felt between his Buddhist faith and the vow he had taken, and long since broken, to abstain from killing. At most, some of his words might be considered a lament concerning the extent to which killing had become mechanized and mass killing commonplace.

Finally, and not least, is the question of the multiple disparities between Nölke’s translation of this passage and my own. For the most part these disparities are minor in nature but with one important exception, i.e., the translation of the term hara-ippai (lit. stomach-full) to describe the manner in which Sawaki killed Russian soldiers. The exact same term is found in both the passage quoted in Sakai’s book as well as the second passage.

Nölke claimed this term should be translated as follows: “. . . killed people until i had my fill/enough of it/my stomach was full” and further: “ . . . ‘hara-ippai’ means the point where one has enough.” On the other hand, I translated this term as: “. . . gorged ourselves on killing people.” It is a relatively minor yet stark difference. Why?

In order to answer this question, let us first examine the translation of this key term according to the authoritative 5th edition of Kenkyūsha’s New Japanese-English Dictionary. Here we find hara-ippai defined as follows:

(omouzonbun) to one's heart's content, as in the following examples:

(hara-ippai taberu) eat one's fill; eat heartily; gorge oneself [be gorged] with 《meat》

(manpuku suru) have a full stomach; be full

(hara-ippai nomu) drink one's fill.

(hara-ippai no) a bellyful of《food》

Based on these meanings it can be seen that “gorged oneself” is certainly one possible translation. On the other hand, at least in theory it can also be translated as “to eat one’s fill” and therefore, in this case, as “to kill one’s fill.” This latter translation is certainly closer in spirit to Nölke’s translation, i.e., “. . . killed people until i had my fill/enough of it/my stomach was full.” Needless to say, Nölke’s translation is clearly less emotive in character than use of the word “gorge.” This difference is important to Nölke because this and additional evidence allows him to claim that “. . . at least I do not hear a Zen fascist boast about his deeds here.”

Needless to say, I have never charged Sawaki with having been a “Zen fascist” even while identifying him as a strong supporter of Japan’s 20th century wars. That said, the question remains why I selected the more emotive word “gorge” over the less emotive words, “fill” or “enough”? The answer is simple - context. As the reader will recall from the relevant passage in the main text, Sawaki’s comrades on the battlefield were so impressed with his martial prowess that Sawaki stated: “I also thought I was something special. Looking back at it, I was very conceited (ii ki na mono de atta).”

Was Sawaki boasting about his having killed many Russians? Yes, at least in the words Sakai attributed to him the context reveals that at the time he clearly was. Thus the more emotive word “gorged” better fits in the tenor of the passage, certainly in Sakai’s version. It can be argued that even in the second version this is the case since “gorge” serves to strengthen the contrast Sawaki was making between killing in wartime and peacetime.

Be that as it may, if we were to judge Sawaki’s wartime record solely on the basis of either the first or second versions of his battlefield recollections as presented here, it would be impossible to claim they reflect the words of someone who invoked his Buddhist faith in fervent support of Japanese militarism. Yet, as repeatedly demonstrated in the main text, these are far from the only war-related statements Sawaki made. In particular, Sawaki’s subsequent written assertions that “It is the precept forbidding killing that wields the sword. It is this precept that throws the bomb” are literally some of his most explosive if not [banned term] of his wartime statements. Thus it is not surprising that Nölke would address this issue as well. He wrote:

Quote :
It seems to me that there are roughly three different approaches to the precepts:
1) The orthodox or common-sense appoach [sic] to the precept as forbidding certain actions. You can either "keep" or "break" the precepts. In some traditions you can stay "clean" by excusing yourself from the percept (by disrobing etc) for the time you want to practice the action that is forbidden, i.e. have sex, kill people during war time [sic] etc.
2) The precepts as stating a "universal law". This seems to be the Mahayana interpretation that many Japanese Buddhist [sic] were and are still using. When Sawaki talks about the precept throwing a bomb, he is using this interpretion [sic]. Here you can not "break" the precept at all, because it is universal. You cannot kill universal life. Thus the precept becomes a tautology.
3) The percept as contradiction or koan, as Hisamatsu Shinichi's basic koan: What will you do when there is nothing at all you can do (and doing nothing at all is not an option either)? So it is not possible to "keep" the precept in the first place, but the function of the precept is to keep you aware of the contradiction of your life, and humble. It prevents the illusion "I am right, because I don't do wrong."
I tend to interpret the precepts in the third way, although I am aware that both the second and third interpretation make one volnurable [sic] to the temptation of not taking responsibility for one's actions.28

Before addressing the key question this quotation raises, it is noteworthy that Nölke recognized that “both the second and third interpretation make one volnurable [vulnerable] to the temptation of not taking responsibility for one's actions.” The reader will recall that this is the same point the author made in the main text regarding Sawaki and D.T. Suzuki’s related assertions. It is indeed a serious question, and one cannot help but ask whether this “way of thinking” contributed to the Japanese people’s postwar inability (or unwillingness) even today, on the whole, to accept responsibility for the massive wartime damage done by Japan to the people of Asia, especially China and Korea?

What is truly breathtaking about Nölke’s explanation of Sawaki’s bomb-throwing precept is his claim that “you can not ‘break’ the precept at all, because it is universal. You cannot kill universal life.” While this statement could easily lead to an extended philosophical discussion, the essential element is far simpler than that, i.e., how would the wartime readers of his words have understood what he said? Would they have become critical of Japan’s war effort in any way? Would they have recognized any conflict, or even incongruity, between the vow they had taken as Buddhist clerics and laypersons not to kill versus their duty as imperial subjects to obey the emperor’s command to fight a war launched in his name?

In fact, Sakai informs us that they did not. As quoted above:

Quote :
In Sawaki’s lectures on Zen Master Dōgen’s writings, you will find such phrases as “the eight corners of the world under one roof” and “the way of the [Shintō] gods” scattered throughout. At that time we all truly believed in such things as “one hundred million [citizens] of one mind” and “self-annihilation for the sake of one’s country.” We were consumed with the thought of repaying the debt of gratitude we owed the state, and we incessantly feared for the destiny our nation.

Thus, whether one looks at Sawaki’s own battlefield experiences or those whom he instructed during the subsequent Asia-Pacific War, nothing he said or wrote interfered the least with the killing expected of his disciples once they became soldiers. After all, their master had done likewise if not yet on such a large scale. Any other explanation, aka excuse, falls into the category the Japanese so accurately describe as herikutsu, i.e., sophistry.

I will not impose on my readers with a further discussion of Nölke’s criticisms other than to note the entire correspondence between the two of us is available here.

In concluding this section, let me note that Nölke is not alone in criticizing my description of the wartime records of well-known Zen figures, most especially D.T. Suzuki. Readers interested in this broader question are invited to read the critiques of my previous work by the Shin (True Pure Land) Buddhist priest Kemmyō Taira Satō in the following two articles published in The Eastern Buddhist:

1.“D.T. Suzuki and the Question of War,” available on the Web here.

2. “Brian Victoria and the Question of Scholarship,” available on the Web here.

The results of my own further research on D.T. Suzuki’s wartime record are available on the website of The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus:

  1. “Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D.T. Suzuki”

  1. “D.T. Suzuki, Zen and the Nazis”

  1. “A Zen Nazi in Wartime Japan: Count Dürckheim and his Sources—D.T. Suzuki, Yasutani Haku’un and Eugen Herrigel”

Needless to say, well-reasoned and researched academic debate is always to be welcomed in the academy. That said, this author cannot help but note that Zen practitioners spend many, many hours seated on padded quilts or round cushions interrogating both the nature of “self” and “reality.” Yet, when it comes to interrogating the historical record of their own masters, and those in their Dharma lineage, all too often, especially in Japan but also in the West, practitioners resolutely refuse to face the facts. Given the stakes involved for them as noted above, this is, at a human level, all too understandable. The result is that they employ the classic ruse of “shoot the messenger” rather than seriously examining the message and its implications.

Buddha Shakyamuni is recorded as having said in Verse 228 of the Dhammapada: “There never has been, there never will be, nor is there now, anyone who is always blamed or always praised.” Thus, to truly accept and benefit from the undoubted good of many of Sawaki’s teachings, as with other wartime Zen figures, it is also necessary to acknowledge his war-affirming ‘dark side’, i.e., his deadly ignorance if you will. To do otherwise risks turning Sawaki, et al. into yet more ‘sacred cows.’ And in that case, as Mark Twain so aptly noted, “Sacred cows make the best hamburger!”29

This is the first in a two part series.

See also

Brian Daizen Victoria, “Zen Masters on the Battlefield” (Part II, forthcoming)

Brian Daizen Victoria holds an M.A. in Buddhist Studies from Sōtō Zen sect-affiliated Komazawa University in Tokyo, and a Ph.D. from the Department of Religious Studies at Temple University. In addition to a 2nd, enlarged edition of Zen At War (Rowman & Littlefield), major writings include Zen War Stories (RoutledgeCurzon); an autobiographical work in Japanese entitled Gaijin de ari, Zen bozu de ari (As a Foreigner, As a Zen Priest); Zen Master Dōgen, coauthored with Prof. Yokoi Yūhō of Aichi-gakuin University (Weatherhill); and a translation of The Zen Life by Sato Koji (Weatherhill). He is currently a Visiting Research Fellow at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies (Nichibunken) in Kyoto. A documentary on Zen and War featuring his work is available here http://clearviewproduct.com/zenandwar.aspx.

Recommended citation: Brian Daizen Victoria, "Zen Masters on the Battlefield (Part I)", The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 24, No. 3, June 16, 2014.

Sources (Part I)

Hakamaya, Noriaki. Hihan Bukkyō. Tokyo: Daizō Shuppan, 1990.

Nölke, Muhō. “Lotus in the fire,” January/February 2008, available on the Web here (accessed April 15, 2014).

Sakai Tokugen. Sawaki Kōdō Kikigaki. Tokyo: Kōdansha Gakujutsu Bunkō, 1984.

Sawaki Kōdō. “Shōji o Akirameru Kata” (The Method of Clarifying Life and Death). Daihōrin, May 1944.

_____.“Zenkai Hongi o Kataru” (On the True Meaning of the Zen Precepts) (Part 9). Daihōrin, January 1942.

Suzuki, D.T. Zen and Japanese Culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1959.

Tanaka, Tadao. Sawaki Kōdō – Kono Koshin no Hito (Sawaki Kōdō – Heart of an Ancient Man), 2 vol. Tokyo: Daihōrin-kaku, 1995.

Victoria, Brian. Zen at War, 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004.

_____. Zen War Stories. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003.

Warner, Brad. “Gudo Nishijima Roshi: Japanese Buddhism in W.W. II,” available on the Web here (accessed April 29, 2014).


1 A complete list of the 227 basic rules of conduct included in the traditional Code of Discipline (Pali: Bhikku Pāțimokkha) is available on the Web here.

2 For a more detailed discussion of Shaku’s war-related thinking, see Victoria, Zen at War, pp. 25-29.

3 Ibid., p. 26.

4 Sakai, Sawaki Kōdō Kikigaki, pp. 99-100.

5 Ibid., p. 99.

6 Sawaki, “Shōji o Akirameru Kata” (The Method of Clarifying Life and Death) in the May 1944 issue of Daihōrin, pp. 5-7.”

7 Hakamaya, Hihan Bukkyō, p. 297.

8 Quoted in Tanaka, Sawaki Kōdō– Kono Koshin no Hito, v. 2, p. 462.

9 Quoted in Victoria, Zen War Stories, p. 70.

10 Ibid., p. 455.

11 Ibid., p. 458.

12 Ibid., p. 172. While nothing more is known about the circumstances that led to Sawaki being awarded this decoration, it was typically awarded to a soldier upon his return to Japan from the battlefield in recognition of his bravery, leadership or command in battle.

13 Ibid., p. 341.

14 Sawaki, “Zenkai Hongi o Kataru” (On the True Meaning of the Zen Precepts) (Part 9), in the January 1942 issue of Daihōrin, p. 107.

15 Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture, p. 145.

16 Sawaki, “Shōji o Akirameru Kata” (The Method of Clarifying Life and Death) in the May 1944 issue of Daihōrin, p. 6.

17 Quoted in Victoria, Zen at War, p. 186.

18 Quoted in Victoria, Zen at War, p. 137.

19 Quoted in Victoria, Zen War Stories, pp. 71-72.

20 Warner, “Gudo Nishijima Roshi: Japanese Buddhism in W.W. II,” available on the Web here.

21 Quoted in Muhō Nölke’s newsletter, “Lotus in the fire,” January/February 2008, available on the Web here.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 Sakai, Sawaki Kōdō Kikigaki, p. 3.

25 Quoted in Muhō Nölke’s newsletter, “Lotus in the fire,” January/February 2008, available on the Web here.

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid.

28 Ibid.

29 Twain is quoted, for instance, at: http://quotations.about.com/od/marktwainquotes/a/twainsult.htm
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PostSubject: Re: Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki   Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki Empty7/7/2014, 11:09 am

The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 27, No. 4, July 7, 2014.

Zen Masters on the Battlefield (Part II) -Brian Daizen Victoria

Visiting Research Fellow, International Research Center for Japanese Studies


In Part I of this series we looked at the battlefield experiences of Sōtō Zen Master Sawaki Kōdō during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. Sawaki’s battlefield reminiscences are relatively short, especially as he had been severely wounded early in the war. Nevertheless, he was able to express the relationship he saw between Zen and war on numerous occasions in the years that followed.

In the case of Zen Master Nakajima Genjō (1915-2000) we have a Rinzai Zen Master whose battlefield experiences are much more extensive, extending over many years. On the other hand, Nakajima’s postwar discussions of his battlefield experiences are far more limited than those of Sawaki. This is not surprising when we consider that, unlike the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, which Japan won, the Asia-Pacific War of 1937-45 of which Nakajima was a part ended in disaster for Japan. Nevertheless, in terms of understanding the relationship between Zen and war, Nakajima’s battlefield experiences have much to teach us.

In Nakajima’s case there is no controversy over his battlefield experiences and related views since he recorded them in a very compact and clearly written form. The process by which I acquired this material began with a visit to the village of Hara in Japan’s Shizuoka Prefecture in late January 1999. It was there I met Nakajima for the first time when he was eighty-four years old and the abbot of Shōinji temple and head of the Hakuin branch of the Rinzai Zen sect.1 Shōinji is famous as the home temple of Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1768), the great early modern medieval reformer of Rinzai Zen. Although I didn’t know it at the time, Nakajima had little more than another year to live. 

Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki 1-Sho%CC%84inji
A Shōinji temple.
Nakajima told me that he first arrived at Shōinji at the age of twelve and formally entered the priesthood at age fifteen. He eventually became a disciple and Dharma successor of Yamamoto Gempō (1866-1961) who was abbot of both Shōinji and nearby Ryūtakuji temples, and one of the most highly respected and influential Rinzai masters of the modern era. Yamamoto was so respected that in the immediate postwar period he was selected to head what was then a single, unified Rinzai Zen sect.2 In the West, Yamamoto is perhaps best known as the master of Nakagawa Sōen (1907–1984) who taught and influenced many early Western students of Zen in the postwar era. 

Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki 2-Nakagawa_So%CC%84en

Nakagawa Sōen.
In the course of our conversation Nakajima informed me that he had served in the Imperial Japanese Navy for some ten years, voluntarily enlisting at the age of twenty-one. Significantly, the year prior to his enlistment Nakajima had his initial enlightenment experience (kenshō). Thus, even though he was not yet recognized as a “Zen master,” he was nevertheless an accomplished Zen practitioner on the battlefield.

Having previously written about the role of Zen and Zen masters in wartime Japan, I was quite moved to meet a living Zen master who had served in the military. That Nakajima was in the Rinzai Zen tradition made the encounter even more meaningful, for up to that point none of the many branches of this sect had expressed the least regret for their fervent and unconditional support of Japanese militarism.3 Given this, I could not help but wonder what Nakajima would have to say about his own role, as both enlightened priest and seasoned warrior, in a conflict that claimed the lives of so many millions.

To my surprise, Nakajima readily agreed to share his wartime experiences, but, shortly after he began to speak, tears welled up in his eyes and his voice cracked. Overcome by emotion, he was unable to continue. By this time his tears had triggered my own, and we both sat round the temple’s open hearth crying for some time. When at length Nakajima regained his composure, he informed me that he had just completed writing his autobiography, including a description of his years in the military.

Nakajima promised to send me a copy of his book as soon as it was published. True to his word, at the beginning of April 1999 I received a slim volume in the mail entitled Yasoji o koete (Beyond Eighty Years). The book contained a number of photos including one of him as a handsome young sailor in the navy and another of the battleship Ise on which he initially served. Although somewhat abridged, this is his story.4 It should be born in mind, however, that his reminiscences were written for a Japanese audience. 

Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki 3-Battleship_Ise
The Japanese Imperial Navy battleship “Ise”.
In the Imperial Navy

Enlistment I enlisted in the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1936. On the morning I was to leave, Master Yamamoto accompanied me as far as the entrance to the temple grounds. He pointed to a nearby small shed housing a water wheel. “Look at that water wheel,” he said, “as long as there is water, the wheel keeps turning. The wheel of the Dharma is the same. As long as the self-sacrificing mind of a bodhisattva is present, the Dharma is realized. You must exert yourself to the utmost to ensure that the water of the bodhisattva-mind never runs out.” 

Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki 4-Yamamoto_Gempo%CC%84
Yamamoto Gempō.
Master Yamamoto required that I leave the temple dressed in the garb of an itinerant monk, complete with conical wicker hat, robes, and straw sandals. This was a most unreasonable requirement, for I should have been wearing the simple uniform of a member of the youth corps.

I placed a number of Buddhist sutras including the “Platform Sutra of the Sixth Zen Patriarch” in my luggage. In this respect the master and I were of one mind. While I had no time to read anything during basic training, once assigned to the battleship Ise I did have days off. The landlady where I roomed in Hiroshima was very kind, and my greatest pleasure was reading the recorded sayings of the Zen patriarchs.

In the summer of 1937 I was granted a short leave and returned to visit Master Yamamoto at Shōinji. It was clear that the master was not the least bit worried that I might die in battle. “Even if a bullet comes your way,” he said, “it will swerve around you.” I replied, “But bullets don’t swerve!” “Don’t tell me that,” he remonstrated, “you came back this time, didn’t you?” “Yes, that’s true . . .” I said, and we both had a good laugh.

Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki 5-Nakajima_as_Zen_priest
Nakajima Genjō in priest robes.
While I was at Shōinji that summer I successfully answered the Master’s final queries concerning the kōan known as “Zhao-zhou’s Mu.” in which Zhao-zhou answers “Mu” (nothing/naught) when asked if a dog has the Buddha nature]. I had grappled with this kōan for some five years, even in the midst of my life in the navy. I recall that when Master Yamamoto first gave me this kōan, he said: “Be the genuine article, the real thing! Zen priests mustn’t rely on the experience of others. Do today what has to be done today. Tomorrow is too late!”

Master Yamamoto next assigned me the most difficult kōan of all, i.e., the sound of one hand. “The sound of one hand is none other than Zen Master Hakuin himself. Don’t treat it lightly. Give it your best!” the master admonished.

Inasmuch as I would soon be returning to my ship, Master Yamamoto granted me a most unusual request. He agreed to allow me to present my understanding of this and subsequent kōans to him by letter rather than in the traditional personal encounter between Zen master and disciple. This did not represent, however, any lessening of the master’s severity but was a reflection of his deep affection for the Buddha Dharma. In any event, I was able to return to my ship with total peace of mind, and nothing brought me greater joy in the navy than receiving a letter from my master.

Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki 6-Nakajima_as_Sailor
Nakajima Genjō in naval uniform.
War in China In 1937 my ship was made part of the Third Fleet and headed for Shanghai in order to participate in military operations on the Yangtze river. Despite the China Incident [of July 1937] the war was still fairly quiet. On our way up the river I visited a number of famous temples as military operations allowed. We eventually reached the city of Chenchiang where the temple of Chinshan-ssu is located. This is the temple where Kūkai, [9th century founder of the esoteric Shingon sect in Japan], had studied on his way to Ch’ang-an. It was a very famous temple, and I encountered something there that took me by complete surprise.

On entering the temple grounds I came across some five hundred novice monks practicing meditation in the meditation hall. As I was still young and immature, I blurted out to the abbot, “What do you think you’re doing! In Japan everyone is consumed by the war with China, and this is all you can do?” The abbot replied, “And just who are you to talk! I hear that you are a priest. War is for soldiers. A priest’s work is to read the sutras and meditate!”

The abbot didn’t say any more than this, but I felt as if I had been hit on the head with a sledgehammer. As a result I immediately became a pacifist.

Not long after this came the capture of Nanking. Actually we were able to capture it without much of a fight at all. I have heard people claim that a great massacre took place at Nanking, but I am firmly convinced there was no such thing. It was wartime, however, so there may have been a little trouble with the women. In any event, after things start to settle down, it is pretty hard to kill anyone.

After Nanking we fought battle after battle and usually experienced little difficulty in taking our objectives. In July 1940 we returned to Kure in Japan. From then on there were unmistakable signs that the Japanese Navy was about to plunge into a major war in East Asia. One could see this from the movements of the ships though if we had let a word slip out about this, it would have been fatal. All of us realized this so we said nothing. In any event, we all expected that a big war was coming.

In the early fall of 1941 the Combined Fleet assembled in full force for a naval review in Tokyo Bay. And then, on 8 December, the Greater East Asia War began. I participated in the attack on Singapore as part of the Third Dispatched Fleet. From there we went on to invade New Guinea, Rabaul, Bougainville, and Guadalcanal.

A Losing War The Combined Fleet had launched a surprise attack on Hawaii. No doubt they imagined they were the winners, but that only shows the extent to which the stupidity of the navy’s upper echelon had already begun to reveal itself. U.S. retaliation came at the Battle of Midway [in June 1942] where we lost four of our prized aircraft carriers.

On the southern front a torpedo squadron of the Japanese Navy had, two days prior to the declaration of war, succeeded in sinking the British battleship Prince of Wales and the battle cruiser Repulse on the northern side of Singapore. Once again the navy thought they had won, but this, too, was in reality a defeat.

These two battles had the long-term effect of ruining the navy. That is to say, the navy forgot to use this time to take stock of itself. This resulted in a failure to appreciate the importance of improving its weaponry and staying abreast of the times. I recall having read somewhere that Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku [1884-1943], commander of the Combined Fleet, once told the emperor: “The Japanese Navy will take the Pacific by storm.” What an utterly stupid thing to say! With commanders like him no wonder we didn’t stand a chance.

In 1941 our advance went well, but the situation changed from around the end of 1942. This was clear even to us lower-ranking petty officers. I mean by this that we had started to lose.

One of our problems was that the field of battle was too spread out. The other was the sinking of the American and British ships referred to above. I said that we had really lost when we thought we had won because the U.S., learning from both of these experiences, thoroughly upgraded its air corps and made air power the center of its advance. This allowed the U.S. to gain air superiority while Japan remained glued to the Zero as the nucleus of its air wing. The improvements made to American aircraft were nothing short of spectacular.

For much of 1942 the Allied Forces were relatively inactive while they prepared their air strategy. Completely unaware of this, the Japanese Navy went about its business acting as if there were nothing to worry about. Nevertheless, we were already losing ships in naval battles with one or two hundred men on each of them. Furthermore, when a battleship sank we are talking about the tragic loss of a few thousand men in an instant.

As for the naval battles themselves, there are numerous military histories around, so I won’t recount them here. Instead, I would like to relate some events that remain indelibly etched in my mind.

Tragedy in the South Seas The first thing I want to describe is the situation that existed on the islands in the south. Beginning in 1943 we gradually lost control of the air as the U.S. made aerial warfare the core of its strategy. This also marked the beginning of a clear differentiation in the productive capacity of the two nations.

It was also in the spring of that year that my ship was hit by a torpedo off the coast of Hainan island. I groaned as I drifted in the South China Sea, caught in the realm of desire and hovering between life and death. Kōans and reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha were meaningless. There was nothing else to do but totally devote myself to Zen practice within the context of the ocean itself. It would be a shame to die here I thought, for I wanted to return to being a Zen priest. Therefore I single-mindedly devoted myself to making every possible effort to survive, abandoning all thought of life and death. It was just at that moment that I freed myself from life and death.

This freedom from life and death was in reality the realization of great enlightenment (daigo). I placed my hands together in my mind and bowed down to venerate the Buddha, the Zen Patriarchs, their Dharma descendants, and especially Master Yamamoto. I wanted to meet my master so badly, but there was no way to contact him. In any event, all of the unpleasantness I had endured in the navy for the past seven years disappeared in an instant.

Returning to the war itself, without control of the air, and in the face of overwhelming enemy numbers, our soldiers lay scattered about everywhere. From then on they faced a wretched fate. To be struck by bullets and die is something that for soldiers is unavoidable, but for comrades to die from sickness and starvation is truly sad and tragic. That is exactly what happened to our soldiers on the southern front, especially those on Guadalcanal, Rabaul, Bougainville, and New Guinea. In the beginning none of us ever imagined that disease and starvation would bring death to our soldiers.

As I was a priest, I recited such sutras as Zen Master Hakuin’s “Hymn in Praise of Meditation” (Zazen Wasan) on behalf of the spirits of my dying comrades. Even now as I recall their pitiful mental state at the moment of death I am overcome with sorrow, tears rolling uncontrollably down my cheeks.

Given the pitiful state of our marooned and isolated comrades, we in the navy frantically tried to carry them back to the safety of our ships. I recall one who, clutching a handful of military currency, begged us to give him a cigarette. Our ship’s doctor had ordered us not to provide cigarettes to such men, but we didn’t care. In this case, the soldier hadn’t even finished half of his cigarette when he expired. Just before he died, and believing that he was safe at last, he smiled and said, “Now I can go home.”

Another soldier secretly told me just how miserable and wretched it was to fight a war without air supremacy. On top of that, the firepower commanded by each soldier hadn’t changed since the 1920s. It was both heavy and ineffective, just the opposite of what the Americans had. Thus the inferiority in weapons only further contributed to our defeat.

It was Guadalcanal that spelled the end for so many of my comrades. One of the very few survivors cried and cried as he told me, “One morning I woke up to discover that my comrade had cut the flesh off his thigh before he died. It was as if he were telling me to eat it.”

There were so many more tragic things that happened, but I can’t bear to write about them. Forgive me, my tears just won’t let me.

Characteristics of the Japanese Military In the past, Japan was a country that had always won its wars. In the Meiji era [1868-1912] military men had character and a sense of history. Gradually, however, the military was taken over by men who did well in school and whose lives were centered on their families. It became a collection of men lacking in intestinal fortitude and vision. Furthermore, they suffered from a lack of Japanese Spirit and ultimately allowed personal ambition to take control of their lives.

In speaking of the Japanese Spirit I am referring to the August Mind of the great Sun Goddess, Amaterasu. Forgetting this, men in the military were praised as having spirit when they demonstrated they were physically stronger than others. This turned the Japanese Spirit into a joke!

Nevertheless, officers graduated from the naval academy thinking like this and lorded it over their pitiful subordinates. The officers failed to read those books so important to being human, with the result that by the end of the war the Japanese Navy had turned into a group of fools.

As for enlisted men, volunteers were recruited at such a young age they still hadn’t grown pubic hair on their balls. Gutless men trained these recruits who eventually became senior enlisted men themselves and the cycle repeated. And what was the result? A bunch of thoughtless, senior enlisted personnel! I was dumbfounded, for it meant the end of the Japanese Navy.

If only the officers at least had thoroughly read Sun-tzu’s Art of War and books on Western and Chinese history. If they had firmly kept in mind what they learned from such books it would have influenced their military spirit whether they wanted it to or not. How different things would have been had this kind of study been driven home at the naval academy.

If, prior to our invasion, a senior officer had taken six or so junior officers with him to thoroughly survey such places as New Guinea, Rabaul, Guadalcanal, etc. I don’t think they ever would have sent troops there. The same can be said for our naval attachés stationed abroad. Things would have been different had they thoroughly investigated the latent industrial and military potential of the countries they were assigned to.

The national polity of Japan is characterized by the fact that ours is a land of the gods. The gods are bright and like water, both aspects immeasurable by nature. Furthermore, they undergo constant change, something we refer to in the Buddha Dharma as a “mysterious realm.” Eternal and unbroken, these gods have existed down to the present-day. Stupid military men, however, thought: “A country that can fight well is a land of the gods. The gods will surely protect such a country.” I only wish that the top echelons of the military had absorbed even a little of the spirit of the real national polity.

The Japanese military of recent times was an organization that swaggered around in the name of the emperor. To see what it was like earlier, look at [army hero of the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5] Field Marshal Ōyama Iwao [1842-1916] from the Satsuma clan, the very model of a military man. Likewise, [naval hero of the Russo-Japanese war] Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō [1847-1934] was a true man of war.

I will stop my discussion at this point by tearfully acknowledging just how hellish the world was that these more recent stupid officers produced. Thus it is only with my tears that I am able to write these sentences, sentences I send to my beloved war comrades who now reside in the spirit world.

Final Comments This was a stupid war. Engulfed in a stupid war, there was nothing I could do. I wish to apologize, from the bottom of my heart, to those of my fellow soldiers who fell in battle. As I look back on it now, I realize that I was in the navy for a total of ten years. For me, those ten years felt like an eternity. And it distresses me to think of all the comrades I lost.

Author’s Remarks

Upon reading Nakajima’s words, I could not help but feel deeply disappointed. This disappointment stemmed from the realization that while Nakajima and I had earlier shed tears together, we were crying about profoundly different things. Nakajima’s tears were devoted to one thing and one thing only -- his fallen comrades. As the reader has observed, Nakajima repeatedly referred to the overwhelming sadness and regret he felt at seeing his comrades die not so much from enemy action as from disease and starvation.

One gets a strong impression that as far as Nakajima is concerned what was ‘wrong’ about Japan’s invasion of China and other Asian countries was not the disastrous war that followed, but that, unlike its earlier wars, Japan had been defeated. Whereas previously, Japanese military leaders had been “men of character,” the officers of his era were a bunch of bookworms and careerists who had, moreover, failed to read widely in the art of warfare. The problem was not Japan’s invasion of China and other Asian countries, or atrocities committed in the name of liberating Asia, let alone its attack on the U.S., but that his superiors had recklessly stationed troops in areas, especially in the South Seas, that were indefensible once Japan lost air superiority.

While at a purely human level I can empathize with Nakajima’s sense of loss of his comrades, my own tears were not occasioned by the deaths of those Japanese soldiers, sailors, and airmen who left their homeland to wreak havoc throughout Asia and the Pacific. Rather, I had cried for all those, Japanese and non-Japanese alike, who so needlessly lost their lives due to Japan’s aggressive policies.

Nanking Massacre To my mind, the most frightening and unacceptable aspect of Nakajima’s comments is his complete and utter indifference to the pain and suffering of the victims of Japanese aggression. It is as if they never existed. The one and only time Nakajima refers to the victims, i.e., at the fall of Nanking, it is to tell us that no massacre occurred. Had Nakajima limited himself to what he, as a shipboard sailor at Nanking, had personally witnessed, one could at least accept his words as an honest expression of his own experience. Instead, he claims, without presenting a shred of evidence, that the whole thing never happened.

Yoshida Yutaka, one of Japan’s leading scholars on events at Nanking, described the Japanese Navy’s role as follows:

Immediately after Nanking’s fall, large numbers of defeated Chinese soldiers and civilian residents of the city attempted to escape by using small boats or even the doors of houses to cross the Yangtze river. However, ships of the Imperial Navy attacked them, either strafing them with machine-gun fire or taking pot shots at them with small arms. Rather than a battle this was more like a game of butchery.5

In addition, Japanese military correspondent Omata Yukio provides a graphic eyewitness account of what he saw happen to Chinese prisoners at Nanking lined up along the Yangtze riverbanks:

Those in the first row were beheaded, those in the second row were forced to dump the severed bodies into the river before they themselves were beheaded. The killing went on non-stop, from morning until night, but they were only able to kill 2,000 persons in this way. The next day, tired of killing in this fashion, they set up machine guns. Two of them raked a cross-fire at the lined-up prisoners. Rat-a-tat-tat. Triggers were pulled. The prisoners fled into the water, but no one was able to make it to the other shore.6

Needless to say, Nakajima was not the only Japanese military man to deny that anything like a massacre took place at Nanking. One of the commanders leading the attack on the city, Lt. General Yanagawa Heisuke (1879-1945), later dismissed all such allegations as based on nothing more than “groundless rumors.” His soldiers, he claimed, were under such strict military discipline that they even took care to wear slippers when quartered in Chinese homes.7

However, compare Gen. Yanagawa’s comments with those of his superior officer, General Matsui Iwane (1878–1948), commander of the Japanese Central China Area Army during the attack on Nanking. In the postwar period, the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal found Matsui legally responsible for the massacre at Nanking and sentenced him to death. Shortly before his execution on December 23, 1948, Matsui made the following confession to Hanayama Shinshō, a Buddhist chaplain affiliated with the Shin (True Pure Land) sect at Sugamo Prison in Tokyo:

Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki 8-Matsui_Iwane
Matsui Iwane.
I am deeply ashamed of the Nanking Incident. After we entered Nanking, at the time of the memorial service for those who had been killed in battle, I gave orders for the Chinese victims to be included as well. However, from my chief of staff on down no one understood what I was talking about, claiming that to do so would have a disheartening effect on the morale of the Japanese troops. Thus, the division commanders and their subordinates did what they did.

In the Russo-Japanese War I served as a captain. The division commanders then were incomparably better than those at Nanking. At the time we took good care of not only are Chinese prisoners but our Russian prisoners as well. This time, however, things didn’t happen that way.

Although I don’t think the government authorities planned it, from the point of view of Bushidō or simply humanity, everything was totally different. Immediately after the memorial service, I gathered my staff together and, as the supreme commander, shed tears of anger. Prince Asaka was there as well as theatre commander General Yanagawa. In any event, I told them that the enhancement of imperial prestige we had accomplished [by occupying Nanking] had been debased in a single stroke by the riotous conduct of the troops.

Nevertheless, after I finished speaking they all laughed at me. One of the division commanders even went so far as to say, “It’s only to be expected!”

In light of this I can only say that I am very pleased with what is about to happen to me in the hope that it will cause some soul-searching among just as many of those military men present as possible. In any event, things have ended up as they have, and I can only say that I just want to die and be reborn in the Pure Land.8

Numerous eyewitness accounts, including those by Western residents of the city, not to mention such books as Iris Chang’s 1997 The Rape of Nanking, provide additional proof of the widespread brutal and rapacious conduct of the Japanese military at Nanking if not throughout the rest of China and Asia. Thus, it borders on the obscene to have a self-proclaimed “fully enlightened” Zen master like Nakajima deny a massacre took place at Nanking even while admitting “there may have been a little trouble with the women.”

Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki 9-Chinese_beheaded_in_Nanking
Chinese being beheaded at Nanking.
In addition, compare Nakajima’s claim with an interview for the 1995 documentary film In the Name of the Emperor given by Azuma Shirō, the first Japanese veteran to publicly admit what he and his fellow soldiers had done in Nanking:

At first we used some kinky words like Pikankan. Pi means “hip,” kankan means “look.” Pikankan means, “Let’s see a woman open up her legs.” Chinese women didn’t wear underpants. Instead, they wore trousers tied with a string. There was no belt. As we pulled the string, the buttocks were exposed. We “pikankan.” We looked. After a while we would say something like, “It’s my day to take a bath,” and we took turns raping them. It would be all right if we only raped them. I shouldn’t say all right. But we always stabbed and killed them. Because dead bodies don’t talk.9

In attempting to explain the rationale behind the conduct of Japanese soldiers at Nanking, Iris Chang, among others, points to their religious faith as one of the key factors in making such conduct possible. She writes: “Imbuing violence with holy meaning, the Japanese Imperial Army made violence a cultural imperative every bit as powerful as that which propelled Europeans during the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition.”10

From a doctrinal point of view, Japan’s Shinto faith cannot escape culpability for having turned Japan’s military enterprise into a “holy war.” That is to say, it is Shinto that asserted that Japan was a divine land ruled over by an emperor deemed to be a divine descendant of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. Thus, any act sanctioned by this divine ruler must necessarily be a divine undertaking. Yet, as my book Zen At War amply demonstrated, this worldview was adopted in toto into the belief system of Japan’s Buddhist leaders, most especially those affiliated with the Zen school. Nakajima’s contemporary reference to Japan as a “land of the gods” is but further evidence that, at least as far as he is concerned, nothing has changed.

Pacifism Nakajima’s encounter with the Chinese abbot of Chinshan-ssu is, at least in terms of Buddhism, one of the most memorable parts of his memoirs, for it clearly reveals a head-on clash of values. On the one side stands Buddhism’s unconditional vow, required of both clerics and laity, to abstain from taking life. On the other side is the Japanese military’s willingness to engage in mass killing as an instrument of national policy. Nakajima was a Buddhist priest, yet he was also a member of the Japanese military. What was he to do?

“I felt as if I had been hit on the head with a sledgehammer,” Nakajima states before adding “as a result I immediately became a pacifist.” As promising as his dramatic change of heart first appears, nowhere does Nakajima demonstrate that it had the slightest effect on his subsequent conduct, i.e., on his willingness to fight and kill in the name of the emperor. This suggests that in practice Nakajima’s newly found pacifism amounted to little more than ‘feel good, accomplish nothing’ mental masturbation.

In fact, during a second visit to Shōinji in January 2000, I personally queried Nakajima on this very point. That is to say, I asked him why he hadn’t attempted, in one way or another, to distance himself from Japan’s war effort following his change of heart. His reply was short and to the point: “I would have been court-martialed and shot had I done so.” No doubt, Nakajima was speaking the truth, and I for one am not going to claim that I would have acted any differently (though I hope I would have). This said, Nakajima does not hesitate to present himself to his readers as the very embodiment of the Buddha’s enlightenment. The question must therefore be asked, is the killing of countless human beings in order to save one’s own life an authentic expression of the Buddha Dharma, of the Buddha’s enlightenment?

An equally important question is what Nakajima had been taught about the (Zen) Buddhist attitude toward warfare before he entered the military. After all, he had trained under one of Japan’s most distinguished Zen masters for nine years before voluntarily entering the navy, apparently with his master’s approval. Although Nakajima himself does not mention it, my own research reveals that his master’s attitude toward war and violence is all too clear.

As early as 1934 Yamamoto defended the deadly, terrorist actions of the “Blood Oath Corps” (Ketsumeidan) led by his lay disciple, Inoue Nisshō, In his court testimony Yamamoto justified the Corps’ killing of two civilian Japanese leaders as follows:

The Buddha, being absolute, has stated that when there are those who destroy social harmony and injure the polity of the state, then killing them is not a crime. Although all Buddhist statuary manifests the spirit of Buddha, there are no Buddhist statues, other than those of Buddha Shakyamuni and Amitabha, who do not grasp the sword. Even the guardian Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha holds, in his manifestation as a victor in war, a spear in his hand. Thus Buddhism, which has as its foundation the true perfection of humanity, has no choice but to cut down even good people in the event they seek to destroy social harmony. . . . Inoue’s hope is not only for the victory of Imperial Japan, but he also recognizes that the wellbeing of all the colored races (i.e., including their life, death, or possible enslavement) is dependent on the Spirit of Japan.11

Further, in November 1936 Yamamoto became the first abbot of a newly built Rinzai Zen temple located in Xinjing (J. Shinkyō), capital of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo in Manchuria. The main purpose of the temple, equipped with a meditation hall and known as Myōshinji Shinkyō Betsuin, was to serve as a “spiritual training center” (shūyō dōjo) for the Imperial Army. In this effort Yamamoto was aided by his close disciple, Nakagawa Sōen.12

If there is some truth to the old adage, “Like father, like son,” then one can also say, “Like master, like disciple.” Thus if Nakajima may be faulted for having totally ignored the moral teachings of Buddhism, especially those forbidding the taking of life, then he clearly inherited this outlook from Yamamoto, his own master. But were these two Zen priests, as well as Sawaki Kōdō in Part I, exceptions or isolated cases in prewar and wartime Japan?

In reality Nakajima and Yamamoto were no more than two representatives of the fervently pro-war attitudes held not only by Zen priests but nearly all Japanese Buddhist priests and scholars regardless of sectarian affiliation.

Furthermore, Nakajima’s preceding comments were not written in the midst of the hysteria of a nation at war, but as recently as 1999, more than fifty years later. This, of course, raises the possibility that Nakajima’s words reflect the way he wished his military service to be remembered rather than his thoughts at the time.

Like Nakajima, today’s Japanese political leaders still find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to acknowledge or sincerely apologize for, let alone compensate the victims of, Japan’s past aggression. This fact was revealed once again in April 1999 when a new government-sponsored war museum opened in Tokyo. Known as the Shōwa-kan, this museum features exhibits devoted exclusively to the wartime suffering of the Japanese people themselves. The continuing attempt to deny the role of the Imperial military in the creation of wartime sex slaves, euphemistically known as “comfort women,” is but a further example.

Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D. T. Suzuki 10-Showa-kan
If there is anything that distinguishes Nakajima from his contemporaries, either then or now, it was his self-described conversion to pacifism in China. That is to say, Nakajima was at least conscious of a conflict between his priestly vows and his military duties. This was a distinction that very, very few of his fellow priests ever made. On the contrary, during the war leading Zen masters and scholars claimed, among other things, that killing Chinese was an expression of Buddhist compassion designed to rid the latter of their “defilements.”13


For those, like myself, who are themselves Zen adherents, it is tempting to assign the moral blindness exhibited by the likes of Nakajima and his master to the xenophobia and ultra-nationalism that so thoroughly characterized Japan up until 1945. On the other hand, there are those who describe it as reflecting the deep-seated, insular attitude of the Japanese people themselves.

While there is no doubt some degree of truth in both these claims, the possibility of a ‘Zen connection’ to this issue also exists. The Zen (Ch. Chan) sect has a very long history of ‘moral blindness,’ reaching back to its emergence in China. As the French scholar Paul Demiéville noted, according to the seventh century Chan text “Treatise on Absolute Contemplation,” killing is evil only in the event the killer fails to recognize his victim as empty and dream-like.14 On the contrary, if one no longer sees his opponent as a “living being” separate from emptiness, then he is free to kill him. Thus, enlightened beings are no longer subject to the moral constraints enjoined by the Buddhist precepts on the unenlightened.

Significantly, Chan’s break with traditional Buddhist morality did not go unchallenged. Liang Su (753-793), a famous Chinese writer and lifelong student of Tiantai (J. Tendai) Buddhism criticized this development as follows:

Nowadays, few men have true faith. Those who travel the path of Chan go so far as to teach the people that there is neither Buddha nor Dharma, and that neither good nor evil has any significance. When they preach these doctrines to the average man, or men below average, they are believed by all those who live their lives of worldly desires. Such ideas are accepted as great truths that sound so pleasing to the ear. And the people are attracted to them just as moths in the night are drawn to their burning death by the candle light.15 (Italics mine)

In reading Liang’s words, one is tempted to believe that he was a prophet able to foresee the deaths over a thousand years later of millions of young Japanese men who were drawn to their own burning deaths by the Zen-inspired “light” of Bushidō. And, of course, the many more millions of innocent men, women and children who burned with (or because of) them must never be forgotten.

An awareness of Zen’s deep-seated antinomianism may be helpful in understanding Nakajima’s attitudes as expressed in his recollections. It may, in fact, be the key to understanding why both Nakajima and his master were equally convinced that it was possible to continue on the road toward enlightenment even while contributing to the mass carnage that is modern warfare.

In Nakajima’s case it is even possible to argue that his experience of “great enlightenment” was actually hastened by his military service, specifically the fortuitous American torpedo that sank his second ship, the military fuel tanker Ryōhei, and set him adrift while killing some thirteen of his shipmates.16 Where else was he likely to have found both kōans and reciting the name of Buddha Amitabha “meaningless” and been forced, as a consequence, to “totally devote [him]self to Zen practice within the context

of the ocean itself. . . . making every possible effort to survive, abandoning all thought of life and death.”

As Zen continues to develop and mature in the West, Zen masters like Nakajima remind us of a key question remaining to be answered -- what kind of Zen will take root? The sexual scandals that have rocked a number of American Zen (and other Buddhist) centers in recent years may seem a world away from Zen-endorsed Japanese militarism. The difference, however, may not be as great as it first appears. I suggest the common factor is Japanese Zen’s long-standing and self-serving lack of interest in, or commitment to, many of Buddhism’s ethical precepts, especially the vow to abstain from taking life but also overcoming attachment to greed, including sexual greed.

If this question seems unrelated to Zen in the West, this is not the case. In addition to sex scandals, on July 5, 2010, a Zen priest once again provided meditation instruction to soldiers on the battlefield. This time, however, the instruction was provided by an American Zen priest, Lt. Thomas Dyer of the 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment and the first Buddhist chaplain in the U.S. Army. The meditation instruction Dyer provided was given to soldiers stationed at Camp Taji in Iraq.17

Dyer subsequently explained what Zen is within the context of Buddhism as follows:

Primarily Buddhism is a methodology of transforming the mind. The mind has flux in it or movement, past and future fantasy, which causes us not to interact deeply with life. So Buddhism has a methodology, a teaching and a practice of meditation to help one concentrate in the present moment to experience reality as it is. . . . Zen practice is to be awake in the present moment both in sitting and then walking throughout the day. So the idea is that enlightenment will come from just being purely aware of the present moment in the present moment.18

Just as in the writings of D.T. Suzuki and his Japanese contemporaries, the basic Buddhist precept to abstain from killing is conspicuously absent in Dyer’s description. Being “purely aware of the present moment” is, of course, a very desirable state of mind on the battlefield, especially when freed from questions of individual moral choice or conscience. Thus, the “wheel of the Dharma” as per Yamamoto Gempō’s description above is set to turn once again, only this time as an enabler of American military action.19

This is the second in a two part series.

See also

Brian Daizen Victoria, Zen Masters on the Battlefield (Part I)

Brian Daizen Victoria holds an M.A. in Buddhist Studies from Sōtō Zen sect-affiliated Komazawa University in Tokyo, and a Ph.D. from the Department of Religious Studies at Temple University. In addition to a 2nd, enlarged edition of Zen At War (Rowman & Littlefield), major writings include Zen War Stories (RoutledgeCurzon); an autobiographical work in Japanese entitled Gaijin de ari, Zen bozu de ari (As a Foreigner, As a Zen Priest); Zen Master Dōgen, coauthored with Prof. Yokoi Yūhō of Aichi-gakuin University (Weatherhill); and a translation of The Zen Life by Sato Koji (Weatherhill). He is currently a Visiting Research Fellow at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies (Nichibunken) in Kyoto. A documentary on Zen and War featuring his work is available here.

Recommended citation: Brian Daizen Victoria, "Zen Masters on the Battlefield (Part II)", The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 27, No. 4, July 7, 2014.

Sources (Part II)

Chang, Iris. The Rape of Nanking. London: Penguin Books, 1998.

Ch’en, Kenneth. Buddhism in China. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964.

Demiéville, Paul. “Le Bouddhisme et la guerra,” Choix d’études Bouddhiques (1929-1970). Leiden: Brill, 1973.

Nakajima Genjō. Yasoji o Koete. Numazu, Shizuoka Prefecture: Shōinji, 1998.

Onuma Hiroaki. Ketsumeidan Jiken Kōhan Sokki-roku, vol. 3. Tokyo: Ketsumeidan Jiken Kōhan Sokki-roku Kankō-kai, 1963.

Victoria, Brian. Zen At War, 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006.

_____. Zen War Stories, London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003.

Yoshida Yutaka. “Nankin Daigyaku-satsu o dō toraeru ka” (How to Grasp the Great Nanking Massacre?) in Nankin Daigyaku-satsu to Genbaku. Osaka: Tōhō Shuppan, 1995.


1 Note that this branch of the Rinzai Zen sect was established by Nakajima himself and has never been formally recognized as an independent sub-sect by the other branches of the Rinzai sect.

2 The Rinzai sect had first been forced to unify into one administrative organization by the wartime Japanese government. In the immediate aftermath of the war the Rinzai sect remained unified for the first year during which time it was headed by Yamamoto Gempō.

3 The Myōshinji branch of the Rinzai Zen sect did not offer its war apology until September 27, 2001. For details, see Victoria, Zen at War 2nd ed., pp. ix-x. On the other hand, the Sōtō Zen sect had first published its war apology in 1993. For details, see Victoria, Zen at War, pp. 153-56.

4 Nakajima’s war memoirs are primarily contained Yasoji o Koete, pp. 41-68.

5 Yoshida, “Nankin Daigyaku-satsu o dō toraeru ka” (How to Grasp the Great Nanking Massacre?) in Nankin Daigyaku-satsu to Genbaku, p. 128.

6 Quoted in Chang, The Rape of Nanking, p. 48.

7 Ibid, p. 176.

8 Quoted in Victoria, Zen War Stories, p. 187.

9 Ibid., p. 49. Note that the romanized Chinese here, as in other places, has been converted to pin-yin format from Wade-Giles. The original read “Pikankan.” While it is impossible to say for certain without seeing the original Chinese characters, the word “pi” (bi) can refer to a woman’s vagina. Given the context, this (rather than “hip”) is the more likely meaning of the term used by Azuma and his fellow soldiers.

10 Ibid., p. 218.

11 Quoted in Onuma Hiroaki, Ketsumeidan Jiken Kōhan Sokki-roku, vol. 3, p. 737. For a more detailed description of the “Blood Oath Corps” and Yamamoto Gempō’s connection to it, see Victoria, Zen War Stories, pp. 207-218.

12 For further details concerning both Yamamoto Gempō and Nakagawa Sōen’s wartime record, including alleged “anti-war” activities, see Victoria, Zen War Stories, pp. 92-105.

13 See Victoria, Zen At War, pp. 86-94, for further discussion of this point.

14 For further details, see Demiéville, “Le Bouddhisme et la guerra,” Choix d’études Bouddhiques (1929-1970), p. 296.

15 Quoted in Ch’en, Buddhism in China, p. 357. Liang Su was an important figure in Chinese intellectual and literary circles during the last quarter of the eighth century. He was among the first to recognize the possibility of a synthesis of Buddhism and Confucianism that eventually led to the creation of Neo-Confucianism. Liang studied Tiantai (J. Tendai) Buddhism under the guidance of Chanjan (711-782) who revived this school in the late eighth century.

16 Nakajima provided the name of his torpedoed ship and estimated casualties in a second personal interview that took place at Shōinji on January 25, 2000. Of special interest is the fact that the Japanese ship that first rescued Nakajima was itself torpedoed shortly thereafter, and Nakajima found himself in the water yet again. It was his good fortune, however, to have been rescued a second time.

17 A 2010 YouTube video of Lt. Thomas Dyer providing meditation instruction to US soldiers stationed at Camp Taji, Iraq is available here.

18 (Now Capt.) Thomas Dyer’s explanation of Zen and Buddhism is available here.
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