An Article Concerning “D. T. Suzuki and the Nazis”
Posted by: Brian Daizen Victoria January 21, 2014 - posted on sweepingzen.com
This article is written, first of all, to inform interested readers of the recent posting of Part III in a three-part series of articles on D.T. Suzuki’s relationship with Nazis, both personally in Japan and through his writings in Germany. Part III is entitled, “A Zen Nazi in Wartime Japan: Count Dürckheim and his Sources—D.T. Suzuki, Yasutani Haku’un and Eugen Herrigel.”
In addition, an earlier article on Suzuki’s wartime writings, entitled, “Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D.T. Suzuki,” is available on the same website. The entire collection of articles is here.
Note that I am the author of Part I and Part III of this series while Prof. Karl Baier of the University of Vienna wrote Part II. Prof. Baier’s article is entitled, “The Formation and Principles of Count Dürckheim’s Nazi Worldview and his Interpretation of Japanese Spirit and Zen.” It is available here. An added feature of Part II is its introduction to Nazi “spirituality” together with the manner in which this spirituality manifested itself in the person of Count Karlfried Dürckheim. Dürckheim was a major propagandist for the Nazis in wartime Japan as well as a Zen student of both D.T. Suzuki and Yasutani Haku’un.
As many readers of the Sweeping Zen website are aware, I have been severely criticized in the past for, among other things, claiming that D.T. Suzuki was a supporter of wartime Japanese aggression and colonialism. For an overview of these and other criticisms see here.
Although, as detailed in Part III of the series, Suzuki’s defenders continue to withhold relevant facts from the public record, readers of the entire series will nevertheless find sufficient factual information to demonstrate the depth of Suzuki’s ultranationalist roots, including his collaboration with the Nazis. Suzuki’s ultranationalist roots can, in fact, be traced back to his earliest writings. In particular, I draw readers’ attention to the following well-documented quotations (sources are included in the articles’ endnotes):
1. In his very first book, published in 1896 at the age of 26, i.e., Shin Shūkyō-ron (A Treatise on the New [Meaning of] Religion), Suzuki wrote:
At the time of the commencement of hostilities with a foreign country, then 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 Mt. Tai in China. Should they fall on the battlefield they have no regrets. This is what is called “religion in a national emergency.” (Emphasis mine)
2. At the time of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, Suzuki invoked the Buddha Dharma to exhort Japanese soldiers as follows: “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.” (Emphasis mine)
3. Suzuki avidly supported Japan’s colonization 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:
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 [consider] the day that it was annexed to Japan as the day of its revival. (Emphasis mine)
4. In the fall of 1936 Suzuki wrote a series of newspaper articles describing his European travels including an apology for the Nazis during his visit to Germany. In relating the Nazi’s oppression of the Jews, Suzuki wrote:
Changing the topic to Hitler’s expulsion of the Jews, it appears there are considerable grounds for this, too. While it is a very cruel policy, when looked at from the point of view of the current and future happiness of the entire German people, it may be that, for a time, some sort of extreme action is necessary in order to preserve the nation. From the point of view of the German people, the situation facing their country is that critical. (Emphasis mine)
Note in this connection that one of my chief critics, i.e., Satō Gemmyō Taira, went so far in his translation of this same series of articles as to actually fabricate a key section of his translation in order to help make it appear that Suzuki opposed the Nazis. For a more detailed explanation of how he did this see Part I of the series. Needless to say, fabricated translations have absolutely no place in academic writing.
That said, I would nevertheless like to express my appreciation to Satō for his criticisms of my initial depiction of Suzuki’s wartime record, for without his criticisms it is unlikely that I would have continued to research this question, most especially Suzuki’s connection to the Nazis. Therefore, the current series would not have been written. Additionally, Satō correctly pointed out that I made a minor error, though an error nonetheless, in attributing words that Suzuki first wrote for the enlarged 1959 edition of his Zen and Japanese Culture to the original 1938 edition of the same book, initially published in Japan as Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture.
In addition, I would like to express my gratitude to all those who have criticized my research based on solid evidence, for they have spurred me to look ever more carefully at the historical record. I have no other goal in my scholarship than pursuit of the truth wherever that may lead. At the same time, ad hominem attacks on scholars, either others or myself, are a denigration of the truth, and I can only express the hope that adherents of the Buddha Dharma are better than that. That said, evidence-based criticisms are always welcome.
5. Finally, in June 1941, i.e., six months before Pearl Harbor, Suzuki wrote an article that appeared in the premier Imperial Army Officers Journal, Kaikō-sha Kiji. In it Suzuki wrote:
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. . . . 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. (Emphasis mine)
Criticism of my scholarship includes such things as fudging data, exaggerating or making up facts, cherry picking phrases taken so far out of context, mistranslating, etc. However, in actual fact much of my scholarship has involved reporting what Japanese scholars have written about Suzuki and other wartime Zen leaders. For example, Rinzai Zen scholar-priest Ichikawa Hakugen described Suzuki’s writing, starting as early as the first Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, as follows:
[Suzuki] considered the Sino-Japanese War to be religious practice designed to punish China in order to advance humanity. This is, at least in its format, the very same logic used to support the fifteen years of warfare devoted to “The Holy War for the Construction of a New Order in East Asia.” Suzuki didn’t stop to consider that the war to punish China had not started with an attack on Japanese soil, but, instead, took place on the continent of China. Suzuki was unable to see the war from the viewpoint of the Chinese people, whose lives and natural environment were being devastated. Lacking this reflection, he considered the war of aggression on the continent as religious practice, as justifiable in the name of religion. . . .
The logic that Suzuki used to support his “religious conduct” was that of “the sword that kills is identical with the sword that gives life” and “kill one in order that many may live.” It was the experience of “holy war” that spread this logic throughout all of Asia.
Further, Prof. Sueki Fumihiko, one of contemporary Japan’s most respected scholars of Japanese Buddhism, described Suzuki’s apology for the Nazis in a 2008 Japanese language article entitled, “Japanese Buddhism and War—principally D.T. Suzuki” (Nihon Bukkyō to Sensō — Suzuki Daisetsu o chūshin toshite): “While in Germany Suzuki expressed approval of the Nazis. As for the persecution of the Jews, [Suzuki wrote]: ‘It appears there are considerable grounds for this, too.’ ” (Emphasis mine)
It was Buddhist scholar Robert Sharf at the University of California-Berkeley who described Suzuki’s version of Zen as follows:
Suzuki would argue that Japanese “spirituality” is a more developed or refined form of a pan-Asian spiritual ethos, and while this ethos is linked with Buddhism, it was not until Chinese Ch’an [Zen] met the samurai culture of the Kamakura period that it would attain its consummate form in Japanese Zen. This theory allowed Suzuki to claim that only in Japan
was Asian spirituality fully realized. (Emphasis mine)
Sharf also noted: “Western enthusiasts systematically failed to recognize the nationalist ideology underlying modern Japanese constructions of Zen.”
The recently completed three-part series will demonstrate just how accurate these and other scholars’ critiques were. That said, the importance of these articles lies far beyond the reputation of D. T. Suzuki (or my own). That is to say, as the Buddha Dharma embodied within the Zen school continues to take root in the US and other Western countries, the preeminent question is what the content of that teaching will be?
Will the Buddha Dharma, for example, include an America-centric version of Suzuki’s ultra-nationalism in which duty to the state is supreme while American soldiers are urged to consider their own lives “as light as goose feathers”? Will American Buddhist soldiers be admonished to “carry the banner of Dharma over the dead and dying until they gain final victory”?
Further, will American Zen teachers follow Suzuki’s lead in conflating Zen with the American character? That is to say, will they claim that the Zen-enhanced character of the American people (or at least their students) is, like their Japanese predecessors, to come straight to the point and pour their entire body and mind into the attack? Is this the essence of Zen?
And when their students prepare to fight on America’s next battlefield, will Zen teachers encourage them, saying: “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”?
The ultimate purpose of this series of articles on Suzuki, as well as my other writings, is to raise the question of the relationship of the Buddha Dharma to war and to nationalism. Will the war-related teachings of D.T. Suzuki, Yasutani Haku’un and the many other militarist Japanese Zen leaders be accepted as authentic expressions of the Buddha Dharma?
In this connection it should be noted that the Japanese have a phrase that may apply to this situation, i.e., hanmen kyōshi or “a teacher by negative example.” While I welcome responses and rebuttals from those readers who disagree with me, I hope that for the sake of a meaningful discussion, my critics will first carefully read this three part series and then clarify their own reactions to Suzuki’s statements introduced above. Was Suzuki a teacher whose war-related teachings should be revered or, on the contrary, was he “a teacher by negative example,” at least in this regard? In other words, are his war-related statements an authentic expression of the Buddha Dharma or are they a betrayal?
In a book written with Thich Nhat Hanh, i.e., The Raft is Not the Shore,
the Jesuit peace activist Daniel Berrigan noted what happens when religious adherents blindly adopt the teachings of their predecessors:
Everybody has always killed the bad guys. Nobody kills the good guys. The [Roman Catholic] Church is tainted in this way as well. The Church plays the same cards; it likes the taste of imperial power too. This is the most profound kind of betrayal I can think of. Terrible! Jews and Christians and Buddhists and all kinds of people who come from a good place, who come from revolutionary beginnings and are descended from heroes and saints. This can all be lost, you know. We can give it all up. And we do. Religion becomes another resource for the same old death-game. (p. 34)
Are American and Western Zen adherents willing to allow their faith to be yet “another resource for the same old death-game”?
And if Suzuki, or Yasutani’s et al., words don’t represent the Buddha Dharma then what is the Buddhist position(s) on war and nationalism?
Like standards of sexual conduct for Dharma teachers, these and related questions should have been debated long before now by Western Buddhists of every sect or school, but, with few exceptions, they have been ignored. Yet it is not too late, especially for adherents of the Zen school, inasmuch as these are questions where traditional, and bloodless,
“Dharma combat” can be employed to good effect. Who is willing to step up to the plate?
Brian Daizen Victoria