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Zen at War, by Brian Victoria

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Zen at War, by Brian Victoria

Zen at War, by Brian Victoria

When one thinks of “holy wars,” wars waged with the approval of religion, Western religions like Christianity and Islam come to mind. This is often contrasted with Eastern religions which appear more peaceful. Buddhism, and especially Zen Buddhism, are thought of as systems focused on the personal development of peace and harmony with the universe. Most don’t realize the extent of Zen Buddhism’s complicity with the Japanese war machine and the horrors it unleashed on Southeast Asia.


Title: Zen at War
Author: Brian Victoria
Publisher: Weatherhill
ISBN: 0834804050

• Translates many key texts and passages otherwise unavailable in the West
• Copious quotes demonstrate how Zen could be used to promote violence

• Says more about what happened than why — that is left for future scholars

• Analysis of how Zen Buddhism provided ideological grounding for Japanese militarism
• Describes how Zen Buddhist leaders became supporters of imperialism and militarism

Book Review

Brian Victoria teaches Japanese studies at the University of Adelaide and is an ordained Soto priest. He began to realize that there was something wrong with Zen Buddhism when he was advised to curtail his activism against the Vietnam War. If Buddhist teaching is opposed to war and violence, what could be more appropriate than working against war? This inspired Victoria to research Zen Buddhist writings on war, and what he discovered shocked him.

Victoria’s book Zen at War is meticulously researched and, as far as I have been able to tell, there have been no scholarly disputes about the accuracy of either the information he presents or the conclusions he reaches.

This does not mean, however, that everyone is happy with his research. It appears that many Zen masters would have preferred that Victoria keep quiet about what he discovered — they would prefer, it seems, that the truth remain hidden if the truth portrays Zen Buddhism in a negative light.

Victoria relies extensively on the writings of Japanese Zen Masters between 1868 and 1945. He shows how they transformed Buddhist messages of compassion and selflessness into doctrines that war was a manifestation of compassion (members of “lower” cultures deserve to die if they don’t submit to more “enlightened” cultures like in Japan) and true selflessness means unquestioning obedience to the state.

It’s understandable that things might reach this point. During the mid-nineteenth century, Buddhism was being repressed and Buddhist leaders felt that their only hope of survival was to align themselves more closely with the state. By becoming more nationalistic than the nationalists, they became part of the system — and paved the way for horrific acts less than a century later.

Particularly disturbing to readers familiar with Buddhism will be the complicity of some of the most important Zen Buddhists from the past century. Apologists for war weren’t fringe priests, but some of the biggest names of Japanese Buddhism — including, for example, D.T. Suzuki, a famous Zen scholar whose works have been widely translated and studied. Victoria finds that Suzuki laid out many of the basic principles that would be used by Buddhist leaders right up to Japan’s defeat:

    “(1) Japan has the right to pursue its commercial and trade ambitions as it sees fit; (2) should “unruly heathens” (jama gedo) of any country interfere with that right, they deserve to be punished for interfering with the progress of all humanity; (3) such punishment will be carried out with the full and unconditional support of Japan’s religions, for it is undertaken with no other goal in mind than to ensure that justice prevails; (4) soldiers must, without the slightest hesitation or regret, offer up their lives to the state in carrying out such religion-sanctioned punishment; and (5) discharging one’s duty to the state on the battlefield is a religious act.”
Zen at War, by Brian Victoria

Zen at War, by Brian Victoria

It’s not that no Buddhists spoke out against any of this, but very few did and not much evidence of their actions survives. Had more of them organized against the war, things might have proceeded very differently. In fact, there is little evidence of regret even after the war. Japan’s largest Protestant group issued an apology in 1967; the first Buddhist admission of complicity didn’t appear until 1987. At the writing of Victoria’s book, only four Buddhist statements about the war had been issued and most leading sects remain silent.

Even worse is that there has been no repudiation or reform of the ideas that led to all of the problems in the first place. The ideology has been transferred from the state to the corporation. Zen Buddhist teach that selfless devotion to the goals of a company is itself a form of enlightenment. The Imperial Zen Soldier has become the Corporate Zen Salaryman.

Brian Victoria’s book is a fascinating account of how religion can be manipulated into serving the violent ambitions of governments and politicians. If Buddhism can provide the ideological underpinnings of militarism and imperialism, any religion probably can. Both believers and non-believers need to better understand how this can occur.

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