Zen at War

Kathy Arlyn Sokol Interviews Brian Daizen Victoria about his book

“He should not kill a living being, nor cause it to be killed, nor should he incite another to kill. Do not injure any being, either strong or weak in the world.”
 —Gautama Buddha, Sutta Nipata II,14

“All of Japanese Buddhism should have His Majesty, the emperor, as their central object of worship… The Buddhist statues that are enshrined in temples should, properly speaking, have the emperor reverently enshrined in the center and such figures as Buddha Amita or Mahavairocana at his sides. It is only the various branches of the Zen sect in Japan who have His Majesty enshrined in the center.”
— Lt. Col. Sugimoto Goro (1900-1937)

“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 … extends to the farthest reaches of the holy war now under way.”
 —Zen Master Harada Daiun Sogaku (1939)

“Controversially to be sure, I come to the conclusion that by virtue of its fervent if not fanatical support of Japanese militarism, the Zen school, both Rinzai and Soto, so grievously violated Buddhism’s fundamental tenets that it was no longer an authentic
expression of the Buddha Dharma.”
—Brian Daizen Victoria


Holy war has been an all too common feature of the three great Abrahamic religions. The Christian Crusades, the Islamic Jihad, and the Jewish Milhemet Mitzvah (Commanded War) have been described and analyzed in countless books and articles. But no one had publicly examined the history and promotion of sanctified warfare in the Zen Buddhist tradition until the appearance of Brian Daizen Victoria’s deeply disquieting World War II study, Zen at War. Victoria maintains that Japan’s vaunted Bushido (Warrior Code) evolved from a corrupted Buddhist metaphysics that not only sanctioned battlefield slaughter but also exalted the Zen-trained warrior’s willingness to die in such combat as the antinomian expression of full enlightenment.“During the Asia-Pacific War (1937-1945) all Japanese soldiers were indoctrinated with a program of Bushido-promoting “spiritual education” (seishin kyoiku) based on the metaphysical foundation of the unities of Zen and the sword, life and death. Once trained, they were dispatched to the battlefield where nearly three million of them died ‘selflessly’ even as they killed more than twenty million Chinese and other ‘selfless’ enemies in the process. The fact that even today, both in Japan and the West, this corrupted Zen understanding of ‘selflessness’ has, but with few exceptions, remained unchallenged cannot but be regarded as one of the world’s most successful religious deceptions.”


You first came to Japan as a Methodist missionary in 1961. What were the circumstances that brought you here?

Faced with the requirement to register for military service I chose to become a conscientious objector, so I actually became a Methodist missionary in order to fulfil my “Alternate Service” duty. Although I had spent a summer as a Methodist student pastor for two small sandhill churches in Western Nebraska, I chose to become a missionary primarily because that was accepted as Alternative Service. I was scheduled to become the first American Methodist to teach at a British Methodist-affiliated school in Hong Kong.

As I went through the three months of training to enter the mission field, I was called into the head office after two months because of the kind of opinions I had shared with others. They told me, “Brian, sorry but we can’t send you to Hong Kong. Because of the ideas you have expressed here, the British Methodists, being the conservative people that they are theologically, might get the wrong impression about what American Methodists believe. So we’re going to have to send you somewhere else. We’re going to send you to Taiwan.”

However, we also had to undergo pol-itical indoctrination classes. When I shared with them my ideas about Chiang Kai-Shek, who was a Methodist, they again called me in. This time they said, “Brian, we can’t send you to Taiwan either, because if you said the same things about Chiang Kai-shek there as you said here, you would be arrested and deported and that would have a negative impact on the missionary movement.” Finally they said, “Either you can go to a Divinity School until your theology gets straightened out, or we could send you to Japan because they have the United Church of Christ there.”

Did you know that during WWII, the Japanese forced all Christians —both Catholics and Protestants, into one organisation? They didn’t outlaw Christianity; they just forced adherents into one institution. After the war, the Catholics wanted out right away, but a number of the Protestants, given their small numbers, said, “Well, maybe being together isn’t so bad since we could pool our resources,” and that’s how the United Church of Christ in Japan was formed. Consequently, since they came from a different variety of religious traditions, they didn’t try to impose any unified theology on any of their member groups.


What brought you into the world of Buddhism? Was it your disenchantment with Christianity, especially as a missionary?

When you stop to think about this world — this universe we have now is 14.5 billion years old and this planet we’re on is nearly five billion years old. Human beings, more or less like us, have been around for approximately 300,000 plus years with a couple millions of years leading up to that. To think then that a “God” created all of this — an infinite universe with all of these other stars and planets out there — and has been waiting to send his only begotten son, Jesus Christ, to save us 2,000 years ago… I don’t know. And if he was going to wait all that time, he could have waited a little longer. The following 2,000 years are nothing. He could have waited a couple more thousand years and then Jesus could have recorded right into your machine and people could have asked him all of the difficult questions: “Jesus, what do you think about abortion?” etc. And he would have been able to say exactly what the truth is, what God wants. And there wouldn’t be any more doubts — we’d know the whole story.

That said, it was coming face to face with my father’s death that was the major impetus to achange in my beliefs. I was in the midst of that grief when I was at this three-month missionary training program. We were required to read books about Buddhism because we had to find out what the “heathens” believe if we were to save their heathen souls. The more I read about what the heathens believe, the more I realised it made a lot more sense. The Buddha said in one of his sutras, in essence, “When we are crying for the loss of loved ones, we believe we are crying because of our love for them, but in fact we are crying for our own personal loss.” It’s our self-centeredness that is at stake here. And that really relieved a tremendous burden. I thought I was mourning for my father, but then I saw I was mourning for myself — for what I had lost.

My doubts about Christianity only grew deeper when I actually had a chance to experience Buddhism firsthand. I spent my first Christmas vacation as a missionary training as a lay-practitioner at the Soto-Zen monastery of Eiheiji. I recognized in Zen, the idea that everyday life itself, at its best, is training. That opened the door for me. It took me out of the closet, so to speak, and I’ve been out of the closet ever since.


What led to your research on Zen’s role in WWII, and what you term as the violation of Buddhism’s fundamental tenets in the book you subsequently wrote, Zen at War?

It began with the Vietnam War. I became very active in that anti-war movement. In the spring of 1970 I was called into the room of Zen Master Niwa Rempo, the head of the temple I was staying in, and told that if I didn’t cease and desist with these activities that I was going to be ousted from the Soto Zen sect. I asked him, “Is there something wrong with priests being involved in peace activities?” and he replied, “Priests don’t get involved in politics.”

I did not stop my antiwar activities nor was I ousted from the sect, but it did prove to be one of the defining events in my life. It was the catalyst for a twenty-five-year search for the answers to the questions: what is and what should be the relationship of the Zen Buddhist priest to society and its members, to the state, to warfare, and to politics and social activism. In looking for the answers to these questions I came across the writings of Professor Ichikawa Hakugen, a Rinzai Zen priest and scholar then teaching at Hanazono University in Kyoto. He had just written a book called Bukkyo-sha no Senso Sekinin (‘The War Responsibility of Buddhism during WWII’) And I thought, “is there something about Buddhism that I’ve not been told?”

Reading Ichikawa’s book really opened things up. The ideas and people I encountered in this subterranean realm of Buddhism were the exact inverse of those on the surface. Down below, warfare and killing were described as manifestations of Buddhist compassion. The “selflessness” of Zen meant absolute and unquestioning submission to the will and dictates of the emperor. And the purpose of religion was to preserve the state and punish any country or person who dared interfere with its right of self-aggrandizement.

Disturbing as such sentiments were, I was even more disturbed to learn who was making them. Ichikawa quoted at length, for example, from D.T. Suzuki’s writings on war. Suzuki is revered in the West as a true man of Zen. Yet he wrote that, “religion should, first of all, seek to preserve the existence of the state,” followed by the assertion that the Chinese were “unruly heathens” whom Japan should punish “in the name of religion.”

Ichikawa revealed what I call the tip of the iceberg. I went to Kyoto to meet him and the more we talked and the more material he gave me, the more I realized there was an untold story here. He was really the only priest who was admitting this at that time, so he was unique in that way.



Your book has stirred all kinds of reactions around the world. What was your purpose in writing it?

A part of it was that I was probably trying to justify my own actions — I won’t deny that. At the same time, though, the more I learned about what had happened, the unhappier I became. When you change traditions and become an apostate, you tend to look at the negative side of your former faith — “Oh look what the Christians have done with their Christian crusades, and their genocidal acts against Native Americans,” and you can go on and on. You want your new adopted faith to be the mirror opposite. “Oh, it’s perfect; it doesn’t do any of those things that my old faith did.” But then somewhere along the way intellectual honesty says, “Well sorry, the truth is the truth.”

I decided to take a stand and see whether I could change things by holding these actions to the Buddhists as a mirror. “Take a look! This is what happened and what are you going to do about it? ” I would say this to Christians too — the Christian Crusades were clearly un-Christian, and didn’t represent the best of Jesus of Nazareth. In the same way, what Zen did in WWII and before — through its alliance with the samurai — certainly doesn’t represent the best of what I believe Buddha Shakyamuni taught either. That’s why I was so happy when the Myoshinji branch of Rinzai Zen, who didn’t like to look in the mirror, finally admitted and apologized for their actions, thanks at least in part to Zen at War.

This is part of the Japanese mentality. They could have apologized when Ichi-kawa first brought it up, but instead they tried to throw him out of their sectarian university. And when I brought it up they tried to throw me out of the Soto Zen sect. But finally, eventually, and especially because of the interest the book generated abroad, it affected the Buddhist response in Japan.

In that sense I think the book, which was translated into Japanese, served a role. A number of Japanese Zen priests have said, “Brian, we’re so happy you wrote that book because we can’t say those things.” And the main reason the Japanese can’t say those things is because there are Dharma lineages in the Zen tradition, and you cannot criticise anyone in your Dharma lineage. You can’t identify them by name, so you can’t make a negative reference to them; and saying “Someone once said…” or “someone is reported to have said…” doesn’t make a book.


Yes, some Japanese Buddhist sects did apologize. Myoshinji, for example, proclaimed that “the conflict between America and the anti-American Jihad made it important to remember that our nation, under the banner of holy war initiated a conflict that led to great suffering.” What lessons can we derive from that in terms of what is happening around the world with fundamentalist movements today?

We tend to believe that in certain doctrines — for example, the doctrine of Jihad in Islam — that if those people would just get rid of Jihad and the idea of Jihad, then Islam wouldn’t be so bad. But what I’ve tried to show is that unless we also explore the economic pressures, political pressures, the sociological pressures, the psychological pressures, i.e. all of those various aspects, then we are not going to understand what it is that’s going on that leads all religions, at one time or another, to sacralize violence.
We imagine that we are civilized and that the opposite of being civilized is uncivilized, which we closely connect with being tribal. And to us the tribal mentality doesn’t recognize universal, moral tenets. “We wouldn’t steal from members of our own tribe, but anybody else’s tribe we could steal whatever we want and kill them if necessary.” Whatever religion we believe in has universal tenets that apply to everyone: we should treat everyone like our brothers and sisters, or that everyone has “Buddha nature.” Each of the universal religions expresses this in a different way, but they all have that fundamental article of faith.

During the ‘Axial Period,’ about 500 BCE, the Buddha was alive, Confucius was alive, Lao Tsu was alive, as well as second Isaiah and other prophets of the Hebrew Bible. They were all in that transitional period when they were saying that religious ethics and the highest standards of morality should be applied across the board to and by all peoples, not just themselves. Carl Jaspers, who identified the Axial Period, says that we’ve transitioned and that the major religions of the world now are universal in their outlook and possess universal truths. But where I critique Jaspers is that while people believe that’s true, what actually happened was that they didn’t really transition. Instead they layered these tenets onto their preexisting religions. So, when push comes to shove or when our group feels threatened, despite believing in universal tenets, we revert to our longstanding tribal mind, and that’s what is happening throughout all of these religions today.

What I’m hoping to do is help everybody recognise that this is a universal problem found in everyone’s faith. It’s not just in one religion; it’s in all religions. We have to recognise that we human beings have lived as tribal peoples for tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years, and that we are foolish to believe that we could just snap out of it as recently as 2,500 years ago and then suddenly enter this new era. Because still, whenever our own group feels threatened, we revert to ‘us against them.’ I see this at work in the West Bank, with the attitude of the Israelis towards Palestinians, and the Palestinians towards Israelis — it works both ways!

Religion has long been dependent on the state; not necessarily the state as a whole, but certainly on the rich and powerful. Notre Dame didn’t get built on the nickels and dimes of little old French ladies. It was built by the princes of the realm, and these people have always used it first and foremost for their own benefit inasmuch as religion doesn’t produce anything concrete. That is to say, it is completely dependent on its patrons. And the wealthy and the powerful will only subsidise religion to the extent that religion justifies their rule; if it gets in the way, then it’s an ‘off-with-their-heads’ type of thing.
Classically in this symbiotic relationship, to gain the support of the rich and powerful, religions must support them whenever that support is needed, especially in times of war. In this connection, you have the idea of a ‘just war.’ The question then is: when have major religious leaders ever declared any war being fought by their own governments ‘unjust’?


How did this work with Buddhism in Japan?

By the Tokugawa Period (1600-1868) Buddhism had reached the pinnacle of its power in Japan, functioning as a de facto state religion. Each and every household in the country was required to affiliate itself with a nearby Buddhist temple. The result was an explosive growth in the number of temples, from only 13,000-some temples during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) to nearly 500,000 during the Tokugawa.

But there were a number of hidden costs associated with Buddhism’s establishment as a state religion in Japan. Mandatory temple affiliation effectively turned a large part of the Buddhist clergy into little more than government functionaries. Concurrently, membership in a particular sect often became a matter of political obligation rather than religious conviction. These developments are hardly surprising, since the catalyst for according Buddhism a privileged position in the first place was the Tokugawa regime’s determination to expel Christianity, thereby reducing the danger in Japan of being colonized by one of the Western powers. Equally important, the regime wished to insure that indigenous religious institutions were firmly under its control.

In 1868, the Emperor proclaimed he was taking up the reins of government, and one of the first edicts he issued stated that all Buddhist clerics and artefacts were to be removed from Shinto shrines throughout the nation. Many other edicts followed, and were interpreted as meaning that anything having to do with Buddhism could and should be destroyed. Adherents of the Shinto-dominated school of thought, Kokugaku (National Learning), taught that the divine origin of the Japanese nation and throne had been obscured and sullied by foreign accretions and influences, especially those from China. Subsequently, 40,000 temples were closed throughout the nation, countless temple artefacts were destroyed, and thousands of priests were forcibly laicized.

In the face of these very real threats some elements of institutional Buddhism initiated a series of countermeasures. They realized that their best strategy was to align themselves with the increasingly nationalistic sentiment of the times, so many Buddhist priests participated in the government-sponsored “Great Teaching” extolling the principles of reverence for the throne, for national deities and of patriotism. Under these circumstances, they attempted to develop what came to be known as the “New Buddhism.” Its first priority was to show that Buddhism could make a valuable contribution to the nation’s social and economic life; and second, that Buddhism could help promote loyalty to the throne, patriotism, and national unity.

It was left to two Zen scholars to put forth a doctrinal understanding of the relationship between Buddhism and war which was compatible with Japan’s national polity, an understanding that enabled institutional Buddhism to directly support Japan’s war effort. In a book simply entitled The Buddhist View of the War, the authors wrote that the emperor was actually a “Golden Wheel-Turning Sacred King,” one of the four manifestations of the ideal Buddhist monarch. “The reason Japanese Buddhism regards the emperor as a Golden Wheel-Turning Sacred King,” they wrote, “is because he is the Tathagata [fully enlightened being] of the secular world.”

Then in the 1930s we see the emergence of imperial-way Buddhism. In a book published at that time, Nation-Protecting Buddhism, a Buddhist priest wrote that: “the principle image of adoration in imperial-way Buddhism is not Buddha Shakyamuni who appeared in India, but his majesty, the emperor, whose lineage extends over ten thousand generations.”

In Zen at War, I mention that one Zen master said, “We religionists do not create so much as a single grain of rice. And therefore there are those people who say that we are parasites on society. But what we can do is support and develop the morale of the people in time of war.” Make them feel good and ever obedient — and that’s what they did. Up until my book, people looked at State Shinto as the only group which had done that.

Although State Shinto seems to us to be a religion, at that time the Japanese government said it was not a religion, it was merely a tradition of the Japanese people. Therefore, even Buddhists or Christians were forced to follow State Shinto as well. The cost of not being a religion, however, was that Shinto priests could not give sermons. They could neither speak to the public nor harangue them. They were above that. In a sense they were like the Emperor who never got on the radio and said “We’ve got to fight!” as Hitler did. Shinto priests did not rouse the people for the same reason — they were above politics.

It was the Buddhist priests who were free to speak out and actively engage in the effort to build and sustain the morale of the Japanese people, because they were in temples in every city and village throughout the country, and that’s why their role was really so critical in all of this.

As early as the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) the Japanese leadership recognized that in order to prepare for total war in the twentieth century, they had to turn the nation into one cohesive military organization. That’s when the Buddhist priests’ role became so important in building morale at home. They not only supported the war fought for a “just cause,” they provided military chaplains and conducted special sutra-recitation ceremonies to ensure victory in battle. Buddhist temples were even used as detention centers for Russian POWs.

Their influence spread beyond Japan. In the years that followed, Buddhist missions were established throughout Asia, and the priests that staffed them were representatives of the Great Empire of Japan. It is hardly surprising to learn that with the end of war in 1945 every single one of these missions on the Asian continent, regardless of sect affiliation, collapsed, never to be revived.


You’ve written extensively in your book about the well-known Zen scholar, D.T. Suzuki, who is attributed with introducing Buddhism to the West. Can you encapsulate his role in the war?

The first time D. T. Suzuki entered the picture was during the short period of peace between the Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War, from 1896 to 1903. This was a time when Buddhist scholars turned their attention to the theoretical side of the relationship be-tween Buddhism, the state, and war. D.T. Suzuki, who was then only 26, took the lead in this effort. In his book entitled A Treatise on the New Meaning of Religion, he wrote that “religion should, first of all, seek to preserve the existence of the state, abiding by its history and the feelings of its people.” Suzuki argued that: “if a lawless country comes and obstructs our commerce, or tramples on our rights… we would have no choice but to take up arms; not for the purpose of slaying the enemy…we would simply punish the people of the country representing injustice in order that justice might prevail.” Suzuki’s statements are not surprising in light of the fact that his own Rinzai Zen master, Shaku Soen, had gone to the battlefield during the Russo-Japanese War because, in his words, “…I wished to inspire our valiant soldiers with the ennobling thoughts of the Buddha, so as to enable them to die on the battlefield with confidence that the task in which they are engaged is great and noble…”

Suzuki himself claimed that Zen had “passively sustained’ Japan’s warriors both morally and philosophically, and wrote that, “The sword is generally associated with killing, and most of us wonder how it can come into connection with Zen…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. Then… the swordsman turns into an artist of the first grade, engaged in producing a work of genuine originality.”

During the war he was writing constantly. He was never censored, because he was promoting the Zen spirit within Bushido, and Bushido within the military and Japanese society, showing how all were integral parts of the ‘Yamato damashii’ (The Japanese Spirit). And this was what the militarist government wanted.

He was a hypocrite, and I must add a moral coward, especially because he knew better. He knew what was going to happen, but he never dared, with a wife and son to support, to act on what he believed.


What relevance does Zen Buddhism have in contemporary Japanese society?

In the last chapter of Zen at War I write about what I call ‘Corporate Zen.’ New employees hired by corporations are sent to train at certain Zen temples to toughen them up. They live and train together, sometimes for as long as a month. These programs were developed in the late 1950s when companies realized that schools were no longer emphasizing the old virtues of obedience and conformity, and their aim was to artificially recreate those neglected virtues.

When this trend began, a former head priest of Nanzenji said, “…Of late there’s been a Zen boom with various companies coming to Zen temples saying that they wish to educate their new employees, but it’s clear what kind of education they are seeking. They want to educate their employees to do just as they are told. They claim that Zen is good at this, but Zen is not as paltry as that. It is not so small-minded as to restrict a person to such a limited framework. This said, the responsibility for having sanctioned such a Zen boom lies with the Zen temples themselves.” Soon after, he committed suicide. My interpretation is that he felt it was one thing to see Zen abused during the war, but to use it to promote a corporate mentality was too much for him to bear.

This is not just Japanese Buddhists’ problem, it’s also my problem. We’ve all got to work out our own salvation, as the Buddha said, with diligence. That applies to cultures as well as individuals.


Despite everything that you’ve learned through writing your books Zen at War, Zen War Stories, and the book you’re now working on, Zen Terrorism, why have you continued to embrace Buddhism?

Because it’s my practice. As one of my closest priest friends, who has been doing zazen for 30 years, said, “It has never betrayed him.” It’s like computers in a sense — put garbage in, get garbage out; but if you don’t put garbage into them in the first place they’re very helpful.

One of the things that I hope my work is showing, and will show in the future, is that all spiritual practices can be misused and abused, as they have been. But because a spiritual practice can be abused doesn’t necessarily mean that the spiritual practice is wrong. With prayer you can pray for peace in the world, or you can pray that your country will be victorious in war. Do we throw prayer out the window because it can be abused in a tribal or nationalistic way? I don’t think so. On the contrary, I think we should encourage people to transcend narrow concerns and use it in a truly universal way for the benefit of all.


*Zen at War (second ed) is available to purchase at Amazon.

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Kathy Arlyn Sokol

Author's Bio


Image: Zen Monks at Eihei-ji Temple, 1938. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

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