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New York Times Review of Brian Victoria's
Zen War Stories

see Journal of Buddhist Ethics review   see basic info and cover at Victoria Page

January 11, 2003

Meditating on War and Guilt, Zen Says It's Sorry



To many Americans, Zen Buddhists primarily devote themselves to discovering inner serenity and social peace. But Zen has had strong ties to militarism, indeed so strong, that the leaders of one of the largest denominations in Japan have remorsefully compared their former religious fanaticism during Japan's brutal expansionism in the 1930's and 40's to today's murderously militant Islamists.

The unexpected apology for wartime complicity by the leaders of Myoshin-ji, the headquarters temple of one of Japan's main Zen sects, was issued 16 days after 9/11, which gave it a particular resonance. But the leaders of Myoshin-ji as well as other Zen Buddhist leaders who have also delivered apologies over the past two years mainly credit a disillusioned Westerner for their public regrets: Brian Victoria, a former Methodist missionary, who is a Zen priest and historian.

Buddhist leaders in Japan and the United States said in recent interviews that Mr. Victoria had exerted a profound influence, especially in the West, by revealing in his 1997 book, "Zen at War," a shockingly dark and unfamiliar picture of Zen during World War II to followers who had no idea about its history. Keiitsu Hosokawa, secretary general of Myoshin-ji, made a speech to the group's general assembly in September 2002 in which he said that the Japanese edition of "Zen at War" had been one of several factors that "provided the impetus" to issue the group's apology.

Now, in a new sequel called "Zen War Stories," Mr. Victoria has dug more specifically into relationships between Zen leaders and the military during World War II.

From its beginnings in Japan, Zen has been associated with the warrior culture established by the early shoguns. But the extent of its involvement in World War II has stayed mostly submerged until recently. Many people in the United States and Europe know Zen's indirect traces through the poetry of the Beats or the quietist aura of contemporary architecture and clothing.

Even John Dower, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of modern Japan at M.I.T., whose early interest in Japan was kindled by Zen-inspired architecture, said that Mr. Victoria's works had opened his eyes to "how Zen violated Buddhism's teachings about compassion and nonviolence."

Ina Buitendijk, a Dutch Zen devotee, was so inspired by Mr. Victoria's work in 1999 that she mounted a letter-writing campaign pressing Zen leaders to confront their history. Mrs. Buitendijk's husband, along with other Dutch civilians, was interned by the Japanese in the Dutch East Indies during World War II. All this she put into the 28 letters she said she had written to Zen spiritual figures, educators and administrative leaders in Japan. A number of leaders responded, sending her official apologies, some of which were published.

The Myoshin-ji statement, first issued on Sept. 27, 2001, for example, was expanded in a major religious newspaper in Japan in September 2002. The initial statement said that the conflict between America and an anti-American jihad made it important to remember "that in the past our nation, under the banner of Holy War, initiated a conflict that led to great suffering."

The more detailed version apologized for helping to lend a religious purpose to invasions, colonization and the former empire's destruction of "20 million precious lives." The self-critical account also described how Myoshin-ji members followed Japanese invaders across Asia, "established branch headquarters and missions" in conquered areas, even "conducted fund-raising drives to purchase military aircraft."

Two other Zen groups, the Tenryu-ji temple and the Sanbo-kyodan foundation, and several individual Zen leaders have also issued apologies after receiving Mrs. Buitendijk's letter for war-time complicity, which have appeared in Buddhist publications in Europe and the United States.

Mr. Victoria, 63, is a former Nebraskan who lives in Australia and teaches Japanese studies at the University of Adelaide. He embraced Zen in 1961, partly because he believed its history was free of the violent conflicts that had marked Western religion.

In 1964, ordained a Soto priest while living in Japan and increasingly active in opposing the Vietnam War, he was chastised by a religious superior for taking part in peace protests. He then discovered the writings of Ichikawa Hakugen, a Zen priest who had taken an early look at Zen's war-time role. It was buried, like that of Emperor Hirohito, by efforts to stabilize Japan during the cold war, Mr. Victoria said.

Mr. Victoria subsequently conducted numerous interviews with aging priests and plumbed Japanese military archives to detail how military figures and Zen leaders had jointly shaped Zen meditative practice into forms of military training.

"Zen was a large part of the spiritual training not only of the Japanese military but eventually of the whole Japanese people," he said in an interview. "It would have led them to commit national suicide if there had been an American invasion."

"Zen War Stories" quotes from manuals for battlefield behavior that Mr. Victoria says drew on Zen. It tells how the military modeled eating utensils on those in monasteries, how kamakazi pilots visited for spiritual preparation before their final missions.

Japanese Zen is a mosaic of different denominations, the two overarching groups being the Soto school, which emphasizes quiet sitting meditation, and the Rinzai school, which teaches a more aggressive practice based on solving spiritual riddles or koans. The Japanese tend to combine different kinds of Buddhist practice, including Zen and non-Zen forms.

Both of Mr. Victoria's books peel back layers of the career of D. T. Suzuki, who taught at Columbia University in the 1950's and remains the best-known Japanese advocate of Zen in the West. In 1938, however, Mr. Suzuki used his prestige as a scholar in Japan to assert that Zen's "ascetic tendency" teaches the Japanese soldier "that to go straight forward and crush the enemy is all that is necessary for him."

"What Brian Victoria has written is mostly right," said Jiun Kubota, the third patriarch of Sanbo-kyodan, a small Zen group outside Tokyo that has also issued an apology. "I dare say that Zen was used as the spiritual backbone of the military army and navies during the war."

Mr. Victoria's research has revealed that the founder of Sanbo-kyodan, Mr. Kubota's longtime teacher, was an outspoken militarist and anti-Semite during the war years. His name was Hakuun Yasutani, and he was one of the most significant figures in advancing the popularity of Zen Buddhism in the United States in the 1960's.

In 1999, the New York-based magazine Tricycle published excerpts of a 1943 book that Mr. Victoria had unearthed in which Yasutani expressed his hatred of "the scheming Jews." Actually, the Zen master probably knew few if any Jews, and Mr. Victoria believes he was using them as a stalking horse for liberalism.

Traditionally, Zen stresses an inward search for understanding and mental discipline. But Mr. Victoria said that imperial military trainers developed the self-denying egolessness Zen prizes into "a form of fascist mind-control." He said Suzuki and others helped by "romanticizing" the tie between Zen and the warrior ethos of the samurai. Worse, he charges, they stressed a connection between Buddhist compassion and the acceptance of death in a way that justified collective martyrdom and killing one's enemies.

"In Islam, as in the holy wars of Christianity, there is a promise of eternal life," Mr. Victoria said in an interview. "In Zen, there was the promise that there was no difference between life and death, so you really haven't lost anything."

Despite the apologies, some of the Zen leaders say that Mr. Victoria is too hard on Zen Buddhists. Thomas Kirchner, an American-born Myoshin-ji monk, who translated its World War II apology and those of other sects, argued that in the view of Japanese Zen leaders Mr. Victoria doesn't sufficiently explain that "conformist pressures on all Japanese that were immense."

Masataka Toga, secretary general of Tenryu-ji, echoed that view. Mr. Kirchner also argued that Mr. Victoria doesn't offer a sufficiently textured picture of the religious landscape of wartime Japan. Other Buddhist sects and Japanese Christians also supported the war, along with the emperor-deifying religion of Shinto.

Herbert Bix, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan," says it is important to see Mr. Victoria's work within the broad picture of Japanese religion and politics at the time.

Still, Mr. Bix, Mr. Kirchner and others praise Mr. Victoria's work. Indeed, it's hard to find a scholar of authority who takes issue with the basic findings of "Zen at War," which has chapter titles like "The Incorporation of Buddhism into the Japanese War Machine (1913-30)."

Mr. Victoria sees hope for Buddhism in a Western-style "engaged Buddhism" that increasingly seeks to combine meditative practice with work for social progress and peace.

That moral growth, he believes, must come with a cold-eyed look at how basic Zen concepts were abused in the past: "I want my work to provide a model that it is possible to take an unflinching look at what is really happening with a religion while remaining essentially committed to it."

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