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Barbara O'Brien

Zen at War and the Opposite of Equanimity

By February 4, 2010

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Buddhism recently came to the attention of American political partisans via the Great Brit Hume Flap. And since then some right-wing writers have felt compelled to sully the reputation of Buddhism. One of these, Marvin Olansky, strongly implies that Buddhism is responsible for the infamous Nanjing massacre of 1937.

After some graphic descriptions of atrocities in Nanjing, for which he implies that Buddhism is to blame, Olansky goes on to cite Brian Daizen Victoria's Zen at War and Zen War Stories, which forthrightly documents Zen institutional support for Japanese militarism in the 1930s. Does Olansky actually have a case? I don't think so, but let's look more closely.

In Zen at War, Daizen, an ordained Soto Zen priest, documented that in the Japanese Buddhist establishment of the 1930s and 1940s there was strong support, especially in Zen, for Japanese warmaking. He traced the old connections between Zen and Samurai warrior culture in feudal Japan. Daizen also provided quotes from 19th and 20th century Zen monks and teachers that seem to say Zen approves of  the slaughter of war.

For example, a prominent and revered master, Sawaki Kodo (1880-1965), is portrayed as an enthusiastic war proponent. Master Sakaki, who served as a soldier in the Russian-Japanese War of 1904-1995, is quoted as saying he and his fellow soldiers "gorged ourselves on killing people." Please note, however, that some scholars are stepping forward to say Sawaki Kodo was misquoted, and I'll come back to this in a minute.

When Zen at War was first published in 1997, American Zen teachers openly acknowledged it, talked about it, and encouraged students to read it. This was true even of teachers who were lineage holders of some of the Japanese masters portrayed as pro-war. I didn't see anyone try to excuse or sugar-coat Daizen's portrayal of Japanese Zen.

Although on the whole most still believe Daizen's research is important and valuable, as I've said, some criticisms of his translations and scholarship have emerged recently. I've learned through Jundo Cohen that what Sawaki Kodo really said was that Japanese soldiers were fed up with killing people, for example.

Brad Warner has also expressed regret that Sawaki Kodo's reputation was tarnished by Zen at War, and added, "this one instance of blatant and deliberate mis-translation has led me to question whether the rest of the book is reliable." Jundo has said that while he still thinks the book is valuable, he thinks Daizen "over states its case, and condemns the whole orchard for a few bad apples."

To get back to Marvin Olansky -- while it's true that in the 1930s there were many connections between the Japanese Buddhist establishment and the Japanese military, Olansky implies that Buddhism was directly and primarily responsible for the atrocities of Nanjing, which way over states his case. This is like saying that Christianity is directly and primarily responsible for every war crime in which some participating soldiers were Christians.

Larger point: If you pay close attention to human nature, you may notice that attraction and aversion are connected, as if by an underground root system. In fact, often one creates the other.

For example, people who are fanatically attached to one thing often reflexively hate whatever seems to oppose that thing. We see that so much in American politics these days. Partisans cannot just disagree any more; the opposition must also be caricatured as pathologically evil. I suspect this describes Marvin Olansky, who reacted to some possibly inaccurate criticism of Christianity vis à vis Buddhism by reflexively, and dishonestly, smearing Buddhism.

We also see that sometimes people who idealize a thing a bit too much become that thing's biggest critics if they feel their idealism has been betrayed. This may or may not be true or Daizen Victoria. I suspect it is true of Michael Jerryson, who has a more recent book out on the alleged martial proclivities of Buddhism. Jerryson comes across as an impossibly idealistic naif who just found out there is no Santa Claus and is now out to warn the world about the dark side of Christmas.

This takes us back to mindfulness. We aren't seeing things as they are if we're viewing them in light of whether we like them or not. It's even worse when we divided the world up into "us" and "them" and reflexively praise "us" and demonize "them."

February 4, 2010 at 5:37 pm
(1) Daigu says:

I came across _Zen at War_ very early in my practice, at a time when I was actively researching my grandfather’s service in the US Navy during the Pacific War.

Whatever mistakes or distortions are in the book, it still serves as a warning that attachment- even attachment to country- inevitably leads to suffering.

February 4, 2010 at 6:49 pm
(2) JoeBuddha says:

This issue lead to the first big conflict between the priesthood and our lay organization in Nichiren Shoshu. The priests accepted State Shinto and even housed soldiers on the grounds of the main temple. The lay leaders, on the other hand, went to prison rather than give in to the government. While this wasn’t the last straw, it certainly was one of the first.

April 19, 2011 at 7:49 am
(3) rowley says:

According to the original Human Revolution ,( I gather history has been rewritten to conform with Soka Gakkai’s present views of the priesthood in The New Human Revolution ?)” Then war came. The military government cast about for facilities in which to lodge its personnel and discovered the spacious buildings of Taiiseki_ji.
In July of 1943, the library of the priests’ quarters, a huge 200 mat room, was taken over as headquarters of the Japan Labor training bureau, an agency for training labor draftees. Their leaders poisoned by Shinto enshrined an alter to the sun goddess in this room.The head temple administration lodged a vigorous protest…”
The temple offered exhaustive explanations of the doctrines of nicheren Shoshu and appealed repeatedly that the Shinto alter be removed. The authorities replied with threats…”
“They commited one act of vandalism after another, the head temple was being ravaged daily.”
There is more about how the head priest refused to merge with the Minobu sect, and dying in a temple fire. Toda descibed his dying as” taking upon himself the sufferings of an entire nation that slandered Nichiren Daishonin’s true Buddhism. It was a supremely noble act.”
from The Human revolution Vol.1 no 2 daisaku Ikeda World Tribune Press, 1986.

February 4, 2010 at 7:04 pm
(4) John Sumner says:

Excellent article, Barbara!- As an amateur historian, I have found that every religion that has survived to the modern day, yes, including fundamentalist protestant Christianity, has many skeletons in their respective closets. This is not meant to “sugar coat” Zen’s history, but at the same time, in my opinion, ‘right speech’ calls on me to make this point. The main issue to me is not whether someone else’s hands are ‘dirtier’ than mine, but whether the person acknowledges that their hands have the same kind of dirt that they see on their opponent’s hands. Sometimes, evangelical Christians need to be gently reminded of such events as Jonestown, the Salem witch trials, and the destruction of various Native American cultures by well meaning missionaries when they bring up such events as the ‘Rape of Nanking’, as it was known at the time. Also, at least according to some Nichiren/SGI friends I have met recently, not all schools of Buddhism in Japan supported the war effort. Some even went to prison in Japan for their lack of support.
Human beings are far more complex than the religions, including Zen Buddhism, that they establish. Cruelty is cruelty, but in my view this can be transcended through awareness and compassion.

February 4, 2010 at 7:54 pm
(5) JoeBuddha says:

Some even went to prison in Japan for their lack of support
Yep; we even lost our first president, who died in prison protesting the war.

February 4, 2010 at 8:35 pm
(6) brooke says:

JoeBuddha, that’s simply not true. SGI’s Toda and Makiguchi did not protest the war. They protested state-imposed Shinto. Big difference. Brian Victoria debunked the myth that Makiguchi was a pacifist.

February 4, 2010 at 10:56 pm
(7) JoeBuddha says:

Fascinating. I knew about the Shinto talisman (that was the trigger for the split), but not about the nationalism. I’m looking into it and will get back when I know something. The strong feelings revolving around the SGI makes me take all such things with a rather large grain of salt, but I’m always interested in finding out more about the history of our movement, plus or minus. Also, I know more about Ikeda than Toda, and practically nothing about Makaguchi.

February 4, 2010 at 11:11 pm
(8) Barbara O'Brien says:

JoeBuddha — I researched this awhile back. My understanding is that sometime in the 1930s the government of Japan made Shinto the state religion. Toda and Makiguchi were imprisoned for refusing to take part in some Shinto rituals that the government declared to be a patriotic duty, not for being against war.

February 5, 2010 at 1:56 am
(9) Rajeev G says:

Nation, patriotism and evolution of a society are different from evolution of “Buddism”. Some times interpretation kills and evolution become far different from actual. I think we have the intelligence to understand the difference and tread our path

February 5, 2010 at 4:25 am
(10) John Sumner says:

Wow- Thank you for the article- that clears up some obvious ‘propaganda’ that I heard at an SGI meeting. I do not mean any disrespect to anyone, especially my friends who belong to SGI, but that contradicts what I was told about SGI history. Another reason why I am not a ‘joiner’, even when it comes to walking on my ‘Buddhist path’.

February 5, 2010 at 8:27 am
(11) JoeBuddha says:

I DO know that Ikeda has been working for world peace, and that Toda was working against nuclear weapons. Makaguchi became a follower because he saw a link between his theory of value creation and the teachings of Nichiren. Both Toda and Makaguchi opposed the priesthood’s incorporation of the Shinto talisman into Nichiren Shoshu practice and the government considered that to be tantamount to treason. From there, I’d assumed that the opposition was to the war as well; I’m still not convinced that it wasn’t, but it was certainly against some of the actions of the government.
While I study the writings of Ikeda (and some of Toda), the basis of my practice is still the writings of Nichiren. Nobody’s actions are always pure, and people and movements have the capacity to change. Looking at the effects of the actions taken, I’m reasonably pleased with how it’s turned out so far. As to ‘propoganda’, I see that pretty much everywhere. Personally, I’m not an historian on the SGI, but I try to at least know enough to understand where it came from. Tracking down original works and trying to sort spin from reality takes a different kind of mind, and I’m just more interested in my current practice than in what Makaguchi may have said 80 years ago. I’ll follow this up to the best of my ability, however.

April 18, 2011 at 6:55 am
(12) rowley says:

Well, Makiguchi as the founder of your organization would be very surprized to find what belief system is espoused now_an authoritarian, hierarchical system centred around one person, where no enquiry or dissent is tolerated. The very antithis of what Makiguchi stood for. I am not wondering why you do not know much about him, apart from his martydom. He was essentially an educator, and saw in Nicheren”s teaching backing for his ideas on the autonomy of the individual in the learning process. He was aware of Dewey’s work, and had similar ideas about people learning to think for themselves in order to maintain democracy. Toda revised Makiguchi’s writings to be more in keeping with his religious ideas when he became president. Basically, Makiguchi’s organization consisted of those interested in reforming Japanese education, and they were not all believers. Well, if you are studying Nicheren ,you know he was a great researcher , and refuted teachings that did not support the healthy development of the individual . Do your own research and inquiry too, outside of Soka,then you will be armed against the propoganda you are being fed in S.G.I.

February 5, 2010 at 8:55 am
(13) brooke says:

JoeBuddha and others, I think the issue here is not Buddhism so much as the extreme nationalism that held Japan in its grip in the 1930s and throughout the war. Atrocities were committed in the name of Japan, the Emperor, and the Sun Goddess — not because of Buddhist teachings. Nationalism perverted everything to its own purposes, and some (many?) Japanese Buddhists were either powerless to protest, or went along with it.

As for Nichiren, his teachings have been co-opted time and again by ultra-nationalists in Japan. I think I am correct in stating that Nichiren Buddhism is the only purely Japanese Buddhism (meaning, it is the only form of Buddhism practiced today that originated in Japan) and is considered by many to be nationalistic at its core.

I don’t see Nichiren Buddhism this way, but there are many people who do, and who see it as a religion with which to conquer the world. You will find many in SGI and other (mostly Japanese) groups who are sympathetic with this vision. Nichiren called himself “the pillar of Japan” and “the eyes of Japan” — you can see how his writings can be used to bolster Japanese nationalism.

I don’t know if there’s anyone who can credibly corroborate this, but I have heard that some kamikaze pilots chanted “Namu myoho renge kyo” as they crashed their planes into American warships at Pearl Harbor.

My point is that any teaching, no matter how wondrous, can be usurped and twisted by fanatics to justify atrocities. This isn’t the fault of Buddhism; this is true of any religion or belief system.

February 5, 2010 at 9:34 am
(14) JoeBuddha says:

In re: Nationalistic Nichirenism
I think I see your point. I believe I was responding more to the ‘propoganda’ thing (which doesn’t explain why I was so dismissive on it above… ;) ). Bottom line there is that every group portrays itself in a positive light, and if you don’t agree with what they say, you could call it propaganda. It’s the implied spin and lying I have a problem with. I’m sure that what John mentions as ‘propaganda’ was heartfelt and true as far as the speakers were aware.

I have heard of VERY nationalistic Nichiren movements and also about that kamakazi chant. And, it’s entirely possible that Makaguchi WAS a rabid nationalist; I just don’t know enough about him. I AM a bit intrigued now about what the above link talks about, and rethinking the narrative in that light. Even if it’s true, however, I’m not sure it invalidates the story. I’ll have to sort it out. One of the problems with being a Buddhist is that when your perception of reality proves problematic, you don’t have the luxury of going on with business as usual… ;)

February 5, 2010 at 8:08 pm
(15) John Sumner says:

I was in all honesty wrong to use the term “propaganda” for the reason Joe mentioned- I perceived no outright efforts to “lie” about SGI Japan during WWII, perhaps more to portray Toda, et al in the most positive of lights. Perhaps the members were not aware of the earlier writings, but I also had another thought- those writings were made without the knowledge of future events- perhaps in their view in the 1930s, Japan was ‘correct’ in it’s course of action. Nationalism was in vogue at that time in many corners of the world. They could not predict at the time events such as the Bataan death march, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the siege of Okinawa and the atomic bombs that would be dropped in the 1940s. Maybe their views on peace, like many other things, evolved while they were in prison, and while they were witnessing the true result of hyper-nationalism and militarism. From the little I have observed, I don’t see the “nationalist” slant of SGI, but I have only had slight contact. By the way, Joe, I DO find the whole story of Nicherin fascinating- exiled to an island, opposing the other schools of Buddhism (including Zen), focusing on the Lotus Sutra, focused on the people and their suffering. I’ve not read the Lotus Sutra, I’m still on The Dhammapada.

February 6, 2010 at 9:42 am
(16) JoeBuddha says:

Good luck with the Lotus. For me it was pretty rough going, and after 30+ years I still feel like I’m scratching the surface. However, I’m not a scholar, just a techno-geek trying to understand Buddhism with my life. A lot of it only made sense to me after reading Nichiren’s take on it.
As to the presidents, we’re pretty much concerned with their contributions to the SGI; they all had their faults. Makaguchi may have been a Nationalist, but Toda seems to have been somewhat of an alchoholic, and Ikeda had a bad case of TB when he was a kid. The Soka Gakkai seems to have been pretty nationalistic before Ikeda took over; he made it into a world movement. They all overcame their limitations as has the organization, but there’s always more to do. I’m not sure about other sects, but the SGI and its members thrive on challenge and adversity, just as Nichiren did, using said challenges to gain a better understanding of Buddhism and their own lives. Well, enough of that; I’ll cede the floor…

February 10, 2010 at 6:27 pm
(17) JoeBuddha says:
February 10, 2010 at 6:28 pm
(18) JoeBuddha says:

Sorry; the links didn’t seem to work (I said I was a techno-geek, not an HTML guru… ;) )
Please see: http://www.globalbuddhism.org/3/miyata021.htm

February 10, 2010 at 11:16 pm
(19) Barbara O'Brien says:

Thanks, Joe.

February 24, 2010 at 8:42 am
(20) Anne Cripps says:

In 2-part article translated in collaboration with Thomas Kirchner for “The Middle Way”(journal of the Buddhist Society in London (UK), November 2009), Professor Kemmyo Taira Sato has shown considerable disparities between the presentation of D T Suzuki’s material by Daizen, and the actual material, both in context and content. It bears some resemblance to the discrepancy between “gorging” oneself on killing, alleged remark of Sawaki Kodo, and the accurate translation of his remark as “being fed up with” killing.

October 13, 2010 at 12:42 am
(21) Safwan says:

All Buddhist temples and their masters who supported the Japanese atrocities during the II W W – all have a mental need to include others in their complex of guilt.

This “psychological need” is the origin of the idea that Soka Gakkai leaders who were imprisoned by the military government during the war were not against the military government’s war (and were not against emperor worship justifying the war). The absurdity of such claim is evident. Here is a document of charges against Makiguchi (and Toda) issued by the war government labelling them as THOUGHT CRIMINALS for opposing emperor worship and supremacy of the Japanese nation justifying the war:

The most who suffered from the Japanese atrocities during the war were the Chinese people. It is not a coincidence that 40 Chinese Universities awarded Soka Gakkai International and Ikeda by honorary awards of acknowledgment for their humanism and courageous history of Soka against militarism. Some of these Universities established special departments to study SGI literature and yearly Peace Proposals.

There is a difference between patriotism and nationalism, and this is explained in the middle of the following article;


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