Some Zen priests during WW2 twisted Zen lingo in order to encourage warfare, chauvinism, and fascism. Brian Victoria's book Zen at War, thought it has some flaws, brought this to all of our attention. In some cases the revelation was shocking, as in the case of Yasutani Roshi, who was revered as an enlightened being by many in the West. That storm has mostly passed, but the book has otherwise gotten quite a bit of attention in the years since its writing. Some of this attention, I feel, is excessive or wrongheaded, and I wanted to share some thoughts on that.
I am certainly not opposed to Brian Victoria's book in principle, and agree that misbehaviour and delusion among Buddhist masters past or present needs to be faced and discussed. I just think the attention this issue has gotten is excessive and, frankly, that it is being pressed into the service of ulterior motivations. Why do I think the attention its getting is excessive and inappropriate?
Well, first of all, the words of Zen priests in Japan legitimizing violence and chauvinism are often treated as an "embarrasment" to Soto Zen, or worse as a condemnation by association of Zen doctrines themselves. Is that logical?
First off, it is not an embarrassment to Soto Zen. It is an embarrassment to many members of the Soto establishment who were in positions of authority, or were teachers, at that time. Japan's actions during WW2 were not motivated by Buddhism in any sense. The ideology behind Japan's aggression was a mixture of racism, greed and imperialism, and was given its core ideological justification by State Shinto, not State Buddhism. Even if it has been State Buddhism, however, so what? Mainstream Buddhist doctrines, especially in Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, are the most nonviolent of any religious doctrines in human history (with the exception of Jainism). The fact that even Buddhist doctrine can be twisted into the service of greed, hatred and delusion is not a condemnation of Buddhism or of religion, but of the darkness of the human heart itself.
Second, to examine the issue a little more closely, is what happened in Japan a condemnation of Zen as inherently tending towards the legitimization of violence? Some have suggested that the intense asceticism, hierarchy, or nondual philosophy of Zen encourage emotional attitudes of machismo, abuse of authority, amorality or nihilism. I would be more likely to agree with Professor Bob Thurman, who suggested years ago that there is a correlation in societies who are shutting down their monasteries (as Japan has been slowly doing for centuries and much of Europe did five hundred years ago) with rising militarism and imperial expansion.
The sad fact is that every religion on the planet has been been used as a justification for violence and other immoral acts (immoral by Buddhist standards, anyway!). Is this because "religion poisons everything"? Well, if that was true, than we would expect non-religious countries or atheistic governments to be more peaceful. Let's see- Nazis? Nope. Maoists? Nope. Saddam Hussein? Pol Pot? Kim Jong Il? Joseph Stalin? Wait, these governments have been many times more brutal than any religious government or society, and been responsible for a massive amount more deaths. There goes that theory. Actually, it seems like religious countries, although sadly still violent, may on the whole be less violent.
Is the problem organized religions? Maybe indigenous peoples and pagans were peaceful. Some think so. But is this true? Wait, wasn't Japan in WW2 energized by the use of Shinto, a "pagan" religion? Wasn't Hitler fascinated with the Occult and pre-Christian Teutonic Paganism? What about brutal world conquering Ancient Rome. What about the endless wars of blood vengeance among Aboriginals in New Zealand or the abduction and counter abductions and ceremonial torture among Canadian First Nations peoples? What about Mayan human sacrifice? Nope, Pagans all.
So where does that leave us? It seems that organized religion is to blame, and disorganized religion, and atheism, and secularism! Hmmn. Maybe we're missing a common factor, something besides religion or irreligion, something else present in all of these cases and instances. What could it be? What or who was there all the time?
Satan? No, us. Yes, that's right, human beings. Human beings who hurt and kill other beings for the sake of power, or security, or out of greed, hatred, anger, or vengeance. Human beings who are probably in most instances just trying to be safe, or have a good life, and woefully confused about what will bring that about. In a world determined not by wishful thinking but by causes and conditions, confusion kills.
Maybe if we could understand our interconnection, let go of our self-defensiveness, and reduce our greed, hatred and delusion we'd be better off. Maybe if we embraced non-violence and compassion and tried to stop reifying our own point of view and began training our minds we could overcome these tendencies. If only we had a religion that taught those things. Wait! We do!
If Buddhism generally, and Zen specifically, teaches these things, how could it be that some Zen priests in WW2 advocated warfare, racism, and fascism? Well, you see, the weakness of Buddhism is that is has to be understood properly and practiced properly to work. Even more difficult, the practitioner also has to use it as a light to shine on themselves in every nook and cranny. The honest truth is that all of us fail at this more than we succeed, because it is very difficult. Buddhism itself does not claim that it is easy, but explicitly says that this is very difficult.
The Buddha himself warned that even ultimate truth, healing truth, wondrous truth, if used the wrong way, is a snake that will bite you (Alagaduppama Sutta). In the words of the immortal bard (Willam Blake): A truth told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent.
So one reason the focus on Zen at War bothers me is that it can cause doubt and suspicion to arise and be directed in the wrong direction, away from our own hearts and towards one of the very things that can help us- Zen practice. Another reason reason is that the events in Victoria's book are in the past. We would do better to study what evil we are legitimizing or overlooking today.
How do I think we should respond to the delusion and bad conduct of Zen priests in WW2? Well, I do think we should try to understand where they went wrong. We should then see if we are going wrong in similar ways today, as communities or individuals. It is not the doctrines they believed, but how and whay they twisted them that we need to examine. If there is anything in the structures of their communities that we can demonstrate empirically, not speculatively, to be at fault, than we should look at how to change that. We should not discount everything good that person ever did, although we should certainly treat them with greater suspicion, particularly if they never repented (unlike Kodo Sawaki, for instance, who did).
We should then get on with the great matter of the present moment.
I'm sure that many in the Zen community have acted exactly as I just prescribed. If I had focused on them, however, I would have had nothing to complain about today.