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Zen at War. By Brian Victoria. New York: Weatherhill, 1997. Pp. xii + 228.  ISBN 0-8348-0405-0, US $19.95.

Reviewed by Dharmapala.

As the Buddha was about to enter nirvana, he instructed the monks, "After my passage into extinction you bhikshus must honor, value, and respect the Praatimok.sa (the monastic precepts), being like one who, stranded in darkness, has managed to find the light, and being like a pauper who has come upon a treasure. You must understand that they are your great guru. If you do this, then it shall be no different than if I continued to abide in the world."

Zen at War by Brian Victoria is an uncompromisingly honest report on the tragedy which has occurred in Japanese Buddhism since its clergy began to systematically ignore even the most major precepts laid down by the Buddha as absolutely essential to the monastic life. Although Victoria makes only passing notice of this fact, the most precipitous downfall of institutional Buddhism seems to have begun with an announcement made on April 25, 1872 by the Japanese Ministry of State at the request of the influential Soto Zen sect priest Otori Sesso.

This announcement, known as Order Number 133, stated that Buddhist priests could, if they wished, eat meat, get married, grow their hair long, and wear ordinary clothing. Although this decision neither prohibited nor commanded anything, it was seen by many Buddhist leaders as yet another attack on their religion. (p. 8)

Those Buddhist leaders who objected to Order Number 133 probably realized that institutional Buddhism would take this order as permission to abandon the precepts, that Buddhist monasticism would consequently lose its moral authority, and that as a result the Buddhist monastic order would eventually be destroyed in Japan. Such an outcome does indeed seem to have been the result which eventually ensued. Victoria's well-documented work traces the thoroughgoing and active participation of all of the primary lineages of Japanese institutional Buddhism in Japan's imperialist wars. The author describes in meticulous detail the roots of Japanese Buddhist leaders' cooperation with and promotion of Japanese militarism back to the beginning of the Meiji Restoration in 1868. He points out that the origins of this cooperation in fact go back much farther, even as far back as a thousand years. Evidently those roots were already deeply planted more than 600 years ago when the Rinzai sect made it a standard practice to perform religious services during wartime with the goal of enhancing military power.

It becomes quite apparent from this carefully constructed chronicle that the zealous clerical capitulation to the secular priorities of the shogunate, the emperors, and finally modern-day corporate leaders has brought about such a wedding of Japanese Buddhism to bushido (the way of the warrior), to Shinto-influenced emperor-worship and finally to Japanese nationalism that ahi.msaa, the fundamental Buddhist doctrine of non-harming, has became largely irrelevant to twentieth century Japanese institutional Buddhism. Victoria reports that it was a full forty years after the defeat of Japan before the leaders of the houses of Japanese Buddhism made any sort of formal apology for their enthusiastic alignment with the brutal mission of Japan's World War Two war machine. Some of these belated apologies which finally did limp forth have been only grudging in nature and so brief as to be but a single sentence. Even now, at the very close of the twentieth century, the Rinzai sect has stubbornly refused to make any such formal acknowledgment or apology and has continued to work enthusiastically at instilling bushido in the members of Japanese self-defense forces whose budget for military expenditures according to Victoria is second only to that of the United States.

In a work full of strengths it is probably inevitable that there must be at least one very weak point. For Zen at War it comes when the author offers substantial endorsement to the hopelessly-flawed twelve-point apologetic projections of Ichikawa Hakugen. In nine out of twelve instances, Hakugen (a repentant participant in the errors of this period who himself had praised the military and denounced pacifism) basically located the causality for the failures of the Japanese clergy in doctrinal features of the Dharma itself. In every one of these nine cases Hakugen reveals that in spite of his supposedly salutary intentions he understands only enough Dharma to distort it entirely.

For Victoria to offer any endorsement at all for such delusion represents a serious slip from his otherwise very high standards of intellectual and spiritual honesty. The author completely loses his bearings in Dharma when he goes so far as to say of Hakugen's apologetics: ". . . his critique strongly suggests that the issue of Buddhism's collaboration with Japanese militarism is one with very deep roots in Buddhist history and doctrine, by no means limited to Japan alone. For this insight, and much more, future students of this topic will remain indebted to this pioneering scholar." With this statement Victoria, himself a priest in Japanese Buddhism, falls victim to the need to transfer culpability somewhere outside of the traditions of Japanese Buddhism and onto the shoulders of the Dharma, its patriarchs, and, by extension, the Buddha himself. Although it is probably psychically very hard to once-and-for-all hold one's own gurus responsible for those errors for which they are clearly responsible, this in no way justifies what amounts to a slander of the Triple Jewel.

Fortunately, this single paragraph is one of the very few weak points in what is otherwise a marvelous exercise in thorough-going and honest scholarly discipline. This book was sorely needed and stands as one of the very few accurate portrayals of the intellectual and spiritual dishonesty of the Japanese Buddhist church at this time. Victoria is to be praised for bringing to light in a forthright and systematic way the horrifying long-term abandonment of fundamental Buddhist ethics on the part of Japanese institutional Buddhism.

In his epilogue the author reports that an elderly Chinese monk discouraged him from publishing this work for fear that it would bring the Dharma into disrepute. Although at first blush this sentiment seems to presage the inevitable, the perceptive reader will readily understand that the fault lies not with the Dharma itself, but rather with false priests who discarded the Buddha's moral code and promulgated a counterfeit version of the Dharma to serve Japan's imperialist war machine. This work actually performs a great service to all Buddhists by setting forth an irrefutable indictment of those who betrayed the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha, and the faithful followers of Buddhism in Japan. Although Victoria failed to strongly emphasize the problem in these terms, the greatest contribution of Zen at War is its uncompromisingly clear and thorough illustration of the complete spiritual disaster resulting for any lineage which turns its back on the Buddha's final instructions to take the precepts of purity as one's spiritual guide.

Any moderately-sensitive follower of modern-day Zen who takes the trouble to study and meditate on this book cannot fail but to experience a profound crisis of faith in the validity of a spiritual transmission passed down from the supposedly enlightened patriarchs of the World War Two era Japanese Buddhist lineages. How could those "patriarchs" possibly have been enlightened if they were so deluded as to characterize those wars as "holy wars" while also collecting funds for the construction of warplanes which flew off into battle christened with the names of their sponsoring lineages?

Actually, such a crisis of faith, if put to its best uses, could serve as a marvelous wellspring of renewal for all of the institutions of Japanese Buddhism both inside and outside of Japan. It must be understood that this dark era in Japanese Buddhist history could not have occurred if the Dharma of the Buddha as expressed in the sutras and in the precepts were seriously studied and taken to heart by those who serve as leaders of the Japanese Buddhist lineages. Sitting in meditation is not enough. In fact, Zazen alone, when divorced from depthful understanding of Dharma, can be the most destructive of spiritual poisons. Zazen alone (or any other sort of "practice" for that matter), when not preceded by thorough study and serious cultivation of the sutras and moral precepts can result in a kind of fanaticism utterly disconnected from the Dharma of the Buddha. There is no better evidence for this than Brian Victoria's Zen at War.

It is a fundamental tenet of Buddhism that both meditative progress and true wisdom are utterly dependent upon absolute purity in the upholding of the precepts and upon a depthful understanding of the foundations of Buddhist doctrine rooted in an extended period of serious study of Dharma. Any tradition which allows its clergy to cast aside the monastic precepts and the systematic study of Dharma lays itself open to the ascendancy of amoral worldlings masquerading as patriarchs.

There is no way that this dark era in Japanese Buddhism could have occurred if its leaders had remained aligned with the strict moral code set forth by the Buddha for the guidance of the monastic community. Those preceptual guidelines make it abundantly clear that "the way of the warrior" and Japanese nationalism are not only not Buddhist at all but are utterly contrary in character to the doctrine and spirit of Buddhism. It is because of casting aside the precepts that bushido and Japanese nationalism were allowed to thrive as malignant cancers on the very heart of Japanese Buddhism. At this point in the Dharma Ending Age, it is not very likely that the monastic precepts will ever again regain primacy among the lay priests who have taken over Japanese Buddhism. Nonetheless it is possible that crucial lessons might be learned from studying the disasters of the recent past.

An excellent first step in realigning institutional zen with the teachings of the Buddha would be to place the Zen Buddhist's satori experiences in a more proper context whereby they would not be so easily mistaken for anything resembling the utmost, right and perfect enlightenment of Shakyamuni. "Satori" is "an awakening" or "an understanding," nothing more and nothing less. It is not necessarily the case that such awakenings (especially when self-proclaimed) even amount to something worth yawning over, how much the less do they necessarily indicate the acquisition of any valid stage of advancement along the path of enlightenment delineated by the Buddha.

These same Buddhist lay-priests who headed the houses of Japanese institutional Buddhism and who claimed to be enlightened were the very ones who called World War Two a "holy war" and were the very ones who collected money to build more warplanes. This is one of the most spectacular contradictions of the twentieth century Japanese Buddhism. Nobody who had even achieved access concentration or the first dhyana could be so deluded. It is even less possible that they could have acquired any truly notable stage of spiritual development on the Buddhist path.

Zen at War is a valuable work which does an admirable job of reporting a set of long-ignored and very grim facts about the nature of Japanese institutional Buddhism in its darkest era. Given the tremendous amount of effort which must have been involved in assembling such a thorough edifice of evidence, it is understandable that the scope of the work does not really move very far beyond reporting the facts. That it has reported these facts constitutes a marvelous service to Japanese Buddhists in particular and to all other Buddhists by example. But to simply understand the facts is not enough. We must learn from these facts by putting in place mechanisms which will prevent such a disaster from ever occurring again. It is only through sustained reflection and resolute implementation of the reforms called for by these facts that tragedy can be turned to opportunity.

Lest anyone think that this is a nice little work of history with no particular application to Zen in its modern form, especially Zen as propagated in the West, it would be wise to think again. Victoria points out that bushido and in some cases bushido with an ulterior agenda is being imported to the West with no particular awareness on the part of the Westerners who take so avidly to this supposed "wisdom of the East." As founders of new Buddhist traditions in the West it is essential that Western Dharma students insist that such relics of Shinto-based samurai sensibilities be left outside the door.

Another point that really must be made here relates to the modern-day ignorance of the difference between Ch'an and Zen. No evidence for the huge gulf in spiritual sensibilities which exists between these two traditions could be more convincing than that set forth in Zen at War. As Edward Conze once noted, Ch'an constitutes the Chinese cultural response to the meditative traditions of Buddhism in India whereas Zen represents the Japanese cultural response to the meditative traditions of Buddhism in China. There is no way that anyone who really understands the depths of this truth could possibly call the two traditions by the same name.

In conclusion, Zen at War is a valuable work which should be read by Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. It is especially important that it be read and reflected upon by anyone directly or indirectly associating themselves with Japanese Buddhist traditions.


Updated: 3-6-2000

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