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Reviewed by:
  • Zen War Stories
  • Steven Heine
Zen War Stories. By Brian Daizen Victoria. London and New York: Routledge-Curzon, 2003. Pp. xviii + 268. Hardcover $124.95. Paper $34.95.

Brian Daizen Victoria's Zen War Stories, following his highly acclaimed but also highly provocative Zen at War (Weatherhill, 1997), continues his withering attack on the embracing of wartime ideology by leading Zen masters and practitioners in Japan. Victoria seeks to show that the attitude characteristic of numerous examples of prominent Zen monks and scholars was not simply a matter of benignly resisting, or even passively accepting, the rhetoric of Imperial Way Buddhism by clergy who were under pressure and powerless to stand up to the authorities. Nor was it an example of innocently recognizing historical and ideological affinities between Zen monastic discipline and military training.

On the contrary, the Zen masters discussed here eagerly and enthusiastically endorsed some of the most excessive and reprehensible aspects of imperial ideology in the name of a corrupted vision of spiritual realization as a tool to spread the doctrine of the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere. They also used Zen wedded to hyper-nationalism and imperialism as a tool to misread the historical records of their own tradition and to help transport Japanese supremacy to China and Korea, while refusing to acknowledge or repent for their actions with the defeat of Japan. This outlook also infected numerous politicians and military figures, who turned to Buddhism as a way of explaining away or masking their roles leading up to, as well as during and after, World War II.

In part 1 of Zen War Stories Victoria documents several masters who have become icons in the West for their apparent adherence to a Zen tradition linked with an ability to address contemporary culture. After showing in chapter 4 that Ōmori [End Page 345] Sōgen, praised for his prowess in swordsmanship and other arts, had a fascistic, "Mr. Hyde" side as manifested in the founding in 1932 of the Kinnō Ishin Dōmei (League for Loyalty to the Emperor and the Restoration), Victoria turns to the case of Yasutani Haku'un. In chapter 5, "Zen Master Dōgen Goes to War," we find that Yasutani, known as the teacher of Philip Kapleau and the inspiration for The Three Pillars of Zen, wanted to smash all universities for being traitors. He was a fanatical militarist who "transformed the life and thought of Zen Master Dōgen (1200-1253), the thirteenth-century founder of the Sōtō Zen sect in Japan, into a propaganda tool for Japanese militarism" (p. 68).

In particular, Yasutani tried to argue that Dōgen's famed pilgrimage to Song China in 1223 was triggered not by a longing for the Buddhist Dharma but by a disgust with the new shogunate and an infatuation with preserving the Imperial House. According to Victoria, Yasutani's corrupted spirituality did not end with a support for militarism. He was also even more "ethnic chauvinist, sexist, and anti-Semitic" (p. 68) than his teacher Harada Daiun Sōgaku, whose "most memorable wartime quote is: '[If ordered to] march: tramp, tramp, or shoot: bang, bang. This is the manifestation of the highest Wisdom [of enlightenment]"' (pp. 66-67).

After discussing in chapter 7, "Zen 'Selflessness' in Japanese Militarism," how Zen's historical relation to the samurai was misinterpreted to support the imperial ideology concerning the acceptance of death by D. T. Suzuki and other prominent representatives of Zen, including former Eiheiji temple abbot Kumazawa Taizen, part 2 takes up examples of the involvement with Buddhist thought by military and political leaders. While this section is less devastating as a critique of Zen than of Japanese Buddhism and society in general, Victoria explains in chapter 10, "Buddhism-The Last Refuge of War Criminals," how easily the moral basis of religion can be distorted and subverted. For example, as recollected by Buddhist studies scholar Hanayama Shinshō , seven Class A war criminals who had been condemned to death continued, while on death row, to cling hypocritically to Buddhism to find some feeling of solace. For instance, Hirota Kōki never abandoned his attachment to Zen and the warrior class and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-1898
Print ISSN
0031-8221
Pages
pp. 345-347
Launched on MUSE
2006-04-11
Open Access
No
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