In the summer of 1998, Tricycle covered Brian Victoria’s Zen at War, an indictment of the Japanese Zen community’s complicity in Japanese imperialism during the 1930s and 1940s. Among those he harshly criticized was D. T. Suzuki, arguably the most influential figure in bringing Zen Buddhism to the West. Scholar and Shin Buddhist priest Kemmyo Taira Sato, writing for the Eastern Buddhist, a journal founded by Suzuki in 1929, recently offered a belated though well-considered rebuttal to Victoria’s accusations. Here, poet Gary Snyder and Nelson Foster, two of the pioneers of engaged Buddhism in the West, present and comment on Sato’s arguments.
It is no exaggeration to say that Brian Daizen Victoria’s 1997 book Zen at War sent shock waves through Zen circles. Even those previously aware that the Japanese Buddhist establishment had supported the nation’s militarist and imperialist policies before and during World War II were surprised to learn how thoroughly Zen leaders and institutions had colluded in the war effort. Most startling and dismaying to us and many other readers was the degree of involvement Victoria reported on the part of prominent figures, including several Zen masters otherwise highly regarded and the layman who did more than anyone else to bring Zen to public awareness outside Asia—Dr. D. T. Suzuki.
Although the picture that Victoria painted was painful to contemplate, it seemed a necessary corrective to prevailing naivete about Zen’s political past and a sharp spur to consideration of the social role that Zen might play going forward, in our own country and beyond. The good effects of Zen at War have been felt even in Japan itself, where they occasioned a reappraisal of the sangha’s wartime complicity and prompted several of the great Zen honzan (main monasteries) to issue statements of responsibility and contrition.
These consequences, along with Victoria’s credentials as both a scholar and “a fully ordained [Soto Zen] priest,” inspired a high degree of confidence in Victoria’s conclusions. So it comes as a real surprise to find his account of Suzuki’s views convincingly refuted in “D. T. Suzuki and the Question of War,” a detailed, sixty-page study by Kemmyo Taira Sato, who knew Suzuki in his late years. Professor Sato warmly acknowledges the “great contribution” Victoria has made to discussion of Buddhist participation in World War II, and nothing in his analysis contradicts the outlines of that history as laid out in Victoria’s books. Yet Sato makes it clear that Victoria erred very seriously in stating his case against Suzuki, doing injury to his own reputation and Suzuki’s in a single stroke.
Unfortunately, Sato’s study appeared in a little-known scholarly journal, The Eastern Buddhist, and has done little to right the misimpressions of Suzuki’s character and political views that Victoria’s books have created. We hope the following, relatively brief and inevitably less nuanced review of the evidence will convey the gist of Sato’s article and illustrate the inaccuracies that so harmfully skew Victoria’s portrayal of Suzuki. We hope it might also encourage fair and respectful understanding of this man who played such an inarguably great role in laying the foundations of Zen practice in the United States.
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