Brian Victoria responds to a critique of his work by Nelson Foster and Gary Snyder in the Summer 2010 issue, and to Kemmyo Taira Sato’s critique in The Eastern Buddhist. Victoria has written extensively on the Zen establishment’s complicity in Japan’s war effort. Foster, Snyder, and Sato assert that Victoria’s scholarship with regard to D. T. Suzuki is seriously flawed. For more detailed responses from both Victoria and Foster, as well as comments from members of the Tricycle community, visit

In my new article on D. T. Suzuki, appearing later this year in The Eastern Buddhist, I note that the controversy over Suzuki’s wartime role is far more significant than the impact on his reputation, for it is intimately connected to the question of whether Zen meditation (zazen) is really “value-neutral” as Japanese scholar Kemmyo Taira Sato claims. And if it is, should value-neutral Zen meditation be considered an authentic expression of the buddhadharma?

It is critically important to understand that Suzuki’s opposition to World War II was always secretly confided to his closest friends only. Further, Suzuki’s statements reveal that his opposition had nothing to do with his Buddhist faith.

As far as Suzuki’s wartime public writings are concerned, there is not a single, unambiguous statement of opposition to any war Japan ever fought. This was at a time when there were Buddhist priests and laymen who dared to voice their opposition to Japanese militarism. These true antiwar Buddhists were imprisoned, tortured, and even hanged.

Though he certainly wasn’t alone, Suzuki’s public writings through 1941 describe the close relationship between Zen, warriors, and bushido [Japanese warrior code of conduct] and contain the same themes of fearlessness in the face of death, the identities of life and death, Zen and the sword, etc., that Japan’s military leaders were fanatically inculcating into their soldiers and citizenry alike.

Sato claims that when Suzuki’s wartime writings are read very carefully, it is possible to discover a few veiled criticisms of the military’s conduct. However, the key to a fair evaluation of Suzuki’s writings is to ask how what he wrote was understood by his readership in wartime Japan. Did his readers (especially the omnipresent “special higher police”) ever suspect that Suzuki was opposed to the war? Not even Sato makes this claim.

Finally, while Suzuki’s influence within Japan has always been limited, he has successfully convinced generations of Westerners that the close historical relationship between Zen, warriors, and bushido was an authentic, “non-dualistic” expression of the buddhadharma.

To the contrary, I suggest that there was as little connection between the unlimited compassion of the buddhadharma and Japan’s “hired killers” (aka warriors) as there was between the God of love of Jesus of Nazareth and the medieval Crusaders who mercilessly killed “God’s enemies.” Thus, in light of his clever deception of all too gullible Westerners, myself included, Suzuki’s writings on Zen and bushido represent a fundamental betrayal of the buddhadharma.

—Brian Victoria

Nelson Foster responds
In online discussion and even more so here, Dr. Victoria has chosen to skirt the specific errors Gary Snyder and I noted (“The Fog of World War II,” Summer 2010) in his portrayal of D. T. Suzuki. Online, to his credit, he acknowledged his most glaring mistake, but now he’s left behind sticky facts (and our article) for issues too large to address adequately in this space.

In calling zazen “value-neutral,” Prof. Sato suggests no lack of ethical concern in Zen training generally or in Suzuki’s life. To the contrary, he describes “Suzuki’s constant emphasis on the moral aspect of training” and quotes Suzuki’s view of disarmament directly: “What is fortunate . . . is that Japan has renounced engagement in war and is venturing out, naked, among the nations of the world.”

I don’t know how Victoria could possibly evaluate the impact Suzuki’s writings had on wartime readers, but he distorts the record in saying that Suzuki reserved his criticism for friendly ears. In totalitarian Japan, he kept antiwar comments mostly private, true, but Sato documents an instance when he voiced his objections strongly and publicly enough to dismay his colleagues.

Victoria asserts that the correct course for any true Buddhist is an uncompromising stand against war, irrespective of risks or considerations of effectiveness. The critical issue for Suzuki was military aggression, and weeks after Japan’s surrender, he began an intensive campaign—four books in two years—for a spiritual renewal that would sever the roots of militarism. Instead of condemning his decision to refrain from wartime protests, perhaps we should give him some credit for Japan’s strictly defensive forces today. As for Suzuki’s views on bushido, in lieu of convincing evidence Victoria now stoops to name-calling. I hope readers will study Prof. Sato’s article themselves and judge whose scholarship deserves the label “clever deception.”

—Nelson Foster

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