Zen at War Brian Victoria Weatherhill: New York, 1997 228 pp. $19.95 (paper)
The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II Iris Chang Basic Books: New York, 1997 290 pp., $25.00 (cloth)
Think of “holy wars,” and Western religions come to mind. The God of Exodus orders the extermination of the Caananites, instructing his chosen people to “show them no pity.” The commandment “Thou shalt not kill” did not apply to slaying Gentiles. In 1095, Pope Urban II ordered Crusaders to Jerusalem to “kill the enemies of God.” In two days, Christian soldiers slaughtered 40,000 Muslims who were merely non-human “filth.” “Wonderful sights,” one Crusader reported. “Piles of heads, hands, and feet. It was a just and splendid judgment of God that this place should be filled with the blood of unbelievers.”
On the other hand, Buddhism has always been portrayed as the religion of peace. When the Shakya kingdom was threatened with invasion, the Buddha sat in meditation in the path of the soldiers. When the Dharma came to Tibet, it is said that the barbaric tribes were pacified. During the Vietnam War, Buddhist monks set themselves on fire to protest the killing.
In the light of Nanking, Suzuki’s writing is grotesque. The spiritual justification for killing and mass brutality is undeniably the worst perversion of religion imaginable. It is truly deplorable that Zen could devolve from the great meditation tradition of the Bodhisattva Path into a glorification of slaughter as a great work of art.
Many historians have had difficulty understanding the Japanese brutality in Nanking. Zen at War provides some significant missing pieces to helping us comprehend the underlying mind of the Japanese military, while Chang’s gripping investigation provides us with the actual consequences of the twisted religious philosophy that fueled the Japanese military.
Chang writes: “Some Japanese soldiers admitted it was easy for them to kill because they had been taught that next to the emperor, all individual life—even their own—was valueless.” The Japanese soldier Azuma Shiro reported that during his two years of military training, “. . . he was taught that ‘loyalty is heavier than a mountain, and our life is like a feather.’. . . to die for the emperor was the greatest glory, to be caught alive by the enemy the greatest shame. ‘If my life was not important, an enemy’s life became inevitably much less important. . . . This philosophy led us to look down on the enemy and eventually to the mass murder and ill treatment of captives.’”
This total betrayal of compassion did not take place just during World War II. For centuries, Zen was intimately involved in the way of killing. Not all temples or all teachers were involved, but this aspect was a significant part of Zen culture. In Zen at War, the most excessive situations uncover distortions that had existed for centuries.
The Buddha said that to understand everything is to forgive everything. What happened in Japan must be explored fully, so it can be both understood and transformed. Zen master Hakuin taught: “Where there is thorough questioning there will be a thoroughgoing experience of awakening.”
For many Zen students, the most difficult aspect of Victoria’s haunting book will be how to face the words and actions of these highly esteemed Zen masters. How can we absorb these overwhelming contradictions? These were the living Buddhas of the Zen tradition—men regarded as “fully enlightened,” who had satori experiences, underwent intense training, received the official transmission and teaching seals. Many were brilliant charismatic teachers and koan masters. And at the same time, these same Zen masters were swept away in nationalist delusion, perverted Buddhist and Zen teachings, and exhibited a total lack of compassion and wisdom. They participated directly in the deaths of tens of millions of people.
We must ask these questions even if they are difficult—perhaps impossible—to answer. It is essential to know the shadows of the spiritual traditions we follow. In the light of Zen at War, shadows can have enormous harmful potential, and The Rape of Nanking attests to the terrible consequences.
We need to know the mechanics of how the Buddha Way can turn into this horrific form of heartless Zen. This is not about orthodoxy or purity; it is about compassion and insight. This is not about condemning the Japanese, but about how we, as one sangha, can help one another to awaken authentically. For the Buddhist world, Victoria has written a brave book that confronts our most cherished and idealized views of Buddhism. But Victoria limits his investigation to philosophical perversions; he leaves us shocked, whereas Chang’s compelling account confirms that to ignore Victoria’s work, is to do so at our peril.