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.

One of Victoria’s charges is that Suzuki supported Japanese militarism through advocacy of bushido, the way of the warrior. In Zen at War, he ties Suzuki’s writings on this subject directly to Japan’s aggression in World War II with this statement: “Less than one month before Pearl Harbor, on November 10, 1941, [Suzuki] joined hands with such military leaders as former army minister and imperial army general Araki Sadao (1877– 1966), imperial navy captain Hirose Yutaka, and others to publish a book entitled The Essence of Bushido (Bushido no Shinzui).” As damning as this sounds, Sato demonstrates that it is much better evidence of Victoria’s polemical rhetoric than it is evidence for his claims.

The significance Victoria attaches to the book’s publication date and his assertion that Suzuki “joined hands” with military leaders in producing the anthology both prove to be unfounded. In fact, Sato informs us, the essay Victoria describes as “Suzuki’s personal contribution” to the book was not even written for its pages. On the contrary, it had come out nine months earlier in a Japanese periodical and was simply gathered into the bushido collection by its editor.

Remarking that Suzuki’s chapter “did not cover any new intellectual ground,” Victoria dispenses with its contents and instead seizes on a statement made in the editor’s introduction: “Dr. Suzuki’s writings are said to have strongly influenced the military spirit of Nazi Germany.” On the basis of this rumor, which he does not substantiate in any way, Victoria immediately insinuates a link (“It is interesting, in this connection…”) between Suzuki’s exposition of bushido and three sentences in a speech that Japan’s ambassador to Germany delivered in September 1940, upon signing of the Tripartite Pact:

The pillar of the Spirit of Japan is to be found in Bushido. Although Bushido employs the sword, its essence is not to kill people, but rather to use the sword that gives life to people. Using the spirit of this sword, we wish to contribute to world peace.

Without comment, Victoria draws a remarkable conclusion: “Whether by accident or design, Suzuki’s sentiments as first expressed in 1938 had, two years later, become government policy or, perhaps more accurately, government rationalization.”

This troubling contention—that Suzuki was an architect of imperialist policy or propaganda, perhaps even by his own intention—collapses when Victoria’s arguments are set against the record of public and private statements that Suzuki made on bushido and on Japan’s military aggression, which Professor Sato has reconstructed for us. Note, first, that the ambassador’s speech precedes the publication of Suzuki’s essay, either as a separate article or in the bushido anthology. Clearly the ambassador’s formulation did not depend on the views Suzuki expressed therein.


Instead, Victoria stakes his case on Suzuki’s 1938 English-language volume Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture. The book’s publication date is crucial to his argument, since it affords an interval in which German and Japanese militarists might have read it (in translation, one presumes) and fallen under its influence before expressing their indebtedness to Suzuki in 1940 or 1941. Yet inexplicably, when Victoria quotes the passages on bushido that he deems incriminating, he consistently cites not the 1938 book but rather a revision thereof that Suzuki brought out in 1959, Zen and Japanese Culture. Were this merely a matter of academic propriety, it could easily be overlooked, but it goes well beyond a footnote problem: in characterizing Suzuki’s 1938 views, Victoria relies on a chapter from the 1959 book that does not even appear in the earlier text.

Indeed, it is a long passage from the 1959 book that provides the closest parallel Victoria offers between Suzuki’s description of bushido and the ambassadorial oration of 1940. Here it is, exactly as quoted in Zen at War:

The sword is generally associated with killing, and most of us wonder how it came into connection with Zen, which is a school of Buddhism teaching the gospel of mercy. The fact is that the art of swordsmanship distinguishes between the sword that kills and the sword that gives life. The one that is used by a technician cannot go any further than killing, for he never appeals to the sword unless he intends to kill. The case is altogether different for the one who is compelled to lift the sword. For it is really not he but the sword itself that does the killing. He had no desire to do harm to anybody, but the enemy appears and makes himself a victim. It is as though the sword performs automatically its function of justice, which is the function of mercy. . . . When the sword is expected to play this sort of role in human life, it is no more a weapon of selfdefense or an instrument of killing, and the swordsman turns into an artist of the first grade, engaged in producing a work of genuine originality.

We ourselves find much in this statement odd or disingenuous or flat-out wrong, and we will shortly suggest some reasons why Suzuki may have made it. For the present, we want to stay focused on how Victoria used it—not just setting it chronologically out of sequence but also drastically warping its meaning by omitting two critical sentences. After “the function of mercy,” where Victoria inserts an ellipsis, Suzuki had written:

This is the kind of sword that Christ is said to have brought among us. It is not meant just for bringing the peace mawkishly cherished by sentimentalists; it is the sword used by Rikyu the teaman for self-immolation; it is the sword of Vajraraja recommended by Rinzai (Lin-chi) for the use of Zen-men; it is the sword Banzan Hojaku (P’an-shan) would swing regardless of its lack of utilitarianism.

Suzuki attached a footnote to each of his three examples, removing any doubt that he was speaking metaphorically, not of tempered steel and bloody death but of a figurative sword and the revivifying, transformative experience of “body and mind falling away.” When the sword plays this sort of role in human life, obviously it is not a weapon of selfdefense or an instrument of killing. A fair-minded reading of either the 1938 or 1959 version of the book makes it clear that Suzuki meant to celebrate the sword that gives life in this metaphorical sense, which (although Victoria neglects to mention it) had been common in Zen literature for centuries before Suzuki was born.


When it came to literal blades, Suzuki reserved his praise for swords wielded to prevent carnage. Sato comments, “Although Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture discusses in an abstract manner the importance of detachment from death for the samurai seeking to gain victory in battle, Suzuki presents no actual examples of samurai utilizing such detachment to slay opponents.” Instead, he cites instances where a samurai was able to foresee developments and respond to circumstances skillfully so that swords did not need to be drawn and lives were not put at risk. Even so, Suzuki seems to have realized that the 1938 chapter was open to interpretations he did not intend, and republishing it in 1959, he added a more explicit statement:

The perfect swordsman avoids quarreling or fighting. Fighting means killing. How can one human being bring himself to kill a fellow being? We are all meant to love one another and not to kill. It is abhorrent that one should be thinking all the time of fighting and coming out victorious. We are moral beings, we are not to lower ourselves to the status of animality. What is the use of becoming a fine swordsman if he loses his human dignity? The best thing is to be a victor without fighting.

Victoria might argue that this postwar clarification reflects a change of heart, but the fact that it appeared in the same edition of the book as the passage he does quote (and distort) makes it clear how selective he has been in his use of evidence. He compounds his case from material that must be edited and interpreted to suit his purposes, while leaving the reader ignorant of accompanying material that expressly states Suzuki’s own opinions.

However Victoria has misrepresented Suzuki’s thought, it is surely appropriate for him and for all of us to inquire, as Sato phrases it, “Why, at this of all times, would Suzuki have started writing on the subject of bushido?” By 1938, Japanese forces occupied not only Korea but large parts of China as well, and Sato conjectures that Suzuki felt compelled under these circumstances to wrestle with the perennial question of when and how, if ever, arms ought to be taken up, particularly by a Buddhist nation. That would help explain the obtuse rhetoric that clouds his exposition of bushido: he was working out these thorny issues in a sort of code, with reference to medieval precedents.

As the descendant of a samurai family and son of an army doctor, Suzuki may also have felt compelled to reflect on, and explain to his English-language following, why tiny, only recently modernized Japan had repeatedly defeated much larger, better-endowed neighbors. Perhaps he even thought it advisable to sound a note of warning. In any case, as he turned to the issue of bushido, his thinking and writing were complicated by the great pride in his people that made him a firm believer in Japanese exceptionality. Clearly playing a part, too, was his conviction that Japan’s prowess in almost any field of endeavor should rightly be attributed, at least in part, to Zen.

As Suzuki made apparent in a postwar lecture at Yale— where he might easily have ducked—he would not back down on the importance of Zen even to a notorious war criminal, much less to his samurai forebears. Philip Kapleau, who had met Suzuki while serving as court reporter at the International Military Tribunal in Tokyo, witnessed his encounter with an angry member of the Yale audience:

“Isn’t it true,” [the questioner] asked, “that warlords like General Tojo meditated in the Zen monasteries of Japan?”

“Yes.” The answer came slowly and softly.

“How compassionate a religion is Zen Buddhism when it allows warlords of his ilk into its temples?”

Dr. Suzuki paused for what seemed like an eternity as the tension mounted among the audience. The silence was thundering. The answer came slowly:

“Don’t you think that a soldier, who has to face death many times, needs the solace of religion even more than a civilian?”

Such sympathies lend Victoria ammunition for his campaign to represent Suzuki as a vital contributor to the development of his country’s martial ethos, but it simply was not so. Sato places the bushido issue in proper historical perspective: “The militarists hardly needed Suzuki to formulate a bushido ideology for them. Bushido was already central to Japanese military culture from at least the Tokugawa period (1600- 1868)” and from that time onward was “thoroughly familiar to the modern Japanese army officer corps.” In actuality, if there was anything innovative in Suzuki’s understanding of bushido, it was his reversal of the army’s dogma, presenting bushido as a peacemaking, potentially liberating and liberative path.

Victoria’s depiction of Suzuki as a war booster falls apart completely before the evidence that Sato painstakingly sets forth. Sato points out, for instance, that the 1941 bushido essay “contains no mention of the ongoing war in Asia, nor any suggestion that Suzuki supported it,” though it was “a perfect venue for voicing such support,” especially if its author had intentionally “joined hands” with military enthusiasts to publish it. Such an affirmation of the war would have aligned Suzuki with nationwide public opinion and the Buddhist establishment, yet he refrained. Why? Sato answers, and cogently demonstrates, that Suzuki was keenly and consistently critical of the war and simply felt obliged to mute his criticism for fear of personal reprisal.

Sato offers many examples of what Suzuki said when he felt at liberty to express himself openly. For example, in a February 1942 letter to his boyhood friend, the noted philosopher Nishida Kitaro—”just a few months after the attacks on Pearl Harbor and Singapore”—Suzuki included a series of his tanka, traditional Japanese poems. Slightly longer than haiku, consisting of 31 syllables instead of haiku’s 17, these little poems were not only antiwar but highly critical of the very idea of the nation-state:

There is a someone who acts with absolute power
   but takes no responsibility [for his actions].
      His name is the state.

You who behave as a demon
   under the name of the state—
      I despise you.

You, the demon who lives through power, will, and blood!
   Who is it that questions your responsibility?
      (How sad it is that there is none who does so.)


      Don’t dance on Singapore Island!
      Destruction is easy, but creation takes much time!

(“Dance” here refers to the demonic, trampling dance of destruction—in this case, bombing.)

Sato points out that Suzuki had been challenging rightwing ideology of the Japanese state since at least 1898, when he wrote in a magazine article, “Let us stop pretending that the Japanese are a great people merely because its imperial family has continued unbroken for the past 2,500 years.” This statement is all the more dramatic because, well into the twentieth century, Japan was among the few countries in which archaeology was highly politicized. Sato’s account of Suzuki’s life places him in the rational and cosmopolitan vanguard of his nation’s thinkers from his youth on.

On those rare occasions during the war when Suzuki chose to express his views publicly, he did so somewhat obliquely, which gave him political cover at the time but also gives Victoria latitude to quote his statements against him. In Zen at War, Victoria writes,

In fact, [Suzuki] was quite enthusiastic about Japanese military activities in Asia. In an article addressed specifically to young Japanese Buddhists written in 1943 he stated: “Although it is called the Greater East Asia War, its essence is that of an ideological struggle for the culture of East Asia. Buddhists must join in this struggle and accomplish their essential mission.”

Hawkish as that sentence may sound out of context, in fact it was the prelude to an antiwar statement that was quite daring under the repressive conditions of wartime Japan. Sato’s translation of the next lines of the article show Suzuki to be, in contrast to Victoria’s claims, distinctly unenthusiastic about Japan’s military activities in Asia, indeed to be promoting harmony with its supposed enemy:

In the area of culture and ideology, though one may speak of “struggle,” “conflict,” or “rivalry,” what is involved is not throwing your opponent to the ground and pinning him so that he cannot move. This is especially true when the opponent is not necessarily your inferior intellectually, materially, historically, and otherwise. In such cases not only is it impossible to destroy him, but for precisely that reason it should be accepted. And those on the other side need to accept our culture as well. It is important to arouse the frame of mind that seeks to accomplish this. That, truly, is the role with which Buddhism is charged, for it is Buddhist thought that functions at the center of the Eastern way of thinking.

Once again, it is striking how profoundly Victoria’s account of Suzuki departs from the man’s own presentation of his ideas. Victoria has managed to get Suzuki’s positions on bushido and militarism essentially backward, and it is hard to see how such a result could flow from simple errors of research. The elaborate construction of Victoria’s argument and his exclusion of readily available, powerfully contravening evidence suggest a purposeful assault on Suzuki’s reputation. Scarcely a page into his foreword for Zen at War, Victoria tells us that the “oft-pictured gentle and sagacious appearance of his later years” belies the true Suzuki, and he repeats this things-are-not-what-they-seem flourish when introducing Suzuki in Zen War Stories. It seems a peculiar gesture for a scholar-priest to make.

Ultimately, though he does not put it so flatly himself, Victoria’s chief complaint seems to be that Suzuki did not take an overt stand either against Japan’s aggression in Asia and the Pacific or for pacifism as the sole, legitimate stance a Buddhist can take on warfare itself. According to Sato, from 1898 onward the position Suzuki did publicly and faithfully advocate was that military force should be confined to defensive ends. The “correctness” of this position is open to debate, of course.

What is not debatable is that in wartime Japan it would have been very dangerous to promote such views. After Soto Zen master Kondo Genko denounced the war in 1937, he received a warning from the police and eventually resigned his abbotship, returned to his home prefecture, Akita, and disappeared. But to pay tribute to Kondo Roshi and the brave or reckless few who likewise spoke forthrightly against Japanese policy (Victoria’s favorite example is the earlier radical activist and Soto master Uchiyama Gudo), there is no need to trash those like Suzuki who made different, yet still honorable choices.

Senior priests and eminent laypeople of all sects, including the one that seems the mildest and gentlest of all—Jodo-shinshu, Shinran’s Pure Land School—did actively aid and abet the so-called “Imperial Way” and its campaign of armed conquest. There is indeed a “fog of war” to which everyone, probably, is in some degree subject. Brian Victoria has been a dispeller but also a latter-day victim of that fog, it seems to us. We are very grateful to Kemmyo Sato and his translator, Thomas Kirchner, for having made this clear, and we urge everyone to examine the complete record for themselves.