Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Zen at war

Brian Daizen Victoria’s Zen at War is a study of how Zen Buddhism became deeply complicit in Japanese militarism.

Brian Victoria, a Soto Buddhist priest, directly challenges the “touchy-feelie” good image that Buddhism has in the West, especially Zen Buddhism in the US. Zen at War is particularly confronting in what it shows about D. T. Suzuki’s support for Japanese militarism, given his sage-like status in the West. But it is naive, even self-deluding wish-fulfillment, to expect that the history of Buddhism would somehow be immune to the pressures, failings and corruptions that other religions have experienced. Which is not to argue that “all religions are the same”: that is simply not true. Merely that they all exist within human societies and so are subject to the human condition.

Brian Victoria starts with the early Meiji government's withdrawal of support from, indeed active undermining of, Buddhism in favour of Shinto. This created a major crisis for Buddhism in Japan, which had particularly prospered under Tokugawa shogunate. The response of institutional Buddhism (the various sects with their temples and monasteries), much like that of Japanese Christians, was to demonstrate how patriotic and useful Buddhism was. Brian Victoria takes us through the reaction of Buddhism in Japan to this loss of status and how muted responses other than endorsing patriotism and the Emperor system were. There were a few attempts to adopt a social-reformist path, but these were repressed and institutional Buddhism overall rejected such a path.

Instead, the patriotic path led to incorporation of Buddhism into the structures of Japanese militarism. There was some Buddhist resistance to this, but it was limited and also squashed. Instead, Imperial-Way Buddhism (koko Bukkyo), Imperial-State Zen (kokoku Zen), Soldier Zen, and similar forms of overt support, became the dominant face of institutional Buddhism. Brian Victoria has passage after passage of quotes from Buddhist masters and organisations endorsing these. Including from Suzuki.
Which means there is something else Heidegger, notoriously an apologist for Hitler, and Suzuki had in common:
An American philosopher, William Barrett, wrote that "a German friend of Heidegger told me that one day when he visited Heidegger he found him reading one of Suzuki's books [on Zen Buddhism]: 'If I understand this man correctly,' Heidegger remarked, 'this is what I have been trying to say in all my writings.'"
As far as I can see, Heidegger’s much vaunted philosoophy is just ersatz Buddhism (a view I am not alone in holding: his concept of Dasein in particular is very Zen). Buddhism entered German philosophy through Schopenhauer. Whose The World as Will and Representation Corporal Hitler read in the trenches. So the parallels become quite eerie.

Of course, it all went bad for Zen's endorsement of Japanse militarism, as Japan went down to crushing defeat as a result of choosing—having spent years not finally winning its war against China—to attack the only Great Power not at war, with approaching double its population (133m to 74m in 1941) and an economy about four times its size ($1,148m 1996$ to $214m 1990$ in 1941). But what boots capacity and competence when you have a focused, and thus superior, will? One tempered and perfected by Zen techniques.

Brian Victoria takes the reader through what happened after the war—the belated acceptance of culpability by some (but not all) Buddhist sects and the shifting of Soldier Zen into Corporate Zen.

His penultimate chapter asks the question Was It Buddhism?, examining the long history of Buddhist involvement with rulership. Including how being adopted as an official religion by Ashoka (whose reign, even after his adoption of Buddhism, had very much a dark side) and by the Sui dynasty was not good for Buddhism’s long-term health in either India or China. It was similar in Japan, though not as disastrous (so far) for Buddhism. The provision of state support for Buddhism in return for supporting the state had the common effect of such support—sucking the spiritual life out of the religion. Institutional ties create institutional interests. Protecting these interests impose moral costs.* Including twisting or ignoring inconvenient teachings of the religion’s founder.

In his Epilogue, Brian Victoria points out that all the above remain very much live issues in Buddhism (e.g. in Sri Lanka).

What comes out of Zen at War great clarity is that the reduction of Zen to a technique made it an empty vessel to be put at the service of whatever were the strongest social forces around it. D. T. Suzuki exemplifies this when he wrote:
Zen has no special doctrine or philosophy, no set of concepts or intellectual formulas, except that it tries to release one from the bondage of birth and death, by means of certain intuitive modes of understanding peculiar to itself. It is, therefore, extremely flexible in adapting itself to almost any philosophy and moral doctrine as long as its intuitive teaching is not interfered with (p.107).
Since fear of death is the central thing a soldier typically has to struggle with, a philosophy that focuses the understanding to free oneself from fear of death has obvious utility for a warrior, a point Suzuki made repeatedly.

Zen easily becomes a worship of the will. As does Heidegger’s philosophy. Which, in both cases, led to bad places.

One of the bothersome things in contemporary politics has been to see Victor Davis Hanson, Mark Steyn et al succumb somewhat to worship of the will, to a tendency to write as if it is all about Just Having The Courage To Stay The Distance: on the basis that the person with the Bigger Will Wins.

Without denying that determination matters, this is not a good way to look at things. It is the Anglosphere's enemies who have operated like that. Both Hitler and the Japanese militarists were all about how they were going to be victorious because their Wills were greater. (The Americans in particular were discounted because they were all weak and materialist and decayed by the good life and lack of racial/cultural fibre.) There is a fair bit of such Will-worship among the jihadis as well.

Such leaves out, or seriously undervalues, capacity and competence. You end up with Stalingrad—feeding more and more troops and effort into the wrong fight at the wrong place in the wrong way until your opponent pulls a Zhukov and crunches your weak points. The Allies did not win WWII because their will was greater.

None of the above entails that Zen does not incorporate genuine insights. Indeed, that is precisely the problem. Something with genuine value can become that much more destructive if put to maleficent use. Zen at War is an effective and thought-provoking case study. It is made more so because Brian Victoria understands, and conveys, that troubling ambivalence well.

UPDATE Great interview with the maker of a documentary on Heidegger and Nazism here.

* In Islam, the difference between the Meccan and Medinan suras of the Qur'an expresses this tension and process.


  1. Thanks. Clears up a lot for us non-students of Eastern philosophy. Appreciate the connection with Western philosophy.

  2. My pleasure :) I have a continuing interest in Buddhism (Mark Epstein's books are well worth reading and pondering, for example), which is why Mark Lilla's summary of Heidegger's thought in The Reckless Mind made me think "this is just ersatz Buddhism".

  3. Lorenzo: Intriguing blog! I'll have to read more. I'd wondered about the Heidegger / Zen connection myself.

    Another parallel -- Werner Erhard based the est training partly on Zen. Later he updated est into the Landmark Forum by incorporating large chunks of Heidegger.

    One can of course argue how true Erhard's programs are to Zen or Heidegger. I wouldn't claim to know. My impression, having participated in both programs, is that the Zen and Heidegger materials mostly function to break up ordinary thinking processes -- for better or worse.

  4. Huxley: glad you liked it and thanks for the extra information.