A Brief History of Zen Buddhism


Early Zen History

The Trip to China

Zen Spreads to Japan

Tokugawa and the Dawn of the Modern Era

Zen During the War Years

Zen in the Modern World

Zen Links

There is no bodhisattva practice superior to the compassionate taking of life.
    --Rinzai Zen Master Nantembo

There is a famous tale contained among the Sutras. The Buddha had been a prince in the Sakya clan, which had insulted King Virudhaka of the powerful Kosala kingdom. In the Buddha's sixth century of life, Virudhaka sent an enormous army to destroy the Sakya kingdom. Learning of this, the Buddha sat waiting under under a dead tree in the path of the army. (There was an ancient proscription that required an invading army to halt an attack if it encountered a holy man) Upon reaching the Buddha, the king asked him, "Why do you sit under this dead tree rather than in the shade of a living one?" The Buddha replied, "My clan the Sakya is like this dead tree." Upon hearing this, King Virudhaka honored the ancient custom and withdrew his army.
He did not give up, however, and invaded a second time. Once more he encountered the Buddha sitting under the tree. Once more the king withdrew his army. Yet a third time the king invaded, only to encounter the Buddha again. When the king invaded for a fourth time, the Buddha refused the entreaties of his disciples to intervene once more. The entire Sakya clan was slaughtered.
The karmic cycle turned, however, and people of Kosala drowned in a violent rainstorm, while the palace of of King Virudhaka was struck by lightning and completely destroyed by fire. The king himself emerged in the lowest realm of hell.

To many, the point of this tale is that Shakyamuni was free of nationalist concerns--and even of modern humanistic ideals on the value of life. Instead, he viewed the world through the lense of karmic cycle. In the end, the Buddha could not prevent the loss of life, but there was no need to. King Virudhaka would create his own "punishment" by his actions. But Gautama did demonstrate something else: a near absolute rejection of war.

It is normal to think of Buddhism as the religion of peace. It is commonly said that "there has never been a Buddhist war." In a sense this is true, there has never been a war fought to advance the Buddhist faith, or to destroy another religion. But in the era of Imperial Japan, Zen Buddhism figured quite prominently Japanese expansion and war. Until quite recently, however, a student of Zen Buddhism found a remarkable void in this period. If Japan has proven to be reluctant to address its actions as a nation during the Imperial period, Zen has been positively inscrutable. This has changed with Brian Victoria's book " Zen at War," in which the role of Zen in training soldiers, indoctrinating the citizenry, and even raising money to construct weapons of war is revealed. For many adherents, this previously undisclosed side of Zen Buddhism has come as quite a shock.

As described in this web site (see the China and the Tokugawa periods), Zen had benefited continuously from state patronage throughout its history. In a strange dichotomy Zen, a religion that most prized individuality and resistance to conformity, was also one that had been thoroughly tied to that most group oriented and conformist entity: the nationalist state. As Japan became increasingly imperialistic, it also became militaristic--and totalitarian. Zen was not immune to the influence of its sponsor, and thus became ever more militaristic itself. While it is true that criticism of the government could bring about the imprisonment, or even death, of the critic, this does not completely explain the eagerness with which some Zen priests embraced nationalism and imperialism. There was complicity as well.

Zen adherents, to include the masters, are individuals. Equally obviously, not all are of the same stature. A Dogen or Bodhidharma normally only comes along once in a lifetime. Rarely are there more than a handful of men and women so towering in their influence and prestige. Hakuin was the last great Zen master by most counts, and one need only look at the increasing sophistication of governmental control and influence over society to see where the breakdown culminated.
As shown earlier, the warrior class was strongly associated with Zen. The samurai had pursued a kind of fearless ideal, one in which the warrior fought, but with a pure heart and clear mind. This same "ideal" was carried over into the Meiji and later periods, but with frightening consequences.

The Zen Master Harada was perhaps the most startling example of a Buddhist priest promoting war and obedience to the state. In 1939, he wrote, "If ordered to march: tramp, tramp, or shoot: bang, bang. This is the manifestation of the highest wisdom of enlightenment. The unity of Zen and war...extends to the farthest reaches of the holy war under way." Phillip Kapleau's famous The Three Pillars of Zen was, for many westerners, their first introduction to Zen. Harada figured prominently in the book, and Kapleau claimed he melded the best of Soto and Rinzai teaching, creating one of the greatest Zen sects now in existence. Millions have read The Three Pillars of Zen and found inspiration in the letters by Harada contained within it, yet Harada was among the most zealous in the teaching of Zen and war as one. According to Brian Victoria, Harada taught "war Zen" as early as 1915, claiming that the entire universe was at war. He stated that battlefield loyalty, the marching of troops, and the firing of weapons was the "highest wisdom of enlightenment." This was "combat zazen, the king of meditation." And Harada was a nationalist par excellance:

"The spirit of Japan is the Great Way of the Shinto gods. It is the essence of the Truth. The Japanese people are a chosen people whose mission is to control the world. The sword that kills is also the sword that gives life. Comments opposing the war are the foolish opinions of those who can only see one aspect of things and not the whole."

Even more disturbing to those who have admired Zen was his actions when an American invasion of Japan was looming. He called upon every man, woman, and child to be willing to die on behalf of the emperor. "If you see the enemy, you must kill him; you must destroy the false and establish the true--these are the cardinal points of Zen. It is said further that if you kill someone, it is fitting that you see his blood.

Almost as disturbing are the "lost words" of D.T. Suzuki--who is quoted extensively in this web site and and has had a signficant impact upon its creator. In speaking of Japanese soldiers, Suzuki said, "Our soldiers regard their own lives as being as light as goose feathers while their devotion to duty is as heavy as Mount Taishan. Should they fall on the battlefields, they have no regrets." The "goose feathers" metaphor was later used to encourage the "Divine Wind" (kamikaze) pilots to crash their planes into enemy ships. Suzuki also popularized the idea of the "sword that gives life"--which was used continuously to rationalize killing. In every biography I have read on Suzuki, his war years go almost unmentioned. The only references are to the trips he made to the United States.

These are but two of many examples. Victoria admits that nearly all Buddhist sects in Japan supported the war enthusiastically (a Soto sect, the Myoshin-ji, followed the Japanese army in China and Korea, establishing missions and even conducting fund-raisers to purchase military aircraft). Failure to be seen as properly supported of the emperor could have severe consequences. The propoganda was intense, so much so that Hirata Seiko, a modern Zen master, has written, "When I was a lad, our teachers told us that the war going on in the pacific was a 'just war.' Then, when it all ended, we were told that it had been an 'evil war.'" Given such pressure and such malleableness on the part of the "official line," it becomes at least somewhat understandable that a religion of peace could succumb to the drums of war.

Stuart Lachs, a modern Zen Buddhist, believes that Zen is, in fact, prone to caving in to such institutional pressure. He notes that the ritual of "Dharma transmission," when a Zen master reveals his chosen successor to the world as someone who has achieved "perfect understanding" of the Dharma, provides a base of infallibility for Zen masters that is not far from that once given the Pope. As an excellent example of just how far a venerated Zen master will go in ensuring Dharma transmission, Lachs examines the scandals involving Richard Baker at the San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC). Lachs' essay on Richard Baker and the Myth of the Zen Roshi provides a fascinating look at both the scandal at the SFZC and at the larger question of whether Zen places too much credence on the Dharma transmission.
Certainly, the enormous stature of Zen masters contributed to the lack of resistance in the Zen community. Once the masters adopted a pro-war stance, there was no one who could challenge their decisions. This veneration of an enlightened master also paralled the state supported emperor worship. In many faiths, the emperor was given equal--or even greater--stature than Shakyamuni in the temple.

The recent revelations in Mr. Victoria's book have caused a reevaluation in many circles. The leaders of Myohshin-ji issued an apology for their acts shortly after 9/11, and a number of other Zen Buddhist leaders have followed suit. It is perhaps too radical to agree with Mr. Victoria's claim that "Zen would have led them [the Japanese people] to commit national suicide if there had been an American invasion," but it is certain that Zen played a heavy role in the "spiritual training" of both the Japanese military and the civilian population. Zen traditionally stresses an ego-less awareness, an understanding of the world where individuality both is, and yet is not. During the war years, however, Zen became warped, its focus on the acceptance of "things as they are" turned into a justification for an acceptance of death. In this acceptance of death came an acceptance of martyrdom and murder. After all, if there really is no difference between life and death, what does killing or death matter, so long as one's mind is clear during the act?