Brian Daizen Victoria provides a refreshing counterpoint to the previous essays in his “Buddhological Critique of ‘Soldier-Zen’ in Wartime Japan,” in that he pulls no punches when he flatly states that nowhere in the basic tenets of the Buddha’s teachings is violence condoned or justified. In fact, he admits that he is attacking the concept that Buddhism is innately violent and that the teachings support violent actions under certain circumstances. His target – Japanese Zen.
“I come to the conclusion that, by virtue of its fervent if not fanatical support of Japanese militarism, the Zen school, both Rinzai and Sōtō, so grievously violated Buddhism’s fundamental tenets that the school was no longer an authentic expression of the Buddhadharma.”
Them’s fighting words coming from a self-identified Zennie himself: Victoria states that he is a Mahāyāna Buddhist in the Sōtō Zen tradition.
Victoria’s basic critique is that the dharma was corrupted by teachings that came to be known as “warrior Zen.” At the root of this is the idea that the warrior must extinguish the self completely and be totally devoted to the emperor. Victoria cites what Yamazaki Ekijū (chief abbot of the Buttsūji branch of the Rinzai Zen sect) wrote at the end of a book by Zen-trained Lt. Col. Sugimoto Gorō.
“Buddhists say that one should have faith in the Buddha, or Mahāvairocana, or Buddha Amita, but such faith is one that has been captured by religion. Japanese Buddhism must be centered on the emperor; for were it not, it would have no place in Japan, it would not be living Buddhism. Even Buddhism must conform to the national structure of Japan. The same holds true for Śākyamuni’s teachings.”
Victoria reveals that this line of reasoning is more than just ethnocentrism, because at the heart of this notion is that one group of living, sentient beings is superior to another group of living, sentient beings.
“To purposely inflict pain and suffering, let alone death, on one segment of beings under the guise of benefiting another part, however defined, can never be a part of a Buddhism rooted in the teachings of its founder.”
An important distinction ought to be noted here. What Victoria exposes is more than just a mere twisting of the Dharma to justify violent acts. The entire concept of warrior Zen, and other similar schools of thought, is a corruption of the Dharma so severe that it justifies identifying entire nations as enemies worthy of slaughter.
Victoria notes that this is based on a flawed interpretation of the Buddhist concept of no-self, which I hear often repeated by many others, to mean that there is no self at all. Victoria quotes scholar-priest Walpola Rahula to explain:
“According to the Buddha’s teaching, it is as wrong to hold the opinion ‘I have no self’ (which is annihilationist theory) as to hold the opinion ‘I have a self.’ Why? What we call ‘I’ or ‘being’ is only a combination of physical and mental aggregates, which are working together independently in a flux of momentary change within the law of cause and effect … there is nothing permanent, everlasting, unchanging and eternal in the whole of existence.”
A simple Buddhist concept – there is no permanent self – is corrupted into there is no self at all, and if there is no self at all, imagine what heinous acts can be justified? Not long, as Victoria reveals with an excerpt from the Rinzai Zen master Takuan addressing a patron, the highly accomplished swordsman Yagyū Tajima no Kami Munenori:
“The uplifted sword has no will of its own, it is all of emptiness. It is like a flash of lightning. The man who is about to be struck down is also of emptiness, and so is the one who wields the sword. None of them are possessed of a mind that has any substantiality. As each of them is of emptiness and has no ‘mind,’ the striking man is not a man, the sword in his hands not a sword, and the ‘I’ who is about to be struck down is like the splitting of the spring breeze in a flash of lightning.”
Gee, seems like a lot of people forgot about the Kalama Sutta, which guides us to test assertions to determine if they are true and comport with the Dharma. And as Victoria points out, it appears that many have forgotten the Buddha’s words in the Dhammapada:
“All men tremble at punishment, all men fear death; remembering that thou are like unto them, do not strike or slay.
“All men tremble at punishment, all men love life; remembering that thou are like unto them, do not strike or slay.”
But this didn’t happen specifically or uniquely to Japanese warrior Zen; this corruption of the Dharma began much earlier in China with the Ch’an school that preceded Zen, which Liang Su criticized in the eighth century:
“Nowadays, few men have true faith. Those who travel the path of Ch’an go so far as to teach the people that there is neither Buddha nor Dharma, and that neither good nor evil has any significance. When they preach these doctrines to the average man, or men below average, they are believed by all those who live their lives of worldly desires. Such ideas are accepted as great truths that sound so pleasing to the ear. And the people are attracted to them just as moths in the night are drawn to their burning death by the candle light (italics added by Victoria).”
Victoria also flatly denies that a bodhisattva could possibly kill any other living being and have that killing justified. Victoria acknowledges the Mahayana concept of expedient means which seems to create loopholes for “compassionate violence.” To portray this, he cites the Lotus Sutra and the story of the burning house in which a loving father deliberately lies to save his children’s lives. What is interesting about this parable is that instead of it being used to explain how telling a lie may be necessary to save a life, it is used to show that the Buddha was a liar! The “lesser” vehicle really wasn’t true at all, asserts the Lotus Sutra; the Buddha only taught it as an expedient mean to bring believers to the “greater” vehicle.
Victoria concludes this chapter with a dire warning to we Westerners as we adopt Buddhism into our culture.
“As Buddhism continues its spread in an easterly direction (i.e., to the ‘West’), one critically important question is, how much of Buddhism’s historic proclivity to condone warfare as a function of the Buddhadharma will spread with it?”
I'm a content director for a television company, guiding content on Web sites. I'm an avid listener of Frank Zappa and a practicing Buddhist who follows the Theravada vehicle. I'm an insatiable traveler who calls Chicago home.