Zen at War and the Opposite of Equanimity

by Barbara O'Brian, Buddhism.about.com, Feb. 4, 2010

Source: http://buddhism.about.com/b/2010/02/04/zen-at-war-and-the-opposite-of-equanimity.htm

San Francisco, CA (USA) -- Buddhism recently came to the attention of American political partisans via the Great Brit Hume Flap. And since then some right-wing writers have felt compelled to sully the reputation of Buddhism. One of these, Marvin Olansky, strongly implies that Buddhism is responsible for the infamous Nanjing massacre of 1937.

After some graphic descriptions of atrocities in Nanjing, for which he implies that Buddhism is to blame, Olansky goes on to cite Brian Daizen Victoria's Zen at War and Zen War Stories, which forthrightly documents Zen institutional support for Japanese militarism in the 1930s. Does Olansky actually have a case? I don't think so, but let's look more closely.

In Zen at War, Daizen, an ordained Soto Zen priest, documented that in the Japanese Buddhist establishment of the 1930s and 1940s there was strong support, especially in Zen, for Japanese warmaking. He traced the old connections between Zen and Samurai warrior culture in feudal Japan. Daizen also provided quotes from 19th and 20th century Zen monks and teachers that seem to say Zen approves of  the slaughter of war.

For example, a prominent and revered master, Sawaki Kodo (1880-1965), is portrayed as an enthusiastic war proponent. Master Sakaki, who served as a soldier in the Russian-Japanese War of 1904-1995, is quoted as saying he and his fellow soldiers "gorged ourselves on killing people." Please note, however, that some scholars are stepping forward to say Sawaki Kodo was misquoted, and I'll come back to this in a minute.

When Zen at War was first published in 1997, American Zen teachers openly acknowledged it, talked about it, and encouraged students to read it. This was true even of teachers who were lineage holders of some of the Japanese masters portrayed as pro-war. I didn't see anyone try to excuse or sugar-coat Daizen's portrayal of Japanese Zen.

Although on the whole most still believe Daizen's research is important and valuable, as I've said, some criticisms of his translations and scholarship have emerged recently. I've learned through Jundo Cohen that what Sawaki Kodo really said was that Japanese soldiers were fed up with killing people, for example.

Brad Warner has also expressed regret that Sawaki Kodo's reputation was tarnished by Zen at War, and added, "this one instance of blatant and deliberate mis-translation has led me to question whether the rest of the book is reliable." Jundo has said that while he still thinks the book is valuable, he thinks Daizen "over states its case, and condemns the whole orchard for a few bad apples."

To get back to Marvin Olansky -- while it's true that in the 1930s there were many connections between the Japanese Buddhist establishment and the Japanese military, Olansky implies that Buddhism was directly and primarily responsible for the atrocities of Nanjing, which way over states his case. This is like saying that Christianity is directly and primarily responsible for every war crime in which some participating soldiers were Christians.

Larger point: If you pay close attention to human nature, you may notice that attraction and aversion are connected, as if by an underground root system. In fact, often one creates the other.

For example, people who are fanatically attached to one thing often reflexively hate whatever seems to oppose that thing. We see that so much in American politics these days. Partisans cannot just disagree any more; the opposition must also be caricatured as pathologically evil. I suspect this describes Marvin Olansky, who reacted to some possibly inaccurate criticism of Christianity vis à vis Buddhism by reflexively, and dishonestly, smearing Buddhism.

We also see that sometimes people who idealize a thing a bit too much become that thing's biggest critics if they feel their idealism has been betrayed. This may or may not be true or Daizen Victoria. I suspect it is true of Michael Jerryson, who has a more recent book out on the alleged martial proclivities of Buddhism. Jerryson comes across as an impossibly idealistic naif who just found out there is no Santa Claus and is now out to warn the world about the dark side of Christmas.

This takes us back to mindfulness. We aren't seeing things as they are if we're viewing them in light of whether we like them or not. It's even worse when we divided the world up into "us" and "them" and reflexively praise "us" and demonize "them."