Introduction In his now famous 1938 book, Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture, Suzuki claimed that Zen “has never actively incited the latter [i.e., warriors] to carry on their bloody profession.” Yet he also admitted that Zen had “passively sustained” Japan’s warriors since its introduction to Japan in the twelfth century. But what does it mean to “passively sustain” warriors? This lecture attempts to answer this question.
The Two Faces of War I. Active: The Willingness to Kill. Typically promoted through projecting an image of the ‘enemy’ as: a threat, dangerous, evil, immoral, cowardly, fanatical, etc. Thus the war becomes ‘just’ and ‘moral’, often based on a religious endorsement. II. Passive: The Willingness to Die. Typically also promoted through a religious endorsement of some kind including the promise of a heavenly reward, eternal peace, transcendence of life and death, etc.
A Sociological Viewpoint Sociologist Peter Berger noted: “Whenever a society must motivate its members to kill or to risk their lives, thus consenting to being placed in extreme marginal situations, religious legitimations become important.… Killing under the auspices of the legitimate authorities has, for this reason, been accompanied from ancient times to today by religious paraphernalia and ritualism. Men go to war and men are put to death amid prayers, blessings, and incantations.”
Background to Article (1) In 1896, one year after Japan’s defeat of China, Suzuki described the relationship between religion, the state and war as follows: “At the time of the commencement of hostilities with a foreign country, then marines fight on the sea and soldiers fight in the fields, swords flashing and cannon smoke belching, moving this way and that. In so doing, our soldiers regard their own lives as being as light as goose feathers while their devotion to duty is as heavy as Mount Taishan [in China]. Should they fall on the battlefield they have no regrets.” (Italics mine)
Background to Article (2) In 1904, in the midst of the Russo- Japanese War, Suzuki described the Buddhist attitude to war as follows: “Let us then shuffle off this mortal coil whenever it becomes necessary, and not raise a grunting voice against the fates.... Resting in this conviction, Buddhists carry the banner of Dharma over the dead and dying until they gain final victory.” (Italics mine) Light of Dharma 4, pp. 181–82.
Background to Article (3) Shaku Sōen, Suzuki’s Rinzai Zen master, went to the battlefield in the same war and wrote: “I wished to have my faith tested by going through the greatest horrors of life, but I also wished to inspire, if I could, our valiant soldiers with the ennobling thoughts of the Buddha, so as to enable them to die on the battlefield with the confidence that the task in which they are engaged is great and noble.” (Italics mine)
Background to Article (4) In a 1906 article entitled “The Zen Sect of Buddhism,” Suzuki defended the Zen-influenced soldier’s willingness to die during the Russo-Japanese War from Western criticism: “The Lebensanschauung of Bushido is no more nor less than that of Zen. The calmness and even joyfulness of heart at the moment of death which is conspicuously observable in the Japanese, the intrepidity which is generally shown by the Japanese soldiers in the face of an overwhelming enemy; and the fairness of play to an opponent so strongly taught by Bushido—all these come from a spirit of Zen training, and not from any such blind, fatalistic conception as is sometimes thought to be a trait peculiar to Orientals.” (Italics mine)
Background to Article (5) "Sometime before August 1941, Lieutenant General Yamashita Motoyuki (1885-1946), head of the Japanese military mission to the Axis, reported that Hitler had told him how interested he had been in Japan since his youth, including a careful study of Japan’s war tactics during the Russo-Japanese War. Yamashita went on to say: 'Hitler emphasized that in the coming age, the interests of Japan and Germany would be identical because the two had a common spiritual foundation. And he hinted that he would leave instructions to the German people to bind themselves eternally to the Japanese spirit'.” (Italics mine) Quoted in Tolischus, Tokyo Record, p. 158.
Background to Article (5) Why didn’t we have the religion of the Japanese, who regard sacrifice for the Fatherland as the highest good? Adolph Hitler, quoted in Inside The Third Reich by Albert Speer We too [like the Japanese] are battling to destroy individualism. We are struggling for a new Germany based on the new idea of totalitarianism. In Japan this way of thinking comes naturally to the people! (Italics mine) Rudolph Hess, Deputy Fūhrer, quoted in Tokyo Record by Otto Tolischus
Background to Article (7) “The active and yet stoic Buddhism of the Zen-sect perfected and refined the ethos of the Japanese warrior, and gave him the highly ascetical note that even today is the essential feature of the Japanese soldiery.” Excerpted from The Secret of Japanese Power by Prince Albrecht of Urach, paperback booklet with photos, Berlin, 1944, Central Publishing of the NSDAP (Das Geheimnis japanischer Kraft von Albrecht Fürst von Urach, Paperback Broschüre mit Fotos, Berlin 1944, Zentralverlag der NSDAP
Background to Article (9) In 1937 Himmler personally wrote the forward to a booklet, entitled Samurai. Ritter des Reiches in Ehre und Treue (Samurai, Knights of the Empire in Honor and Loyalty). He ordered it distributed to every member of the SS. “Using this short history of the samurai,” Himmler wrote, “we wish to call to mind some long forgotten truths: The fact, that even in antiquity, this Far- Eastern nation had the same honorary laws as our forefathers….and moreover, recognizing that these are usually elite minority groups that endow the worldly existence of a nation with eternal life.” (Italics mine)
Background to Article (12) As Leonard Humphries noted: “[In Japan] the overriding lesson of the [Russo-Japanese] war appeared to be the decisive role of morale or spirit in combat. Japan’s centuries-old samurai tradition had strongly emphasized the importance of the intangible qualities of the human spirit (seishin) in warfare, and this war served to reestablish their primacy…. After fifty years of borrowing from the West, the Army, like the people, was now relieved and proud to find new relevance in the nation’s traditional values.”
Background to Article (13) In March 1937 Sōtō Zen leader Ishihara Shummyō said: “Zen master Takuan taught that in essence Zen and Bushidō were one….I believe that if one is called upon to die, one should not be the least bit agitated. On the contrary, one should be in a realm where something called ‘oneself’ does not intrude even slightly. Such a realm is no different from that derived from the practice of Zen.”
Background to Article (14) Imperial Army Major Ōkubo Kōichi responded: “The soldier must become one with his superior. He must actually become his superior. Similarly, he must become the order he receives. That is to say, his self must disappear. Then he will advance when told to advance…However, should he believe that he is going to die and act accordingly; he will be unable to fight well. What is necessary is that he be able to act freely and without [mental] hindrance.” (Italics mine)
Background to Article (15) Lt. Col. Sugimoto Gorō wrote: “The reason that Zen is important for soldiers is that all Japanese, especially soldiers, must live in the spirit of the unity of sovereign and subjects, eliminating their ego and getting rid of their self….Through my practice of Zen I am able to get rid of my ego. In facilitating the accomplishment of this, Zen becomes, at it is, the true spirit of the imperial military.” (Italics mine)
Background to Article (16) Did it make any difference? Hillis Lory explains: “Many of the soldiers in the present [Asia-Pacific] War are so determined to die on the battlefield that they conduct their own public funerals before leaving for the front. This holds no element of the ridiculous to the Japanese. Rather, it is admired as the spirit of the true samurai who enters the battle with no thought of return.” (Italics mine)
Background to Article (17) Meirion and Susie Harries note: “The Japanese soldier was required to display qualities that every army covertly hopes for, even expects, but shrinks from demanding directly. From the commander’s point of view, the most useful practical property of the Japanese soldier was his willingness to die, which removed all limits on what his leaders could attempt. A legacy of the authentic samurai ethic, as the war progressed acceptance of death became ever more heavily stressed -- just as it was ever more necessary.” (Italics mine)
Background to Article (18) Japanese psychiatrist, Noda Masaaki, notes: “In the [Asia-Pacific] war the Japanese people had two battlefields. One of them involved rational thinking based on considerations of military power. The other consisted of an irrational belief in spirit as supreme, making anything possible as long as one were prepared to die.” (Italics mine)
Background to Article (19) In January 1943, General Itō wrote: “Given our situation, there are none calling themselves Japanese soldiers who are attached to life. On the contrary, they all want to die....Thus, the problem is not death, but how to accomplish our mission. What I am racking my brains about is not teaching my soldiers how to die laughing or die with peace of mind, but rather how to get them to stay alive even one more day fighting to the last.” (Italics mine)
Background to Article (20) In his 1938 book Zen and Japanese Culture, D. T. Suzuki noted: “The spirit of the samurai deeply breathing Zen into itself propagated its philosophy even among the masses. The latter, even when they are not particularly trained in the way of the warrior, have imbibed his spirit and are ready to sacrifice their lives for any cause they think worthy. This has repeatedly been proved in the wars Japan has so far had to go through.” (Italics mine)
Article’s Characteristics I.Key Concepts [K-1, K-2, K-3, K-4, K-5, K-6, K-7] II. Japan/Zen as superior [ J-1, J-2, J-3, J- 4, J-5] III. China/Zen as inferior [C-1, C-2, C-3, C- 4] IV. West as inferior [W-1, W-2, W-3] V. Zen/Buddhism, Warrior, Sword, Bushidō, Death [Throughout the Article]
Uesugi Kenshin’s View of Zen “ You will understand that there is something in you which is above birth- and-death and which is neither drowned in water nor burned in fire….Those who are reluctant to give up their lives and embrace death are not true warriors….When your thoughts are in accord with the Buddha’s, you will gain power….Devote yourselves to the study of Zen. Zen has no secrets other than seriously thinking of birth-and-death.” (Italics mine) ZB&IJC, p. 56
Suzuki as Chauvinistic Prophet Suzuki also claimed: “It is most fortunate for Zen that it found in the very beginning of its career in Japan such able disciples as Hōjō Tokiyori and Tokimune. The time will come before long to all the Japanese as the rising nation in the Far East, when the significance of the Kamakura Era of which Tokimune was its most remarkable representative will be more fully and vitally appreciated than ever before. And along with it the significance of Zen as one of the most efficient moulding agencies of the Japanese character.” (Italics mine) ZB&IJC, p. 222
Suzuki’s Postwar Chauvinism In 1958 Suzuki and Hisamatsu Shin’ichi had the following exchange at Harvard: Hisamatsu: “Among the many people you've met or heard of (in the West) is there anyone who you think has some understanding of Zen?” Suzuki: “No one. Not yet anyway.” Hisamatsu: “I see. Not yet. Well then, is there at least someone you have hope for?” (Laughter) Suzuki: “No, not even that.” Hisamatsu: “So, of the many people (in the West) who have written about Zen there aren't any who understand it?” Suzuki: “That's right.” Robert Sharf, “The Zen of Japanese Nationalism,” p. 28
Conclusion (1) 1. Definition of ‘cult’: “a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.” 2.Was the Zen advocated by Suzuki (and many other Zen leaders) directed toward a particular ‘object’? 3.Yes, it was directed toward Death! And, as such, it represented a thoroughgoing Instrumentalist interpretation, i.e., ‘weaponization’ of Zen and Buddhism.
Conclusion (2) Should there be any doubt of this, Suzuki also wrote: “Good fighters are generally ascetics or stoics, which means to have an iron will. When needed Zen supplies them with this.” (Italics mine) ZB&IJC, p. 35
Conclusion (3) And finally, Suzuki tells us: “When the Unconscious is tapped, it rises above individual limitations. Death now loses it sting altogether, and this is where the samurai training joins hands with Zen.” (Italics mine) ZB&IJC, p. 46
Conclusion (4) What Suzuki did, together with scores of other Japanese Zen masters, was to instrumentalize, i.e., weaponize, Zen to serve the needs of militarist Japan (and even Nazi Germany), most especially the need to promote among Japanese soldiers the willingness to die. And as Suzuki noted, the Zen school has played this role since its very inception in Japan in the 13 th century. [End]