The Zen Cult of Death in Wartime Japan

In my university student days, I had a professor of Japanese Buddhist literature who often contrasted the peaceable, broad-minded nature of Japanese Buddhism with the intolerance of Christianity.  I wish I could have acquainted him with the work of Brian Victoria, a Zen priest who has exposed the overwhelming support for the Japanese war machine among prominent Zen leaders in the years leading up to the Second World War.  His book Zen at War sent shock waves through the world of Zen Buddhism, especially among Western fans of Zen.

Recently, I had the privilege of hearing Victoria at the Asian Conference on Literature 2017 in Kobe, Japan.  The moderator introduced him as a "controversial scholar," probably because he challenges the conventional wisdom of contemporary academia.  His work has helped to shatter the myth that somehow Western religion is uniquely culpable for promoting war, nationalism, and imperialism.

Eastern religions have at times shown themselves very willing to endorse war.  Warrior-priests in some medieval Buddhist sects in Japan engaged in armed conflicts.  Moreover, the Hindu classic the Bhagavad Gita justifies killing in war on the basis of its own pantheistic worldview.

Not many in the West these days seem drawn to Hinduism, but Zen has been a fashionable religion among many for some time now, including California governor Jerry Brown and the writer J.D. Salinger.  Bestselling books introduce Zen thinking to non-Japanese, and some even promote zazen meditation techniques in Christian circles.

Much of this Zen boom can be attributed to the efforts of D.T. Suzuki, who is lionized by many Western intellectuals.  Victoria has devoted much effort to unearthing Suzuki's active role in weaponizing Zen for imperial Japan.  Suzuki described Japan's war in Asia as a "selfless war" and "the holiest spiritual war."  Furthermore, he urged Japanese soldiers to count their lives "as light as goose feathers."  Victoria characterized such statements as "no different from an ISIS imam in Mosul."  On top of that, Suzuki viewed Japan's hegemony over the Koreans as an act of unselfish compassion.

However, Suzuki showed some common sense in cautioning against waging war with the U.S.  Since he had spent years living in America, he understood well that Japan was no match militarily for the industrial power of the U.S.  After Japan's defeat, he became an advocate of peace, yet without really owning up to his active role in promoting war.

Suzuki is not an isolated case, since the great majority of Buddhist organizations – Zen in particular – in Japan aggressively stood behind the war effort.  Zen leaders even supported the terrorism that led to the overthrow of Japan's civilian democratic government.  In court testimony in 1934, one prominent Zen leader named Yamamoto defended the killing of civilian Japanese government leaders by the "Blood Oath Corps."  Yamamoto argued, "The Buddha, being absolute, has stated that when there are those who destroy social harmony and injure the polity of the state, then killing them is not a crime."

Zen undergirded not only a willingness to kill, but also a willingness to be killed.  Nakane Kando, president of Sōtō Zen-connected Komazawa University, put it this way in March 1940: "The spirit of the soldier is that of Bushidō [the samurai honor code]... Thus, if we were to sum up Zen in a word, it would be that it is training for death.  When you become one with death and are selfless, you are in the realm of enlightenment[.]"

Suzuki concurred:

The Japanese may not have any specific philosophy of life, but they have decidedly one of death which may sometimes appear to be that of recklessness.  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.

Nevertheless, it would be unfair and inaccurate to brand traditional Buddhism as violent.  In general, traditional Buddhism is highly moral and forbids the taking of human life.  Victoria himself shows a strong sense of moral responsibility.  However, Zen has tended to be more mystical than moral.  It mainly focuses on the attainment of a personal enlightenment experience.  In that regard, Victoria acknowledges a strong antinomian element in Zen that encourages adherents to view life and death, killing and being killed, indifferently.  In fact, Victoria considers it no exaggeration to call the Zen that predominated in Japan in the first half of the twentieth century a "cult of death."

Interestingly, a number of Nazis were strongly drawn to Zen.  In Mein Kampf, Hitler had written, "All force which does not spring from a firm spiritual foundation will be hesitating and uncertain," so many Nazis wanted to supply a new religious basis for their movement in place of traditional Christianity.  A number of Nazi leaders visited Japan to observe Zen in practice, no doubt hoping to glean some insights for a death cult of their own.  They included leaders of the Hitler Youth.  With regard to Suzuki's work, the influential philosopher and former Nazi Martin Heidegger stated, "This is what I've been trying to say in all my writings."

During his lecture, Victoria seemed genuinely puzzled by the inability of many scholars in both Japan and the West to acknowledge the role of Zen Buddhism in Japan's militarism.  In fact, his talk was titled "D.T. Suzuki: How Did Scholars Get It So Wrong?"  He attributes some of this problem to putting people like Suzuki on pedestals, but it is also probably due to contemporary academia's knee-jerk inclination to blame the West (and hence exonerate the East) for all the problems of mankind.

Victoria has done conscientious scholarship about a little-known subject.  My small area of disagreement concerns his conclusions that "all religions have holy war" and that "we are all children of our times."  Some religions seem more prone to generating violent conflict than others.  One that still officially espouses a doctrine of holy war comes especially to mind.

Bruce W. Davidson is a professor at Hokusei Gakuen University in Sapporo, Japan and a contributor to the forthcoming Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia.

If you experience technical problems, please write to