The Fog of World War II

Setting the Record Straight on D.T. Suzuki

Nelson Foster and Gary Snyder

In the summer of 1998, Tricycle covered Brian Victoria’s Zen at War, an indictment of the Japanese Zen community’s complicity in Japanese imperialism during the 1930s and 1940s. Among those he harshly criticized was D. T. Suzuki, arguably the most influential figure in bringing Zen Buddhism to the West. Scholar and Shin Buddhist priest Kemmyo Taira Sato, writing for the Eastern Buddhist, a journal founded by Suzuki in 1929, recently offered a belated though well-considered rebuttal to Victoria’s accusations. Here, poet Gary Snyder and Nelson Foster, two of the pioneers of engaged Buddhism in the West, present and comment on Sato’s arguments. Sato’s article is available at

Francis Haar

It is no exaggeration to say that Brian Daizen Victoria’s 1997 book Zen at War sent shock waves through Zen circles. Even those previously aware that the Japanese Buddhist establishment had supported the nation’s militarist and imperialist policies before and during World War II were surprised to learn how thoroughly Zen leaders and institutions had colluded in the war effort. Most startling and dismaying to us and many other readers was the degree of involvement Victoria reported on the part of prominent figures, including several Zen masters otherwise highly regarded and the layman who did more than anyone else to bring Zen to public awareness outside Asia—Dr. D. T. Suzuki.

Although the picture that Victoria painted was painful to contemplate, it seemed a necessary corrective to prevailing naivete about Zen’s political past and a sharp spur to consideration of the social role that Zen might play going forward, in our own country and beyond. The good effects of Zen at War have been felt even in Japan itself, where they occasioned a reappraisal of the sangha’s wartime complicity and prompted several of the great Zen honzan (main monasteries) to issue statements of responsibility and contrition.

These consequences, along with Victoria’s credentials as both a scholar and “a fully ordained [Soto Zen] priest,” inspired a high degree of confidence in Victoria’s conclusions. So it comes as a real surprise to find his account of Suzuki’s views convincingly refuted in “D. T. Suzuki and the Question of War,” a detailed, sixty-page study by Kemmyo Taira Sato, who knew Suzuki in his late years. Professor Sato warmly acknowledges the “great contribution” Victoria has made to discussion of Buddhist participation in World War II, and nothing in his analysis contradicts the outlines of that history as laid out in Victoria’s books. Yet Sato makes it clear that Victoria erred very seriously in stating his case against Suzuki, doing injury to his own reputation and Suzuki’s in a single stroke.

Unfortunately, Sato’s study appeared in a little-known scholarly journal, The Eastern Buddhist, and has done little to right the misimpressions of Suzuki’s character and political views that Victoria’s books have created. We hope the following, relatively brief and inevitably less nuanced review of the evidence will convey the gist of Sato’s article and illustrate the inaccuracies that so harmfully skew Victoria’s portrayal of Suzuki. We hope it might also encourage fair and respectful understanding of this man who played such an inarguably great role in laying the foundations of Zen practice in the United States.

One of Victoria’s charges is that Suzuki supported Japanese militarism through advocacy of bushido, the way of the warrior. In Zen at War, he ties Suzuki’s writings on this subject directly to Japan’s aggression in World War II with this statement: “Less than one month before Pearl Harbor, on November 10, 1941, [Suzuki] joined hands with such military leaders as former army minister and imperial army general Araki Sadao (1877– 1966), imperial navy captain Hirose Yutaka, and others to publish a book entitled The Essence of Bushido (Bushido no Shinzui).” As damning as this sounds, Sato demonstrates that it is much better evidence of Victoria’s polemical rhetoric than it is evidence for his claims.

The significance Victoria attaches to the book’s publication date and his assertion that Suzuki “joined hands” with military leaders in producing the anthology both prove to be unfounded. In fact, Sato informs us, the essay Victoria describes as “Suzuki’s personal contribution” to the book was not even written for its pages. On the contrary, it had come out nine months earlier in a Japanese periodical and was simply gathered into the bushido collection by its editor.

Remarking that Suzuki’s chapter “did not cover any new intellectual ground,” Victoria dispenses with its contents and instead seizes on a statement made in the editor’s introduction: “Dr. Suzuki’s writings are said to have strongly influenced the military spirit of Nazi Germany.” On the basis of this rumor, which he does not substantiate in any way, Victoria immediately insinuates a link (“It is interesting, in this connection…”) between Suzuki’s exposition of bushido and three sentences in a speech that Japan’s ambassador to Germany delivered in September 1940, upon signing of the Tripartite Pact:

The pillar of the Spirit of Japan is to be found in Bushido. Although Bushido employs the sword, its essence is not to kill people, but rather to use the sword that gives life to people. Using the spirit of this sword, we wish to contribute to world peace.

Without comment, Victoria draws a remarkable conclusion: “Whether by accident or design, Suzuki’s sentiments as first expressed in 1938 had, two years later, become government policy or, perhaps more accurately, government rationalization.”

This troubling contention—that Suzuki was an architect of imperialist policy or propaganda, perhaps even by his own intention—collapses when Victoria’s arguments are set against the record of public and private statements that Suzuki made on bushido and on Japan’s military aggression, which Professor Sato has reconstructed for us. Note, first, that the ambassador’s speech precedes the publication of Suzuki’s essay, either as a separate article or in the bushido anthology. Clearly the ambassador’s formulation did not depend on the views Suzuki expressed therein.

Francis HaarInstead, Victoria stakes his case on Suzuki’s 1938 English-language volume Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture. The book’s publication date is crucial to his argument, since it affords an interval in which German and Japanese militarists might have read it (in translation, one presumes) and fallen under its influence before expressing their indebtedness to Suzuki in 1940 or 1941. Yet inexplicably, when Victoria quotes the passages on bushido that he deems incriminating, he consistently cites not the 1938 book but rather a revision thereof that Suzuki brought out in 1959, Zen and Japanese Culture. Were this merely a matter of academic propriety, it could easily be overlooked, but it goes well beyond a footnote problem: in characterizing Suzuki’s 1938 views, Victoria relies on a chapter from the 1959 book that does not even appear in the earlier text.

Indeed, it is a long passage from the 1959 book that provides the closest parallel Victoria offers between Suzuki’s description of bushido and the ambassadorial oration of 1940. Here it is, exactly as quoted in Zen at War:

The sword is generally associated with killing, and most of us wonder how it came into connection with Zen, which is a school of Buddhism teaching the gospel of mercy. The fact is that the art of swordsmanship distinguishes between the sword that kills and the sword that gives life. The one that is used by a technician cannot go any further than killing, for he never appeals to the sword unless he intends to kill. The case is altogether different for the one who is compelled to lift the sword. For it is really not he but the sword itself that does the killing. He had no desire to do harm to anybody, but the enemy appears and makes himself a victim. It is as though the sword performs automatically its function of justice, which is the function of mercy. . . . When the sword is expected to play this sort of role in human life, it is no more a weapon of selfdefense or an instrument of killing, and the swordsman turns into an artist of the first grade, engaged in producing a work of genuine originality.

We ourselves find much in this statement odd or disingenuous or flat-out wrong, and we will shortly suggest some reasons why Suzuki may have made it. For the present, we want to stay focused on how Victoria used it—not just setting it chronologically out of sequence but also drastically warping its meaning by omitting two critical sentences. After “the function of mercy,” where Victoria inserts an ellipsis, Suzuki had written:

This is the kind of sword that Christ is said to have brought among us. It is not meant just for bringing the peace mawkishly cherished by sentimentalists; it is the sword used by Rikyu the teaman for self-immolation; it is the sword of Vajraraja recommended by Rinzai (Lin-chi) for the use of Zen-men; it is the sword Banzan Hojaku (P’an-shan) would swing regardless of its lack of utilitarianism.

Suzuki attached a footnote to each of his three examples, removing any doubt that he was speaking metaphorically, not of tempered steel and bloody death but of a figurative sword and the revivifying, transformative experience of “body and mind falling away.” When the sword plays this sort of role in human life, obviously it is not a weapon of selfdefense or an instrument of killing. A fair-minded reading of either the 1938 or 1959 version of the book makes it clear that Suzuki meant to celebrate the sword that gives life in this metaphorical sense, which (although Victoria neglects to mention it) had been common in Zen literature for centuries before Suzuki was born.

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