May 05, 2010

D. T. Suzuki and the Fog of World War II

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

D. T. Suzuki and the Fog of World WarII

Read and discuss "The Fog of World War II" here.

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Clark Strand's picture

It’s interesting to read Gary and Nelson’s summary of the main points of Sato’s article. I ran afoul of another of Victoria’s collaborationist arguments while researching a book in Japan a few years back. In this case, I was trying to get to the bottom of his apparent antipathy toward Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, the founder of the Soka Gakkai, who died in prison during World War II rather than “consolidate” his fledgling Buddhist educational reform movement under the banner of state-sponsored Shintoism.

Today, almost without exception, the 13 million members of the Soka Gakkai view Makiguchi as a martyr to ideal of world peace, which certainly makes his life congruent with the modern Gakkai stance against war, nuclear proliferation, etc. Victoria cites portions of Makiguchi’s earlier writing in an effort to challenge his reputation as an anti-imperialist, anti-militarist figure, but when I went back to the original sources, I found myself thinking, “Could Victoria possibly have read this statement in context?” Because there was little doubt in my mind at that point that Makiguchi, who could have walked free at any moment had he been willing to utter even the mildest form of recantment, seems to have died with a nearly bottomless contempt for Japanese Imperialism and all it stood for.

In magazine called TOKKO GEPPO (The Special Higher Police Monthly), an interrogator reported offering Makiguchi an amulet to the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, perhaps in a last ditch effort to get him to swear allegiance to the state on it. Makiguchi’s only answer was, “We must have burned at least 500 of those things,” after which he was regarded as one of the more hardened anti-government elements and allowed to die quietly of malnutrition in his cell.

I do agree that to some extent Victoria may have damaged to the reputations of such men as Suzuki and Makiguchi in his writings (and perhaps his own in the bargain). At the same time, I feel a certain sympathy with his effort (if not his overenthusiasm) to set the record strait. I believe it was Nichiren who once advised a student to prepare himself for leaping over a river if he wanted to make doubly sure of jumping over a stream. The wisdom here seems to be that when any great task lies before you–especially one that triggers strong restistance from the status quo–it is good to get a running start at it. Otherwise, you may not be able to make the leap.

My guess is that some part of Victoria knew the risks of overreaching so much in his historical analysis of Japanese Buddhist collaboration during World War II. I think he wanted to deal a deathblow to the starry-eyed idealism with which many Westerns Buddhists have tended to regard important founding teachers such as Hakuun Yasutani Roshi, teachers who, on closer examination, turned out to have not only minds of great brilliance but (why does this always surprise us?) also feet of clay. Unfortunately, when you set out to administer a death-blow, it’s hard not to get yourself injured in the process. Akido is probably a better idea in such cases. Not being an academic, I find it hard to imagine what that would look like, but I suspect it’s possible nevertheless.

“D.T. Suzuki and the Fog of World War II” « Rev. Danny Fishe's picture

[...] “D.T. Suzuki and the Fog of World War II” May 5, 2010 Posted by Danny Fisher in D.T. Suzuki, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. Tags: D.T. Suzuki, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, World War II trackback Join the conversation at Tricycle… [...]