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Saturday, January 11, 2003

When Buddhists go to war.

Many religious seekers in the West, horrified by Christianity's record of violence, have turned to the East looking for a less bloody faith. Many, like Brian Victoria, a former Methodist missionary, embraced Buddhism as the peaceful alternative. But Victoria, who converted to Buddhism in 1961, discovered that his chosen faith — Zen — has a sordid history, too.

Allan Jolan writes in today's New York Times that Victoria, an Australian Zen priest and historian, has researched Zen's role in Japanese militarism during World War II. "Zen was a large part of the spiritual training not only of the Japanese military but eventually of the whole Japanese people," Victoria told Jolan. "It would have led them to commit national suicide if there had been an American invasion."

Victoria's books, Zen at War (1997) and Zen War Stories (2002), inspired several sects in Japan to issue formal apologies for their role in World War II. One "apologized for helping to lend a religious purpose to invasions, colonization and the former empire's destruction of '20 million precious lives,'" Jalon writes.

The complicit sects and leaders weren't marginal by any means: D.T. Suzuki, the primary advocate of Zen in the West, "used his prestige as a scholar in Japan to assert that Zen's 'ascetic tendency' teaches the Japanese soldier 'that to go straight forward and crush the enemy is all that is necessary for him'" in 1938. The founder of one sect, Hakuun Yasutani, "was an outspoken militarist and anti-Semite during the war years" and "was one of the most significant figures in advancing the popularity of Zen Buddhism in the United States in the 1960s."

There are two lessons in all of this. First, as Marc Juergensmeyer points out in Terror in the Mind of God, every religion has a potential for violence. Practitioners of every religious tradition have unleashed that potential at various times in history. No religious tradition is immune.

But the second lesson is just as important: Victoria's careful scholarship and the distress it provoked in Buddhists around the world led today's Zen leaders to confront their past, own up to their complicity, and repent. "I want my work to provide a model that it is possible to take an unflinching look at what is really happening with a religion while remaining essentially committed to it," Victoria says. Every religion needs people like him.

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 11 January 2003 at 12:53 PM

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