zen and the art of starting wars

In a conversation with my friend Paul last night, we were talking about Salman Rushdie and wandered on over to Chris Hitchens. I talked about my respect for both as atheists and their respective different attitudes and revulsions towards religion. I pasted this clip of Hitchens talking about religion. It’s admittedly not Hitchens at his best, but I think it’s still a hilariously entertaining take on religion. Anyhow, we talked a bit about radical Islam and fundamentalist Christianity, and he half-jokingly said that we should just let the Buddhists run everything.

I encounter this sentiment a lot – that while most organized religion has at some point been corrupted towards murderous applications, Buddhism has somehow historically been immune to this. Perhaps because of some intrinsic superiority. Now, I’m not looking to get into a religious debate about the relative merits of Buddhism versus other religions – it’s pretty clear that it’s at least less whack than others. But the idea that it is or has been immune to dangerous applications is patentedly false. Does no one remember, like, World War II? You know, the war where Zen Buddhism was the backbone of an entire country bent on a fanatical suicide march of world domination and colonialism? Remember that? Okay, so at the time Shinto and Bushido had as much to do with it as Buddhism, but Buddhism and Zen played its part, and until recently the Buddhist temples’ complicity and support of the war has gone unnoticed. But it’s slowly being unearthed:

“Zen was a large part of the spiritual training not only of the Japanese military but eventually of the whole Japanese people,” he said in an interview. “It would have led them to commit national suicide if there had been an American invasion.”

Both of Mr. Victoria’s books peel back layers of the career of D. T. Suzuki, who taught at Columbia University in the 1950’s and remains the best-known Japanese advocate of Zen in the West. In 1938, however, Mr. Suzuki 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.”

“What Brian Victoria has written is mostly right,” said Jiun Kubota, the third patriarch of Sanbo-kyodan, a small Zen group outside Tokyo that has also issued an apology. “I dare say that Zen was used as the spiritual backbone of the military army and navies during the war.”

Traditionally, Zen stresses an inward search for understanding and mental discipline. But Mr. Victoria said that imperial military trainers developed the self-denying egolessness Zen prizes into “a form of fascist mind-control.” He said Suzuki and others helped by “romanticizing” the tie between Zen and the warrior ethos of the samurai. Worse, he charges, they stressed a connection between Buddhist compassion and the acceptance of death in a way that justified collective martyrdom and killing one’s enemies.

“In Islam, as in the holy wars of Christianity, there is a promise of eternal life,” Mr. Victoria said in an interview. “In Zen, there was the promise that there was no difference between life and death, so you really haven’t lost anything.”