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Zen violence

War and peace in Buddhism

Issue: "The Haiti quake," Feb. 13, 2010

Bold journalist Brit Hume took a lot of heat last month for saying, while commenting on the fall of Tiger Woods, that Buddhism does not "offer the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith." Maybe so, one Buddhist blogger replied, but Buddhism is a religion of peace without any of those nasty crusades lurking in its past.

Juxtapose that sentiment, please, with this news note: A panel of Japanese and Chinese scholars recently completed a three-year study aimed at reconciling differences of viewpoint on contentious historical issues involving the two nations-and concluded the study without reconciliation. The final report of the Japan-China Joint History Research Committee will merely consist of papers submitted by each side.

In particular, the scholars could not agree on the number of Chinese civilians killed by Japanese soldiers in Nanjing in 1937 and 1938, when Nanjing (sometimes called Nanking) was the capital of China. The Japanese suggest tens of thousands. The Chinese insist that 300,000 were killed. But more is at stake than numbers.

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The best book I've seen on the subject is Iris Chang's The Rape of Nanking (Basic, 1997), which quotes Japanese eyewitnesses who, for example, witnessed Japanese officers training soldiers in cutting off heads: "Standing behind the prisoner, Tanaka steadied himself, legs spread apart, and cut off the man's head with a shout, 'Yo!' The head flew more than a meter away. Blood spurted up in two fountains from the body and sprayed into the hole. The scene was so appalling that I felt I couldn't breathe."

Utter brutality was common. Rapes in front of family members tied up and forced to watch, with the women then mutilated and killed. Soldiers betting on the sex of unborn children and using their bayonets to cut open women and find out who won. Soldiers forcing family members to commit acts of incest, with any resistance leading to immediate execution.

Three Japanese generals were eventually executed for their roles in the Rape. For a time it was convenient to blame just "Japanese militarism." But some contemporary Buddhists acknowledge that Buddhism was not innocent. In particular, Zen priest Brian Victoria's Zen at War (Rowman & Littlefield, 2nd edition, 2006) and Zen War Stories (RoutledgeCurzon, 2003) bravely revealed how Zen leaders in the 1930s applauded killing.

As some Buddhist scholars increasingly acknowledge, militant Buddhism is not new. Warring Buddhist armies from dueling monasteries dominated Japan in medieval times. Their tradition gained applause from Shaku Soen (1859-1919), the first Zen Buddhist master to teach in the United States. He argued that everything is of one essence, so that war and peace are the same-and the soldier who doesn't care whether he lives or dies, and doesn't worry about killing others, is getting closer to "the final realization of enlightenment."

The year 1937 brought not only the Nanjing terror but also Zen and Japanese Culture (republished in 1970 by Princeton University Press). Its author, D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966), who became the leading Zen popularizer in the United States, acknowledged that Zen "treats life and death indifferently" and can be "wedded to anarchism or fascism, communism or democracy . . . or any political or economic dogmatism."

That's what is key. Adherents to the key Buddhist doctrine of non-attachment-to things, people, or life itself-argue that we only imagine the difference between war and peace, civilization and savagery: All are illusions. Brian Victoria shows how that doctrine hardened Japanese soldiers with Buddhist training. Others also worry about Zen teaching that, according to Buddhist Josh Baran, pushes adherents to "give up our rational thinking and intelligence."

Baran's review of Victoria's writing noted, "For too long, we have accepted all eastern teaching with childlike reverence, placing our thinking faculties on hold. Perhaps now, with these new revelations, it is time to re-honor intelligence and questioning and look more carefully at what we inherited and where we are headed." Christians have gone through such self-appraisals concerning the Crusades. Some Buddhists are ready to do the same.

My point in all this is not to suggest that Buddhism is a religion of violence-it rarely is these days-but that it can be. Buddhism gets a great press in the United States, but it is one more man-made religion that reflects our naturally sinful natures. Murderers and adulterers all need Christ.

If you have a question or comment for Marvin Olasky, send it to molasky@worldmag.com.
To hear commentaries by Marvin Olasky, click here.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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