Don’t Mention the Zen at War!

zen-at-warI’m at a sesshin so I really shouldn’t be on-line at all, much less posting to my blog. But you gotta do what you gotta do.

You’d be forgiven for being shocked that I would recommend an article by Jundo Cohen on Sweeping Zen. But I really have no lingering hard feelings toward either of them And Jundo Cohen’s recent piece about Brian Victoria’s books Zen At War and Zen War Stories is well worth reading.

Victoria made a very important point that during World War II a number of Zen Buddhists gave their support to the Japanese Imperial Army. But, while this is completely true and shameful, Victoria apparently felt the need to try and strengthen his case by deliberately distorting the words of a number of prominent Zen teachers. Among those who got trashed by Victoria was Kodo Sawaki whose quotations were both deliberately mistranslated and taken completely out of contest to make him seem like a war-monger when he was quite the opposite.

Muho at Antaiji published a very detailed account of Sawaki’s actual quotations in context and how Victoria doctored them to make his case. For example, Victoria famously quoted Sawaki as saying, “We gorged ourselves on killing during the Russo-Japanese War.” The phrase Sawaki actually used was はらいっぱいになった (hara ippai ni natta). This means “we became fed up with” not “we gorged ourselves on.” Anyone who has spent as much time in Japan as Victoria has would know that. It’s not at all vague or in doubt what that phrase means. Several other examples are just as damning to Victoria’s case.

Speaking of World War II, I’m in Germany where I am not mentioning the war. (I’m sorry about that segue but it’s the best I can do right now) I have several more events happening here and in The Netherlands and the UK. Please show up! The list is below.

Also, SIGN UP FOR OUR RETREAT AT MT. BALDY!! It’s November 8-10. There’s Yoga! It’s in the incredibly scenic mountains of California! It’s with me!! DO IT!!! DO IT!!!!

– October 5th at 6pm the movie about me, Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen is having its world premiere at the Buddhist Film Festival of Europe in Amsterdam. Director Pirooz Kalayeh will be there.

– Oct. 6. at 4pm I’m speaking at Benediktushof. I’m sure the info is on their website but I can’t find it.

– October 7th I’m speaking in Frankfurt on  at Dogen Zendo. Info is here. Please stop by for a chat about Zen!

– October 9th I’ll be speaking at Dharma Buchladen in Berlin

– On October 11th, I’ll be speaking in Amsterdam.

– On October 12th, I’ll be speaking at Groningen University in the Netherlands.I think the details are somewhere on this page. But it’s in Dutch so I’m not sure.

– On Oct. 13 and 14th I’ll be in Bonn, Germany. The details about that are on this page. The 13th will be an all-day sitting and on the 14th I’ll do a talk in the evening.

– Thursday 17th October
In Conversation with Brad Warner and Jon Robb – The Punk meets the Monk
Manchester, UK

– 18-19 October Zen Retreat    /    20th October  Public Talk in Hebden Bridge, England

–  23 October 7pm, I’ll be speaking in London.
Caledonian Road Centre
486 Caledonian Road
London N7 9RP

– 24 October, 8pm, I’ll be speaking in Oxford

Merton College, Oxford
Hosted the Neave Society (

**Oxford University students only**

– 25 Oct In Conversation 7pm-9pm  / 26 October Zazen Day

Merchant City Yoga Centre Glasgow, Scotland

– November 8-10 Zen and Yoga Retreat at Mount Baldy Zen Center in Southern California (1 & 1/2 hours east of Los Angeles)

*   *   *

I’m self-financing all of these, so please feel free to help out a little by sending a donation! Thanks!

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29 Responses

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  1. Fred
    Fred October 4, 2013 at 5:39 am |

    If your country is at war, and if you speak against it, you get a bullet in the head.

    From the point of the relative do you choose to die right now?

    From the point of the absolute does it matter?

    From the point of primordial awareness, stuff is just stuff permutating through
    an infinite array of forms.

    I don’t see any American Buddhist monks self immolating on American
    sidewalks to protest the immoral actions of their governments. Why is that?

    1. Alan Sailer
      Alan Sailer October 4, 2013 at 7:02 pm |


      You have one out of three so far…

      Keep those questions coming…

  2. Fred
    Fred October 4, 2013 at 5:53 am |

    The words ” collateral damage ” means innocent flesh being vaporized and
    children crying in the darkness.

    By participating in the collective, you are part of that. Look inside your own
    animal brain and see the violence.

    What the Japanese Zen monks did or did not do in World War 2 is irrelevant.

  3. Fred
    Fred October 4, 2013 at 6:30 am |

    Killing in the name of Buddha:

    “The 969 movement is led by firebrand monks who preach that Islam is a threat and urge supporters to shun interfaith marriage and boycott Muslim-run businesses.

    The numbers symbolise the Buddha, his teachings and the monkhood. Many anti-Muslim attacks have taken place where monks have preached the 969 creed but the violence had ebbed in recent weeks until the Thandwe attacks.”

  4. RandomStu
    RandomStu October 4, 2013 at 2:14 pm |

    Thanks for the “gorged on” example. In this debate, the most worthwhile thing is to present clear, simple examples to illustrate the claim that Victoria distorted truth. Then we can decide for ourselves what conclusions to draw.

    Jundo’s article seemed mostly comprised of quotes from various people saying that Victoria writing isn’t legitimate… with very little in the way of concrete evidence. Simply listing a bunch of testimonials from supposed authorities is entirely different from a reasoned argument, supported by evidence.

  5. Fred
    Fred October 4, 2013 at 3:47 pm |

    “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.”

    I don’t think that you can spin this to mean the metaphorical dropping of body
    and mind.

    “For it is really not he but the sword itself that does the killing.”

    The one that swings the sword does the killing. He is not beyond cause and effect

    An unfortunate choice of words even if they were from a later period of time.

  6. Fred
    Fred October 4, 2013 at 4:01 pm |

    I cut off his head, but the Void made me do it. Or I cut off his head but it was
    really the universe manifesting its will.

    And this is the man who brought Zen to America, and whose wife stated that
    he never gained enlightenment, whatever that means. Are these correct

    1. minkfoot
      minkfoot October 4, 2013 at 5:09 pm |

      Are you confusing Suzukis?

      1. Fred
        Fred October 4, 2013 at 6:08 pm |

        Oh good, a voice of clarity. These thoughts are so corrosive and corrupting

  7. Fred
    Fred October 4, 2013 at 4:24 pm |

    Suzuki lifted an immovable rock, puked on the floor and laid in bed for 3 days.

    “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 ”

    So what is the teaching here that is beyond the comprehension of thought?

  8. Fred
    Fred October 4, 2013 at 4:36 pm |

    Fred, do you get the feeling that you are talking to yourself, even though there
    is no self.

    The lesson here is that every single word is deluded bullshit.

  9. Fred
    Fred October 4, 2013 at 4:56 pm |
  10. Jundotreeleaf
    Jundotreeleaf October 4, 2013 at 8:30 pm |

    RandomStu said:

    Jundo’s article seemed mostly comprised of quotes from various people saying that Victoria writing isn’t legitimate… with very little in the way of concrete evidence. Simply listing a bunch of testimonials from supposed authorities is entirely different from a reasoned argument, supported by evidence.


    If I may jump in here just for a brief moment …

    Stu, each of quotes I cited was accompanied by a link, each connecting to dozens and dozens of pages of fairly easy-to-understand examples of Brian Victoria’s questionable ways . My article merely people to those links, and it can’t be helped if some folks just can’t be troubled or can’t figure out how to click on one and read.

    Gassho, Jundo

  11. fredlecut
    fredlecut October 5, 2013 at 12:11 am |

    I don’t know Japanese so I can’t judge of the validity of the arguments on the translations. However, I have been practicing Japanese Martial Arts and Zen for a few years.

    I do not feel that Zen preaches the gospel of mercy, in fact, I do not see that Zen preaches anything at all. Zen is practice.

    The connection between Zen and Martial Arts dates from the beginnings of Zen in Japan – ie about the end of the 12th century. When the Mongols tried to invade.
    If you want to understand more about this connection, read Trevor Legett’s Zen and the Ways” and “The Warriors Koans”, Taisen Desshimaru (another disciple of Kodo Sawaki Roshi) – “Zen and Martial Arts”, Yamaoka Tesshu’s “The sword of no-sword”, or Omory Sogen’s “Zen training”. These are all men of great accomplishment in Zen and/or Traditional Japanese Martial or other Arts.

    The same sword and swordsman kills and gives life – no distinction. This is not a deep philosophical thing. If you see someone ready to hurt some innocent person, you slice them, your sword killed one person, and gave life to the other person. It is that simple. If you believe otherwise, you are mistaken. You might not be able to do it, but do not blame Buddhism or Zen for that. It is just that you were not able to do it. There is no shame if you did not know how to handle a sword. no need to be killed yourself. However, if you are fluent in Martial Arts and are not able tot use them when necessary, or if you use them too easily when you should not, you have a problem, and society has a problem.

    This is where Zen can help.

    Yagyu Munenori was chief martial art instructor to the first and second Tokugawa shogun. (early 17th century) Only once in his life did he draw his sword to kill when a small group of rebels tried to assasinate the Shogun. Munenori sliced them all. Munenori was himself a disciple of Zen Master Takuan Soho.
    In his book “Heiho Kandesho” translated by Scott Wilson as “the life-giving sword” he clearly explains this.

    Things are not complicated. To become fluent at anything, you need to practice. it is true of Zen, it is true of Martial Arts. You need to practice Zazen, you need to practice Kendo or Calligraphy. If you don’t practice, you will probably develop mistaken ideas about these disciplines.

  12. Fred
    Fred October 5, 2013 at 6:39 am |

    Bullshit, do not equate zazen and martial arts.

  13. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote October 5, 2013 at 10:27 am |

    I agree with RandomStu that Jundotreeleaf’s article was clear in the one quote about what Kodo Sawaki did or did not say, and otherwise did not present the substance of the criticisms. That may be because the other examples of Victoria’s transgressions require introduction and explanation before the reader can appreciate them, I think that’s probably the case since Jundotreeleaf is clear that he provided links.

    But do I want to click on links and try to appreciate the fine points of what Victoria got wrong? Not really; if Victoria’s missteps are blatant, seems like it should be possible to list more than one of them in full without reference to a longer explanation elsewhere.

    “For it is really not he but the sword itself that does the killing.”

    We’re back to the relationship between ishinashini and belief. Action can take place without the exercise of volition, in hypnotic or hypnogogic states. The trick with getting someone to do something that they consider immoral by hypnotic suggestion is to reframe the context in which the action takes place so that the action becomes acceptable to the subject. It’s a little trick our minds can play on us sometimes, as for example Sasaki’s will-less hand groping after a woman in dokusan; it does that because he has come to believe that it’s a normal and acceptable for a man to express the sexual attraction he feels for a woman.

    Someone who believes in a right to self-defense, as opposed to a strict nonviolence, might well experience ishinashini with regard to a sword.

  14. Fred
    Fred October 5, 2013 at 1:00 pm |

    Then everyone is off the hook for the crimes they commit, and the precepts
    given by the Buddha can be superceded by post hypnotic suggestion.

  15. Fred
    Fred October 5, 2013 at 1:21 pm |

    Mark, if you google “ishinashini”, the only references on the net are a couple
    by Joshu Sasaki and about 10 by you. No one else refers to will-less activity.

    If it really existed, would it not be described by some of the other 7 billion people
    on the planet.

    “Because there is such a thing as ishinashini, I have learned this (over and over, it seems):” – Your comment on some other blog.

    How have you learned this over and over ( it seems )?

  16. Fred
    Fred October 5, 2013 at 2:32 pm |

    Wikipedia :
    “In most cases, classic alien-hand signs derive from damage to the medial frontal cortex, accompanying damage to the corpus callosum.[11] In these patients the main cause of damage is unilateral or bilateral infarction of cortex in the territory supplied by the anterior cerebral artery or associated arteries.[14] Oxygenated blood is supplied by the anterior cerebral artery to most medial portions of the frontal lobes and to the anterior two thirds of the corpus callosum,[15] and infarction may consequently result in damage to multiple adjacent locations in the brain in the supplied territory. As the medial frontal lobe damage is often linked to lesions of the corpus callosum, frontal variant cases may also present with callosal form signs”

    At 105 Sasaki could have had a stroke earlier to create the alien hand, but I doubt
    it. He embezzled something like equivalent to $200,000 to spend on prostitutes.

    An alien hand ( ishi nashini – volition without ) is a convenient excuse for a con

  17. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote October 5, 2013 at 2:47 pm |

    Nobody’s off the hook. Sasaki is just the victim of his own beliefs, one of which is that he should dedicate his life to the zazen that can get up and walk around, and another of which is that it’s a normal and acceptable for a man to express the sexual attraction he feels for a woman.

    Yes, it’s true there are not a lot of references to ishinashini; that’s why I was excited to learn there was such a word from Giko David Rubin’s article. Not a lot of teachers echoing Kobun, who said: “you know, sometimes zazen gets up and walks around.” Not a lot of folks who have a clue about why Shunryu Suzuki said: “only zazen can sit zazen.” Not a lot of teachers who get why Nishijima says “zazen is action”, and goes on to talk about a balance of autonomic nervous systems.

    Here’s an embarassing email I sent to Vanja Palmers that is up on, explaining my history with the subject; you’ll have to scroll to the bottom of the page to find me:

  18. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote October 5, 2013 at 3:34 pm |

    Fred, as I mention in the email on kobun-sama, my need is to reconcile my understanding with the experience, as far as zazen goes.

    To the extent that my practice becomes a realization of my own senses in the course of an inhalation or an exhalation, I feel comfortable in saying this is the teaching of the Gautamid and I look to his advice. I have written about the first four meditative states, and I find what I have written useful (in Letting Go in Action: the Practice of Zazen. If you stopped reading what I wrote because of the details of kinesthesiology, then skim past that and you’ll find what I feel is the first substantive description of these states in Western terms.

    I begin to see how the experience of ishinashini, the experience of zazen sitting zazen, of zazen getting up and walking around necessitates the extension of the mind of friendliness, of compassion, of sympathetic joy, and of equanimity; that’s because the extension of these minds in the ten directions to infinity is a kind of pre-requisite to the cessation of volition in inhalation and exhalation, and to the experience of a cessation of volition in the activity of mind, in perception and sensation.

    It’s possible to experience ishinashini in the fourth of the initial meditative states, described as the cessation of (the activity of) inhalation and exhalation, where “the activity of” is a reference to volitive activity affecting inhalation and exhalation. Zazen got up and walked because I was attending to my breath with everything I had, for just one day (and probably because I played around with hypnosis and autohypnosis in high school), and because I believed in extending the mind of friendliness and nonharming everywhere. That it’s possible to wield a sword while extending the mind of friendliness, etc., yes that’s possible; Morihei Ueshiba said:

    “At that moment I was enlightened: the source of budo is God’s love — the spirit of loving protection for all beings…” (wikipedia on Ueshiba)

    You’re right about the emptiness of self, and so it is with what I believe. In the end, I don’t control it, and at some level the belief I don’t control is part of the necessity in each movement of breath. I can see this when my practice becomes a realization of my own senses out of a necessity in the movement of an inhalation or exhalation, and the extension of the mind of friendliness gets up. It’s only the person of no rank, passing in and out of the holes in my face.

  19. Fred
    Fred October 5, 2013 at 4:45 pm |

    : “you know, sometimes zazen gets up and walks around.” , “only zazen can sit zazen.” , and “zazen is action” all express “no-self”, “unknowing”.

    You are the wind blowing through the leaves, except there is no you.

    The wind blowing through the leaves is a lot different than some Zen Master’s
    hand trying to snake its way into a student’s vagina.

  20. Johnny Tet
    Johnny Tet October 5, 2013 at 5:02 pm |

    Caledonian Road Centre, Basement.
    Wicked cool place to sit- with the “Tube” rumbling by now and then as one sit’s.

    Mention the War?
    I was stationed in a bucolic little German town full of friendly Hessians; ‘all forgiven, we love you, the American Army adds too our economy and culture…’

    My early morning runs took me past a small monument at the site of the town’s synagogue, burned down around Kristallnacht.

    When ever I became a little too enamored with clean streets, on-time public transport, and friendly people, I needed to run past that monument. I also needed to remember Herman still loves parades, marching, and their Soldiers are still great warriors. Keep them close, always remember and mention the war.

  21. Mumbles
    Mumbles October 5, 2013 at 6:04 pm |

    Farewell, my friends, I’m bound for Canaan
    I’m trav’ling through the wilderness;
    Your company has been delightful
    You, who doth leave my mind distressed.
    I go away, behind to leave you
    Perhaps never to meet again
    But if we never have the pleasure
    I hope we’ll meet on Canaan’s land.

    -Parting Friends, traditional

  22. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote October 6, 2013 at 9:43 am |

    The Debussy is fantastic, thanks, John.

  23. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote October 6, 2013 at 10:35 am |

    Based on my experience, people are mislead if they accept that what a teacher says is not significant.

    I suppose we got lucky in the West, in that the Egyptians developed tenets of geometry and trigonometry, and that the Greeks gave us axiomatic geometry; I believe it was out of these that the Western scientific establishment developed. The vanity of the Western scientific establishment was no where more evident, perhaps, than in Germany last century; they were good at it.

    Meanwhile, Bodhidharma brought a Buddhism concerned with “no coughing or sighing in the mind, mind like a wall” to China, and his heirs declared that words were a waste of time. How much more so formulas, mathematical equations, and science, eh? Ok, not. Get a grip, heirs.

    Gautama who was later known as the Buddha was a scientist in many respects, although he assumed that because he knew the science of meditative states and their significance, his intuition must be correct on other subjects.

    Is the dharma transmitted outside scripture? Yes because it’s an experience; no one can pee for me. Fortunately for me, it’s a natural thing. When I can’t pee, I will go to a Western doctor.

    If I experience suffering, I will look to the words of Gautama, but it is the science I find in his words that I respect, and like any science in the West there are ways to communicate the essential relationships through symbols or words. Fortunately for me, the truth about suffering and the experience of meditative states is a natural thing that everyone experiences. Having an understanding of the basis of this truth and the experience of meditative states in Western terms, in terms I can believe in and explain cogently to others, became my necessity, once I experienced physical action in the absence of volition. I’d like to think that my belief now in what I have come to understand is my guarantee that when I open myself to the cessation of volitive activity in the meditative states, I don’t harm others around me.

    Of course, I’m open to having my butt kicked, if that’s necessary to improving my social insight and it’s done with good will.

  24. senorchupacabra
    senorchupacabra October 7, 2013 at 1:47 pm |

    Anyone who’s read more than two or three of D.T. Suzuki’s essays would know that he was a man of peace and of what is often referred to as “progressiveness.” His book comparing Zen with the works of Meister Eckhart is one of the best resources for finding out how and where the idea of “Compassion” fits into Zen as a whole. He was a great man with a great, compassionate, peaceful mind. I believe it was his inclination toward peace and compassion that ultimately led to his “conversion” (not exactly the word I’m looking for, but it will have to do) to Shin Buddhism later in life.

    With that said, I find it hard to believe that that much discussed section about Bushido in “Zen and Japanese Culture” was metaphorical. I believe he was speaking about the “life-giving sword” literally. He was answering the question about how a peaceful way of life (i.e. Buddhism) could be adopted by a warrior culture. What he explained is that the Samurai turned their own way of life into a meditative act. It’s as simple as that.

    However, that discussion of Bushido and Zen had nothing to do with WWII. It’s almost as if, in 2002, I wrote an essay about the bravery of George Washington during the American Revolution, and someone accused me of writing that essay to support the, at the time, impending invasion of Iraq. The connection between DT Suzuki’s essay on Bushido and any support he may have had for Japan’s military endeavors, is rather tenuous, and really is the ultimate argument against Victoria in this regard.

  25. Zeebeeess
    Zeebeeess August 16, 2014 at 12:49 pm |

    はらいつぱいになつた could very well mean what you definitively and conclusively says it means. ” We gorged ourselves ” I would say is a little stretch, though not totally outside the realm of possibility. There are a lot of things はらいつぱいになつた could mean depending on context, author personality, and a whole score of other heuristic criteria. Not that I could give a shit one way or another. To think that zen has anything of value to say in arena where the bodies pile up quickly is beyond ludicrous. This site is ample evidence of this. Bunch of circle jerk wankers getting off on their ” zen number “. Wank, wank.

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