NYT: Meditating on War and Guilt, Zen Says It’s Sorry

January 11th, 2003  |  Published in Uncategorized

Zen Buddhism is often cited as “the good religion” based on a superficial survey from people who’d otherwise consider themselves hostile to religion, and it’s sometimes shocking to realize how much an apparently pacific thing has been pressed into the service of oppressors, though it shouldn’t be much of a surprise considering how much fucking things up in the name of ruining other peoples’ days is a long-standing human tradition.

It wasn’t a horrible surprise to me to learn of the Samurai caste’s embrace of Zen… I kept a copy of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones in my rucksack every time I went out on a jump or out into the field during four years in the Army. It squared with the sort of ‘ethical warrior’ outlook I’d crafted as a way to cope with my time in the military, and it shared space on the shelf with books like In Search of the Warrior Spirit and Zen in the Martial Arts.

So the NYT’s headline is a little off when it implies that “Zen” is “apologizing.” “Zen” is doing no such thing… rather, some of its modern adherents are disavowing an interpretation and realization of Zen ideals they (and the rest of us) find repugnant. All the same, it’s good to read about major schools of Zen thought coming to grips with the relationship between their beliefs and militarism.

“To many Americans, Zen Buddhists primarily devote themselves to discovering inner serenity and social peace. But Zen has had strong ties to militarism ? indeed so strong, that the leaders of one of the largest denominations in Japan have remorsefully compared their former religious fanaticism during Japan’s brutal expansionism in the 1930’s and 40’s to today’s murderously militant Islamists. “The unexpected apology for wartime complicity by the leaders of Myoshin-ji, the headquarters temple of one of Japan’s main Zen sects, was issued 16 days after 9/11, which gave it a particular resonance. But the leaders of Myoshin-ji ? as well as other Zen Buddhist leaders who have also delivered apologies over the past two years ? mainly credit a disillusioned Westerner for their public regrets: Brian Victoria, a former Methodist missionary, who is a Zen priest and historian. “Buddhist leaders in Japan and the United States said in recent interviews that Mr. Victoria had exerted a profound influence, especially in the West, by revealing in his 1997 book, Zen at War, a shockingly dark and unfamiliar picture of Zen during World War II to followers who had no idea about its history. Keiitsu Hosokawa, secretary general of Myoshin-ji, made a speech to the group’s general assembly in September 2002 in which he said that the Japanese edition of Zen at War had been one of several factors that ‘provided the impetus’ to issue the group’s apology.”

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