Zen and the Art of War


Why Buddhism has a problem with worldly politics.

Buddhism is seen around the world as a religion of peace and genuine spirituality. Its adherents ought not to concern themselves with the struggles and illusions of political process, we think, but opt instead to cultivate compassionate concern for those suffering in the ‘here and now’.  Buddhists strive to foster an attitude of selfless benevolence toward one’s human and animal environment. Meddling forcibly in the lives of others is not the Buddhist way. This popular view of Buddhism is encapsulated in the familiar aphorism by the eighth-century philosopher Śāntideva:

Where is the hide to cover the whole world? The wide world can be covered with hide enough for a pair of shoes alone.(1)

The suggestion is that Buddhism is apolitical. It is better to adapt one’s desires to the world in which one finds oneself, rather than to struggle to change the world in line with impossible desires or Utopian visions. If this suggestion is correct, Buddhism is a quietistic religion whose worldly-conservatism ought to be discernible in a long history of political silences.

Today‘s bookshelves are saturated with titles imitating Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery, first published in 1948. The common theme of these New Age titles is that ordinary activities can have a profound spiritual dimension if we just attune our perceptions. The koans of Zen poetry make a point of alerting us to the fact that ultimate spiritual reality resembles the experience we so often have of ‘loosing ourselves’ in our mundane worldly activities. Nowhere are we told that enlightenment lies in uncovering the historical conditions which shape the way in which certain activities appear to us as more or less mundane.

Rather, the reality is no-self (anatta), Buddhist claim. The ‘I’ that worries and is anxious for its own welfare has a form of existence like that of an illusion. Thus, any activity which allows us to loose our immediate sense of this illusion-like self can be a legitimate focus for Zen meditation. But then, we might ask, is Zen so morally flexible that it would allow any activity to be the focus of meditation? People have lost themsleves in immense cruelty, no doubt. Could we not also envisage as series popular books with titles such as Zen and the Art of Torture or a Zen and the Art of War? Far fetched, you may think. After all, Buddhism is a peace loving region. Think again.

Stephen Clark talks of the reports of Zen adepts boiling men alive in search of enlightenment,(2) whilst Brian Victoria has charted the doctrinal support which Japanese Buddhists offered to  imperialistic and militaristic campaigns throughout the twentieth-century. Victoria tells us that beginning in the late eighteenth-century, institutional Buddhism in Japan found itself threatened by the imperialistic machinations of the day and so sought to position itself as ‘protector of the country’. It did this by cravenly lending support to various militaristic campaigns and accommodating Buddhist teaching to the imperialistic notion of national identity (yamato damashii). Members of the Zen school were some of the worst offenders in this regard. 

Among the more notable horrors which resulted for this era of doctrinal jingoism in Japan include numerous declarations of high-ranking Buddhist priests condoning the Sino-Japanese war as ‘a war of compassion’; the conducting of special Buddhist rituals offering prayers to ensure military success; the conversion of Buddhist monasteries into detention centres for prisoners of war; and providing scriptural support to the notion that obeying the orders of one’s superiors on the battlefield could be seen as a spiritual act of Buddhist compassion. The thinking behind this last point was, perversely, that a soldier had the potential to attain Buddhist enlightenment and thereby relinquish his sense of unique, individuated self – simply by obeying the orders of his superiors. The problem which these corrupt officials were using to their own political advantage is that of the moral ambiguity which attends the absence of the self in Buddhist metaphysics: How can we respect the rights of persons if individual selves do not exists?

The litany of doctrinal abuse is seemingly endless. In the later part of his life, Tolstoy wrote to the prominent Rinzai Zen master Soen hoping for confirmation of his pacifist views. The implacable brutality of the Zen master‘s reply is quite sickening:

Even though the Buddha forbade the taking of life, he also taught that until all sentient beings are united  together through the exercise of infinite compassion, there will never be peace. Therefore, as a means of  bringing into harmony those things which are incompatible, killing and war are necessary.(3)

Soen was not alone in his views. Indeed, they were symptomatic of a whole trend of though during that time. Many scholarly propagandists during the militaristic run up to the second world war repeatedly wrote that according to Buddhist teachings, war was neither inherently good nor bad. As with any feature of conditioned reality, it lacks it’s own stable essence (svabhava). The only things that matters, therefore, is the purpose behind the war, whether it is fought for a good intention or for a bad one.(4)

Buddhism places the cultivation of self-sacrifice and benevolence ahead of all other virtues. And yet, much like any other civilizations, the history of Buddhism is a history of violent conflict motivated by self-interest and enabled by self-serving delusions. There are no ideas which mankind cannot corrupt, it seems.

Show 4 footnotes

  1. Bodhicaryāvatāra, V.13Kate Crosby & Andrew Skilton (trans) (1995, Oxford University Press: Oxford & New York), pp.35
  2. Clark, S.R.L. The Mysteries of Religion: An introduction to philosophy through religion (1986, Basil Blackwell: Oxford), pp.159.
  3. Brain A. Victoria (1997) Zen at War (Weatherhill: New York & Tokyo), p.29.
  4. ibid, p.88.