Zen and Militarism

Zen and Militarism

The Grass Is Not Always Greener On The Other Side Of The Fence


I've had several conversations with friends and family members who have expressed the opinion that militarism and authoritarianism are somehow “Western,” a product of “Western patriarchal thinking” or of Christianity. These same friends and family members tend to hold up Buddhism as an example of the “Eastern alternative” to our violent Western ways.

Those people need to read “Zen at War,” a recent history of the role of Zen Buddhism in actively supporting fascism, militarism and racism in Japan, before and during World War II. The book is by a practicing Soto Zen cleric, so it certainly isn't written by an enemy of Buddhism. It does represent a healthy corrective to the “grass is always greener” mentality of a lot of Americans, who seem to want to see their own culture as the root of all evil and Asian cultures as idealized alternatives.


The historical fact is that the Shaolin Temple, where Zen Buddhism originated, maintained an army of its own and participated in several wars. The Tendai Buddhist temples of Japan all fielded large armies of warrior monks in every major conflict that occurred in that country over a period of several centuries.


In World War II, both major Zen sects were enthusiastic supporters of the military regime and its imperialist ambitions. Some of the most influential Zen masters of the post-war period composed fascist and Anti-Semitic propaganda during the war, in which they twisted the doctrines of Buddhism to support everything from the conquest of Manchuria to the Rape of Nanking to Hitler's treatment of the Jews.


It's not that Zen Buddhism is somehow bad or corrupt, although I would argue that the people who committed those acts certainly were. It is simply that human beings are human beings wherever you go. Caucasian or Asian, Christian or Buddhist, male or female- people everywhere fall short of their ideals, and twist those ideals in the service of power and profit. We need to stop seeing Zen or any other aspect of Asian culture through rose-colored glasses.