The Zen Cult of Death in Wartime Japan

by Ezra Buckley on May 12, 2017


In my university student days, I had a professor of Japanese Buddhist literature who often contrasted the peaceable, broad-minded nature of Japanese Buddhism with the intolerance of Christianity.  I wish I could have acquainted him with the work of Brian Victoria, a Zen priest who has exposed the overwhelming support for the Japanese war machine among prominent Zen leaders in the years leading up to the Second World War.  His book Zen at War sent shock waves through the world of Zen Buddhism, especially among Western fans of Zen.

Recently, I had the privilege of hearing Victoria at the Asian Conference on Literature 2017 in Kobe, Japan.  The moderator introduced him as a “controversial scholar,” probably because he challenges the conventional wisdom of contemporary academia.  His work has helped to shatter the myth that somehow Western religion is uniquely culpable for promoting war, nationalism, and imperialism.

Eastern religions have at times shown themselves very willing to endorse war.  Warrior-priests in some medieval Buddhist sects in Japan engaged in armed conflicts.  Moreover, the Hindu classic the Bhagavad Gita justifies killing in war on the basis of its own pantheistic worldview.

Not many in the West these days seem drawn to Hinduism, but Zen has been a fashionable religion among many for some time now, including California governor Jerry Brown and the writer J.D. Salinger.  Bestselling books introduce Zen thinking to non-Japanese, and some even promote zazen meditation techniques in Christian circles.


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