An Ethical Critique of Wartime Zen

Brian Daizen Victoria


This article explores the ethical implications of those numerous Japanese Zen masters who so strongly and unconditionally supported Japanese aggression during the Asia-Pacific War (1937-45) and before. It asks the question whether such masters may rightly be considered to have been enlightened/awakened in a Buddhist sense. If not, what are the implications for such foundational Zen doctrines as “a separate transmission outside the sūtras” and “no dependence on words and letters”? 

This article further raises the possibility that the Zen school, at least during wartime, may have forfeited its right to be considered a legitimate part of Buddhism. Is this because the Zen school in Japan, during the war if not earlier, lost its connection to Buddhist ethics? If so, is this loss in any way connected to Zen’s heritage as one expression of Mahāyāna Buddhism? While providing no definite answers to these questions, the article suggests that it is long past time for these questions to be seriously considered.

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