Home / Religion / Justification of violence in Buddhism

Justification of violence in Buddhism

“If ordered to march: tramp, tramp or shoot: bang, bang. This is the manifestation of the highest wisdom of enlightenment. The unity of Zen and war … extends to the farthest reaches of the holy war now under way.”
Harada Daiun Sogaku, Zen Master, 1939

Brian Daizen Victoria, by writing his book Zen At War, forced Zen Masters to self-criticism for theirs schools’ participation in fanaticizing the Japanese people during the 2nd World War, resulting in many monasteries apologizing for the actions of their predecessors. Victoria, a Buddhist priest himself, presented in length the teachings of one of the most well-known Zen teachers, Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki, who was also one of the main diffusers of Buddhism in the West, or at least a truncated version of it. Many Westerners, disappointed by Western religions and their contributions to violence and war, turned to a system of ideas (strictly speaking, Buddhism is not a religion) which seems to be more introvert and, therefore, less likely to lead to violent behavior.

But we will see that even Buddhism can lead to violence and extreme behavior, even though, in contrast to our more familiar monotheistic religions, some rationalization juggling is needed to achieve the feet. This is because, in Buddhism, there is no holy text that every believer needs to read and accept as the truth, like the Bible is; where, for example, god is blunt enough to call his believers to exterminate the Canaanites for their salvation.

“Warriors who sacrifice their lives for the emperor will not die. They will live forever. Truly they should be called gods and Buddhas for whom there is no life or death. Where there is absolute loyalty there is no life or death.” Sugimoto Goro, Lieutenant Colonel (photo)
“Warriors who sacrifice their lives for the emperor will not die. They will live forever. Truly they should be called gods and Buddhas for whom there is no life or death. Where there is absolute loyalty there is no life or death.” Sugimoto Goro, Lieutenant Colonel (photo)


Buddhism became the official religion of Japan during the 17th century. Two centuries later, half a million temples had been built while monks and priests had become an indissoluble cogwheel of the feudal system. Due to their increased power and influence, however, and the inevitable threat to the ruling class they imply, in the beginning of the Meiji Era a reintroduction of Shintoism (or Shinto) was attempted -Shintoism being the traditional, ethnic religion of the country. Buddhist temples were shut down, monks were returned to the life of civilians and statues were destroyed. For Buddhism to survive, it was forced to transform itself into a part of the rising imperialistic direction Japan was heading in. So, according to Victoria, the Buddha was replaced by the Emperor, Dharma (the cosmic law and order in Buddhism) was replaced by the dedication to the state and the Japanese spirit and Sangha (community or assembly) was replaced by the nation. In this way, the Japanese nationalism had a very useful ally from the moment it was born. Suzuki wrote: “religion should, first of all, seek to preserve the existence of the state”. According to a ‘Zen soldier’: “Seeking nothing at all, you should simply completely discard both body and mind, and unite with the emperor”.

The interlinked relationship of Buddhism and militarism is very clear in the notion of Bushido (“the way of the warrior” or “the way of the samurai”), somewhat similar to that of “chivalry” in the West. Since the 13th century, when Buddhism was introduced in Japan through Korea, it was immediately associated with the military class of the samurai and, for centuries, Buddhist monks trained samurai in meditation, teaching them concentration and how to increase their power of will. The sword was already used as a symbol in Buddhism, as an instrument with which to cut through the thread of illusion (of the self, of the material needs etc), but through Bushido it took a literate form, it was idolized and it was worshipped.

About the Russian-Japanese war of 1904-’05, Soen, Suzuki’s teacher, said: “In the present hostilities, into which Japan has entered with great reluctance, she pursues no egotistic purpose, but seeks the subjugation of evils hostile to civilization, peace and enlightenment.” In reality, Japan had invaded Russia for reasons of profit and not at all reluctantly. For Soen, the country was in a “just war” and a “holy war”; a “war of compassion” against Buddha’s enemies. War was “an inevitable step toward the final realization of enlightenment”.

Despite lacking a central text or dogma, one of the basic principles of Buddhism is considered by all its schools to be the precept of forbiddance to kill. In 1942 Sawaki Kodo, one of the ‘patriarchs’ of Zen in the 20th century, wrote: “It is just to punish those who disturb the public order. Whether one kills or does not kill, the precept forbidding killing [is preserved]. It is the precept forbidding killing that wields the sword. It is the precept that throws the bomb”. Since the killing is performed in a state of non-thought or non-self, this action is an expression of enlightenment. No thought = No karma.

“Since the Meiji period, our (Soto Zen) sect has cooperated in waging war.” Soto Zen statement of repentance – 1992 (photo)
“Since the Meiji period, our (Soto Zen) sect has cooperated in waging war.” Soto Zen statement of repentance – 1992 (photo)

Suzuki continued along those lines saying: “Our soldiers regard their own lives as being as light as goose feathers while their devotion to duty is as heavy as Mount Taishan (in China). Should they fall on the battlefields, they have no regrets”. This poetic metaphor would be used dogmatically when training the kamikaze, who were expected to accept that their lives were unimportant if not offered to the emperor. And, if someone deems his own life unimportant, how important would he deem the other’s life to be? The Buddhist monks might not have been wearing a soldier’s uniform but it was clear that they contributed in the military efforts of Hirohito. Suzuki said that Buddhism saw life and death indifferently and that the absence of a clear dogma made it flexible in adapting to any philosophical or moral system, as long as what was intuitively felt to be its truth was kept intact. Zen can be “wedded to anarchism or fascism, communism or democracy…. or any political or economic dogmatism.”

While the Japanese army made such extreme atrocities as the Nanking Massacre, Suzuki offered illuminated little gems like this: “For it is really not he [the swordsman] but the sword itself that does the killing. He had no desire to harm anybody, but the enemy appears and makes himself a victim. It is as though the sword automatically performs its function of justice, which is the function of mercy…. the swordsman turns into an artist of the first grade, engaged in producing a work of genuine originality.” Moreover, “the sword that kills is also the sword that gives life”. And as the united Buddhist leadership phrased it: “In order to establish eternal peace in East Asia, arousing the great benevolence and compassion of Buddhism, we are sometimes accepting and sometimes forceful. We now have no choice but to exercise the benevolent forcefulness of ‘killing one in order that many may live’ (issatsu tasho). This is something which Mahayana Buddhism approves of only with the greatest seriousness”. Another Buddhist monk (Yasutani Hakuun) writes: “Failing to kill an evil man who ought to be killed, or destroying an enemy army that ought to be destroyed, would be to betray compassion and filial obedience, to break the precept forbidding the taking of life”. He adds: “…of course one should kill, killing as many as possible. One should, fighting hard, kill everyone in the enemy army. The reason for this is that in order to carry [Buddhist] compassion and filial obedience through to perfection it is necessary to assist good and punish evil…”

Like someone said, this is how religion behaves in a national state of emergency.

The composer John Cage is one of many intellectuals who met, listened to and were influenced by Suzuki. Others included Erich From, Allan Watts and Huston Smith. (photo)
The composer John Cage is one of many intellectuals who met, listened to and were influenced by Suzuki. Others included Erich From, Allan Watts and Huston Smith. (photo)

Buddhism teaches the loss of self and the realization of self-identification with the ‘other’. A Zen apologist (the German Buddhist monk Muho Noelke), wrote that what Suzuki meant, was that the soldiers “should stay aware of the contradiction (killing an enemy that you are supposed to identify with) and try to make the best of it, i.e. not killing enemies thoughtlessly” and that it’s not the precept of not killing that drops the bombs but rather that, while the soldiers are throwing bombs, they must honor the precept as much as possible. Perhaps what he is saying is that it’s not a problem to kill, as long as we “stay aware” of the paradoxical nature of our actions. I leave it to the judgement of the readers to conclude on whether all this ensues from the above statements made by Suzuki, Soen, Kodo or Hakuun, or whether it is simply the desperate efforts of someone who wants to justify the unjustifiable.

It’s not only Victoria who expresses these objections and accuses Buddhism as an idea and Buddhists for their actions. A plethora of Japanese citizens after the 2nd World War wrote, addressing the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, blaming Zen monks for their ignorant and implicit support for the Japanese war effort and asking for their reprobation. The Allies paid no attention to these pleadings and attributed the catechism in favor of war conclusively to the State Shintoism. At the same time, the prominent Zen scholar Yanagida Seizan wrote that the Buddhist sects of Japan decisively contributed to the propaganda of the war ideology through their teachings and their grandiose speeches, and then simply changed their tune after the War. “As far as I’m concerned” he wrote, “[Zen] robes are a symbol of war responsibility. It was those robes that affirmed the war. I never intend to wear them again.” Keeping his word, he took off his robes, denounced his role as a Zen teacher and spoke of committing suicide many times during his postwar depression.

This sword will tear through the illusion of the self and the throats of Buddha’s enemies (Statue of the deity Acala, who represents balance and a steadfast mind) (photo)
This sword will tear through the illusion of the self and the throats of Buddha’s enemies (Statue of the deity Acala, who represents balance and a steadfast mind) (photo)

In 1910, Japan invaded and occupied Korea. Suzuki justified this in this way: “They [Koreans] don’t know how fortunate they are to have been returned to the hands of the Japanese government. It’s all well and good to talk independence and the like, but it’s useless for them to call for independence when they lack the capability and vitality to stand on their own. Looked at from the point of view of someone like myself who is just passing through, I think Korea ought to count [consider] the day that it was annexed to Japan as the day of its revival”. As for the Nazi Party’s behavior towards the Jews, in 1936 he wrote: “it appears there are considerable grounds for this “and deemed it “necessary in order to preserve the nation”, since “the Jews are a parasitic people who are not indigenous” and “the fact that they have no country is karmic retribution”. Indeed, “the expulsion of the Jews is an action taken in self-defense”.

Alexander Laba in his book Why Did They Kill?: Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide, writes on Cambodia’s dictator Pol Pot:

“This [Pol Pot’s regime’s] line of thinking about revolutionary consciousness directly parallels Buddhist thought, with the “Party line” and “collective stand” being substituted for dhamma…One could certainly push this argument further, contending that the Khmer Rouge attempted to assume the monk’s traditional role as moral instructor (teaching their new brand of “mindfulness”) and that DK regime’s glorification of asceticism, detachment, the elimination of attachment and desire, renunciation (of material goods and personal behaviors, sentiments, and attitudes), and purity paralleled prominent Buddhist themes”.

We have all heard Christians or Muslim fundamentalists, faced with an epidemic or a natural disaster, claiming that the reason for it is god’s punishing the victims for their sins; in 2014, the Liberian Council of Churches (more than 100 Bishops, Pastors, General Overseers, Prophets, Evangelists and others) made a collective deliberation, blaming homosexuals for the emergence and spreading of Ebola. In the same vein, Tokyo’s Governor Ishihara Shintaro, concerning the tsunami that caused the tragedy in Fukushima, said: “The identity of the Japanese people is greed. This tsunami represents a good opportunity to cleanse this greed (gayoku), and one that we must avail ourselves of. Indeed, I think this is divine punishment…though I do feel sorry for the disaster victims”. In other words, their karma was bad and they died for the sins of their past, including perhaps their past lives. Karma has been used time and again to pass blame on the victims of misfortunes or even social injustices.

The book that caused trouble for the Buddhist world
The book that caused trouble for the Buddhist world

So, are all these atrocities and the vulgar statements the authentic teachings of Buddha, or a betrayal of his legacy? And how much different are the various religions as to the justification of violence? They all ask for the death of vile men; none want to kill the good guys. Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism all have used people with good intentions in order to perform the worst kind of behavior, all of them standing on the shoulders of the pious, the saintly and the populists, leading the believers to aberrations and atrocities in the name of the just and the graceful. And if the most familiar to us holy texts of monotheistic religions expressively suggest murder and destruction for the sake of happiness and salvation (and leave the readers to pick and choose what they think is virtuous and put aside whatever doesn’t suit them), we saw that the absence of a central, catechistic text not only does not preclude violence but provides a freedom for it to be expressed in the most insidious and twisted form.


Check Also

The Grimm brothers – Not so much a fairy tale

“I am Death, who makes everyone equal” Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, ‘Godfather Death’ The brothers …

Leave a Reply