Thursday, December 14, 2006


"The Lotus Sutra states that ‘the Three Worlds [of desire, form, and formlessness] are my existence and all sentient beings therein are my children.’ From this point of view, everything, including friend and foe, are my children. Superior officers are my existence as are their subordinates. The same can be said of both Japan and the world. Given this, it is just to punish those who disturb the public peace 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 this precept that throws the bomb. It is for this reason that you must seek to study and practice this precept."

— Kodo Sawaki from an article titled "Zenkai Hongi wo Kataru" ( On the True Meaning of the Zen Precepts) Part 9 published in the January 1942 issue of Daihorin, p. 107, as translated by Brian Victoria for his book Zen At War (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc.)

Ever since this quotation appeared in Brian Victoria’s 1998 book Zen At War it has been repeated countless times as evidence that instead of being revered as a reformer who reawakened interest in Zazen practice, Kodo Sawaki should be seen as little more than a blood thirsty war criminal. Yet some of the most important Zen teachers of the 20th century were Sawaki’s students or followers including Shunryu Suzuki, author of Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, Taizen Deshimaru, founder of AZI, one of the largest Zen organizations in Europe, and my own teacher, Gudo Nishijima. So what are we, who study under these teachers or their students, to make of this newly emerging image of Sawaki as a fanatical supporter of the Japanese imperialist war machine?

The reason Gudo Nishijima came to Sawaki’s lectures in the first place in the early 1940’s was because of his own troubled mind over his nation’s militarism. He often recounts that when he asked Sawaki for his opinion of whether the pro-war right wing or the anti-war left wing was correct, Sawaki answered that, “The right wing is wrong and the left wing is also wrong.” Between the early 1940’s and Sawaki’s death in 1965, Nishijima attended numerous lectures, read many of Sawaki’s books and talked with the man himself. When I asked Nishijima about the matter he said that he never once felt that Sawaki expressed any sort of war-mongering, militaristic, pro-imperialistic attitude.

So what are we to make of this quote? When placed in the context of Brian Victoria’s book it certainly seems like it must have been an exhortation to the noble Japanese soldiers to go out and kick some butt. But is it?

Before he gets into the money-shot, the bit that sounds so sadistic and depraved, he says, “it is just to punish those who disturb the public peace order.” The Japanese rhetoric leading up to the war was not that the Chinese, Koreans and others whose countries they were trying to annex were disturbing the public peace order and therefore deserved punishment. According to the Imperial propaganda machine, the Japanese were trying to unite all of Asia under a co-prosperity sphere. Japan had already modernized and made itself into a nation that could compete economically and militarily with Europe and America. Now they would unite all of Asia under their leadership and together they would build a prosperous hemisphere that would be the equal of the West. At least that’s what they said they were doing…

Given this, the quote does not seem to be about Japan’s military build-up and attempts to control Asia at all, but about something wholly different. So what about this “the precept forbidding killing wields the sword and throws the bomb” bit? Surely that must have been intended as a justification for the Japanese to run around the Pacific Rim slaughtering whoever got in their way. I don’t think so. In fact, I agree with these sentiments completely.

There are cases where the idea that the precept forbidding killing wields the sword is a perfectly reasonable one. For example, since the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999, law enforcement officials have developed new ways of dealing with similar situations. In the past it was thought that it was best to try and negotiate with clearly mentally disturbed hostage takers in order to minimize potential loss of life. When possible, even the hostage holders were to be taken alive. Now the thinking has changed and the rule of thumb is that, in such situations, law enforcement officers should try to take out — kill — the hostage takers as quickly as possible. In this case, the precept against killing can be said to wield the sword. In order to minimize potential loss of life, the cops are trained to kill those who threaten to kill others. If the guys who attempted to assassinate Hitler had succeeded, we could say that the precept against killing had thrown the bomb, or at least planted it under Adolph’s dinner table. Buddhism isn’t all hearts and flowers. It is realism. And in the real world sometimes tough choices are necessary.

To me, the quote seems to be an exhortation to Buddhist students to try to understand the meaning of the Lotus Sutra in terms of real life rather than as an abstraction. Sawaki does this by generating some fairly shocking and uncomfortable images to try and shake his listeners out of the kind of stupor that typically falls over groups listening to Zen lectures — especially in Japan. I can see nothing more sinister than this.

Even having said this, I would also caution that Japanese is a terrifically difficult language to translate properly into English. I've seen many instances where a translation can be called technically correct and yet still entirely misrepresent what was actually said. And if that is the case here, what I've just done is the equivalent of the guy in Life Of Brian who explains why Jesus said, "Blessed are the cheesemakers."

You could investigate this quote for ages trying to tease out its hidden meanings and you could find as many interpretations as you cared to look for. But that kind of thing is for fans of The Da Vinci Code, not Buddhists. We can’t dig old Kodo up and ask him what he meant and I, for one, don’t even find the matter so compelling that I want to find the original article and see what the actual context of the quote really was.

But if it’s quotations you want, how about these quotations from Sawaki that appear in Kosho Uchiyama Roshi’s book The Teachings of Homeless Kodo?

'People often talk about loyalty, but I wonder if they know the direction of their loyalty and their actions. I myself was a soldier during the Russo-Japanese War and fought hard on the battlefield. But since we lost what we had gained, I can see that what we did was useless. There is absolutely no need to wage war.'

And here’s another:

'When a person is alone, he is not so bad. When a group is formed, paralysis occurs and people become so confused that they cannot judge what is right and wrong. Some people go into a group situation on purpose, just to experience group paralysis, even paying a fee. Often people advertise in order to bring people together for some political or spiritual purpose and only create group paralysis. Buddhist practitioners should keep some distance from society, not to escape from it, but to avoid this paralysis.'

Sawaki left behind volumes of written work and transcribed lectures only the tiniest fragments of which have been translated into English. Most of these still remain in print and easily available through Amazon Japan if you’re interested. I’ve provided a link at the end of this article to some of them, so go ahead and place your order. I don’t hold it against anyone to want to try and assess Sawaki’s character and his attitude towards the war. But if you’re serious about it and not just enjoying the excitement of finding something for your ego to rail against, I would suggest you learn some Japanese (it’s not that hard if I can do it) and read some of his other writings for yourself. To pass final judgment on the man as a war criminal based only upon a single quotation isn’t really justified.


At December 14, 2006, Blogger Jordan & The Tortoise said...

I seem to remember Myamoto Musashi saying something like “the ultimate purpose of the sword is to give life.”

There are interesting things that remind me of what the Roshi said dating further back than Musashi as well.

Be well and happy

At December 14, 2006, Blogger Jordan & The Tortoise said...

Here is some more on that, long but worth it.

One day, Sinha, the general of the army, went to the Buddha and said, ‘I am a soldier, O Blessed One. I am appointed by the King to enforce his laws and to wage his wars. The Buddha teaches infinite love, kindness and compassion for all sufferers: Does the Buddha permit the punishment of the criminal? And also, does the Buddha declare that it is wrong to go to war for the protection of our homes, our wives, our children and our property? Does the Buddha teach the doctrine of complete self-surrender? Should I suffer the evil-doer to do with what he pleases and yield submissively to him who threatens to take by violence what is my own? Does the Buddha maintain that all strife including warfare waged for a righteous cause should be forbidden?’

The Buddha replied, ‘He who deserves punishment must be punished. And he who is worthy of favour must be favoured. Do not do injury to any living being but be just, filled with love and kindness’. These injunctions are not contradictory because the person who is punished for his crimes will suffer his injury not through the ill-will of the judge but through the evil act itself. His own acts have brought upon him the injury that the executors of the law inflict. When a magistrate punishes, he must not harbour hatred in his heart. When a murderer is put to death, he should realise that his punishment is the result of his own act. With his understanding, he will no longer lament his fate but can console his mind. And the Blessed One continued, ‘The Buddha teaches that all warfare in which man tries to slay his brothers is lamentable. But he does not teach that those who are involved in war to maintain peace and order, after having exhausted all means to avoid conflict, are blameworthy’.

Be well and happy

At December 15, 2006, Blogger oxeye said...

Kodo Sawaki - " It is the precept forbidding killing that wields the sword. It is this precept that throws the bomb."

I have never been able to understand why this quote was so controversial unless the person reading it believed they knew exactly what Zen is and what it isn't or exactly what Sawaki's metaphors mean or do not mean. Did he mean that sometimes violence is necessary to prevent harm? probably. That might suck for some Buddhists but that is just they way life is..

By the way, if you see the Buddha on the road, don’t really kill him. It doesn't mean that exactly..

At December 18, 2006, Blogger daba said...

Here are some more quotes from "To you" by Kodo Sawaki:

Once there was a great madman in the Sugamo hospital who called himself ‘Ashiwara Shōgun’. He hung a cardboard medal around his neck and bestowed dignified words to those he met to take with them on their way. Now that the war is over, we can see clearly that what the military did wasn’t at all different. And now they want to reintroduce medals yet again.
After winning the Russo-Japanese war, we thought we’d won colonies. But what really came of it? After losing the Second World War, we realized that we had only earned the hatred of the Russians.
Everyone is talking about loyalty to the fatherland. The question is simply where this loyalty will take us. I too was completely convinced when I went to war against the Russians, but after our defeat, I realized that we had done something that we shouldn’t have. In any case, it’s better not to make war in the first place.
Illusion means not having any direction in life. And since those lacking direction gather in groups, it’s natural that there are hooligans who beat each other up. And it also isn’t any wonder when wars break out for no reason at all.
Since the beginning of human history this bickering has never stopped. The greatest wars have their origin in bickering mind. War is simply the most exaggerated way of killing people.
“Both you and me are just ordinary people.” [Prince Shōtoku’s 17-Article Constitution]
Since, in any case, it's just ordinary people who wage war on each other, everybody is wrong, friend as much as foe. The winner and the loser are in any case just ordinary people.
It's so sad to watch the world's conflicts. There's such a lack of common sense. One hothead swings a sword, another fires a rifle.
The Americans are only ordinary people, the Russians are ordinary people, the Chinese too are ordinary people: ordinary people who desperately compete with other ordinary people.
No matter how much coal you pile up, it's still just coal.

At December 18, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

I think that, within this lineage there is an emphasis on avoiding absolute or rigid interpretations of the precepts. Certainly this is true for Deshimaru. For example, apparently once when asked whether he was a vegetarian, he answered 'a little'. Apparently meat is occasionally served at AZI sesshin's - they certainly like a drink now and again. I think that Kodo Sawaki's comments should be viewed in the same light.

The problem with this sort of approach of course is that it can easily become a 'slipperly slope' rationalisation for unethical behavior or allow personal ego and preferences to interfere with one's practice. When does one decide to adhere to the precepts literally and when does one not? In the case of political ideology and war there is a temptation to create rationalisations that justify the violence of one's own 'side' often to an Orwellian extreme
that in my opinion KOdo Sawaki's comments come close to. 'War is Peace', 'freedom is slavery', 'killing is non-killing'. This is not at all the original intention of the precept against killing. This is closer to the mentality of Christian Crusaders and Islamic Jihadists than that of clear-sighted Buddhists.

I think this particular proclamation was poorly judged but should be seen in the context of the other comments which you've quoted.


(I belong to AZI)

At December 19, 2006, Blogger Anatman said...

I think there was only one person in this forum who made alegations that Kodo Sawaki was some sort of war criminal, and my impression was that that person was just trolling for reactions and looking for a fight.

None of us really know who Kodo Sawaki was, and from my perspective, it is a moot point. What were his teachings, and are they of value? That is the question for me.

I've read some of his writing, and it had value to me. As far as the statement, "the bomb is the precept," I'm not so sure that has value to me.

At worst, it sounds like a rationalization of state-sponsored violence, without regard for the individual's experience of the immediate situation (compassion / empathy).

It also sounds like a political statement and, as I've mentioned in the past, I don't think Zen masters, enlightened or otherwise, are masters of everything, including politics. I don't think Master Sawaki ever claimed to be the Tathagata. As a human, he was bound to get caught up in the popular social movements of the day and even *gasp!* make statements he may have regretted at other points in his life.

At some level, the statement also smacks of mystical hoo-ha, leveraged to rationalize actions that were obviously morally offensive to some (or why make the statement?).

Personally, I don't care what the man's attitude toward the war was.
An athlete may study and emulate the running style of a cheetah, but he doesn't have to adopt the cheetah's perspective that running is best utilized in the killing of gazelles...

And finally, if Buddha Dharma is the moon, then the Dharma teacher is just the pointing finger.

At December 20, 2006, Blogger MikeDoe said...

I've read Kodo Sawaki's work. Some of it spoke very deeply to me.

I do not really care what his views were on the war or anything else.

The fact that I found something of value in what he wrote is enough for me.

I do not feel the need to agree with everything he did say or might have said or that others believe that he might have said.

If there any perfect people in this world - Buddhas or otherwise I have not yet met them.

The only real difference I have seen is that those people who I think have some 'higher' 'attainment' seem more willing to accept and live with their own 'flaws' and seem also to be more willing to accept the 'flaws' of others. Wheras those who claim to have some 'attainment' seem to be most intolerant of other people's humanity and most in denial about their own limitations.

I'll take a human over a saint any day.

It might well be that perfection is nothing more than accepting as perfect that which many would also see as imperfect.

At December 21, 2006, Blogger karen said...

Can I ask an honest question? Does anyone really care about this? Why does it keep being brought up? This man is dead and gone. Why are people still defending him?

At December 21, 2006, Blogger oxeye said...

That was an interesting question Karen. You could have just as easily asked why people were still speaking ill of a dead man. But you went the other way..

At December 21, 2006, Blogger Anatman said...

Karen, here are some answers to your honest question:

1. Does anyone really care about this?

2. Why does it keep being brought up?
Because people care about it (Refer to #1).

This man is dead and gone. Why are people still defending him?
Refer to #1 & #2

A related question is, "Why study history? The past is gone."

At December 21, 2006, Blogger karen said...

I saw it more as "Why would anyone continue to debate what type of person Hitler was." It was plain to see what he was and the only people who continue the debate are his defenders and those who believe that the Holocaust never happened. I look at this the same way.

At December 21, 2006, Blogger guyropes said...

Karen - I think that whereas it is extremely clear what type of person Hitler was, it's not at all clear what type of person Kodo Sawaki was. That's why it's being discussed - though, as with anything, discussion can be done too much. I disagree with your statement, then, that we should stop discussing Sawaki's character and past. It isn't nearly as clear cut as with Hitler.

At December 21, 2006, Blogger oxeye said...

karen - it could be that you saw the issue through the filter of your own fears. comparing sawaki to hitler and then comparing his defenders to holocaust deniers is a little overstated.. maybe a little hysterical too.

At December 24, 2006, Blogger karen said...

Shame on you Oxeye! You should be old enough to know that calling a woman "hysterical" is the equivalent of calling an African American the "n" word. That being said, my point is that the main post smacks of attachment to view. I love my mother and father. They made mistakes as we all do in raising our families. But, I don't spend inordinate amounts of time defending what they did, or trying to disect their behavior to convince other people that they were decent parents. In my heart, I know how I feel about them and that's all that matters. In all that they said and did, whether right or wrong, good or bad, I have found my way. In fact, because of what they did, I have found my way.

At December 24, 2006, Blogger Jordan & The Tortoise said...


Is there actualy sompthing there to defend?

Be well and happy!

At December 24, 2006, Blogger oxeye said...

Karen - You do not have to defend your parents here. No one knows anything about them or attacks them regularly.

But I would guess if someone did, being the good person that you are, you would defend them.

At December 26, 2006, Blogger Dan said...


the point is that apart from this troublesome quote all accounts of kodo sawaki and all of his other writings seem to be completely at odds with this quote. bearing that in mind it's only natural that when faced with this one quote people are going to discuss it and try to make it fit with the rest of what kodo sawaki said.

" But, I don't spend inordinate amounts of time defending what they did, or trying to disect their behavior to convince other people that they were decent parents. "

i'd hardly say thta one post from brad is an 'inordinate amount of time'

At December 26, 2006, Blogger Zen said...

Is there a correct answer...
all is perspective.

At January 02, 2007, Blogger Takuji said...

Kodo Sawaki;
just a war crimial --
as we all are here.

At January 03, 2007, Blogger oxeye said...

well said takuji..

At January 03, 2007, Blogger Takuji said...

This winter moonlight;
a most wonderful collage
in mirror reflections.

At January 08, 2007, Blogger kidude said...

Not appropriate to the current article, but for lack of a better place to put it.

I've heard a few people say that there is no such thing as a selfless ast (as opposed to a selfish one) as it is motivated personal motivation to make yourself feel better. Does anyone have any thoughts on this related to Buddhism


At January 08, 2007, Blogger Jordan & The Tortoise said...


If an act is done because of personal motivation to make yourself feel better, it is not selfless is it?

Now if you just do the right thing because thats what you do naturaly,without the concept of "self" in the action, than you will be doing selfless acts all the time.

Be well and happy!

At January 09, 2007, Blogger Takuji said...

“You, the Buddha, say— ‘All things have no self-identity and nothing belonging to self-identity. O you Bhiksus! learn and practice this!’ Once this is practiced, self-conceit goes away. Self-conceit gone, one enters Nirvana.

“O World-Honored-One! No tracks of the bird exist in the sky; thus can never be. One practicing selfless dhyana can have no various notions of life; nothing such as a notion of life is possible.”

-- Nirvan Sutra

At January 14, 2007, Blogger Zac in Virginia said...

I think Jordan is onto something. When right action becomes instinct, even if at some point right action was a conscious process, you're getting somewhere.

Regarding what Karen said, I think that the discussion is much more about the meaning of what Sawaki said, and not who he was as a person. Granted, discussing Sawaki-the-man is necessary to establish a little more context about what he wrote, but that's pretty common in literary analysis.

As far as the Hitler comparison, well, with a nod to Godwin's law, I'll say that if you read Mein Kampf, it *would* be helpful to know something about its author.

I took the phrase "the precept wields the sword" to mean that even warriors must consider their actions in terms of the non-killing precept, and arrive at their own conclusions.

At February 16, 2007, Blogger yudo said...

Thanks for your insights.I quite agree: taking things out of context and making them absolutes is a loss of time.
Then I remember one azedist asking Nishijima Roshi about the war, and sensei answering that, whatever, at the time, if you didn't agree with the military, not only were you punished, but your family also.
And, also, if you get punished immediately for some idiocy you just committed, at least you know why.If reward comes only twenty years later, it's hard to make the connection and learn from it.

At March 07, 2012, Blogger blues4ray said...

joining this discussion years later, surely the reason people care is that Kodo Sawaki seems such a compelling person and some of the things he said really wonderful, like "offer the attitude of being "non-greedy" to the whole universe. Nothing can be greater than this offering."

At November 05, 2012, Blogger ron said...

"It is the precept forbidding killing that wields the sword. It is this precept that throws the bomb."

Could it be a metaphor saying that the precept is overriding and, when really understood, cuts illusion down and explodes it?

At November 05, 2012, Blogger ron said...

"It is the precept forbidding killing that wields the sword. It is this precept that throws the bomb."

Could it be a metaphor saying that the precept is overriding and, when really understood, cuts illusion down and explodes it?


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