KODO SAWAKI: WAR CRIMINAL?
"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.