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Re: D.T. Suzuki, Zen and the Nazis, by Brian Daizen Victoria

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Part 1 of 2

Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D.T. Suzuki
by Brian Victoria
August 2, 2013
The Asia-Pacific Journal, Volume 11 | Issue 30 | Number 4




The publication of Zen at War in 1997 and, to a lesser extent, Zen War Stories in 2003 sent shock waves through Zen Buddhist circles not only in Japan, but also in the U.S. and Europe.

These books revealed that many leading Zen masters and scholars, some of whom became well known in the West in the postwar era, had been vehement if not fanatical supporters of Japanese militarism. In the aftermath of these revelations, a number of branches of the Zen school, including the Myōshinji branch of the Rinzai Zen sect, acknowledged their war responsibility. A proclamation issued on 27 September 2001 by the Myōshinji General Assembly included the following passage:

As we reflect on the recent events [of 11 September 2001] in the U.S. we recognize that in the past our country engaged in hostilities, calling it a “holy war,” and inflicting great pain and damage in various countries. Even though it was national policy at the time, it is truly regrettable that our sect, in the midst of wartime passions, was unable to maintain a resolute anti-war stance and ended up cooperating with the war effort. In light of this we wish to confess our past transgressions and critically reflect on our conduct.1

On 19 October 2001 the sect’s branch administrators issued a follow-up statement:

It was the publication of the book Zen to Sensō [i.e., the Japanese edition of Zen at War], etc. that provided the opportunity for us to address the issue of our war responsibility. It is truly a matter of regret that our sect has for so long been unable to seriously grapple with this issue. Still, due to the General Assembly’s adoption of its recent “Proclamation” we have been able to take the first step in addressing this issue. This is a very significant development.2

In the same year, the smaller Tenryūji branch of the Rinzai Zen sect issued a similar statement, again citing the Japanese edition of Zen at War as a catalyst leading to their belated recognition of war responsibility.

In reading these apologies, one is reminded of the “Stuttgart Confession of Religious Guilt,” issued by Protestant church leaders in postwar Germany, in which they repented their support of Hitler and the Nazis. The Confession’s second paragraph read in part: “With great anguish we state: Through us has endless suffering been brought upon many peoples and countries. . . . We accuse ourselves for not witnessing more courageously, for not praying more faithfully, for not believing more joyously, and for not loving more ardently.”3 Nevertheless, there is one significant difference between religious leaders in Japan and Germany, i.e., while the Stuttgart Confession was also issued on 19 October, it was 19 October 1945 not 2001.

It is also true that a relatively small number of German Christians resisted the Nazis, Father Maximillian Kolbe, Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer being among the best known. Similarly a small number of Buddhist priests, both within the Zen school and other sects, also opposed Japanese imperialism. The common denominator between the two groups, however, was their overall ineffectiveness.4 This is no doubt because no matter what the faith or country involved, institutional religion, with but few exceptions, staunchly supports its own nation in wartime.

The Background to D.T. Suzuki’s Wartime Role

There is now near universal recognition, including in Japan, that the Zen school, both Rinzai and Sōtō, strongly supported Japanese imperialism. Nevertheless, there is one Zen figure whose relationship to wartime Japan remains a subject of ongoing, sometimes deeply emotional, controversy: Daisetz Teitarō Suzuki, better known as D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966).5

Given Suzuki’s position as the most important figure in the introduction of Zen to the West, it is hardly surprising that the nature of his relationship to Japanese imperialism should prove controversial, for if he, too, were an imperialist supporter, what would this imply about the nature of the Zen he introduced to the West?

If the following discussion of Suzuki’s wartime record appears to lack balance, or shades of gray, it is not done out of ignorance, let alone denial, of exculpatory evidence concerning this period in his life. However, evidence of Suzuki’s alleged anti-war stance is well known and, indeed, readily accessible on the Internet.6 Hence, there is no need to repeat it here. That said, interested readers are encouraged to review all relevant materials related to Suzuki’s wartime record before reaching their own conclusions.

As important as Suzuki may be, the debate goes far beyond either the record or reputation of a single man. As recent scholarship suggests, Suzuki was in fact no more than one part, albeit a significant part, of a much larger movement. Oleg Benesch described Suzuki’s role as follows:

[Suzuki’s] writings on bushidō and Zen during the period immediately after the Russo-Japanese War [1904-05] are not extensive, but are significant in light of his role in spreading the concept of the connection of Zen and bushidō, especially during the last four decades of his life. Suzuki can be seen as the most significant figure in this context, especially with regard to the dissemination of a Zen-based bushidō outside of Japan.7 (Italics mine)

While these comments may not seem particularly controversial, Benesch also provided a detailed history of the manner in which Suzuki and other early twentieth century Japanese intellectuals, including such luminaries as Nitobe Inazō (1862-1933) and Inoue Tetsujirō (1855-1944), essentially invented a unified bushidō tradition for nationalist use both at home and abroad. Benesch writes:

The development and dissemination of bushidō from the 1880s onward was an organic process initiated by a diverse group of thinkers who were more strongly influenced by the dominant Zeitgeist and Japan’s changing geopolitical position than by any traditional moral code. These individuals were concerned less with Japan’s past than the nation’s future, and their interest in bushidō was prompted primarily by their considerable exposure to the West, pronounced shifts in the popular perception of China, and an apprehensiveness regarding Japan’s relative strength among nations.8

Benesch later added:

The bushidō that developed in Meiji [1868-1912] was not a continuation of any earlier ethic, but it contained factual elements that were carefully selected and reinterpreted by its promoters. . . .concepts such as loyalty, self-sacrifice, duty, and honor, all of which existed in considerably different forms and contexts to those in which they were incorporated into modern bushidō theories. . . .The most important factor in the relatively rapid dissemination of bushidō was the growth of nationalistic sentiments around the time of the Sino-Japanese [1894-95] and Russo-Japanese wars.9

As this article reveals, Suzuki’s writings on the newly created bushidō ‘code’ were very much a part of this larger nationalist discourse. His personal contribution to this discourse was the presentation of bushidō, primarily to a Western audience, as the very embodiment of Zen, including the modern Japanese soldier’s alleged “joyfulness of heart at the time of death.” In 1906, the year following Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War, Suzuki wrote:

The Lebensanschauung of Bushidō is no more nor less than that of Zen. The calmness and even joyfulness of heart at the moment of death which is conspicuously observable in the Japanese, the intrepidity which is generally shown by the Japanese soldiers in the face of an overwhelming enemy; and the fairness of play to an opponent, so strongly taught by Bushidō – all of these come from the spirit of the Zen training, and not from any such blind, fatalistic conception as is sometimes thought to be a trait peculiar to Orientals.10

Suzuki’s praise for, and defense of, Japan’s soldiers as “Orientals” is particularly noteworthy in light of the fact that only two years earlier, i.e., in 1904, Suzuki had himself invoked Buddhism in attempting to convince Japanese youth to die willingly for their country: “Let us then shuffle off this mortal coil whenever it becomes necessary, and not raise a grunting voice against the fates. . . . Resting in this conviction, Buddhists carry the banner of Dharma over the dead and dying until they gain final victory.”11

While comments like these may be interpreted as Suzuki’s ad hoc responses to national events beyond his control, in fact they accurately represent his underlying belief in the appropriate role of religion in a Japan at war. This is clearly demonstrated by the following comments in the very first book Suzuki published in November 1896, entitled A Treatise on the New Meaning of Religion (Shin Shūkyō-ron):

At the time of the commencement of hostilities with a foreign country, marines fight on the sea and soldiers fight in the fields, swords flashing and cannon smoke belching, moving this way and that. In so doing, our soldiers regard their own lives as being as light as goose feathers while their devotion to duty is as heavy as Mount Tai [in China]. Should they fall on the battlefield they have no regrets. This is what is called “religion during a [national] emergency.”12

The year 1896 is significant for two reasons, the first of which is that Suzuki’s book appeared in the immediate aftermath of Japan’s victory in the Sino-Japanese War. This was not only Japan’s first major war abroad but, with the resultant acquisition of Taiwan, marked a major milestone in the growth of Japanese imperialism. Thus, Suzuki’s call for Japan’s religionists to resolutely support the state whenever it went to war could not have been more timely. At a personal level, it was also in December of that year, i.e., just one month after his book appeared, that Suzuki had his initial enlightenment experience (kenshō). This occurred at the time of his participation as a layman in an intensive meditation retreat (sesshin) at Engakuji in Kamakura, and shortly before his departure for more than a decade-long period of study and writing in the U.S. (1897-1908).

As Suzuki’s subsequent statements make clear, his kenshō experience did not alter his view of “religion during a [national] emergency.” Again, this is hardly surprising in light of the fact that Suzuki’s own Rinzai Zen master, Shaku Sōen [1860-1919], Engakuji’s abbot, was also a strong supporter of Japan’s war efforts.

In fact, Shaku’s support of Japan was so strong that during the Russo-Japanese War he volunteered to go to the battlefields in Manchuria as a military chaplain. Shaku explained: “. . . I also wished to inspire, if I could, our valiant soldiers with the ennobling thoughts of the Buddha, so as to enable them to die on the battlefield with the confidence that the task in which they are engaged is great and noble.”13

Once Japan had defeated Russia, its imperial rival, it immediately forced Korea to become a Japanese protectorate in November 1905. This was followed by Japan’s complete annexation of Korea in August 1910, thereby cementing the expansion of the Japanese empire onto the Asian continent. For his part, Suzuki avidly supported Japan’s takeover of Korea as revealed by comments he made in 1912 about that “poor country,” i.e., Korea, as he traversed it on his way to Europe via the Trans-Siberian railroad:

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 the day that it was annexed to Japan as the day of its revival.14

Suzuki’s comments reveal not only his support for Japanese colonialism but also his dismissal of the Korean people’s deep desire for independence. For Suzuki, the future of a poverty-stricken Korea depended on Japanese colonial beneficence.

While no doubt many if not most of Suzuki’s countrymen would have agreed with his position at the time, readers of Zen at War will recognize in both Suzuki and Shaku’s comments early examples of the jingoism that characterized Zen leaders’ war-related pronouncements through the end of the Asia-Pacific War in 1945. Not only did Suzuki admonish Buddhist soldiers to “carry the banner of Dharma over the dead and dying,” they were also directed “not to raise a grunting voice against the fates” as they “shuffle off this mortal coil.” In point of fact, approximately 47,000 young Japanese laid down their lives in the Russo-Japanese War exactly as Suzuki, Shaku and many other Buddhist leaders urged them to do.

The Background to Suzuki’s Article

While the preceding material introduces Suzuki’s attitude to the Russo-Japanese War and his country’s early colonial efforts, it fails to clarify his attitude toward Japan’s subsequent military activities, especially Japan’s aggression against China initiated by the Manchurian Incident of 1931. This aggression would continue and expand for a full fifteen years thereafter, i.e., until Japan’s defeat in August 1945. Suzuki did, however, write an article, “Bushidō to Zen” (Bushidō and Zen), that was included in a 1941 government-endorsed anthology entitled Bushidō no Shinzui (Essence of Bushidō). With additional articles contributed by leading army and navy figures, this book clearly sought to mobilize support for the war effort, both military and civilian. While not originally written for the book, the fact that Suzuki allowed his article to be included indicated at least a sympathetic attitude to this endeavor though it only indirectly referenced the war with China.15

There is, however, yet another lengthy article that appeared in June 1941 in the Imperial Army’s premier journal for its officer corps. The journal, taking its name in part from its parent organization, was entitled: Kaikō-sha Kiji (Kaikō Association Report). Although not formally a government organization, the parent Kaikō-sha (lit. “let’s join the military together”) had been created in 1877 for the purpose of creating Imperial Army officers who were to be of “one mind and body.”16

The Kaikō Association Report was a monthly professional journal dating from July 1888. The journal contained articles on such topics as the latest developments in weaponry, mechanization and aviation but also featured yearly special editions devoted to such military events as the Russo-Japanese War and the Manchurian Incident of 1931. In addition, it regularly devoted substantial space to articles on “thought warfare” (shisō-sen), Japanese spirit (Yamato-damashii), national polity of Japan (kokutai), and “spiritual education” (seishin kyōiku), all key components of wartime ideology.

The journal’s ideological orientation can be seen in the articles that both preceded and followed Suzuki’s own contribution. The article preceding his was entitled “The Philosophical Basis of Spiritual Culture,” and included such statements as: “By comparison with Western laws based on rights, our laws are based on duties. By comparison with a [Western] world that operates according to individualism (kobetsusei), we have created a Japan that operates according to the principles of totality (zentaisei).”17 The article following his, entitled “Concerning the Indispensable Spiritual Elements of Military Aviators,” consisted of a speech by officer candidate Yamaguchi Bunji delivered at the graduation ceremony for the fifty-first class of the Japan Army Aviation Officer Candidate School on March 28, 1941.

As will be seen, Suzuki’s article fit in perfectly with the strong emphasis on “spirit” in this military journal. “Spiritual education” was one of the most important duties for Imperial Army officers. Officers were required to hold regular sessions with the troops under their command in order to introduce examples from Japanese history of the utterly loyal, fearless, and self-sacrificial warrior spirit. That the historical figures Suzuki introduced had acquired their fearlessness in the face of death through Zen practice was clearly welcomed by the journal’s editors, as it was by the leadership of the Imperial Army.18

The article was published in June 1941, i.e., less than six months before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. By then Japan had been fighting in China for four years, and while Japanese forces held most major Chinese cities, they were unable, to their great frustration, to either pacify the countryside or defeat the Nationalist and Communist forces deployed against them. The war was effectively stalemated, yet the death tolls, both Japanese and Chinese, continued to rise relentlessly as Japanese forces took the offensive in a bid to force surrender.

Suzuki Addresses Imperial Army Officers

Suzuki’s contribution took as its title the well-known Zen phrase: “Makujiki Kōzen,” i.e., Rush Forward Without Hesitation!19 Note that the complete English translation of Suzuki’s article is included in Appendix I. Some readers may wish to read the translation prior to reading the following commentary though this is not necessary. In addition, Appendix II contains the entire text of the original article in Japanese.

In the article’s opening paragraphs we find that Suzuki, like his Zen contemporaries, faced an awkward problem. That is to say, on the one hand he could not help but acknowledge that the Zen (Ch., Chan) school had come to fruition, if not created, in China, a country with which Japan had been at war for some four years. Given the massive death and destruction Japan’s invasion of China had caused, including its priceless Buddhist heritage, how could Japanese Zen leaders justify the ongoing destruction of the very country that had contributed so much to their school of Buddhism?

Suzuki addresses this issue by positing Japanese Zen’s superiority to Chinese Zen (Chan) Buddhism. That is to say, Suzuki notes that Zen’s “real efficacy” had only been realized after its arrival in Japan. One proof of this is that in Chinese monasteries meditation monitors use only one hand to hold a short ‘waking stick,’ while their Japanese counterparts hold long waking sticks with both hands just as warriors of old held their long single sword with both hands.

“The meaning of the fact that the waking stick is employed with two hands is that one is able to pour one’s entire strength into its use,” Suzuki claims.

Pouring one’s entire strength into the effort, whether it be waking a dozing meditator or cutting down an opponent, was, for Suzuki, the critical element that Zen and the warrior shared in common. There was no hint of an ethical distinction between the two. Nor did Suzuki acknowledge that in the Sōtō Zen sect, masters continue to employ the short, ‘Chinese-style’ waking stick (tansaku). This last omission is not surprising in that Suzuki typically either ignored, or dismissed, the practice and teachings of this sect.

Suzuki was, furthermore, not content with simply identifying the deficiencies in Chinese Zen, but went on to identify related deficiencies in the “world at large,” including Europe with its single-handed rapiers. That is to say, when non-Japanese fighters wield the sword they do so holding a sword in only one hand in order to hold a shield in the other hand. In so doing, they seek not only to slay their enemy but also to protect themselves, hoping to emerge both victorious and alive from the contest. By contrast, a Japanese warrior holds his sword with two hands because: “There is no attempt to defend oneself. There is only striking down the other.”

Was Suzuki accurate in his implied criticism of non-Japanese fighters for attempting to defend themselves in the midst of combat? While Suzuki didn’t name the “countries other than Japan” he was referring to, when discussing this question with undergraduates in my Japanese culture class, a student well versed in the history of European knighthood replied, “As far as Europe is concerned, there is a long history of employing duel-edged “long swords” with both hands just as in Japan. Further, if Japanese warriors were so unconcerned about their own lives, why did they develop what was at the time some of the strongest armor in the world to protect themselves?”

I had to agree with this student inasmuch as I had observed the same two-handed long swords when visiting the European sword exhibit housed in Edinburgh Castle in the spring of 2012. In any event, by elevating the alleged fearlessness of Japan’s warriors above that of their non-Japanese counterparts, Suzuki clearly demonstrates his nationalistic stance. A nationalism, it must be noted, that was deeply seeped in blood, both in the past and the war then underway.

It should also be noted that the Japanese military had long believed, dating from their victory in the Russo-Japanese War, that they could emerge victorious over a militarily superior (in terms of industrial capacity and weaponry) opponent. In this view, victory over a superior Western opponent, let alone China, was possible exactly because of the willingness of Japanese soldiers to die selflessly and unhesitatingly in battle. By contrast, the soldiers of other countries were seen as desiring nothing so much as to return home alive, thereby weakening their fighting spirit. Suzuki’s words could not have but lent credence to the Japanese military’s (over)confidence.

The themes introduced in his article, especially concerning the relationship of Zen to bushidō and samurai, are all topics that Suzuki had previously written about in both Japanese and English. For example, readers familiar with Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture (published in 1938 and reprinted in the postwar period as Zen and Japanese Culture) will recall that at the beginning of Chapter IV, “Zen and the Samurai,” Suzuki wrote:

In Japan, Zen was intimately related from the beginning of its history to the life of the samurai. Although it has never actively incited them to carry on their violent profession, it has passively sustained them when they have for whatever reason once entered into it. Zen has sustained them in two ways, morally and philosophically. Morally, because Zen is a religion which teaches us not to look backward once the course is decided upon; philosophically because it treats life and death indifferently. . . . Therefore, morally and philosophically, there is in Zen a great deal of attraction for the military classes. The military mind, being – and this is one of the essential qualities of the fighter – comparatively simple and not at all addicted to philosophizing finds a congenial spirit in Zen. This is probably one of the main reasons for the close relationship between Zen and the samurai.20 (Italics mine)

While Suzuki’s officer readers probably would not have welcomed his reference to their “comparatively simple” military minds, the preceding quote nevertheless accurately summarizes the article under discussion here. And to his credit, unlike most other wartime Japanese Zen leaders, Suzuki did not actively incite his officer readers to carry on their violent profession. By contrast, for example, in 1943 Sōtō Zen master Yasutani Haku’un [1885–1973] wrote:

Of course one should kill, killing as many as possible. One should, fighting hard, kill every one 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. . . . 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. This is a special characteristic of the Mahāyāna precepts.21

While these kinds of bellicose statements are notably absent from Suzuki’s writings, the current article, when read in its entirety, makes it clear that Suzuki did in fact seek to passively sustain Japan’s officers and men through his repeated advocacy of such things as “not look[ing] backward once the course is decided upon” and “treat[ing] life and death indifferently.” This leads to the question of just how different Suzuki was from someone like Yasutani given that Suzuki’s officer readers were also encouraged to “pour their entire body and mind into the attack” in the midst of an unprovoked invasion of China that resulted in the deaths of many millions of its citizens?

Even readers who haven’t served in the military can readily appreciate the fact that there are two fundamental questions that engulf a soldier’s mind prior to going into battle. First and foremost is the question of self-preservation, i.e., will I return alive? And a close second is - am I prepared to die if necessary? It is in answering the second question, i.e., in providing the mental preparation necessary for possible death, that a soldier’s religious faith is typically of paramount importance. Suzuki was well aware of this, for in promoting Zen training for warriors he wrote elsewhere: “Death now loses its sting altogether, and this is where the samurai training joins hands with Zen.”22

In short, read in its entirety Suzuki seeks in this article to prepare his officer readers, and through them ordinary soldiers, for death by weaponizing Zen, i.e., turning Zen into nothing less than a cult of death. The word ‘cult’ is used here to refer to one of its many meanings, i.e., a religious system devoted to only one thing -- death in this instance. On no less that six occasions throughout his article Suzuki stresses just how important being “prepared to die” (shineru) is, noting that Zen is “the best shortcut to acquire this frame of mind.”

Even if it could be demonstrated that this article was not written specifically for Japan’s Imperial Army officers, little would change, for there cannot be the slightest doubt that Suzuki’s words were intended for a wartime Japanese audience. This is made clear by Suzuki’s statement later in the article that “I think the extent of the crisis experienced then cannot be compared with the ordeal we are undergoing today.” As revealed in Zen at War, by 1941, if not before, all Japanese, young and old, civilian and military, were subject to a massive propaganda campaign, promulgated by government, Buddhist and educational leaders, to accept the death-embracing values of bushidō as their own. Or as expressed by Suzuki in this article: “. . . in undertaking any work one should be prepared to die.” (Italics mine)

Here, the question must be asked as to where this Zen shortcut to being prepared to die came from? Did it come from India, Buddhism’s birthplace, or China, Zen (Chan)’s sectarian home? It most definitely did not, for, as already noted, Suzuki tells us that Zen’s “real efficacy was supplied to a great extent after coming to Japan.” And as he further notes, it was only after arrival in Japan “that Zen became united with the sword.” Unlike the studied ambiguity that typically characterized his war and warrior-related writings in English, and oft-times in Japanese as well, Suzuki was clearly not speaking in this article of some metaphysical sword cutting through mental illusion.

Instead, Suzuki was referring to real swords wielded by some of Japan’s greatest Zen-trained warlords as, over the centuries, they and their subordinates cut through the flesh and bones of many thousands of their opponents on the battlefield, fully prepared to die in the process, using Zen as “the best shortcut to acquire this frame of mind.”

Interestingly, Suzuki admits in this article that some of the famous Zen-related anecdotes associated with Kamakura Regent Hōjō Tokimune (1251-84) may not have taken place.

He writes: “The following story has been handed down to us though I don’t know how much of this legend is actually true.” Compare this admission with Suzuki’s presentation of the same material in Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture. Addressing his English readers, Suzuki wrote that while the exchange between Tokimune and National Master Bukkō (1226-86) is “not quite authenticated,” it nevertheless “gives support to our imaginative reconstruction of his [Tokimune’s] attitude towards Zen.”23

One is left to speculate what Suzuki’s officer readers knew about these allegedly Zen-related anecdotes that his Western readers didn’t know (or perhaps more accurately, weren’t supposed to know).

In any event, when reading Suzuki’s repeated claims about the similarities between Zen and the Japanese, one is left to wonder whether it was Zen that shaped “the characteristics of the Japanese people” or, on the contrary, was it “the characteristics of the Japanese people” that shaped Zen? Or perhaps there was some mystical karmic connection that led both of them down the same path – a path in which to “rush forward without hesitation” and “cease discriminating thought” came to mean “one should abandon life and rush ahead”?

Furthermore, Suzuki is quite willing to privilege his fellow Japanese with a national character that almost inherently disposes them to Zen. For example, Suzuki claims “there are things about the Japanese character that are amazingly consistent with Zen.” That is to say, the Japanese people “rush forward to the heart of things without meandering about” and “go directly forward to that goal without looking either to the right or to the left.” In so doing they “forget where they are.”

If only in hindsight, in reading words like these, it is difficult not be reminded of the infamous and tactically futile “banzai charges” of the wartime Imperial Army let alone the tactics of kamikaze pilots and the manned torpedoes (kaiten) of the Imperial Navy.

Yet, is it fair to interpret Suzuki’s words as expressions of support for such suicidal acts?

One of Suzuki’s defenders who strongly opposes such an interpretation is Kemmyō Taira Satō, a Shin (True Pure Land) Buddhist priest who identifies himself as one of Suzuki’s postwar disciples. Satō writes: “Apart from his silence on Bushido after the early 1940s, Suzuki was active as an author during all of the war years, submitting to Buddhist journals numerous articles that conspicuously avoided mention of the ongoing conflict.” (Italics mine)

As further proof, Sato cites an article written by the noted Suzuki scholar Kirita Kiyohide:

During this [war] period one of the journals Suzuki contributed to frequently, Daijōzen [Mahayana Zen], fairly bristled with pro-militarist articles. In issues filled with essays proclaiming “Victory in the Holy War!” and bearing such titles as “Death Is the Last Battle,” “Certain Victory for Kamikaze and Torpedoes,” and “The Noble Sacrifice of a Hundred Million,” Suzuki continued with contributions on subjects like “Zen and Culture.”24

On the one hand, these statements inevitably raise the question of Suzuki’s attitude to Japan’s attack on the U.S. in December 1941. That is to say, what was it that caused Suzuki to stop writing about such war-related topics as bushidō in the early 1940s? Could it have been his opposition to war with the U.S. versus his earlier support for Japan’s full-scale invasion of China from 1937 onwards? Setting this topic aside for further exploration below, the question remains, inasmuch as Suzuki, at least in June 1941, affirmed such things as the acceptability of a dog’s, i.e., meaningless, death, and noted that “in undertaking any work one should be prepared to die” what basis would he have had for opposing such suicidal attacks?

Yet another of Chan’s deficiencies is that in China, Chan had been almost entirely bereft of a military connection. By contrast, it was only after Chan became Zen in Japan that it was linked to Zen-practicing warriors. In fact, Suzuki claims that from the Kamakura period onwards, all Japanese warriors practiced Zen. Suzuki makes this claim despite the fact that the greatest of all Japan’s medieval warriors, i.e., Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), was an adherent of the Pure Land sect (J. Jōdo-shū) Buddhism, not Zen. Suzuki also urges his readers to pay special attention to the fact that “Zen became united with the sword” only after its arrival in Japan.

For Suzuki it was such great medieval warlords as Hōjō Tokimune, Uesugi Kenshin (1530-78), and Takeda Shingen (1521-73) who demonstrated the impact the unity of Zen and the sword had on the subsequent development of Japan. It was their Zen training that allowed these men to “rush forward without hesitation” and “cease discriminating thought.” If, in the case of Hōjō Tokimune, it can be said that at least his was a defensive war against invading Mongols, the same cannot be said for such warlords as Uesugi and Takeda. They were responsible for the deaths of thousands of their enemies and their own forces, each one of them attempting to conquer Japan. Suzuki lumps these warlords together as exemplars of what can be accomplished with the proper mental attitude acquired through Zen training. Suzuki does not even hint at the possibility that in the massive carnage these warlords collectively reaped, the Buddhist precept against the taking of life might have been violated.

It is instructive here to compare Suzuki’s words with those of Japan’s most celebrated, Zen-trained “god of war” (gunshin) of the Asia-Pacific War. I refer to Lt. Col. Sugimoto Gorō, whose posthumous book, Taigi (Great Duty), first published in 1938, sold over a million copies, a far greater number than I first realized when writing Zen at War.

Sugimoto provided the following rationale for Zen’s importance to the Imperial military: “Through my practice of Zen I am able to get rid of my ego. In facilitating the accomplishment of this, Zen becomes, as it is, the true spirit of the Imperial military.”25 Suzuki was clearly in basic agreement with Sugimoto’s claim.

Suzuki argues that it isn’t sufficient to simply discard life and death. Instead, one should “live on the basis of something larger than life and death. That is to say, one must live on the basis of great affirmation.” But what did this “great affirmation” consist of? Suzuki fails to elaborate beyond stating that it is “faith that is great affirmation.” Yet, what should the object of one’s faith be?

Once again Suzuki remains silent on this critical question apart from stating that the way to encounter this great affirmation is to dig ever deeper to the bottom of one’s mind, digging until there is nothing left to dig. It was only then, he claims, that “one can, for the first time, encounter great affirmation.”
Suzuki admits, however, that this great affirmation is not a single entity but “takes on various forms for the peoples of every country.” Yet, what form does or should it take in a Japan that had invaded and was fighting a long and bitter war with China?

As in many other instances of his wartime writings, and as alluded to above, Suzuki maintains a studied ambiguity that makes it impossible to state with certainty what he was referring to. That said, it is clear that nothing in his article would have served to dissuade his readers from fulfilling, let alone questioning, their duties as Imperial Army officers or soldiers in China or elsewhere. Had there been the slightest question that anything Suzuki wrote might have negatively impacted Imperial Army officers who were to be of “one mind and body,” it is inconceivable that the editors of the Kaikō Association Report would have published it.

In asserting this, let me express my appreciation to Sueki Fumihiko, one of Japan’s leading historians of modern Japanese Buddhism. In an article entitled “Daisetsu hihan saikō” (Rethinking Criticisms of Daisetsu [Suzuki]), Sueki first presented the arguments made by some of Suzuki’s most prominent defenders, namely, that when some of Suzuki’s wartime writings are closely parsed it is possible to interpret them as containing criticisms of the Imperial Army’s recklessness as well as its abuse of the alleged magnanimity and compassion of the true bushidō spirit. Further, Sueki acknowledges, as do I, that in the days leading up to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor Suzuki opposed war with the U.S. Nevertheless, Sueki came to the following conclusion: “When we frankly accept Suzuki’s words at face value, we must also consider how, in the midst of the [war] situation as it was then, his words would have been understood.”26

As for Suzuki’s opposition to war with the U.S., it is significant that his one and only public warning did not come until September 1941, i.e., only three months before Pearl Harbor. The unlikely occasion was a guest lecture Suzuki delivered at Kyoto University entitled “Zen and Japanese Culture.” Upon finishing his lecture, Suzuki initially stepped down from the podium but then returned to add:

Japan must evaluate more calmly and accurately the awesome reality of America’s industrial productivity. Present-day wars will no longer be determined as in the past by military strategy and tactics, courage and fearlessness alone. This is because of the large role now played by production capacity and mechanical power. 27

As his words clearly reveal, Suzuki’s opposition to the approaching war with the U.S. had nothing to do with his Buddhist faith or a commitment to peace. Rather, having lived in America for more than a decade, Suzuki knew only too well that Japan was no match for such a large and powerful industrial nation. In short, Suzuki’s words might best be described as a statement of “common sense” though by 1941 this was clearly a commodity in short supply in Japan.

Be that as it may, when we ask how Suzuki’s Imperial Army officer readers would have interpreted the “great affirmation” he referred to, there can be no doubt they would have understood this to be an affirmation, if not an exhortation, for total loyalty unto death to an emperor who was held to be the divine embodiment of the state. The following calligraphic statement, displayed prominently in every Imperial Army barracks, testified to this: “We are the arms and legs of the emperor.” Due to its ubiquitous nature, Suzuki could not help but have been aware of this “affirmation.” Thus, whatever Suzuki’s personal opinion may have been, he would have been well aware that his officer readers would understand his words to mean absolute loyalty to the emperor.

Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that in one important aspect Suzuki did part way with other wartime Zen enthusiasts, for not withstanding his emphasis on “great affirmation,” Suzuki does not explicitly link Zen to the emperor. Compare this absence to the previously introduced Lt. Col. Sugimoto who wrote: “The reason that Zen is important for soldiers is that all Japanese, especially soldiers, must live in the spirit of the unity of sovereign and subjects, eliminating their ego and getting rid of their self. It is exactly the awakening to the nothingness (mu) of Zen that is the fundamental spirit of the unity of sovereign and subjects.”28

By not engaging in emperor adulation in his wartime writings, Suzuki was unique among his Zen contemporaries. Yet this does not mean that he either opposed the emperor system per se or lacked respect for the emperor. This is revealed by the following statement Suzuki made to Gerhard Rosenkrantz, a German missionary visiting Japan in 1939, in the library of Otani University:

We Buddhists bow in front of the emperor’s image, but for us this is not a religious act. The emperor is not a god because for Buddhists a [Shinto] god can be something very low. We see the emperor in an area high above all religions. Trying to make him a god today means a reduction in the status of the emperor. This brings confusion to Buddhism, Shinto and Christianity.29

Thus, even while denying the emperor’s divinity, Suzuki nevertheless justified bowing to the emperor’s image inasmuch he was a personage “in an area high above all religions.”

Nor should it be forgotten that Suzuki’s article was not written exclusively on behalf of Imperial Army officers alone. As previously noted, a key responsibility of the officer corps was to provide “spiritual education” for their soldiers. Thus, they were in constant need of additional historical examples of the attitude that all Imperial subjects, starting with Imperial soldiers, were expected to possess, i.e., an unquestioning, unhesitant and unthinking willingness to die in the war effort. Suzuki’s writings clearly contributed to this effort though it is, of course, impossible to quantify the impact his writings had.


Let me begin this section in something of an unusual manner, i.e., by offering a “defense” of what Suzuki has written in this and similar articles dealing with warriors, bushidō, and the alleged unity of Zen and the sword. That said, while a genuine defense is offered, it is one that nevertheless has a “hook in the tail.”

My contention is that Suzuki should not be blamed for having distorted or mischaracterized Zen history or practice, especially in Japan, to make it a useful tool in the hands of Japanese militarists. That is to say, on the one hand Suzuki can and should be held responsible for the purely nationalistic elements in his writings, including collaboration in the modern fabrication of an ancient and unified bushidō tradition with Zen as its core. Yet, on the other hand, the seven hundred year long history of the close relationship between Zen and the warrior class, hence Zen and the sword, was most definitely not a Suzuki fabrication. There are simply too many historical records of this close relationship to claim that Suzuki simply invented the relationship out of whole cloth.

Thus, Suzuki might best be described as a skilled, modern day, nationalistic proponent of that close relationship in the deadly context of Japan’s invasion of China. Further, in his English writings, Suzuki did his best to convince gullible Westerners that the so-called “unity of Zen and the sword” he described was an authentic expression of Buddhist teachings. In this effort, it must be said, Suzuki has been, at least until recently, eminently successful.

Some Suzuki scholars attempt to defend the most egregious aspects of Suzuki’s nationalist and wartime writings by pointing out that he may have been coerced into writing them by the then totalitarian state. Certainly, there can be no doubt that Suzuki wrote in an era of intense governmental censorship, with authorities ever vigilant against the slightest ideological deviancy. Nevertheless, the most striking features of Suzuki’s substantive wartime writings are, first of all, that they were never censored, and, secondly, their consistency with his earlier writings, dating back to 1896. That is to say, over a span of forty-five years Suzuki repeatedly yoked religion, Buddhism and Zen to the Japanese soldiers’ willingness to die. Certainly no one would claim that Suzuki was writing under fear of government censorship or imprisonment in 1896.

Where Suzuki did break with the past close relationship of Zen to the warrior class was in transmuting this feudal relationship into one encompassing Zen and the modern Japanese state albeit not specifically with the personage of the emperor. It is in having done this that he can rightly be identified as a “Zen nationalist.”30 Needless to say, he was only one of many such Zen leaders, and when compared with the likes of Yasutani Haku’un, Suzuki was clearly less extreme.31

When we inquire as to the cause or reason for the close relationship between Zen, violence, and the modern state that Suzuki promoted, the answer is not hard to find. In his book, Buddhism without Beliefs, Stephan Bachelor [Stephen Batchelor] provides the following explanation regarding not just Zen but all faiths, i.e., "the power of organized religion to provide sovereign states with a bulwark of moral legitimacy. . .”32 To which I would add in this instance, the power of Zen training to mentally prepare warriors/soldiers to both kill and be killed. Or as Suzuki would have it, to “passively sustain” them on the battlefield.

Having said this, I would ask readers to reflect on the historical relationship of their own faith, should they have one, to the state, and state-initiated violence. Was Batchelor correct in his observation with regard to the reader’s faith? That is to say, have not all of the world’s major religions, like Buddhism, provided moral legitimacy for the state’s use of violence? Is Buddhism unique in having done this or only one further example of Chicago University Martin Marty’s insightful comment that “one must note the feature of religion that keeps it on the front page and on prime time -- it kills”?33

To answer yes to any of these questions is not to excuse, let alone justify, Zen or any other school of Buddhism’s moral lapses in this or any instance. Yet, it does suggest the enormity of the problem facing all faiths if they are to remain true to their tenets, all of which number love and compassion among their highest ideals. At the end of his life Buddha Shakyamuni is recorded as having urged his followers to “work out your salvation with diligence.” In the face of continuing, if not increasing, religious violence in today’s world, is his advice any less relevant to all who, if only in terms of their own faith, seek to create a religion truly dedicated to world peace and our shared humanity?

Brian Daizen Victoria is a Visiting Research Fellow, International Research Center for Japanese Studies (Nichibunken) in Kyoto, Japan.

Re: D.T. Suzuki, Zen and the Nazis, by Brian Daizen Victoria

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Part 2 of 2

Appendix I (Complete English Translation of Article)

“Makujiki Kōzen” (Rush Forward Without Hesitation).34

I think that most scholars and informed persons will agree that Zen thought is one of the most important factors forming the basis of Japanese culture. Although Zen originally came from India, in reality it was brought to fruition in China while its real efficacy was achieved to a great extent after coming to Japan.

The reason for this is that there are things about the Japanese character that are amazingly consistent with Zen. I think the most visible of these is rushing forward to the heart of things without meandering about. Once the goal has been determined, one goes directly forward to that goal without looking either to the right or to the left. One goes forward, forgetting where one is. I think this is the most essential element of the Japanese character. In this, I think, Zen is one of the strongest factors allowing the Japanese people to rush forward.

For example, the Japanese hold a sword with both hands, not one. Although I have not researched this question extensively, in countries other than Japan they use only one hand to hold a sword. Further, they use their left hand to hold a shield. That is to say, they use one hand to defend themselves while they use the other hand to strike the enemy. Although my knowledge is limited, this is what I think as I observe the world at large. However, a sword in Japan is held with two hands. There is no attempt to defend oneself. There is only striking down the other. That is to say, one discards the body and plunges toward the other. This is the Japanese people’s way of doing things. And it also happens to be the Zen way of doing things.

I became aware of this from [my experience in] a Zen meditation hall. In a Japanese meditation hall there is something called a waking stick (keisaku). A waking stick is made of wood and is about 121 cm long. It is an implement used to strike someone who is practicing zazen in a situation where their shoulders become stiff from having put too much strength into them. At that time, both hands are used to wield the waking stick.

In China, too, there is a kind of waking stick. Although I don’t know what was used in the past, the waking stick that is used today is approximately 76 cm long and is used for striking with only one hand. However, in Japan we use both hands. Given this, it may be that only at the time the waking stick first arrived in Japan was it held with one hand. Then, after coming to Japan, it became used with two hands.

The meaning of the fact that the waking stick is employed with two hands is that one is able to pour one’s entire strength into its use. That doesn’t mean that it is impossible to pour one’s entire strength into wielding the waking stick with only one hand, but I think that using both hands, rather than one, is better and enables one to more fully put one’s entire strength into the effort. In Europe there is something known as fencing which employs a thin blade using only one hand. In this instance the left hand is simply held high above the shoulder while one thrusts forward with all one’s might. However, the place at which one’s power emerges is the very tip of the blade being held with one hand. In a situation where one holds a sword with both hands, there is no doubt that, in comparison with holding it with one hand, one is better able to exert one’s full strength. While I don’t know what a practitioner of swordsmanship would say about this, seen from the point of view of an outsider like myself, this is how it appears.

Although it is said that [the famous swordsman] Miyamoto Musashi used two swords, I have heard that in an actual swordsmanship match he never used two swords though I don’t know how true that is. Furthermore, I think that in a situation where Musashi used two swords, one of them was simply used for defense.

It was not a question of both swords being used independently by each hand, but a situation in which the movement of one mind expressed itself, depending on the situation, with each of two swords. For that reason it was not a question of thrusting with each one of two swords but of either thrusting with both hands or slicing with both hands at the same time. The truth is that while he appeared to use two swords, I think the reality was that he employed the swords in both hands as if he were grasping a single long sword.

Be that as it may, the character of the Japanese people is to come straight to the point and pour their entire body and mind into the attack. This is the character of the Japanese people and, at the same time, the essence of Zen.

The Meaning of Being Prepared to Die

The Hagakure states that bushidō means to be prepared to die. That is to say, in undertaking any kind of work it is said that one must “die first.” It may be that in such a situation there is something known as a dog’s [i.e., pointless] death. It may be that when it is the right time to die one should simply die in that situation. In any event, what the Hagakure states is that even a dog’s death is all right. That is to say, in undertaking any work one should be prepared to die.

This is the way it is written [in the Hagakure], and seen from a psychological point of view this is, I think, truly the way it ought to be. In human beings there is, in general, something known as the self. The concept of an individual self is not something easily gotten rid of. In Buddhism this is something known as illusion. Illusion is made up of fine threads that are strung together in such a way as to make it impossible to move freely. Although the threads are extremely fine, one is incessantly caught in their grasp. The decision to be prepared to die means the cutting of these threads. To truly be able to do this is not possible simply by deciding to die in the course of working. There is something far deeper than this that must be done.

In this connection there is the following story. In medieval Europe there was a lady who decided to enter a nunnery to engage in religious practice, but her family wasn’t willing to let her go. Although a number of years passed, she had no opportunity to make good her escape. Then, one night a good opportunity came, and she managed to leave home. She intended to go to a monastery and spend the rest of her life in religious practice. Upon leaving home she took some money with her because she felt that without money she wouldn’t be able to buy something to eat along the way.

What can be said in this regard is that her attraction to money was a symbol of just how hard it was for her to overcome attachment to a world she claimed to have cast aside. At that point the lady thought to herself how lamentable it was that in the midst of having discarded the world, her parents and siblings, in order to dedicate herself to God, she was still attached to money. She became worried about the money she had taken, thinking that she would be unable to accomplish anything. Thinking to herself that she had to cast aside the money, she decided to get rid of it. As a result, the story goes, her mood underwent a drastic change, and she acquired a frame of mind in which she was readily able to do what had to be done.

In the past, there was a Buddhist priest by the name of St. Kūya. St. Kūya constantly recited the phrase, Namu Amida-butsu [Hail to Amitābha Buddha], as he walked about. There is a story that at one point someone asked him, “What is the purpose of Buddhist practice?” He replied, “Discard everything!” as he quickly walked past. This “discard” is the main point of Buddhism and also the spirit of Zen.

Discarding a sum of money is the same as discarding one’s life. Now in the case of the Christian woman, money represented the same bond of life and death as it does to an ordinary warrior who fails to become free due to his routine mental state. In the past, a warrior was someone who discarded his life on behalf of his master. It meant that he could discard his life in the midst of battle.

It may well be that discarding one’s life in the midst of battle is relatively easy, for I think it isn’t too difficult for ordinary people to discard their lives when the entire environment calls for it. However, what is difficult is to give up one’s life in peacetime. That is to say, when the world is at peace. It is then that it is difficult to have a frame of mind in which one is prepared to give up everything one has. Yet, someone who is able to do so is completely free, though this mental state is quite difficult to acquire.

In the past they discussed this problem in China, too. A nation would fall, they said, in a situation where warriors, becoming cautious, were reluctant to lose their lives while, at the same time, government officials sought to enrich themselves. Should there be military men who were reluctant to lose their lives they would be of no use whatsoever. Should there be any like that, they ought to stop being military men. When this is applied to government officials, this is not simply a question of their loving money or fame. Rather, I believe it is possible to say that they, too, must try to discard their lives. In the past there was no special class known as government officials, for warriors were both military men and government officials. In peacetime warriors engaged in politics in government offices while in wartime they took up the sword and charged ahead. Military men became political figures, and political figures were originally military men.

In any event, it isn’t easy to acquire the mental state in which one is prepared to die. I think the best shortcut to acquire this frame of mind is none other than Zen, for Zen is the fundamental ideal of religion. It isn’t simply a question of being prepared to die, as Zen is prepared to transcend death. This is called the “unity of life and death” in which living and dying are viewed as one. The fact that these two are one represents Zen’s view of human life and the world.

In the past there was [a Zen priest by the name of] National Teacher Sekizan. A story describes a disciple who asked him, “I and others are imprisoned by life and death and cannot become free. What can we do to realize the unity of life and death?” Sekizan taught him, saying, “You don’t have such trivial things as life and death!”

Rushing Forward Without Hesitation

At present I am in Kamakura where I live within Engakuji temple’s precincts. I would like to discuss Hōjō Tokimune and National Teacher Bukkō who constructed Engakuji temple. Tokimune became regent when he was only eighteen years old and died at the age of thirty-four. His rule of seventeen years began and ended with a foreign policy directed against the Mongols. Were something like this to take place today when transportation is readily available, I think it would be easy to get information about the enemy. However, in the Kamakura period it was almost impossible to get information about either the enemy or their disposition. Still, communication was possible through people who either went to China from Japan or came to Japan from China, so I think there was quite a lot of information available.

That said, in one sense one nevertheless encountered a large unknown. The large unknown was exactly when and under what conditions the enemy would arrive. I think that as far as Tokimune, their opponent, was concerned, it was not sufficient to be just politically or militarily prepared. One is able to fight well only when one knows both the enemy and those at one’s side. Because it was an unknown enemy, it was very difficult to determine the size of the force that would be sufficient to oppose them. Nevertheless, it was a situation in which, moment by moment, the crisis drew nearer. I think the extent of the crisis experienced then cannot be compared with the ordeal we are undergoing today. I would like to imagine the frame of mind that made it possible to surmount the hardships of those times.

At long last, a massive Mongol army invaded on two occasions. In opposing them, Tokimune never once set foot out of Kamakura. The war took place within the confines of [the southern island of] Kyushu. Today we wouldn’t describe such a place as being far away, but rather, close at hand. However, in the Kamakura period, in an age when travel was difficult, it must be said that Kyushu was indeed a distant place. Further, although Tokimune didn’t relocate the Shogunate [military] government, he was still able to gather soldiers together from throughout the country of their own free will.

Tokimune didn’t accomplish this by himself. Instead, it was the nature of Kamakura in those days that made it possible for him, due to his virtue, to unite all the people together in a harmonious whole, not simply through the exercise of his power. I think this was not something he was able to do on his own. True enough, there were Shinto shrines flourishing throughout the country, not to mention [the protection of] various gods and Buddhas. Yet, while it is fine to pray to them, the power of prayer by itself would not serve to defeat the enemy. I think one must have material goods such as tanks to counter tanks in order to accomplish this. When the Mongolian soldiers attacked, merely praying for their death would be insufficient. That is to say, it was necessary to prepare a sufficient military force. It is said there was a divine wind [kamikaze], but the blowing of such a divine wind was recognized only after the fact, not before it occurred. That is to say, it was impossible to depend on a divine wind before it had blown. If, in anticipation of a divine wind, Tokimune had failed to make preparations, it may well be that the Mongol soldiers would have advanced as far as Kyoto at some point.

Although people like myself are not familiar with strategic military terminology, I am sure Tokimune must have had a plan prepared consisting of a first, second and third stage. I’m sure he wouldn’t have done something so reckless as to construct a fortress and then tell everyone to take it easy. If this is true, then he simply didn’t remain in Kamakura unperturbed. Being the type of person he was, there can be no doubt that he must have first thought of the preparations and methods that would allow him to remain calm. It is unthinkable that it could simply be a question of his attitude or daring alone.

Without observing the other side, nothing can be accomplished. Even if there were such a thing as bravery unconcerned about the other side, there must be appropriate methods for the effective utilization of such bravery. If it were possible to pray for the death of the enemy without using appropriate methods, i.e., by means of spirit alone, it may well be that there are enemies who can be killed in this way. But it may also be there are enemies who cannot be killed through the power of prayer. This way [of defeating the enemy] simply can’t be counted on. There must be other effective methods that can be utilized. I believe it is only common sense to think that Tokimune must have possessed such methods. While my knowledge of history is limited, not to mention that I have no knowledge of military strategy, nevertheless, as someone with common sense, what I have said is quite possible when one considers the state of affairs at that time.

The following story has been handed down to us though I don’t know how much of this legend is actually true. Nevertheless, it is clear that even if a legend didn’t actually occur at the time and place claimed, there was a background to asserting that the events in the legend actually happened. If may well be that not all historical facts that have been transmitted down to us are true. But the reason we accept something that didn’t actually happen is because we must have already prepared something within our minds that allows us to accept it as fact. This becomes reflected in the environment and is transmitted to us as fact. And for this reason persons who hear facts like these can immediately believe them.

The significance of the preceding discussion concerns the moment when, having received news that the Mongolian soldiers were on their way, Tokimune approached National Master Bukkō to inform him that a fearful situation confronted him. In response National Master Bukkō immediately said, “Rush forward without hesitation!”

In addition, there is also this exchange between the two. Tokimune asked National Master Bukkō, “When various incidents occur, and I am perplexed by things that happen here, and by things that happen there, what frame of mind should I have in seeking to deal with them?” It is said that National Master Bukkō immediately responded, “Cease discriminating thought!”

Either expression, i.e., “rush forward without hesitation” or “cease discriminating thought,” is fine. Further, whether National Master Bukkō actually said these words or, instead, Tokimune expressed his own belief, is likewise fine. In any event, it is sufficient to imagine that at some point National Master Bukkō and Tokimune had a conversation like this.

These exchanges point to the fact that by the time the Mongol soldiers arrived, Tokimune was already mentally prepared. I think this means there was no need for Tokimune to make a specific visit to National Master Bukkō to show his determination. I imagine that these exchanges, like something out of a drama or novel, were created in order to effectively reveal his frame of mind. This is because Tokimune had already undergone sufficient mental training during the course of his life. This wasn’t a situation in which the matter would be resolved simply by asking something like what I should do now that the Mongols have arrived. The greater the power someone has developed is, the greater its application is to be commended. As we have all already experienced, momentary pretense is of no use.

Leaving aside the question of whether the preceding exchanges actually occurred at a particular point in time, there can be no doubt that Tokimune was wont to use “rush forward without hesitation” and “cease discriminating thought” as the core of his methods for mental training. In one sense it can be said that “rush forward without hesitation” and “cease discriminating thought” are characteristics of the Japanese people. Their implication is that, disregarding birth and death, one should abandon life and rush ahead. It is here, I think, that Zen and the Japanese people’s, especially the warriors,’ basic outlook are in agreement.

The Essence of Things

In China, Zen served, on the one hand, as a kind of philosophy and, on the other hand, as religious belief. Although in China there were quite a few scholars, religious persons and artists who practiced Zen, it appears that it did not become the basis of Chinese life. In particular, one hears almost nothing about military men and warriors who practiced Zen. If we consider Wang Yangming to have been a military man, his main profession was nevertheless that of a scholar or, more specifically, a scholar of Confucianism. However, it is true that he did fight and was very successful. As far as military men who practiced Zen in China, he was, I think, probably the only one to have done so.

However, when Zen came to Japan things were completely different. In Japan warriors have, for the most part, practiced Zen. Especially from the Kamakura period [1185-1333] through the Ashikaga [1337-1573] and Warring States period [1467-1567], it is correct to say that all of them practiced Zen. This is clear when one looks at such famous examples as [warlords] Uesugi Kenshin, Takeda Shingen, and others. And then, with the advent of the Tokugawa period [1603-1868], we find Zen was very popular among famous painters.

I believe one should pay special attention to the fact that Zen became united with the sword. When we look at the inner essence of swordsmanship, or its secret teachings, or its oral transmission, it can be said that all of them added an element of Zen. There is no need to give various examples of this inasmuch as those who have researched this question even slightly would readily agree.
That said, one of the clearest examples can be seen in the relationship between [Zen Master] Takuan and [sword master] Yagyū Tajima no kami. And while not as well known as Yagyū Tajima-no-kami, there is also the relationship between Katō Dewa-no-kami Taikō, Lord of the Iyō Ōzu [region], and Zen Master Bankei. Lord Katō of Ōzu was an expert with a spear. While I don’t know how skilled Zen Master Bankei was with a spear, given that he was a Buddhist priest I think he may not have been all that skilled. Nevertheless Katō Taikō received a secret transmission concerning the spear from Zen Master Bankei.

Whether we are talking about the inner essence of swordsmanship or that of politics, or battle, the most important question for all persons is that of the self. One must begin to discard the individual self. When you have something called a self you are slave to the self. This is because the self is something that, by nature, is born and dies. If one attempts to distance oneself from life and death, one must not have a self.

One must transcend the self. However, this is not a question of discarding or eliminating the self. In order to eliminate the self one must find something that is larger than the self. Human beings are unable to accomplish anything by being passive. On the other hand, when they actively affirm something they are able to act. By nature human beings die through negation and live through affirmation. One mustn’t simply discard life and death but, instead, live on the basis of something larger that life and death. That is to say, one must live on the basis of great affirmation. If it were simply a question of discarding that would be negation, not affirmation.

To be more precise, it is faith that is great affirmation. One must encounter this great affirmation. Depending on the person, this great affirmation can take many forms. Further, I think that it takes on various forms for the peoples of every country. Still further, I think that it takes on various forms depending on the social class of the person in question. Nevertheless, if it is a question of true affirmation, it must consist of digging deeply to the bottom of one’s mind, then more deeply and still more deeply to the point where there is nothing left to dig. It is only then that one can, for the first time, encounter great affirmation.

When this is expressed in a Confucian context it is called sincerity. In the Shinto tradition it can be called being without artifice. Whether it is called sincerity or being without artifice, these are not things that can be acquired in a whimsical manner. Nor are they things that, as ordinary people never tire of saying, can be united together. This great affirmation is something that people must experience for themselves, not bragging about it boisterously and indiscriminately in front of others. This must be thoroughly understood. Rather than rambling on about this great affirmation in front of others, it should be stored in one’s mind and taken out and used as necessary.

A 17th century] scholar by the name of Yamaga Sokō [1622-85] wrote a work entitled Seikyō-yōron [A Summary of Confucian Teachings]. In this work he defines sincerity as meaning “something unavoidable.” Sincerity, then, is something that cannot be avoided. The meaning of “something unavoidable” is that one digs deep, deeper and still deeper into the innermost recesses of the mind. Having reached the culmination of digging deep into the mind, one encounters a moving object. The moving object encountered is “something unavoidable.” That which people never tire of talking about is not “something unavoidable,” but rather something that is nothing more than an aspect of the self. Therefore, it is not a moving object that comes from the innermost depth of the mind. Further, Yamaga Sokō states “something unavoidable” is “something natural.” This “something natural” ought to be seen as the equivalent of “being without artifice.”

Finally, there is this poem. In the Tokugawa era there was a person by the name of Zen Master Shidō Bunan. Among his poems is the following:

Become a dead man while still alive and do so thoroughly.
Then you will be able to live as your heart leads you.35

There is no need for further explanation. I leave this up to my readers to interpret as they wish.

Brian Victoria, Visiting Research Fellow, International Research Center for Japanese Studies, Kyoto. Brian Daizen Victoria holds an M.A. in Buddhist Studies from Sōtō Zen sect-affiliated Komazawa University in Tokyo, and a Ph.D. from the Department of Religious Studies at Temple University. In addition to a 2nd, enlarged edition of Zen At War (Rowman & Littlefield), major writings include Zen War Stories (RoutledgeCurzon); an autobiographical work in Japanese entitled Gaijin de ari, Zen bozu de ari (As a Foreigner, As a Zen Priest); Zen Master Dōgen, coauthored with Prof. Yokoi Yūhō of Aichi-gakuin University (Weatherhill); and a translation of The Zen Life by Sato Koji (Weatherhill). He is currently a Visiting Research Fellow at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies (aka Nichibunken) in Kyoto.

Recommended citation: Brian Daizen Victoria, "Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D.T. Suzuki," The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 30, No. 5. August 5, 2013.

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1 Quoted in Victoria, Zen at War, 2nd ed., p. ix.

2 Ibid., p. x.

3 Quoted in Hockenos, A Church Divided: German Protestants Confront the Nazi Past, p. 76.

4 For examples of Buddhist clerical resistance to Japanese militarism, see Zen at War, especially pp. 66-78. For a more detailed discussion of the nature of so-called “holy war” as found in all of the world’s major religions, see Victoria, “Holy War: Toward a Holistic Understanding,” in the Journal of Religion, Conflict and Peace, Vol. 1, Issue 1, Fall 2007. Available on the Web: here (accessed 24 July 2013).

5 For a sampling of this controversy, including criticisms of my understanding of D.T. Suzuki, see the two articles written by Satō Gemmyō Taira included in the Bibliography section of this paper. They are readily accessible on the Web.

6 The evidence is most readily available in the following two articles: 1) Kemmyō Taira Satō, “D. T. Suzuki and the Question of War.” Translated in collaboration with Thomas Kirchner. The Eastern Buddhist 39/1: 61–120. Available on the web at: ... of-War.pdf ; and 2) Kemmyō Taira Satō, “Brian Victoria and the Question of Scholarship.” The Eastern Buddhist 41/2: 139–166. Available on the web at: this location.

7 Benesch, “Bushido: The Creation of a Martial Ethic in Late Meiji Japan,” p. 245. Available on the Web at: this location.

8 Ibid., p. 3.

9 Ibid., pp. 305-6.

10 Suzuki, “The Zen Sect of Buddhism,” Journal of the Pali Text Society, p. 34.

11 Suzuki, “A Buddhist View of War.” Light of Dharma 4, 1904, pp. 181–82.

12 Suzuki, A Treatise on the New Meaning of Religion (Shin Shūkyō-ron). Quoted in Suzuki Daisetsu Zenshū, vol. 23, p. 140.

13 Shaku, Sermons of a Buddhist Abbot, p. 203. The entire book is available on the Web at The last three chapters are particularly relevant.

14 Suzuki, Shin-Bukkyō-to (New Buddhists) magazine, vol. 13, no. 10, p. 1005. I am grateful to Takahashi Hara of Tokyo University for having brought the Japanese original of this quotation to my attention.

15 For a brief introduction to Suzuki’s contribution to Bushidō no Shinzui, i.e., his article entitled “Zen and Bushidō,” see Victoria, Zen at War, pp. 110-11.

16 Although the Kaikō-sha was disbanded with Japan’s defeat in August 1945, it was reconstituted following the end of the US Occupation of Japan in 1952. The organization’s website, including a Japanese language history of the Kaikō-sha, can be accessed here:

17 “Seishin Bunka no Kiban toshite no Tetsugaku” (The Philosophical Foundation of Spiritual Culture) Kaikō-sha Kiji, June 1941, p. 16.

18 For an introduction to the role that Zen played in the Imperial Army, see Chapter Eight, “The Emergence of Imperial-State Zen and Soldier-Zen,” in Zen at War, pp. 95-129.

19 Suzuki, “Makujiki Kōzen,” published in Kaikō-sha kiji, June 1941, pp. 17-26. This article was anthologized in Suzuki’s book, Isshinjitsu no Sekai, also published in 1941.

20 Suzuki, Zen Buddhism And Its Influence on Japanese Culture, pp. 34-35.

21 Quoted in Victoria, Zen War Stories, p. 72.

22 Suzuki, Zen Buddhism And Its Influence on Japanese Culture, p. 46.

23 Suzuki, Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture, p. 40.

24 Satō, “D. T. Suzuki and the Question of War,” p. 102.

25 Quoted in Victoria, Zen War Stories, p. 124.

26 Sueki, “Daisetsu hihan saikō,” p. 8.

27 Quoted in Zen at War, pp. 151-52. Suzuki’s remarks have long been invoked as proof of his “anti-war” stance, but he was merely warning against fighting a war with a much stronger country, i.e., the U.S. and its allies, that a relatively small country like Japan was bound to lose. The date of these remarks, i.e., September 1941, is also important in that it appears to be the only time Suzuki publicly expressed, if only indirectly, his opposition to an attack on the U.S. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 Suzuki only voiced his opposition in a muted manner in private correspondence. Suzuki’s voice was, of course, not the only one warning against war with the U.S. For example, even Imperial Navy Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku opposed war with the U.S. for the same reasons as Suzuki. Nevertheless, being the professional military man that he was, Yamamoto went on to plan and execute the attack on Pearl Harbor.

28 Quoted in Victoria, Zen War Stories, p. 124.

29 Rosenkranz, Fernost - wohin? Begegnungen mit den Religionen Japans und Chinas im Umbruch der Gegenwart. Heilbronn, Verlag Eugen Salzer 1940. Available on the web in German at: this location.

30 For further exploration of the nationalist elements in Suzuki’s understanding of Zen, see the two following articles by Robert Sharf: 1) “The Zen of Japanese Nationalism.” History of Religions, Vol. 33, No. 1. (Aug., 1993), pp. 1-43. Available on the web at: this site and 2) “Whose Zen? Zen Nationalism Revisited” in Rude Awakenings: Zen the Kyoto School, and the Question of Nationalism, James W. Heisig and John C. Maraldo, eds., pp. 40–51. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. Available on the web at: this site.

31 Yasutani was also connected to both a major Nazi figure resident in Japan and Nazi ideology, particularly anti-Semitism. For details, see Chapter Five, “Zen Master Dōgen Goes To War,” in Victoria, Zen War Stories, especially pp. 88-90. That said, while Yasutani’s Nazi connection is now known, the author is currently preparing an article on Suzuki’s personal and ideological connection to the Nazis.

32 Bachelor, Buddhism without Beliefs, p. 16.

33 Marty, “An Exuberant Adventure: The Academic Study and Teaching of Religion,” p. 14.

34 The phrase, ““Makujiki Kōzen” (驀直向前), i.e. rush forward without hesitation, is, as noted in the text of the article, believed to have been part of a conversation between Hōjō Tokimune and his Chinese Zen Master, National Teacher Bukkō, that took place at the time of the second Mongol invasion of Japan in 1281. These words were an admonition to Tokimune to resolutely face the eminent invasion by rushing forward to engage the enemy without the slightest hesitation. This phrase came to epitomize the proper mental attitude warriors should possess upon going into battle. There are two additional variations of this phrase though both of them express similar meanings. The variations are: 1) 驀直去(maku-jikini-sare) and 2) 驀直前進 (baku-choku-zenshin).

35 Needless to say, this poem lends itself to various interpretations, something Suzuki himself recognized when he stated that he left it up to his readers “to interpret as they wish.” It can be argued, for example, that Bunan was referring to the freedom of action that comes from the state of enlightenment, i.e., when one is no longer shackled by the three ‘poisons’ of Mahāyāna Buddhism, i.e., greed, anger and illusion. That said, the critical question is how Suzuki’s officer readers would have interpreted this poem? It is highly likely they would have understood these words to mean that once they were fully resigned to their own deaths on the battlefield they would be able to fight more effectively in China. I would also like to think the late Kyoko Selden for her assistance in ensuring this poem was translated accurately.


Bachelor, Stephan. Buddhism without Beliefs, London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1998.

Benesch, Oleg. “Bushido: The Creation of a Martial Ethic in Late Meiji Japan.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, 2011, pp. 1-358. Available on the web at: ... sequence=1

Cleary, Thomas. Code of the Samurai. Boston: Tuttle Publishing, 1999.

Hockenos, Matthew. A Church Divided: German Protestants Confront the Nazi Past. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004.

Marty, Martin E. “An Exuberant Adventure: The Academic Study and Teaching of Religion,” Academe, 82, no. 6, 1996, pp. 14-17.

Rosenkranz, Gerhard. Fernost - wohin? Begegnungen mit den Religionen Japans und Chinas im Umbruch der Gegenwart. Heilbronn Verlag Eugen Salzer, 1940. Available on the Web in German: here

Satō, Kemmyō Taira. “Brian Victoria and the Question of Scholarship.” The Eastern Buddhist 41/2: 139–166. Available on the web: here

-----. “D. T. Suzuki and the Question of War.” Translated in collaboration with Thomas Kirchner. The Eastern Buddhist 39/1: 61–120. Available on the web at: ... of-War.pdf

Shaku, Soyen [Sōen]. Sermons of a Buddhist Abbot. In Zen for Americans. Translated by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki. LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1974. The entire book is available on the Web at

Sharf, Robert H. “The Zen of Japanese Nationalism.” History of Religions, Vol. 33, No. 1. (Aug., 1993), pp. 1-43. Available on the web: here.

-----. “Whose Zen? Zen Nationalism Revisited” in Rude Awakenings: Zen the Kyoto School, and the Question of Nationalism, James W. Heisig and John C. Maraldo, eds., pp. 40–51. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. Available on the web: here

Snyder, Gary and Nelson Foster, “The Fog of World War II” in tricycle (Summer 2010). Available on the web at:

Sueki Fumihiko, “Daisetsu hihan saikō,” Matsugaoka bunko kenkyū nenpō 27, 2010.

Suzuki, Daisetsu (also Daisetz, D.T., Teitaro). Shin Shūkyō Ron (A Treatise on the New Meaning of Religion), 1896. In vol. 23, Suzuki Daisetsu Zenshū. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1969, pp. 1-147.

-----. “Makujiki Kōzen” (Rush Forward without Hesitation), June 1941. In vol. 16, Suzuki Daisetsu Zenshū. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2001, pp. 121-135. Originally published in Kaikō-sha kiji, June 1941, pp. 17-26.

-----. “A Buddhist View of War.” Light of Dharma 4, 1904.

-----. “The Zen Sect of Buddhism,” Journal of the Pali Text Society, 1906.

-----. Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture. Kyoto: The Eastern Buddhist Society, Otani Buddhist College, 1938. Later reprinted in the postwar period in multiple, expanded editions by Princeton University Press as Zen and Japanese Culture.

Victoria, Brian. “The ‘Negative Side’ of D. T. Suzuki's Relationship to War.” The Eastern Buddhist 41/2: 97–138. Available on the web at: this location.

-----. Zen at War, 2nd ed., Rowman & Littlefield, Boulder, Colorado, 2006.

-----. Zen War Stories, RoutledgeCurzon, London and New York, 2003.

Re: D.T. Suzuki, Zen and the Nazis, by Brian Daizen Victoria

PostPosted: Fri Aug 09, 2019 1:12 am
by admin
Part 1 of 2

The Formation and Principles of Count Dürckheim’s Nazi Worldview and his interpretation of Japanese Spirit and Zen
by Karl Baier
The Asia-Pacific Journal
Volume 11 | Issue 48 | Number 3
December 1, 2013

Preface by Brian Victoria

In Part I of this series on D.T. Suzuki’s relationship with the Nazis, (Brian Daizen Victoria, D.T. Suzuki, Zen and the Nazis readers were promised a second part focusing primarily on Suzuki’s relationship with one of wartime Japan’s most influential Nazis, Count Karlfried Dürckheim (1896 –1988).

However, in the course of writing Part II, I quickly realized that the reader would benefit greatly were it possible to present more than simply Dürckheim’s story in wartime Japan. That is to say, I recognized the importance, actually the necessity, of introducing Dürckheim’s earlier history in Germany and the events that led to his arrival in Japan, not once but twice.

At this point that I had the truly good fortune to come in contact with Professor Karl Baier of the University of Vienna, a specialist in the history of modern Asian-influenced spirituality in Europe and the United States. Prof. Baier graciously agreed to collaborate with me in presenting a picture of Dürckheim within a wartime German political, cultural, and, most importantly, religious context. Although now deceased, Dürckheim continues to command a loyal following among both his disciples and many others whose lives were touched by his voluminous postwar writings. In this respect, his legacy parallels that of D.T. Suzuki.

The final result is that what was originally planned as a two-part article has now become a three-part series. Part II of this series, written by Prof. Baier, focuses on Dürckheim in Germany, including his writings about Japan and Zen. An added bonus is that the reader will also be introduced to an important dimension of Nazi “spirituality.” Part Three will continue the story at the point Dürckheim arrives in Japan for the first time in mid-1938. It features Dürckheim’s relationship with D.T. Suzuki but examines his relationship with other Zen-related figures like Yasutani Haku’un and Eugen Herrigel as well.

Note that the purpose of this series is not to dismiss or denigrate either the postwar activities or writings of any of the Zen-related figures. Nevertheless, at a time when hagiographies of all of these men abound, the authors believe readers deserve to have an accurate picture of their wartime activities and thought based on what is now known. I am deeply grateful to Prof. Baier for having joined me in this effort. BDV


Japan, the “yellow fist”, as he called the nation in “Mein Kampf”, caused Adolf Hitler a considerable headache. In his racist foreign policy he distrusted the Asians in general and would have preferred to increase European world supremacy by collaborating with the English Nordic race. On the other hand, he had been impressed as a youth by Japan's military power when he observed Japan beat the Slavic empire in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. He also admired Japan for never having been infiltrated by the Jews. In “Mein Kampf” his ambiguous attitude let him place Japan as a culture-supporting nation somewhere halfway between the culture-creating Aryans and the culture-destroying Jews.1 He hoped that in the near future Japan and the whole of East Asia would be aryanised by Western culture and science and sooner or later the political domination of the Aryans in Asia would follow.

Fig. 1 Dürckheim country estate Steingaden as seen today

As the brotherhood in arms with England turned out to be a pipe-dream, Hitler had to make a pact with the Far Eastern country. This allowed a group of japanophile Nazis to raise their voices and disseminate a more detailed and positive view of Japan. They were interested in Japanese religion and especially sympathized with Zen Buddhism.

The following article can be seen as a case study. Taking the intellectual and religious biography of Count Dürckheim as an example, the author investigates the question of how dedicated Nazis could connect their worldview to a kind of mystical spirituality and develop a positive attitude towards Zen.

Karl Friedrich Alfred Heinrich Ferdinand Maria Graf Eckbrecht von Dürckheim-Montmartin (1896-1988), today widely known as Karlfried Graf (Count) Dürckheim, was born in Munich, Bavaria as the eldest son of an old aristocratic family. Baptized Catholic, he was religiously educated by his Protestant mother, grew up at the family’s country estate in the Bavarian village of Steingaden, at the Basenheim Castle near Koblenz and in Weimar, where his family owned a villa built by the famous architect Henry van de Velde.

Fig. 2 Villa Dürckheim in Weimar

In 1914, immediately after receiving his high school diploma, the 18-year-old Karlfried volunteered in the Royal Bavarian Infantry Lifeguard Regiment to serve on the frontlines for around 47 months as officer, company commander and adjutant.2 He never forgot the enthusiastic community spirit that filled his heart and the hearts of his fellow Germans at the beginning of the war. “I heard the Emperor saying, ‘I do not know parties any more, I only know Germans’. It remains in all our memories, these words of the Emperor, in those days at the beginning of the war.”3 Later he would say that during this period the meaning of his life had been the “unquestionable, ready-to-die-commitment to the fatherland.”4

Regularly exposed to deadly threats, the young frontline officer was intensively confronted with his fear but also experienced moments of transcendence.

There exists a ‘pleasure’ of deliberately thrusting oneself into deadly danger. This I experienced when embarking upon a nightly assault on a wooded hill, when running through a barrage at the storming of Mount Kemmel in Flanders, when jumping through a defile under machine gun fire. It is as if at the moment of the possible and in advance accepted destruction one would feel the indestructible. In all of these experiences another dimension emerges while one transcends the limits of ordinary life – not as a doctrine, but as liberating experience.5

This kind of “warrior mysticism” – a combination of military drill and blind obedience, fight to the very end, a devotion to and melding with the greater whole of the fatherland that culminate in the experience of “another dimension” far beyond the transitoriness of ordinary life – informed his attitude towards life and was conducive to his later appreciation of militaristic Bushidō-Zen and his admiration of the kamikaze pilots which he expressed even after World War II.6

Fig. 3 Bavarian infantry (postcard 1915)

The Square

Immediately after World War I Dürckheim supported one of the far-right nationalistic Free Corps fighting against the Munich Republic. He also published nationalistic brochures and pamphlets as well as articles that warned against the Bolshevist world revolution.7

In 1919 he left the army and began to study philosophy and psychology in search of a new meaning of life. He and Enja von Hattingberg, his partner and later spouse, befriended the Austrian psychologist and philosopher Ferdinand Weinhandl (1896-1973), who at the time was working at the Psychological Institute at the University of Munich, and his wife, the teacher and writer Margarete Weinhandl (1880-1975). The four, who called themselves “The Square,” were not just two couples on friendly terms. Their joint activities were aimed at a religious transformation of their own lives and the lives of others.

Dürckheim shared not only philosophical, psychological and religious interests with the Weinhandls but also the experience of World War I as well as the ensuing nationalistic attitude nourished by it. Ferdinand, like Dürckheim, had voluntarily joined the army and became a frontline lieutenant, but a serious injury soon made him unfit for battle. Margarete had supported soldiers from the province of Styria in southeast Austria with simple verses and poems written in Styrian dialect, that were published in Heimatgrüße. Kriegsflugblätter des Vereins für Heimatschutz in Steiermark (“Greetings from Home. War pamphlets of the Association for Homeland Security in Styria”), a journal that was distributed free among Styrian soldiers.8

Fig. 4: Thrusting oneself into deadly danger in World War I

The Weinhandls dominated the Square both intellectually and religiously. They were prolific writers well versed in the history and theology of Christian mysticism. Moreover, Ferdinand was interested in comparative religion. He referred to Friedrich Heiler’s comparative studies on prayer and on Pali-based, Buddhist meditation, and praised his subtle understanding of the inner relations between various religions.9 Interpreting the similarities between religious practices within different religious traditions outlined by Heiler, Ferdinand stated that the different stages of Hindu-Yoga, Buddhist meditation and Christian prayer are all based on the same psychological structure.10

In 1921, The Square moved to Kiel where they lived as a sort of commune, sharing a flat until 1924. During that time, Margarete published and interpreted the mystical writings of German medieval nuns.11 Ferdinand completed his habilitation thesis in 1922 at the University of Kiel and later got a professorship for philosophy there.12 He translated and edited the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola and published a small book on Meister Eckhart.13 In fact, it was he who introduced Eckhart to Dürckheim.14 “Every evening we would read Meister Eckhart,” Margarete noted in her diary.15 Dürckheim remembered: “I recognized in Master Eckhart my master, the master.”16 Meister Eckhart had great appeal for the German Youth Movement and the cultic milieu of the interwar-period in general. As a “German mystic” he also blended very well into the völkisch understanding of religion that was en vogue in Dürckheim’s circles.17 Like so many others Ferdinand Weinhandl saw in Eckhart an early manifestation of the deepest essence of the German spirit, its dynamism and “Faustian” activism.18

Fig. 5 Ferdinand Weinhandl

During the Nazi era the völkisch interpretation of Eckhart continued. In his Myth of the 20th Century the NSDAP ideologist Alfred Rosenberg extensively cited Eckhart as the pioneer of Germanic faith. In 1936 Eugen Herrigel drew parallels between Eckhart and Zen in his article on The Knightly Art of Archery that became a major source for Dürckheim.19 Herrigel looks at Eckhart and Zen from the typical perspective of the protagonists of völkisch mysticism:

It is often said that mysticism and especially Buddhism lead to a passive, escapist attitude, one that is hostile to the world. […] Terrified one turns away from this path to salvation through laziness and in return praises one´s own Faustian character. One does not even remember that there was a great mystic in German intellectual history, who apart from detachment preached the indispensable value of daily life: Meister Eckhart. And whoever has the impression this ‚doctrine’ might be self-contradictory, should reflect on the Japanese Volk, whose spiritual culture and way of life are significantly influenced by Zen Buddhism and yet cannot be blamed for passivity and an irresponsible sluggish escapism. The Japanese are so astonishingly active not because they are bad, lukewarm Buddhists but because the vital Buddhism of their country encourages their activity.20

During the war Dürckheim was to call Eckhart “the man whom the Germans notice as their most original proclaimer of God”21 and he, like Herrigel, outlined the proximity between Eckhart and Zen on the basis of völkisch thought.

Fig. 6 Alfred Rosenberg and his “Der Mythus des 20. Jahrhunderts”

Before his first encounter with Eckhart, Dürckheim had already been deeply impressed by Laozi. The new popularity of Asian religions in Germany (after the Romantics at the beginning of the 19th century) began around 1900 under the influence of the Theosophists and the emergence of a neo-romantic “new mysticism.” It grew rapidly after the war with several translations of the Daodejing becoming available, the most widespread of which was by Alexander Ular.22 This book, together with translations of Laozi and Zhuangzi published by Martin Buber and Richard Wilhelm, unleashed a kind of Dao craze among intellectuals and artists of the Weimar Republic. Dürckheim describes his first contact with Laozi as a kind of ecstatic experience of enlightenment, prompted when his wife read the eleventh verse from Ular’s version out loud.23

Ferdinand not only undertook a theoretical study of religious exercises, but also introduced their practice to The Square.24 They experimented with different forms of meditation (sitting silently without an object or meditating on specific topics, probably influenced by Ignatius of Loyola, Coué´s autosuggestion and New Thought forms of meditation); spent certain days in silence and practised the daily examination of conscience.25 Outwardly they offered counselling sessions to people who contacted them, after having heard about the group because they were interested in their spirituality. One could say that The Square was a kind of model for Dürckheim’s work after World War II, and further foundations were laid here for his later interest in Japanese practices and the synthesis of spirituality and psychotherapy. During this period, Dürckheim also read a book on Buddhism by Georg Grimm that he held in great esteem.26

The Worldview of the Rightist Cultic Milieu

As strange as it may seem nowadays, the combination of new religiosity, interest in Asian religions, nationalist thought and an often antidemocratic attitude that had been formative for the young Dürckheim and also for the Weinhandls, was not exceptional at that time. They more or less shared popular views of the Weimarian rightist cultic milieu,27 which consisted of a large number of small organizations, reading circles, paramilitary groups and the so-called Bünde (leagues) with links to the German Youth Movement and the movement of life reform (Lebensreform). “The Bünde were uniquely German. What made them so during the years between 1919 and 1933 was the fact that neither the onlooker nor the participant could decide what they were. Were they religious, philosophical, or political? The answer is: all three.”28 Although The Square strongly sympathized with the Bünde, they deliberately decided not to organize themselves in that manner, but to continue to live as a small community focusing on personal transformation.29

The rightist cultic milieu was informed by several widespread ideas that also deeply influenced Dürckheim and his Square. Here only the most important ones can be mentioned.

Fig. 7 Ludwig Fahrenkrog: Die heilige Stunde (1918)

The New Man

Many expected the breakdown of traditional European culture through World War I, and especially the post-war crisis of German society, to lead to a transformation of mankind, the arrival of a “new man.”30 Dürckheim described his post-war social environment: “[They were] all people in which, because of the breakdown of 1918, something new arose that also within me soon brought to consciousness something that in the years after the war everyone was concerned with: the question of the new man.”31

In a letter published in the commemorative volume on the occasion of Dürckheim’s 70th birthday, Ferdinand Weinhandl remembers the talks they had at the beginning of their friendship as “revolving around a magical centre.” It was “the question of transformation, that we examined again and again in our thoughts and talks, in our efforts and aspirations.”32 What Weinhandl does not tell the readers of the commemorative volume is the fact that in the 1920s the search for in-depth transformation of mankind and the millenarianism of the new man had a socio-political dimension. Leftist socialists merged them with their vision of a future society, and the right-wing counterculture we are talking about usually combined the dawn of the new man with the epiphany of the Volk and the longing for new leaders.

Socio-political Völkisch Thought

The adjective “völkisch“ (cognate with the English “folk”) means “related to the Volk, belonging to the Volk.“ In keeping with its meaning in present-day German, “Volk” is frequently translated into English as “people” or “nation.” Since the 1890s, “völkisch” had been used as self-designation of an influential German nationalistic and racist (anti-Semitic but also anti-Slavic and anti-romantic) protest movement, consisting of different organizations, groups and individuals in Germany and Austria. Building upon ideas that emerged within German Romanticism, for these individuals and groups “völkisch” and “Volk” took on a special meaning significantly different from “people” and “nation” – a meaning that made the word untranslatable into English and other languages. Therefore the original German terms are used.

Fig. 8 Cover of a journal of the völkisch Bewegung

The völkisch movement imagined the Volk as a mythical social unity based on blood and soil as well as on divine will, underlying the nation state and being capable of bridging the class divisions within society. Furthermore, the Volk had a certain spirit or soul (“Volksgeist,” “Volkseele”) which comprised special virtues and certain ways of thinking and feeling. The traditional aristocratic way of legitimizing social and political rule through birth and descent was transferred from the noble dynasties to all members of the German Volk or Aryan race.33 The central aim of the völkisch movement was the purification of the Germanic race from alien influences and the restoration of the native Volk and its noble spirit.

Politically, the members of the rightist cultic milieu saw the Weimar democracy as a dysfunctional political system imposed by Germany’s enemies after the shameful defeat in World War I. They could see no sense in the discussions and quarrels between the political parties that for them only manifested the egocentrism of modern man. Additionally, they were afraid of Bolshevism and of social disintegration caused by class struggles. A politically crucial dimension of the hope for the coming of the “new man” was the chiliastic political vision of a Third Reich that would be able to overcome the inner turmoil of modern society.34 The only alternative to the degeneration of contemporary society and politics would be a völkisch reform of life, a spiritual, social and political renewal of Germany which would transform the country into a class-free holistic community of the Volk (Volksgemeinschaft) rooted in the homeland (Heimat) as well as in ancestral kinship (Ahnen) and ruled by charismatic leaders (Führer).

At the beginning of the 1920s, Ferdinand Weinhandl was still aiming at individual self-development and a mystical transformation free of political and social intentions. According to Tilitzki, Dürckheim and Wilhelm Ahlmann brought him into closer contact with Hans Freyer. This probably gave his concept of life-reform a völkisch twist.35 He also started to reflect on the necessity of new leaders (Führer) to imbue the spirit of the Volk with higher values. In a text from the middle of the 1920s he conceived the leader as an exceptional person who alone is capable of uniting the whole and thereby establishes true community: “So, our path leads us from the person to the people [Volk] and beyond that back to the person, to the exemplary individual, to the hero, to the idea of leadership [Führertum].”36 His völkisch leanings initially did not assume a radical right-wing form, and he continued teaching at social-democratic institutions and cultivated good relationships with colleagues who supported the republic.

For many members of the völkisch movement it was only a small step to become Nazis because National Socialism absorbed many elements of their worldview and presented itself as the political successful fulfilment of völkisch thought. In his Mein Kampf Hitler claimed that his party, the NSDAP (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, National Socialist German Workers Party) had been established to enable the völkisch ideas to prevail. The NS movement would therefore have the right and the duty to see itself “as the pioneer and representative of these ideas.”37 No wonder then that detailed biographical studies “show […] that the völkisch phenomenon and the Bünde phase were the place of transition to National Socialism.”38 After 1933 “völkisch” and “nationalsozialistisch” soon became synonymous whereas before then the Nazis were only one völkisch group among many.39

Like Dürckheim, Weinhandl and his wife joined the NSDAP in 1933. Dürckheim also became a member of the SA (Sturmabteilung, in English often called Stormtroopers or Brownshirts, a paramilitary group of the NSDAP) and Ferdinand joined the NSLB (Nationalsozialistischer Lehrerbund, National Socialist Teachers Association), the KfdK (Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur, Battle League for German Culture) and the NS Kulturgemeinde (NS Cultural Community).40 Margarete headed a department for worldview education (“weltanschauliche Schulung”) within the NS Frauenschaft, the women´s organisation of the NSDAP, and became a member of the NSDAP office for racial politics.41

Völkisch Religiosity

The religious concepts of the völkisch milieu have been researched intensively over the last decades.42 The multitude of mostly small communities and movements, which rarely existed for more than a few years, can be divided into two basic types: neo-pagan and völkisch Christian.43 Both were highly syncretistic in their anti-Semitic attempts to develop a racially specific, Aryan religion. The neo-pagan groups, a small minority, rejected Christian faith and either tried to revitalise ancient Nordic religions or searched for new forms of a Germanic faith. The völkisch Christians tried to extract the Aryan elements in the teachings of Jesus and constructed a history of German Christian faith from the German medieval mystics up to the present day.

Fig. 9 Pamphlet to promote the Deutsche Glaubensgemeinschaft (German Faith Community) (1921)

Within Dürckheim´s Square we find the völkisch Christian attitude most clearly articulated by Margarete Weinhandl. Ferdinand´s interpretation of Eckhart points in the same direction. The available sources contain no information about Dürckheim’s early understanding of Christianity. His commitment to the Christian faith seems to have been weaker than that of the Weinhandls.

Margarete thought of the Jews as a race totally alien to the German Volk. They had their heroic heyday documented in the writings of the Old Testament, but afterwards they degenerated and this is the reason why they rejected the messiah. Through Luther’s translation, the Bible had become part of the German spirit and German religiosity. The treasures of the Old Testament and the message of Jesus had thus been preserved through the power of the German Volk, its poets and spiritual masters like Meister Eckhart, Jakob Böhme etc.44

Additionally Dürckheim and his friends adopted a perennialist approach to religion assuming that the main religious traditions share a single universal truth. Later Dürckheim remembered: “As early as in those days the question arose within me: Wasn’t this great experience that completely permeated Eckhart, Laozi, and Buddha essentially the same in each of them?”45

Similar to the Traditionalist School, they conceptualized the coming of the New Man as a return to the primitive man of pre-modern culture connected with the rediscovery of an ancient wisdom tradition that underlies all religions.46 Maria Hippius, Dürckheim’s second wife, stressed the affinity between The Square and the Traditionalists: “In these years other concurrent efforts existed that aimed at a ‘restoration of the human archetype’ by locating and reconnecting to a primordial tradition (Urtradition). René Guénon and Julius Evola may correspond best to what the circle of friends intended […].”47 Whereas Dürckheim knew Guénon only through his writings, he actually met Julius Evola, the Italian extreme right-wing philosopher and esotericist who harboured sympathies for the SS and the Romanian Iron Guard, whom he highly esteemed, in the 1960s.48

Fig. 10 Julius Evola

The rediscovery of the ancient wisdom was supposed to bring about a renaissance of true religiosity in the form of mysticism. “Wherever religion is lived, it has the name mysticism, wherever wisdom is lived, it is called mysticism.”49 The Square understood mysticism as a way of life that is based on a radical transformation of the whole human being, brought about by the abandoning of one’s own will.

The völkisch approach to religion and the perennialistic concept of mysticism don’t necessarily contradict one another. In all likelihood the Square thought that German mysticism presented the core of all true religion in an extraordinarily pure form, a form that matched the superior national character of the Germans.


The Weimarian cultic milieu´s leanings towards totalitarianism were based on popular forms of holistic and organicistic thought. Wholeness (Ganzheit) was a widely used metaphor for what – according to völkisch worldview – had been lost in modern society and science and was to be regained by the “new man.” The radical conservative counterculture of the Weimar Republic was a holistic milieu that tried to rediscover the original wholeness of individuals by reintegrating them on different levels into larger “organic” wholes. According to common holistic ideology, individuals as well as social entities do not follow the laws of mechanics but an order whose prototype is the living organism. This kind of “organic thinking” was given a nationalistic connotation by the notion that the realization of “organic wholes” is something specifically German, whereas other Western countries (France, England, USA) are the homelands of “mechanical thinking.”50

Already in the Nazi era, Dürckheim would praise organic thought as being a protest “against the world of unleashed instrumental rationality, the proliferation of economics, technique and transport, against the tendency to reduce every process to its simplest mechanic formula, against the dissolution of the human being into a bundle of impersonal functions, the opposition of longstanding organic communities of blood and faith against special-purpose associations etc.”51 The appreciation of meditative practices and the invocations of mystical oneness with “the whole” that were so common in the Weimarian cultic milieu, should be understood in the context of this critical attitude towards the burdens of modern culture and the longing for personal, social and religious identity in a world experienced as fragmented and rapidly changing.

“Wholeness” and “organic thinking” were not just buzzwords within the rightist counterculture. “The desire for holistic thought was widespread in both the scientific and political reasoning of the Weimar Republic.”52 Many of the holistic academics participated in the völkisch scene and gave the milieu´s preference for organic wholeness a scientific outlook. It seems that in the late phase of the Weimar Republic, the majority of psychologists followed this line of thought. One of them was Dürckheim’s teacher and employer Felix Krueger, the successor of the famous Wilhelm Wundt at the University of Leipzig and founder of the so- called “Second Leipzig School,” also known as Holistic Psychology (Ganzheitspsychologie) – probably the best example for the holistic orientation of German psychology before 1933.

Felix Krueger’s Holistic Psychology

In 1925, Dürckheim, who had completed his Ph.D. in psychology in 1923, became an assistant at the Institute of Psychology at the University of Leipzig. He worked there until his habilitation in 1929/30. It is quite obvious that Dürckheim obtained this position not only because of his qualifications but also because of his participation in an academic right-wing network. Hans Freyer, the radical conservative philosopher and sociologist, who had been one of his teachers in Kiel and had in the meantime switched to the University of Leipzig, played a crucial role in this appointment.53 It was he who recommended Dürckheim to the director of the Institute of Psychology, Felix Krueger.

Since the end of World War I, Krueger’s Psychological Institute was considered to be a “völkisch cell” with a strong nationalistic bias, whose political activities stirred hostilities within the city council and even the German government.54 Krueger was a leading figure within the völkisch oriented Fichte-Gesellschaft (Fichte Society). As a busy lecturer, he played an important role within a large nationalistic educational network and thus had contacts with many patriotic associations and völkisch groups. From 1930 onwards he also lectured in the NS-student-association (Nationalsozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund) and in the NSLB. Although his thought was close to National Socialism, and he had signed the recommendation to vote for Hitler published by German academics in November 1933, he nevertheless did not become a member of the NSDAP.

Fig. 11 Felix Krueger

Krueger’s psychological theory had a “pronounced ideological accent” as it was meant to contribute to a renewal of the community of the Volk (Volksgemeinschaft).55 Especially from the late 1920s onwards he extended the range of his psychology to social life. His concept of community falls in line with the then very popular distinction of Gemeinschaft (community) as a traditional organic social unit and Gesellschaft (society) as a contractual association of individuals, predominating in modern times.

The ideological position of Krueger is clear to see, if one looks at how he constructs the relationship between the community as a whole and its members. He simply transferred his earlier theory of the dominance of the whole to social structures.56 “Krueger´s theory does not recognize the interaction between part and whole, rather only the law of the dominance of the whole; in the area of society it appears as the superimposition of the community over the individual and the subordination of the individual to the community.”57 It is this totalitarian bias that accounts for the affinity between Krueger’s thought and Nazism.

Dürckheim’s NS Thought and Völkisch Religion

Like many other members of the völkisch milieu, Dürckheim believed that Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement would bring about the arrival of the new man. “Through Adolf Hitler the Gods have given to the German People […] the power to awaken fellow Germans in an infectious movement and transform them towards this new man.”58 It was Krueger’s social holism in particular that helped him to shape his Nazi philosophy in the years after 1933. As Geuter has pointed out, Krueger himself only made programmatic statements on community. It was Dürckheim who elaborated a systematic holistic psychology of community life based on the theories of the Leipzig School in his articles Gemeinschaft (Community, 1934); Dürckheim´s contribution to the Festschrift in celebration of Kruegers 60th birthday; and the openly national-socialist Zweck und Wert im Sinngefüge des Handelns (Purpose and Value as Constituents of Meaningful Action, 1934/35).

Fig. 12 Being one with the greater Whole: May Day Celebrations Berlin 1937

Like Krueger, Dürckheim conceives of community (Gemeinschaft) as the basic social unit. Communities are “closed wholes”59 characterized by certain value-systems that have absolute validity for all members. From Krueger he also borrowed the principle that the true relationship between the whole and its parts is the total subordination of the parts. “The being of the whole is the imperative of its parts; whatever is useful for the whole is a law for the individuals.”60 One of the dangers that threaten their health and that members of communities have to fight back against is “the infiltration of foreign bodies (racial question!).”61 The natural values of the individuals reflect their racial origin and the blood- and fate-based membership in the organic wholes of homeland, family and Volk.

The value-oriented life of the soul depends on its inborn and racially conditioned nature. The order of its perennial values is based in certain fundamental life units with which the soul is connected by fate, an order that is defined by the claims made by these units to sustenance, realization and perfection.62

According to Dürckheim, the Volk had lost its domination over its parts in the Weimar Republic. The leaders of the country had been alienated from the higher whole, and, even worse, non-Germans, especially Jews, had exercised significant influence.63 “It must be stressed again and again that the NS revolution was the revolution of the whole against its disloyal parts.”64 It was only Hitler’s wake-up call that reunited the German Volk and renewed the basic values of its life.65

For Dürckheim, the reawakening of the Volk among the Germans had practical consequences. Hitler also “steeled their will to dominate reality.”66 He explicitly defends the brutality of the Regime against individuals unwilling to subordinate themselves to the realization of what the Nazis defined as the interests of the larger whole. The NS man possesses “the power to be radical that does not recognize sentimental care about painful concomitant effects that everywhere affect individuals wherever the realization of a larger whole is at stake. The accusation of harshness, which is time and again levelled against National Socialism, is a typical statement of a sort of mankind that cares about individuals and has lost sight of the superior whole.”67

The “image of the fighter driven by fanatic faith” is in Dürckheim‘s view the role model for the type of human being that National Socialism aims to produce.68 “German soldiership could well be the starting point of a comprehensive realisation of the German mind.”69

Fig. 13 Training of the Waffen-SS

For him it was through National Socialism that the “German worldview” (deutsche Weltanschauung) became a political force for the first time. This worldview clearly shows the characteristics of a religion as well, and therefore Dürckheim also calls it “German faith.” The source of German faith was the “unshakable belief in the German Volk” that Adolf Hitler implanted in his fellow Germans, and this belief implied the commitment of Germans to Germany as something that they accepted to be holy.70 Dürckheim describes this faith as based on the individual experience of a higher reality, contrasting this with the mere “subjugation to a dogma.” He thus connects the topos “mysticism versus dogmatic religion” and the anti-church sentiment that had been quite widespread within the “new mysticism” of the Weimarian cultic milieu with his NS-worldview:

As the centre of this faith we find the breakthrough of the great subject Germany [das große Subjekt Deutschland] within the individual. Therefore faith in the NS-sense does not mean subjugation to a dogma, but the inspiring force coming from the joyful experience of a higher whole, that resides within you and wants to become reality through you – and this with such a power that one cannot help but to serve this higher will and sacrifice everything that is only personal.71

Fig. 14 NS Christmas Cult: Goebbels and family

The motive of (heroically) abandoning one’s own will and surrendering to the greater whole functions as a link between Dürckheim’s militarism and political totalitarianism on the one hand and his preference for mysticism on the other. He constructs the Volk as a trans-temporal divine essence (“eternal Germany,” and later, “eternal divine Japan”) that every individual should incarnate by giving up selfishness and surrender to the egoless functioning within the whole. Service to the community of the Volk and obedience towards its leaders who represent the will of the whole serve as a paramount connection to the ultimate divine reality. As the Volk is the primary revelation of the divine, the main religious task of its members is to contribute to its development and most powerful manifestation.72

One would think that such a theology of the Volk is hardly compatible with racism. But this is not the case. For Dürckheim certain racial conditions are part of the eternal essence of the Volk. Every Volk has the task of manifesting the Divine according to its own racial characteristics. It is thus a holy duty “to maintain the racial substance and protect it against any danger.”73

Introduction to Dürckheim’s Wartime Writings

In 1939 and 1940 – obviously as an outcome of his first stay in Japan (1938-1939) – Dürckheim published four articles related to Japan in Germany with the 1940 Das Geheimnis der japanischen Kraft (The Secret of Japanese Power) as a summary of his previous study of Japanese culture and a basis for the explorations of his second stay.74 The journals that published these articles were all deeply connected to the regime. These included: 1) Das XX. Jahrhundert (The Twentieth Century), financed by the German Foreign Office; 2) Berlin – Rom – Tokyo, a “monthly journal for the deepening of the cultural relationships between peoples of the global political triangle,” also financed by the press department of the Foreign Office and meant to provide publicity for the Tripartite Pact and establish a sense of communality between the Germans, Italians and Japanese; and 3) Zeitschrift für deutsche Kulturphilosophie (Journal of German Philosophy of Culture). The third publication was the NSDAP-conformist successor of Logos. Internationale Zeitschrift für Kulturphilosophie (Logos. International Journal of Philosophy of Culture) that was forced to cease publication in 1933. It propagated a völkisch philosophy of culture in line with the cultural politics of the Nazis.

His booklet Vom rechten Mann. Ein Trutzwort für die schwere Zeit (On the Righteous Man. A Word of Defiance for Difficult Times), published in 1940, was a kind of devotional book written for German men (in wartimes and other difficult situations). Besides the political situation, Dürckheim may have had some personal reasons for writing it given the fact that at the end of 1939 both his first wife Enja and his father died.75 According to the dedication, he finished it in January 1940, the month of his second departure to Japan. The question as to whether this book was influenced by Japanese thought will be discussed below.

During his second stay in Japan (1940-1947) Dürckheim did not publish anything in Germany. There are two reasons for this: 1) For propaganda reasons he tried to launch as many NS-related articles as possible in Japan, and 2) communication between Germany and Japan had become more and more difficult as the war proceeded. His most voluminous German work published during the Nazi era was only available in Japan: Neues Deutschland. Deutscher Geist (New Germany. German Spirit, 1942).76 Dürckheim tells us in his preface to the first edition of this book that its chapters were originally articles written for different Japanese journals that had been translated into Japanese by Hashimoto Fumio. Subsequently, the German original texts were published in two collections: Volkstum und Weltanschauung (Völkisch Tradition and Worldview, 1st ed. 1940; 3rd ed. 1941) and Leben und Kultur (Life and Culture, 1st ed. 1941). According to Dürckheim, Neues Deutschland. Deutscher Geist contains the largely unaltered original German versions of the articles of both smaller collections. I will quote from the second “improved“ edition of this book, published, like the first one, in 1942.77 In that same year a Japanese version of Neues Deutschland. Deutscher Geist was released.

Fig. 15 Dürckheim’s article on Shujo-Dan

In 1942 Dürckheim also published an article entitled ‘Europe’? in The XXth Century, the English counterpart of Das XX. Jahrhundert, a propaganda journal for East Asia financed by the German Foreign Ministry.78

Several other texts written between 1940 and 1944 were only published in Japanese. At least some of the original German manuscripts of these publications are archived at the family archives of the Counts of Dürckheim-Montmartin at the Landesarchiv Speyer/Germany whose Karlfried-Graf-Dürkheim section is now unfortunately inaccessible for non-members of the family. Gerhard Wehr – probably the last person who was allowed to work in the archives – mentions the existence of the German manuscript of Maisuteru Ekkuharuto with the title “Meister Eckhart” (85 pages) and a manuscript “Der Geist der europäischen Kultur – Ein Beitrag zur Geophilosophie” (The Spirit of European Culture – A Contribution to Geo-Philosophy) from 1943, which, at least according to its title, seems to be the German version of Yoroppa Bunka no Shinzui (The Essence of European Culture).79 Wehr also confirms the existence of several other German manuscripts from that period in the archive without going into detail.

Religion in Japan from a Völkisch Perspective

As one might expect from what has been stated above, Dürckheim´s thought does not so much address religion in Japan per se, but more the Japanese as a Volk and the sources of its astonishing military power, the success of its dictatorial regime and its impressive völkisch unity. For him the Volk had absolute priority over all other issues and so he did not show any interest in interreligious matters but wanted to contribute to an inter-völkisch understanding, zwischenvölkisches Verstehen, as he literally put it. In this regard he considered world religions to be an obstacle:

Fig. 16 Graf Dürckheim (1940)

Christians, Buddhists and humanists of all nations [aller Völker] may coincide with regard to certain human basic requirements, and they may feel the obligation to understand, to help and to love each other on a personal level. But all this has nothing to do with a mutual understanding of völkisch mentalities and their necessities. On the contrary, till today the world religions by virtue of their transnational mission [aus ihrer übervölkischen Mission] avoided the unconditional acceptance of völkisch values and necessities of life. Actually, most of the time they fought against the passionate commitment to one’s Volk and – hereby inhibiting all understanding – fought against it as pride of race and chauvinism that contradict their basic requirements.80

Shinto and Japanese Buddhism are considered to the extent they fit the divine völkisch nature of Japan and help to strengthen the historical manifestation of the eternal Japanese spirit. Even when he compares Meister Eckhart and Zen this is not meant as a comparison between a form of Buddhism and a certain kind of Christian theology and spirituality but as a reflection of the relationship between Japanese völkisch religion (inspired by Buddhism) and German völkisch religion (inspired by Christianity). Buddhism was a creative challenge to the Japanese that ultimately helped them to discover their true völkisch nature and its innate religiosity. By the same token, the influence of Christianity in the long run helped to clarify the German worldview:

Just as Buddhism made its way to Japan, Christianity came to Germany from the outside. […] Christianity is not the German worldview, nor is Buddhism the Japanese. The confrontation with these world religions that claim validity for the whole of mankind and relate to the redemption of the individual brought to Japan and Germany compulsory clarity in respect to the (self-)awareness of the essence and the living wholeness of the ‘Volk’ and thus to the völkisch worldview.81

This of course is meant as “gaining strength through strong adversaries” but, as we will see below, it also comprises the positive reception of certain elements from world religions. For völkisch religions they play a similar role to what Dürckheim calls the “international world civilisation” (basically consisting of modern science and technology) for völkisch cultures. Both are dangerous for the völkisch spirit but to a certain extent also useful and inspiring.

The Japanese People as an Exemplary Volk

Dürckheim describes Japan as a country confronted with the same problems as the Nazi movement was at that time. In his view, modern developments, such as industrialization, rationalization, the influence of the Western – especially the American – attitude of individualism and profiteering, threatened the realisation of the eternal essence of both peoples.82 “It is the spirit that connects us with Japan, this spirit, which, born out of the völkisch substance and the nation’s will to survive, in Japan as well as here in Germany fights against the alien and brings to bear its particular nature.”83 Similar to Germany, the dangers of modernity as well as the threat of war stimulated Japan’s völkisch power and the implementation of political structures in keeping with the Japanese spirit:

Japan today is just beginning to unfold its völkisch power. And this is because Japan’s traditional faith, far away from being ‘replaced’ by a modern one, progresses from the stage of a religious basis of völkisch life and a binding force for specific classes to the political self-confidence of the whole Volk.84

This passage reveals the core of his view of Japan’s “hidden force” and the specific function of religion that interested him. For Dürckheim the successful politics of the future world was to be inseparably linked to the awakening of völkisch identities based on a religious attitude that unconditionally supports the world’s leading totalitarian states. Accordingly, the primal source of Japan’s power was the politicizing of its original faith. He recognized the rise of a völkisch religion consisting of a politicized mixture of Shinto and Buddhism that unites the whole nation and functions as a basis of legitimation for the Japanese state and its policies. In August 1941 he noted in his diary: “My research work continues and recently in particular has turned towards the religious foundations of Japanese power, that is to Shinto and Buddhism.”85

Dürckheim sees the divine völkisch spirit and its will to live as connecting Germany and Japan. “In spite of all differences regarding the contents of faith and the forms this faith creates, through its iron will to self-realisation this spirit is related to ours.”86 Moreover, the German Volk is even able to understand Japan better than any other Volk. In this regard Dürckheim refers to Hermann Bohner’s “masterful introduction and commentary” to his translation of the Jinnō shōtōki (Chronicles of the Authentic Lineages of the Divine Emperors).87 Indeed, Bohner wanted to demonstrate the inner affinity between Germany’s Third Reich and the Japanese tradition in order to bring the Jinnō shōtōki closer to his German audience.

In doing so, he likened Kitabatake´s work to Moeller van den Bruck´s Das dritte Reich, maintaining both were connected with the same ultimate question of ‘who we are.’ Bohner furthermore claimed that both texts were ‘conversations with God,’ ‘self-dialogues,’ and ‘conversations with the eminent Us.’ He portrays their apparently similar contents as well as both author’s experiences in highly emotive terms: ‘As though by a gigantic, transcendent epiphany, a Daemonion, a personality, that like every Ego is real and yet non-tangible, each author is faced by the personality of his own nation.’88

Bohner’s paraphrases of Moeller van den Bruck and Kitabatake come very close to Dürckheim’s deification of the Volk.89 He must have read Bohner’s summary of the beginning of the Jinnō Shōtōki with great sympathy: “Before China was (for Japan), before India was, before Kong [Confucius] and Buddha had come across the sea, there was Japan. It was what it is and what it will be: from the Deity it was, the divine seed was in it.”90 It is interesting to note that in Dürckheim’s Nazi articles written prior to his first stay in Japan, he had already mentioned religious feelings towards the Volk, albeit in a somewhat cursory manner. Japanese influences may have strengthened this dimension of his thought.

Fig. 17 Albrecht von Urach: Das Geheimnis japanischer Kraft (1942)

In any case, for him the confluence between the traditional völkisch spirit and modernity was more advanced in Japan than in Germany, and he implicitly suggests that Japan sets a good example for the Third Reich in several ways. For him, Japan’s superiority lay in the fact that on the East Asian island the process of industrialisation is carried out by people who had not been infected by materialism and who had not given up their traditional way of life. The cult of the Emperor-God (J. Tennō) – unfortunately lacking in Germany – helped keep the old Japanese identity and worldview alive and visible throughout the ages.91 So despite their modernization, the Japanese still have strong ties to family and dynasty.92 Individuals consider themselves “with exemplary naturalness to be only a serving part of the higher life-units.”93

In the Germany of his time, by contrast, individualism as well as the materialistic spirit of both capitalists and proletarians were much stronger. Dürkheim complains that discussions on the individualistic understanding of freedom had not yet come to an end. The Germans, he says, are just about to reacquire the knowledge that liberty primarily means being free from oneself and therefore being free to perform community service. Dürckheim admits that contemporary Japan also has to face the “problem of freedom in a Western sense”:

But after all “individualists” still occur quite rarely. They are limited to certain social circles and individualism is a beacon to a world that didn’t know this phenomenon before, never idealized or philosophically legitimised it, and now fights against it to the bitter end.94

Dürckheim underlines the affinities between both cultures to such an extent that one sometimes gets the impression he thinks the Japanese would be the better Nazis. He was but one among many (academics as well as journalists) in the German-Japan discourse who praised Japan as one if not the exemplary Volk. This tendency was seen in the August 1942 Situation Report of the SS’s Security Service as a problem. The report states that the many comparisons between the successful non-Christian religious worldview attitude towards life, politics and warfare in Japan and the religious worldview situation in Germany have caused certain developments that make it necessary to gradually correct the image of Japan:

The former view, that the German soldier is the best in the world has been confused by descriptions of the Japanese swimmers who removed mines laid before Hongkong, or the Japanese pilots who, with contempt for death, pounce with their bombs on enemy ships. This has partially caused something like an inferiority complex. The Japanese look like a kind of ‘Super-Teuton’ [Germane im Quadrat].95

Dürckheim, however, is deeply convinced that a mutual enrichment between Germany and Japan could and should take place. With two different theoretical models he explains how this inter-völkisch encounter could work. The first model rejects direct borrowings between different völkisch cultures. “Just as it is impossible to shift Mt. Fuji to Europe and the Rhine to Japan, it is impossible to mutually transfer the essentially Japanese and the essentially German.”96 Nevertheless, the study of a non-transferable alien culture is able to stimulate deep cultural growth because it sharpens insight into the principles of one’s own culture, and it is able to inspire the rediscovery of some of its elements that were long lost.97

The second model of inter-völkisch relationship concedes the possibility of direct imports from an alien Volk and takes the reception of Zen Buddhism in Japan as an example of this.

Re: D.T. Suzuki, Zen and the Nazis, by Brian Daizen Victoria

PostPosted: Fri Aug 09, 2019 1:14 am
by admin
Part 2 of 2

The Integration of Foreign Elements into a völkisch Weltanschauung: Zen’s Contribution to Yamato-damashii

Whereas Dürckheim, as noted above, usually emphasized that the Volk is a “closed whole,” his reflections on Japan outline that it is not a completely closed entity like a concrete block, but possesses a limited openness that in some way resembles the relation between an amoeba and its surroundings. He distinguishes three kinds of “healthy” reactions to the foreign within Japanese history:98

1. Alien elements that fit have been merged with the original völkisch substance (e.g., Buddhism and Chinese culture).

2. Alien elements that did not fit have been withdrawn or at least suppressed (e.g., Christianity).

3. Alien elements that did not fit, but proved to be necessary for the self-preservation of Japan were integrated without damaging the inner essence of the Volk in the long run (European Spirit, technical achievements).

For Dürckheim, Japan’s relationship with the outside world is a paradigm of how a healthy Volk with a strong “racial instinct” behaves. Japanese contacts with other nations and cultures deepened its self-knowledge and strengthened its power. His differentiation between several ways a Volk can relate to foreign Völker is important because it allows for intercultural contacts and influences to be affirmed on the basis of völkisch thought. As we will see, his goal seems to have been to integrate Japanese elements into the Teutonic way of life. But let us first consider what he thought to be the contribution of Zen to the Japanese völkisch culture.

For him the Japanese racial instinct, faith or worldview is a mighty “current of life” that carries the Japanese nation along and guides it beneath all conscious activities. The Japanese word for it, he tells his readers, is Yamato-damashii (usually translated as the “Heart of Yamato,” or “Japanese Spirit”).99 According to his most elaborate analysis in Das Geheimnis der japanischen Kraft (The Secret of Japanese Power) Yamato-damashii had four foundations:100

1. Tennō: the center of the Empire, personification of the Volk, its unity and its divine origin.

2. Bushidō: the way of the knight, the samurai.

3. Loyalty and piety towards one’s ancestors, parents and superiors.

4. Freedom as detachment from life and death.

Since Zen Buddhism comes into play in 2) and 4), the author will focus on these points in the following.

The only source concerning Zen that Dürckheim refers to in Das Geheimnis der japanischen Kraft is Suzuki’s Zen Buddhism and its influence on Japanese Culture (1938).101 The author is not aware of any other Zen-related literature that Dürckheim referred to in his published wartime writings. It is certain that he also knew of Herrigel’s article on The Knightly Art of Archery. Furthermore, as detailed in Part III, he was later introduced to Zen-related literature and texts written by Yasutani Haku’un and translated for him by Hashimoto Fumio.

From Suzuki and Herrigel, Dürckheim learned that Zen is a Buddhist sect that – like every form of Buddhism – searches for enlightenment through meditation, but differs from other Buddhist schools for three reasons which make Zen especially interesting for Dürckheim:102 1) its denial of every dogma,103 2) its aspiration for a direct relationship to the absolute,104 and 3) its emphasis on the practice of this relationship in daily life, work and service.105

For Dürckheim, Zen is the best example showing that Japan does not fit the characterization of Asian mentality as dominated by passive contemplation. Instead, Zen helped to create the typical Japanese synthesis of a “passive experience of God” with “willpower and determined action.” He emphasised that Zen monks had been among the great teachers of the samurai spirit, which had evolved during the first military rule of Japan in the 13th century.106 Then he continued:

It is good to know that today perhaps 50% of the Japanese officer corps have a more or less close relationship to Zen Buddhism, and this means knowledge of the power of the motionless mind, the still heart. It also means a personal relationship to the demands of Zen-Buddhist culture, a culture which recognizes the fulfilment of life in the validation of perfect harmony – symbolically expressed in the tea ceremony, but ultimately in everything, especially in human relations.107

Note that harmony in accordance with Dürckheim’s holistic thought means the whole having perfect control over its parts. Accordingly, Zen in Dürckheim’s view is a practice that unites the different classes of the Japanese Volk. Not only military officers, but also Japanese businessmen, industrial workers and peasants are open to the Zen-influenced meditative experience and therefore know “the secret of ‘the inner space’.”108 He illustrates this with an observation from Japanese daily life:

Every Westerner notices how silently the Japanese often sit or kneel. It is as if they have a secret space to live in, into which they can withdraw at any time, and in which they experience something that noisy reality is never able to give. They somehow know about the silent and unmoved heart that reveals the true independence of human beings from things external.109

The experience of an inner space enables the Japanese to be content with whatever social conditions they live in, to be happy even if they suffer from poverty and hard work as workers and peasants, and to stay calm even when risking their lives for their country as soldiers. The metaphor of the “secret inner space” is notable because it does not seem to belong to Zen vocabulary. The author found only one passage in Suzuki’s Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture that resembles this metaphor and might have influenced Dürckheim. Suzuki reflects upon the significance of the tea cult for the Japanese warriors “in those days of strife and unrest when they were most strenuously engaged in warlike business” and needed a respite from fighting and time to relax:

The tea cult must have given them exactly what they needed. They retreated for a while into a quiet corner of their Unconscious symbolised by the tearoom no wider than ten feet square. And when they came out of it, they felt not only refreshed in mind and body, but most likely had their memory renewed of things which were of more permanent value than mere fighting.110

The “inner space” whose cultivation is fostered by Zen practice is connected with the fourth characteristic of Yamato-damashii: freedom from passions like fear and sorrow as well as from mental unrest ­– a state that is attained by letting go of all forms of clinging to the world:

Regarding this, the Japanese possess a religious source of power in the form of their Buddhist faith […] Expressed in our categories one cannot but call this source a special relationship to the absolute and an independence from life and death that results from closeness to the absolute.111

This independence is, according to Dürckheim, a Buddhist virtue and at the same time the most basic source of the transpersonal loyalty that the Japanese time and again prove in their service to both family and Volk. Herrigel already had expressed exactly the same view in his 1936 article on the knightly art of archery:

For the Japanese it not only goes without saying that they integrate themselves smoothly into the organic orders of their völkisch existence ­– they even sacrifice their lives for them in a detached and modest way. And here only the fruit of Buddhist influence and therefore the subconscious educational value of the Zen-based arts become evident: from this innermost light death and even suicide for the sake of the fatherland get their sublime consecration and in a most fundamental way lose all horror.112

The results of Dürckheim’s article on the mystery of Japanese power are in accordance with Suzuki’s theory of the fundamental significance of Zen for all of Japanese culture and Herrigel’s high evaluation of the educational value of Zen- based arts. Dürckheim tried to show that the practice of Yamato-damashii is deeply rooted in Zen insights and attitudes, and therefore Zen ultimately appears to be the most significant expression of the Japanese völkisch spirit and an essential resource of Japanese power. Similar to Suzuki, and perhaps even stronger than him, he underlined the connection of the samurai to Zen. The positive contribution Zen made to the military and economic strength of Japan and to the inner unity of the nation were of crucial importance for Dürckheim’s positive evaluation of this form of Buddhism.

Possible Japanese Influence on Dürckheim´s Vom rechten Mann

As mentioned above, in 1940, just as he was about to travel to Japan again, Dürckheim published a small booklet meant to be a kind of handbook for German men in difficult times (especially in wartime). There the ideal righteous man is described as a man of honor (Ehrenmann), a man of God (Gottesmann) and a man of the Volk (Volksmann). Describing the virtues of the righteous man in relation to himself, to God and to his Volk, Dürckheim reveals the ethical and spiritual principles of his völkisch world view. The booklet consists of many small chapters whose style is reminiscent of the German translations of the Daodejing.

Fig. 18 Karl Eckprecht (pseud.): Vom rechten Mann

There are other “orientalizations” that distinguish this text. For example, there is the striking importance of the metaphor of the sword. Dürckheim wrote:

The righteous man does not revolt out of selfishness. But if his honor is concerned, if his nation is in danger or God’s concern is violated within himself or within the World, then this calls him to fight and transforms him into a sword. […] then a kind of willpower arises that does not take care of itself but knocks down everything that stands in his way.113

This sequence probably resonates with Suzuki’s philosophy of swordsmanship and his use of “the sword” as a symbol for the life of the samurai, for his loyalty and self-sacrifice. For Suzuki the sword fulfils a double function. First, it destroys anything that is opposed to its owner’s will in the spirit of patriotism and militarism. Second, it is the annihilation of everything that stands in the way of peace, progress and humanity. The sword symbolizes “the spiritual welfare of the world at large.”114

Being a gift of God the sword (as a weapon as well as by virtue of its symbolic meaning of unconditional determination and vigour) represents something holy for Dürckheim. “The strongest will, the purest fire and the sharpest sword – out of God do they come to the righteous man.”115 And of course Dürckheim’s sword, like Suzuki’s, destroys for the benefit of mankind. “His sword is shiny, hard and merciless. It’s all for a good cause and this requires that one not slacken in the fight.”116 In Neues Deutschland. Deutscher Geist Dürckheim, very similar to Suzuki, was to call the sword “Hüter des Heiligen” (guardian of the holy).117

The metaphor of the sword was certainly not new to Dürckheim when he came across it in his encounters with Japanese culture. It is well known in German culture too, especially in Nazism. In Neues Deutschland. Deutscher Geist Dürckheim says that “the connection of lyre and sword” is something typically German.118 Moreover, in Das Geheimnis der japanischen Kraft he sets forth the proposition that the unity of lyre and sword, poetry and military spirit, could well be the deepest common ground of the völkisch spirit of both Germany and Japan.119 “Leier und Schwert” (Lyre and Sword) is the name of a volume of poems written by the 19th century poet Theodor Körner, who was held in high esteem by the Nazis. In Hitler’s Mein Kampf, a book that Dürckheim thought very highly of, the word “sword” is used 27 times as a synonym for “weapon” or “military force.” Hitler contrasts the virtuous “nobility of the sword” (Schwertadel) with the corrupt Jewish “nobility of finance” (Finanzadel).120 But it seems that Suzuki’s Zen-empowered samurai and other Japanese sources inspired Dürckheim to elaborate on its symbolism.

Most of the religious parts of the book use words and phrases taken from the language of Christian piety albeit without reference to Christ, Mother Mary, the Trinity and other theological features i.e., in the sense of a völkisch religiosity influenced by Christianity. The term “die Große Kraft” (the Great Force) that he uses four times, three of which with quotation marks, does not fit into this vocabulary.121 To give but one example: “The righteous man has a cheerful heart and a mind which is always free in the depth of the soul. . . . There he is carried by the Great Force and from there he carries and overcomes everything.”122 Where did this expression come from?

In 1964 Dürckheim published a collection of texts as Wunderbare Katze und andere Zen-Texte (Marvelous Cat and Other Zen texts). The text from which the collection derived its name Marvelous Cat is a training manual used by a fencing school whose author according to Dürckheim was an early seventeenth century Zen master named Ito Tenzaa Chuya. Dürckheim writes that the manual had been given to him by “my Zen teacher” Admiral Teramoto Takeharu. Admiral Teramoto was a professor at the Naval Academy in Tokyo and also a Japanese fencing (kendō) adept. The text is about “das Wirken, das aus der großen Kraft kommt” (the kind of action that comes from the Great Power). “Große Kraft” here functions as translation of the Japanese ki no sho.123 Dürckheim probably got his hands on this text during his first stay in Japan and took the phrase from there when he wrote Vom rechten Mann.

The expression “inner space” with which Dürckheim characterized Zen experience also reappears in Vom rechten Mann. He used it to describe a form of meditation already resembling the centering of the body in the hara that was to become so important in Dürckheim’s post-war writing. It also partly sounds like a paraphrase of Suzuki’s recreation of the warriors’ “in a quiet corner of their Unconscious”:

When things become really bad and unrest threatens even his heart, then he turns inward and locks himself up in the innermost space of his soul. This space is his secret. There he recollects himself in his deepest centre. Totally silent he settles himself, lifts his heart and lets his mind and senses calm down again in God. Even in the middle of the greatest turmoil he always finds the moment to let go of everything, to lower the shoulders and breath deeply. And he does not stop this until he experiences the power of the great centre again.124

The different points that in Dürckheim’s view distinguish Zen from other schools of Buddhism were also essential to his German völkisch religiosity which was supposed to support the Führerstaat and its policies. His concept of inter-völkisch contacts allowed him to affirm the integration of elements from foreign religions and cultures into the German völkisch worldview. He thus proceeded to introduce ideas from what he perceived to be the Japanese völkisch worldview and to transform them in such a way that they would fit and enrich the Nazi-German worldview. On the one hand, transnational religions like Buddhism were only of minor importance to him compared with völkisch religious worldviews. On the other hand, he followed Suzuki and Herrigel’s analysis of Zen’s influence on Japanese culture, arguing that as a völkisch transformed Buddhism it was of essential importance to Yamato-damashii.

That he began to blend his own völkisch religiosity with Zen concepts can also be seen from an undated letter to a Japanese friend quoted by Wehr. Dürckheim wrote:

If I reflect upon the ruling classes of the future, well, I think, they will perhaps revolve around something like a political, i.e., völkisch satori, which is at the same time a super-völkisch satori, that is to say, around a spiritual breakthrough towards ultimate reality – but a breakthrough in which the searching subject is not the individual but a greater self which attains consciousness within the individual.”125

Wehr interprets this passage as evidence of Dürckheim having overcome Nazi ideology during his stay in Japan (actually the only one he could find). According to his interpretation the “greater self” mentioned in this text corresponds to C. G. Jung’s concept of the “self” as a goal of the process of individuation. But the text fits perfectly with all we know about Dürckheim’s Nazi worldview, if one sees the “greater self” as referring to the Volk, as the whole passage suggests. Once again the awakening to ultimate reality and the awakening of the Volk within the individual are identified with each other in a völkisch-super-völkisch enlightenment.


One could say that Dürckheim, like the Japanese protagonists of the Zen-Bushidō ideology, instrumentalized religion in the service of political totalitarianism. He did do so not as a secularized non-believer but as someone for whom the German and Japanese Volk had religious significance because he understood them and their political systems as manifestations of the Divine. Dürckheim maintained that their völkisch worldviews as a reflection of the reality of the Volk should be endowed with a genuine religious dimension.

Dürckheim obviously did not intend a kind of new institutionalized church-like national religion for Nazi Germany, be it neo-pagan or völkisch Christian. When the state represents the Volk and the Volk is the highest revelation of ultimate reality then religious organisations become superfluous. Political rituals and state holidays take the place of religious rituals and feasts. Out of this came Dürckheim’s sympathies for state-supported Shintō, the Japanese state’s ideology and cult. He probably envisioned adding spiritual exercises based on the model of Japanese Zen arts to these quasi-religious forms of expression of the holy Volksgeist – at least for the German elites.

Dürckheim’s Nazi thought is a good example of the enormous aggressive potential of such a politicised religiosity. A religiosity that would stop short of nothing should the display of a nation’s power and its rulers be at stake.

Karl Baier is a professor in the Department for the Study of Religions, University of Vienna. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and an M.A. in Catholic Theology. Major Writings include “Yoga auf dem Weg nach Westen” (1998), a book on the history of Yoga in the West, and his habilitation thesis “Meditation und Moderne” (Meditation and Modernity) that was published in two volumes in 2009. Karl Baier is a member of the European Network of Buddhist Christian Studies.

Recommended citation: Karl Baier, The Formation and Principles of Count Dürckheim’s Nazi Worldview and his interpretation of Japanese Spirit and Zen,The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 48, No. 3, December 2, 2013.

Related articles:

• Brian Daizen Victoria, Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D.T. Suzuki

• Vladimir Tikhonov, South Korea’s Christian Military Chaplaincy in the Korean War - religion as ideology?

• Brian Victoria, Buddhism and Disasters: From World War II to Fukushima

• Brian Victoria, Karma, War and Inequality in Twentieth Century Japan


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1 See, Hitler, Mein Kampf, pp. 318-319.

2 See Wehr, Karlfried Graf Dürckheim, p. 15.

3 Dürckheim, Der Weg ist das Ziel, p. 26.

4 Ibd., pp. 26-27.

5 Dürckheim, Erlebnis und Wandlung, p. 29.

6 See Dürckheim, The Japanese Cult of Tranquility, p. 44 and Section II of this article.

7 See Wehr, Karlfried Graf Dürckheim, pp. 26-31.

8 E.g. Heimatgrüße 4 (26 March 1915), p. 10: “Fei lusti bleib´n / Die Russen vatreib´n / Die Serben vaprügeln, / Die sakrischen Rigeln.” (“Certainly continue to be merry, / Chasing the Russians, / Beating the Serbs, / those terrible hulks.”) All German texts have been translated by the author.

9 See Weinhandl, “Zur religionsphilosophischen und psychologischen Würdigung des religiösen Erlebens.” p. 63.

10 See ibid., p. 26.

11 See Deutsches Nonnenleben.

12 Habilitation is the highest academic qualification one can obtain at a German university. It is similar to the attainment of a research doctorate, but on a higher level of scholarship. The candidate has to write and defend a thesis that is reviewed by an academic committee.

13 Ignatius von Loyola, Die geistlichen Übungen; Ferdinand Weinhandl, Meister Eckehart im Quellpunkt seiner Lehre.

14 See Dürckheim, Mein Weg zur Mitte, p. 13.

15 Wehr, Karlfried Graf Dürckheim, p. 46.

16 Dürckheim, Mein Weg zu Mitte, p. 13.

17 Völkisch thought as a kind of ethnic nationalism interprets religion and culture in general as expressions of the Volk (lit. “people, nation”) as the most basic “organic” unit of human life. The meaning of “völkisch” and “Volk” will be explained in more detail below.

18 Weinhandl, Person, Weltbild und Deutung, p. 44, p. 99. The Teutonic Faustian lifestyle (derived from Goethe´s famous drama ‘Faust’) usually was depicted as involving both a search for the deepest meaning of life and an active shaping of the world in contrast to pessimistic worldviews and passive world-negating mysticism.

19 Herrigel, “Die ritterliche Kunst des Bogenschiessens.”

20 Ibid., p. 209. Cf. Deeg, “Aryan National Religion(s) and the Criticism of Ascetism”.

21 Dürckheim-Montmartin, Neues Deutschland. Deutscher Geist, p. 39.

22 Ular, Die Bahn und der rechte Weg. The astonishing popularity of Ular´s translation is shown by Grasmück, Geschichte und Aktualität der Daoismusrezeption im deutschsprachigen Raum, p. 65. The way in which Ular uses the terms “Volk” and “Gemeinschaft” (community) in his translation of Laozi may have supported his popularity within the völkisch cultic milieu.

23 Cf. Wehr, Karlfried Graf Dürckheim, 37. Laozi, Daodejing, chapter 11: “Thirty spokes unite in one nave and on that which is non-existent on the hole in the nave depends the wheel's utility. Clay is molded into a vessel and on that which is non-existent on its hollowness depends the vessel's utility. By cutting out doors and windows we build a house and on that which is non-existent on the empty space within depends the house's utility.Therefore, existence renders actual but non-existence renders useful." (translated by Daisetz Suzuki and Paul Carus in 1913)

24 Cf. ibid., p. 43.

25 Ferdinand Weinhandl, Wege der Selbstgestaltung (Methods of Self-Development) reflects the diversity of practices the Square knew and might have experimented with.

26 See Dürckheim, Mein Weg zur Mitte, p. 15. Georg Grimm (1868-1945) was a pioneer of Buddhism in Germany and cofounder of the Theravada-oriented “Altbudddhistische Gemeinde” (Old-Buddhist Community). Unfortunately, Dürckheim does not reveal which of Grimm´s books he actually studied.

27 Campbell, “The Cult, the Cultic Milieu and Secularisation”. Campbell defined the cultic milieu as a social setting in which a society´s deviant belief systems and practices are produced and handed down in varying cult movements with a relatively low level of institutionalization.

28 Poewe, New Religions and the Nazis, p. 39.

29 For this see Hippius, “Am Faden von Zeit und Ewigkeit,” p. 13.

30 The millenarianism of the “new man” was not only important for the right-wing counterculture. It was at the same time widespread among socialists.

31 Dürckheim, Erlebnis und Wandlung, p. 35.

32 Weinhandl, “Über Verwandlung. Ein Brief,” p. 179.

33 See Junginger, “Die Deutsche Glaubensbewegung als ideologisches Zentrum der völkisch-religiösen Bewegung,” pp. 68-70; Gerstner, Neuer Adel.

34 The old idea of a “Third Reich“ was popularized in the 1920s by the widely read manifesto of Moeller van den Bruck, Das Dritte Reich that significantly influenced the early NSDAP.

35 Tilitzki, Die deutsche Universitätsphilosophie in der Weimarer Republik und im Dritten Reich, p. 175.

36 Weinhandl, Person, Weltbild und Deutung, p. 55.

37 Hitler, Mein Kampf, p. 514.

38 Poewe, New Religions and the Nazis, p. 37.

39 Cf. Junginger, “Deutsche Glaubensbewegung,” p. 200 fn. 5.

40 Cf. Tilitziki, Die deutsche Universitätsphilosophie, p. 178. Within the Third Reich, Weinhandl acted as a dedicated follower of the Regime, who supported it not only through his philosophy but also with his participation in the burning of books at the central square in Kiel in 1933 and by his work in several compliant academic organisations. In 1938 he became the scientific director of the Scientific Academy of the NSD Dozentenbund. Shortly before the end of the Regime, it is quite likely that tensions between him and the NSDAP arose, perhaps because of his religious commitment and interest in spiritual renewal. However, he did not join the party when he came back to Austria in 1944 and therefore was treated as “less involved” after the war. See Rollett, “Ferdinand Weinhandl,” p. 413.

41 Cf. Tilitzki, Die deutsche Universitätsphilosophie, p. 627.

42 Cf. Goodrick-Clarke, The Occult Roots of Nazism; Cancik, Antisemitismus, Paganismus, völkische Religion; Schnurbein, Völkische Religion und Krisen der Moderne; Puschner, Die völkische Bewegung im wilhelminischen Kaiserreich; Gailus / Nolzen (ed.), Zerstrittene ‚Volksgemeinschaft’; Puschner / Vollnhals (ed.), Die völkisch-religiöse Bewegung im Nationalsozialismus.

43 Puschner / Vollnhals (ed.), “Die völkisch-religiöse Bewegung im Nationalsozialismus. Forschungs- und problemgeschichtliche Perspektiven,” p. 15.

44 Cf. Weinhandl, Der innere Tag, pp. 149-151; pp. 174-176.

45 Dürckheim, Mein Weg zur Mitte, p. 15.

46The importance of the motive of transformation towards the “new man” in Dürckheim’s early days is mentioned in Wehr, Karlfried Graf Dürckheim, p. 37.

47 Hippius, “Am Faden von Zeit und Ewigkeit,” p. 14, note 1. For the Traditionalist School see Sedgwick, Against the Modern World.

48 Dürckheim had been inspired by an article of Evola published in 1965 to call his kind of psychotherapy “Initiatic Therapy.” This motivated him to visit Evola in Rome. Cf. Wehr, Karlfried Graf Dürckheim, pp. 179-181. The relationship between Dürkheim and Evola is analyzed further by Hansen, “Julius Evola und Karlfried Graf Dürckheim.”

49 Weinhandl, “Zur religionsphilosophischen und psychologischen Würdigung,” p. 38. (Italics, Weinhandl).

50 See Scherer, “Organische Weltanschauung und Ganzheitspsychologie,” pp. 15-16.

51 Dürckheim-Montmartin, “Zweck und Wert im Sinngefüge des Handelns,” pp. 230-31.

52 Geuter, “The Whole and the Community: Scientific and Political Reasoning in the Holistic Psychology of Felix Krueger,” p. 202. Cf. Harrington: Reenchanted Science.

53 In 1929 Freyer’s positive assessment was crucial for Dürkheim’s habilitation. Like other radical conservatives and völkisch intellectuals, Freyer set high hopes in the dawn of the Third Reich, but was soon disillusioned. See Muller: The Other God That Failed.

54 Tilitzki, Die deutsche Universitätsphilosophie, p. 527.

55 See Geuter, “The Whole and the Community,” p. 204.

56 Ibid., p. 205.

57 Ibid., p, 206.

58 Dürckheim-Montmartin, Neues Deutschland. Deutscher Geist, p. 141.

59 Dürckheim-Montmartin, “Gemeinschaft,” p. 206 (Italics, Dürckheim).

60 Dürckheim-Montmartin, “Zweck und Wert im Sinngefüge des Handelns,” p. 234. Nevertheless, Dürckheim sometimes emphasizes the importance of individuality and individual responsibility. But from his holistic perspective the creativity and responsibility of individuals are only legitimate insofar they enhance the fulfilment of the requirements of the greater whole. See e.g. Dürckheim-Montmartin, Neues Deutschland. Deutscher Geist, pp. 10-11.

61 Dürckheim-Montmartin, “Gemeinschaft,” p. 207. Brackets and the words in brackets are part of the original text. In Nazi German the term Rassenfrage, racial question, referred to all the problems that arise as a result of the cohabitation of the Aryan race with alien races, and especially the Jews. Dürckheim here legitimates the racial policy of the Third Reich with his theory of the organic community as a closed whole.

62 Dürckheim, “Zweck und Wert im Sinngefüge des Handelns,” p. 231.

63 See Dürckheim-Montmartin: Neues Deutschland. Deutscher Geist, p. 146.

64 Ibd., p. 142.

65 Cf. Dürckheim-Montmartin, “Zweck und Wert im Sinngefüge des Handelns,” pp. 233-34, Neues Deutschland. Deutscher Geist, p. 146.

66 Dürckheim-Montmartin, “Zweck und Wert im Sinngefüge des Handelns,” p. 233.

67 Dürckheim-Montmartin: Neues Deutschland. Deutscher Geist, p. 151.

68 Ibid., p. 147.

69 Ibid., p. 49.

70 See ibid., p. 146 and p. 7. In Mein Kampf and in his speeches Hitler often invokes his belief and faith in the German Volk.

71 Ibid., p. 147.

72 Cf. the definition of what it means to be religious that Dürckheim gives in Der Geist der europäischen Kultur (1943), quoted in Wehr, Karlfried Graf Dürckheim, p. 118. According to this text to be religious means to direct one’s life to the realization of the Divine within the concrete forms of earthly life. “Whenever we successfully develop this orientation then primarily our own Volk presents itself to us as a manifestation of the divine ground of the world, a manifestation whose unfolding is our responsibility.”

73 Dürckheim-Montmartin, Neues Deutschland. Deutscher Geist, p. 8.

74 “Shujo-Dan”; “Tradition und Gegenwart in Japan”; “Japan’s Kampf um Japan”; “Das Geheimnis der japanischen Kraft.”

75 Eckprecht (pseudonym): Vom rechten Mann. Christian Tilitzki, Die Deutsche Universitätsphilosophie, Teil 2, p. 130 was the first to point out that Dürckheim is the author of this book.

76 I would like to thank Brian Victoria for providing me with a copy of Neues Deutschland. Deutscher Geist.

77 I took the content of the preface to the first edition from Kimura: Der ostwestliche Goethe, p. 340.

78 Dürckheim-Montmartin, “‘Europe’?”.

79 Cf. Wehr, Karlfried Graf Dürckheim, p. 117. According to Wehr the archive numbers of the manuscripts are C59/1017 and C59/1013. The Japanese publications: Maisuteru Ekkuharuto. Doitsuteki Shinko no Honshitsu (Meister Eckhart. The Essence of Germanic Faith) Tokyo: Risosha, 1943; Yoroppa Bunka no Shinzui. Chikyutetsugakuteki Kosatsu (The Essence of European Culture. Global Philosophical Considerations). Tokyo: Rokumeikan, 1944.

80 Dürckheim, Neues Deutschland. Deutscher Geist, p. 175.

81 Dürckheim, Neues Deutschland. Deutscher Geist, p. 3. (Italics, Dürckheim)

82 See Dürckheim-Montmartin, “Tradition und Gegenwart in Japan,” p. 196.

83 Dürckheim-Montmartin, “Shujo-Dan,” p. 23.

84 Dürckheim-Montmartin, “Tradition und Gegenwart in Japan,” p. 197.

85 Cited from Wehr, Karlfried Graf Dürckheim, p. 114.

86 Shujo-Dan, p. 23.

87 Jinnō Shōtōki referred to by Dürckheim-Montmartin, “Das Geheimnis der japanischen Kraft”, p. 69 fn. 1.

88Wachutka, “‘A Living Past as the Nation’s Personality’,” p. 140.

89 Bohner, who had lived in Japan since 1921, and Dürckheim almost certainly knew each other personally as Dürckheim was busy contacting German scholars in Japan and especially sympathizers of the Nazis. In 1943 Bohner dedicated his translation of Akaji Sōtei’s Chashitsu-kakemono Zengo-Tsūkai “Zen-Worte im Tee-Raume“ (Zen words within the tea-room) to Dürckheim.

90 Jinnō Shōtōki, pp. 3-4.

91 Cf. Dürckheim-Montmartin, Neues Deutschland. Deutscher Geist, p. 2.

92 See Dürckheim-Montmartin, “Tradition und Gegenwart in Japan,” pp. 197-98.

93 Dürckheim-Montmartin, “Das Geheimnis japanischer Kraft”, p. 78.

94 Ibid.

95 Quoted from Worm, “Japanologie im Nationalsozialismus”, p. 184.

96 Dürckheim-Montmartin, Neues Deutschland. Deutscher Geist, p. 32.

97 Ibid., pp. 32-33.

98 Cf. Dürckheim-Montmartin, “Das Geheimnis der japanischen Kraft,” p. 70.

99 Dürckheim-Montmartin, “Das Geheimnis der japanischen Kraft,” p. 69. More about Yamato-damashii in Section II of this article.

100 In his earlier article, “Tradition und Gegenwart in Japan,” p. 201, Dürckheim in a slightly different way discriminates three pillars of the Japanese worldview: 1) Tennō (emperor), 2) faith in divine heroes, and 3) ancestors and family as basic forms of human life.

101 See Dürckheim-Montmartin, “Das Geheimnis der japanischen Kraft,” p. 75, ref. 1.

102 Dürckheim-Montmartin, “Das Geheimnis der japanischen Kraft,” p. 75.

103 Cf. Suzuki, Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture, p. 36: “Zen has no special doctrine or philosophy with a set of intellectual formulas, except that it tries to release from the bondage of birth and death and this by means of certain intuitive modes of understanding peculiar to itself.”

104 Cf. ibid., p. 4: “Zen wants us to see directly into the spirit of Buddha.”

105 Suzuki’s Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture does not focus on this aspect of Zen. It is a central point of Herrigel’s interpretation of Zen supposed in his article on archery.

106 Dürckheim here follows Suzuki, Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture, pp. 35-40.

107 Ibid., p. 76.

108 See ibid.

109 Dürckheim-Montmartin, “Tradition und Gegenwart in Japan,” p. 201.

110 Suzuki: Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture, pp. 143-44.

111 Dürckheim-Montmartin, Das Geheimnis der japanischen Kraft, p. 79. (Italics, Dürckheim)

112 Herrigel, „Die ritterliche Kunst des Bogenschiessens“, p. 211.

113 Eckprecht, Vom rechten Mann, p. 49.

114 Suzuki, Zen Buddhism and its Influence on Japanese Culture, p. 67.

115 Eckprecht, Vom rechten Mann, p. 44.

116 Eckprecht, Vom rechten Mann, p. 45.

117 Cf. Dürckheim-Montmartin, Neues Deutschland. Deutscher Geist, p. 50.

118 Dürckheim-Montmartin, Neues Deutschland. Deutscher Geist, p. 50. (Italics, Dürckheim)

119 Dürckheim-Montmartin, Das Geheimnis der japanischen Kraft, p. 75.

120 Cf. Hitler, Mein Kampf, p. 256. On his research trip through South Africa in 1934 where on behalf of the Ministry of Education Dürckheim investigated the cultural and educational situation of Germans in relation to the new regime, he wrote in his diary: “At 7:30 I sit at my desk and first read for at least half an hour in Mein Kampf; this gives me the right frame of mind for the day. . .” (cit. from Wehr: Karlfried Graf Dürckheim, p. 78).

121 Eckprecht, Vom rechten Mann, p. 9 (quotation marks), p. 20, p. 39 (quotation marks), p. 55 (quotation marks).

122 Ibid., p. 20.

123 Dürckheim, Wunderbare Katze, p. 64.

124 Eckbrecht, Vom rechten Mann, p. 47.

125 Wehr, Karlfried Graf Dürckheim, p. 120.

Re: D.T. Suzuki, Zen and the Nazis, by Brian Daizen Victoria

PostPosted: Fri Aug 09, 2019 1:18 am
by admin
Buddhism and Disasters: From World War II to Fukushima 
by Brian Victoria
The Asia-Pacific Journal
Volume 10 | Issue 11 | Number 7
March 5, 2012

Abstract: This article explores the longstanding relationship between Buddhism and disasters in Japan, focusing on Buddhism's role in the aftermath of the Asia-Pacific War and the Tohoku disaster of March 2011. Buddhism is well positioned to address these disasters because of its emphasis on the centrality of suffering derived from the impermanent nature of existence. Further, parallels between certain Buddhist doctrines and their current, disaster-related cultural expressions in Japan are examined. It is also suggested that Japanese Buddhism revisit certain socially regressive doctrinal interpretations.

Keywords: Buddhism, disasters, suffering, impermanence, kamikaze, Fukushima, Asia-Pacific War, tsunami, Stoicism, discrimination

Zen monk reciting sutras amidst tsunami destruction

It is safe to say that in considering the events of March 11, 2011 including the ongoing disaster at the Dai-ichi Fukushima nuclear power plant, Buddhism is not the first thing that comes to mind. Yet, as suggested by the preceding iconic poster, Buddhism's connection to calamities in Japan has a long history, beginning with its introduction to the country in the sixth century. In fact, Buddhism owes its very existence in Japan to the early belief that it had the power to protect the country from various calamities, whether natural or human. Buddhism's role in this regard has long been encapsulated in the title "nation-protecting Buddhism" (gokoku bukkyo).

Needless to say, Buddhism's ability to protect the nation was severely tested, if not effectively destroyed, by Japan's defeat in the Asia-Pacific War. That is to say, this defeat occurred despite the fervent rituals and prayers for Japan's victory conducted by Japan's leading Buddhist clerics. Nevertheless, Buddhism has an even deeper connection to disasters, one that could not be eradicated even by defeat in war, that is, its connection to suffering and death.

Buddhist priests and coffins of tsunami victims

Just how closely Buddhism is connected to suffering can readily be seen in Buddhism's basic teachings as encapsulated in the Four Noble Truths:

1. Life means suffering.

2. The origin of suffering is attachment.

3. The cessation of suffering is attainable.

4. The path to the cessation of suffering.

While Buddhism is not the pessimistic religion that some have alleged in that it does offer a way to end suffering, it nevertheless stresses that suffering, leading to death sooner or later, is inherent to the human condition. Thus, disasters, when they occur, are not seen as anything new or surprising but rather as further proof of the inevitability of suffering based on the fundamental Buddhist insight of the impermanence of all things.

Inasmuch as Buddhism enjoys a near monopoly on funeral rites in Japan it was inevitable that photographs of priests praying over the coffins of tsunami victims would quickly appear. What is unusual about the above photo, however, is that the victims are being buried without first having been cremated. This is explained by the need to quickly bury the large number of victims in an area where crematoria were no longer operating. These particular victims will later be disinterred and cremated when conditions allow.

As massive as the loss of life was due to the tsunami, it pales in comparison with the loss of life during the Asia-Pacific War. As the following photograph reveals, Buddhist priests also played a significant role in that war, that is, as Buddhist chaplains whose major role was, as now, to oversee the cremation (when feasible) and burial of the dead.

Buddhist military chaplain

Unlike US military chaplains, Buddhist chaplains did not wear military uniforms, but their military boots and pith helmets made it clear that they, too, were part of Japan's military effort. Many commanders found it comforting to have their unit's Buddhist chaplain accompany them on periodic tours of the front lines based on the belief that the priest's allegedly miraculous powers would insure their safety.

Nevertheless, behind all Buddhist chaplains' "practical work" on the battlefield lay a metaphysics that promoted a value that became increasingly important the longer the war lasted - resignation to one's death. Buddhism was seen as providing the quickest route to acquiring the needed resignation, for it was Buddhism that taught living means to suffer since neither human nature nor the world we live in are perfect. During our lifetime, we inevitably endure physical suffering such as pain, sickness, injury, old age, weakness, and eventually death; and we have to endure such psychological suffering as sadness, fear, frustration, disappointment, and depression. Thus, life in its totality is imperfect and incomplete because our world is subject to impermanence. Since we are never able to keep permanently what we strive for, we must accept that we ourselves as well as all we hold dear will inevitably pass away.

Kamikaze pilot covered in cherry blossoms

Once this metaphysical foundation has been grasped we can better understand the suicidal, if tactically meaningless, "banzai" charges that characterized the latter stages of the war. This includes, of course, the suicidal attacks of so-called kamikaze pilots. One Sōtō Zen scholar glorified these pilots as follows: "The source of the spirit of the Special Attack Forces [i.e., kamikaze] lies in the denial of the individual self and the rebirth of the soul, which takes upon itself the burden of history. From ancient times Zen has described this conversion of mind as the achievement of complete enlightenment."1

In Japanese culture, of course, it is the fragile and short-lived cherry blossom that best embodies the idea of impermanence. Thus, as shown in the following picture, the cherry blossom quickly became associated with those youth called upon to sacrifice their lives in a desperate attempt to avert defeat.

And, as the following cherry blossom-decorated photo shows, Japan's rocket-propelled, bomber-launched, suicide plane was also called Ōka (Cherry Blossom).

If these photos seem far removed from recent events, it is worth recalling the photos of workers in the early days of the Fukushima accident headed into the dark and dangerous nuclear reactor buildings. Japanese commentators appropriately referred to such laborers as possessed of the same kamikaze spirit: "At Fukushima, a core of several hundred workers essentially sacrificed themselves in the early stages of the disaster…‘I don't know of any other way to say it, but this is like suicide fighters in a war,' said University of Tokyo radiology professor Keiichi Nakaga."2

Cause of Suffering

Ōka plane

In Buddhism the cause of suffering is seen as stemming from attachment, that is, attachment to transient things and the ignorance thereof. Transient things not only include the physical objects that surround us, but also ideas, and in a greater sense, all objects of our perception. Ignorance is the lack of understanding of how our mind is attached to impermanent things. The reasons for suffering are desire, passion, ardor, pursuit of wealth and prestige, striving for fame and popularity, or in short: craving and clinging. Because the objects of our attachment are transient, their loss is inevitable, thus suffering will necessarily follow. Objects of attachment also include the idea of a "self" that is a delusion, because there is no abiding self. What we call "self" is just an imagined entity, and we are merely a part of the ceaseless becoming of the universe.

Worker in the early days of the Fukushima accident

In the years since the advent of the Heisei period (1989), Japan has experienced numerous crises, ranging from political, financial, and social turmoil to natural disasters, as if inheriting the turbulence of the previous eventful and painful Showa history (1926-89). In the face of calamity, however, the Japanese people have always impressed the world with their extreme resilience and what is often referred to as their "stoicism." It has been generally suggested that the Japanese people are impressively responsive to disasters, given their all too frequent experience of calamity in an island country located on the Pacific "rim of fire."

Stoicism, however, is an ancient Greek school of philosophy founded at Athens by Zeno of Citium. The school taught that virtue, the highest good, is based on knowledge, and that the wise live in harmony with divine Reason (also identified with Fate and Providence) that governs nature, and are indifferent to the vicissitudes of fortune and to pleasure and pain.

Buddhism, on the other hand, does not teach indifference to the vicissitudes of life but rather recognition of them as an integral part of the very fabric of an all too impermanent existence. Thus, while suffering remains real, at least to the degree one remains attached to the world, the bitter sting of impermanence is nevertheless alleviated to some degree by the realization of its inevitability. Thus, rather than stoics, the Japanese may best be characterized as simply "realists."

This may also help to explain, at least in part, why the Japanese, by and large, do not seem as susceptible as many others to what psychologists have called the "normalcy bias." The normalcy bias refers to a mental state that people enter when facing a disaster resulting in underestimation of both the possibility of a disaster occurring as well as its possible effects. This often results in situations where people fail to adequately prepare for a disaster, and, on a larger scale, the failure of governments to include the populace in their disaster preparations. The assumption is made that since a disaster never occurred in the past, then it will not occur in the future. It also results in the inability of people to cope with a disaster once it does occur. While there is clearly room to criticize the Japanese government for its past and present lack of disaster preparedness, the Japanese people as a whole do respond with admirable calm and discipline.

If being a "realist" and overcoming the "normalcy bias" may be viewed as positive traits, it is also true that the Japanese have often been identified as having a "stoic attitude" based on their embrace of gaman, or in its verb form gaman suru. Interestingly, this term has deep Buddhist roots in that it is derived from the Sanskrit word māna, (conceit). In its original Buddhist meaning this term had a clearly negative meaning in that it designated one of seven types of human conceit, that is, attachment to self (ga). Yet following the onset of the Edo period in 1600 the fact that "self-attachment" was such an enduring human characteristic led to its negative Buddhist meaning being replaced with a positive meaning in which gaman suru now refers to the ability to endure adversity no matter how severe. In fact, gaman is today often regarded as one of the quintessential Japanese virtues or unique national characteristics. The question must be raised, however, as to what was lost by this medieval change from its original Buddhist meaning, especially when gaman can and has been used to justify the endurance of human-created injustice, including exposure to nuclear radiation?

Yet another popular Japanese term stemming from Buddhism is hōben (Skt. upāya) or "skillful means." The skillful means referred to here is the Buddha's ability to adjust his message, that is, the teaching of the Dharma, to meet the spiritual needs and understanding of his listeners. Any such adjustment, however, must be guided by both wisdom and compassion. Nevertheless, over the centuries another meaning of upāya has emerged, a meaning best translated as "expedient means." Thus, what is "expedient" for the speaker becomes an acceptable expression of the truth. This latter meaning is best captured by the Japanese phrase uso mo hōben (a lie is also expedient means). In a recent article in The Japan Times, the naturalized Japanese Debito Arudou pointed out that the widespread acceptance of this phrase has led to a general attitude in Japan of tolerating, even justifying, not telling the truth, at least the whole truth. Needless to say, nowhere has this tolerance been more evident than in the Japanese government's continued obfuscation of the seriousness of events linked to Fukushima, most especially the ongoing and widespread radiation contamination. Arudou writes:

Post-Fukushima Japan must realize that public acceptance of lying got us into this radioactive mess in the first place. For radiation has no media cycle. It lingers and poisons the land and food chain. Statistics may be obfuscated or suppressed as usual. But radiation's half-life is longer than the typical attention span or sustainable degree of public outrage. As the public — possibly worldwide — sickens over time, the truth will leak out.3

How ironic that it took a naturalized Japanese of Western origin to point out just how twisted the popular Japanese understanding of a key Buddhist doctrine has become.

Similarities and Differences with World War II

On August 28, 1945, shortly after Japan's surrender, Prime Minister Higashikuni declared: "The military, civilian officials, and the people as a whole must thoroughly self-reflect and repent. I believe that the collective repentance of the hundred million (ichioku sōzange) is the first step in the resurrection of our country, the first step in bringing unity to our country."4

By employing the Buddhist term zange (repentance), Higashikuni effectively shielded Japan's political and military leaders, including the emperor, from any criticism or responsibility for Japan's disastrous defeat. However, as revealed in the following "Verse of Repentance" (Zangemon), Buddhist repentance refers to a personal acknowledgement of moral imperfection.

The various evil deeds that I have done in the past, all stem from beginningless greed, hatred and delusion. These deeds were born from body, speech and mind, and I now repent them all.5

Higashikuni cleverly invoked Buddhist repentance to socialize, and thereby excuse, the political recklessness if not criminality of Japan's wartime political and military leaders, thereby making each and every Japanese personally responsible for the disaster visited on the Japanese people as well as Asian victims of Japanese aggression.

Further, Higashikuni's approach was echoed by related sentiments on the part of Japan's leading Buddhists. Sōtō Zen scholar-priest Masanaga Reiho, for example, stated on September 15, 1945:

The cause of Japan's defeat . . . was that within our country there were not sufficient capable men who could direct the war by truly giving it their all… That is to say, we lacked individuals who, having transcended self-interest, were able to employ the power of a life based on moral principles…It is religion and education that have the responsibility to develop such individuals.6

The question is, did something similar occur during the recent disaster? The answer, as many readers already know, was that it did, as seen in the words of Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintaro. On March 14, 2011 Ishihara held a press conference at which he stated:

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.7

In making this claim, it should be noted that Ishihara was following a well-established Buddhist precedent in Japan, one that be traced back at least as far as priest Nichiren in the thirteenth century. In 1260, with Japan facing a series of calamities at home and the threat of Mongol invasion from abroad, Nichiren submitted his famous Risshō-ankoku-ron (Treatise on Pacifying the Country through the Establishment of True [Buddhism]) to Japan's warrior rulers in Kamakura. The first dialogue contained the following passage:

The people of today all turn their backs upon what is right; they give their allegiance to evil. That is the reason why the benevolent deities have abandoned the nation, why sages leave and do not return, and in their stead come devils and demons, disasters and calamities that arise one after another.

This viewpoint was similarly invoked during the Asia-Pacific War as an expression of karmic recompense.

There is not so much as a single bullet flying from the enemy that happens by chance. It is definitely the work of karma, for it is karma that makes it strike home…Your husband died because of his karma…It was the inevitability of karma that caused your husband's death. In other words, your husband was only meant to live for as long as he did. In those bereaved that have recovered their composure, one sees the realization that their husband's death was due to the consistent working of karma. No one was to blame [for his death] nor was anyone in the wrong. No one bears responsibility for what happened, for it was simply his karma to die.8

Despite these clear precedents, however, this time Ishihara's attempt to blame the victims for their victimization created such an uproar that he was forced to apologize. Thus, on the following day, March 15th, the Governor held a second press conference at which he retracted his remarks and offered "a deep apology" for having made them.9

Commenting on Ishihara's remarks, John Nelson, chairman of theology and religious studies at the University of San Francisco, noted that his remarks about divine retribution stemmed from ancient Japanese Buddhist ideas that have now become unpopular.10

While ancient Japanese did embrace an understanding of karma exemplified by Ishihara's remarks, it should be noted that such views were not those of Buddhist doctrine. On the contrary, according to Buddhist doctrine, karma refers to only the first of five rules or processes that cause effects. The five rules are: 1) The positive or negative moral consequences of one's actions; 2) Laws of nature; 3) Seasonal changes and climate; 4) Genetic inheritance; and 5) Processes of consciousness. Thus it is clearly mistaken, though popular, to claim that natural events like earthquakes, tsunami, etc. are the result of human moral failures, that is, their karma. Nevertheless, in Japanese Buddhism this mistaken understanding of karma has long been employed to place blame on the victims of misfortune, including social injustice.

In truth, something similar can be said of at least some representatives of the world's major religions. In Christianity, for example, Rev Gerhard Wagner, 54, was quoted in his local parish newsletter as saying that the death and destruction of Hurricane Katrina was "divine retribution" for New Orleans' tolerance of homosexuals and laid-back sexual attitudes. Subsequent to his remarks, the Vatican made this Roman Catholic Austrian cleric a bishop.11

In Israel, Shas spiritual leader and former Chief Sephardic Rabbi Ovadia Yosef described Hurricane Katrina as punishment meted out by God as a result of US President George W. Bush's support for the Gaza and northern West Bank disengagement. Nor was that all. "There was a tsunami and there are terrible natural disasters, because there isn't enough Torah study… black people reside there (in New Orleans). Blacks will study the Torah? (God said) let's bring a tsunami and drown them," the Rabbi said.12 Clearly the cause of disasters of whatever kind remains a controversial topic among the world's religions.

War Victims as "Polluted"

Yet another ancient religious belief in Japan is that disaster victims become "polluted" by their experience. While the idea of ritual pollution originally comes from Shinto, it has become firmly entrenched in the Buddhist-Shinto syncretism so typical of today's Japan. Referencing the aftermath of the Asia-Pacific War, John Dower noted:

Despite a mild Buddhist tradition of care for the weak and infirm…whole new categories of "improper" people felt the sting of stigmatization. These included the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with their taint of – really, their pollution by – radiation; war orphans and street children…War widows …And homeless ex-servicemen or any of the other abandoned people who clogged public places such as Tokyo's Ueno Station.13

As the following photo only too graphically reveals, pollution due to radiation exposure has once again become the focus of the public's attention.

Child undergoing a radiation check

The April 3, 2011 edition of Newsweek described the current situation in Japan as follows:

People living near the damaged reactor have already begun to face discrimination. They have been barred from staying in inns outside Fukushima prefecture. Angry motorists in Tokyo and other cities have complained that Fukushima-plate-bearing cars were "contaminated." Some Minamisoma citizens have sought treatment at medical clinics in cities beyond the buffer zone, only to be turned away because they didn't have "radiation-free" certificates…children evacuated from Fukushima prefecture—especially from the exclusion and buffer zones—and sent to centers in Tokyo and other cities were now being singled out for rough treatment in elementary schools. Their classmates were shunning them and taunting them as being "irradiated"…As Japan reckons with its latest nuclear tragedy, the suffering endured by the hibakushas still weighs heavy on the land.

Final Comments

As the foregoing comments make clear, the distance between the Asia-Pacific War and the still unfolding events precipitated by the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011 is typically much less understood. The same can be said for Buddhism's relationship between the two. It is not difficult to envision that as victims of Japan's ongoing radiation contamination contract such illnesses as cancer, and die, that Buddhist priests will once again conduct their funerals and memorial services, understanding their demise as but another manifestation of impermanence. Yet Buddhism also has a strong commitment to compassion based on the realization of the ultimate identity of all things. One is left to ponder what practical impact, beyond conducting funerals, this commitment will have on the lives of the victims of the world's largest industrial accident. Given Buddhism's long history in Japan of blaming victims for their misfortune, one cannot be too sanguine about the future.

That said, it is noteworthy that there are a handful of Buddhist priests like Zen-affiliated Abe Koyu, abbot of Joenji temple in Fukushima city. In addition to offering prayers for the thousands left dead or missing from the multiple disasters, he has undertaken the additional task of searching out radioactive "hot spots" in the Fukushima city area and cleaning them up, storing the irradiated earth on the grounds of his own temple. Further, in the summer of 2011 Abe grew and distributed sunflowers and other plants, such as field mustard and amaranthus, in an effort to lighten the impact of the radiation and cheer local residents. Abe explained that he and the other monks are storing the soil on a hill behind the temple because neither the government nor the nuclear plant operator Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) are helping with the clean-up. "No-one else would take the soil. If there's nobody to take care of it, the decontamination can't get going because there's nowhere to get rid of it," Abe said. (“Japan Priest Fights Invisible Demon: Radiation,” available here.)

On the other hand, as Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko’s recent speech to foreign journalists revealed, the Japanese government has reverted to its timeworn stance of asserting that, as far as the Fukushima nuclear accident is concerned, all of the major players share responsibility. “Rather than blaming any individual person I believe everyone has to share the pain of responsibility and learn this lesson,” Noda claimed. (f.n. “Noda says no individual to blame for Fukushima nuclear crisis,” available here.) This stance means, of course, that no one need fear criminal prosecution for what is now widely recognized as the world’s greatest industrial accident to date. However, perhaps it should be considered ‘progress’ that Noda didn’t go on to assert the entire Japanese people bore responsibility for what happened.

In any event, given continued evasive comments like Noda’s, it would be well for all, Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike, to ponder the following words of Helen Caldicott, the Australian authority on the effects of nuclear radiation:

The early nuclear physicists in the Manhattan Project recognize[d] the toxicity of radioactive elements. I knew many of them quite well. They had hoped that peaceful nuclear energy would absolve their guilt over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but it has only extended it.14

Brian Daizen Victoria holds an M.A. in Buddhist Studies from Sōtō Zen sect-affiliated Komazawa University in Tokyo, and a Ph.D. from the Department of Religious Studies at Temple University. In addition to a 2nd, enlarged edition of Zen At War (Rowman & Littlefield), major writings include Zen War Stories (RoutledgeCurzon); an autobiographical work in Japanese entitled Gaijin de ari, Zen bozu de ari (As a Foreigner, As a Zen Priest); Zen Master Dōgen, coauthored with Prof. Yokoi Yūhō of Aichi-gakuin University (Weatherhill); and a translation of The Zen Life by Sato Koji (Weatherhill). He is professor of Japanese Studies and director of the AEA "Japan and Its Buddhist Traditions Program" at Antioch University in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Recommended citation: Brian Victoria, 'Buddhism and Disasters: From World War II to Fukushima,' The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol 10, Issue 11, No 7, March 12, 2012.

Responding to Disaster: Japan's 3.11 Catastrophe in Historical Perspective

Is a Special Issue of The Asia-Pacific Journal edited by Yau Shuk-ting, Kinnia

See the following articles:

• Yau Shuk-ting, Kinnia, Introduction

• Matthew Penney, Nuclear Nationalism and Fukushima

• Susan Napier, The Anime Director, the Fantasy Girl and the Very Real Tsunami

• Yau Shuk Ting, Kinnia, Therapy for Depression: Social Meaning of Japanese Melodrama in the Heisei Era

• Timothy S. George, Fukushima in Light of Minamata

• Shi-Lin Loh, Beyond Peace: Pluralizing Japan’s Nuclear History

• Brian Victoria, Buddhism and Disasters: From World War II to Fukushima

See the complete list of APJ resources on the 3.11 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power meltdown, and the state and societal responses to it here.



1 Quoted in Brian Victoria, Zen at War, 2nd edition, p. 139. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006).

2 Harvey Wasserman, "Fukushima and the Radioactive Sea,"Counterpunch, May 26, 2011. link.

3 "The costly fallout of tatemae and Japan's culture of deceit," The Japan Times, November 1, 2011. link.

4 Quoted in John Dower, Embracing Defeat, 2000, p. 496. (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2000).

5 Found in "The Practices & Vows of Samantabadra Bodhisattva," Avatamsaka Sutra, Chapter 40.

6 Quoted in Victoria, op cit, p. 160.

7 "‘Daishinsai wa tenbatsu' ‘Tsunami de gayoku arai otose' Ishihara tochiji,"Asahi Shimbun, March 14, 2011. Available here.

8 Quoted in Brian Victoria, Zen War Stories, Routledge, 2003, p. 159.

9 Justin McCurry, "Tokyo governor apologizes for calling tsunami ‘divine punishment," The Guardian, March 15, 2011. Available here.

10 "Tokyo Governor Apologizes for Calling Disasters Divine Punishment," Global News ( Available here.

(Accessed on November 11, 2011)

11 Nick Pisa, "Cleric who said Hurricane Katrina was God's punishment for how homosexuality is made bishop by Vatican," Mail Online, February 2, 2009. Available here. Due to the controversy surrounding his views, the Pope effectively revoked Wagner's appointment a month later.

12 Zvi Alush, "Rabbi: Hurricane punishment for pullout,", July 5, 2009. Available here.

13 Dower, op cit, p. 61.

14 "Unsafe at Any Dose," New York Times, April 30, 2011. Available here.