The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 24, No. 3, June 16, 2014.
Introductory Note:This is the first of a two part series describing the wartime roles of two of Japan’s best-known 20th century Zen masters, Sawaki Kōdō (1880-1965) and Nakajima Genjō (1915-2000). Beginning with the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, followed by the Asia-Pacific War of 1937-45, these masters left a record not only of their battlefield experiences but, more importantly, the relationship they saw between their Buddhist faith and war. Additionally, each was affiliated with one of Japan’s two main Zen sects, i.e., Sawaki was a Sōtō Zen priest while Nakajima was a priest in the Rinzai Zen sect. Finally, Sawaki served as a soldier in the Imperial Army during the Russo-Japanese War, while Nakajima was a sailor in the Imperial Navy during the Asia-Pacific War.
Part I focuses on Sawaki Kōdō. Part II covers Nakajima Genjō.
Zen Masters on the Battlefield (Part I)
Brian Daizen Victoria
Any fool learns from his mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others. -- Otto von Bismarck.
A cursory glance at the writings of Zen scholars like D.T. Suzuki, with his proffered “unity of Zen and the sword,” suggests that at least in medieval Japan there is no reason to be surprised at the presence of Zen masters on the battlefield. A closer reading, however, reveals this was not the case. That is to say, Zen masters like the famous Takuan Sōhō (1573–1645) served as spiritual advisors to the samurai class, not as warriors themselves. The closest that Zen masters came to engaging in warfare are figures like Yamamoto Jōchō (1659-1719), author of the Bushidō classic,Hagakure (Hidden under the Leaves), or Suzuki Shōsan (1579–1655) who urged his disciples to develop a warrior's fortitude. Both of these latter Zen masters had earlier been samurai and entered the priesthood only after retirement, i.e., upon reaching an age when they were no longer fit for battle.