Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach

Priests At War

The protestant church once had a very strict understanding of how a person ought to behave. Pre-marital sex, drinking alcohol, and smoking was unacceptable. Dancing was on the edge. And killing your fellow children of God in wartime was absolutely fine.

Yes, as history shows with almost no exception, religious organisations almost always support their country in times of war. When nations clash, even Buddhists take a break from universal love and brotherhood.

In fact, the most important figure to introduce Zen Buddhism to the West, D.T. Suzuki, was a big advocate of Japanese imperialism. The Japanese soldier’s staunch views on self-sacrifice, duty, and honor come from Suzuki’s fusion of Zen and bushidō

This weaponisation of Zen eventually led to the creation of the army’s banzai charges, the air force’s kamikaze pilots, and the manned torpedoes of the navy.

The Japanese priests twisted the Buddhist teachings to encourage total devotion to the emperor, to justify mass killing, and to welcome death.

Which raises the question: How did the Zen leaders reconcile war with the ideals of love and compassion?

Suzuki said it was the teaching that swings the sword. The man who holds it is simply a vessel of the Dharma.

Just like that, murder became excusable.

While tough to see, the Zen inspired killing isn’t completely beyond understanding. 

After the first world war, Japan had no mineral resources of her own. Unemployment was high. And crop failures brought disastrous famines to rural areas. 

Since every year brought another million mouths to feed, Japan needed an answer. And it needed it fast.

Since Western tariffs and anti-Japanese legislation made trading impossible, Japan felt like it had no options but to use force.

So Japan invaded Manchuria on the Asian mainland. Although Japan’s army suffered little losses, the nation’s reputation took a beating. 

From now on, Japan could only count on itself. Nationalism soared under its citizens, including its priests.

Next, a mix of foreign contempt, national pride, and need for resources spurred religious leaders to nurture a military state.

Just like everyone else, priests are flawed human beings who are loyal to their tribe. Even if it means going to war.

By Jeroen Elsing
Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach