Professor Frank S. Ravitch of Michigan State University College of Law interviews Dr Brian Daizen Victoria, Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies on his journey from conscientious objector to Buddhist Priest, at The Asian Conference on Ethics, Religion & Philosophy 2016.
Professor Frank S. Ravitch: Can you tell us a bit about your journey, that took a 1961 graduate of Nebraska Wesleyan University, to Japan, your subsequent immersion into Buddhist traditions, specifically Zen Buddhist traditions, and how your academic career and personal life developed?
Dr Brian Daizen Victoria: Well, I probably need to start at the most defining event for me as a young man, which was when I studied in Europe for a year in 1959-60. I was studying in Denmark but I went to Germany a number of times, and what struck me there was that even though it was 1959, many years after World War 2, how strongly, especially in Germany, you could feel the impact that World War 2 had had on that country and on those people. And in particular I went to a church in Hanover that had been bombed during the war. The walls were still there but the roof was gone, and they had left it exactly as it was from the bombing. As I walked into the church, at the nave they had the photographs of the soldiers, the Nazi soldiers. Underneath their photographs ‘forgotten country’ was written, and I wondered to myself, how could these Nazi soldiers have believed that what they were doing for Hitler was for God, perhaps for their country, but how could they have believed that it was for God? It was toward the evening and I sat in the main chapel, as I said it was open to the sky and I sat on a piece of broken concrete, which probably was at one time the roof of the church. And I was contemplating, trying to figure out, what was I going to do when I returned to the US, because it was time for me to sign up for the draft. Unusually for our country it was not at war at the time, it was in-between the Korean War and what, of course, became the Vietnam War. So it wasn’t the case of a particular war, but the question was, would I be willing to kill my fellow human beings on behalf of the officers in charge of me if I were to be drafted? And as I sat there I came to the conclusion that no, I couldn’t do that, or I wouldn’t do that.
So, when I returned to the US I became a conscientious objector, and in particular what concerned me at the time was that when you signed up to become a CO, you had to tell the draft board what your religious beliefs were, and particularly the church that you belonged to and what their standard with regard to the question was. I was a Methodist at the time, and the Methodists, as you may know, have a position that if in good conscience as a Christian you believe that you should serve your nation and serve in the military and defend your nation, the Methodist Church will support you. On the other hand, if you believe in good conscience that you should not be involved in killing your fellow human beings, the church will also support you. Now at the time I thought that in a certain sense this seemed an evenhanded, or liberal, or rational position. But as you may know the Methodist Church, especially at that time, had a very strict understanding of what kind of personal ethics, morality, a person should be involved in. Drinking alcohol was unacceptable and smoking was unacceptable, dancing was right on the edge.
“So, I thought to myself, the Methodist Church knows that if I drink alcohol that I can’t be a good Christian and can’t go to heaven. I thought that, they understand about the alcohol, the tobacco, or the pre-marital sex, but when it comes to the question of whether I, as a Christian, should kill hundreds or thousands of my fellow human beings, or should I not, as a Christian do that, they said, ‘either one’s ok’.”
So, I thought to myself, the Methodist Church knows that if I drink alcohol that I can’t be a good Christian and can’t go to heaven. I thought that, they understand about the alcohol, the tobacco, or the pre-marital sex, but when it comes to the question of whether I, as a Christian, should kill hundreds or thousands of my fellow human beings, or should I not, as a Christian do that, they said, ‘either one’s ok’. And that really launched me on a more profound thinking about religion and war, and how religion in a certain sense, even the Methodists in this case, the Christians with Jesus’ famous teaching that ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, but I give unto you a new commandment to love your fellow man, do good to those who abuse you’. I began to look, and as I looked at the history of the Christian Church I found it very difficult to find, except for maybe some individuals, an example of a Christian nation that had practiced that, even once. So, that began a spiritual journey – are there any religions on this planet that actually practice what they preach?
“So, that began a spiritual journey – are there any religions on this planet that actually practice what they preach?”
Having become a conscientious objector, I had to do alternate service duty, and it so happened on the bulletin board that I saw, that if you became a short-term missionary for the Methodist Church, that would serve as your alternate service duty, the American government recognized that, because I would be teaching English to Japanese university students, and that would be furthering international friendship and understanding. That seemed very reasonable to me, and that’s how I came to be in Japan.
In those days, the Japanese and all non-Christians were called heathens, or pagans and in order to save the ‘heathen souls’ we had to understand what they were thinking and believing, so we could better preach the gospel to them. So, we had a three-month preparatory period, and I studied Buddhism, because that was one of the major religions in Japan. Particularly I studied D. T. Suzuki, who was very famous, particularly for his book, Zen and Japanese Culture . And right there in the introduction to the book it was written that in 2,500 years of Buddhist history, there had never been a single instance where Buddhists had been involved or participated in, or caused war of any kind. I thought, wow, that’s the religion for me, it’s certainly different from the one I’ve been familiar with.
“I discovered that there was the opportunity to sacralize, to make sacred, ordinary life, beginning with the feeling of the sacredness of simple breath.”
After going to Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, where I taught, during my first Christmas vacation I thought, I’d like to learn more about this Buddhism, and especially Zen Buddhism. I spent my first Christmas vacation in Japan at Eihei-ji, which is affiliated with the Sōtō Zen school of Zen Buddhism and what I found there is that they didn’t talk about war and peace, instead we sat facing the wall for hours on end, it was very painful. You do have breaks, so you’re not sitting from morning to night, but you are sitting with short breaks, from morning to night for 10 days. That was very painful and I thought at the end of that, I don’t know what this has to do with war and peace but I never want to do it again because it hurts too much! I came back and thought, well that’s the end of that experience, I’ve been there and done that. But then, a few days after I returned I was sitting quietly, took a breath, and for the first time in my life I recognized the feeling of calmness that comes just from breathing or can come from breathing, especially when you are conscious of it. We normally just breathe, breathe, breathe, without being mindful of it, so I found it to be very calming indeed. So calming that I was willing to put my legs at risk again! As you practise it begins to get a little less painful, or at least you get used to it. But anyway, that began the long process of my interest in Zen, particularly because I discovered that there was the opportunity to sacralize, to make sacred, ordinary life, beginning with the feeling of the sacredness of simple breath. Let alone eating, even sleeping. One of the things that I loved about Buddhism and particularly Zen, is the famous saying, ‘what greater miracle is there than this?’. I had been thinking of religious miracles as something like dead people coming back to life, or this kind of super normative experience, but Buddhism, especially Zen, was saying that our ordinary every day life is, in fact, a super normative experience if we become aware of it.
The problem was then that the Vietnam War broke out, or developed. There was an anti-war movement in US and an anti-war movement in Japan as well. I joined a group called the CCAS, the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars and the more I studied, the more I realized, for a variety of reasons, besides pacifistic beliefs, even on a political level, that I could not support it. So I became active, legally and peacefully, in the anti-war movement in Japan. By that point I was a graduate student at Komazawa University, which is a Sōtō Zen affiliated university, and although everything was legal, I was still called in by my Zen superiors, and I was told that Buddhist priests don’t get involved in political activities, and that if I continued what I was doing that I would be disrobed and thrown out of the Buddhist priesthood. That caused me to think, have I misunderstood something about this Buddhism, all of this peacefulness, no war and all of that – have I misunderstood this with a Western brain and point of view, by trying to implant that on Buddhism in some way?
That led me to look at Japanese Buddhism’s history in terms of peace and war. And in particular, of course, World War 2, which was still very much an issue, in how Japan had become involved in the war – usually Shinto was thought to be the problem. Then I read that, in fact, some of my own teachers at Komazawa University had been among the most vociferous in their support. Not only supporting the war effort, but using Buddhism as the basis for that support. That’s when I had another kind of awakening, the more I researched that the more I realized it was an unknown area. Shinto was typically seen as the spiritual supporter of Japanese militarism, but I discovered that Buddhists, especially Zen Buddhists, because of their connection with the samurai class, the warrior class, that they were also were very involved. That then led to the first book, Zen at War, and then the second, Zen War Stories, and in a sense, when I realized that Christianity doesn’t have a great history in this area, and now Buddhism doesn’t either. I thought, either I could try and find a third religion or a fourth religion that was somehow better, but I couldn’t find them. So I thought, what’s going on behind the scenes, that leads all of these major world religions at one time or another, even though in peace time they talk ‘peace, peace, peace’, in war time they talk ‘war, war, war’ – how come? And that’s the background to my current issue in the universal characteristics in holy war.
Dr Brian Daizen Victoria was interviewed by Professor Frank S. Ravitch at The Asian Conference on Ethics, Religion & Philosophy 2016 (ACERP2016) in Kobe, Japan.