Give Crooked Cucumber to a friend

About the Book           

About Suzuki Roshi    

Digressions . . .a further digression
I'll put my longer-knuckled scribblings here so as to minimize contamination to the whole domain.

More on Brian Victoria, Shunryu Suzuki, Crooked Cucumber, WWII, and getting deported.

Brian Victoria's book, Zen at War was in the bibliography for Crooked Cucumber. I was delighted with it and got hold of Brian in Australia--or maybe he got hold of me first. We had some messages go back and forth about Shunryu Suzuki's conduct and attitude during the war (which I'll get back to at a latter date). Anyway, I tried to do a little promoting of Brian's book and invited him here to Sonoma County and John Tarrant had Brian speak to his Zen group (after a nice downtown dinner). 

Brian was a gas. He spoke to us for a while about the topic of the near total support by the Japanese Zen sects (and everyone else there Buddhist and Christian) for Japan's militarism throughout Japan's history, focusing on this century. Then he went behind a screen and came back out in the uniform of a Japanese Army officer (or was it the robes of the Zen priest who advised the Army officer--I can't remember now--I've got a call in to John on it). Anyway, what he did was to give us the spiel of Imperial Buddhism with the Emperor above Buddha and all good Buddhists ready to give their lives for their Emperor. It was heart-felt and a little wacky. He really had it down. He took questions and answered as if he were that person. 

It is to John and his group's credit that they didn't freak out at Victoria's scathing attack on Yasutani's wartime and post-wartime political opinions. (John studied with Aitken-roshi who studied with Yasutani-roshi.) Brian Victoria's research and writings are a big eye-opener for all of us. It's so great we have room for this sort of information in our new American Buddhism. He has an awfully aggressive approach, pretty warlike actually, a sort of Buddhist soldier out to set the record straight and be sure it doesn't happen again. I think he may be so gung ho about exposing this embarrassing and awful history because he has a bit of it in his blood that he's channeled toward a more righteous goal than massacring the enemy but that's just my layman's hunch. I too can feel the heat of fanaticism boiling in my veins if I make an effort to conjure it up and this alerts me to be ever vigilant and to look for the wool over my eyes. 

One of Brian's main points, indeed, seems to be "may it never happen again." He sees that in the name of that most divine, whole nations and peoples have gone amuck in slaughter and insanity not only in the West but in the recently sacrosanct East as well, and he doesn't want us to repeat it. He wants for us in the West to acknowledge the aggressions and sins of our Buddhist ancestors and to renounce the way of the sword so prominent in Japanese Buddhism. It's a cause worth considering I should think. I mentioned it to abbot Norman Fisher at Green Gulch once and he was interested. And it wasn't the first time he'd considered it. He already knew others who would be interested. But this won't mean that my sons can't practice martial arts anymore without our being shunned does it? 

I'll look up our correspondence and check the details later, but for now here's what I remember about Brian's past. His resume lists his ethnicity as Amerindian. He's from some place like Indiana or Illinois. He was a Christian CO, conscientious objector to military service, who went to Japan in 1961 to do his alternative service. (That's a really committed CO--there wasn't any fighting going on then.) He ended up getting interested in Zen as a result, I believe, on a visit to Eiheiji, the ancient huge Soto Zen monastery founded by Dogen. There he was ordained as a monk by Sotan Tatsugami roshi in 1964 (who's mentioned in Crooked Cucumber because he led practice periods at Tassajara while Suzuki was alive). 

Brian went to college in Japan, I think to Komazawa, the Soto Zen university, and he graduated. That's amazing. He studied with Yokoi-roshi, a disciple of Kishizawa Ian's who taught at Komazawa (who Shunryu Suzuki greatly respected--remember the mention in Crooked Cucumber when Suzuki went to Yokoi to see if he'd be interested in leading a practice period at Tassajara and after the visit Brian asked Yokoi what he thought and Yokoi said, "In terms of Japan, he's a typical country priest." [Nihon ni totte futsu no inaka no bosan desu].  Brian also studied with Yasutani briefly and received transmission from Asada Daisen, abbot of Jokuin.

I remember hearing about Brian when I was living at Tassajara in the '60s. He was involved with radical student groups and in demonstrations. Someone told me they saw his photo in the paper over there--on the front page--demonstrating. He was opposing the war in Vietnam mainly I think but there were some other issues. (I'll have to find all this in my old desktop and write it up better). He got arrested finally and his case went on for years, maybe like twelve years (I was always reading in Japan about thirty year old cases getting to the Supreme court--like cases of industrial pollution), and went all the way to the supreme court of Japan. I think he lost (people tend to lose there). He was finally deported for this and flew right away to Korea where he immediately was deported for publicly demanding the release of political prisoners. And then the same thing happened in Taiwan. The guy's been deported from more countries than most people ever get to.

Brian was very helpful to me with the parts I wrote about the war in CC. We were corresponding via email while he was still in New Zealand and I sent him just about everything I'd written about the war and Suzuki and all. So after his presentation to John Tarrant's group, he and Fred Harriman, a translator who has helped me a lot, came over to my house and Fred finally left at two and Brian and I got through everything by three and he got some sleep. 

As soon as we had arrived at my house he had pulled out my manuscript which had notes all over it, especially in the margin. I noticed words like Documents! Proof! He held me to a high standard. He's a scholar. I told him that I'm just a hearsay reporter--I report what I hear and what people say. He found a lot of what I said very hard to believe but listened to my reasons for saying what I did. 

Brian helped me considerably that night. He went over his objections to certain things I'd said, one by one, and challenged me strongly. One thing I made more clear after our talk was that Suzuki's main challenges to the assumptions of militarism were before the war. Indeed, Suzuki himself said so. But Taro Kato, the young man who went with him to Manchuria the last year of the war, said that during the war Rinsoin was a unique place devoid of the gloom felt in most places and also devoid of pro-war slogans and propaganda. 

Brian pointed out what he felt were impossible contradictions, like some people feeling uneasy about the salon going on at Rinsoin and the tone of their meetings, and then Suzuki being offered some sort of position as head of a Soto Zen office of encouraging support for the war effort. Brian said that the Soto Shu was so nervous about doing anything at all wrong that they would have only selected someone completely untainted by any rumors or doubts for such a position. This is one contradiction I left in because Suzuki said both things. He didn't make a big deal out of it. He only mentioned those things a few times, but they are part of the mosaic, some shards found in the dust of the past that give a picture of something that happened way back then. I tended to put down what he said and what others said and if it all didn't fit well too bad. If anyone was mistaken or lying then I was merely a vessel to keep their errors alive.

Maybe Brian and I had originally met in cyberspace when he got hold of me about Shunryu Suzuki's wartime activities. He was looking into the origin of the comment in the introduction to ZMBM that Suzuki had led a pacifist movement in Japan during the war. He'd called up Rinsoin while in Japan and had talked to Hoitsu, Suzuki's son and heir and asked him about that. I've got Brian's note on this somewhere but as I remember it, Hoitsu said to him something like, "I don't know where these rumors come from but there's nothing to them. My father did nothing during the war different from any other priests." Something like that. I've heard Hoitsu say stuff like that a lot. Hoitsu once said to me, "My father did nothing during the war but put his head in his hands and go 'duh.'" 

Hoitsu was very resistant to any line of questioning in this area that I pursued. He has a good deal of resentment toward his father and really gets tired of the big deal everyone makes of him in America. He said to me several times, "It would be wrong to characterize my father as a special person in your book." Once when he said that in front of Suzuki's former student Amano, one of the High Grass Mt. Group, the young men who lived and studied with him during the war, Amano firmly countered Hoitsu. "Your father was most certainly a special man!" and he reiterated to Hoitsu how different Rinsoin was from anywhere else at that time and how free they were to express themselves. But he sees it in terms of a sincere spirit that rose above the confusion of the times more than in terms of actively seeking peace. Over and over people told me that you couldn't utter the word peace then. But at other times people would say that you could talk of peace if it was in terms of what was best for Japan and not in terms of Japan loosing the war and that such talk did go on at Rinsoin right up to the end of the war. But Brian made the point when I said that, that he was sure their point was that they didn't want their country to be destroyed, not that they didn't want people to die. There is something to that. I have no record of Suzuki talking about war being wrong because it kills people and other living things. He spoke more of confusion and did say that if the army got its way all of Japan would be destroyed. 

Anyway, after some effort, I finally convinced Hoitsu that I wasn't out to glorify his father and he helped me to meet people and conduct interviews. And Fred Harriman followed and did some more interviews and adding what people said who knew him during the war with what Suzuki had said, I got the picture I put together in CC. There certainly was no pacifist movement there or anywhere else in Japan, but he did what he could and that was quite a bit to those who were with him at that time. I think we over-interpreted Suzuki's role during the war because when he told us the stories he did, which was rarely, it was during the Vietnam War, and we tended to see his situation in Japan during WWII in terms of our experience in America where open opposition was going on all over. 

I'll be working on refining this part of the story further. I'll maybe open up a special section for it here on the site and put everything I've got on it. I'm hoping that some associates can do some follow-up interviews in Japan this fall to clarify some vagaries in the story. Fred Harriman is reviewing some existing material on it, tapes and documents in Japanese. And I'd love to get more clear on the story of Nishinakama, who was for some time like the head student under Suzuki during the war, a firebrand, and according to the students I talked to, a co-leader of the discussions that went on at Rinsoin. Amano said that it was Nishinakama, not Shunryu Suzuki, who talked about ending the war and that his story is not known by most Japanese and should be. I get the picture always of Suzuki being very quiet and letting others talk. He was certainly that way in meetings with us. But when he did say something, usually something brief, people took note.

Anyway, Brian Victoria in the end, I felt, was quite kind and understanding of my approach which is so different from his. That's why in the acknowledgements I thusly thank him under "For scholarly information and suggestions :..Brian Victoria, who commented on the sections about Shunryu Suzuki and Japan's militaristic period, with thanks for his skeptical tolerance for my unscholarly narrative method."

This bit on Brian Victoria and Suzuki and war was part of a response to the following Readers' Comment:

9/3/99--from Dan Kaplan: Wonder if you've seen the new issue of Tricycle. The series of articles about Yasutani were of immense interest to me and helped me think through some issues concerning teacher-student relationships. It is kind of some of the same stuff I was thinking [in some of his recent comments in Errata under the Trungpa discussion]. Anyway, thought you'd enjoy the issue if you hadn't yet read through it. It's got other good articles too.

[Yes, I read all of the pieces on Yasutani-roshi's militaristic, fascist, and anti-Semitic writings by Brian Victoria, Robert Aitken, Bodhin Kjolhede, Lawrence Shainberg, and Bernie Glassman. I thought it was all fascinating. .--DC]

return to Digressions

Home | What Was New | Contest | Digressions | Links | Jacket Notes | Book Reviews | Reader's Comments
Author's Notes | Bibliography | Author Events | About the Author | Errata
Interviews | Suzuki Stories | Photos |  Suzuki Lectures  | Archives Project | Sangha News | Contact Me  

This site designed by
The Empty Wig

Original site designed by Sheryl B.