Nazis, Buddhism and Jew-hate: the deeply disturbing alliance

Do not fall for the assumption that Buddhism is harmless and rooted in peace. Its history shows something very different


TO GO WITH STORY "JAPAN-SECT-COURT"(FILES) This file photo dated October 1990 shows the leader of the Aum Supreme Truth, Shoko Asahara. The trial of the founder of a doomsday cult that attacked the Tokyo subway, Shoko Asahara, is at a crossroads with his lawyers saying his mind is in "another world" ahead of a decision that could send him to the gallows. A court 19 August 2005 ordered Asahara to undergo psychiatric tests for the first time since the 50-year-old former acupuncturist was arrested in 1995 at a commune near Mount Fuji. AFP PHOTO/JIJI PRESS FILES (Photo by AFP / JIJI PRESS/FILES / AFP) / Japan OUT (Photo credit should read AFP/AFP via Getty Images)

July 09, 2021 15:12

On March 20, 1995, the Buddhist doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo carried out a sarin attack on the Tokyo subway, killing 13 commuters and seriously injuring 54 more. The cult tried to justify its terrorism through an interpretation of Buddhist ideas and doctrines, with the goal of bringing back a golden era when the teachings of the Buddha are followed by all. 

Less well-known is that two months earlier, the cult declared war on Jews by publishing Manual of Fear: The Jewish Ambition – Total World Conquest, which claimed that Jews were taking advantage of Japan. The cult called its enemies “Jewish Japanese”.

Antisemitism among Buddhists is not uncommon. Zen master Hakuun Yasutani (1885-1973), known in the UK through Philip Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen, believed Jews to be advocating “evil” ideas, such as freedom and equality. After WWII, Yasutani became a principal teacher of influential people in the American Buddhist community. 

Tanaka Chigaku (1861-1939), a Buddhist scholar and preacher of Nichiren Buddhism, wrote that Jews would destroy morality. But the most popular Buddhist antisemite from Japan was D T Suzuki. 

He wrote that action by the Nazis against Jews was necessary to preserve the German nation and its happiness, and was in contact with leading Nazis in wartime Japan, particularly Nazi propagandist Karlfried Dürkheim, who became a Zen master. In the introduction of Suzuki’s Zen and Bushido, its editor wrote: “Dr Suzuki’s writings are said to have strongly influenced the military spirit of Nazi Germany.”      

The Nazis had a vast interest in Buddhism that went deeper than their adaptation of the swastika symbol, especially in Japanese Zen and Tibetan Buddhism. 

Between 1938 and 1939, the head of the SS sent an official expedition to Tibet and sought to create meditation retreats in Germany. He also appointed a Sanskrit scholar to the position of director of the Ahnenerbe (Bureau for the Study of Ancestral Heritage), who considered a new Nazi religion to be rooted in Hinduism and Buddhism, while he saw a direct line from the Buddha to Hitler. Consequently, the Nazis celebrated Suzuki in the Nazi propaganda newspaper Völkische Beobachter. The book Zen in the Art of Archery, which was very successful among European readers, was written by the Nazi Eugen Herrigels. 

The German-born Israeli philosopher and historian Gershom Scholem spoke of “Zen-Nazism”. Earlier German antisemites such as Wagner showed a great deal of interest in Buddhism, too. Wagner even started to work on an opera called Die Sieger (The Victors) with Buddhist monks as a theme.

Despite the modern perception of Buddhism as a peaceful philosophy or wellness product, it is not always true in reality. 

One only needs to look at violence supported by Buddhist monks in Burma and Sri Lanka, especially against non-Buddhist minorities of the Tamil or Muslim Burmese. There are fully ordained Buddhist monks in Thailand’s military. The Khmer Rouge’s “butcher” Ta Mok was a former Buddhist monk, as was Pol Pot, along with many of his lower level cadres. Buddhist warrior monks of medieval and feudal Japan are also well-known, as are the Mongol warfare against shamanic practices or the sacralised warfare of the Fifth Dalai Lama of Tibet. Buddhism is no more a religion of peace than others that were abused to commit acts of evil.

Neither Buddhism’s founder nor his disciples have ever referred to the Jewish people, and it is unlikely that they had even heard of them (should the historical Buddha have existed). Nor does Buddhist scripture talk about Jews or Judaism. But as I demonstrate in my book Zen Judaism, those texts are not as peaceful as an unitiated Western reader might expect. One tells of a ruler asking the Buddha for advice before invading a neighbouring kingdom, another of Buddha’s armed bodyguard accompanying him and threatening to kill those who offend him in a debate by splitting their heads in two. Buddhist scripture also tells of the Buddha denying deserting generals entry into his monastic community because a king who supported him was in need of them as he was going to war.

One should not make the mistake of equating Buddhism with peace and viewing it as a self-help or relaxation technique, ancient psychology, or the like. Buddhism relies on belief, ritual, devotion, spirits, celestial deities and the supramundane nature of the Buddha. It is clearly a religion. And this religion — as valuable it might be — also brings problems with it, such as the concept of karma. Contemporary Buddhism has yet to adequately address the question of karma and the Holocaust. 

If the belief in karma means that action driven by intention would lead to consequences, and that those intentions are taken into account in the kind of rebirth one experiences, the Jewish victims of the Holocaust would be seen as having been guilty of some prior wrongdoing. This would clearly be antisemitic.Yet Buddhist leaders seem to avoid the topic. Or, as in the case of D T Suzuki, interpret it antisemitically — writing in the 1930s that Jews were parasitic people and the fact that they had no country a sign of karmic retribution. 

Karma could also be used to rationalise contemporary antisemitism and other evils such as economic hardship or birth defects. As I have recently argued in the Jewish Political Studies Review, there is not enough effort from Buddhist communities around the world to distance the religion from this misguided way of thinking. As long as Buddhism is not explicitly stating that the concept of karma is not meant to be seen that way, there is a danger of it being understood in antisemitic terms by its followers. Especially since there are already disturbing incidences of Western Buddhist practitioners using the Holocaust, such as “zen retreats” at Auschwitz-Birkenau by an organisation called “Zen Peacemakers”. 

On their website, they explain the motivation behind using the site as a tool for their Buddhist meditation practice: “Why does a Zen teacher go back to Auschwitz-Birkenau again and again? At the Zen Peacemakers…we practice three Core Tenets: Penetrating the unknown by letting go of our fixed ideas; bearing witness to joy and suffering, and loving actions. At Auschwitz, it is not hard to let go of fixed ideas.”

Many Jews, especially in America, increasingly flirt with Buddhism as an alternative or addition to their faith and culture. This naivety (and often ignorance) even exists among some Jewish Studies scholars. 

In her book American Jewbu, Emily Sigalow even comes to the conclusion of Buddhism being a positive influence on Judaism while seeming to advertise it for the American Jewish reader. Simon Rocker has already written in the JC about her take on Buddhism. Despite Sigalow’s misrepresentation of Buddhism as a peaceful religion free from any Jew-hatred, the data indicates otherwise. Buddhists are generally more antisemitic than mainstream Christians or people without any religion. 

The World Values Survey found that 33 percent of Buddhist respondents rejected having a Jewish neighbour compared to 19.9 percent of Protestants and 17.7 percent of Roman Catholics. And Buddhists who gave greater importance to their religion in their lives were found to be more antisemitic than the more secular adherents to their faith.

July 09, 2021 15:12

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