Facing prison in a Soviet war camp

Facing prison in a Soviet war camp

I heard the Emperor’s broadcast on Horomushiro island announcing the cessation of hostilities, and toward the end of August 1945 we were taken prisoner by the Soviet Army. We were put together with other units in large warehouses near the airstrip, and in this very anxious and restrictive situation we each had to get on with our lives as best we could. I used to go into the trees every day and chant the Kannon Sutra and the Essence of the Lotus Sutra which I had compiled in a loud voice. Then one day I was asked by the regimental commander to give a talk on zazen (contemplation) to an audience of nearly all the officers, after which, gradually, they began to sit together most evenings for a short time before going to sleep. However, this did not last long, as in November we were put onto a Russian ship. We hoped we were going to be repatriated to Japan, but our hopes were dashed when the ship made for a Russian port.

December 8—celebrated especially in Zen as the day of the Buddha’s realization—was the day we docked at Vladivostock; and in the middle of the next night we were disembarked into the darkness and piercing cold. Carrying all our baggage, it was no easy matter just to keep going. Any upward slope seemed to make the packs heavier and the pain harder to bear. To breathe was painful, and at times it seemed that death was close at hand. Involuntarily and half-consciously I found myself reciting “Namu Kannon bo-satsu” (reverence to bodhisattva Kannon). Gritting our teeth, we somehow struggled on, with occasional warning shots fired by the guards into the air. Finally we stumbled into the primitive prison buildings.

We were held there two weeks, with appalling food consisting mainly of thin gruel. At night it was so crowded that our boots were in our neighbours’ faces. If one went to the latrine during the night, on returning one found that the sleeping place had just vanished.  Doubtless owing to a constitutional weakness, I got frostbite on the face when walking in the tiny garden.

At the end of December we were packed into railway trucks, and for forty days we were on the trans-Siberian railway, until we ended up in a prison camp near a forest, in a plain not far from Moscow. In the trucks I got frostbite again, but one of us had such a serious case that he had to have a leg amputated. That was a terribly painful journey for us in the trucks, through the Siberian winter, when the temperature is seldom higher than ten degrees below zero.

A few days into the train journey, I looked back over my time in the army, well over four years. In my own regiment, a whole battalion had gone down in a torpedo attack, and many others had been killed in air raids. I had been fortunate enough to survive so far, but it would evidently not be easy to come through the cruel hardships of life as a prisoner. It seemed to me that Japan, after losing this war, would have no political or economic power, and the only contribution Japan could make to world culture would be in the field of Buddhism. Japan’s fine arts might possibly be an internationally valuable asset to that end. I resolved then that if I should return, I would devote the remainder of my life to the cause of Buddhism. This is the highest value I had met in life, and I would willingly be engaged in minor duties in some mountain temple if that was what offered itself. I would have some regret at renouncing my three little ones, leaving them without the loving care of their father, but they would realize that I might easily have died like so many others during the war itself. “I do not begrudge my body or life for love of the Supreme Way,” says the Lotus Sutra, and indeed, unless there are some who are really to put the meaning of this verse into practice, the Supreme Way might easily die out.  This resolution became firm in me, and I spent my time in the gloomy goods truck in sutra-chanting and meditating. As I look back on it now, I feel that this resolve was what kept alive a glimmer of hope which enabled me to survive those prison conditions. 

The trucks on the Siberian railway did not give us much room. In the middle was a stove and a toilet; in the fore and aft sections there were two “decks,” one above the other, crowded with forty men sitting or lying. When at night we wanted to sleep, we were so packed that each man’s legs were bound to be interfering with the sleep of someone else, and there were noisy scenes every night.  The wagons had no windows but there was a single opening in the middle which let in some sunlight. However, I discovered a small knothole in the wall beside my place, and through its half-inch diameter a tiny ray of light could creep in. By that, I could read the Mumonkan and the Lotus Sutra. I was still able to practice meditation for a short time every day.

During the whole time I was at the prison camp, I read the Rinzai Roku, the Lotus Sutra, the Hekigan Roku and the Triple Scripture of the Pure Land Sect: the last two I borrowed from a man in another unit; I heard by chance that he had copies of them. Similarly I came to hear of a copy of Dogen’s Gakudo Yojinshu (Advice to Students of Buddhism). Getting the loan of this, I copied it out in tiny letters into a small notebook. The barrack was not furnished with electricity, and there were only a couple of small oil lamps among a hundred men. So I had to do my reading at night beside one of them, and find a place at the window during the day, because even then the place was rather dim.

In the winter round Moscow, even in daytime the temperature can be more than thirty degrees below zero, and it is often twenty-five below. At such times we were let off work in the open air, and confined to our barracks.  When we got back from work on the farm, I would try to learn by heart the two poems “Shinjin Mei” (On Faith in the Heart) and “Shodoka” (Song of Realization of the Way), and sometimes I would recite them walking about the courtyard of the barrack in the cold air which was far below zero. I had a good memory in those days, and could manage to get through the whole long “Shodoka” poem.

As for daily life, I recalled the saying in the Zen monastery: Practice the Mirror samadhi for three years. So I tried this mental cultivation (of clear awareness like a mirror) during activity, and when walking to and from the place of work.