Should Buddhism reclaim the swastika?

A statue of the Buddha from Seattle's Choeizan Enkyoji Nichiren Buddhist temple bearing the Buddhist swastika. (Photo by Tim Gruver)
A statue of the Buddha from Seattle’s Choeizan Enkyoji Nichiren Buddhist temple bearing the Buddhist swastika. (Photo by Tim Gruver)

“What’s a swastika doing on a Buddhist temple?”

Four years ahead of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, that’s what local officials are worried foriegn visitors will be asking during the games, only knowing the symbol’s terrible history with the Nazis.

The symbol is in fact the equilateral cross, with each leg bent at a 90 degree angle. It’s a sacred symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism and it dates back at least 2,500 years to ancient India. It has 1600 year history in Japan, where it’s known as the manji.

The word swastika itself is derived from the word, “srivatsa,” which refers to the curls on the breast of the Indian gods Vishnu and Krishna. It stands for the hands, feet, head, and spokes of the dharma — or Buddhist doctrine — bringing good fortune and virtue.

But for the last nearly 100 years, many in the West see it as a symbol of hate.

The Nazi swastika was adopted as the symbol of the Nazi Party in 1920 under Adolf Hitler. Now it serves as a stark reminder of the Holocaust that cost the lives of roughly six million Jews over the next two decades.

The Nazi symbol is associated with white supremacist sentiments today. Just over a year ago, a Seattle-area Hindu temple was vandalized with the words “Get Out” emblazoned on its wall right alongside a blood-red swastika. The incident is only one of a number of cases of swastika-themed graffiti in the area over the past few years, including the defacing of a Jewish statue outside Olympia’s Temple Beth Hatfiloh.

There are differences between the Nazi symbol and the Buddhist symbol: the manji turns clockwise, the Nazi swastika turns counterclockwise. But this subtle distinction goes over most foreigners’ heads in Japan and abroad.

It’s the swastika’s case of mistaken identity that reportedly is driving the Japanese government to consider its removal from foreign-language maps and road signs. Japan’s Geospatial Information Authority has since introduced 18 proposed substitutes, which includes a three-tiered pagoda design. There was much debate in Japan over the decision to change the map symbol for a temple from a swastika to a pagoda because of the confusion — or whether it was the tourists’ responsibility to learn the difference.

The manji in Seattle

Buddhists accounted for 7 percent of the world’s total population in 2012 with 488 million Buddhists worldwide, and about 95 percent of them live in the Asia-Pacific region, according to Pew Research.

The Seattle area is among the top ten most densely concentrated Buddhist cities in the U.S. with 1,130 Buddhists per 100,000 people. Local worshippers have grappled with Japan’s dilemma: whether to display openly an ancient symbol many Americans continue to see as inherently antisemitic?

Many of Seattle’s historic Buddhist temples pre-date the Nazi era, Rev. Don Castro of Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple said.

“A number of our Japanese Buddhist temples have the swastika symbol on the cornerstone of the temple, which caused big problems when WWII came along,” Castro said. “Most temple buildings were built in the 1920s and 30s.”

The Tacoma Buddhist Church as it appeared in 1950 (Photo courtesy of The Tacoma Buddhist Church)
The Tacoma Buddhist Church as it appeared in 1950 (Photo courtesy of The Tacoma Buddhist Church)

Many Japanese-American Buddhist temples such as the Tacoma Buddhist Temple have chosen to replace the manji altogether. The temple’s manji emblem is now covered by wisteria branches, the symbol of its Jodo Shinshu tradition, according to head minister Kojo Kakihara. The wisteria of Jodo Shinshu Buddhists features two hanging Wisteria blossoms symbolizing humility and a welcoming heart.

The symbol is far older than the controversy surrounding it, says Toshikazu Kenjitsu Nakagaki, formerly of the Seattle Buddhist Temple and author of several books on Buddhism.

“The swastika used to be in many Japanese American temples,” Nakagaki said. “Wherever Buddhism went, the swastika went. In every Eastern tradition the swastika refers to auspiciousness, light and goodness, and in Buddhism it also represents the mind of the Buddha. After 1,600 years, most Japanese people do not pay attention to the swastika.”

Nakagaki says Hitler also recognized the difference between the two symbols.

“The swastika that is used by white supremacists is a hooked cross,” he said. “Hitler himself used the term Hakenkreuz (hooked cross) to refer to his Nazi symbol, not a ‘swastika.’ It is this cross, not the original swastika, that carries the long history of antisemitism in the West.”

Where do symbols get their power?

Reverend Kanjin Cederman of Seattle’s Choeizan Enkyoji Nichiren Buddhist Temple recalled his own experience as an American bearing the swastika. As an 18-year-old Buddhist monk, he carried a travel bag bearing a variety of Buddhist symbols on it – including a swastika.

“When I was a monk, people used to come up to me,” Cedarman said. “I think they were just curious. I was a white man with no hair carrying a bag with a swastika on it.

A worn Japanese cake mold from an antique shop in Kakamura, Japan. Swastikas are still considered sacred symbols that can be found on many household objects in Asia. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
A worn Japanese cake mold from an antique shop in Kakamura, Japan. Swastikas are still considered sacred symbols that can be found on many household objects in Asia. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Cedarman, a native of Wheatfield, NY, converted to Buddhism while studying the Japanese martial art of aikido. He considered Buddhism as a “natural evolution” of his search for “the spiritual, the ultimate.” He disagrees that the calls in Japan for censoring the manji originated from antisemitic concerns.

“This complaint isn’t coming from the Jewish community,” Cederman said. “If I could guess, it is just Japan trying to modernize itself. Maybe people who ask questions in Japan ask, ‘What’s this?’ and [the Japanese] do not know how to answer. Foreigners (visiting Japan) just don’t care to look deep enough.

Cedarman believes that reclaiming the swastika, not removing it, should be Buddhists’ best course of action.

“I believe that it is people who give symbols their power,” Cedarman said. “By keeping the swastika Buddhist, we can help change the way people see it.”

He believes that censorship should not be the answer to changing people’s view of the manji.

“Everyone I have spoken with believes it should be combated with education,” Cedarman said. “The swastika is a word, it is a symbol. [Removing] it would be removing part of the language. People do not believe their prayers are received unless it is in their own language.”

To that end, Cedarman believes that the Japanese government’s decision may serve as a critical example of Buddhist representation going forward — both in Japan and elsewhere. “This could mean a lot for religious freedom,” he warned. “This is how it starts — the removal of our symbols.”

28 Comments

  1. The Buddhist manji, or cross is the sacred symbol of several world faiths including Jainism, and Hinduism. It was also used by the Navajo and Hopi Native American tribes. and by the Boy Scouts of England and America for many years prior to WWII. It is a universal good luck symbol. It is not to be confused with the Nazi swastika which is the reverse image of the Buddhist cross. Buddhists universally should have the right to display it.

    1. white people should be banned from appropriating our symbol unless you are indian hindu don’t use it.as for English they are crooks and have a very bad history regarding India so they should p off

      1. “appropriating our symbols” give me a break.. You stole it from India. Also, do Asians wear business suits? Secondly, Im a devout Buddhist for 21 years! I follow a Chinese Buddhist lineage and yes *gasp* im a white guy. But what I am not is a social justice warrior jackass like so many in Seattle. I also cant stand hearing Asian (by the way, my parents are Vietnamese. I was adopted at age 12 by a Vietnamese family) people using black and hispanic buzz words like “appropriating” when Asians have a more intact families, lower crime rates, better educated and have greater wealth than the average white. So “check your privilege” before telling me not to appropriate. Oh and ALSO Asians have a colonial past as well. Mongol and Japanese conquests were some of the most brutal in history… Now if you want to stop using stupid leftist jargon, I will glad to put you in the same boat as the rest of us normal Americans, regardless of race and class. Amitabha!

      2. Actually Neil you sound like a racist yourself. Open mouth insert foot lately? In every culture you can find “appropriated” items, symbols, language and the list can go on and it is not just “white” people. My ancestors the Aztecs raped pillaged and appropriated a myriad of “cultural” items into theirs.
        Also Stephen there are stark difference between the swastika that is used in Buddhism and the one used by the nazi…take a gander sometime and wallah they are completely different symbols. Then again that is why we have open lines of communication and explain to them things…that way people don’t ASS U ME (assume). It is pretty predictable though and you can see the increasing mania of the left in things like this. They are tearing down the cross and the Christian religion piece by piece. Then again didn’t the democratic party start the whole racism thing and slavery. Well by goodness they did. When we need and answer we….look in a book.

  2. In short: no. Suggesting that any group reclaim the swastika (or its counterclockwise sibling) is akin to suggesting that everyone should start using the n-word again because originally it only meant “an ignorant person”. Yes, you have the right to do such things, but it is unwise and will not accomplish what is hoped.

    Buddhism is still on the rise in America. Imagine having to explain to every non-Buddhist you meet why you are displaying something that looks almost identical to a symbol that will probably forever be related to the most grotesque, inhumane, and evil events of the 20th century. Why would a religion of peace want any connection with that?

    Yes, it’s just a symbol. But it is a symbol that is indelibly burned into the collective consciousness of our society. Remember all of that great stuff the Buddha said about “attachment”? Stop being so attached to that symbol.

    1. You are getting a racist epithet confused with the word niggard (a stingy or ungenerous person).

      As for the balance of your statement, I disagree. People today are too hypersensitive and narrow-minded. The use of the swastika in a religious setting is probably the best way of educating an ignorant person about the history of the symbol.

    2. I agree it is risky to put around but it is their history and something that should be taught as good in a better manner, our next generation shouldn’t be as ignorant as most people now. I have a friend who had the true swastika on his bag and he gets picked because it’s his history, it wouldn’t happen as much if people knew what it truly means. I understand where you are coming from though, it’s hard to change after that much blood was spilled which sucks. Hopefully it changes, who knows.

    3. It’s ridiculous that Asian Buddhists should give up their religious symbol for the past thousand years, because white people hate it for some reason? If there is any collective consciousness, it’s yours, not ours. White people never change. They are just as arrogant, self-righteous and racist as they were in Nazi Germany.

    4. That was the most radically insensitive thing I have read today honestly. You make the troll Neil look like a flower collecting hippie up there. Wow! Educate yourself slim pickings to the facts and history altogether. This isn’t an issue just concerning your high school prom committee. This is a religious atrocity through theft and slander concerning millions and millions of devout and loving individuals and their culture reaching back thousands of years. So you don’t think everyone could take five minutes to at least learn a brief history concerning this? Put it this way… what do you suppose Hitler would rather have us do? Return it to it’s roots as a symbol of peace or leave it as is here in the west… a symbol of his hate and a reminder of the evil man himself to be feared and thus empowered still for as long as we teach the fear to our own youth? Time to take back the symbol and educate the world on this one. Do your part. Everyone. Thank you for this article.

  3. Writer Tim Gruver is ignorant that the symbol was altered under German socialism and used to represent crossed “S” for “socialism” (“Nazis” actually called themselves socialists; they did not call themselves “Nazis”), and that is one of the amazing discoveries of the historian Dr. Rex Curry, as explained in the many books about the doctor’s work.

    That is why the German symbol was not a “swastika” and is a different symbol, because Germans called their symbol a “hakenkreuz” (hooked cross) and they altered it to give it alphabetical meaning.

    That is why Hitler’s symbol was turned 45 degrees from the horizontal and always pointed in the “S” letter direction. It was similar to other symbols of German socialism (i.e. the SS symbol is two “S” letters for “Schutzstaffel”; the VW is a “V” and a “W” for “Volkswagen”; the SA symbol is an “S” and an “A” for “Sturmabteilung”; and the NSV symbol is an “N,” an “S,” and a “V,” for “NationalsozialistischeVolkswohlfahrt”).

    In the book “Swastika the earliest known symbol and its migrations” by Thomas Wilson (published in 1894 at page 771) Professor Max Muller cautioned against the use of the term “swastika” and said “I do not like the use of the word svastika outside of India. It is a word of Indian origin and has its history and definite meaning in India. * * * The occurrence of such crosses in different parts of the world may or may not point to a common origin, but if they are once called Svastika the vulgus profanum will at once jump to the conclusion that they all come from India, and it will take some time to weed out such prejudice.” Muller’s prediction was amazingly accurate, and it is amusing that he labeled so many people in the world today as “vulgus profanum.”

    It is a shame that the misnomer “swastika” was applied to the German socialist symbol (the “Hakenkreuz” or hooked cross) to (bury, mask, conceal whitewash) rehabilitate socialism and also to distance the Christian Cross, all by slandering a foreign symbol (the swastika) instead.

    People who actually want to rehabilitate the “swastika” will explain the above in order to distinguish the “swastika” from the “Hakenkreuz.” Most people who read this will continue to slander the foreign symbol and word (swastika), as if they too desire to rehabilitate “socialism,” to promote/protect the Christian cross.

    The misnomer “swastika” was done (and continues to be done) to cover up German socialism’s origin in American Christian Socialism, via Francis Bellamy (author of the “Pledge of Allegiance” -the origin of the notorious German socialist salute and of that type of bad behavior) and his cousin Edward Bellamy (author of “Looking Backward” -the origin of the National Socialist movement).

    1. That’s the biggest, most retardedly informed pile of crap I’ve ever read on any subject. It was almost funny until I realized you either really believe it or you want other people to believe it.

    2. uh excuse me! but the swastika was never altered. your lack of education is just reeking. why is it you white people think you are the jack of all trades on other races religion and heritage. did you even known that the 45degree lateral of the swastika is a hindu symbol besides the standard and four dots NO YOU DIDNT! SO PLS shut the hell up. go look it up on google pics and you will see the orange temple has it 45 degree lateral in yellow and the temple is orange which has writing in hindi now leave and don’t come back here with your lack of knowledge.the swastika doesn’t belong to white people at all.the word swastika itself is a indian Sanskrit word svastika su asti ka svasti you meathead!buddhism Jainism and Hinduism all have their own variations and all three of these religions are indigenous to India.

  4. Why should we reclaim something we never lost? Jains, Hindus, as well as Buddhists recognize the swastika as a holy and auspicious symbol.

  5. The oldest “swastika” was found in Ukraine, and the Slavics have a long history with a variety of symbols that look like swastikas or are derived from the geometric pattern.

    1. Ukraine is not even a ancient country and no the swastika does not come from slavic people at all. you must be out of your mind you are trolling or you are doing some pretty damn intense drugs. Ukraine is not even a ancient country.further more Christianity isn’t even a white religion it is not indigenous/endogenous to white culture.

  6. Well, they don’t need to do anything. They’re perfectly free to put the Manji on their temples, statues, etc. But I don’t think there is a tradition of wearing the Manji as a necklace or on clothing so it’s never really been an issue for Buddhists I don’t think.

    It’s the West that’s ignorant about the symbol being sacred to various religions. They just need to be educated better in their schools so they don’t grow up and attack a Buddhist if one should ever wear the symbol. That would be a hate crime to attack a Buddhist for wearing it.

    However, if they display it at the Olympics, just write the word “Buddhism” under it, so people can be educated and not act like idiots.

    1. the west needs to learn to mind their own business. what is America anyways? oh ya the land where whites stole native indigenous indian lands that’s right and removed the native indigenous Indians off their lands on MAY 28,1830 INDIAN REMOVAL ACT’what hasn’t whites tried to ruin and take for themselves.whites should be deported .

  7. If Asians start to cave to censor the symbol is counter productive. Then the remaining Buddhists who wear the symbol will be attacked. That’s not the answer. It’s best to educated people.

    1. Asia is a region Asian can be anyone of any ethnicity in Asia you have to be elaborative you mean Indians in Asia because the swastika originates from India and Buddhism originates in India (Gautam Buddh siddharta),Jainism originates in India,Hinduism originates in India. religion,occult tantras,prayer,hands together in prayer,rituals,martialarts known as kalari or kalariyapayit,music,dance,meditation,kamasutra,tradition of kissing,philosophy,mythology,mantras,language,linguistics,grammar,literature, spiritual wisdom (sathanam Dharam),documentation,astronomy,astrology and I can go on.

  8. Forget the swastika, if any symbol should be banned, it’s the Christian cross. What the nazis did was wrong, but the 6 million deaths associated with this symbol does not hold a candle to the countless murders done in the name of Christianity, yet this symbol is shoved down the throats of modern society. And let’s not forget about all of the Catholic priests who hide behind the cross as the molest and rape young boys, and are punished with little more than a slap on the wrist and left free to do it again and again. The swatika is one of the oldest written symbols in human history, so why should it be banned or discriminated against due to a few decades of misuse. Modern society is blind and needed to educate themselves before attacking something that has such a positive meaning.

  9. As a 40yo born and raised in Japan/Japanese guy who has gone to university in the US and also lived in Hawaii and have family in the US etc. I can say this. Many Americans really have this delusion that the world revolves around them.

    Fact is we NEVER stopped using this symbol (which is NOT even the same symbol) neither has China, India or every Asian or Buddhist country worldwide. I know for a fact even in the US the Chinese and Japanese communities etc has never even associated this with the Nazi’s only the very ignorant and sorry to usually non Asian types who see this nonsense go to any Chinese or Asian stores and you will see this symbol on many things.

    Remember Asians (Chinese) are the planets majority ethnic group. We Asians could careless what non Asian/ Americans think. So there is NO reclaiming anything, this stuff is a non issue. A more pressing issue for you gaijins and yanks would be all the confederate flags, swastika’s and other more shocking things used by many white Americans to divide and or voice there opinions .

    But as many have said its not even the same symbol and if someone is stupid enough not to know the difference well to bad live with being stupid. Buddhist do not have to explain or accommodate the ignorant which is thankfully a minority.

  10. I don’t think they ever gave up the symbol per se. Olympics doesn’t represent Buddhism or other religions that respect the symbol so I see it as irrelevant of what they do on their maps to mark Buddhist temples.

    Perhaps it isn’t as prominently displayed outside of temples in America or any that may exist in Germany or Israel… but I think that’s largely an issue of ignorance on part of the masses. I see it as a form of religious oppression to pressure Buddhists, etc to not display the Manji just due to their own laziness of not educating their people about what the symbol actually means and that it was merely misused by Hitler. And to understand context of how symbols are used.

    Lots of symbols are misused throughout history. Upside down crosses mean Satanism, but it doesn’t change the meaning of the original cross itself in Christianity.

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