Buddhist Views on War Buddhist Teachings on War

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Buddhist Views on War Buddhist Teachings on WarTo Buddhists, war is akusala—unskillful, evil. Still, Buddhists sometimes fight in wars. Is war always wrong? Is there such a thing as a "just war" theory in Buddhism?

Warrior Monks

Although Buddhist scholars say there is no justification for war in their teachings, Buddhism has not always separated itself from war. There is historical documentation that in 621, monks from the Shaolin Temple of China fought in a battle that helped establish the Tang Dynasty. In centuries past, the heads of Tibetan Buddhist schools formed strategic alliances with Mongol warlords and reaped benefits from the warlords' victories.​

The links between Zen Buddhism and samurai warrior culture were partly responsible for the shocking collusion of Zen and Japanese militarism in the 1930s and 1940s. For several years, a virulent jingoism seized Japanese Zen, and teachings were twisted and corrupted to excuse killing. Zen institutions not only supported Japanese military aggression but raised money to manufacture war planes and weapons.

Observed from a distance of time and culture, these actions and ideas are inexcusable corruptions of dharma, and any "just war" theory that arose from them were the products of delusion. This episode serves as a lesson to us not to be swept up in the passions of the cultures we live in. Of course, in volatile times that is easier said than done.

In recent years, Buddhist monks have been leaders of political and social activism in Asia. The Saffron Revolution in Burma and the March 2008 demonstrations in Tibet are the most prominent examples. Most of these monks are committed to nonviolence, although there are always exceptions. More troubling are the monks of Sri Lanka who lead the Jathika Hela Urumaya, "National Heritage Party," a strongly nationalist group that advocates a military solution to Sri Lanka's ongoing civil war.

Is War Always Wrong?

Buddhism challenges us to look beyond a simple right/wrong dichotomy. In Buddhism, an act that sows the seeds of harmful karma is regrettable even if it unavoidable. Sometimes Buddhists fight to defend their nations, homes, and families. This cannot be seen as "wrong," yet even in these circumstances, to harbor hate for one's enemies is still a poison. And any act of war that sows the seeds of future harmful karma is still akusala.

Buddhist morality is based on principles, not rules. Our principles are those expressed in the Precepts and the Four Immeasurables—loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. Our principles also include kindness, gentleness, mercy, and tolerance. Even the most extreme circumstances do not erase those principles or make it "righteous" or "good" to violate them.

Yet neither is it "good" or "righteous" to stand aside while innocent people are slaughtered. And the late Ven. Dr. K Sri Dhammananda, a Theravadin monk and scholar, said, "The Buddha did not teach His followers to surrender to any form of evil power be it a human or supernatural being."

To Fight or Not to Fight

In "What Buddhist Believe," the Venerable Dhammananda wrote,

"Buddhists should not be the aggressors even in protecting their religion or anything else. They must try their best to avoid any kind of violent act. Sometimes they may be forced to go to war by others who do not respect the concept of the brotherhood of humans as taught by the Buddha. They may be called upon to defend their country from external aggression, and as long as they have not renounced the worldly life, they are duty-bound to join in the struggle for peace and freedom. Under these circumstances, they cannot be blamed for becoming soldiers or being involved in defence. However, if everyone were to follow the advice of the Buddha, there would be no reason for war to take place in this world. It is the duty of every cultured person to find all possible ways and means to settle disputes in a peaceful manner, without declaring war to kill his or her fellow human beings."

As always in questions of morality, when choosing whether to fight or not to fight, a Buddhist must examine his own motivations honestly. It is too easy to rationalize one has pure motives when in fact one is fearful and angry. For most of us, self-honesty at this level takes extraordinary effort and maturity, and history tells us that even senior priests with years of practice can lie to themselves.

Love Your Enemy

We are called upon also to extend loving kindness and compassion to our enemies, even when facing them on a battlefield. That's not possible, you may say, yet this is the Buddhist path.

People sometimes seem to think that one is obligated to hate one's enemies. They may say "How can you speak well of someone who hates you?" The Buddhist approach to this is that we can still choose not to hate people back. If you have to fight someone, then fight. But hate is optional, and you may choose otherwise.

So often in human history, war has sewn seeds that ripened into the next war. And often, the battles themselves were less responsible for evil karma than the way occupying armies treated civilians or the way the victor humiliated and oppressed the conquered. At the very least, when it is time to stop fighting, stop fighting. History shows us that the victor who treats the conquered with magnanimity, mercy, and leniency is more likely to achieve the lasting victory and eventual peace.

Buddhists in the Military

Today there are more than 3,000 Buddhists serving in the U.S. armed forces, including some Buddhist chaplains. Today's Buddhist soldiers and sailors are not the first in the U.S. military. During World War II, approximately half of the troops in Japanese-American units, such as the 100th Battalion and the 442nd Infantry, were Buddhists.

In the Spring 2008 issue of Tricycle, Travis Duncan wrote of the Vast Refuge Dharma Hall Chapel at the U.S. Air Force Academy. There are 26 cadets currently at the academy who practice Buddhism. At the dedication of the chapel, the Reverend Dai En Wiley Burch of the Hollow Bones Rinzai Zen school said, "Without compassion, war is a criminal activity. Sometimes it is necessary to take life, but we never take life for granted."

By Barbara O'Brien