May 22, 2014

Killing in the Name Of

Like other world religions, Buddhism has its own justifications for violence.Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr.

This article is the fourth in the Tricycle blog series 10 Misconceptions about Buddhism with scholars Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr. 

One sometimes hears people say, “A war has never been fought in the name of Buddhism.” Exactly what “in the name of Buddhism” means is debatable. Not debatable is that Buddhists over the centuries have engaged in violent acts, including warfare, and have also condoned such acts.

In the 20th century, Tibetan monks took up arms and fought bravely against the Chinese troops of the People’s Liberation Army. Earlier in the century, they had fought against British invaders; troops of the Younghusband expedition took protective amulets, pierced by bullets, off the bodies of the Tibetan dead.

In Japan, during the Second World War, Buddhist monks, especially those of the Soto Zen sect, supported the aggression of Japanese troops in China and Korea. In previous centuries, many Japanese monasteries had their own armies, called sohei, made up of professional soldiers who wore monks’ robes but were not ordained, changing into their armor when it was time to fight, often against rival Buddhist armies.

Buddhism, like other world religions, has its own justifications for violence. The great chronicle of Sri Lanka, the Mahavamsa, tells the story of King Dutthagamani, who led his troops into battle against the Hindu Tamils who occupied the island. Dutthagamani himself killed the Tamil king in battle using a spear adorned with a relic of the Buddha. He then plunged the spear into the ground and ordered that a stupa be built over it. As a Buddhist, Dutthagamani was troubled by the carnage he had wrought, with tens of thousands of the enemy lying dead on the battlefield. He called in a group of arhats (enlightened monks) to calculate the negative karma he had accrued by so many acts of murder. They explained that he was guilty of killing only one-and-a-half people. Among the enemy dead was one person who had taken refuge in the three jewels of the Buddha, dharma, and sangha and had taken the five precepts of a Buddhist lay disciple (upasaka). He counted as one person. Another of the dead had only taken the refuges but not the precepts, and so counted as half a person. The rest were not people, so the king accrued no negative karma for their deaths.

Buddhism has been supported by all manner of kings and emperors over its long history. One of their motivations for doing so was to protect their lands from invaders. Huguo Fojiao, or “state protection Buddhism”—the idea that by supporting the community of monks and nuns, a kind of religious force field would guard the kingdom from harm—is a central theme of East Asian Buddhism. The first Zen text written in Japan, by the monk Myoan Eisai, was entitled “Promoting Zen in Defense of the State” (Kozen gokokuron). And perhaps the most famous of the Chinese Buddhist apocrypha (texts written in China that purport to be of Indian origin), the Renwang Jing (“Scripture for Humane Kings”), is devoted in part to the theme of state protection.

In some cases, the protection does not work, leading to dreams of revenge. The Kalacakra Tantra predicts that in the future, a great Buddhist army will sweep down from the Himalayas to defeat the barbarians who had driven the dharma from India long ago. These barbarians are followers of someone called Madhumati, an Indian attempt to render into Sanskrit the name Muhammad.

Violence in Buddhism is not always committed by physical means. In tantric Buddhism, so-called “liberation” rites are performed to liberate (that is, kill) one’s enemies. The great Tibetan translator Ra Lotsawa used such rites to murder the son of Marpa, the teacher of Milarepa. Farther east, when Korea was facing an invasion from Tang China in 670, the Korean thaumaturge Myongnang used powerful spells (mantra) he received from the undersea Dragon King protector of Buddhism to generate a typhoon that would sink the Chinese flotilla. (It worked.) When the Japanese invaded China in what would become the Second World War, the Chinese invited the Panchen Lama to come to China and perform tantric rituals in order to repel the invaders. (It didn’t work.)

Robert E. Buswell Jr. holds the Irving and Jean Stone Endowed Chair in Humanities at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he is also Distinguished Professor of Buddhist Studies and founding director of the Center for Buddhist Studies. Donald S. Lopez Jr., a Tricycle contributing editor, is the Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan. They are coauthors of the recently released Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism.

Further reading: Buddhism’s Fundamentalist StreakBuddhist Nationalism in Burma

More at Tricycle:


"All Buddhists are vegetarians." Nope! In the third installment of our “10 Misconceptions about Buddhism” blog series, we explain that the Buddha explicitly rejected vegetarianism as a requirement for his followers.


Contributing editor Linda Heuman sits down with Thupten Jingpa Langri, the Dalai Lama’s translator, to discuss Buddhism in modernity, science, secularized meditation, and whether we can really fit it all under one umbrella.

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Jayson's picture

I appreciate this series by Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr.

However, they don't seem to clearly cite any literature from the Pali Canon to support the suggestion that Buddhism justifies violence. I think this piece by Thanissaro Bhikkhu called "Getting the Message" is worth a read:

wsking's picture

It looks to me like the great Buddhist army has already swept down from the Himalayas into India! Now lets see if it can do something about the Taliban!

jthiels's picture

Perhaps Queen Victoria was really a man, then. Or Erzsebeth Bathory. In any case, the work that Lopez and Buswell are doing, showing the full range of behavior by actual Buddhists in actual Buddhist societies should encourage us, practitioners of "modern" (enlightened?!/Enlightenment) Buddhism, to (1) learn about all of the manifestations of the religion we claim to practice, (2) think about what it means for religion to be a framework within which real people (with the full range of human passions and delusions--just like you) act within their time, and (3) consider deeply what our real commitments are.

Why can't "Buddhism" also be responsible for war, revenge and everything else that humans do? There are lots of Buddhist hells, after all, and Devadatta may be in good company out there (Jijang Bosal!). This is hardly a Pyrrhic victory unless keeping your purist (and late 20/21 century) ideals intact as some kind of transhistorical dream is more important to you than understanding the Buddhism you think you practice. Deciding who and who is not human was not only the province of Catholics in Seville--Buddhist texts did have the uncomfortable category of the icchantika and there was a debate about whether even this poor kind of sentient being could ever be delivered (or who could, in some versions of the debate, be killed without any klesha arising). And if you feel you might be one, there is the Sanghata Sutra Dharma Paryaya to come along and comfort you. These issues of being, hope and liberation are, in fact, profoundly Buddhist questions and issues.

The Buddhism you have inherited may be more a product of the 19th Century Protestant mind than any Buddhisms on the ground. Our very language ("loving-kindness"--how British, how distant) belies that history. The modern Buddhism prevalent in the Euroamerican imaginary (i.e. "mindfulness") has much more in common with Quakerism than with many of the forms of Buddhism that have been practiced across the centuries, with the difference that Quakers speak up during sitting, rather than afterwards. Like "modern" Buddhists, Quakers also eschew empty forms, clergy and monasticism (let's face it--are we really supporting a monastic sangha as our teachers in the US?) And there is nothing wrong with that--in fact, let's own it, along with all of the truly religious manifestations of Buddhism here. And that includes the radical ideas of social justice and transformation that we often bring to the exposition of the Dharma--including how the Dharma enables us to critique our bloody human history.

There is no glorifying violence in Buswell and Lopez's account, but an acknowledgement that the Romantic vision of Buddhism is just that--they aren't trying to discredit Buddhism, but to help us see the fullness of the manifestations of Buddhist history in time and space. If you claim that "such and such" is not Buddhist, isn't that itself delineating self and other? Romantic visions of Buddhism have inherited much from idealist/utopian thought in America and we ignore the complexity of the world at our peril (at least while we are talking "Buddhism"). The example of Sri Lanka, as difficult as it is, should be seen in the broad, long-term context of Hindu/Buddhist relations, where "Buddhism" as constructed by Hindus is a form of Hinduism. The Buddhism in Sri Lanka is also heavily intertwined with the history of religious scholars wanting to see a professorly, timeless Buddhism there (colonialism? world religions discourse anyone?).

All of these histories must be seen in their complexity--on the one hand you have the persecution of Bangladesh's Buddhists (little reported here), on the other you have the monk Wirathu, who is a major force in Burma's persecution of Muslims. At the same time, the Rohingya have had their own issue with whether Buddhist wives can maintain contact with their natal families after marriage, which is a real source of irritation for the Buddhists there (so have I heard). It doesn't excuse genocidal violence.

There is much we still don't know--for example, almost no Euroamerican Buddhists seem to be aware of, or think they can learn from, the millions of Indian neo-Buddhists, whose opposition to caste is part of a real social struggle there--and under attack by the BJP, where there are efforts to prevent conversion to Buddhism as fundamentalist Hindus see Buddha as a manifestation of Vishnu (and Buddhists as therefore subject to their religious laws and discipline, including caste!). How many of us have heard of Dr. Ambedkar and think we might learn about anti-racism, anti-sexism, etc. from our brothers and sisters in the dharma there? His taking refuge sparked a movement towards freedom (and liberation) in this life.

In the dharma,


JabeM's picture

Greetings, Robert! Last I saw you was a thousand years ago in Berkeley. I recall my initial dismay (and later, "ahh, well") when you debunked my fond assumption about the historical accuracy of Zen Patriarchal succession, and now you and Mr Lopez have set about to debunk some popular misconceptions about Buddhism. Here I will suggest that it may be easier to say what Buddhism isn't than what it is, perhaps similar to the difficulty in describing, say, a person--who is continually changing and anyway ineffable. I suppose the, or a, value of debunking misconceptions is as an aid in loosening one's identifications (might as well know the 'worst' of one's chosen Way?) . I'm pretty certain that nobody knows what Buddhism is, if it's anything at all, but I thank you for the pointers to what it isn't.

Jabe Mills

merak5's picture

Humans are capable of violence when living in delusion regardless of faith. Thanks for the article!

merak5's picture

Humans are capable of violence when living in delusion. Thanks for the article!

delricsim's picture

Dear Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr,

What you pointed out are events that show, historically, there were Buddhists who commit violence. However, the HEADLINE of your blog is misleading to let people misunderstand that Buddhism is violence. Especially the "#4 Misconception, Buddhists are pacifists" seems to suggest a hidden agenda to discredit Buddhism.

The central tenet of Buddhism is compassion and Buddhist practices are pacifism. There is a HUGE difference between a practitioner of Buddhism, a scholar of Buddhism and a believer of Buddhism.

The examples you pointed out are definitely not practitioners of Buddhism.

DaviddeCouriere's picture

Ms Wood, you dehumanize others (men) in your own post. "Men, and it is always...".

This discounts the many many sincere men who do not do war or violence.

It is like saying 'terrorists are always xxx', even though not all xxx are terrorists'.

Now, do you recognize this harmful speech or try to justify it?

meichler's picture

David: Your logic is flawed. I trust that you are an intelligent human being and would guess that you feel threatened by March's comment, and that threat has clouded your reasoning. Truth that is threatening is not harmful, it is awakening.

Michael Jaquish's picture

March M. Wood does an excellent job of capturing my own opinion on this matter. Just because someone calls them self a 'Buddhist' does NOT mean they represent 'The Buddha' or accurately portray The Dharma.
While many alleged Buddhists have submitted to the will of ego instead of their inner Buddha, the writers of the article might have been better off expressing this at some point. Pacifism is NOT a misconception about Buddhism. That issue was quite clearly settled 2,600 years ago by Siddhartha Gautama himself. Few of his followers have had the courage to follow his example but this does NOT mean Buddhists are therefore allowed to harm and kill.

One example of the true pacifist nature of Buddhism I like to use for my Dharma students is the story of the Buddhist monk who was released from prison by the Chinese occupiers of Tibet after he had spent many years being tortured and abused. He made his way to India where he met with the Dalai Lama and the Dalai Lama asked him what it was he feared the most while being tortured and abused. He responded, "that I would stop loving my captors".

THIS is the heart of Buddhism.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Japan's WWII militarists were very coercive in getting religious groups to honor the emperor as a demigod. A few individuals saw through the sham and fully resisted, getting arrested in the process.

lkarnis's picture

A pair of well researched/written books by Brian Daizen Victoria provide great detail on how the pre-war practice of Zen was influenced/altered (called 'Imperial Zen' which promoted Emperor veneration over veneration of Buddha & Bodhisattvas) to co-opt Zen into the service of Imperial Japan.

The books: Zen at War ( and Zen War Stories ( are worth a read for anyone interested in how Japanese Zen traditions were manipulated into tools of aggression. Victoria documents that many highly respected Zen masters as being fully in line with the aims/goals of a state bent on prosecuting a war of aggression... and that more than a few changed their tune once the war was over.

These books can be hard to find as they are often out of print. Not surprisingly, these books also generate a lot of controversy.

My take away after reading these books is - be very careful when selecting a spiritual guide/master (no matter what tradition, reputation or how many followers they have). I find that Buddha's wisdom as recorded in the Kalamas Sutra is very good advise on this matter (

Rob_'s picture

Perhaps half well written books. There are a number of blemishes in his works. Victoria has been criticized for his inaccurate portrayal of a few individuals. Unfortunately to date, Victoria has not addressed his intentional misrepresentation of these individuals words. It's also likely he never will.

mkpf_2001's picture

Don't forget the resistance that Korean Buddhist Monks organized during the Imjin War of the 1580's to disrupt the Japanese during their occupation of Korea.

Allchin.david's picture

Another episode of delusion and madness, may we all be free of suffering and awaken to our true interconnectedness with boundless metta and equanimity.

ryan's picture

Only one and a half people? Really...sounds like a pretty heavy rationalization.

King Dutthagamani's actions were not Buddhist, his spirit was not lifted by minimizing the devastation.

marchmwood's picture

Dear Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr.,

I was hurt by your treatment of the story of King Dutthagamani to illustrate Buddhist violence. It was not the choice of the story in itself that wounded my heart, but rather your failure to link the depravity of the arhats' conduct to its modern manifestations of slavery and violence against vulnerable people. You may think these unrelated, but the delusion of self and the arising storyline of separateness are the root causes of all violence, including that of the story of King Dutthagamani.

The arrogance and mindlessness of Dutthagamani's pet monks dehumanizing the slain combatants to fit a twisted agenda of avoiding karmic consequences for Dutthagamani's organized murder (i.e. "war") is deeply painful. Students of United States history remember the treatment of enslaved African diaspora peoples during the horrid "Three-Fifths Compromise" between slaveholding and non-slaveholding states in 1787. When reading about the tallying of the dead in your article, I was sickened by the clear parallel between those men who called themselves monks and the men who called themselves Christians. Both used religion to justify their lust for power.

Men, and it is always men, have a nasty habit of thinking themselves in a position to decide who is worthy to live or die. Or who is worthy to be counted as human after they are murdered. This is not Buddhist. It cannot be paraded as being Buddhist, no matter how much the "other side" may frighten or offend. Violence is the use of force to defend the illusion of self, and is distinct from the protective use of force to defend life. You seem to conflate violence with the protective use of force, when one is clearly lawful and one is not. It is never lawful to harm another being for gain.

Your article glossed over the bloody implications of the issues you raised with your "counterexamples" of violent Buddhists. If you intended to show how Buddhists are human, and are therefore capable of the full range of human depravity, you succeeded. This Pyrrhic victory creates a space where the reader is left wondering how the killing you describe relates to the teachings of the Buddha. Perhaps you may consider filling that space responsibly by offering the sangha more skillful means of resisting violent samskaras within their own minds, for the purposes of liberating us all from the cycle of war/peace/war/peace. If we cannot critically examine the delusions within our own religious tradition and clearly identify unlawful conduct, then we are simply part of the problem. I am asking for a Buddhist call to action to the spreading violence of this dark age.

As Buddhists, we have a profound responsibility to show the world how liberation is possible in each moment, everywhere, at once. By failing to critically examine the use of violence in Buddhist societies, we hinder ourselves from freeing this realm of bloodshed and suffering.

May you be free from suffering and the root of suffering. May all beings be free.

March M. Wood