Filed in Politics

Transmuting Blood and Guts: My Experiences in the Buddhist Military

Why did a conscientious objector choose to join a Buddhist military organization? Kidder Smith looks back on his time with the Vajra Guard.

Kidder Smith

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© Kidder SmithIt was an unanticipated homecoming for me, addressing a West Point audience on military matters a few years ago. My original connection to the United States Military Academy runs through my great-grandfather, class of ’77, who’d gone on to win the Congressional Medal of Honor for action against a Native American uprising in the Southwest. His son, my grandfather, graduated from the Academy in 1907; his only son, my uncle, went from Harvard to military intelligence in Korea, and from there to the CIA. But I became Buddhist soon after leaving high school, and I graduated from college as a conscientious objector, refusing the draft because of religious opposition to war of any kind. Yet, paradoxically, it was Buddhism that brought me back to West Point.

In 1975 I began studying with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan meditation master who, in addition to retreats, schools, and monasteries, had his own military organization. This was the Dorje Kasung, or Vajra Guard, a group based on Buddhist principles of nonaggression—no one was armed, and we didn’t even practice the martial arts. Instead, this military was a means by which Trungpa Rinpoche taught dharma to a self-selected subset of students.

The very notion of a Buddhist military is itself rife with paradox. Yet this is an army whose aim is victory over aggression, rather than victory through warfare. Its fundamental principles respect the Buddhist precept against taking life, but they also respect all people and things. Instead of focusing on combat, then, this army is a form of Buddhist practice. Like all Buddhist practice, it is a form of mind training.

Trungpa Rinpoche was born in eastern Tibet in about 1939 and came to America by way of Oxford University, in 1970. He established a series of meditation centers across the United States and Europe and founded Naropa Institute (now Naropa University) in Boulder, Colorado. Though he died in 1987, the institutions he founded still flourish today under the direction of Shambhala International, based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His students have been in many ways a conventional church group—people who hold day jobs and share variously in the community’s religious activities, keeping the books, maintaining the mailing list, teaching or taking a class at a local center, doing a solo meditation retreat. Some might also participate in the military, wearing blue blazers and gray skirts or trousers as they drive visiting Tibetan monks to the airport, escort a teacher to a talk, or act as security guards at public events. Here their practice has been the basic firmness of good manners, rooted in alertness and thoughtfulness, ready to say “No, you may not” or “Of course I will.” As such, it is an extension of training in mindfulness, awareness, and kindness, from which also arises the confidence to resist being pulled away from one’s center . . .

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