September 06, 2009

The Just War: Do the Buddhist teachings ever allow for violence?

A lively discussion followed a recent post here on the Army's first Buddhist chaplain. The latest response comes from John Scorsine, a military officer in the National Guard and a newly ordained Buddhist minister, who writes, "This question of the reconciliation of Buddhism and being a professional at arms has been a defining matter of inquiry for me."

Scorsine continues, describing his discussion of this issue with the Dalai Lama:

When I asked HHDL what in his view was the karmic consequence for killing for one’s country or for being killed in battle he responed:

“And over here, liturgically speaking, most important is motivation and goal. Now goal to serve interest for larger community and motivation – compassionate motivation. Genuine sense of care. And then, if the circumstances, there’s no other way, only the violent way, then violence is permissible. That’s why in Buddhism, they use—in tantric teaching they are wrathful deities. The appearance wrathful deities is—behind the philosophy is that out of sense of concern, out of sense of compassion, then wrathful method is permissible. So the wrathful deities also now happen there.”

The Dalai Lama cautions, however, that the problem is that once violence begins, it's anybody's guess how or when it will end. He also puts the onus on the victor to end the violence and to "protect all life."

Not long after 9/11, in the runup to the war in Afghanistan, Tricycle invited three teachers and a Buddhism scholar to discuss whether violence was ever permissible in the light of Buddhist teachings. You can read the roundtable here.

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jjwalker7730's picture

A correct response to the moment, even to kill in self defense where it is spontaneous does not accrue karma. Only premeditation and conceptual thinking has karmic forming properties.

kh1044's picture

In the light of universal polarity, war is the absence of peace. In any war, we have failed; and to think we can restore or further the cause of peace by prosecuting war is unskillful thinking. We may be able to protect people temporarily by violent response to aggression, but we have not solved the root problem, which always has its seat in the non-virtues. Warriors are needed for this, but the way of the warrior should not be a way of desiring to kill; it should be a way of causing the "enemy" (what a funny term) to stop their aggressive actions. The law of attraction, call it Karma if you wish, is in my mind at work making certain that unskillful behavior is rewarded with like circumstances. Peace is accomplished through lovingkindness and compassion, and working diligently to help people free themselves from their delusion, anger, and attachments. That is a tall order here on the plane of duality, but as Gandhi for one, remarked: "You must be the change you wish to create in the world." Any time we resort to war to solve a problem, we create more bad karmic residue for the world community, and for ourselves. Violence should be an absolute last resort, and we must acknowledge and accept the consequences for ourselves and our fellows. The importance of enlightenment is pointed up by the fact that the physical universe, although empty, has a rhythm to it, like a pendulum swinging. To escape the rhythm that traps us in this prison of duality, we must go beyond. Gate, gate, paragate, parasam gate, bodhi svaha. I wish us all peace, and the strength for the journey.

Dominic Gomez's picture

"Peace is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures." John F. Kennedy

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Vikinggrl's picture

It is clear in various Buddhist texts that the Buddha did not reject or prohibit soldiering as a profession or occupation but instead claimed that the right to have an army and defend one’s country and people is necessary. The Buddha expressly recognized the necessity for a king to have an army and provide protection to its subjects and, indeed, considered this one of the PRIME duties of a king. The Buddha, in his wisdom did NOT expect a nation to be lame ducks in the wake of an enemy invasion. He understood that for a laity burdened with numerous worldly responsibilities, life continues: the King has to rule, the farmer has to farm, the teacher has to teach, and the trader has to trade and so on. Early Buddhism, also, did not approve of the use of violence by kings, but merely accepted it as the fact and did what was proper under the circumstances.

In the 'Seeha Senapathi Sutta' The Buddha did make clear that a disciplined soldier fights his enemy in accordance with the best traditions and norms maintained by an army, i.e.:
a good soldier doesn’t kill a defenseless person;
a good soldier provides medical treatment to the injured enemy captured;
a good soldier doesn’t kill prisoners of war, children, women, or the aged;
a good soldier destroys his enemy only when his/her life or the lives of comrades are in danger.

A good soldier is one who thrives for peace within because he or she is the one who realizes the pain of his own wounds and sees the bloody destruction of war, the dead and all the suffering war entails. In short, a good soldier desires to bring peace by ending the war as soon as possible.

Sanki's picture

A good soldier kills the enemy as he runs away because he thus ensures that he and his comrades will not have to face that enemy in battle in the future--to do otherwise betrays himself and his comrades. War is nothing other than butchery. No glory, no honor. There are, have been and will be buddhist soldiers. They have no doubt embodied the good bad and ugly of war. A professional soldier gives up the right to make judgements as to when war is the answer. The religious leader, the institution, and the individual who has not taken an oath as a soldier can judge when a war is "just," whether or not war is ever "just," or whether or not as a religious institution, leader or initiate is is proper to participate in war or a war. It's something each must do for himself.

Erick W's picture

There are the normative & theoretical justifications for violence and / or warfare, and then there are the historical situations in which it has been justified by Buddhists, including monastics. While clearly there is debate regarding the normative justifications, there is little debate that there are plenty of historical moments - within all of the major sectarian traditions - in which Buddhists - monastic, and yes even Dalai Lamas - have justified violence and warfare on pragmatic, instrumental grounds.

Bill D's picture

I've also heard HHDL qualify the use of violence by adding that any necessary killing must be done without anger, resentment or attachment. This seems to extend his reference, quoted above, to "compassionate motivation."

Nathan's picture

There is no such thing as a just war. Once you get to the level of warfare, the amount of suffering and devastation, not only to humans, but to the rest of the planet, is far too great to offset any potential positives.

I can imagine at the individual level, there might be some situations that call for use of force. That force might contain a fairly violent element in it. However, I think more often than not, even at the individual level, we rush to use force and violence because we haven't learned or been supported in using non-violent, or less forceful methods. It would be really interesting if we, as a human world, put as much time, energy, and financial resources into non-violent actions and attitudes as we do into violence and war.

We have no idea currently how many of our violent responses to situations are simply from lack of practice, training, and patience built on a non-violent way. Somehow, we need to start shifting this tide because the world is on fire with misery right now from all those who have chosen the many paths into violence.

David Bennett's picture

This is one of the hardest ones for me. I was in the military, I've been a cop, and I used to believe in aggressiveness as a method and felt justified in it. Now I'm very different and work hard to be non-violent. And now my 17 year old son wants to join the Marines. I know, karma. Anyway, when or if violence toward another is ever consistent with Buddhist teaching is an unresolved matter for me. Not likely that I'll ever be an authority on the teachings, but I think the teachings include the idea that we have to make up our own minds, too. So, no escape via ignorance. Here's a question: If in self-defense you take the life of another, is it not because you felt that your life was more important than his?

Arnold ZEMAN's picture

Also relevant to this discussion is Thanissaro Bhikkhu's "Getting the Message":

Nate's picture

I found a quote by HHDL that says "If someone has a gun and is trying to kill you, it would be reasonable to shoot back with your own gun." In no way shape or form would I condone violence, but I think in order to protect someone from another person violence would be the only "reasonable" time to do so. As brutal as this sounds, if you were walking by an alleyway in the city and saw someone being mugged or assaulted by another person, would you walk by? Or would you intercede and try to help that person, regardless of what you had to do to the assaulter? Personally, I would do what needed to be done for the safety of the victim, of course looking at non-violent avenues first, but if not able to do so, would try my best to restrain the person so the victim could get away.