Buddhist Perspectives on the Use
Midshipman Second-class Tyson B. Meadors
at ISME 2007)
This paper is a brief overview of Buddhist doctrine and
practice concerning the use of violence. It is generally perceived by even the
most casual of observers that Buddhism is a wholly pacifistic religion. Yet, when
I set out to write on this topic I knew that in both modern and ancient history
Buddhism has been associated with groups or acts that have been belligerently
violent. There has been only a limited amount of scholarship on the topic of Buddhism
and its views on the use of force. When compared to the extensive explorations
of Judeo-Christian scholars and, more recently, the heightened interest in the
'just war' positions found in the Islamic faith, the material on Buddhism is glaringly
sparse. Recently, however, Buddhist scholars have called for a closer examination
of this topic. What follows is my attempt to both examine some of what already
exists in the way of commentary and interpretation on the topic, as well as a
very tentative attempt to compose a rough sketch of what a Buddhist 'just war'
conception may be. As disclaimer, however, I should state that I am by no means
an authority on Buddhist ethics and that what I have written is merely an academic
attempt to fill a void in our understanding of the ranging corpus of perspectives
on the use of force.
That stated, this paper and my exploration starts in
Tibet in the spring of 2006.
It took several days of traveling to reach the
small village of Langmusi, a border outpost that straddles the rugged mountain
region of the Sichuan-Gansu provincial line. By Tibetan standards, it is a boom
town. It has two hostels-one even with running water-and a web café, and
manages to earn itself a miniscule enough dot on obscure maps to visited by the
occasional Western backpacker troupe. One chilly night during my week-long visit
to the area, I am fortunate enough to be sitting as a guest in a one room apartment
that sits above a one room store that sells counterfeit NBA jerseys in a place
where until five years ago no one had even heard of basketball. It is dinnertime,
and I am sipping yak butter tea with an elderly-looking Tibetan Buddhist monk.
He is introduced to me by his younger brother, a jolly, yeti of a man named Kunchok
who was my guide during my time in Tibet. The monk cannot speak English or Chinese,
only his native Tibetan. In order to breach the language barrier, his brother-who
studied English and Tibetan history in exile in Dharmasala, India-translates for
I am told that the monk is a "professor" of philosophy and ethics
at the nearby Buddhist monastery, which also doubles as a "university"
for young monks. He has been a monk for nearly 30 years. He wears the traditional
crimson and gold robes-representative of leaves in the fall, he tells me. A younger
monk, who as far as I can tell is barely a teenager, sits quietly in the corner,
watching the elder monk's every move. Occasionally, the younger monk's eyes will
wonder to me, but he seems generally uninterested in how I act or what I have
to say. His focus is on the older monk, who, I am told, is his tutor.
starts with the rudimentary foreigner question and answers-I ask, and he answers.
did you become a monk?'
--'I was the third born male in my family. By our traditions,
the third born enters the monastery at the age of five or six.'
'Is it true
you only eat one meal a day?'
'Are those robes comfortable?'
And so on.
After having asked all the basic tourist questions-resulting
in younger monk looking quite bored with our conversation-I moved to the questions
that had been bothering me since my first visit to a Tibetan monastery a few days
earlier. On that visit, I had a casual conversation with a monk from another,
much larger monastery in Xiahe, Gansu province, called the Labrang monastery.
many monks do you have here now?'
--'Now? Oh, about 2000, there used to be
nearly 4000, though.'
--'They were all moved. Or killed.'
Over the course of my visits to Labrang and
other smaller monasteries, I asked more about the tenuous relationship between
Tibetan Buddhists and the Chinese government. Their stories were all the same:
An abbot or monk gains acclaimed either for his spiritual insights, charisma,
or some other gift of enlightenment, eventually drawing more followers and monks
to a particular monastery. As the followers grew to include ethnic Han Chinese
(the majority ethnic group in Mainland China) and the number of pilgrims swelled
into the thousands per month, the local government would issue a decree of some
sort requiring the monks to abandon the monastery on some sort of faux legal grounds
concerning land rights or a miscellaneous zoning violation. Soon after, troops
from the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) would march in to "enforce" the
legal decree. If monks did not leave, they were gathered together, beaten, and
Officially, these events never occur. Yet, the plight of the Tibetan
minority and Tibetan Buddhists has been in and out of the spotlight in recent
years thanks to an occassionally interested foreign press. Though I cannot verify
the various stories I was told by several (always younger) monks, there is certainly
no shortage of documented evidence of unprovoked attacks on ethnic Tibetans and
Tibetan Buddhists by the PLA.
Eventually, my conversation in Langmusi turned
to the same subject.
'I have heard about many recent incidents where monks
have been killed by PLA soldiers, is this true?'
The old monk sighs.
they are trying to get rid of us.'
The young monk perks up a bit and leans
in to better hear my questions translated.
'Well, isn't there anything that
you can do?'
Silence. Quizzical looks.
'I mean, can the monks run away?
Or defend themselves?'
The monk shakes his head.
--'No. We cannot.'
some of the monks at other monasteries told me that some monks run away? Some
even throw rocks and resist, they said.'
The old monk's eyebrows furrowed.
those monks are bad Buddhists.'
--'Yes. A good Buddhist
would accept the soldiers' actions. Whether beaten or killed, it does not matter.
They would not resist.'
--'But what about the Shaolin monks, they're Buddhist?
They practice martial arts for self-defense?'
Another strained look from the
--'They are not real Buddhists.'
'So, if all the Buddhists in
Tibet were to be killed by the Chinese government, they should do nothing to stop
from being killed?'
The monks almost seemed pleased at this question-the old
monk relaxed as if he was satisfied that I had finally understood. I had not.
The young monk nodded in recognition as if he had heard this scenario many times
and already knew the answer.
At this point, the venerable old monk's
brother-noticing that I was visibly distressed by the responses I had been given-intervened
and said a few things in Tibetan to the monk that I did not understand. The old
monk nodded and began again.
--'It is never right to intentionally harm another.
This is one of the most fundamental things to a Buddhist.'
I nodded. This I
was familiar with.
--'But imagine a shepherd who is in charge of sheep. If
a wolf is attacking his sheep, what should he do? Let the sheep be eaten by the
--'No, the shepherd must do something to protect the
sheep or else he would also be doing harm by letting the wolf attack the sheep.'
he would be a good Buddhist if he stopped the wolf?'
I was confused.
then he would be a good Buddhist if he let the wolf kill all his sheep?'
looked at the monk's brother and asked if he was sure he was translating this
conversation correctly. He laughed hard and told me, that, yes, he was in fact
translating the monk's words correctly.
The monk smiled.
cannot be a good Buddhist by harming other living things. But to protect the sheep-though
still harmful to the wolf-is the best way.'
--'Because, it does
the least harm to fewest living beings.'
'Oh, like utilitarianism?'
monks brother asked me what I meant by "utilitarianism," and I gave
my best, shortest, oversimplification of rule-based utilitarianism: the greatest
good for the greatest number.
--'Well, I do not understand how your society
views right and wrong. But, almost, yes.'
After three hours of yak butter tea
and my further, feeble attempt to tease out some understanding of how a "good"
Buddhist might use force, our evening ended. We walked together outside into the
starry Tibetan night, exchanged farewells as best we could, and the two monks
returned to their ancient monastery and I returned to my hostel with running water.
conversation with the venerable Gelug (yellow hat) monk was not at all satisfying.
While I had no doubts about his sincerity, it was very difficult to believe that
his paradigms for the use of violence were universal across all branches of the
Buddhist tradition. I sincerely doubted that Shaolin monks would feel that they
are not 'real' Buddhists. Likewise, I doubted that over the course of Asian conflict,
efforts were not made by Buddhist thinkers to allow for a more liberal interpretation
of use-of-force doctrine. After all, the Japanese certainly had significant Buddhist
populations living within its borders up to and during World War II. Likewise,
the protracted civil war in Sri Lanka features a Sri Lankan government wholly
supported by the national Sangha in its civil war against Tamil forces. Of course,
these are only a sample of many historical counterexamples to the commonly held
notion that Buddhism is a wholly pacifistic belief system.
So how then does
Buddhism really view the use of force? It is certainly fair to concede that the
existence of a range of multiple 'schools'-particularly the split between the
Mahayana and Theravada traditions-of Buddhism will allow for variations in use-of-force
positions. This is analogous to the various Abrahamic religious traditions such
as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. However, it is also fair to assume that a
religion that holds across all its various traditions that the most central of
the five cardinal precepts of its system of practice is ahisma, or non-injury,
should have a far more deliberate treatment of using force. In order to become
a practicing Buddhist of either the lay or sangha class, regardless of which school
is being subscribed to, a person must affirm this commitment to non-violence by
reciting five precepts. One modern translation of the first precept reads rather
Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the
precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.
The fact that Buddhism
places so much emphasis on practicing non-injury certainly lends to its popular
conception as the least antagonistic of the world's major religions. Any deliberate
action to harm another sentient being would seem to clearly contradict this precept.
Damien Keown writes:
The view [on the use of force] expressed almost unanimously
in the [Buddhist] texts is that since war involves killing, and killing is a breach
of the first precept, it is morally wrong to fight in either offensive or defensive
killing is bad karma even in the case of self-defence or when done
for the sake of defending friends.
This passage suggests that there is
no leeway in the prohibition of the use of force by Buddhists. It also suggests
a good deal of moral difficulty in justifying even the shepherd allegory that
I was told in Langmusi. In practice, we find that only the actions of the "good
Buddhists" mentioned by the old monk in Langmusi, fall into line with this
interpretation. Keown provides further references from Buddhist lore:
in the commentary Dhammapada narrates how the Buddha's kinsmen, the Sakyas, offered
only token resistance when attacked by King Vidudabha, and allowed themselves
to be slaughtered rather than break the precept against taking life.
it seems that pacifism and non-violence as espoused by more modern thinkers such
as Gandhi and Thoreau are in accordance with Buddhist practice. Accepting death
at the hands of an attacker, in lieu of self-defense, is the correct course of
action for a Buddhist. As it was alluded by the old monk I talked to in Tibet,
this seems to invalidate the self-defense positions of the famous Chinese Shaolin
kung-fu monks and the Japanese warrior monks (called sohei) that were utilized
by various monasteries in Shogunate Japan as a way of defending monastic property.
the precept of ahisma as the foundation of Buddhist practice, how then do members
of both Buddhist laity and the sangha come to support, justify, and participate
in acts that intentionally "destroy living creatures?" There is, of
course, the shepherd allegory of my Tibetan monk friend. Though it seems to be
invalidated by the terms set forth above, he still offered it to me in his explanation
of Buddhist use-of-force-doctrine. As a formalized conception, this precept as
it appears in Mahayana texts involves the weighing of the karmic repercussions
of action versus the karmic repercussions of inaction. In short, we can use violence
and the destruction of other when it precludes the harm of a greater number of
'others.' Though simple in principle, it is certainly an imperfect and potentially
troubling rubric. Take for example the following passage from Japanese Buddhist
literature of the World War II-era:
In order to establish eternal peace in
East Asia, arousing the great benevolence and compassion of Buddhism, we are sometimes
accepting and sometimes forceful. We now have no choice but to exercise the benevolent
forcefulness of "killing one in order that many may live" (issatsu tasho).
This is something which Mahayana Buddhism approves of only with the greatest of
The most striking aspect in the passage above is the "killing
one in order that many may live," conception. This seems to be a paraphrase
of sorts of the underlying justification of the shepherd allegory that was shared
with me originally. As the above passage infers, this is a conception unique to
Mahayana Buddhism and it was cited extensively by the Japanese as justification
for their actions on the Chinese mainland. Scripturally, this conception is found
in the Upaya-kaushalya Sutra, a Mahayana text that's name literally means 'skillful
means.' The general principle outlined in this text is that it is sometimes justified
to manipulate and/or undermine basic Buddhist principles in order to bring about
the most Karmic good or to minimize Karmic harm. Victoriasummarizes a key passage
in the Sutra with specific regard to the use of force:
While on board a ship,
Shakyamuni [Buddha] discovers that there is a robber intent on killing all five
hundred of his fellow passengers. Shakyamuni ultimately decides to kill the robber,
not only for the sake of his fellow passengers but also to save the robber himself
from the karmic consequences of his horrendous act. In doing so, the negative
karma from killing the robber should have accrued to Shakyamuni but it did not...
Victoria later notes that "The Upaya-kaushalya is by no means the only Mahayana
sutra that has been historically interpreted as in some sense excusing, if not
actually sanctioning, violence." Additionally, we find similar situations
and justifications involving the use of violent force in numerous other Mahayana
sutras, including the Maha-Upaya-kausalya Sutra, the Arya-bodhisattava-gocaropaya-visaya-vikurvana-nirdesa
Sutra, and the Maha-parinirvana Sutra. The last of these sutras goes as far
to introduce a conception of beings that are "incapable of salvation,"
called icchantika. Harvey cites:
Sentient beings possess the five good roots
such as faith, but the icchantika has eternally severed those roots [via a gross
moral transgression]. Thus, while it is a fault to kill an ant, it is not a fault
to kill an icchantika.
Though the above passage appears in a Mahayana sutra
that is certainly in the same vein as the previously mentionedUpaya sutras, its
introduction of a 'dehumanizing' element is another particularly troubling element.
The existence of people whom can be killed without repercussion, karmic, moral,
or otherwise easily lends itself to those who might be interested in declaring
one or more peoples as such a person, validating any violent action against them.
It also creates a moral precedent in the Buddhist cannon that the innate value
of a sentient being can be voided via some sort of prerequisite moral declaration
on those to be killed.
Additionally, Yu, in his examination of the Chinese
Buddhists-including monks-who actively participated in military actions during
the Second World War outlines several of the ways a Chinese (or Japanese for that
matter) might justify an act of violence against another human being. Take, for
example, the following passage Yu cites from Nagarjuna's Dazhidu lun (????):
Therefore, living beings in fact are non-existence. There will be no sin of
killing if there is non-existence of living beings; no one can be said to observe
precept if there is no sin of killing
Just like that there will be no sin
if one commits killing in a dream and kills the image in mirror, so is one who
kills empty for of five aggregates of [a living being].
the traditional Buddhist conception of "emptiness," Yu suggests that
Buddhists have the ability to disregard the very basic moral precepts that all
Buddhists are typically expected to adhere to. This sort of philosophical sophistry
is used extensively by Zen practitioners as both an intellectual exercise, especially
in Japan leading up to and during World War II as a method of moralizing offensive
military action. Even D.T. Suzuki, the figure most famously associated with introducing
Zen Buddhism to the West both before and after World War II actively contributed
to this type of thinking. In one example, Suzuki likens the use of force to something
akin to art (italics are my own):
The sword is generally associated with killing,
and most of wonder how it can come into connection with Zen, which is a school
of Buddhism teaching the gospel of love and mercy. The fact is that the art of
swordsmanship distinguishes between the sword that kills and the swordthat gives
life. The one that is used by a technician cannot go any further than killing,
for he never appeals to the sword unless he intends to kill. The case is altogether
different with the one who is compelled to lift the sword. For it is really not
he but the sword itself that does the killing. He has no desire to do harm to
anybody, but the enemy appears and makes himself a victim. It is as though the
swords performs automatically its function of justice, which is the function of
When the sword is expected to play this sort of role in human life,
it is no more a weapon of self-defense or an instrument of killing, and the swordsman
turns into an artist of the first grade
that the sword "gives life" is errant in any practical terms, and viewed
through anything less than the lens of Zen Buddhism, which often uses such apparent
contradictions as a learning tool, it would seem quite bizarre. That Suzuki adds
that the user of a sword is an "artist" as opposed to a "killer"
is additionally troubling in that it seems to glorify, using Buddhist lines of
thought, the use of force to harm other sentient beings. In this passage we find
do not find the original hesitancy to use force that we see in the other passages
already presented, but rather an elevation of violence a sublime level. Although
Victoria ultimately concludes that such depictions by Suzuki and World War II-era
thinkers "must be clearly and unequivocally recognized as desecrations of
the Buddha Dharma," we must at the very least note that it was plausible
not only to a figure of Suzuki's stature to make such arguments, but that they
were also accepted by a very significant population of Buddhist practitioners.
that we have established that there indeed exists a potential for Buddhist thinkers
to justify the use of force via texts of the Mahayana school, I wish to look briefly
at the Theravada school. It needs to be noted that the differences between the
Theravada the Mahayana textual cannons are significant, owing significantly to
the extremely difference socio-political circumstances under each one has developed
over a period spanning nearly two thousand years. Theravada's exclusive use of
the older Pali cannon, allows it, in theory, closer proximity to the original
teachings of the Sakyamuni Buddha. Yet, even here we do not find a complete forsaking
of the use of force. Bartholomeusz writes:
Indeed, despite the emphasis on
non-violence in the Pali canon, we have seen
that the army does not become
perhaps indicating an admission of the possibility of war
[T]he military metaphors are an ever-present and constant reminder of the possibility
of a transition from non-violence to violence. And while it is clear in the canonical
texts that non-violence has priority over violence, the military presence in the
texts suggest that the obligation to be non-violent is not absolute, contrary
to the argument of some scholars of Buddhism.
The above passage is significant
especially as it relates to the Sri Lankan Theravada tradition, which has largely
supported government forces during the violent civil war that has raged against
the predominantly Hindu Tamil Tiger separatist group since 1983. The conflict
between Buddhist Sri Lankans and the Tamil's is a historical one having its roots
in the aftermath of British colonialism, which ended in the early part of the
20th century. The length of time Sri Lanka's Buddhist thinkers and leaders have
had to actively consider the use of force has therefore been considerable. Bartholomeusz
notes the view of one notable Sri Lankan monk:
The extent of moral guilt of
killing depends on the physical and mental development of the being that is killed
and the circumstances under which the deed is committed. The karmic results of
killing a man and killing a child vary in proportion to the physical and mental
development of the two. Patricide, matricide, the slaughter of innocent people
and of people of considerable mental development are therefore particularly productive
of evil results to the killer.
As the above passage suggests, we find
in Sri Lanka's Theravada tradition a comparatively more systematic conception
of the use of force. Furthermore it is conception that are often very much in
line with Western just-war theory. Note in inclusion of terms such as "moral
guilt" and "proportion" in the above passage-terms that are often
found in discussions of Western just-war theory. Bartholomeusz writes, "[T]hose
who directly involve themselves in the discussion of Sri Lanka's ongoing ethnic
conflict, often do so with the technical vocabulary of just-war criteria and holy
war." Much of this owes to the response of Sri Lanka's ostensibly "secular-Buddhist"
government attempting to justify any acts of violence to a contemporary international
community. More conscientious effort seems to have gone into the justification
of their acts of force than, say, the Japanese of World War II, because Sri Lankan
leaders do not merely have to justify their actions to their own people, but in
a new twist to Buddhist use-of-force doctrine, they must justify their actions
to an international body as well.
The situation in Sri Lanka illustrates a
particularly important point about the development of the Buddhist perspectives
on the use of force. Namely, perhaps more than any part of Buddhist doctrine,
the ideas concerning the use of force have been adjusted to accommodate the political
and social situations in which Buddhists have had to operate. We must keep in
mind that as a general historical trend Buddhism has nearly always been an alien
religion. In India, where the Sakyamuni Buddha lived and died, Buddhism faded
largely out of favor by the fifth-century CE due to Hindu revival and a violent
push eastward by Islam. Thus, the flavors of Buddhism that remained, the Mahayana
strain that pushed into Tibet, China, and then later Japan and Korea, and the
Theravada tradition that survived in Sri Lanka and parts of Southeast Asia had
to adapt themselves to their new hosts. This often meant conforming Buddhist doctrine
with the practical and spiritual needs of rulers who were in the habit of persecuting
violent acts and had no intention of giving up their ability to do so. Nowhere
is this more evident than China, where Mahayana Buddhism had to develop significantly
in a more violence-tolerant manner to help it fair better against the native Daoist
and Confucian religious traditions. Brazier writes:
[T]he original message
[of Buddhism] was buried under a series of compromises-some chosen, some coerced-with
oppressive political systems in India, China, Japan, and elsewhere. In all these
countries, Buddhism has, at one time or another, been used as an instrument of
I believe it is appropriate to view notion on "compromise"
as a general rule regarding our perception of Buddhist use-of-force doctrine.
When considering any deviation from the original precept against violence as prescribed
by the Sakyamuni Buddha, we should note that it is as just as much a reaction
to some outside condition as it is a development of Buddhist doctrine. Viewed
in this light, we should both welcome and anticipate further changes in perceptions
of violence by Buddhists, while being certain to guard against any particular
egregious attempts too far beyond the underlying Buddhist message that non-violence
is nearly always preferable to violence.
That stated, I want to attempt to
summarize my findings by presenting what I discern as the major strands of Buddhist
thought on how force should be used. In order to make my thoughts more organized,
I will do so using modern, Western just war terminology.
jus ad bellum considerations I conclude the following: According to the most cardinal
views of Buddhist ideology, non-violence is always preferable to violence, thus,
violence should always be regarded as an action of last resort. Additionally,
violence can only be persecuted if it can be clearly ascertained that the violent
act to be undertaken will inflict minimal karmic harm and maximizes karmic benefit.
This notion is somewhat akin to the notion of proportionality in Western just-war
approaches, except that it must be considered as an ad bellum notion just as much
as an in bello. The use of force need not be retributive. In fact, it would seem
that via a consideration of the Upaya sutras, that pre-emptive actions, as long
as the intent of the action is wholly selfless and done in order to prevent greater
harm-karmic or otherwise-to both the potential victims of attack and the attacker,
are considered 'just' in the Buddhist tradition. Finally, self-defense holds no
special position in consideration of the use of force. Any consideration of the
use of force by an actor should not value by default their existence over that
Concerning jus in bello considerations, I propose the following
in my interpretation of Buddhist thought: The mindset of the actor is relevant.
Any act done out of hatred or anger is morally inferior to an act done out of
controlled deference and (especially in the Mahayana tradition) compassion. Also,
no joy or pleasure should be gained from the violent act. Violence itself should
be viewed as a method acting as a means of accomplishing the lesser of two evils,
and as such, every action should be viewed as regrettable and never "good"
or "desirable". "Collateral damage" to other living things,
including non-human entities should be minimized to the greatest extent possible.
This is true even to the extent that it might jeopardize the well-being of the
The guidelines I have laid out above are certainly imperfect
in many ways and I am very aware of this. Each point likely glosses over some
nuances of Buddhist thought that would argue at least in some extent to the contrary.
Additionally, it is extremely difficult to ascertain how some of the above rubric
can be applied to governments that represent a plurality of interests. One of
the defining features of Buddhist use-of-force doctrine up until this point is
that it has historically been used and developed at the behest of governments
united under a single head of state-usually an emperor or a king-who has always
been conceived as having primary moral and decision making responsibility for
the actions of a nation. Who we define as the "actor" in my proposed
guideline regarding mindsets is very difficult when the actor is, say, a democratic
government wth a bicameral legislature and an executive branch and a voting populace
that are divided on the justness of an act. Does an act become unjust according
to this proposed criterion if, say, one soldier or one citizen out of a thousand
takes pleasure or happiness in military act against another country? It is difficult
I can only imagine what the old monk in Tibet would think of the outline
above. If I can surmise a way to contact him I will surely do so, but I feel as
though the whole exercise would seem entirely too alien to him to be of much value.
This is certainly an entirely Western adaptation on a type of religious thought
predates must of the Western philosophical tradition altogether. The monk told
me that he did not understand 'our' conceptions of right and wrong. And for a
monk who will likely live, study, and die all within the confines of isolated
Tibet, content in his meditations, I suppose this is perfectly acceptable. Regardless
of whether or not the monk feels it of value to understand us, there is certainly
great value in our attempt to understand him.
Recently, footage recorded by European climbers of Tibetan refugees moving into
Nepal being shot by PLA soldiers was released and documented on the internet.
Those killed included a Tibetan Buddhist nun and several children. See "Nangpa
La killings", atwww.youtube.com or ""Nangpa La killings" at
Keown, Damien. Buddhist Ethics: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press,
 Ibid, 71.
 Victoria, Brian Daizen. Zen at War, 2nd Ed.
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006. 87.
 Victoria 225-6
 Harvey, Peter. An Introduction Into Buddhist Ethics. Cambridge University
Press, 2000. 135-8.
 Ibid, 138.
 Xue Yu. Buddhism, War, and Nationalism.
Routledge, 2005. 6.
 Victoria, 110.
 Ibid, 230.
Tessa J. In Defense of Dharma: Just-war ideology in Buddhist Sri Lanka. RoutledgeCurzon,
 Ibid 56.
 Ibid, 162.
 See Victoria, Zen at War,
 Victoria, 233.