Buddhism at War

Holding to a philosophy that espouses non-violence as the foundation of its ethical system while watching a war unfold ever closer to those you love is bound to be fraught with contradictions.

Here are two opinions written by some of the most respected, senior members of the American Sangha, who take radically different approaches:

  1. Buddhism, Nonviolence, and the Moral Quandary of Ukraine by Bhikkhu Bodhi
  2. At War with the Dharma by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

From the perspective of early Buddhist teachings, Ajahn Thanissaro is undoubtably correct. He states:

The only way to keep yourself from getting sucked into this pattern is to have strong principles against killing, principles you hold to no matter what. This is one of the reasons why the Buddha formulated the precept against killing in the most uncompromising way: Don’t intentionally kill anything or anyone. Ever. Don’t tell other people to kill. And don’t condone the act of killing. When the Buddha was asked if there was anything whose killing he would condone, he answered with just one thing: anger. (SN 1:71).

That’s as clear-cut and absolute as you can get, and it’s clear-cut for a reason: Clear-cut rules are easy to remember even when your emotional level is high—and that’s precisely when you need them most.

Bhikkhu Bodhi argues in favor of something approaching a Buddhist just war theory, which is something utterly incompatible with the Dhamma.

Kind of. I’d rather say the two esteemed Bhikkhus are talking past each other. Ajahn Thanissaro is arguing from an ideal, monastic perspective, Bhante Bodhi from the historical perspective of actual Buddhist societies.

Even the archetype of the just Buddhist ruler, Ashoka, waged war and killed. He instituted policies to mitigate this, but a kingdom of this world can’t escape the trappings of this world entirely.

To quote Ajahn Thanissaro:

Now, it’s important to remember that the Buddha never forced the precepts on anyone. Instead of calling them obligations, he called them training rules, and the training is something you take on voluntarily. Your moral behavior is a voluntary gift of safety to the world. If you can make that gift universal, with no exceptions, you can have a share in universal safety as well (AN 8:39). If you actually break a precept, the safe course of action is not to try to redesign the training to justify what you’ve done. Instead, you honestly admit that your training has lapsed, and do your best to get back on course.

In other words, the Buddha wasn’t trying to impose a utopian order on society. If you’re committed to the Buddhist path, figure out how to follow this precept as far as you can, but if you can’t keep to it fully, don’t pretend you’re following the complete path. Keep to it as much as you can.

Thus, I’d say the more nuanced position is:

Thinking about it, I find it odd that Bhikkhu Bodi even felt compelled to write this article about Ukraine in the first place — Thanissaro Bhikkhu wrote in response. Why does an American monk even need to have an opinion on a war on the other side of the planet that likely has a personal impact on a minuscule percentage of his community? Perhaps the more important point is that the sangha should be largely removed from the day-to-day politics of secular life. There doesn’t have to be a Buddhist™ position on everything.

Bhikkhu Bodhi ends his essay with an interesting point:

On reflection, I would have to conclude that the ethics of early Buddhism do not offer blanket solutions to all the complex predicaments of the human situation. Perhaps that was never their intention—perhaps their intention was to issue guidelines rather than proclaim moral absolutes, to posit ideals even for those who cannot perfectly fulfill them. Nevertheless, the complexity of the human condition inevitably confronts us with circumstances in which moral obligations run at crosscurrents.

The reality is that even in the day of the Buddha, followers of the path ate meat, plowed fields (which kills countless insects, rodents, snakes, etc.) and went about their ordinary lives. There’s a lot of moral luck involved, which from a traditional Buddhist perspective is also based on past kamma. And that’s the rub of samsara, you’re often not in a position to full extricate yourself from suffering.

Those committed to non-violence can still do much to help Ukraine right now. The humanitarian catastrophe is only going to get worse as winter sets in. Other parts of the world are going to be affected by grain shortages. Even many in richer European countries will have trouble making ends meet as energy prices rise. Helping out any of these people is a wonderful thing to do, and is far removed from killing on the front line.