Over on the other blog, a very thorny issue has reared its head. I thought I’d tow the question over here because I like to save longer posts for Dharma Folk.
Can a Buddhist serve in the military? The answer is No. At least for those who argue that soldiering is the profession of killing, in effect wrong livelihood. Anyone who’s serious about Buddhism, the precepts or bodhisattvahood could never be a service member. In fact, even in a non-combat role, you’re essentially an accessory to killing, and so this too falls under wrong livelihood. This line of thought is logical, reasonable and well-supported by centuries of Buddhist tradition. But that’s not to say that an alternative view isn’t.
A Buddhist can certainly join the military without compromising her religious commitment. In truth there are many armed forces across the globe that rarely if ever resort to lethal force, even though their governments grant them the right to do so. A Buddhist soldier could spend her entire career without once taking a life, taking what is not given, engaging in sexual misconduct, speaking falsely and consuming intoxicants. Even in the United States military, there are numerous non-combat roles, none of which involves taking life any more than, say, working for Planned Parenthood.
In fact, it’s important to not overlook the broader importance of the armed defense forces. Their ranks are filled with individuals who have taken an oath to defend the country and its people. Their deterrent capability is a greater guarantor of our security than the actual exercise of such force. It’s true that sometimes our nations’ militaries are used in ways with which we disagree, but such actions are not the decisions of the troops. They are the decisions of those that we elect to office. By living in a country, paying taxes, participating in elections and civic life, we are directly supporting our armed forces. If you want out of the system, then go move to Costa Rica!
Devout Buddhists in the military actually sound like a good idea to me. I embrace the idea of soldiers filled with compassion, understanding and awareness, — individuals who would exercise violence as sparingly as possible. The point here isn’t to say that Buddhism encourages all of us to enlist — far from it — but rather that there are reasonable arguments that one can diligently practice Buddhism and also serve. This perspective is a Buddhist one, but not the only one.
As both our political and religious views are rooted in values, they are easily mixed together. Buddhists jam their religion into their politics, just as many Christians see their politics and religion as inseparably intertwined. It’s tempting to think that because two people share the same religion, then their political take on the world should also align. If only. Buddhists could argue both pro-life and pro-choice positions on abortion from the perspective of Buddhist teaching (I saw the post!), and neither side would ever emerge victorious. The same is true for the question of military service because, like abortion, the facts surrounding it involve so much more than a willful taking of life.
So too Buddhism is much, much more than the non-taking of life.