Engaging in Un-Buddhist Activities

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.

Vesak in the South of Thailand

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.

15 Replies to “Engaging in Un-Buddhist Activities”

  1. I would disagree with the foregoing part of your post; and within military science – both East and West – there are notions that, while not radically pacifist by any means, aim to spare life and limb for both pragmatic and political reasons.

    A general who spends all his soldiers’ lives on some futile objective is an incompetent, and at least in theory, such officers are kept away from leading soldiers.

    The notion of budo at least as conceived by medieval Japan involved the notion of fighting in such a way as to preclude further violence.

  2. I will point out that there is a reason that the soldiers pictured above all have automatic rifles on their backs. It isn’t simply to defend themselves or theoir community. Soldiers are trained (conditioned even) to kill other human beings simply under the orders (and justification) of their superiors for what may be purely political ends. If you want to argue for Buddhists in non-conbatant roles, that is a discussion unto itself but I see people arguing for combat roles, which I find hard to justify.

    As to police, well, since the police of most nations are there to enforce laws and only pull weapons in defenceof others, it is hard to compare them to those that kill on the orders of others for political ends.

  3. Al, re: police work, you obviously don’t live in Oakland. (haha. really! kidding!)

    Thanks for this post and the other one Arun. I’m not going to weigh in on this debate, but I’m excited people are having it. There has been a long and hidden history of Buddhists engaging in behavior that, to our modern, progressive, pacifist eyes, would seem to contradict a number of Buddhist values. And they justified that behavior with Buddhist philosophy. So, regardless of where one’s opinion lands, it’s good to have this conversation.

    (Also, since your blog’s comment system seems to hate me, I’d like to say that I especially enjoy the short, quick nature of those posts. Keep up the good work!)

  4. This is certainly an busy debate, but really I think this is only among those who consider themselves intellectuals of a (perhaps predominantly Western) Buddhist persuasion. As I’ve said in previous posts in various blogs, there are plenty of Buddhists in the military and no one – their clergy, families, friends, etc. – ever advised them they couldn’t be serving in the military and be a Buddhist, or even that they could only be noncombatants (BTW, the ONLY noncombatant role in the armed forces is the chaplain – everyone can be required to carry a firearm, even if they are the medic or postal clerk). The only place I’ve seen this discussion on military vs. Buddhism take place is on blogs.

    The last thing I’ll have to say on this matter is that at least I hope you will not villify your fellow Buddhists serving in whatever capacity in the military. We’re all out here trying to do a job. We may not be PERFECT Buddhists, but who is!

  5. Saying that this is a conversation amongst intellectuals or of predominantly Western Buddhists (whatever that means) sounds dismissive.

    Because you haven’t seen it elsewhere, it isn’t a discussion worth having? Am I misreading what you are saying, Yuinen.

    I’m interested in hearing how people can be Buddhists and engage in a profession that requires one to be armed and to shoot whomever a superior commands one to shoot on a battlefield. It probably sounds dismissive but what part of “not killing” allows one to have an out to be a soldier, who kill people as part of their profession?

    I’ve known military people who were Buddhists but, to my knowledge, they all became Buddhists AFTER they had enlisted. One is my own teacher and he was a medic in the first Gulf War. I haven’t quizzed him in detail about it (it isn’t my business) but he left the military after his contracted service was up and become a Kagyu monk. I’ve never knowingly met anyone who was already a Buddhist that thought becoming a professional soldier was right livelihood. I’m not sure how that thought process works.

  6. @Al: “So too Buddhism is much, much more than the non-taking of life.” You seem to harbor an uncompromising notion that Buddhists don’t kill, and to the extent that they shouldn’t put themselves into any position where they be expected by another’s arbitrary reasons to take human life. So the Buddhists in the photo above — the ones who are wearing assault weapons because they’re doing patrols in Southern Thailand to protect civilians from deadly terrorists — are they not actually Buddhist? Or do you just see them as unjustifiable hypocrites? Other?

    I can appreciate the answer of “yes” to either of those questions. It’s entirely logical to cast them as hypocritical Buddhists, but — and here’s the point I’m sure doesn’t appeal to your intransigence — how does that make them fundamentally different from the rest of us hypocritical Buddhists?

    My great-grandfather, my grandfather, my father and my younger brother all took the oath I referred to above. I’m pretty sure that none of them sat down and wondered what the military means in terms of Buddhist precepts. They joined for their country and also for the other benefits that come with service to help them move up in society. That sometimes happens when your country discriminates against you.

    @Yuinen: Sorry if all this talk is aggravating; maybe it’s un-Buddhist of me to expose these diverse perspectives in our community. I think it’s better that we realize that we are all Buddhists and we often disagree, rather than we presuppose that we’re all Buddhists with all the same values. I get the feeling that many Buddhists, at least on the blogosphere, tend to assume the latter.

    @djbuddha: I have no idea why the blog’s comment system hates you. Aren’t you the web technology guru for Shin Buddhism in North America? (just kidding!!!)

    @Mumon: Your first sentence is too sophisticated for me to understand. But I appreciate your comment greatly!

    @Jamie: Yes.

  7. Arunlikhati, I wouldn’t say that the people in the picture weren’t Buddhists. That isn’t for me to judge. I will point out that it is quite possible to be raised Buddhist (or Christian) and never really reflect on the values contained within that identity in any real detail. Just as there are plenty of Christians out there that call themselves such but engage in behavior specifically forbidden by their own faith, I’m sure that is true for all faiths in the world.

    In other words, I would guess, if forced to, that these particular people had either not thought about it much or simply felt that they could justify their military service. People can do the mental gymnastics to justify anything when they really want to do so. That’s where pogroms by Christians against Jews come from, for example, or Crusades.

    Just because you call yourself a Buddhist doesn’t mean that you’ve really reflected on what that means and put the values of your faith (or assumed faith) into action.

  8. Well, that’s really the issue, isn’t it? The “values of your faith.” And it seems that you’re starting from the basic assumption that the values of Buddhism are necessarily pacifistic.

    I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you, mind you. Assuming that Buddhism is supposed to be a pacifistic, non-violent religion is a perfectly rational interpretation of the tradition, especially considering how much press a couple of avowed, modern pacifists get (i.e., Thich Nhat Hahn and H.H. the Dalai Lama).

    So when we come across instances of Buddhists engaging in “un-Buddhist” activity, it seems to me that we have two options: (1) assume that they are indeed engaging in un-Buddhist activity and haven’t thoroughly reflected on their tradition or gotten the memo from the DL that they should put down their guns; or (2) call into question our own assumptions and interpretations about Buddhism and assume, instead, that perhaps these folks have indeed reflected on the values of their tradition, come to a different conclusion, a different interpretation of the tradition, from us — and then ask the real questions — How have they come to this conclusion? What is their basis for how they interpret the Buddha Dharma? And for that matter, what is my basis for interpreting it my way, and why are we coming to different conclusions?

    The second option, in my humble opinion, is certainly not the easy one. It requires of us that we do something (I take to be) very Buddhist indeed — not be too attached to our opinions and ideas. Letting go those assumptions can be difficult and painful. But the end result is always that you arrive at something closer to the truth, either through abandoning your position in favor of a more correct one or strengthening your original opinion.

    That’s my take on this whole “un-Buddhist” military activity issue.

  9. The comment seems to be leading in that it is clear that you think the latter option is correct. I will counter that people can justify anything if they’ve set their minds to doing so, whether they are from a Buddhst culture or not. Entertaining options may be fun for scholars but less so for priests or monks, who have certain duties.

    I could go and dig out quotes from the Pali canon or Mahayana Sutras on the value of life and not killing but, at the end of the day, people will still kill.

    At the end, I am going to fall back on the precepts and say that it is pretty clear what the Buddha thought of killing, despite later amendments or accomodations as Buddhism spread. If people want to serve in a profession that requires the killing of other humans on demand and call themselves Buddhists, that is there choice. I certainly couldn’t do so.

  10. Oh, I think my comment was more than a little leading! I was being pretty direct! I do think option two is the better the way to go.

    But note that option two isn’t “Buddhist should go around killing people.” Option two is, “Hey, people have used Buddhism to justify doing stuff I disagree with. What’s up with that?” And then engages those folks in conversation.

    I happen to agree with you, Al. I don’t think killing people, for any reason, is justifiable.

    But I also accept that other people — even Buddhists — have different opinions on the matter. And I’m willing to hear them out. I don’t consider that to be something fun that I do as an academic. I consider it something necessary for all Buddhists.

    And, yes, we could go and pull stuff out of the canon that says the Buddha said killing is wrong. But you can also pull stuff out of the canon that suggests that Buddhist ethics have been more nuanced than that.

    Again, I’m not saying that we, here in the modern world should embrace killing. All I’m saying is that Buddhists have both reflected on the Buddha Dharma and come to different interpretations than we have. Dismissing them as engaging in un-Buddhist activity seems to be to be based on the tacit assumption that our understanding of the Dharma is “more correct” and is itself an attachment. So this conversation is something that I think is worth wrestling with. That’s all.

  11. This is not a debate for only white Buddhists – to say that is really being ignorant of Buddhist history.

    True Buddhist should not serve the military, period. If you’re a serious Buddhist who strive to live the Dharma in everyday life, there’s no role of violence in your life. Many people will say that there are instances in the Sutras of Bodhisattvas killing in order to save others – but I can site more examples of Bodhisattvas willingly sever their own limbs rather than resort to violence. The question of killing versus not killing is an option only available to those who have already achieved a great deal – unless you’re a post 7th-Bhumi Bodhisattva this really isn’t much of a question.

    If you’re a casual Buddhist like many Western cherry-picking (just get the best of all Eastern religions and leave the nasty bits out) Buddhist or Asian Buddhists born into a Buddhist culture, then I suppose you can be in the military and be a Buddhist as well. There many ways to the Dharma and not everyone has to practice the same way in this life time. Some Dharma is better than no Dharma at all; at least it preps you for the next life time.

  12. I fogot to add that in history this issue has been the cause of many anti-Buddhist movements. One of the biggest reason for the Chinese emperors to go on anti-Buddhist campaigns was that Buddhists can’t be soldiers – they can’t kill for the glory of the Emperor. Wide-spread of Buddhism was seen as the weakening of the military. This couple with the very strong Confucius notion of piety via producing lots of heirs (celibate Monks are seen as un-filial), became ground for mass killing of monks and destruction of Monasteries. For thousand of years, Buddhists have to come to grip with this issue.

    So yes this was debated every time Buddhism was introduced to another culture. Now it has finally enter the Western mainstream after thousands of years, the same old debate raises up again. The answer will again be simple – dedicated Buddhists will not do killing of any kind for any reason, while casual or cultural Buddhists will be to kill for what they think are just reasons and stay Buddhist. It would be terribly un-Buddhist to force a single dogma to another Buddhist.

  13. Sir, with regards to the issue of Buddhists serving in the military, I take to consideration a precedent that seems to have been established by Yagyu Munenori, as represented in the Book of Family Traditions on the Art of War (published in The Book of Five Rings, Shambala). To condense his statements: That “weapons are instruments of ill omen, despised by the way of heaven. To use them only when unavoidable is the Way of Heaven”, and that weapons would be used only to to strike down an evil become complete.

    From what I’ve found in my studies, to frame this in small words: Furthermore, master Yagyu was in close communication with Takuan, and Takuan was himself well familiar with Buddha-Dharma. In the letters published with reference, in The Unfettered Mind (Kodansha), Takuan was in close communication with master Yagyu, and there is no sign of conflict in the communication.

    I will respect another’s choice to live a life of pacifism. I sincerely hope that one can respect my choice to not ignore the Zen Dharma even as an active duty service member, in the US armed forces – but if anyone would not, that is still, as they say, “no skin off my back”, honestly.

  14. As a Law Enforcement Officer I may be biased toward this take on the topic. If my aim is to defend and not behave as a predator, except in pursuit of a predator, then are not my actions comitted with right intention? Would not karma treat me kindly? I would hope the eight fold path would make for a higher caliber of soldier. I have been fortunate never to have taken a life. I would like to think my job is about preserving life, Public Safety, and therefore, right livelihood.

    Enjoyable discussion. Thanks.

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