War and Violence in Buddhist Philosophy

The Buddhist tradition generally sees war and violence as deeply morally problematic. War is seen as tragic and typically unnecessary, and the position of a soldier is seen as highly karmically dangerous. Violence directly causes harm and suffering to sentient beings, pollutes the minds of those who use it, and creates cycles of hatred and retribution that can inflict terrible damage, both physical and psychological. In general, the Buddhist attitude toward violence is expressed in verses X. 1–2 of the Dhammapada:

Everybody fears being struck by a rod.
Everybody fears death.
Therefore, knowing this, feeling for others as for yourself,
Do not kill others or cause others to kill.
Everybody fears being struck by a rod,
Life being dear to all.
Therefore, knowing this, feeling for others as for yourself,
Do not kill others or cause others to kill.
(Maitreya, trans, 1995, 37)

The phrase translated “feeling for others as for yourself” is the Pāli attānaṃ upamaṃ katvā, which might be more literally rendered as “having made an analogy with oneself.” Here a form of moral reasoning is used that is quite similar to the Golden Rule: imaginatively put yourself in the place of others, and you will see that certain ways of treating them are morally impermissible. The Dhammapada also tells us:

Whoever withholds the rod from creatures
Both weak and strong,
Abstaining from killing and causing killing
Him do I call a Noble One.
(Maitreya, trans, 1995, 107)

Buddhists explicitly reject the Hindu teaching that a soldier in a just war will be reborn in a heavenly realm. Instead, Buddhists hold that those who die in battle are likely to be reborn as animals or in the hells, especially if they die with a feeling of anger or hatred toward the soldiers on the other side. In his commentary on the Four Hundred Stanzas (Catuḥśataka) of Āryadeva, Candrakīrti expresses a very low opinion of those who give their lives in battle for their king and country: “In this world people who give up all of their possessions for gambling, liquor, and prostitutes are not entitled to respect. Virtuous-minded people do not honor the sacrifice of these people, since they pursue an addiction. In the same way, the sacrifice of life in battle should not be respected, since this is the basis for harmful actions” (Lang trans., 2003, 200). He also criticizes the view that kings may permissibly engage in warfare, and offers what looks like a general statement of pacifism: “a sage is inferior when his treatises explain violence as virtuous behavior. A mediocre sage has doubts: ‘it may be so or it may not be so.’ A superior sage does not regard violence as virtuous behavior” (Lang trans., 2003, 197).

Buddhist monks, especially in the Theravāda tradition, are expected to practice a strict form of non-violence; they should prefer being killed to killing others, and should even practice lovingkindness and compassion toward those who harm them or their families. The Buddha himself is said to have mediated a dispute over water rights between two neighboring kingdoms, preventing it from escalating into an armed conflict. In troubled times, Buddhist monks have often sought opportunities to bring about peace and the resolution of conflict through dialogue. Normative Buddhist texts praise the role of peacemaker and an attitude of impartial benevolence toward all parties to a conflict (see, e.g., Thurman trans. 2000, 70). The Buddhist attitude toward war is thus quite negative, and passages glorifying military victory or sanitizing the realities of warfare are hard to find in Indian and Tibetan Buddhist texts.

Nevertheless, the common perception of Buddhism as a whole as an unequivocally pacifist tradition is questionable. Many forms of Buddhism have arrived at the position that in rare cases, war may be necessary.

For example, between 1635 and 1642, the Mongol leader Gushri Khan invaded Tibet, suppressed various warring factions, and placed supreme political power over the region in the hands of the dGe lugs tradition and its leader, His Holiness the Fifth Dalai Lama. In the Song of the Queen of Spring, a text published in 1643, the Fifth Dalai Lama describes Gushri Khan as an emanation of the great Bodhisattva Vajrapāni, and justifies his warlike actions as motivated by compassion (Maher 2008, 186–90). In Sri Lanka, Buddhist monks and rulers have endorsed the use of military force to defend their island, seen as a sacred land and a sanctuary for the Buddhist religion, against Hindu invaders from South India. During the recent civil war, similar justifications were used to defend the use of military measures against separatist rebels, mostly Hindus belonging to the Tamil minority. In general, Buddhist kings in many parts of the world, including Southeast and Central Asia, have called on their military forces to resist foreign invasions.

One way that Buddhist ethical theory might be used, in certain extreme cases, to justify war relies on Asaṅga’s account of justifiable killing, discussed in section 4 above. For example, if the officials of a militarily powerful state, monitoring the situation in a small developing country, see that a genocide has begun to take place there, they might reflect that those who are now committing genocide are not only causing terrible harm to their victims, but also accumulating severe negative karma for themselves. These officials might decide to intervene to stop the genocide, motivated by compassion for everyone involved, including the killers. If they are sincerely motivated in this way, Mahāyāna Buddhists might see their actions as acceptable, even if they involved using military force and killing many people, because less suffering would result and the overall consequences would therefore be much better.

Buddhist discussions of the ethics of punishment are fairly rare, but there is an important passage about punishment in the Precious Garland (Ratnāvalī), a letter to a king from the great Buddhist philosopher Nāgārjuna. Whether or not Buddhist ethics in general is consequentialist, the theory of punishment Nāgārjuna presents is clearly a consequentialist one. To maintain social order, punishment is a regrettable necessity. But the king should not punish out of anger or a desire for revenge. Instead, he should inflict punishment out of compassion, especially compassion for the criminals themselves, whose destructive actions may have condemned them to many lifetimes of suffering. (See Hopkins 1998 for a translation of the text and Goodman 2009, ch. 9, for discussion.)

Moreover, punishment should be as mild as is consistent with achieving the goal of restraining crime. Prisoners should be treated well and held under humane conditions. Moreover, those prisoners who are physically weak, and therefore pose less danger to society, should be released early. It’s fairly clear that Nāgārjuna would reject retributivist theories of punishment, which hold that prisoners should be punished because they deserve to suffer or in order to take away any unjust advantage they may have gained by their actions. From the point of view of retributivism, the physical strength or weakness of prisoners is irrelevant to how much punishment they deserve. Moreover, some forms of retributivism, especially cruder, popular versions, would endorse harsh conditions of punishment in order to ensure that prisoners have to undergo the degree of suffering that they deserve.

Just as Asaṅga’s theory can be used to justify certain kinds of military action, it could also help justify punishment. Punishment can have a number of beneficial effects: it can incapacitate criminals, physically preventing them from repeating their crimes; it can deter criminals, inducing them to follow the law from fear of further punishment; it can rehabilitate criminals by giving them education and skills that provide them with better options than a life of crime; sometimes, it can even reform criminals, helping them change their character to become better people, so that they will no longer wish to commit crimes. These good effects of punishment benefit society, since they reduce the crime rate; but from a Buddhist point of view, they also benefit criminals themselves by preventing them from creating more bad karma. Thus punishment can be motivated by compassion for both criminals and their victims, and so it could be acceptable in Buddhist ethics.

Some people see Buddhism as maintaining unqualified pacifism and rejecting violence completely in general. In fact, some Buddhist writers do allow for extreme cases in which compassionately motivated punishment, violence, and even war could be justified. They reserve their unqualified opposition for the reactive emotions that often lead to violence, such as anger, hatred, malice, and the desire for revenge. Buddhists should cultivate lovingkindness and compassion for everyone, even those guilty of the worst actions, and even while recognizing that some people need to be forcibly restrained from doing even more damage. In a world that has been so terribly scarred by violence and cruelty, the Buddhist rejection of most forms of warfare seems wise and appropriate. But in a complicated world of difficult choices, allowing for the necessity of violence in rare instances may be difficult to avoid.

Source: Ethics in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

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