Monday, October 15, 2007

Buddhism and War

As the issue of Burma seems to slip away, many are still asking, 'what can I do?' From across the Buddhist world there are many suggestions, ranging from surgical strikes (Tom from Zen Unbound) to continued pacifism and khanti or patient endurance (Gary from Forest Wisdom, commenting on my last post here).

Tom also recently brought to my attention a couple articles attempting to address the issue of War in early Buddhist thought. The first, by Professor P. D. Premasiri (University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka) argues that Buddhism has no place for a so-called 'just' war:
...the Theravada canonical scriptures considered to be the primary source of the Buddhist system of moral values ... contain absolutely no instance in which violence is advocated as a means of achieving it [peace]. This is in clear contrast to Hindu scriptures like the Bhagavadgita that contain a concept of a righteous war [dharma yuddha].
The doctrine of the Buddha is such that one who lives in accordance with it succeeds in living in the world without coming into conflict with anyone [na kenaci loke viggayha titthati].
And thus,
Conflict is explained ... as a consequence of an unenlightened response to one's sensory environment.... The selfish pursuit of sense pleasures [kama] is considered as the root cause of conflict. Where there is sympathetic concern, compassion, sharing, charitableness and generosity conflict can be minimized. The latter attitudes, however, are not instinctive. They need to be cultivated through proper reflection and insightful understanding.
And perhaps most importantly:
The point made by the Buddha in this connection is that people are psychologically incapable of forming opinions about what is right and wrong, just and unjust, righteous and unrighteous while being immersed in their defiled psychological condition. They may express strong convictions about what is just and right, but when objectively examined they turn out to be mere rationalizations of their pre-conceived notions, desires, cravings, likes and dislikes.

On the other hand Damien Keown (Goldsmiths, University of London) who in his article argues that Dr. Premasiri and early Buddhism both fall into 'psychological reductionism' when dealing with war and other moral issues. This is unfortunate, he argues, because it fails (perhaps) to evaluate the situation on the proper level:
Does not politics usually enter into the picture, not to mention, law, religion, history, as explanations as to why wars occur? To reduce all this to psychology is surely an oversimplification.
He argues that if we speak of the 'use of force' instead of 'violence' then suddenly Buddhism is more ambivalent.
...for example: to restrain an emotionally disturbed person who seeks to harm himself; to subdue rowdy passengers who threaten the safety of an aeroplane; to control violent thugs who terrorise innocent citizens... And if the use of force is justifiable in these circumstances, then why not on the larger scale of a military campaign?
And that, while not explicitly accepted, there are indications of a 'just war' theory in early Buddhism.
But it seems to me that Buddhism does indeed make a distinction between just and unjust wars. For instance, the just war in Buddhism is the war that would be fought by the Cakkavatti. Although as far as I am aware he is never actually depicted as waging war in the texts, he certainly has an army and presumably is prepared to use it when necessary (if not, why is it there?).

...The recent UN intervention in Bosnia may provide an example of the kind of situation where military force may be necessary as a last resort for humanitarian reasons. Situations of this kind seem to demonstrate that the use of force need not always be tainted by greed, hatred and delusion.
Thus he concludes:
i) to analyze war primarily in terms of psychology is to overlook its essential moral dimension; this is the result of the standard Buddhist strategy of psychologizing ethics; ii) the use of force can be justified in certain circumstances; iii) Buddhism accepts the concept of a 'just war' iv) there is nothing intrinsically immoral about a just war and v) participating in one need not be motivated by greed, hatred or delusion.
It does not seem to me that these papers are truly in conflict with one another, but rather they address the same issue from differing perspectives within Buddhism. Dr. Premasiri's point is that within Buddhism, the most important work we can do each day, each moment, is the work of removing our own defilements. Until then we are likely to cause more harm than good with all of our wars.

But, Dr. Keown's point is equally valid, that Buddhism does allow for force to be used to stop or avert suffering. The common ground between the two is in the waging of purely defensive wars. Premasiri suggests this, stating that "Buddhism does not envisage a society in which the necessity for engaging in war never arises. Perhaps the implication is that even a righteous Cakkavatti who will not engage in wars of imperialist aggression, would need to fight in self-defence."

Of course that still leaves the strict definition of defensive open to debate, but it would certainly rule out speculative 'pre-emptive' wars such as that currently going on in Iraq. It would also rule out ideology-based wars such as that in Vietnam forty years ago. And yet it would seemingly allow for the Allied involvement in the two World Wars as well as the NATO action in Bosnia mentioned above. That is, these wars were waged in defence of a pre-existing peace.


It gets murky of course, as the real world rarely conforms to simple principles and this is perhaps why Buddhism, for the most part, says little about 'the real world' and focuses on basic rules of conduct and meditative discipline. The American involvement in the second World War, for instance, does not very easily constitute a purely defensive war. Certainly, it could be argued that our Buddhist principles demand minimal response: perhaps crippling the Japanese Navy, strikes on any German U-Boats encroaching on US vessels, and nothing more. And yet we (most of us) feel that the employment of the entire US forces was indeed just.


On the other hand, most of us feel that the current war in Iraq is unjust. It is unclear who exactly we might be or have been defending: threats to the US and Britain were grossly exaggerated and even Israel it seems could hardly have been harmed by the weak and demoralized Iraqi army. On the other hand it is quite clear who has suffered from the war. It is perhaps debatable whether ordinary Iraqis are better off now than they would be if there had been no war. My impression is that they are worse off. Yet there can be no doubt that 3829 US soldiers have suffered the ultimate price and over 25,000 more have been wounded. That is not even to mention the emotional scars that thousands more will carry with them forever. One must remember that while over 58,000 US soldiers died in the Vietnam War, over 70,000 later took their own lives. (a recent story on US army suicides)

It seems also that, as mentioned, the principles of Buddhism could not allow for a war such as that in Iraq. Based on Keown's discussion of 'just war' theory in Aquinas, it seems that in that tradition as well, this war is unjust: "war must be declared by a competent authority, it must be declared as a last resort only after all non-violent options have been explored, it can only be fought to address a wrong suffered (the classic example is self-defence against an armed attack), if there is a reasonable chance of success, and with the aim of re-establishing peace."

Perhaps it is as one of my good friends says, that only time can judge (in fact the Dalai Lama himself has said this back in 2005, clarifying in 2006 that history had indeed made clear, " - too many killings"). On the other hand it may be clear enough that, as Rev. Danny Fisher put it:
At some point, everyone connected to this war needs to own their accountability and respond. They have to refuse service, refuse to pay taxes, refuse to sign over funds, demonstrate, and so on. A Buddhism that would excuse us from looking at the realities and the complexities of war is unacceptable.
I agree wholeheartedly with the first and last sentences, but Buddhism demands we each come to our own conclusions about specific actions (though Danny's suggestions are noble). And this lack of decisive and authoritarian ethics is perhaps both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness in Buddhism. The judgments of each of us must take into account our own mental states; we must know ourselves before trying to solve world-political issues. But Buddhism does not advocate self-knowledge for its own sake, but rather as a stage of development necessary for the sake of compassionate activity toward all living beings. We must understand were we are, and be willing to go boldly from there:
For as long as space endures
And for as long as living beings remain,
Until then may I too abide
To dispel the misery of the world.

For as long as space endures
And for as long as living beings remain,
Until then may I too abide
To dispel the misery of the world.


Tom said...

It seems to me that there is such a thing as a 'just war' if it a police action, that acts with restraint and seeks peaceful means first, is certain of the rightness of its cause and that its motivations are pure of heart.

In Iraq [when Saddam was in power] and in Burma, now, we have illegitimate governments. The nations are ruled by gangsters, not an institution that by any stretch seeks to serve the people of the country.

Policy toward Iraq should have been pursued much differently, but the difficulties there, now, must be instructive about unleashing cascades of terrible consequences. Nonetheless, for the sake of the people of Iraq, seeking the overthrow of the government, which began a decade before Bush's pre-emptive attack, seems more than just. To say the effort was botched by Bush is an understatement.

While I am uncomfortable with Superpowers and international organizations [the UN] taking it upon themselves to determine what countries have legitimate governance and what leaders should be "taken out," it is unconscionable to me for us to leave the particularly peaceful people of Burma as pawns to a legion of thugs.

We should pursue all options, but the idea of economic sanctions only serves to hurt the citizens of Burma. At some point isn't sending in the military equivalent of a SWAT team the only option remaining? [Not that America will ever do that. The US has "no vital interests" (ie, oil) relating to Burma.]

Absolute opposition to violence is unrealistic. We allow the police to pursue criminality within our country, within every country, without giving it a thought. We must want the Burmese people to be freed of the gangsters that hold them hostage.

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Gary said...

Regarding war, violence, and the harming of other beings, the Buddha was clear: don't do it! The first precept that every Buddhist commits to is not to kill another living being - and that includes such people as pseudo-Muslim terrorists and monk-killing Burmese troops.

It may be inconvenient to live by the first precept, but if one truly accepts karma and rebirth as facts, then one knows that the innocent will have their day, and so will their oppressors...maybe not in this life, however.

With regards to the role of the professional soldier or warrior, the Buddha made his wisdom clear to all in the Yodhajiva Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 42). If one kills and dies in battle, one is reborn in hell (not heaven, as many pseudo-Muslim terrorists seem to believe).

Arguing over what the Buddha said in this sutta or that sutra is a purely intellectual exercise, of course. Buddhism, while making use of the intellect in certain circumstances, is not primarily an intellectual endeavor, as taught by the Buddha. It is existential in the sense that we must come to live the teachings, rather than just have knowledge of them.

Living from the Buddhist Teachings, one develops metta (kindness) and karuna (compassion), as well as panna (wisdom). These attributes negate much of human instinct, including the animal and social impulses to use violence to get our way, whether we consider such actions 'just' or 'not'. Immersing the mind in metta, and then projecting outwards, for instance, is to be extended to all beings (as in the Karaniya Metta Sutta), not only to those that we like or feel are 'good'. No doubt this is not an easy thing to do, especially when as Buddhists we must endure the pain of seeing bhikkhus attacked and killed. But who said that being a Buddhist would be easy, or that it would support our egoistic attachments (even to such noble ideals as democracy and freedom)?

Reflection and meditation form the heart of Buddhism, and if we don't develop this part of practice, then we may well have strong conceptual understanding of the Path, but we haven't truly begun to travel it. By walking the Path, we begin to see beyond 'we', beyond 'us' and 'them'. I am not against the Burmese generals and their henchmen; as a Buddhist, I am for them, along with all other sentient beings. Again, the 'Metta Sutta: May all beings be happy!

Be well,
Gary at Forest Wisdom.

Buddhist_philosopher said...

Tom - I agree about 'just war' but see many further arguments about the degrees of restraint needed (should we march in without firing until fired upon, should we only return 'like fire with like fire' ie no bombing people who only have AK47s, etc), the extent to which peaceful means must be sought and so on.

And what is a 'legitimate' government - by 'Buddhist' standards? Certainly the Buddha was raised in a republic, and lived in monarchies (of a sort)...

I don't think characterizing the Burmese as hostages of gangsters is quite fair either. It's an oversimplifcation there just as it was for those who said the same of Iraq (the same goes for Iran and N. Korea). There are myriad subtleties to be understood, ranging from ethnic minorities to the social status of monks and soldiers. In some cases 'thug' and 'hostage' are no doubt brothers, in other cases they don't even speak the same language.



In countless ways my sympathies are with you, but somehow I still think the Buddha would have allowed some use of force, even killing (recognizing still that one must accrue the karma of such acts).

Wouldn't Buddhism allow, even laud, the killing of someone who was about to kill a dozen others as Dr. Keown suggests? As he suggests also, can't such acts, and lesser acts of force be done with utmost metta and karuna?

MoE said...

Good post, but I probably think so because I agree with your conclusions.

I remember vaguely a story of one of the historical Buddha's incarnations. He killed a man who was about to kill a large number of people, out of compassion for the man who was about to bring "bad karma" onto himself, and also out of the ones who would have been killed.

That makes sense to me from a Buddhist perspective. We seek to support life in any way possible, which sometimes means using the minimum amount of force to protect life against harm.

Tom said...

Justin, It would not just have been the Americans who would have been barred from deterring the Nazis by your prescription. Only those directly attacked could have resisted, from your view. The Nazis could have swallowed up countries and exterminated people on a leisurely schedule. By now, today in America, we would all be driving Volkswagons.

I don't buy your determination that Premasiri and Keown's essays aren't at odds. One looks at things from a Buddhist individual's vantage, while Keown looks from the needs of society.

If we don't look at things from the view of societies and the world, the monster governments wreck havoc, undeterred.

Also, from a Mahayana perspective, mustn't we take protect innocents put upon by the greed and cruelty of abusers/oppressors? Can we not answer the call to act heroically?

Tom said...

This is from Carus's book:

"The Tathagata teaches that all warfare in which man tries to slay his brother is lamentable, but he does not teach that those who go to war in a righteous cause after having exhausted all means to preserve the peace are blameworthy. He must be blamed who is the cause of war. The Tathagata teaches a complete surrender of self, but he does not teach a surrender of anything to those powers that are evil, be they men or gods or the elements of nature. Struggle must be, for all life is a struggle of some kind. But he that struggles should look to it lest he struggle in the interest of self against truth and righteousness.

"He who struggles in the interest of self, so that he himself may be great or powerful or rich or famous, will have no reward, but he who struggles for righteousness and truth, will have great reward, for even his defeat will be a victory. Self is not a fit vessel to receive any great success; self is small and brittle and its contents will soon be spilt for the benefit, and perhaps also for the curse, of others. Truth, however, is large enough to receive the yearnings and aspirations of all selves and when the selves break like soap-bubbles, their contents will be preserved and in the truth they will lead a life everlasting."

All we need now do is arm Buddhists as a SWAT team, get some helicopters and storm the Burma junta's headquarters. Onward, ho, mighty men of the Tathagata's Army.

Buddhist_philosopher said...

Tom - regarding who can oppose tyrants I think you have a good point regarding the Nazis. We cannot limit the definition of 'self-defense' to only this body. That means that so some extent we must all take action against all tyrrany in the world. The question still exists about making sure that action is skillful and well thought-out.

I again think the two are not at odds - as you say they speak from different perspectives. As long as we understand this we can see their agreement. Sometimes we must stress the societal view, sometimes the personal; like the doctor who waits until she has adequate training before flying to Darfur, many of us have to cut through additional delusions before solving global problems (though that is NOT true for everyone of course, and it does not excuse us for indulging in samsaric pleasures while we supposedly prepare to take on the world's suffering).

All I can say about Carus is 'BEWARE what Victorian Englishmen, German philosophers, and Italian missionaries tell you "the tathagata teaches..." - none of them can be trusted for an unbiased assessment.'

Tom said...

YES. I do worry about Nineteenth Century translations of Buddhist texts. I don't know about German philosophers; that's your specialty, I believe. Italian missionaries? Obviously, now I am confused. Did Marco Polo return home with good noodles and bad Ch'an?

Oop. I see I omitted a coding letter in my Carus's Book link. Thanks for repeating it, fixed -- for the sake of future historians.

Buddhist_philosopher said...

Tom - writers such as Carus, Sir Edwin Arnold, and even the Rhys Davids all imputed many of their own beliefs into Buddhism. Philip C. Almond describes much of this well in his "The British Discovery of Buddhism." They did great work in many areas (as did the Italian missionaries in Japan, China and Tibet) but they rarely had the tools or time (or perhaps interest) to put forth an unbiased account of Buddhism. Put simply, Carus' words here tell us more about the ideas of a Victorian English intellectual than about Buddhism.

For my part, I agree more with Premasiri and the quote you put in your recent post on the topic: Sumyatta sutra, ch 42.3 "To Yodhajiva (The Warrior)".

To perhaps propose a middle way here: could we not advocate a peaceful invasion of Burma? 20,000 UN troops, perhaps even with weapons and air support to defend themselves if need be, just landing on the beaches and strolling into Rangoon? This would embolden the monks and people to re-emerge and demonstrate freely. Perhaps hold a snap-election and escort Aung San Suu Kyi (the certain winner) out of house arrest and into power.

The sheer show of force, without necessarily using any of it, could have all the positive effect we want.

Anonymous said...

Could there be Buddhist wars? These sites more than suggest so.