Buddhist Perspectives on the Use of Force
Midshipman Second-class Tyson B. Meadors
(Presented at ISME 2007)
This paper is a brief overview of Buddhist doctrine and practice concerning the use of violence. It is generally perceived by even the most casual of observers that Buddhism is a wholly pacifistic religion. Yet, when I set out to write on this topic I knew that in both modern and ancient history Buddhism has been associated with groups or acts that have been belligerently violent. There has been only a limited amount of scholarship on the topic of Buddhism and its views on the use of force. When compared to the extensive explorations of Judeo-Christian scholars and, more recently, the heightened interest in the ‘just war’ positions found in the Islamic faith, the material on Buddhism is glaringly sparse. Recently, however, Buddhist scholars have called for a closer examination of this topic. What follows is my attempt to both examine some of what already exists in the way of commentary and interpretation on the topic, as well as a very tentative attempt to compose a rough sketch of what a Buddhist ‘just war’ conception may be. As disclaimer, however, I should state that I am by no means an authority on Buddhist ethics and that what I have written is merely an academic attempt to fill a void in our understanding of the ranging corpus of perspectives on the use of force.
stated, this paper and my exploration starts in
took several days of traveling to reach the small
is introduced to me by his younger brother, a jolly, yeti of a man named
Kunchok who was my guide during my time in
I am told that the monk is a “professor” of philosophy and ethics at the nearby Buddhist monastery, which also doubles as a “university” for young monks. He has been a monk for nearly 30 years. He wears the traditional crimson and gold robes—representative of leaves in the fall, he tells me. A younger monk, who as far as I can tell is barely a teenager, sits quietly in the corner, watching the elder monk’s every move. Occasionally, the younger monk’s eyes will wonder to me, but he seems generally uninterested in how I act or what I have to say. His focus is on the older monk, who, I am told, is his tutor.
Our conversation starts with the rudimentary foreigner question and answers—I ask, and he answers.
‘How did you become a monk?’
--‘I was the third born male in my family. By our traditions, the third born enters the monastery at the age of five or six.’
‘Is it true you only eat one meal a day?’
‘Are those robes comfortable?’
--‘Over time, yes.’
And so on.
After having asked
all the basic tourist questions—resulting in younger monk looking quite bored
with our conversation—I moved to the questions that had been bothering me since
my first visit to a Tibetan monastery a few days earlier. On that visit, I had
a casual conversation with a monk from another, much larger monastery in
‘How many monks do you have here now?’
--‘Now? Oh, about 2000, there used to be nearly 4000, though.’
--‘They were all moved. Or killed.’
Over the course of
my visits to Labrang and other smaller monasteries, I asked more about the
tenuous relationship between Tibetan Buddhists and the Chinese government.
Their stories were all the same: An abbot or monk gains acclaimed either for
his spiritual insights, charisma, or some other gift of enlightenment,
eventually drawing more followers and monks to a particular monastery. As the
followers grew to include ethnic Han Chinese (the majority ethnic group in
Officially, these events never occur. Yet, the plight of the Tibetan minority and Tibetan Buddhists has been in and out of the spotlight in recent years thanks to an occassionally interested foreign press. Though I cannot verify the various stories I was told by several (always younger) monks, there is certainly no shortage of documented evidence of unprovoked attacks on ethnic Tibetans and Tibetan Buddhists by the PLA.
Eventually, my conversation in Langmusi turned to the same subject.
‘I have heard about many recent incidents where monks have been killed by PLA soldiers, is this true?’
The old monk sighs.
--‘Yes, they are trying to get rid of us.’
The young monk perks up a bit and leans in to better hear my questions translated.
‘Well, isn’t there anything that you can do?’
Silence. Quizzical looks.
‘I mean, can the monks run away? Or defend themselves?’
The monk shakes his head.
--‘No. We cannot.’
‘But some of the monks at other monasteries told me that some monks run away? Some even throw rocks and resist, they said.’
The old monk’s eyebrows furrowed.
--‘And those monks are bad Buddhists.’
--‘Yes. A good Buddhist would accept the soldiers’ actions. Whether beaten or killed, it does not matter. They would not resist.’
--‘But what about the Shaolin monks, they’re Buddhist? They practice martial arts for self-defense?’
Another strained look from the old monk.
--‘They are not real Buddhists.’
‘So, if all the Buddhists in
The monks almost seemed pleased at this question—the old monk relaxed as if he was satisfied that I had finally understood. I had not. The young monk nodded in recognition as if he had heard this scenario many times and already knew the answer.
At this point, the venerable old monk’s brother—noticing that I was visibly distressed by the responses I had been given—intervened and said a few things in Tibetan to the monk that I did not understand. The old monk nodded and began again.
--‘It is never right to intentionally harm another. This is one of the most fundamental things to a Buddhist.’
I nodded. This I was familiar with.
--‘But imagine a shepherd who is in charge of sheep. If a wolf is attacking his sheep, what should he do? Let the sheep be eaten by the wolf?’
--‘No, the shepherd must do something to protect the sheep or else he would also be doing harm by letting the wolf attack the sheep.’
‘So, he would be a good Buddhist if he stopped the wolf?’
I was confused.
‘So, then he would be a good Buddhist if he let the wolf kill all his sheep?’
I looked at the monk’s brother and asked if he was sure he was translating this conversation correctly. He laughed hard and told me, that, yes, he was in fact translating the monk’s words correctly.
The monk smiled.
--‘You cannot be a good Buddhist by harming other living things. But to protect the sheep—though still harmful to the wolf—is the best way.’
--‘Because, it does the least harm to fewest living beings.’
‘Oh, like utilitarianism?’
The monks brother asked me what I meant by “utilitarianism,” and I gave my best, shortest, oversimplification of rule-based utilitarianism: the greatest good for the greatest number.
--‘Well, I do not understand how your society views right and wrong. But, almost, yes.’
After three hours of yak butter tea and my further, feeble attempt to tease out some understanding of how a “good” Buddhist might use force, our evening ended. We walked together outside into the starry Tibetan night, exchanged farewells as best we could, and the two monks returned to their ancient monastery and I returned to my hostel with running water.
with the venerable Gelug (yellow hat) monk was not at all satisfying. While I
had no doubts about his sincerity, it was very difficult to believe that his
paradigms for the use of violence were universal across all branches of the Buddhist
tradition. I sincerely doubted that Shaolin monks would feel that they are not
‘real’ Buddhists. Likewise, I doubted that over the course of Asian conflict,
efforts were not made by Buddhist thinkers to allow for a more liberal
interpretation of use-of-force doctrine. After all, the Japanese certainly had
significant Buddhist populations living within its borders up to and during
World War II. Likewise, the protracted civil war in
So how then does Buddhism really view the use of force? It is certainly fair to concede that the existence of a range of multiple ‘schools’—particularly the split between the Mahayana and Theravada traditions—of Buddhism will allow for variations in use-of-force positions. This is analogous to the various Abrahamic religious traditions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. However, it is also fair to assume that a religion that holds across all its various traditions that the most central of the five cardinal precepts of its system of practice is ahisma, or non-injury, should have a far more deliberate treatment of using force. In order to become a practicing Buddhist of either the lay or sangha class, regardless of which school is being subscribed to, a person must affirm this commitment to non-violence by reciting five precepts. One modern translation of the first precept reads rather unambiguously:
Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.
The fact that Buddhism places so much emphasis on practicing non-injury certainly lends to its popular conception as the least antagonistic of the world’s major religions. Any deliberate action to harm another sentient being would seem to clearly contradict this precept. Damien Keown writes:
The view [on the use of force] expressed almost unanimously in the [Buddhist] texts is that since war involves killing, and killing is a breach of the first precept, it is morally wrong to fight in either offensive or defensive wars… killing is bad karma even in the case of self-defence or when done for the sake of defending friends.
This passage suggests that there is no leeway in the prohibition of the use of force by Buddhists. It also suggests a good deal of moral difficulty in justifying even the shepherd allegory that I was told in Langmusi. In practice, we find that only the actions of the “good Buddhists” mentioned by the old monk in Langmusi, fall into line with this interpretation. Keown provides further references from Buddhist lore:
A legend in the commentary Dhammapada narrates how the Buddha’s kinsmen, the Sakyas, offered only token resistance when attacked by King Vidudabha, and allowed themselves to be slaughtered rather than break the precept against taking life.
Thus, it seems
that pacifism and non-violence as espoused by more modern thinkers such as
Gandhi and Thoreau are in accordance with Buddhist practice. Accepting death at
the hands of an attacker, in lieu of self-defense, is the correct course of
action for a Buddhist. As it was alluded
by the old monk I talked to in
With the precept of ahisma as the foundation of Buddhist practice, how then do members of both Buddhist laity and the sangha come to support, justify, and participate in acts that intentionally “destroy living creatures?” There is, of course, the shepherd allegory of my Tibetan monk friend. Though it seems to be invalidated by the terms set forth above, he still offered it to me in his explanation of Buddhist use-of-force-doctrine. As a formalized conception, this precept as it appears in Mahayana texts involves the weighing of the karmic repercussions of action versus the karmic repercussions of inaction. In short, we can use violence and the destruction of other when it precludes the harm of a greater number of ‘others.’ Though simple in principle, it is certainly an imperfect and potentially troubling rubric. Take for example the following passage from Japanese Buddhist literature of the World War II-era:
In order to establish
eternal peace in
The most striking
aspect in the passage above is the “killing one in order that many may live,”
conception. This seems to be a
paraphrase of sorts of the underlying justification of the shepherd allegory
that was shared with me originally. As
the above passage infers, this is a conception unique to Mahayana Buddhism and
it was cited extensively by the Japanese as justification for their actions on
the Chinese mainland. Scripturally, this conception is found in the Upaya-kaushalya Sutra, a Mahayana text
that’s name literally means ‘skillful means.’
The general principle outlined in this text is that it is sometimes
justified to manipulate and/or undermine basic Buddhist principles in order to
bring about the most Karmic good or to minimize Karmic harm.
While on board a ship, Shakyamuni [Buddha] discovers that there is a robber intent on killing all five hundred of his fellow passengers. Shakyamuni ultimately decides to kill the robber, not only for the sake of his fellow passengers but also to save the robber himself from the karmic consequences of his horrendous act. In doing so, the negative karma from killing the robber should have accrued to Shakyamuni but it did not...
later notes that “The Upaya-kaushalya
is by no means the only Mahayana sutra that has been historically interpreted
as in some sense excusing, if not actually sanctioning, violence.” Additionally, we find similar situations and
justifications involving the use of violent force in numerous other Mahayana
sutras, including the Maha-Upaya-kausalya
Sutra, the Arya-bodhisattava-gocaropaya-visaya-vikurvana-nirdesa
Sutra, and the Maha-parinirvana Sutra. The last of these sutras goes as far to
introduce a conception of beings that are “incapable of salvation,” called icchantika.
Sentient beings possess the five good roots such as faith, but the icchantika has eternally severed those roots [via a gross moral transgression]. Thus, while it is a fault to kill an ant, it is not a fault to kill an icchantika.
Though the above passage appears in a Mahayana sutra that is certainly in the same vein as the previously mentioned Upaya sutras, its introduction of a ‘dehumanizing’ element is another particularly troubling element. The existence of people whom can be killed without repercussion, karmic, moral, or otherwise easily lends itself to those who might be interested in declaring one or more peoples as such a person, validating any violent action against them. It also creates a moral precedent in the Buddhist cannon that the innate value of a sentient being can be voided via some sort of prerequisite moral declaration on those to be killed.
Additionally, Yu, in his examination of the Chinese Buddhists—including monks—who actively participated in military actions during the Second World War outlines several of the ways a Chinese (or Japanese for that matter) might justify an act of violence against another human being. Take, for example, the following passage Yu cites from Nagarjuna’s Dazhidu lun (大智度论):
Therefore, living beings in fact are non-existence. There will be no sin of killing if there is non-existence of living beings; no one can be said to observe precept if there is no sin of killing… Just like that there will be no sin if one commits killing in a dream and kills the image in mirror, so is one who kills empty for of five aggregates of [a living being].
manipulating the traditional Buddhist conception of “emptiness,” Yu suggests
that Buddhists have the ability to disregard the very basic moral precepts that
all Buddhists are typically expected to adhere to. This sort of philosophical sophistry is used
extensively by Zen practitioners as both an intellectual exercise, especially
The sword is generally associated with killing, and most of wonder how it can come into connection with Zen, which is a school of Buddhism teaching the gospel of love and mercy. The fact is that the art of swordsmanship distinguishes between the sword that kills and the sword that gives life. The one that is used by a technician cannot go any further than killing, for he never appeals to the sword unless he intends to kill. The case is altogether different with the one who is compelled to lift the sword. For it is really not he but the sword itself that does the killing. He has no desire to do harm to anybody, but the enemy appears and makes himself a victim. It is as though the swords performs automatically its function of justice, which is the function of mercy… When the sword is expected to play this sort of role in human life, it is no more a weapon of self-defense or an instrument of killing, and the swordsman turns into an artist of the first grade…
Suzuki’s insistence that the sword “gives life” is errant in any practical terms, and viewed through anything less than the lens of Zen Buddhism, which often uses such apparent contradictions as a learning tool, it would seem quite bizarre. That Suzuki adds that the user of a sword is an “artist” as opposed to a “killer” is additionally troubling in that it seems to glorify, using Buddhist lines of thought, the use of force to harm other sentient beings. In this passage we find do not find the original hesitancy to use force that we see in the other passages already presented, but rather an elevation of violence a sublime level. Although Victoria ultimately concludes that such depictions by Suzuki and World War II-era thinkers “must be clearly and unequivocally recognized as desecrations of the Buddha Dharma,” we must at the very least note that it was plausible not only to a figure of Suzuki’s stature to make such arguments, but that they were also accepted by a very significant population of Buddhist practitioners.
Now that we have established that there indeed exists a potential for Buddhist thinkers to justify the use of force via texts of the Mahayana school, I wish to look briefly at the Theravada school. It needs to be noted that the differences between the Theravada the Mahayana textual cannons are significant, owing significantly to the extremely difference socio-political circumstances under each one has developed over a period spanning nearly two thousand years. Theravada’s exclusive use of the older Pali cannon, allows it, in theory, closer proximity to the original teachings of the Sakyamuni Buddha. Yet, even here we do not find a complete forsaking of the use of force. Bartholomeusz writes:
Indeed, despite the emphasis on non-violence in the Pali canon, we have seen… that the army does not become obsolete… perhaps indicating an admission of the possibility of war… [T]he military metaphors are an ever-present and constant reminder of the possibility of a transition from non-violence to violence. And while it is clear in the canonical texts that non-violence has priority over violence, the military presence in the texts suggest that the obligation to be non-violent is not absolute, contrary to the argument of some scholars of Buddhism.
The above passage is significant especially as it relates to the Sri Lankan Theravada tradition, which has largely supported government forces during the violent civil war that has raged against the predominantly Hindu Tamil Tiger separatist group since 1983. The conflict between Buddhist Sri Lankans and the Tamil’s is a historical one having its roots in the aftermath of British colonialism, which ended in the early part of the 20th century. The length of time Sri Lanka’s Buddhist thinkers and leaders have had to actively consider the use of force has therefore been considerable. Bartholomeusz notes the view of one notable Sri Lankan monk:
The extent of moral guilt of killing depends on the physical and mental development of the being that is killed and the circumstances under which the deed is committed. The karmic results of killing a man and killing a child vary in proportion to the physical and mental development of the two. Patricide, matricide, the slaughter of innocent people and of people of considerable mental development are therefore particularly productive of evil results to the killer.
As the above passage suggests, we find in Sri Lanka’s Theravada tradition a comparatively more systematic conception of the use of force. Furthermore it is conception that are often very much in line with Western just-war theory. Note in inclusion of terms such as “moral guilt” and “proportion” in the above passage—terms that are often found in discussions of Western just-war theory. Bartholomeusz writes, “[T]hose who directly involve themselves in the discussion of Sri Lanka’s ongoing ethnic conflict, often do so with the technical vocabulary of just-war criteria and holy war.” Much of this owes to the response of Sri Lanka’s ostensibly “secular-Buddhist” government attempting to justify any acts of violence to a contemporary international community. More conscientious effort seems to have gone into the justification of their acts of force than, say, the Japanese of World War II, because Sri Lankan leaders do not merely have to justify their actions to their own people, but in a new twist to Buddhist use-of-force doctrine, they must justify their actions to an international body as well.
The situation in Sri Lanka illustrates a particularly important point about the development of the Buddhist perspectives on the use of force. Namely, perhaps more than any part of Buddhist doctrine, the ideas concerning the use of force have been adjusted to accommodate the political and social situations in which Buddhists have had to operate. We must keep in mind that as a general historical trend Buddhism has nearly always been an alien religion. In India, where the Sakyamuni Buddha lived and died, Buddhism faded largely out of favor by the fifth-century CE due to Hindu revival and a violent push eastward by Islam. Thus, the flavors of Buddhism that remained, the Mahayana strain that pushed into Tibet, China, and then later Japan and Korea, and the Theravada tradition that survived in Sri Lanka and parts of Southeast Asia had to adapt themselves to their new hosts. This often meant conforming Buddhist doctrine with the practical and spiritual needs of rulers who were in the habit of persecuting violent acts and had no intention of giving up their ability to do so. Nowhere is this more evident than China, where Mahayana Buddhism had to develop significantly in a more violence-tolerant manner to help it fair better against the native Daoist and Confucian religious traditions. Brazier writes:
[T]he original message [of Buddhism] was buried under a series of compromises—some chosen, some coerced—with oppressive political systems in India, China, Japan, and elsewhere. In all these countries, Buddhism has, at one time or another, been used as an instrument of state policy…
I believe it is appropriate to view notion on “compromise” as a general rule regarding our perception of Buddhist use-of-force doctrine. When considering any deviation from the original precept against violence as prescribed by the Sakyamuni Buddha, we should note that it is as just as much a reaction to some outside condition as it is a development of Buddhist doctrine. Viewed in this light, we should both welcome and anticipate further changes in perceptions of violence by Buddhists, while being certain to guard against any particular egregious attempts too far beyond the underlying Buddhist message that non-violence is nearly always preferable to violence.
That stated, I want to attempt to summarize my findings by presenting what I discern as the major strands of Buddhist thought on how force should be used. In order to make my thoughts more organized, I will do so using modern, Western just war terminology.
First, concerning jus ad bellum considerations I conclude the following: According to the most cardinal views of Buddhist ideology, non-violence is always preferable to violence, thus, violence should always be regarded as an action of last resort. Additionally, violence can only be persecuted if it can be clearly ascertained that the violent act to be undertaken will inflict minimal karmic harm and maximizes karmic benefit. This notion is somewhat akin to the notion of proportionality in Western just-war approaches, except that it must be considered as an ad bellum notion just as much as an in bello. The use of force need not be retributive. In fact, it would seem that via a consideration of the Upaya sutras, that pre-emptive actions, as long as the intent of the action is wholly selfless and done in order to prevent greater harm—karmic or otherwise—to both the potential victims of attack and the attacker, are considered ‘just’ in the Buddhist tradition. Finally, self-defense holds no special position in consideration of the use of force. Any consideration of the use of force by an actor should not value by default their existence over that of others.
Concerning jus in bello considerations, I propose the following in my interpretation of Buddhist thought: The mindset of the actor is relevant. Any act done out of hatred or anger is morally inferior to an act done out of controlled deference and (especially in the Mahayana tradition) compassion. Also, no joy or pleasure should be gained from the violent act. Violence itself should be viewed as a method acting as a means of accomplishing the lesser of two evils, and as such, every action should be viewed as regrettable and never “good” or “desirable”. “Collateral damage” to other living things, including non-human entities should be minimized to the greatest extent possible. This is true even to the extent that it might jeopardize the well-being of the actor himself.
The guidelines I have laid out above are certainly imperfect in many ways and I am very aware of this. Each point likely glosses over some nuances of Buddhist thought that would argue at least in some extent to the contrary. Additionally, it is extremely difficult to ascertain how some of the above rubric can be applied to governments that represent a plurality of interests. One of the defining features of Buddhist use-of-force doctrine up until this point is that it has historically been used and developed at the behest of governments united under a single head of state—usually an emperor or a king—who has always been conceived as having primary moral and decision making responsibility for the actions of a nation. Who we define as the “actor” in my proposed guideline regarding mindsets is very difficult when the actor is, say, a democratic government wth a bicameral legislature and an executive branch and a voting populace that are divided on the justness of an act. Does an act become unjust according to this proposed criterion if, say, one soldier or one citizen out of a thousand takes pleasure or happiness in military act against another country? It is difficult to say.
I can only imagine what the old monk in Tibet would think of the outline above. If I can surmise a way to contact him I will surely do so, but I feel as though the whole exercise would seem entirely too alien to him to be of much value. This is certainly an entirely Western adaptation on a type of religious thought predates must of the Western philosophical tradition altogether. The monk told me that he did not understand ‘our’ conceptions of right and wrong. And for a monk who will likely live, study, and die all within the confines of isolated Tibet, content in his meditations, I suppose this is perfectly acceptable. Regardless of whether or not the monk feels it of value to understand us, there is certainly great value in our attempt to understand him.
 Recently, footage recorded
by European climbers of Tibetan refugees moving into
 Keown, Damien. Buddhist Ethics: A Very Short Introduction.
 Ibid, 71.
 Victoria, Brian Daizen. Zen at War, 2nd Ed. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006. 87.
 Ibid, 226.
 Harvey, Peter. An Introduction Into Buddhist Ethics.
 Ibid, 138.
 Xue Yu. Buddhism, War, and Nationalism. Routledge, 2005. 6.
 Ibid, 230.
 Batholomeusz, Tessa J. In Defense of Dharma: Just-war ideology in Buddhist Sri Lanka. RoutledgeCurzon, 2002. 46.
 Ibid 56.
 Ibid, 162.
 See Victoria, Zen at War, 199-206.