BUDDHIST ETHICS : JUST WAR ?
 

DUANGDEN NUREMRUM*
© COPYRIGHT OF MAHIDOL UNIVERSITY

Frist Printed in "WFB Review" (The World Fellowship of Buddhists Review)
Vol.XL No.3 July-September 2446/2003


***

Human beings must live together in society to survive. However, many times their relationships are not smooth and are not conducted in an orderly manner. These problems are mainly due to differences in their cultures, environments, education, and ways of thinking or viewpoints. These differences create conflicts and one way used to solve these conflicts is that of war.

By studying the history of the human race, it seems that war has been a standard practice since the Stone Age. Wars from the past until the present have started for many reasons, for example: wars to gain control of power, wars to seek a fair balance of power, civil wars, wars to expand land or political ideology and even wars to defend one's country (Military's Vision about War, 1991: 24).

When analyzing my homeland of Thailand, I find policy to use military force primarily for defensive purposes. The Thai government has no policy to expand its territory or aggravate anyone. Also, the Thai military has no policy regarding the dispatching of troops overseas, and it will only send troops when really necessary, such as: sending troops to help an allied country or to support the country's national defense plan (Fine Arts Department, 1982: 139). Chapter V of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand (1997) describes the principles guiding fundamental state policies. Section 72 states that:

The State shall arrange for the maintenance of the armed forces for the protection and upholding of its independence, security of the State, institution of kingship, national interests, and the democratic regime of government with the King as Head of the State, and for national development.

This quotation and statement of policy seem to coincide with the fact that Thailand is a "Buddhist Country." Buddhism is a religion that emphasizes the importance of mercy, non-violence, peace and forgiveness. Buddhism is also against the taking of life, whether human or animal, as demonstrated by the First Buddhist Precept "to abstain from killing." The Buddha knew that killing only brings about loss for humankind, loss for the killer, loss for society, and loss for the killed (Chai-nam, 1966: 491).

However in Thai history, there were times when Buddhist teachings were used to justify war. For example, during World War I, King Rama VI declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary. Prince-Patriarch Vajiranana-Varorasa considered warfare legitimate and morally appropriate. He considered war as in accordance with the Buddha's teachings as the objective was protection, and it seemed right or in accordance with Dhamma. Prince-Patriarch Vajiranana-Varorasa said:

His majesty has broken off friendly relations and declared the Kingdom of Siam to be in a state of war. He has put an end to peace because His Majesty desires to uphold International Rights. When one considers the holy saying, 'When right is in question, wealth, limbs, and even life itself, must all be sacrificed should the occasion so demand it.' So, other policies are thereby practically forbidden (Prince Patriarch Vajiranana Varorasa, (n.d.). quoted in Dhammacitto, 1989: 41).

His Majesty King Rama VI, also gave his opinion concerning Buddhism and the justification for waging war, as we can see in His Majesty the King's writings, "Desana Sua-Pa:"

One whose duty is fighting, someone said, has unjust work, because killing is sinful in Buddhism. And his direct duty is killing. Thus a warrior cannot follow the Buddhist religion. This point is made by many of Buddhism's protectors in general, but not deeply.

We as Buddhist followers also agree with them. In fact the Buddha must have understood that protection of a country is necessary, and one whose duty is fighting cannot be sinful but professional. Many points of view are sufficient to witness that a war to protect a country is lawful and not restricted by the Buddha. If it were unlawful or forbidden, he would not have forced the deserted soldiers from King Bimbisara's army, after entering the monkhood, to go back to their army. Also, Buddhist teachings clearly permit monks to go with the army - to teach and to preach but limit this to seven consecutive nights. Another point is that Buddhist monks have to spread holy water on the flag of victory, on soldiers and practicing talisman. These have been traditional practices, a few restrictions in Buddhist teachings (King Mongkut Klao Chaoyuhua, 1993: 58-59).

It seems that there is a contradiction between the teachings of Buddhism, and the use of the teachings to justify the start of war. Therefore, the question arises, "Can Buddhist teachings be used to support the justification to start war?" If the answer is affirmative, under what conditions does Buddhism accept the start of war? In other words, according to Buddhist principles, when is it "just" to start a war? This study includes both the pros and cons of this matter with respect to current Buddhist views.

A literature review reveals Buddhist concepts about the existence of just war as divided into two groups. The first group is of the opinion that Buddhism does not accept the existence of just war, and the second group believes that Buddhism accepts just war.

The researcher found Buddhist's views about the causes of war in documents and from researching war stories that appear in the Tipitaka. The researcher's findings give weight to the claim that Buddhism does not accept the concept of just war. In fact, the results indicate that most wars were caused by root bad actions (akusala-mula). Naturally, one concludes that every war is unjust according to the standard of rightness or wrongness of an action.

Then there arises the question as to the actor's will (cetana). That is, deciding whether the actor's will is caused by root good actions (kusala-mula) or by root bad actions. If the action is caused by root good actions, then this researcher finds that action as right. On the other hand, if the action is caused by root bad actions, then this researcher finds that action as wrong. Apart from these considerations, it may be said that the intention to conduct war is a breach of the First Precept "to abstain from killing."

Truthful consideration of the causes of war already mentioned seem too narrow. What of the case of war to protect oneself from aggression, or the case of war to help another country to resist aggression? Analysis of Thai documents about just war views reveal that such wars may have other reasons such as: loving-kindness, or never wanting a nation, kinfolk, or members of society to be harassed by an enemy. The researcher suggests that wars such as these may be considered in accordance with the four Brahma Viharas, the Four Abodes of Sublime Abiding. Therefore, not only loving-kindness but also the sacrifice of one's life to preserve order in society or to protect others is noble, or in accordance with Dhamma. Therefore, if "will" (cetana) is based upon the roots of good action (kusala-mula), then the researcher thinks that war or killing need not be considered as a breach of the First Precept.

Therefore, that root of "will" (cetana) is the most important factor to be taken into consideration when deciding whether or not Buddhism permits just war. Perhaps the more important questions are whether or not war caused by aggressive will, such as the conquest of another land, is a breach of the First Precept. And, whether or not war caused by the will to help a group of people or to preserve a valuable thing like the Dhamma is a breach of the First Precept.

Before directly addressing these two questions, let's return to consider the other reasons given to support a moral basis for fighting to protect nations. In this paper, the researcher examines the "Desana Sua-Pa" because it contains many reasons to show that fighting is moral. For example:

1. The Buddha required soldiers returning from King Pasenadi's army, who wanted to become monks, to leave the monkhood and go back to serve in the army.

2. There is a rule, which permits monks to stay with troops, in order to perform, preach, and teach for no more than 7 consecutive nights.

3. The Buddha did not decree a rule forbidding the traditional practice of monks writing magical numbers or making various talisman for soldiers going to war.

4. The words of the Buddha himself state, "When right is in question, wealth, limbs, and even life itself, must all be sacrificed should the occasion so demand it" (Khuddaka Nikaya Jataka, 28/382/99)

If these reasons are reliable, they will be convincing for those who believe that Buddhism accepts the existence of just war. If not, "will" (cetana) shall prove to be the most important factor to be taken into consideration when deciding whether or not Buddhism permits just war. Therefore, the author now explores the Tipitaka in order to clarify the validity of the above statements from the Thai "Desana Sua-Pa."

First: The Buddha required soldiers returning from King Pasenadi's army, who wanted to become monks, to leave the monkhood and go back to serve in the army.

In Section I of the Vinaya Pitaka, regarding a discussion of war, the Buddha decreed a monks' rule: monks must not support the decision of government officers and soldiers to enter the monkhood (Vinaya Pitaaka, Maha Vagga, 4/102/119). In the Buddha's time, many government officers and soldiers escaped their duty to become monks. This caused damage to the government, as there were shortages in the armed forces needed to manage and protect the country. Another reason for the creation of this rule is that King Pasenadi requested the Buddha to forbid monks to accept government officers into the monkhood because some of them may have no faith in Buddhism and might harm the monks. This rule is still practiced at present. Thai government officers from all departments who wish to enter the monkhood must obtain permission and receive approval from the government beforehand.

Study of the Tipitaka found no such incident that the Buddha forced escaped government officers who wanted to enter the monkhood to leave and return to their government service. There is only mention of what caused the Buddha to decree the rule forbidding government officers to enter the monkhood.

Second: There is a rule, which permits monks to stay with troops, in order to perform, preach, and teach for no more than 7 consecutive nights.

Study of the Tipitaka found nothing mentioned about a monks' rule of preaching and teaching soldiers. The researcher found that monks accompanied the army to preach and teach the soldiers as a traditional Thai practice, which was later added to Thai Buddhism (Royal Thai Air Force, 1958: 45). In Thailand, when monks preach in the army, they do not teach the soldiers to go out and kill people, but instead teach them to be brave and to have will power in performing their duty (Panna Nan-Ta, 1960: 101).

In the Vinaya Pitaka, the Buddha decreed a rule for monks that said, a monk watching an army maneuver is considered to be in minor offence (pacittiya) (Vinaya Pitaka, Maha Vibhanga, Dhutiyabhak, 2/562/497). In the case of a monk traveling to the army, the Buddha permitted this only when necessity arose, such as mentioned in the Tipitaka. That is, one monk needed to travel to visit his sick uncle in the army; so, he requested permission of the Buddha. The Buddha then granted permission to travel to the army only when absolutely necessary (Vinaya Pitaka, Maha Vibhanga, Dhutiyabhak, 2/563/498). The Buddha permitted a monk to stay no more than three nights, and on the fourth night after sunset, a monk must leave the army or otherwise his actions would be considered a minor offence (pacittiya) (Vinaya Pitaka, Maha Vibhanga, Dhutiyabhak, 2/568/502). While a monk stays with the army, he must not: observe the fighting, watch the army's preparation, or see any army demonstrations (Vinaya Pitaka, Maha Vibhanga, Dhutiyabhak, 2/571/503).

Study of the Tipitaka found no rule about monks staying with the army for seven consecutive days and engaging in teaching and preaching. It only found that permission could be received to stay with the army no more than three nights. The Buddha's reasons for granting permission for a monk to accompany the army were because of necessity, such as visiting a sick relative in the army.

Third: The Buddha did not decree a rule forbidding the traditional practice of monks writing magical numbers or making various talisman for soldiers going to war.

In the Suttantapitaka, the researcher found the Buddha saying:

Whereas some priests and contemplatives, living off food given in faith, maintain themselves by wrong livelihood, by such lowly arts as: reading marks on the limbs [e.g., palmistry]; reading omens and signs; interpreting celestial events [falling stars, comets]; interpreting dreams;?placing spells on spirits; reciting house-protection charms
(Suttantapitaka, Vol.I, Dighanikaya Silakkhandhavagga, 9/114/64)

From the Buddha's speech above-mentioned, it seems that the Buddha decreed a rule, forbidding monks to earn a living by such acts. The Buddha forbid a monk from practicing: magical numbering or empowering various talisman, because such practices are considered to be pseudo-science (tiracchan vija). Therefore, stating that the Buddha did not forbid the making of talisman or magical figures is not correct because the Tipitaka clearly mentions that such practices are tiracchan vija.

From studies of historical documents, it was found that the making of talisman or magical figures are not Buddhist practices, but instead belong to the culture and traditions of Brahmanism which prevailed long before the birth of Buddhism. After the creation of Buddhism in this world, some thinkers combined the ideas and rituals of Brahmanism into Buddhist ceremonies, such as making talisman, creating invincibility by drinking holy water, and vowing to be loyal to the king, etc. (Royal Thai Air Force, 1958: 15).

Fourth: The words of the Buddha himself state, "When right is in question, wealth, limbs, and even life itself, must all be sacrificed should the occasion so demand it" (Khuddaka Nikaya Jataka, 28/382/99).

The Buddha's statement mentions the sacrifice of life in protection of "Dhamma." "Dhamma" means supreme truth or nirvana, which is the reason to sacrifice one's life in this world or to offer oneself until death in search of the supreme truth. Those who find nirvana help alleviate all living beings' suffering, which are: birth, old age, suffering illness and death (Chutinitaro, 2002). Therefore, use of this statement to "sacrifice life for the protection of Dhamma" in order to support war is impossible. The Buddha's words described humans' worldly life sacrifice in order to obtain supreme nirvana, not to sacrifice one's life in the protection of a religious constitution, as was claimed.

From consideration of the above-mentioned, we find that the reasons for supporting just war, as found in the literature, have no weight in indicating that the Buddha ever accepted the concept of just war. Therefore, the author shall consider "will" (cetana).

Matters of "will" are always the reasons brought forth to examine just war, as the conduct of a war always involves the will to destroy human life.

Buddhists have criteria for considering whether or not an action is a breach of the First Precept, to abstain from killing. The criteria are as follows:

1. Object: A living being.
2. Perception: One perceives it to be a living being.
3. Intention: One knowingly, consciously, deliberately, and purposefully wants to cause its death.
4. Effort: Whatever one does with the purpose of killing that being.
5. Result: It dies as a result of one's action.

Any action without all Five Factors is not considered as a breach of the First Precept (Sarattadipani Tikavinaya, Vol.II, 1999: 375).

A soldier sometimes kills another in self-defense or to protect the vulnerable in society or for justice. Such killing has all Five Factors, even if it is in self-defense or to protect the vulnerable in society; it is a breach of morality. Yet, when bringing the matter of will in reasoning to protection of a country, some consider it a just war. However, it is not possible that such a war is moral especially when considering the first rule of the five precepts, to abstain from killing. Soldiers fighting to protect their country must have the will to stop the enemy with their weapons, which cause damage and death. Using weapons for the purposes to kill, possesses all Five Factors. In another words, the will to help one group of people to protect valuable things, such as Dhamma from the aggression of other people is considered as a breach of the First Precept. But, there needs to be some consideration of how heavy the consequence from that killing is. That is, even though killing is sinful, each instance of killing has a different amount of weight. Buddhists have the following criteria for deciding how much sin an act of killing has:

1. There must be consideration of how much benefit the living being has. Killing a human, who has more potential to do good deeds than a common animal, will be considered more sinful than killing an ordinary animal.

2. There must also be consideration of the will and feeling of the actor. If the actor kills with aggression, hatred, vengefulness, jealousy, tyranny or annoyance, then this action is considered very sinful. However, if the actor has the will to compromise or even good will, then this action would have less sin, as in self-defense.

3. Finally, there must be consideration of the effort of the killer. If the killer is prepared and has seriously planned the steps with intention to kill along with a feeling of strong vengefulness, then that killing is very sinful. However, if the actor kills out of immediate anger, even if they have a strong evil will, then that killing would be considered less sinful (Dhammapitaka, 1995: 24-26).

Therefore, it could be said that every war is sinful but if the reason for war is: self-defense, protection of innocent people, or preserving justice, then that war would be less sinful. This agrees with the belief of Phra Dhammapitaka (P.A.Payutto) (1995: 48) who said, "in cases where the doers do not have an aggressive or vengeful will such as soldiers fighting a war of self-defense, then their actions would be considered less sinful."

Apart from the intention to go to war, the severity of the means of conduct of a war must be taken into consideration with regards to the actions causing death. Therefore, without the will to be aggressive in war, the means used in the conduct of a war must be in accordance. For example, the weaponry used in war must not be overly aggressive or cause torture, and it has to avoid causing severe injury to the people not concerned with the war. Soldiers must avoid harming innocent people. For example, they should not use bio-chemical weapons, which not only cruelly harm the opponent soldiers, but also the innocent civilians. If soldiers adhere to this principle, the sin of war will not be as severe as when the intention to kill and torture is evident.

However, more or less, sin is still called sin. Thus, an argument may arise prior to starting a war, about the level of sin the coming war will have. However, we cannot say that the war will be just. Buddhist reasoning accepts the truth that humans must face moral dilemmas. We sometimes cannot avoid violating others' lives, such as fighting to protect ourselves, abortion to save a mother's life, or killing the amphetamine-addicted man to save the innocent. People in these kinds of situations might find themselves calling themselves adherents of Buddhism (Buddhamamaka).

The researcher studied the views of Phra Dhammapitaka about wars and various moral dilemmas, which have occurred and are known to occur in society, and the combination of good and bad actions. However, sometimes we cannot avoid doing bad things because leading human life is a matter of choice. Therefore, whenever a human has to choose any action they must realize whether the root of that action is good or bad. Realization of one's action will create a sense of self-responsibility, carefulness and encourage efforts to solve problems, develop solutions, and improve things for a more fruitful existence.

In the case of choosing to do a bad action, it must be because of situational inevitability that is beyond our control. And, the act needs to be most beneficial to oneself or the whole society. However, it must be realized that the action is sinful. After that, we should not further indulge in or grieve over such an action, but instead should use that sin as a basis to develop good action. By the time we do more and more good actions, the result will be self-development (Dhammapitaka, 1995: 49). We can see the use of this logic in the Buddha's words:

Who once did a bad action; then later on can live by virtue. Such a one brightens the world as the moon set free from a cloud (Khuddaka Dhammapada, 25/27/27). Or,

Who once was heedless, but later is not, brightens the world as the moon set free from a cloud. The evil-done deed is replaced with skillfulness: such a one brightens the world as the moon set free from a cloud. (Khuddaka Nikaya, 26/392/335)

Concluding this analysis of "will" (cetana), it is clear that Buddhism looks at killing as a wrongdoing, including killing in war, because it is a breach of the First Precept. However, the researcher proposes the possibility that killing is just in some cases, such as killing an opponent in self-defense or for a country's protection. Sometimes, a human cannot avoid the moral conflicts between religious precepts and the necessity of the activities of life. However, any wrongdoing or killing must be performed with consciousness and cleverness, which means that a person must realize what he/she is doing. If one realizes the weight and consequences of an action, then one will take responsibility for one's action and accept the consequences that might occur in the future.

The conclusions of this study are as follows: the reasons found in historical documents to support Buddhism's acceptance of there being just war do not carry sufficient weight. Moreover, the First Precept (abstinence from killing) usually mentioned in support of Buddhism's refusal to accept the existence of just war, is also inadequate, because even though Buddhism considers life-taking to be unwholesome, the truth is that people cannot avoid moral dilemmas in the course of their lives. Thus, according to these findings and interpretations of Buddhist ethics, a war is just, if and only if, it is conducted with an absence of ill-will, unwholesome mental states, and under the guidance of wisdom

 

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