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War and Peace

Sometimes I get more than one question on a single topic at the same time. What better way to know what needs to be covered!


I have been practicing Buddhism for about 5 years and I feel that this is truly my path but I also have a strong desire to also serve my country in the military, specifically the Army. Now, I realize that there are areas within the various branches of the military that don’t require the taking of life or things of that nature. I also realize that regardless of my position in the Army I will be in a profession that places me a great deal closer to combat and the taking of life, either directly or indirectly. I am resolved not to take life under most circumstances but there are several scenarios that I have recently meditated upon that I can say with relative certainty, I would shoot back. I don’t believe that I could watch the deaths of my fellow soldiers and not fight to defend them. And this is my conflict.

I truly feel that I was born to protect but doing so could lead me closer to taking life, if I choice this path. I am conflicted and was wondering what might be your view on this matter. The thoughts and comments from the other listeners would be great appreciated as well.

…AND another reader asks

I struggle with the concept of nonviolence almost daily. As a rule I agree with and understand the negativity of taking life and doing harm. I’ve really internalized this concept, and that has led to a spiritual conflict. The problem is I am in a commissioning program to be an officer in the US Army. I have been since before I became interested in Buddhism. In the foreseeable future I will be in Afghanistan or Iraq, and will likely find myself in a situation where I will have to take another life to protect those around me.

The internal argument goes like this:

A) Get out, you don’t want to take another life, it is negative and wrong. Even those who terrorize and kill deserve to live because they are deluded and ignorant. “Forgive them for they know not what they do.”

B) You have a duty to protect the lives of innocent people, even if it would do harm to yourself. Getting out for some ideal when there is real work to be done protecting people is cowardice.


We did touch on this very topic way back in June. I strongly recommend reading the earlier post, including the comments that readers added at the bottom. Here is a link to the relevant post:

I have mixed thoughts on this topic. I had them back in June, and nothing has really changed.

Basically, there is no flat-out correct answer to this. Killing is wrong, but is killing always wrong? Some say that it is, and some say that it is sometimes can be justified. Usually if it’s “kill or be killed” in a one-on-one situation (a mugging for example), Buddhism would tend to lean to the “be killed” side of the equation. It’s better to give up your own life than take someone else’s, even if that someone else is a criminal. That being said, it’s sometimes considered acceptable to kill one person to save a larger group, but even then only in extreme circumstances.

The Dalai Lama has gone on record saying he is against war of any kind, and his actions when Tibet was overrun prove that he meant it; he and his followers didn’t fight back and have lived in exile for fifty years. I admit that my pessimistic, realistic side has problems with this concept. If all Buddhists refused to fight back, eventually the more aggressive groups would wipe out all the Buddhists. Pacifism in a war-torn world is not the best method for survival. In the case of the Dalai Lama, he has been homeless for fifty years, and that’s very likely not going to change; he let the “bad guys” win.

As you can probably tell, I’m not quite sure what I believe myself here. Nonviolence is to be advocated and desired, but in a realistic world, is it always possible? I honestly don’t think it can be.


16 comments to War and Peace

  • steven oldner

    I am reminded of the stories of Tibetian Monks who traveled with rifles to protect themselves against robbers ( pre-communism times).

    I agree with your premise that the non-violent ones would die out if there were no fight in them. But the Zen soldiers of WWII Japan is also not the answer.

    As far as myself, I will protect my family.

  • jaynaj

    There are some fair points in here, namely the last one about how non-violence is desirable but not entirely possible to achieve. However, I think there is a clear difference between non-violence and allowing “the bad guys” to walk all over you. A good example would be the independence movement in India in the 1930s and 40s. Although there was violence after the partition, the independence movement was largely centred around gandhi’s peaceful resistance and non-violent demonstrations.

    I wouldn’t completely agree that Buddhism leans towards “be killed” side of the equation, but rather seeks to avoid killing and keep violence to a minimum. Take this quote from an interview with the Dalai Lama:

    Dalai Lama: Individual case? For example, if mad dog coming, almost certain now bite you. Then if you say, non-violence, non-violence and compassion…

    Hana Gartner: You get bitten!

    Dalai Lama: That’s kind of foolish! You have to take use of self-defence. But without harming, without serious harming another, I think that’s the way I feel. If someone try to shoot on you, then there is no possibility to run away, then you have to hit back. Then possibly not on head, but leg or something like that. So that’s not serious hit back, but more lenient way, more gentle way.

  • I believe that there is more to be said on the Dalai Lama’s being homeless. I believe that his flight from Tibet was predicated by 30,000 Tibetan’s surrounding his summer palace to prevent him from being killed at a Chinese event that he was requested to attend… alone. I think that he left to prevent a massacre of those TIbetan’s who were committed to protecting him. So, he became homeless because of his committment to non-violence.

    That said, you can also look at Buddhist history and see that Milarepa caused the deaths of 35 people, some of whom were relatives, and he was still able to achieve enlightenment. He had some heavy dues to pay, and spent years eating nothing but water and “thistles” while meditating in caves in Tibet (naked, eating only thistles for years and years). I’m not sure he followed the middle path, but maybe that was necessary to overcome the murders he committed. There are other stories where Buddhists have had to kill one person in order to save many others, as well as saving the person who was killed from collecting a lot of negative karma himself. And then there are the fighting Buddhist monks in Japan and the Shaolin monks in China both of whom were adept at martial arts, but were still Buddhists. So there are Buddhists who have chosen a path that might include violence.

    However, while it seems to be possible to kill someone and still find enlightenment, to put yourself into a position where you would have to take a life seems to be at odds with being a Buddhist. Remember, if you join the military, you have to follow orders, and if your commander doesn’t think much of your pacifism, you might find yourself in a position where you have to take a life, even if you don’t want to. When you are in the service, that is your job. In my opinion, being in the Army is not in line with being a Buddhist. You are either a Buddhist or a soldier, I don’t think you can be both or at least, you can’t be true to both at the same time.

    Also, I don’t think that your statement about more aggressive parties wiping out Buddhists holds water. Almost all successful revolutions have been won because the revolutionaries were able to convince the majority of a society that theirs was the right path, not because they had a militarily superior force to fight the government with. Pacifists rely on being able to win the hearts of the people to follow the right path, and not killing is much more correct than killing. There is just something in most people that says you are not supposed to kill other members of your species. Buddhists take that a step farther and try not to kill other sentient beings, and Jainists take it even farther than Buddhists, covering their mouths so an insect cannot inadvertantly be inhaled. Gandhi was able to free India from the UK not by fighting, but by not fighting. His committment to non-violence was so strong that the UK could not win against it.

    Our society is so committed to violence that it is easy to think that violence is not wrong, but it is, and as Buddhists you have to take a stand against it.


  • Timothy Hilgenberg

    The reason for suffering is attachment as a Buddhist you have chosen to follow a path that will eventually free you from it. Being a Buddhist and a soldier is a challenging path to follow, one that will require a lot of wisdom and insight. I salute your courage and wish you every success – if only all soldiers could be come Buddhists… what a world would we live in 🙂

  • Jason

    I am a soldier, and I am currently deployed to Iraq. I have only in the last few months taken a serious interest in Buddhism, but I do generally agree with the thought that military life and Buddhism do not go hand in hand very well. I have every intention of getting out once this contract ends, but in the mean time I just maintain the mindset that if a situation were to arise where it became kill or be killed, or even kill or allow an innocent person to be killed, I believe that I would have to take action. As a person standpoint only, but one that I will share, I think that there are times and situations where killing may be essential. I agree with concepts of less than lethal action, and we in the military are taught how to use an escalation of force, meaning only the amount of force needed to resolve a bad situation. I think this concept is wonderful, but there are other times where I personally believe that violence is acceptable. If I were to be walking home late one night and came across a women being brutally raped for example, I would be obligated, as a decent human being, not to mention a Buddhist, to do what was required to help the woman. Even if that mean having to stab her attacker. The point is, I don;t agree with senseless taking of life, or even slight use of excessive force, but if a situation calls for action, than thats all there is to it. You as a human being are obligated to protect innocent life, even if it means taking a guilty one. Sure, I will forgive them, for they know not what they do… …just as soon as the threat they pose has been neutralized and the innocent victims in this world have been helped to safety.

  • steve

    What a difficult situation you guy”s are in>Inside you know that killing someone is not really right but the situation dictates that you have to do this to protect others.I seem to recall a story about the Buddha recalling in a previous life that he had to kill someone to protect another from being killed.I don”t recall where i read this at but i do recall reading this.If i were you, i would serve out my enlistment and preform my duty and get out when my enlistment or commission is up.Look at how this issue is causing you suffering now.If you do have to take a life think of how this will affect you the rest of your life.My brothers i respect your courage and sense of duty but you must look at how this issue is affecting you and your families.But ultimately only you can decide this ,may you be guided by wisdom my brothers.

  • JJ Simon

    I have been a Buddhist for over a decade and have heard this conversation many times. Ultimately there is no pat answer for this and each individual has to work this out as part of their own path. As was stated before Milarepa Killed people and his fear of the Karmic repercussions of Hell were so strong that he was driven to attain Enlightenment in one life time. There are 2 more things about Mila that are important 1 he did this killing for his Mother whom he loved and 2 he was Murdered at the end of his life. You reap what you sow may be taken literally here. Intent has a lot to do with consequences.
    I am nonviolent to the extent that I avoid creating conflict in my world. I also train in American Kenpo which is a self defense art. I have managed to make these 2 go hand in hand. I will defend my life and the life of anyone else. That is my line in the sand. You can take my money or property or insult me but no one has the right to take any one else life arbitrarily and if at all possible I would stop them if in that situation. Chogyam Trungpa when asked about self defense answered “It’s not compassionate to die.” I take this as meaning it isn’t in either persons best interest so it is best to defend oneself. As far as the Military goes; it is a very hard crossroads to be in the military and work at being non-violent. I have known several people who have Killed other people. It changed their lives forever. It is crushing. You could however look into the Chaplin program for the Armed services Chaplins are in short supply. All soldiers need council and compassion at some point and time. There may be a possibility to help more than hurt and still feel that you have fulfilled your duty to your country and brothers in arms.
    Good luck, be safe.
    Yours in the Dharma,
    JJ Simon

  • The Eightfold Path describes the idea of the Right Livelihood or Job; there are duties in the military that fit into this category, but again actually killing another human being would violate the Right Behavior. So, traditionally speaking, it is difficult to serve in the military and fully practice Buddhism, unless as the reader above mentions one becomes a Chaplin or works in other areas that do not harm others.

    However, what if serving in the military actually is the path you must take to understand the complexity of the dharma, sangha, and Buddha? Buddha starved himself as an ascectic, denied the body completely, and left his wife and son alone while searching for enlightenment. His method was not perfect. He went through suffering and caused suffering to others (his family and other ascetics) before reaching his eternal bliss. We just don’t always know what path will lead us toward the Right Livelihood or Job? Sometimes the journey itself needs to be taken to understand the Four Nobel Truths.

    I hope I am not sounding as though I am justifying an action, such as murder, to reach Nirvana, but experience is at least important to me to understand The Way even if that experience leads me down the wrong path.

    I wish the best of luck to you as you challenge yourself philosophically, and I also think in the back of my head that I would not be free to practice my views on Buddhism without the self-defense of our troops. Finally, I pay taxes supporting war, so I, too, suffer and cannot free myself from any kind of death caused by a military mission. We are all participating in violence whether we do harm personally or not.


  • Paul Dean

    I’m only recently into Buddhism and although I like to think of myself as a pacifist, this is one area I do struggle with.
    After giving it some thought and meditation my conclusion seems to be leading me along this track.
    Firstly who says we should not kill? Well clearly the Buddha as it is part of the eight fold path and the first of the five precepts.
    Why did he say that? Life is all about Karma and to destroy another life is clearly bad Karma.

    Now is the balancing act. Are you prepared to take on bad Karma for the benefit of others?
    In a war you are fighting for freedom of others, in the one to one mugging mentioned you may, at the time, just be fighting for yourself.
    But to me the answer is the same. If you kill anyone it delivers you bad Karma, However if your intentions are noble, along the lines of protection of innocents, then surely there is an offset here. Even in the mugging as you probably would be stopping other innocents having to endure mindless violence.
    Also think of the attackers, stopping them from years of generating bad karma.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am a pacifist, and would never countenance mindless killing. But in a world where innocents are regularly put in a kill or be killed situation, I feel that Mindful killing, knowing who, what, why and accepting the consequences on yourself, is a path worth considering, should you be placed in the unenviable situation.

    Please forgive me if this reply sounds naive, as I said I am only recently into Buddhist practise, but they are thoughts.

  • Jami

    The Sikh faith, born, it is said, out of suffering, would have vanished if the last Guru-Gorbind Singh- did not decide on a military strategy that would ensure ‘survival’.

    In interesting ways, minus the ‘God’ concept, the Sikhs share much with the Buddhists. Stress is placed on ‘right-living’, ‘right-thinking’- and ‘kama’ is a regulating moral influence; while ‘conditional pacifism’ is demanded in good times as well as bad.

    Early Buddhism, perhaps did not, in a North Indian ambience,have to confront State force in the way others did. Maybe this partly explains the ‘open’ question concerning violence in bad times.

  • Abe Simpson

    As a military brat and now an Army civilian, I have spent most of my life in a warrior culture. I have the utmost respect for the war fighter because I know the sacrifice they make on their karma by protecting me and my family. As a practitioner, I understand that they are making a sacrifice in this birth and the next.

    I do not believe that the Buddha taught pacifism. What he taught was that Ahimsa comes in many forms. No action can cause harm just as wrong action can cause harm.

    While I would prefer that the call to arms not be made so readily, there will be times and places to make the call and there will be men and women who are willing to answer it. If you are willing to answer it, it is important for you to sit on the intent of your answer.

    For the rest of us, I suggest that we learn other ways to resolve our conflicts rather than blinding everyone, which is what an eye for an eye will leave you with.

    I personally practice satyagraha and am a student of Ghandi and Dr. King. It is the middle way between violence and pacifism.

  • I’ve already commented on how serving in the Armed forces is not compatible with being a Buddhist, but I also noticed another point in the initial posts that is at odds with the reality of these wars. That is that your motivation for joining the army is to protect your fellow citizens against attacks. Just who, exactly,do you want to protect us against? It has been well documented that the people we are fighting against in Iraq aren’t the ones who attacked the US. Even Bush and Cheney have had to admit that. The one person who we know was responsible for the attacks on our citizens is Osama bin Laden, and Bush has said that he isn’t even interesting in pursuing him anymore. Furthermore, he’s most likely in North Western Pakistan, and we are not fighting there.

    The bottom line is, if you want to protect someone, it is not the armed forces that you should join, or these wars that you should participate in, but instead, why not join a Fire department, or get you MD and join Docdtors without Borders, or work with the UN commission on refugees, or teach high school or any profession that actually helps people as opposed to using force to futher the goals of some deluded megalomaniacs.


  • Jason

    Until every human is enlightened, society will require armed protection on the community and national level. Keep those rifles clean.

    If everyone decided to quit the military on religious grounds, we would soon be attacked and enslaved by some other nation intent on tyranny. It’s not pretty but it is reality. If we must have a military, we need as many soldiers as possible who are ethical in terms if Buddhist principles.

  • Bram de Roos

    I am very excited to see so many thoughts on this important subject. While I was studying at the Suiren Ji temple in Leiden, the Netherlands, my teacher Zenshin talked about this subject in the light of the WWII and Japanese Zen buddhists. While he rejected the Japanese activities during that war, he also noted that you have to consider the contributions of buddhists to the war effort in the context of the time. Since zen is very much about ‘only doing’ it is not always appropriate to talk about generally ethically right or wrong behaviour unrelated to a certain situation: there is a specific situation in the here and now, and that situation calls for a certain action. If you’re shot at, you dodge, if your friends are shot at, you shoot back. Of course you have to be careful before going down a certain path that might lead to such unwanted situations, but when they arise there is only one right thing to do; whatever that might be, you probably know when the time is there.
    Personally I would never join the army, but I believe that everybody must follow their calling and if that leads them to the battlefield, it is up to them to take decisions that are appropriate then and there, even if that involves taking lives. Much wisdom to those who have to face such hard decisions!

  • Kris


    I posted one of the original questions, and as an answer to your last comment, it isn’t the people in the United States I am willing to put myself out there to defend. I have very little doubt that they are safe. Rather it’s those who are directly affected by the actions of our deluded enemies, the people actually being threatened and killed by IEDs, suicide bombings, and whatever else they chose to do their damage with.
    I’m not willing to kill for an ideal (assuming I’m willing to kill at all), i guess I’m too pragmatic for that. The results wouldn’t be certain enough.

    To everyone who posted,

    I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your comments. Many of them have given me a new angle on my internal dilemma.


  • Sandy D

    Buddhism practices non-violence, but there is the intent that sets your karma. If you join the military with intentions to kill and commit these acts with a pleased heart, then the karma will follow you, but if your intention is not to kill, but you do it out of self preservation when you have no choice, then the Karma is with the one with the intention of committing harm. Such as you have a knife at your throat and your only recourse is to die or live, you regretfully take that life to defend your own, you will not receive the same karma as the one who took pleasure in the killing or intent of killing. I read a story, there were two warriors in the past, one took great pleasure of torturing and killing others, when he was reborn, he was born blind and disabled. The warrior, who did his job, but took no pleasure in it, did not suffer negative karma like the other. I hope this helps you.