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War! What is it Good For?

Q&A #9

War! What is it Good For?

You guys have so many questions, and they just keep coming in‚Ķ fantastic! I’m going to continue doing nothing but questions and answers for at least the rest of this week. I think after that, I’m going to just devote one day every week to reader questions. If you have a question, I’d love to see it. I’ll answer them all, either for the group or privately if you prefer. Email me at (don’t reply to this message with questions, I don’t always see those right away).


A Reader recently wrote this as a comment on the website, in response to last week’s posting on disappointment, which led to the topic of Darfur and the value of war:


Let me play devil’s advocate with you. I am clearly Buddhist in nearly every way that I try to approach my life. However, let me pose this to you. When you say that war makes things worse (which I generally do agree with), do you not conceded that there are times when we have to roll the hard six and act? I would personally have had a difficult time standing on the sidelines of, say, the US Civil war or WWII in the respect to ending Nazi aggression.

When my friend asks about Darfur it is from a very reactionary mindset. However, I can’t help but think that there are times when an obligation to confront injustice (realizing this is a dangerously relative judgment to make) is a decision rule of sorts. If I shouldn’t let a man take a beating on the corner by some thug (you wouldn’t pass that by without trying to help‚Ķ or would you?), why is it wrong or even not more compassionate to take an active part to end absolute injustice where we run out of negotiation options?

I know that we can only accept the world for what it is. I know that we must work peacefully in order to not further entrench war and violence. However, what do you do when a man enters your home and directly threatens your family? I assume you defend it with your life. So, why is it no less justified to take the extreme cases of injustice in the world—and where not other good choices remain—to take on a similar paradigm in defense of those who cannot defend themselves against no less a clear threat?

This is just a hard place for me to find acceptance. How do you think the Buddha would answer my above comments and questions?

You can see all comments on this post here:


My Response


You have just managed to open up a major can of worms with that question. I was always told that it was a bad idea to discuss religion or politics. I manage to break the first half of that rule every day, so I guess it’s time to talk politics just for a little bit.

Now, I have to state up front, that I am an American, and my international friends have told me that Americans have a unique conception of power and violence. Although I think that’s a wide overgeneralization, I’ll grant that there is some truth in the idea that we have all been raised to accept violence to a certain extent. When I was in Japan, one of the most frequent topics that came up in discussion is that Americans are allowed to own guns; they all thought that was just insane and immoral. They were shocked to learn that I have never owned one while my father is a collector. I suspect they believed that we all walk around with pistols strapped to our belts like in the old western movies. My point is that violence is more or less acceptable according to one’s own culture. I think the majority of Americans were in support of going to war in Afghanistan and Iraq; whatever the long-term outcome or current opinion on the war, it seemed acceptable to the majority at the time. I’m not judging, just stating the fact.

I have to say Buddhism and politics don’t always mesh. Actually, they are a very difficult pairing indeed. Buddhists are extreme pacifists and politics often involve conflict. We’ve already talked about Tibet here; China basically just walked in and took over, the Tibetans didn’t offer much in the way of resistance.

But to get down to the meat of your question, would a serious Buddhist kill to stop an injustice?

No, I don’t think so.

In your example of the thug beating a helpless man on the street, a Buddhist would intervene- by separating the two, not with violence.

I think the best answer to this is to mention the Buddhist monks who set themselves on fire to protest the Vietnam War. They hurt no one but themselves, yet they also made a powerful political statement that did have a real effect.

Here’s the story:

Here’s a VERY GRAPHIC photo (be warned):

No, I think non-violence is one of the most important and solemn ideas of Buddhism. In America, one of the strongest advocates for nonviolence was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Nobel Peace Price winner for 1964. Dr. King was not a Buddhist, but he understood Buddhism well. We have mentioned the monk Thich Nhat Hanh in the past. Thich Nhat Hanh was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967… by Dr. King:

I’ll quote one line from the letter:

“Thich Nhat Hanh offers a way out of this nightmare, a solution acceptable to rational leaders. He has traveled the world, counseling statesmen, religious leaders, scholars and writers, and enlisting their support. His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.”

8 comments to War! What is it Good For?

  • Kris

    “There is an account about a previous life of the Buddha, in which he was a navigator who went to sea with a group of five hundred people in search of a buried treasure. There was one man in this party who had very greedy thoughts and, in order to steal all the jewels for himself, was plotting to murder the five hundred. The bodhisattva (Shakyamuni Buddha in a previous life) was aware of this and thought that to let the situation develop was incorrect, as one man would kill five hundred. Therefore, he developed the very courageous thought to save the five hundred by killing this one man, willingly accepting upon himself the full responsibility of killing. If you are willing to accept having to be reborn in a hell in order to save others, you have a greatly courageous thought. Then you can engage in these acts, just as the Buddha himself did.

    To protect your wife and child is a positive constructive act, but to harm the enemy is negative and destructive. You have to be willing to accept the consequences of both.”

    Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche I, answering a similar question from one of his audience.

  • Mike Pavlick

    Although I am deeply opposed to war, I am not advocating appeasement. It is often necessary to take a strong stand to counter unjust aggression… [But] war is violence and violence is unpredictable. Therefore, it is better to avoid it if possible and never to presume that we know beforehand whether the outcome of a particular war will be beneficial or not. The Dalai Lama

    The taking of a human life is the ultimate wrong action no matter what path you chose. If it comes down to kill or be killed, I’m sorry to say your choice should be, death
    Just my interpretation of things;

  • The difference between the philosophy and practice of Buddhism can be extreme. I strongly recommend Michael Parenti’s Friendly Feudalism for a look at the history of Tibetan Buddhism.

  • Michael Layne

    I don’t really want to start barking down this highway. Trying to be less judgmental in my practice, I will only say on the referrals to reincarnation do not really mean a great deal to me. Metaphysics are not a part of my practice. Maybe someday things will be different for me, but I have no desire to get beyond the ontology. There are simply epistemological limits that are inherent to this condition. I think metaphysics are the ultimate thing to cling to in life. The fact that there is a certainty of a next life is a certainty that there is not an end to your consciousness, and that is a subtle pacifier against the biggest fears of a being, I believe. You have to admit that you cannot know if there is or is not reincarnation. As I have mentioned before, when shot with a poison arrow it doesn’t really matter who shot it or the quality of the bow. You just need a doctor.

    I agree that taking human life is wrong. However, I am not entirely convinced that an appropriate level of response to a threatening situation is necessarily wrong. Are we to say that my clinging to my wife is such a problem that I cannot allow her to be murdered by an intruder? Am I just to let her go at the hands of an axe wielding criminal? This would be your choice? Her fate or karma was at the source of the issue and I find equanimity in the fact that I just watched someone kill my wife? I’m not entirely convinced that some of us are not becoming a little too dogmatic. One should never kill in this situation where there are alternatives. No question. However, sometimes there are not. Do you defend the innocent from being murdered or do you save your own principles and allow them to die? I don’t know how this blood is not on your hands, Buddhist or not.

    Is the consensus that fighting and dying to stop Hitler is somehow improper? Seems like quite a bit of double speak to me here. With all due respect to everyone, we don’t always get the choice to go back and critique the choices and events that lead to a personal moment of choice. War (and violent conflict) should be avoided at all cost, but even Lau Tsu understood it as part of the way of things, something to enter as if “going to a funeral” in the Stephen Mitchell translation. There is a scene in the Costner version of Wyatt Earp where Gene Hackman says something to the effect that there is a time when you encounter a situation where the other party won’t give you a chance to take the high road. Now, I don’t believe that the correct option is to strike first and aim to kill, but I do recognize that I would not allow a man to murder a child in the street even if it meant, if all other options were impossible, that I took that person’s life with great sadness and remorse. But as I deepen my practice I may reach such a point of understanding when this thinking is different. However, I put this one in the category of killing plants being okay but killing animals is not (back to the vegetarian debate). My mind doesn’t see a distinction between life in all its forms.

  • I try not to worry about the metaphysics too much either. I figure if you live by the eightfold path, that stuff pretty much takes care of itself. Still, ethical questions like this one and the debate on vegetarianism do have a lot to do with the metaphysical side of things and you have to at least consider them.

    I think going to war against Hitler (or whoever) is really just an extension of what you and Kris (in the first post) are saying about the needs of the greater good. Unfortunately, I have to re-state my opinion that politics and Buddhism really don’t mesh well. Buddhism in many ways is far too passive; when was the last time bald guys in yellow robes came knocking on your door on Sunday morning? Buddhists are OFTEN quite passive; live and let live. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the world is just the opposite.

  • Patrick Drazen

    It seems to me that the discussion here has been getting increasingly Manichean. Life isn’t all-black or all-white, offering us a stark contrast to choose from. We should be prepared, though, to come up with a variety of responses, the best being that which is the least violent.

  • Michael Layne

    I think this is a place where many have an “issue’ with Buddhism. I would agree that Buddhism and politics don’t mesh well, but I also am not sure that is an excuse to just drop out. I think loving compassion for other beings has something to do with not dropping out and letting people suffer at the hands of terrible leaders. I’m also not convinced that environmentalism is not a key charge of those attempting the Eight Fold Path. At what point does right action require an obligation to work to save the polar bear? Or to work to assure that warm water continues to flow in the Atlantic Ocean toward the UK to stave of tripping the switch on a very horrible outcome? Is not right action to work to keep Greenland from melting into the Atlantic? There is great suffering for human kind on the other side of impending environmental crisis. I think there may be a point where staying on the mat is more selfish than anything else. I think we can become attached to the solution, too.

    There is a story that I heard about a monk that gathered a great deal of rice one day and didn’t have to go for alms for some time. When the Buddha heard of it, he went and asked him about it. The monk answered that all he had to do was add a little water and he easily eat and devote his time to staying in his meditative bliss. The Buddha asked him not to do this any longer, instructing him that he should go out into the sights and sounds of the world each day. Along these lines, I tend to think that we cannot ignore the world around us because we seek that extra inch towards enlightenment. I don’t know that this is the best manifestation of practice.

    Metaphysics is its own thread. However, I would again posit that metaphysics are (for the better part) a wrong turn on the trail. Metaphysics is the proverbial pacifier in the mouth of a child. It is not the source of nutrition that is replicates. It is a lead painted poison to you mind that feels nice in your mouth. This is my view.