Thursday, 18 October 2007

Buddhism and the Use of Force

10/31/07 UPDATE: An earlier version of this post included a quote from Paul Carus's 1894 book "The Gospel of Buddha" that has now been deleted.

A recent post by Army Chaplain candidate Somya Malasri to the blog Buddhist Military Sangha raises an interesting question: Can a Buddhist Join the Army? And, it raises further, related questions of what role we should expect for “force,” from the military or police, to play in society.

Many Western Buddhists are wholly non-violent, staunchly opposed to the violence the military might unleash, yet haven’t a scintilla of opposition to a competent, adequately careful police force in a free society. Policemen, like soldiers, often must use force, or violence, to achieve their ends, be it in the apprehension of suspected criminals or to deter harm coming to innocents.

Second Lieutenant Malasri cites Ven. K. Sri Damavanda [from “What Buddhist Believe,” downloadable from Buddhanet in PDF format, quoting the chapter beginning on page 385] which has the same ultimate source as the chapter “Simha’s Question Concerning Annihilation” which comes from Paul Carus’s compilation of Buddhist wisdom in a book published in 1894, called The Gospel of Buddha. [Where in the Pali canon the Simha story is, I haven’t been able to locate -- but I have little doubt it’s there, somewhere.]

Here, Buddha‘s words regarding police work in response to Simha‘s question asking whether Buddha permits punishment of the criminal:
‘He who deserves punishment must be punished. And he who is worthy of favor must be favored. Do not do injury to any living being but be just, filled with love and kindness.’ These injunctions are not contradictory because the person who is punished for his crimes will suffer his injury not through the ill will of the judge but through the evil act itself. His own acts have brought upon him the injury that the executors of the law inflict. When a magistrate punishes, he must not harbor hatred in his heart. When a murderer is put to death, he should realize that his punishment is the result of his own act.
Thus, Buddha approves the administration of law and order within a society, even speaking of the death sentence, though I don't think we should presume that he approves of that based on the text here.

But the final Buddha quote from the military chaplain’s post, surprisingly, is this: “There is no justice in war or violence. When we declare war, we justify it , when others declare war, we say, it is unjust. Then who can justify war? Man should not follow the law of the jungle to overcome human problems.”

The most-often cited quote from the suttas declaring Buddhas opposition to war comes from the Sumyatta Nikaya (The Connected Discourse of the Buddha) 42.3, “Yodhajiva Sutta: To Yodhajiva (The Warrior)”:
When a warrior strives & exerts himself in battle, his mind is already seized, debased, & misdirected by the thought: 'May these beings be struck down or slaughtered or annihilated or destroyed. May they not exist.' If others then strike him down & slay him while he is thus striving & exerting himself in battle, then with the breakup of the body, after death, he is reborn in the hell called the realm of those slain in battle. But if he holds such a view as this: 'When a warrior strives & exerts himself in battle, if others then strike him down & slay him while he is striving & exerting himself in battle, then with the breakup of the body, after death, he is reborn in the company of devas slain in battle,' that is his wrong view. Now, there are two destinations for a person with wrong view, I tell you: either hell or the animal womb.
Thus, a warrior goes to hell -- or is reborn into the unfortunate life of a weasel or a chicken or something.

Confusion arises in the modern day where military might isn’t an event of nations bumping heads in pursuit of territory, each having a rationalization for their cause. There are times, now, when nations are ruled by despotic men or gangsters who seek nuclear capability, restrict freedom, have no empathy for the impoverished lives of their citizens, and have the will to impose their harsh regime on a wider patch of the world or to extract payment or concessions or an agreement where there would be no contribution from outsiders to bring down their regime.

Because there are global threats, the world is effectively a small place, a One World Sangha in many respects, and the military of good nations, most often, engage in efforts that are policework (or meant as policework that can go awry) and not the warrior work of Buddha’s day and age.

Who can doubt that the world effort to intervene in East Timor turned out well? Or regret that the world didn’t do more to try to prevent the Rawandan Genocide of 1994 when the Hutu leaders effected a campaign to wipe out the Tutsis and killed an estimated 800,000 to 1,000,000 Tutsis and Hutu sympathizers? President Bill Clinton’s greatest regret as president, as stated in a Frontline interview, was that he did not send in 5,000 US peacekeepers which, he said, might have saved a half million lives.

There is no doubt that military policework is not as straightforward or easy as what is done by municipal police within a city. The military of our time must first establish a stable presence where, understandably, there is likely to be resistance to foreigners.

Who can doubt that there was a path, albeit a difficult one, that Bush might have followed, “exhausting all means to preserve the peace” that would have brought a very satisfactory outcome in Iraq, with Saddam & sons exiled or ousted in a way that was complete, yet much more peaceful, and did not leave America in a quagmire with possibilities of civil war or war breaking out on Iraq‘s border?

And now there is a situation in Burma with hundreds of monks killed and a cruel regime in place. What do we do? Is it just to leave things as they are?

Burma has been under military rule since 1962. That’s 45 years, already!

Quoting wikipedia:
In May 1990, the government held free elections for the first time in almost 30 years. The National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, won 392 out of a total 489 seats, but the election results were annulled by the SLORC [the government], which refused to step down. Led by Than Shwe since 1992, the military regime has made cease-fire agreements with most ethnic guerrilla groups. In 1992, SLORC unveiled plans to create a new constitution through the National Convention, which began 9 January 1993. To date, this military-organized National Convention has not produced a new constitution despite well over ten years of operation. In 1997, the State Law and Order Restoration Council was renamed the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).
When will the people of Burma have the government they deserve? one that seeks to work for its citizens? And how is the establishment of a proper Burmese government going to be achieved? From petitions? From marches in streets outside Burma until interest dissipates and we all move on to worrying about Britany's latest randy bit of foolishness or a new, real crisis somewhere arises to grab our interest before its fifteen minutes of media attention passes, disappearing with nothing having been done?

Progressive Buddhists aren't beholdened to every word we suppose Buddha may have spoken, but doesn't it make sense to rescue people who are trapped in an Orwellian nightmare? Aren't we obligated to heroically take on illegitimate governments, somehow, some way? Forcefully?

UPDATE The hard reality in Burma: "The Burmese Way to Fascism," essay by Bertil Lintner, posted in the Far Eastern Economic Review.

Here, a paragraph near the end ...

"The bitter reality is that nothing is going to change as long as the military remains united and willing to gun down its own people. A younger generation of army officers, who see the need to negotiate with the pro-democracy movement, is probably the only hope. But for now, no one is aware of any “young Turks” lurking in the wings, and there are no signs of serious cracks within the ranks. But if change does come to Burma, it will in any event be because of action taken by such younger army officers, not demonstrations led by monks."

Tags: , , ,


  1. Tom - a rousing post indeed. I do hope it spurs discussion amongst the Progressive Buddhist community, even if they just say 'I dunno, it sure seems complicated'.

    For my part, I'll warn again of using old translations and interpretations of the Buddha's words. Too often they're filled with cultural bias and a lack of good scholarship. I'll do some searching myself for the original.

    For my part I will tentatively put my foot forward for sending in, say, 20,000 peacekeepers (US, UN, whatever) to ensure a transition to democracy -include tanks, big planes, boats, etc. I would NOT support any 'surgical' or 'preemptive' strikes. Send in big guns, but do not fire unless fired upon and then only to a minimal degree to restore order.

    But then I'm not in charge of any armies or governments except as a citizen, in which case my direct action has been contacting my congressmen.

    Other ideas?

  2. Thank you, Buddhist Philosopher [aka, Justin, not to be confused with the other Justin]

    I agree that old translations are problematical, and that 19th Century translations can be way off base. Right; it would be good to find the source and a recent translation of it.

    I want to correct what I've said about a "surgical" strike. In my dreams [since it seems unlikely any country or organization would do it but ...], a military special operations force would come in with Apache helicopters and snatch the leader and his cabinet and whist them off to Amsterdam for trial.

    I note what was reported in Buddhist Channel, today, U Gambira, a leader of the All-Burma Monks’ Alliance, hiding in Burma, expecting soon to be captured and killed, saying:

    “...I would like to make an appeal to President Bush: Please take pride as a President who has worked hard for Burma to achieve something before his term expires.

    “I might not have very long to live. I, Gambira, speaking by phone with you right now, have a very slim chance of survival. Please try your best to relieve our suffering. It will be worse in future when they [the junta] have laid down their roadmap so they can remain in power forever—it will be a blueprint to oppress us systematically. Once they establish their constitution, the Burmese people will suffer for generation after generation.”

  3. Hi Tom,

    A thought-provoking post. There are indeed real differences with the history of South Africa. However, even a dictatorship needs a level of acceptance from the populace. The monks' peaceful protests have played an important role - they have inspired millions and sent a clear and unambiguous moral message even if they were unsuccessful in the short term.

    Perhaps armed intervention is indeed needed now. But having been misled into a prolonged was in Iraq a potentially complicated intevention might be unpopular.

    There must be certin conditions in which peaceful protest alone is enough - I don't know exactly what those conditions are myself - but studying the history of SA and India should provide clues.

  4. Thank you, Ordinary Extraordinary [Justin].

    From what I learned, Gandhi and Martin Luther King were strategic in knowing whose sympathies they could arouse such that any protest movement they undertook had a route to success.

    Martin Luther King would not have marched had not there been an audience in Washington and outside the South, via TV, to witness his protests.

    Gandhi chose to march for the right for Indians to secure and market salt because the injustice by the British regime was particularly stark on that issue.

    In South Africa, arousing sympathy from white liberals there was key, turning things against the conservative government.

    In Burma, the junta is ruthless and has no pressure points. The military is encamped separate from the citizens, creating a separate society.

    My experience in the workplace is that people, generally, are easily cowed, willing to go along to get along -- easily preferring to ignore injustices so that they may keep the income flowing and their personal life ontrack.

    Thus, it would be too much to ask the Burmese to now be courageous, rise up and try to overthrow their government. They need outside help and I can't see anything other than a touch of military might that would be of value.