The Buddhist Soldier


Can you be a Buddhist soldier, sailor, marine, airman, or officer in the military?  Is there such as thing as a Buddhist soldier?  There are many debated and controversial, topics in Buddhism.  One which always stirs a debate is that of the Military (and war) and Military service by Buddhists.

For many, the perception of Buddhism being purely peaceful and non-violent (“pacifist”) has painted the religion into something it never claimed to be.  This Westerner’s interpretation of a pacifist Buddhism is not rooted in reality, or practicality, and has directly influenced the topic of the military.

You may have many questions:  Can a Buddhist be in the Military?  Can you be a good Buddhist while being a soldier?  What did the Buddha say about the Military?

Yes, they can.

While that answer may come as a shock to many, it is not unorthodox or against the Buddha’s teachings.  Although it would be easy to create a short article, this is a highly controversial subject among Buddhists, so it deserves a detailed discussion to help answer many questions that are often raised.

This article is my longest (although I would have liked to have made it much shorter), simply because of the amount of passionate debate on this issue.  My goal is to be thorough yet make the content readable.

Affiliate Links Disclosure:  This post may contain affiliate links and I may earn a small commission when you click on the links at no additional cost to you. As an Amazon Affiliate I earn from qualifying purchases. (You can read my full disclaimer here.).

An Important Reminder

This article is not about “promoting” the military, war, violence, or death.  Nor is this article promoting military forces and those who serve in them who act in aggression, violence, and criminal actions.

For example, this article is not promoting hostile military aggressors like Germany in World War I and II, Serbian forces in the Yugoslavian civil war, or countless other ruthless forces throughout history.

  • This article is aimed towards military forces and those who serve in them where the goal is the defense of their country, defending peace, fighting to free oppressed people, stop war crimes, and in general “keep the peace”.  For example, the allied forces who fought against the Nazis in World War II, UN peacekeeping forces and missions, those who fought to stop the fighting and genocide in Bosnia, etc.
  • No military is perfect, nor perfect military actions, just like there are no perfect people.  Military action (“battles”, “skirmishes”, “wars”) for those who fight for freedom and democracy are typically the “last resort” (or at least should be).
  • This article is, of course, my opinion on the subject.  I urge you to open your mind to what is being said and to discuss it with your teacher and others so you can make up your own mind.
  • The term “soldier” in this article refers to any type of military service-member (Sailor, Airman, Marine, Soldier, etc.), and reflects those in non-hostile military forces/countries/organizations.

The Middle Way of Soldiers

Photo by Sgt Frank Thompson.

If you see someone who is trying to shoot, to destroy, you have to do your best in order to prevent him or her from doing so. You must. But you must do it out of your compassion, your willingness to protect, and not out of anger. That is the key point. If you need to use force, you have to use it, but you have to make sure that you act out of compassion and a willingness to protect, not out of anger.  ~ Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh 

Buddhism has a “code of conduct” known as the Five Precepts, with the very first being to “abstain from taking life”.

Obviously, upon first interpretation, this categorically illustrates the point that Buddhism and Buddhists have no place with the military or war.  However, the Five Precepts are not commandments from a god, but instead what a Buddhist practitioner aspires to.

Buddhism also has something known as the “Middle Way“, which simply means not to go to extremes in your life but instead in moderation.  The Noble Eightfold Path, along with following the Five Precepts, helps us follow this Middle Way so we can finally achieve Nirvana.

Military service for Buddhists can also be seen in the light of the Middle Way.

The Buddha never said that you should not be in the military (well, unless you were a monk of course), nor did he say that you should never kill, or for leaders not to have a military.  If the Buddha were to be against any of those things, he would be going to extremes, and not be rooted in reality.  The Buddha knew such extremes could, and would, cause more suffering.

For instance, if an invading army were intent on pure violence and could not be stopped by any other means, then the Middle Way supports the actions to stop their violent aggression.  Otherwise, the unwholesome karma the violent aggressors inflict would be extreme.

However, the continued extreme interpretation that Buddhism doesn’t allow military service persists mostly in the West.  This persistence exists because many want Buddhism to be what they want it to be:  peaceful and non-violent.  However, Buddhism is grounded in the reality of everyday life and rejects extremes and attachments (including your own ideas!).

To illustrate this, there is a popular story about the Two Monks and a Woman:

A senior monk and a junior monk were traveling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a very young and beautiful woman also attempting to cross. The young woman asked if they could help her.

The senior monk carried this woman on his shoulder, forded the river and let her down on the other bank. The junior monk was very upset, but said nothing.

They both were walking and senior monk noticed that his junior was suddenly silent and enquired “Is something the matter, you seem very upset?”

The junior monk replied, “As monks, we are not permitted a woman, how could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?”

The senior monk replied, “I left the woman a long time ago at the bank, however, you seem to be carrying her still.”

This story (whether true or not) helps explain that Buddhism has plenty of precepts, teachings, and methods to help you achieve enlightenment…but that should never stop you from doing what is right.  If the senior monk were too rigid in his belief in the precepts, he would have equally become uncompassionate in helping the woman.

The senior monk was able to see the situation and respond with compassion and then moved on from the situation.  The junior monk, however, was so bound by his preset beliefs, he not only was crippled into inaction but also could not escape the experience.  There are a few teachings to glean from this story, however, it should illustrate that dogmatic beliefs in rules can hinder you from doing what’s right.

For many, the rigid belief that Buddhism…and the Buddha…does not permit military service is extraordinarily strong much like the belief of the young monk in this story.  Due to this, they are unable to see (and acknowledge) why a Buddhist would ever want to be in the military.

If your country, for instance, was being invaded and people were being killed and assaulted (to include children), would you go to “extremes” with your belief in the precept of not killing in order to save these people?  Wouldn’t the karmic repercussions be worse than if you acted and killed to save?

So why would you want to break this precept and kill?  Let’s let the Buddha explain.

Did the Buddha Kill?

Photo by Vitamin on Pixabay (CC License)

For Buddhists, the first precept of not killing is so strong in their minds due to the many repercussions the action takes.  There is no doubt that killing has many unwholesome karmic actions, and the result affects everyone (even the person who kills).

But what if the killing was done out of compassion?  Much like the story of the two Monks and the Woman where the senior monk violated the precepts to act out of compassion, the Buddha did the same thing when he killed a man as explained in one of the Jataka tales (which were stories of the Buddha’s past lives).

The Skill in Means (Upayakausalya) Sutra, as translated by Mark Tatz, goes like this:

Then the Lord [Buddha] again addressed the Bodhisattva Jnanottara: “Son of the family: Once a upon a time, long before the Thus-come-one, the Worthy, the fully perfected Buddha Dipamkara, there were five hundred merchants who set sail on the high seas in search of wealth. Among the company was a doer of dark deeds, a doer of evil deeds, a robber well-trained in the art of weaponry, who had come on board that very ship to attack them. He thought, “I will kill all these merchants when they have achieved their aims and done what they set out to do, take all possessions and go to Jambu Continent.”

“Son of the family: then the merchants achieved their aims and set about to depart. No sooner had they done so, than that deceitful person thought: “Now I will kill all these merchants, take all their possessions and go to Jambu Continent. The time has come.” At the same time, among the company on board was a captain named Great Compassionate. While Captain Great Compassionate slept on one occasion, the deities who dwelt in that ocean showed him in a dream: ‘’’Among this ship’s company is a person named so and so, of such and such sort of physique, of such and such, garb, complex, and shape—a robber mischievous, a thief of others’ property. He is thinking,” I will kill all these merchants, take all their possessions and go to Jambu Continent.”

To kill these merchants would create formidable evil karma for that person. Why so? These five hundred merchants are all progressing toward supreme, right and full awakening; they are each irreversible from awakening. If he should kill these Bodhisattvas, the fault—the obstacle caused by the deed—would cause him to burn in the great hells for as long as it take each one of these Bodhisattva to achieve supreme, right and full awakening, consecutively. Therefore, Captain, think of some skill in means to prevent this person from killing the five hundred merchants and going to the great hells because of the deed.’

“Son of the family: Then the captain Great Compassionate awoke. He considered what means there might be to prevent that person from killing the five hundred merchants and going to the great hells. Seven days passed with a wind averse to sailing to Jambu Continent. Without wind during those seven days he plunged deep into thought, not speaking to anyone. “He thought, ‘There is no means to prevent this from slaying the merchants and going to the great hells but to kill him.’ “And he thought, ‘if I were to report this to the merchants, they would kill and slay him with angry thoughts and all go to the great hells themselves.’ “And he thought, ‘if I were to kill this person, I would likewise burn in the great hells for one hundred-thousand eons because of it. Yet I can bear to experience the pain of the great hells, that this person not slay these five hundred merchants and develop so much evil karma. I will kill this person myself.

“Son of the family: Accordingly, the captain Great Compassionate protected those five hundred merchants and protected that person from going to the great hells, by deliberately stabbing and slaying that person who was a robber with a spear, with great compassion and skill in means. And all among the company achieved their aims and each went to his own city. Son of the family. At that time, in that life I was none other than the Captain Great Compassionate. Have no second thought or doubt on this point. The five hundred merchants on board the five hundred Bodhisattvas who are to niranize to supreme, right and full awakening in this auspicious eon.

“Son of the family: For me, Samsara was curtailed for one hundred-thousand eons because of that skill in means and great compassion. And the robber died to be reborn in a world of paradise. The five hundred merchants on board are the hundred future Buddhas of the auspicious eon. Son of the family, what do you think of this? Can curtailing birth and death for one hundred-thousand eons with that skill in means and that great compassion with gnosis of skill in means be regarded as the Bodhisattva’s obstacle caused by past deeds? Do not view it in that way. That should be regarded as his very skill in means.”

This story is very profound as the Buddha in a past life killed a man who was going to kill 500 people on his ship.  This clearly violated the first precept of not killing, yet the Buddha cited this as an example of compassion and skill in means.  How so?

Much like a soldier, the Buddha as Captain Great Compassionate killed the man who would murder to not only save the lives of the merchants on the ship, but also to spare them from the unwholesome karma of having to kill this man.  While it is “ideal” not to kill, to be extreme with “not killing” can also lead to catastrophic unwholesome karma.  The Buddha in this story accepted the unwholesome karma his action would have upon him out of pure compassion for others.  How many of us would sacrifice in that way?

Now let me be clear…I’m not telling you to go out and start stabbing “bad” people.  Absolutely not.  We have police forces, judicial systems, etc., that can all help us in most circumstances.  The Buddha’s story was not meant to be “gospel” saying “thou shalt stab all bad people on boats to death”.  Not at all.  The Buddha often used many techniques, such as stories, to help explain complicated topics in Buddhism.

Barbara O’Brien wrote about the Jataka tale of the compassionate captain in a larger context:

Buddhists through the ages have debated whether it’s morally acceptable to kill one being to save the lives of many, or whether the dharma requires us to stand aside and let events take their course rather than break the First Precept. My understanding is that Theravada tends to come down on the “hands off” side of the argument, whereas Mahayana takes a more interventionist position.

The tale about the captain might be construed as a permission slip to go about killing “bad” people. However, dividing humanity into “good” and “bad” is an act of vast ignorance. And it should go without saying that if the act is contaminated by the least bit of greed, hate, or ignorance, there will be unfortunate consequences to the doer.

Buddhist Chaplain Mikel Ryuho Monnett wrote about this Jataka tale, and the killing of Osama Bin-Laden on how President Obama’s decision, was like the Buddha’s role as the Captain:

But even if the Christian Obama believed as Buddhists do – that to take this action would bond him forever to Osama Bin Laden until such time as both had exhausted their negative karma and achieved enlightenment – I still think he would (reluctantly) make the same decision Like Siddhartha the sea captain, the responsibility was his, the decision was his, and the consequences were his to assume and he did, for the good of his people.  That’s what makes a great cakravartin.

Soldiers take on the greatest responsibility and consequences and can face untold unwholesome karma but can through these actions bring about compassion at the same time.

In their absence, a catastrophic fate can unfold just like what would have happened if Captain Great Compassionate had not acted.

The Karma of Soldiers

While in a time of war soldiers face the greatest prospect of receiving unwholesome karma to protect and free others from hostile aggression.  But there is much more to the Karma of soldiers than just the “unwholesome” part.

For a soldier, they are the first to be against war, fighting, and killing because they know the horrors of war and the physical, mental, and emotional impact it has on them and others.  They don’t need to know what “karma” is, because they experience it firsthand.

So, what is a soldier to do?  One of the best explanations comes from Major General Ananda Weerasekera (a commanding officer in Sri Lanka who later entered the Buddhist Order in 2007) as he explained in his article on this topic:

However it should be stressed that a soldier like all others is subject to the law of Kamma and will not escape the Kammic fruits of “taking the Life” of a sentient being (panatipatha) even though he may have had the overall noble intention of protecting his country and his people.

While killing may be inevitable in a long and successful army career opportunities for merit too is unlimited for a disciplined and conscientious soldier.

A disciplined soldier fights his enemy in accordance with the best of traditions and norms maintained by an army. He doesn’t kill a defenseless person. A good soldier provides medical treatment to the injured enemy captured. He doesn’t kill prisoners of war, children, women or the aged. A disciplined soldier destroys his enemy only when his or the lives of his comrades are in danger.

Soldier is one who thrives for peace within because he is one who realizes the pain of his own wounds. He is one who sees the bloody destruction of war, the dead, the suffering etc. Hence his desire to bring peace to himself as well as to the others by ending the war as soon as possible. He not only suffers during the war but even after the war. The painful memories of the battles he fought linger in him making his aspire for true and lasting peace within and without. Hence the common phenomenon of transformation of brutal kings having an insatiable desire to conquer to incomparable and exemplary righteous kings such as Drarmasoka king of Mourian dynasty of India.

Let’s go back to the Buddha’s story of the Captain Compassionate.  Stephen Jenkins wrote why the Buddha did this in his previous life:

With no other way out, he compassionately stabbed the criminal to death. Captain Compassionate saved the passengers not only from murder, but from becoming murderers themselves. Unlike him, they would have killed in rage and suffered hell. He saved the criminal from becoming a mass murderer and even worse suffering. He himself generated vast karmic merit by acting with compassion.

This is a crucial point that I’ll talk more about later, but in summary, the Buddha in his past life took on unwholesome Karma so others wouldn’t have to.  If there could ever be a definition of a soldier fighting on the side of freedom, that’s it right there.  A soldier, in war, gains experiences, emotions, sights, sounds, and horror that others don’t have to witness or experience.  They take on this burden, and karma, for others.

As General Douglas McArthur famously said:

The soldier, above all other people, prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.

Tom Hanks, playing (the fictional character) Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan relates how killing makes him feel when one of his soldiers wanted to leave their mission to find Private Ryan:

You want to leave? You want to go off and fight the war? All right. All right. I won’t stop you. I’ll even put in the paperwork. I just know that every man I kill the farther away from home I feel.

While “unwholesome” karma does play a part in this topic, so does “wholesome” karma.  Right now, I am living in a country where I have not (outside of military service) experienced any effects of war where I live.  I don’t know the impact of an invading army, bombs being dropped, or a hostile occupying force.

The 442nd Regiment in the U.S. Army during WWII. Many were Buddhists.

This is because millions of soldiers fought to stop the Axis powers in World War II from fulfilling their dream of world domination.  I am also alive because of the sacrifice of those soldiers, otherwise, my existence would never have happened if Nazi Germany had not been defeated.  The wholesome karma generated for me (and billions of other people worldwide) by these soldiers continues to this day in many ways.

Wholesome karma is also obtained by soldiers in peacekeeping and humanitarian missions worldwide.  Often, soldiers are found doing anything but “fighting” to include disaster relief, medical and rescue missions, building schoolhouses, teaching civilians, building roads, and much more.

U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Sienna G. De Santes, left, with a female engagement team supporting 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, helps give a medical class during a health initiative in Sangin, Helmand province, Afghanistan, Jan. 4, 2011. During the health initiative, local health care providers were trained to treat sick and injured Afghans. (DoD photo by Lance Cpl. Joseph M. Peterson, U.S. Marine Corps/Released)
U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Sienna G. De Santes, left, with a female engagement team supporting 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, helps give a medical class during a health initiative in Sangin, Helmand province, Afghanistan, Jan. 4, 2011. During the health initiative, local health care providers were trained to treat sick and injured Afghans. (DoD photo by Lance Cpl. Joseph M. Peterson, U.S. Marine Corps/Released)

Things that are “military” in nature, often find their way back into our world in a positive way.  For example, the method you are using to read this article right now…the “internet”…was created by the United States military entirely for entirely one purpose:  so military bases could communicate during times of nuclear war so we could coordinate military actions.  Now, you are using it to learn about Buddhism and untold other topics.  Dwell on that one for a minute.

To learn more about Karma in general, please read my article here.

The Buddhist Soldier:  Right Livelihood?

So, let’s get to the big question…can a Buddhist also be a soldier?  Yes, they can.

According to Major General Ananda Weerasekera:

Soldiering was accepted by the Buddha as a noble profession.  The soldier was known as “Rajabhata”.  Buddha did not permit rajabata to become monks whilst in service as a soldier.

That’s an important distinction because a monastic (monk or nun) is not allowed to be a soldier, but that didn’t apply to the laity (“regular” people).  A monastic is taking that “extra step” that takes them away from the world of laity and into the religious world.  They are taking an ultimate sacrifice by “giving up” a lot of things to progress in the path, so becoming a soldier would not make much sense.

For example, we often see chaplains in the military, but they don’t pick up a gun or kill anyone…their mission is religious and to help the soldier (person), not military tactical objectives.

The Buddha even explained (to at least one King) about having an Army, as Weerasekera explained (the Sutta referenced is DN26):

In ‘chakkavatti- sihanada sutta’ (The Lion’s Roar on the Turning of Wheel) of the long discourses of the Buddha, Buddha justified the requirement of the king having an Army to provide guard, protection and security for different classes of people in the kingdom from internal and external threats. It refers to a Wheel Turning monarch named Dalhanemi, a righteous monarch of the law, conqueror of the four quarters who had established the security of his realm and was possessed of the seven treasures. He had more than 1000 sons who were heroes, of heroic stature, conquerors of the hostile army. Explaining the noble duties of a righteous king, Buddha also pointed out the advice given to the king in regard to his obligation to provide security for its people. The advisor tells the king ” my son, yourself depending on the Dhamma, revering it, doing homage to it, and venerating it having the Dhamma as your badge and banner, acknowledging the Dhamma as your master, you should establish guard, ward and protection according to Dhamma for your own household, your troops in the Army, your nobles and vassals, for Brahmins and householders, town and countryfolk, ascetics and Brahmins, for beasts and birds. Let no crime prevail in your kingdom”

Explaining further the duties of a righteous king, Buddha states, “…Son, the people of your kingdom should from time to time come to you and consult you as to what is to be followed and what is not to be followed, what is wholesome and what not wholesome, and what action will in the long run lead to harm and sorrow, welfare and happiness. You should listen and tell them to avoid evil and to do what is good for the country. This sutta clearly indicates that Buddhism permits a king to have an army since a righteous king, who is also the commander of the army, knows, the righteous way to engage the army and to protect his people.

While some may argue that the Buddha was not advocating for an army, the Buddha taught in the world as it is.  This means an army would exist, and the Buddha gave teachings on how a monarch could run their army as skillfully as possible.

Barbara O’Brien referenced in her article about war and Buddhism an explanation by Ven. Dhammananda in his article “What Buddhist Believe“:

Buddhists should not be the aggressors even in protecting their religion or anything else. They must try their best to avoid any kind of violent act. Sometimes they may be forced to go to war by others who do not respect the concept of the brotherhood of humans as taught by the Buddha. They may be called upon to defend their country from external aggression, and as long as they have not renounced the worldly life, they are duty-bound to join in the struggle for peace and freedom. Under these circumstances, they cannot be blamed for becoming soldiers or being involved in defence. However, if everyone were to follow the advice of the Buddha, there would be no reason for war to take place in this world. It is the duty of every cultured person to find all possible ways and means to settle disputes in a peaceful manner, without declaring war to kill his or her fellow human beings.

In modern times, we have seen Buddhists join and fight in wars, often on different sides.

In World War II, Buddhists in Japan fought in the “Axis” powers (along with Nazi Germany), whereas in America, Japanese-American Buddhists (who were essentially imprisoned due to their heritage) volunteered to fight for the “Allied” forces.

These Japanese-Americans famously fought as the U.S. 100th Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and was awarded the most medals out of any combat unit in the European theater saving many lives (including the heroic rescue of the “lost battalion” where they had horrific casualty rates) and liberation of the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau.

They suffered one of the highest casualty rates in the Army at 93%, sacrificing themselves to save not only the world from greater suffering but also other Allied soldiers (who may, or may not, have even held racist views against them).

And even non-Buddhists in the military have shown immense Bodhisattva nature by protecting innocent people from death, violence, and destruction.  

One that comes to mind is Hugh Thompson, Jr., a U.S. Army helicopter pilot during the Vietnam war.  Thompson is best known for his role in stopping the My Lai Massacre, where a group of U.S. Army soldiers attacked and murdered many unarmed Vietnamese civilians.  He, along with his crew of Glen Andreotta and Lawrence Colburn, intervened to save Vietnamese civilians from a massacre by a U.S. Army unit.  While flying overhead, he said on the radio:

It looks to me like there’s an awful lot of unnecessary killing going on down there. Something ain’t right about this. There’s bodies everywhere. There’s a ditch full of bodies that we saw. There’s something wrong here.

Without concern for his safety or career, Thompson and his team intervened to save as many lives as possible, and he often confronted the force (face-to-face) that was committing the atrocities.  After the incident, he made an official report about the killings.

Due to this report, senior U.S. Army Division officers canceled planned operations against other villages in Quang Ngai providence.  It is estimated that the cancellation of these operations may have saved hundreds or thousands of Vietnamese civilians.  Many years later Thompson and his crew were recognized and decorated for their heroism at My Lai.

The type of action Thompson took to save lives was exactly with the Buddhist teachings, even though he was not a Buddhist.  To help explain a Buddhist’s (and non-Buddhist’s) soldiers’ role in the world, Captain Thomas Dyer, the first U.S. Army Buddhist Chaplain, said:

The teachers understand that there has to be protection of what is right what is beautiful and what is good in this world.  If not its going to create more suffering more death more disease.  So a Buddhist can put on an Army uniform, pick up an M4, lock and load with a clear conscience with right intention to do good, to protect, to serve, and defend.

So, if a Buddhist does become a solider, they must always be mindful that if they kill as part of their profession that they understand the following:

  • That killing is ultimately faulty (and a violation of “natural” law)
  • That they should not rejoice in the killing
  • They should regret the action

Captain Dyer created procedures to help those in the military reconcile being in the military (in his case, with Army soldiers), and being a Buddhist:

Buddhist Soldiers have to deal with issues of livelihood: How do I view myself as a Buddhist and a Soldier who carries a weapon?” he said. “I have developed procedures that help them see themselves as a force for good in the world, protecting what’s beautiful and right. It allows them to promote happiness and reduce suffering in the world. I try to teach those things to Buddhist Soldiers.

The Buddhist Soldier:  Why Fight?

War is not entirely a matter of slaughtering innocents.  Some armies fight with values in their minds; some fight for the sake of punishing villains and thugs, some fight to save the people from misery, while others fight to defend their country.  During war, it is also possible to express love and compassion, engender the aspiration for awakening, practice the Bodhisattva path, and bring comfort to the injured.  But of course, war should only be an instrument of last resort, so when war is not absolutely necessary, it is best to first employ other methods, such as the power of peace, morality, and inspiration.  These are far superior to the weapons of war.  ~  Ven. Master Hsing Yun, as said in his book “Life”

When it comes to “war” or “fighting”, the soldier often has an insignificant impact in deciding when to go as these are often made by their superiors (and national leaders).

Major General Ananda Weerasekera explained the causes of war, and why it needs to be eliminated:

War is violence, killing, destruction, blood and pain. Has Buddha accepted these? According to Buddha, the causes of war being greed, aversion and delusion are deep rooted in human mind. The milestones of the path being seela, samadhi and panna make the human being realize the causes that contribute to warfare and for the need for the eradication of same.

One of the most obvious reasons why a country goes to war, is the elimination of suffering, as Major General Weerasekera explained, which is very much a Buddhist view.

For example, during World War II, the Nazi’s were killing millions of civilians to make (or at least put in charge) a single “master Aryan race”.  Without a decisive defeat of Nazi Germany, millions more innocent people would have been murdered simply because of their ethnicity, religion, or views.  That was but one horrible impact of the Nazi’s thirst for world domination, but there were many others such as the forced occupation of countries, imprisonment of civilians, and loss of freedoms.  This video shows the horrors of the concentration camps:

But what if all that could have never happened?  In World War I, a young Adolf Hitler was in the trenches fighting with the Central Powers against the Allied Powers.  At one of the defeats where the Germans were retreating, Hitler was wounded and without a weapon.  A British Soldier, Private Henry Tandey, had Hitler in his sights but did not shoot him.  As he said:

“I took aim but couldn’t shoot a wounded man,” Tandey remembered, “so I let him go.” The German soldier nodded in thanks and disappeared.

What Private Tandey did was the right thing at the time and the sign of a professional soldier.  There was no way he would ever know (or could imagine) that this German soldier (if it was truly Adolf Hitler who was used mainly as a lowly “message runner”) would ever become the ruthless dictator of Germany.

The situation does make for one of the most discussed in historical circles:  what if Tandey did kill Hitler?  What is most interesting is that Hitler was forever changed by his life being saved and was obsessed with learning more about the soldier who spared his life, although that was not enough for him to forgo hate.

Stephen Jenkins wrote in his article “It’s not so strange for a Buddhist to endorse killing“:

At Harvard in April 2009, the Dalai Lama explained that “wrathful forceful action” motivated by compassion, may be “violence on a physical level” but is “essentially nonviolence”. So we must be careful to understand what “nonviolence” means. Under the right conditions, it could include killing a terrorist.

Even the Dalai Lama, who is often perceived as the beacon of pacifism in Buddhism, acknowledges the middle way when it comes to killing and military actions.  I’ve included the video here, and go to time index of 59 minutes and 57 seconds in the lecture where the question and answer was presented:

Mitchell Landsberg reported how the Dalai Lama talked about the assassination of Osama Bin Laden:

As a human being, Bin Laden may have deserved compassion and even forgiveness, the Dalai Lama said in answer to a question about the assassination of the Al Qaeda leader. But, he said, “Forgiveness doesn’t mean forget what happened. … If something is serious and it is necessary to take counter-measures, you have to take counter-measures.”

Recently, I watched a documentary about World War I and II on the History Channel, and this quote by Senator Joe Lieberman stood out to me on why we fight:

History tells us that people are capable of evil unless good people are willing to fight people capable of evil, evil will triumph.

Senator Lieberman puts it into context that if we don’t fight “evil” (and as Buddhists we need to acknowledge that as a label), greater suffering can occur.

From the Dalai Lama to the first Buddhist Chaplain Thomas Dyer, we have heard how they have stated that when we are fighting for what is right in order to defend, liberate, and help we are following the right path in ending the suffering of others.

Warfare is, and should always be our last option.  We should strive to resolve things through all options we have available, but never at the expense of doing what’s right (namely preventing massacres, genocides, etc.).  As Carl von Clausewitz said in his famous quote:

War is a continuation of politics by other means.

And during war, a soldier should strive to uphold the Buddhist teachings as best we can (as stated earlier:  “He doesn’t kill a defenseless person. A good soldier provides medical treatment to the injured enemy captured. He doesn’t kill prisoners of war, children, women, or the aged. A disciplined soldier destroys his enemy only when his or the lives of his comrades are in danger.”).

Barbara O’Brien helps to explain about our Buddhist views when it comes to war and Buddhism:

Buddhism challenges us to look beyond a simple right/wrong dichotomy. In Buddhism, an act that sows the seeds of harmful karma is regrettable even if it unavoidable. Sometimes Buddhists fight to defend their nations, home and family. This is not “wrong.” Yet even in these circumstances, to harbor hate for one’s enemies is still a poison. And any act of war that sows the seeds of future harmful karma is still akusala.

Buddhist morality is based on principles, not rules. Our principles are those expressed in the Precepts and the Four Immeasurables — loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. Our principles also are kindness, gentleness, mercy and tolerance. Even the most extreme circumstances do not erase those principles or make it “righteous” or “good” to violate them.

Yet neither is it “good” or “righteous” to stand aside while innocent people are slaughtered. And the late Ven. Dr. K Sri Dhammananda, a Theravadin monks and scholar, said, “The Buddha did not teach His followers to surrender to any form of evil power be it a human or supernatural being.”

I would like to leave you with what is widely known as the best speech in cinematic history by Charlie Chaplain.

From his movie, The Great Dictator (1940), Chaplain purposely mocked Hitler and the Axis powers through the story-line (in the movie, he is a Jewish barber who just happens to look like the dictator and is mistaken for him…and thus becomes the ‘dictator’…while the real dictator is mistaken for the barber and arrested).  At the time of this film, America was at “peace” with Germany, but that didn’t stop Chaplain from stirring up controversy.

This speech (where the Jewish Barber is pretending to be the Dictator and uses this position to promote peace and democracy instead) is a fantastic commentary not only on war, power, and greed…but what we should be striving for in the world (soldiers included):

The Buddhist Soldier:  Violating the First Precept?

Any discussion of military service for a Buddhist inevitably comes right back to the First Precept which is “I undertake the training rule to abstain from killing (Pāṇātipātā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi)”.

As explained in the first section of this article, The Middle Way of Soldiers, the precepts are not commandments or rules.  The topic of the first precept is truly an article within itself, but due to the relevancy to this article, I will cover it to a certain extent here.

Barbara O’Brien explains the precepts in this way:

Most religions have moral and ethical rules and commandments. Buddhism has Precepts, but it’s important to understand that the Buddhist Precepts are not a list of rules to follow.

In some religions moral laws are believed to have come from God, and breaking those laws is a sin or transgression against God. But Buddhism doesn’t have a God, and the Precepts are not commandments. However, that doesn’t exactly mean they’re optional, either.

Ven. Master Hsing Yun explained that:

The fact that the Buddha’s formulation of the precepts can be at times permissive or prohibitive also proves that the precepts are not unchangeable.  They vary according to the particular circumstances when and where something happens, and depend upon who is involved.

And Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh said:

The Buddhist precept of non-killing extends even further, to include all living beings.  However, no one, not even a buddha or bodhisattva, can observe this precept to perfection.  When we take a small step or boil a cup of water, we kill many tiny living beings.  The essence of this precept is to make every effort to respect and protect life, to continuously move in the direction of non-killing.  We can try our best, even if we cannot succeed one hundred percent.

If the First Precept is Violated, Are You Still a Buddhist?

In Buddhism, a practitioner often becomes an “official” (for lack of a better term) “Buddhist” (there is that label again) by taking “refuge” in the Triple Gem (refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha).  Although this is not “mandatory”, it helps one connect with their intention to move forward in their path with Buddhism.  You’ll notice you don’t have to take the Five Precepts [ceremony] at that time of refuge in the Triple Gem unless you want to.  Often, when you are ready, you can progress to taking the Five Precepts which is the second step (regardless, practitioners strive to follow them as best they can at any point in their practice).  Therefore, even though we may “violate” a “precept”, many Buddhists have not taken the Five Precepts formally as of yet as part of their practice, which is quite normal.  Further, breaking the precepts is a normal course of any person’s life (many may “lie” or “kill [bugs, etc.]”), but it is a learning experience as they progress on the path of Buddhism.

We “view” modern Buddhism a certain way, however, quite a few things have only occurred in recent history (the 19th and 20th centuries when the laity wanted to be more included, in Mahayana).  For example, in ancient Buddhism, only monastics were to commit to the Five Precepts, but that was never a requirement of the laity (they were “encouraged” to commit to the Five Precepts, but it was not mandatory).  It is only with modern Buddhism that we believe that committing to the precepts has always been mandatory (it still isn’t) for non-monastics.

Ven. Master Hsing Yun explained that the Buddha took the precepts in a “permissive” aspect as well:

The Buddha considered all aspects of the precepts and monastic rules fully and completely.  The Buddhist precepts and monastic rules are not merely negative prohibitions against things; there is a permissive aspect as well.  For example, if a bodhisattva who observes the precepts sees a robber preparing to kill living beings, the bodhisattva would end the life of that robber out of a sense of compassion.  The bodhisattva would not be able to bear allowing the robber to create such negative karma that he would be reborn in hell.  This is an example of when the precept against killing can be suspended.

Do Soldiers Have a “Choice”?

It is brought up that soldiers often “do not have a choice” in killing and must “line up” and shoot, whereas others do have a choice.  Is a soldier truly this “robot” that is explained this way?  Of course not.

A soldier in an ethical military does not have to follow unlawful orders, which means they don’t have to follow orders which are “criminal”.  If you recall the My Lai Massacre that was explained earlier in this article, the defense of “I was just following orders” (which has been used as a defense throughout the ages, to include with the Nazis committing genocide), didn’t fly during the court-martial.

During the Vietnam war, plenty of cases of “I was only following orders” came up and didn’t protect those who committed illegal acts.   In one case where an elderly Vietnamese man was killed (the soldiers superior told the soldier to kill him, thus the “I was only following orders” defense), The Court of Military Appeals held that “the justification for acts done pursuant to orders does not exist if the order was of such a nature that a man of ordinary sense and understanding would know it to be illegal.

So, we do know that a soldier is not a pre-programmed robot who cannot object to illegal orders.

While it is true that while serving, those who do “fight” (remember, not everyone in the military uses weapons) are required to follow lawful orders which means that killing an “enemy” force is required during battle.  But it does not mean they can kill unarmed soldiers (prisoners of war), torture, etc. (many countries abide by the Geneva Convention for the treatment of prisoners of war, as well as many other parts to include protection of civilians).  The military has been swift to court-martial those who have committed such actions.

Intentions Matter

Ven. Master Hsing Yun responded to a practitioner who was genuinely concerned that she would have bad Karma due to her livelihood, which involved the processing and cooking of meat for her family:

Obviously, she is not a soldier, but she is still engaged in “killing”.  Part of his explanation went like this:

Sometimes you don’t want to do the killing, but you are required to do so by other people.

In Buddhism the way to determine the severity of the transgression is based on whether your thoughts are there or not.

Therefore, if you are doing this act without intention, you are not doing it just because you want to. And look you are even willing to repent, so rest assured.

That’s important, because if you are in service as a soldier and…even though you are “ordered” to kill…your intention is key in the act of violating the first precept.

Ven. S. Dhammika helps to explain intention:

Any thoughts, speech or actions that are rooted in greed, hatred and delusion and thus lead us away from Nirvana are bad and any thoughts, speech or actions that are rooted in giving, love and wisdom and thus help clear the way to Nirvana are good. To know what is right and wrong in god-centered religions, all that is needed is to do as you are told. But in a human-centered religion like Buddhism, to know what is right or wrong, you have to develop a deep self-awareness and self-understanding. And ethics based on understanding are always stronger than those that are a response to a command. So to know what is right and wrong, the Buddhist looks at three things – the intention, the effect the act will have upon oneself and the effect it will have upon others. If the intention is good (rooted in giving, love and wisdom), if it helps myself (helps me to be more giving, more loving and wiser) and help others (helps them to be more giving, more loving and wiser), then my deeds and actions are wholesome, good and moral. Of course, there are many variations of this. Sometimes I act with the best of intentions but it may not benefit either myself or others. Sometimes my intentions are far from good, but my action helps others nonetheless. Sometimes I act out of good intentions and my acts help me but perhaps cause some distress to others. In such cases, my actions are mixed – a mixture of good and not-so-good. When intentions are bad and the action helps neither myself nor others, such an action is bad. And when my intention is good and my action benefits both myself and others, then the deed is wholly good.

In other words: intention matters, which is a concept that expands to everything in Buddhism, not just killing.  However, this doesn’t mean the person committing the act is off the hook, as the karma inflicted by killing still exists and it is not “skillful” (as the Buddha would say).  This was explained earlier in the article with Did The Buddha Kill and The Karma of Soldiers where regardless of the overall “benefit” of the killing in order to save others, the person who committed the act will be affected

As Ven. S. Dhammika explained:

So at times it may be necessary to kill but it is never wholly good.

Soraj Hongladarom wrote:

Suppose there is a crazy and evil man who is about to push a nuclear bomb button which will result in the death of millions of people. Suppose further that the only way to stop this guy is to shoot and kill him (suppose further that shooting to main him is not enough). Then the bodhisattva, realizing that this guy is about to commit grievous sin which will lead to countless lives in the lower realms, kills the guy in order to save him from committing the crime and also to save the millions of lives. In that case, is the bodhisattva justified in doing so?

Let us remember that in Buddhism it is the intention or motivation in doing an act that is the key, and not the actual nature of the act itself. Thus if the nature of an act is such that it is one of killing, then it is ultimately the motivation behind the act that counts. Hence the bodhisattva is justified in killing the mad man because his intention is a pure one.

Ven. Master Hsing Yun explained more about intention:

Buddhism places an extraordinary degree of emphasis upon the intention behind a transgression.

Owing to differences in motive, manner, and result, breaking the same precept can be seen as different degrees of violation with varying forms of repentance.  In this way the Buddhist precepts represent a more thorough approach to jurisprudence.

Alternatively, some actions which are considered crimes in the secular world may be seen as acceptable in Buddhism.  For example, taking a human life is inherently a crime, but one can also take a life to save lives.  Even the Buddha, while he was practicing the bodhisattva path in a previous life, killed one person so that he could save on hundred people.  Thus we can see how the compassion of a bodhisattva expresses itself through the wisdom of skillful means.

Final Thoughts

June 17, 2012, in Manchester, England, the Dalai Lama met with Gurkhas (traditionally Buddhist or Hindu). Buddhists would not get upset if the Dalai Lama were meeting with inmates in prison who have murdered, but a picture of him with soldiers creates quite a stir all due to perceptions.  (Dalai Lama’s Facebook)

You may disagree with me on some, or all, of this article and that is OK.

Just like the picture of the Dalai Lama above speaking with soldiers, everyone can receive the transmission of the Dharma and can practice being a Buddhist even as a soldier.

In fact, we often neglect to remember that the Buddha, when he was a prince, was not only a member of the ruling caste but also of the warrior caste (where he showed great skill in the warrior craft).

We can even look to the great Buddhist King Ashoka (who, without a doubt, was the greatest influence in spreading Buddhism) who was once a brutal warrior King, who then learned of the Dharma and created one of the most respected and peaceful regimes that spread the Dharma in many directions.

Buddhism teaches of causes and conditions, and how it affects not only the world around us, but especially ourselves.

While being a soldier can mean taking a life, it does not always mean that will be the outcome.  Take the view of a law enforcement officer (“police officer”) who also carry weapons, but statistically rarely if ever use their weapon during their entire career.  What would happen if we had no police?  Would you want to live in a world where no laws made by the people were enforced to have a peaceful society?  The same holds true for soldiers in a much larger context.

If we were to never act to defend ourselves and others from violence or to save and protect others who are in desperate need, then I personally believe we are committing a greater form of unwholesome karma.  Just like in World War II, no amount of non-violence would have ever stopped Hitler from exterminating an entire race of people (genocide).  It took a massive military effort to stop him and restore balance and peace to the world.

As Edmund Burke said (which should be updated to modern times to include women):

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

We do not live in a perfect world and live in a reality where there is suffering on many levels.  However, just like the lotus flower pushing up through the dark muddy water so it can blossom (a classic symbol of enlightenment), soldiers who are saving others from unwholesome karma (violence, etc.) often can be viewed as the mud that feeds the nutrients to the flower.

Regardless of your views of the military, soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, police officers, or any other profession or organization that works in the defense of a country, your efforts and discussion would best be directed in helping them not have to fight.

Donate to worldwide charities that help those who are poor and disadvantaged so they will not have to suffer and rise to violent actions in their land.

Help others learn and grow by helping funding children to complete grade school, and hopefully even college.

Travel, if you can, and not only “visit” but “become engaged” and help with others.  They will remember your involvement and not their perceptions of what your country is like (based on politicians).

Engaged Buddhism is the one key you can use to help create a “Pure Land” here on Earth, so that the need for war, and thus soldiers, will no longer be necessary.

As Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, who was a monk during the Vietnam war and created the Order of Interbeing, said:

We may think of peace as the absence of war, that if the great powers would reduce their weapons arsenals, we could have peace. But if we look deeply into the weapons, we will see our own minds – our own prejudices, fears, and ignorance.

“Yeah, But…”

After this article published, there were quite a few questions, comments, and continued concerns brought up that I’d like to address in one section here.  The idea that a Buddhist practitioner can be in a profession that may “kill”, is still an extremely sensitive (and repulsive) topic to many.  There have been quite a few “angles” I’ve heard to still attack the thought that a Buddhist can be a soldier (or a police officer, etc.).

My two Dharma teachers are Ven. Master Hsing Yun (who started the exceptionally large lay Buddhist group built on Humanistic Buddhism) and Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh (who developed his teachings based on Ven. Master Hsing Yun) who famously created the Order of Interbeing and was friends with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr during the Vietnam War.

  • Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh lived in a world consumed by one of the deadliest wars of the 20th century (after WWII, of course), with much suffering, so I will deeply integrate his messages in this section.
  • Ven. Master Hsing Yun went through eight years of wars and conflicts from violent revolutions, to the Japanese invasion of China, and more.  He’s seen and experienced massive suffering (he even had to sleep among the dead during a period of war).

If there were two Buddhist teachers who would be opposed to war and promoting worldwide peace, it would be my two Dharma teachers (in my humble opinion) based on their experiences of living through violent revolutions and horrific war.  Their views may surprise you.

Here are five things I’d like to explain:

The Military is not perfect, nor are the people in it, and who lead it.

I’ve talked about this before in the article, but human beings make up “the military” and “governments”.  This is both a good thing and a bad thing, of course.

  • Great compassion can be shown, as well as unimaginable suffering.  However, to criticize the military while letting other institutions off is extreme.  Buddhists may look to their own religion for plenty of failings of humans (remember, Buddhists…be they laypersons or monastics…are still human beings as well) where “Buddhists” have attacked and killed other groups, sexual abuse by Buddhist monastics, and incorrect teachings by Buddhist monastics that lead to suffering, gender discrimination by both lay and monastic Buddhists, and much more.
  • If we apply the same logic to the Military…that they are not perfect…then we must apply it to everything and should even give up on Buddhism since even that is not perfect.  Of course, that is extremes which is my point.  As Buddhists, we follow the “middle way” throughout our lives, and Military service is no different (as I explained earlier in this article).

Military spending does not equal a brutal military force.

Out of all the countries in the world, America spends the most money on their military…which really irks those opposed to war.  But why is this?

Historically, America has spent the least amount of money on its military and stayed out of conflicts worldwide numerous times.  We learned…in blood…that this was a horribly disastrous view.  Not having a strong military, supporting appeasement, and not wanting to get involved in “others” conflicts led directly to two major world wars.

Don’t take my word for it, this is a historical fact.  Our Military forces were pathetic, our lack of interest in “Europe’s war” led to millions of innocent lives being taken, and countless suffering.  Proactive engagement, to include battles/wars, would have drastically changed the outcome of both wars. We learned that lesson and are actively engaged worldwide nowadays due to this continuous lesson we have learned.

This does not mean, however, that everything America (or other countries do) is correct, perfect, or good.  Even the American military will tell you that.

For example, the Vietnam war was partly a political war that was born out of America’s desire to support the colonial system after World War II.  North Vietnam and South Vietnam, however, actually wanted to join…but that was opposed by America because France wanted to re-institute its colonial rule over a country.

North Vietnam actually was in love with the American ideals and wanted to model their constitution and country after it (albeit with the Communist economic model rather than Capitalist, which played a huge role in America’s eventual Cold War strategy with Vietnam).

They were, however, ignored and prevented from even having a North/South “vote” democratically if both wanted to join…because America wanted to support France, an old ally.  And we know the rest of that story.  Plenty of Americans, for instance, fought in that war and not only had to kill, but had to suffer as well.  Many did completely believe in their mission to protect South Vietnam, without knowing the whole story (which will bring us into another topic later).  But, as I described earlier in my article, we also saw great humanity and compassion.

As soldiers, options are limited in what you can do (there is, of course, a mission you are ordered to follow), but you do always have the power to be compassionate and apply Buddhist teachings (and be a Bodhisattva when needed).  I would gladly see Bodhisattva’s be soldiers (as unusual as that sounds), as I know they would have the best ability to be compassionate at the right moments.

An Army (or Navy, Air Force, etc.) is made up of people, and you will always want the best people in there to do the right thing.  If you would not serve, then you leave it entirely open to those who may (for instance) love violence.  Three men during the Vietnam war (as described earlier) made a dramatic impact in saving countless lives.  Imagine if they never served?  We need people like that to always ensure balance, professionalism, and compassion run through the veins of any military.

As Ven. Master Hsing Yun said:

All wars are not equal, but how can the positives and negatives of war be ascertained?  War kills and wounds countless numbers and destroys human history and culture, yet war can also facilitate human civilization.  A country must be strong and prosperous, so it cannot completely dispense with a national defense and military weapons.  Following the Second World War, the Pope called for world peace, and the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin asked, “How many troops does the Pope have?”  A country cannot do without military force to back it up, but neither can it completely rely upon such military force.  For example, the United States has participated in the Korean and Vietnam wars; now it is embroiled in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and there remain many problems that have not been solved by these means.  In addition to the fields of science and armaments, I think that such a big and powerful country like the United States should put more energy into such areas as civil rights, humane action, freedom, and compassion if they really want wars to cease.

And that is a good point he made at the end, to which the United States does participate in.  The United States donates more aid worldwide than any other country in many ways (with a very visible USAID program that helps worldwide).

Could we do more?  Of course, and that is for the voting population to push.  It is a known fact that those who receive more education (the more education the better, such as college), are more likely to resist fanaticism and other factors that lead to conflict.  Imagine if we were able to increase the number of schools and educational opportunities worldwide!  Another known fact is that “prosperity” reduces wars and conflicts.

We are experiencing massive worldwide peace due to “being comfortable”, as society is “rich” (even if you don’t think you are, you’re probably living well compared to many decades or generations ago).

When society is not “rich”, conflicts arise for resources and greed.  Thus, economic aid that the United States provides is very vital, as it helps ensure the economic strength of countless people and countries worldwide who then lose the desire to create conflicts.  The United States may donate the most aid, but they are thankfully not alone as many other countries also contribute worldwide.  We are all, of course, in this together as one worldwide village.  The United States (along with NATO and other allies) may be the unofficial “cop” on the streets of this village, only because there are bullies lurking down some of the streets waiting for their chance.

Even as I write this, an army of terror known as ISIS is creating untold suffering in Syria and Iraq killing countless innocent people for a religious (and greedy) goal.  Minority ethnic and religious groups are being forced to convert to ISIS’s preferred form of Islam or die.  Yet, America is doing nothing (besides drone strikes if necessary, for safety, and just now providing relief supplies).  America often becomes timid in getting embroiled in conflicts, which is part of our country’s DNA.

Even though we are the unofficial worldwide “cop”, the public desire to not get involved in yet another conflict is strong…to the detriment of stopping genocides and suffering.  This was the same thing that happened after America pulled out of Somalia in the early ’90s (after the “Blackhawk Down” incident) and didn’t get involved in the massive genocide in Rwanda.  If we were not so politically timid, we could have saved a million people from ethnic cleansing.  Non-military action allowed that genocide to happen, plain and simple.

A Buddhist becoming a soldier isn’t the issue, you are.

Often, I have seen Buddhists criticize a fellow Buddhist who went into the Military profession.  Often, this criticism happens in Western countries (with their own perceptions of what Buddhism is), rather than in Buddhist countries.

What is important to understand is that “right livelihood” is not really an individual choice, it’s a collective one.  While, yes, we should be in a profession that helps us realize compassion, there is also often a lack of jobs and a need for those to be in jobs not considered right livelihood.  Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh explains this well in his book Interbeing, which was his order (and nonviolent mission) born out of the Vietnam war:

Suppose I am a school teacher and I believe that nurturing love and understanding in children is a beautiful occupation, an example of right livelihood.  I would object if someone asked me to stop teaching and become, for example, a butcher.  However, if I meditate on the interrelatedness of all things, I will see that the butcher is not solely responsible for killing animals.  He kills them for all of us who buy pieces of raw meat, cleanly wrapped and displayed at our local supermarket.  The act of killing is a collective one.  In forgetfulness, we may separate ourselves from the butcher, thinking his livelihood is wrong, while ours is right.  However, if we don’t eat meat, the butcher wouldn’t kill it or would kill less.  This is why right livelihood is  a collective matter.  The livelihood of each person affects all of us, and vice versa.  The butcher’s children may benefit from my teaching, while my children, because they eat meat, share some responsibility for the butcher’s livelihood of killing.

This is important because a soldier exists because there is an opposite force that wants to invade your country, take your resources, impose their will, etc.

As we in Buddhism know, “greed” is the reason for wars (and conflicts in general).  Just like the example of the butcher, if we as human beings are “ok” with a lack or absence of peace, safety, and security in our country, then surely we can get rid of our military.  And in that case, we also allow plenty of suffering to happen, meaning we are ok with invasions, attacks, and other things that would create widespread suffering to achieve a moral goal.

The Buddha and Buddhism don’t advocate that “extreme” view, as I explained earlier in the article.  A population and country can defend themselves.  And, yes, that includes having to “invade” another country to stop a threat or help people (we played that game of *not* “invading” another country that was a threat many times in our history, with disastrous consequences).

As Ven. Master Hsing Yun explains:

Buddhism advocates peace, but from another angle, Buddhism has its own struggle of a different sort.  Rather than fighting with others, there is a battle with one’s own afflictions. In order to subdue the demonic army of the eighty-four thousand afflictions and achieve the victory of liberation in freedom, we must wage war against our selfish desires.

If only everyone on the planet would heed that advice.

It also brings up how “we” can live in peace.  Except for my military service, I never had to worry about being in a war zone during my entire life.  This is because I live in the United States which has a massive military that is too strong to oppose by most countries (although in a nuclear age, what is really is a “too strong” military when just a few ICBM’s can destroy our country in under an hour?).

So, we can easily look at Japan, who doesn’t even have a military (but only a self-defense force and military service isn’t looked at as a good “economic” profession) and go “Ah!  Look at that!  A country that from war and defeat, rose to be peaceful and strong through economics rather than a military, and is powerful that way!”.

But that misses the point and history.  Japan was forced to not have a Military and relies mostly on the United States for safety and protection (although that is slowly changing after many decades).  Because the United States was powerful, had many bases in the region, and in Japan, other superpowers did not interfere with Japan who could then easily pursue “peaceful” economic power.

What if we were not there?  The vacuum would quickly be filled by one of the two powers there (historically, the Soviet Union wanted a piece of Japan, like they did Germany, after WWII).  It’s much like at school you can be a skinny, weakly, kid who loves to be at the library, but there is often always a “bully” (or aggressive person) filled with greed who wants to assert their power and will.  If you have someone to protect you, then you can keep to your peaceful ways because the bully knows that they don’t have an easy “vacuum” to fill, and they have to “fight” to take power.  If they think the person protecting you is less powerful, they may act upon it to see their “chances”.

We know war always has repercussions.  Even the World Wars were born out of what the Buddha said.  For example, there was massive lingering hatred after Germany was forced to sign the treaty of Versailles which ended WWI, which led directly into WWII.  And we see how “terrorism” is born from hatred.  As the Buddha said in the Middle Length Discourses:

With desire as the root cause, kings will dispute with one another … nationalities will dispute with one another; countries will dispute with one another.  Because of such conflict, they will come to hate one another, and they will take up various weapons to do harm to each other.

The United Nations (“UN”) was born directly to end World Wars (and a version of it was advocated well before the original World Wars, but was never agreed upon…if only), and has succeeded.  Have there been conflicts, wars, and battles?  Yes, there has, but we have not had a World War since even with more massively destructive weapons and armies at the disposal of governments.

While the UN is only as “powerful” as it is allowed to be (it has no standing Army, for instance, and pulls from its members to help), you often see where a powerful military….such as the United States / NATO…often comes in to truly end a devastating conflict where peace is not desired by the oppressive force causing violence (Yugoslavia in the early 90’s is a perfect example).

It’s easy to object to war (or invasion) where you don’t have all the facts.

A question posed to me was that shouldn’t a soldier object or resist being part of an army that “invades” another country, and the apparent assumption was to use the United States’ invasion of Iraq as an example.

It would be wonderful to live in a world where we had perfect clarity about a situation before becoming engaged and to know the outcome (“the future”) to know we are on the right path.  Just like in Buddhism, this isn’t always clear, and the same thing can’t be said for military action in another country (referred to as an “invasion”).

Why Invade?

Why “invade”?  Is it for safety?  Defense?  Stopping a tyrant?  Ending terrorism?  We know in Buddhism that one action leads to another, and war/conflicts often result in yet another negative (or unwholesome) reaction.

However, we have also seen positive “invasions” such as with Germany and Japan after WWII where we devoted massive resources and money to rebuild their countries, and ensure their governments/constitutions had a bit of American flair in it to become the democratic and economic powerhouses they were for many decades (and to this day).

Those outcomes were not always clear and took many years (and decades) to see the result.  Even in Afghanistan, we were able to help the most vulnerable group worldwide (in my opinion):  women.  They are often oppressed in many ways, and we were able to bring education, our values on gender rights/equality, to this country.  As we withdraw, we see the regression on women’s rights flowing into that “vacuum”.

Back to the question of “why invade”, it is not about fear or to protect ourselves, which is often the assumption, but it’s simpler than that:  desire (or greed).  We “want” to be safe, or we “want” to have the desired outcome.  At a more refined level, it boils down to “I”.  “I want to be safe”, “I don’t want to be attacked by terrorists”, etc.   While “fear” is a basic human emotion that may influence the action, it is our desire for an outcome that truly would start a military action.


Once again, governments and military forces are made up of people, and there is a collective responsibility for this.  Was there non-factual “evidence” skewed and shown to support the Iraq war?  Yes, we know that now and that resulted in the civilian government to support the war.

We often don’t have all the facts, and we can only rely on what we are given which makes any decision in life (not just “wars”) difficult.  Will mistakes be made?  I’m a realist and believe that is inevitable since we are all humans, but we should also always admit our mistakes when known.  That is not only an important thing for a country to do, but also for Buddhists in our practice.


In Buddhism, we are given all the “facts” about what the Buddha told us, but we also have “faith” that what he told was is true and correct…but we truly don’t know, right?  Until we are actually awakened/enlightened (or a Buddha), it’s all academic in that sense.  But faith keeps us on the path.

Collective Responsibility

The same holds true for military service and wars.  Soldiers have faith in democratic countries that the civilian government will not unnecessarily put them in harm’s way and place them in unjust wars.  That is all that can be expected.

And like Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh explained it’s our collective responsibility to ensure that happens.  If you despise politics and don’t get involved, then you have not taken enough responsibility to ensure the war did not happen, or that the soldiers are not forced to kill.

Volunteer Forces

Soldiers recognize, and freely give up in volunteer military forces, their right to be “full citizens” while in military service.  There is no “union” they cannot go to and “strike”.  Nor can they do several things, as they are dedicated to military service (much like a monastic would be to their religion).

When it comes to being “deployed” to a war [zone], often they do not have all the facts (but can glean what they can from the media, etc., which is not always accurate themselves).  They must trust in their leadership, just like how we trust to the Buddha and monastics/sangha in Buddhism, that they are on the right path and doing the right thing.  This is faith, in a non-religious way.

As I explained before, this is where a Buddhist (or anyone for that matter with good moral and compassionate values) is valuable in military service as they can truly help ensure we do the right thing, even in a conflict or war that they may not agree with, or which the reasons for them being involved in isn’t always 100%.

A Bodhisattva lives in this world that is not perfect, filled with suffering and violence, and yet they do not run away but engage themselves in this “war” of suffering.  A soldier who is Buddhist does the same thing while in military service.

As Ven. Master Hsing Yun said:

If a war is fought with the idea that one side must wage war to put an end to war or force a reconciliation, then war too can be described as something compassionate and loving that subdues evil.  On these occasions war is not merely about inflicting casualties, but can be an act of salvation.

he also said:

No single judgment could possibly cover all cases.  America’s Civil War brought heavy casualties, but it did lead to the liberation of the black slaves and enable later generations of blacks to enjoy basic human rights.  The United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945, scarring the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in a way that could never be healed, and yet these events brought an early end to World War II

What about veterans?

Those who have seen and been involved in war, specifically soldiers, have taken the heaviest of tolls as we have talked about in this article.

After World War I, it was known as the “great war” because it was believed to be the end of all wars due to how bloody and horrible it was.  We know that didn’t happen, sadly.  Yet we have seen veterans (and active duty military members) be the ones most promoting peace than anyone else.  And why not?  They are the ones who have the most karmic impact upon them than anyone else, and they know just how much unwholesome karma can come out of it.  A Buddhist who never served can only be purely academic and theological in their adherence to war, whereas a Buddhist soldier truly knows the cost.

If we look at Shakyamuni Buddha, he too “fought” in his way to awakening and enlightenment.  Even though that was not a traditional war, it was still a battle he fought and won over delusion, attachment, and ignorance.

For many Buddhists, the thought of “thanking a Veteran” on memorial days or veterans’ days are perhaps utterly repulsive to their belief system.  I do not believe we would ever see Shakyamuni Buddha behave in such a manner, as he was beyond the labels we place on people and things.

Thanking or honoring veterans does not mean you have to believe in everything they may have done (or you assumed they have done), but to thank them for their karmic impact (wholesome or unwholesome) they have endured as part of their military service for the protection of their country and freedom of others.

Veterans and active-duty military members don’t “need” to be thanked…but showing kindness (especially the Buddhist “loving-kindness”) is especially important for this group of our society who truly needs it.  Throw away your labels and preconceptions…those in the military are sentient beings just like everyone else.

To end this article, I leave you with the words of Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh.  He spoke to how military veterans can help society actually end war and violence, and I fully agree with him:

Veterans are the light at the tip of the candle, illuminating the way for the whole nation.  If Veterans can achieve awareness, transformation, understanding and peace, they can share with the rest of society the realities of war.  And they can teach us how to make peace with ourselves and each other, so we never have to use violence to resolve conflicts again.

The information contained in this article is for general information purposes only.  Alan Peto assumes no responsibility or liability for any errors or omissions in the content of this site.  The information contained is provided on an as-is basis with no guarantees of completeness, accuracy, usefulness, or timeliness, and without any warranties of any kind whatsoever, express or implied.  Read full disclaimer here.
This article is Copyright © by Alan Peto.  All Rights Reserved.  Do not repost this article on any other website.  This article is published exclusively on

You are here:  Home » Buddhism » The Buddhist Soldier

If you enjoyed this article, please share! 🙏