Buddhism, Politics, Violence, War

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

A version of this article appeared in Lakbima News on July 17 2011
In The End of Faith, Sam Harris finds the differences between the Eastern and Western canons “startling”. In comparison with Eastern philosophical mystics, in the West “we appear to have been standing on the shoulders of dwarfs”. He thinks that the fault lies with the emphasis on faith in the monotheistic religions of the book: “Faith is rather like a rhinoceros; it won’t do much in the way of real work for you, and yet, at close quarters it will make spectacular claims on your attention.” Harris chooses at random a passage from the Buddhist sage, Padmanasambhava, who was a contemporary of Muhammad. Harris claims that the passage he quotes is rigorously empirical – “the actual condition of things”- and not a statement of metaphysics.

I agree with Harris about the specialness of Buddhism, but I sometimes wonder if the militant atheists have been naive about the way Buddhism works out in real life. Buddhism is acceptable to atheists because there is no supreme being, no soul, no afterlife. It has a wise message at its core, but so do other philosophies.

Under Ashoka’s model of “Buddhist kingship”, a ruler legitimized his rule, not through descent from a divine source, but by supporting and earning the approval of the Buddhist sangha (priesthood). Such monarchs are portrayed as universally wise and generous but nevertheless do not abandon the state’s monopoly on force. This model of righteous kingship is the basis for the Buddhist warrior-kings of the Mahavamsa that continue to have national appeal.

Robert Kaplan writing in Atlantic Monthly September 2009 about his visit to Kandy, is more severe than Harris: “Buddhism holds an exalted place in the half-informed Western mind. Whereas Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism are each associated, in addition to their thought, with a rich material culture and a defended territory, Buddhism, despite its great monuments and architectural tradition throughout the Far East, is somehow considered purer, more abstract, and almost dematerialized: the most peaceful, austere, and uncorrupted of faiths, even as it appeals to the deeply aesthetic among us. Hollywood stars seeking to find themselves—famously Richard Gere—become Buddhists, not, say, orthodox Jews.”

Nevertheless, because humans are material and materialistic, Buddhism is not immune from corruption consequent on institutionalisation or immune from the taint of politics. According to Robert Kaplan, Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhism “is deeply materialistic and demands worship of solid objects, in a secure and sacred landscape that has required the protection of a military.” Kaplan states: “Buddhism can be, under the right circumstances, a blood-and-soil faith.”
In the 2004 election, all JHU candidates were Buddhist monks. Party member Venerable Medhananda Thera said, “Our sole intention is to establish a righteous Buddhist state with Buddhist values. Though there are invitations for us to join parties we will remain independent. No one can buy us with portfolios and perks.”

Timothy Garton Ash wrote in the New York Review of Books in 2000 about his visit to the military dictatorship of Myanmar, which reminded him of the East German communist regime: “But instead of Marxism as the official ideology, we have Buddhism.“ Ash writes: “The country displays all the familiar pockmarks of dictatorship: high gray walls, barbed wire, armed guards, bureaucracy, crude paper forms in quadruplicate, propaganda, censorship, inefficiency, and fear. Under the heading ‘People’s Desire’, faded red billboards proclaim, ‘Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views.’”

Despite its peaceful message, Buddhism can also be turned to political purposes. Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Sri Lanka have not been notably peaceful over recent decades. The Laotian communists of the Pathet Lao use Buddhism to justify socialism. The ultra-right-wing Thai priest Kittiwutto can say that “killing communists is not a sin”.

Brian Daizen Victoria shows how Zen Buddhists were complicit with the totalitarian imperial Japanese military and how the military in turn used the model of monastic life to make their killing machine more efficient and how Zen Buddhists helped war criminals evade capture. The Zen model was also used in the Japanese corporate world.
Aung San Suu Kyi told Ash that she recognised the need for compromise if one wants a nonviolent transition in Burma. Ash wrote: “Another important social group are the Buddhist monks. I heard quite contradictory views on the intriguing question of whether Theravada Buddhism encourages resistance to dictatorship and support for democracy, but there is no doubt that the monks have significant potential as both protesters and mediators… A senior monk sadly explained to me how the government had bought off the institutionalized Buddhist hierarchy with donations, televisions, cars, and a mixture of intimidation and flattery”.

Tessa J Bartholomeusz explores the arguments in the Sri Lankan Buddhist tradition, for and against war, analysing these ideas in relation to western ideas about just war and ethical theory. Her thesis is that, in spite of a rigorous tradition of non-violence, war can be justified if certain conditions are met. The precept against killing can be trumped by other considerations such as utilitarian considerations of sacrificing one life in order to save multiple lives.

Some scholars such as Damien Keown have argued that killing can sometimes be a legitimate response to suffering, others, like Rupert Gethin, have rejected this argument since it does not address dukkha as a reality that must be understood and worked through rather than suppressed. Eric Sean Nelson writes: “The issue is not that people claiming to be Buddhists at times engage in violence and war in the name of self-defense. It is difficult if not impossible to demand the saintliness according to which it is illegitimate to defend one’s parents, family, friends or community under any circumstances. The problem is when and how this reasoning can go wrong and become an ideological excuse for morally illegitimate violence and war.”


Rupert Gethin says: “Abhidhamma — and hence I think mainstream Buddhist ethics— is not ultimately concerned to lay down ethical rules, or even ethical principles. It seeks instead to articulate a spiritual psychology focusing on the root causes that motivate us to act… If you can intentionally kill out of compassion, then fine, go ahead. But are you sure? Are you sure that what you think are friendliness and compassion are really friendliness and compassion? Are you sure that some subtle aversion and delusion have not surfaced in the mind? In the end ethical principles cannot solve the problem of how to act in the world. If we want to know how to act in accordance with Dhamma, we must know our own minds”.

Elaine Scarry wrote in The Body in Pain: “It has often been observed that war is exceptional in human experience for sanctioning the act of killing, the act that all nations regard in peacetime as ‘criminal’. This accurate observation acknowledges that the act of killing, motivated by care ‘for the nation’, is a deconstruction of the state as it ordinarily manifests itself in the body. That is, he consents to perform (for the country) the act that would in peacetime expose his unpoliticalness and place him outside the moral space of the nation.”

Is there room in Buddhism for the concept of a just war- dharma yuddha? Are the precepts descriptive rather than prescriptive? There is no Jehovah to threaten punishment for murder, because killing is absolutely sinful. This is dependent origination. If you engage in violence, the law of cause and effect means that there are likely to be unpleasant consequences. Karmic responsibility is unavoidable for killing. Shit happens! As Nelson puts it: “The Buddha does not claim that violence is only sometimes wrong but that violence, no matter how righteous, always produces more violence; and warriors, no matter how virtuous, always suffer the consequences of war.” One has to operate skilfully and appropriately.


Without arguing for relativism against absolutism, one can recognise that ethics are context-sensitive. Context-based ethics means an existential mode of living involving the interdependence of self and others and self and world. One must navigate moral challenges with sense of what is appropriate. When a principle becomes uncertain, it can only be interpreted rather than mechanically applied. Codes, precepts, and rules demand the ability to distinguish between the hypocrisy of breaking them for one’s own advantage and the moral insight to adopt them to circumstances. Eric Sean Nelson asks: “Is the Buddhist notion of skilfulness too open or ambiguous”.


Nelson looks at the Sri Lankan situation. “Buddhist lands do not only involve traditions of nonviolence and loving kindness. They also have had a long history of thinking about and engaging
in internal and external physical conflict. … Buddhism privileges non-violence while at the same time self-described Buddhists have justified and engaged in war under certain conditions…. As Mahinda Deegalle argues, this position is not so much Buddhist as it is Sinhalese nationalist, which appropriates Buddhism as a symbol of Sinhalese heritage Sri Lanka is the island of Dhamma (dhammadvipa) , the whole island is a sacred relic of the Buddha’s and the loss of its integrity would destroy this legacy”.


Bartholomeusz contends that it is paradoxically Buddhist beliefs that they are more fair, tolerant, and peaceful – that leads Buddhists to set themselves apart and turn to violence to protect the ideal of pacifism. Violence, once it is justified as an exception, becomes the norm from which there seems no escape.

Liverpool University’s Colin Irwin’s Peace Polls contributed to the Northern Ireland peace process. One of the findings of a survey throughout Sri Lanka was “Although all communities strongly support language and fundamental rights, Tamil concerns about the special status of Buddhism has increased after the war as a political issue”.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa made a speech in which he saw the special status of Buddhism as a positive thing. “The establishment of Buddha Sasana in the country ensures the protection of all living beings and the message by Arahant Mahinda Thero stresses the importance of treating all races and religion equally”.