The Ethic of the Spirit Warrior
Barbarian Chief: We have won again! That is good. But what is best in life?
Barbarian Warrior: The open steppe, fleet horse, falcon on your wrist, wind in your hair!
Barbarian Chief: Wrong! Conan, what is best in life?
Conan: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of the women.
Barbarian Chief: That is good.
—from Conan the Barbarian
The good news is there’s hope for you, private—hope in the form of glorious combat. Battle is the great redeemer, the fiery crucible in which the only true heroes are forged. The one place where all men truly share the same rank—regardless of what kind of parasitic scum they were going in….Tomorrow morning you will be baptized, born again. —Master Sergeant Farell, in the movie Edge of Tomorrow
Buddhism is one of the most pacifistic and non-violent of the world’s major spiritual systems; possibly only Jainism is more extreme in its refusal even to kill insects—at least Buddhism allows you to step on them accidentally, whereas in Jainism even killing one by accident is bad karma. In fact, the strictest Jains won’t even blow out a candle flame or drink cold water, considering fire and cold water to be alive. But though Buddhism is not so extreme as this, for a Buddhist monk, like me for instance, even intentionally to damage a plant, for example by pulling a green leaf from a tree, entails an ecclesiastical offense of medium severity, requiring confession. Gardening or mowing lawns is completely out.
Regardless of precepts and ecclesiastical offenses, most western Buddhists ignore the fact, and most eastern ones don’t fully grasp the fact, that Buddhist ethics are essentially psychological: It’s not what you do or say, but the intentions associated with what you do or say that determine whether it is “right” or “wrong.” It’s not the mental states of another person either; it’s your own mind that determines the wholesomeness or otherwise of your own action, not whether somebody else was hurt, much less socially marginalized. Lying, stealing, killing, etc. are unwholesome mainly because of unwholesome mental states accompanying the acts. It is true that some actions are practically impossible without unhealthy motives; to give an extreme example, deliberately killing one’s own mother is declared by Buddhist dogma to be a virtual guarantee of a hell realm in one’s next existence. Nevertheless, virtue remains a matter of one’s own mental states, one’s own attitude. Same goes for sin.
Buddhism emphatically endorses nonviolence, but even so, the medieval Japanese Samurai, some of the most warlike of civilized people, were Buddhists of a sort. Of the two main schools of Zen in Japan, the Rinzai sect was considered to be “Samurai Zen,” as opposed to the more peaceful, more contemplative Soto sect which traditionally appealed more to farmers and villagers. Almost every story I’ve ever read about Rinzai, the founder of the school which bears his name, involves him hitting somebody. Probably the best-known book of Zen koans, the Mumonkan (or Wu-mên Kuan in the original Chinese), has appended to it an extra koan written by a man called Mōkyō, a military officer who participated in many battles, yet who was apparently an adept at Zen. Zen Buddhist ethical philosophy pervaded the code of honor of a Samurai warrior, as exemplified in the following story.
Master swordsmen in medieval China and Japan were somewhat like renowned gunslingers in the American wild west—they were continually challenged to duels because anyone who defeated them would instantaneously make a big name for himself. So, a certain master swordsman was challenged to a duel and killed. A young student of that master considered it a matter of honor to avenge his teacher’s death by seeking out his slayer and fighting him. So, he sought him out, demanded satisfaction, and they fought. The young student was getting the better of his opponent and knocked him down. As he was moving over the fallen adversary to make the killing thrust, the other man defiantly spat in his face. The young swordsman was enraged, violently raised his sword to avenge the insult…and suddenly realized that he was no longer fighting for his beloved sensei’s honor, but was fighting in a state of anger and hatred, wanting to gain revenge for a personal insult. Realizing this, he stopped, sheathed his sword, left his opponent alive on the ground, and walked away.
Killing people with swords could hardly be called a Buddhist practice. As I’ve already mentioned, Buddhist ethics, particularly in its ancient Indian forms, was extremely nonviolent, and wisely so. But later Buddhist civilizations were able to extract a profound philosophical truth from the ancient Indian ethic and metaphysic: the “rightness” or “wrongness” of an act depends upon the mental states of the agent—and thus by maintaining a state of calm alertness while acting, a state of mindfulness and inner stillness, one may, to some degree at least, transmute an act of violence into a kind of spiritual practice. One of the practical advantages of this is that a “civilized” warrior who, in addition to accepting a philosophical code of honor, remains mindful and self-possessed in combat, has a distinct advantage over more barbarous adversaries whose strength often depends upon unsustainable reckless frenzy.
Personal danger, rather than causing mindless panic, may actually be a stimulus to mindfulness and wisdom through intense alertness. This has been known since the time of “primitive” Indian Buddhism; in fact I suspect that the dangerous life of a homeless wanderer in Iron Age India, living alone under trees in tiger- and bandit-infested jungles, was one of the factors of a monk’s life most conducive to radical mental cultivation in those days. Venerable Ajahn Mun of Thailand, around a hundred years ago, advised his disciples to live in dangerous places like tropical wildernesses because danger naturally stimulates mindfulness. This was cultivated more artificially by sects of Chinese Buddhism like Shao Lin, which employed martial arts of an advanced sort as a vehicle to enlightenment. Furthermore it is simply a common experience among soldiers who have seen battle that they experience a kind of expansion of consciousness on a raging battlefield, sometimes even rapture, so intense that they consider it one of the most exalted of their life experiences. Consequently it is understandable, if a bit paradoxical, that Dharma could be adapted, and adopted, by adept warriors and swordsmen.
Killing and dying, especially dying, are inevitable in a harsh world like the one on which we are living. This is a harsh and rather obvious truth. Consequently there is wisdom in necessary (at least politically necessary) violence being transformed into something philosophical, even spiritual. Hinduism, for example, another system that condemns even slapping mosquitoes, survived the onslaught of Muslim Turks in the middle ages—while the Buddhists of India were scattered and slaughtered like sheep—largely because Hindus retained some appreciation for the ideals of martial honor and duty. (There were other reasons why Buddhism died out in India, for example the later Buddhist reliance on universities as cultural centers, which were sacked and destroyed by the Muslims; and also the fact that it was becoming too esoteric and intellectual for the average villager to appreciate. But uncompromising pacifism was certainly a major factor.) Hinduism retained archaic warlike sentiments from the Vedic era—the Rig Veda having been composed by martial Aryan invaders worshipping the war god Indra—with these sentiments further glorified in the great Sanskrit epic poems, and of course profoundly refined in the Bhagavad Gita, with its message of doing one’s duty, one’s dharma, even if it may involve, as with a soldier of the Kshatriya class, the killing of one’s neighbor. Thus Hinduism, nonviolent, non-bug-killing Hinduism, developed an almost Viking-like ideal of a warrior being virtually guaranteed of heaven if he falls in battle, in accordance with his dharma. And it was largely this that prevented India from being forcibly converted to Islam like so many other nations.
Western cultures also, in their “zenith of macho civilization,” have had an appreciation for this sort of civilized self-restraint and emphasis on military honor without anger, hatred, or unnecessary cruelty. It has not been found only among warlike cultures like Sparta, or Rome with its cults of Mars and Mithras and worship of the legions’ eagle standards; nor only among chivalric warrior-priests like the Knights Templar and the Hospitallers. In the full flower of strength and prosperity most great civilizations have enshrined such ideals, at least among the officer elite and the best fighting units, if not among the ranks of the common soldiers. One is reminded of the gentlemanly code of honor for duelists in mid-19th century America, including this advice for men standing upon the dueling ground: “The principals are to be respectful in meeting, and neither by look or expression irritate each other.” First rule of the code of honor: do not react with anger or other negative emotions; just do your duty; no need for berserk frenzy, no need to scream allahu akbar, certainly no need to hate your enemies. Just remain calm and wakeful, and ready to do efficiently what needs to be done.
A “dharmic” society in a Buddhistic sense probably wouldn’t endorse the Gita’s teaching of the importance of doing one’s duty even if it is devoid of merit, going with Krishna’s idea that simply doing one’s duty is itself the highest merit. Nevertheless, the necessity in a potentially violent world of an advanced, relatively “enlightened” society defending itself, and thereby having fighters, can still be accomplished in various ways. One way is radically to separate religion or spirituality or higher ethics from worldliness or harsh reality, and to employ soldiers who are moral riffraff—somewhat in the way that Burmese Buddhist villagers rely on Muslim butchers, or people of very low social status, to supply meat for sale. Another way is for the more virtuous to honor the supreme sacrifice that soldiers may have to make—not only the sacrifice of life and health, but of moral purity, of virtue, of “good karma,” so that others may live in peace and safety. The soldier could be seen as a kind of tragic hero, “taking one for the team,” sacrificing not only his life, but possibly also his own prospects of heaven, for the good of society. Civilized warriors would still deserve respect not only because they risk their lives protecting society from people much worse than they are, but also because they still follow a civilized code of honor: doing what is required without hate or cruelty, without abusing their power, without committing atrocities like rape or killing unarmed civilians, without turning their great power against their own in the form of military coups d’état or civil war. Somebody has to defend civilization, so it makes no sense for even the gentlest of spiritual systems to denounce militarism entirely, unless perhaps it is a system that disdains all worldly considerations, or is a suicide cult.
The new feminized political left which is attempting to take over western civilization, and has fairly well succeeded in several nations already, appears to be such a “suicide cult,” albeit a spiritually bankrupt one. The new feminized attitude is apparently trying to abolish all aggressiveness and harshness, perhaps all masculinity, to prevent hurting the sensitive feelings of the weak, thereby creating a timid culture of victimhood and a lopsided one-way ethic—of extreme non-hurting of victim classes on one side, and complete hypersensitive lack of forbearance and fortitude on the other. Thus the military is tending toward becoming a politically correct group of gentle, sensitive, androgynous public relations specialists who are better trained in distributing food packages or managing a computer than in operating a weapon, and would in all likelihood defecate into their pants if confronted by real warriors. Timidity and emotional wishful thinking simply are not going to protect an individual, or an entire nation or civilization, from aggressors.
One of the most important things for neo-Marxists—and western people in general—to realize is that unhappiness, as well as “sin,” is a matter of personal attitude, and is ultimately self-inflicted (unlike physical pain, which may or may not be self-inflicted, setting aside the idea of karma). Consequently, one should cultivate not only consideration for others while speaking and doing, but also forbearance and equanimity, maybe even some forgiveness, when others refuse to do likewise, even if retaliatory action is to be taken.
This plus the necessity of a balance of masculine/feminine in a kind of synergistic symbiosis, as the human race was evolved to have, not the idiotic and spiteful attempts to abolish or “redefine” masculinity to satisfy cultural eunuchs and emotionally dysfunctional lesbians. Either this or surrender the civilization to barbarians who will behave even worse; but either way, effete feminized society is vulnerable to the first aggressors who come along…and good riddance.
The quotation that began this little tirade, from Conan the Barbarian, is actually a praphrase of a quote attributed to Temujin, also known as Genghis Khan: "The greatest pleasure is to vanquish your enemies and chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth and see those dear to them bathed in tears, to ride their horses and clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters." What does a gentle, compassionate, effete, feminized civilization do when it meets a horde of men like this? It dies, is what it does. The Turks who invaded India and killed Buddhism there were men of this sort. Some of the men migrating into Europe at present may become like this easily enough, if provided with an opportunity and some encouragement.
Since I started with a passage from Conan, I might as well finish with one.
Thulsa Doom: You broke into my house, stole my property, murdered my servants, and my pets! And that is what grieves me the most. You killed my snake. Thorgrim is beside himself with grief! He raised that snake from the time it was born.
Conan: You killed my mother! You killed my father! You killed my people! You took my father's sword!
Thulsa Doom: Ah. It must have been when I was younger.