Reflections on Buddhist Militarism
The Hakagure states that bushidō means to be prepared to die. That is to say, in undertaking any kind of work it is said that one must “die first.” It may be that in such a situation there is something known as a dog’s death. It may be that when it is the right time to die one should simply die in that situation. In any event, what the Hakagure states is that even a dog’s death is all right. That is to say, in undertaking any work one should be prepared to die. —D. T. Suzuki, a Zen master and the one person most responsible for introducing Zen Buddhism to the West
Over the past several months I have made the acquaintance of a young American man who has been searching for a spiritual and ideological system that he can accept, and which, if accepted by many in the west, could strengthen society against the disease of progressivism. (Progressivism really is progressive in a pathological sense, like progressive liver failure.) Although he really appears to be a soft-spoken, mild-mannered fellow, he realizes that any conservative or traditionalist or otherwise rightwing ideology that successfully challenges the neo-Marxist left, and inoculates some backbone into western civilization, will have to be tough. In fact it will have to be tougher than Islamism if the west is going to prosper, especially in Europe. Consequently, in his efforts to devise, with my occasional feedback, a strong, more or less masculine form of Buddhism that someone like Julius Evola would endorse, and which might become popular in the west, as so many people are turning to the right as the left goes more insane, he appears to be intent on establishing a kind of militant Buddhism, somewhat along the lines of the Rinzai Zen adopted by the Japanese samurai.
The main complication that I see with this is that Buddhism from the very beginning, from the time of Gotama Buddha himself, has been radically nonviolent. It’s the second most nonviolent spiritual tradition that I know of, being surpassed only by Jainism. No spin can possibly interpret the original, “primitive” Buddhism as taught by the Buddha as anything but pacifistic, even extremely so—regardless of the masculine, ascetic toughness and fearlessness required of the earliest Buddhist renunciants. The basic attitude promulgated in Dhamma is that it is better to die than to kill, especially with regard to those who are most committed to following the system as completely as possible, namely the ordained monastics.
Some people who are born and raised into a western utilitarian ethic and are not well versed in Buddhist philosophy might insist that sometimes killing is justified. For example, consider this scenario: a terrorist is preparing to blow up a busload of school children, and you are a hundred yards away, with no way of stopping him except for a sniper rifle which happens to be handy. By shooting the terrorist in the head you would save the lives of all those children…yet from a strictly Buddhist perspective you are still doing wrong by killing him. If he kills those children, then that’s his fault, not yours; but you killing him makes you a murderer, regardless of your reasons. (Your motives may certainly mitigate the severity of your karma, but will not nullify it.) The same principle applies to other ways of playing God, like the famous trolley car thought experiment in which you can divert a streetcar from one track, where it would squish ten people, to one in which it would squish only one or two. Just to stand there with equanimity would be morally superior to pulling the lever. Even grieving for the dead is unethical (or “unskillful”) behavior from the strictest, most radically fundamentalist Buddhist perspective.
On the other hand, the Buddha reportedly spent little time or effort in denouncing warfare as a political exigency. I assume he realized full well that military force is a harsh necessity in an often very harsh world. According to the ancient texts, kings and generals would occasionally come to pay their respects to the Buddha and converse with him on philosophical topics, and although the Buddha might gently chide them for waging unnecessary wars of aggression, he never tried (if I remember correctly) to persuade them to abandon the military profession or to disband their armies. Same goes for capital punishment. He knew that not everyone is ready to live a life of radical ethical purity, largely because such purity virtually necessitates renunciation of worldly life. He taught people what they were ready to hear, and did relatively little meddling in the nasty business of politics.
And just as was the case in Iron Age India, it still remains the case in the modern west that an uncompromisingly pacifistic civilization is doomed if it comes into contact with an aggressive, militaristic one, especially if the latter is possessed of technology that rivals that of the former. Even a fully ordained Theravada Buddhist monk is allowed to strike out in self defense; and presumably what is allowable for an individual monk would also be allowable for an entire civilization composed mostly of common people living worldly lives. If a society refuses to defend itself, if it is uncompromisingly pacifist, it dies, much as the Buddhist culture of medieval India died when the Muslim Turks invaded. The result of that invasion was the genocide of millions of pacifistic Indian Buddhists. They were slaughtered like sheep.
Thus we are confronted with the seeming dilemma of a radically nonviolent spiritual system that has become a popular mass religion, and the ugly fact that a civilization may have to defend itself militarily if it intends to protect its citizens and survive. I see two main ways of accomplishing this, of resolving the dilemma of suicidally pacifistic religious cultures, specifically Buddhist ones.
First, Buddhism may be corrupted into something it originally was not intended to be—as happened in Europe with another originally pacifistic religious system, Christianity. Christianity, like Buddhism, began as a radical system of renunciation; yet upon becoming a mass religion it was compelled to conform to worldly realities, such as sex, the having of babies, and the killing of national enemies. Thus from “turn the other cheek” and “sell all that you have, give the money to the poor, and follow Me,” Christianity evolved or mutated into a system including Knights Templar, bishops commanding papal armies, medieval popes calling for crusades and at least one modern one blessing bombs, and so on. Buddhism also has, of sheer societal necessity, mutated into a more politically aggressive system after becoming not only a system for radical forest-dwelling renunciants but also a religion for an entire culture. Probably the best example of the Knights Templar mentality in Buddhism would be the “samurai Zen” of Japanese Buddhism, both in medieval times and in Japan’s early 20th-century Imperialist phase, or possibly Kublai Khan’s Mongols. It is simply an unavoidable fact that Buddhist countries still have armies. The Indian Emperor Ashoka disbanded most of his military forces after converting to Buddhism, and his Empire began collapsing shortly after he and his moral authority died.
The trouble that I see with this is that it essentially perverts a spiritual system into something starkly different from what the founder intended, and deviates from some of the core values of the system. To insist that Buddhist ethics (or early Christian ethics for that matter) condones the killing of fellow human beings for any reason would be to state an untruth. To make such an alteration to the system would require ignorance or dishonesty or both—probably exploiting the standard human capacity to believe damn near anything once it is established as official dogma. At any rate I simply cannot endorse this approach, for Buddhism (or for Christianity either). At the very least it would be a gross misrepresentation of the Buddha and what he stood for.
The other alternative could be stated briefly as separation of church and state. Or perhaps a more accurate way of stating it would be the acknowledgement that harsh political realities must realistically take precedence over spiritual ideals, especially for the overwhelming majority that aren’t ready to live up to the highest ideals anyway. It would be practically inhuman, say, for a father to humbly submit to his children being massacred or sold into slavery, even though he might be religious enough to tolerate it for himself. Let devout pacifists be conscientious objectors, and renounce many of their rights and duties as citizens by opting out of a dysfunctional world that requires war.
I see the existence in history of militaristic Buddhist nations as largely coincidental: The people adopted, for whatever reasons, an advanced spiritual system with extremely refined ethical standards; but nevertheless, a nation must occasionally fight to defend itself. The militarism is not really Buddhist so much as it is a product of other cultural phenomena within the society. In such societies the aspects of Buddhism that are emphasized tend to be the more masculine virtues of fearlessness, equanimity, austerity, and strict self-discipline, and the idea that right and wrong depend not upon some divine decree but upon the quality of one’s own mind.
Thus certain Buddhist ideals can certainly be incorporated into a militaristic society, even a relatively wise one. The samurai ideal of bushido was largely based on Zen Buddhist ideas, just as medieval chivalry was largely based on Christian ones—protect the weak; show mercy to a beaten foe; act not out of hatred or anger, but out of a sense of duty and honor; do not fear death, but be willing to die for a just and noble cause; never give way to fear, or to any base motive…and so on. This isn’t pure Buddhism, or pure Christianity, but it does civilize the savagery of (socially necessary) aggression to some extent.
This separation or dissociation of “church” and state would be quite in harmony with the original message of Buddhism, and of Christianity: render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and all that. Neither spiritual system was intended to be a state religion anyhow, but more for those radical conscientious objectors already mentioned, who are not so weak as to enjoy life in society without being willing to defend it. If a man is unwilling to fight to protect his family, then he shouldn’t have one—and arguably is unworthy of having one. Same goes for his country. Even if he’s not a fighter by nature he can defend society in other ways, for example by composing patriotic music or knitting socks for the soldiers.
Bearing all this in mind, how would a devoutly religious culture following my second option view the soldiers who protect the right of everyone else to be pacifists? I would suggest that in a “dharmic” society the warrior who protects the rest should be seen as a tragic hero: He not only risks his life for others, but he sacrifices his own moral welfare for the sake of others—he takes one for the team, in a spiritual sense. At worst he might even go to hell, or through hell, so that others have the opportunity to live their lives in peace and some semblance of virtue. So the Buddhist soldier would be in a somewhat paradoxical position of ruining his own spiritual well-being (and in a spiritual culture that’s the most important kind) for a necessary and even a noble cause.
Yet to some degree the Buddhist warrior, especially the more refined elite officer types, would be trained in the more “tantric” aspects of Buddhism which are more or less compatible with such a lifestyle, and which have already been mentioned. So some kind of bushido or chivalry or other code of honor could at least mitigate the negative effects of the soldier’s life by improving the quality of his mind, and thus also his karma, since karma is ultimately a mental state. This is why medieval Japanese samurai spent time at Zen monasteries. They learned self-discipline, mindfulness, equanimity, and a certain indifference toward death. Not only would this help their spiritual well-being but it would no doubt make better fighters of them as well.
In a more militarized Buddhistic society men in general could take one for the team by making it a man’s duty to kill, as a cultural tradition, allowing children their innocence and allowing women to keep pure their sacred functions of gentleness, compassion, and bringing life to this world. Thus men would sacrifice their own welfare by killing animals for food also, if necessary, plus maybe the occasional big icky spider in the bathroom. But now I’m indulging in fascistic utopianism, so I’d better stop.