I hope the New Year has begun well for all of you!
For my next series of posts, I would like to present a historical view of Buddhists who engaged in military-related actions. For lack of a better word, let us call them "warrior" Buddhists: this simply means persons who were of Buddhist faith, mostly lay but in some cases clergy, who took up arms, either temporarily for a certain conflict, or as a longer-term profession of arms.
The reason for doing so is to try to illuminate a neglected and poorly-researched topic within Buddhism, and also, to give those of us as Buddhists who now serve in military or law-enforcement professions, a religious and historical context in which to step back and observe our own karmic decisions to serve in these fields, and know that we are not the first, or the most unusual, to engage in these professions. Another reason is to address our allegedly paradoxical existence: some Buddhists have stated that there is absolutely no justification whatsoever to take up arms, even in self-defense of nation or family - we can find these statements in some Dharma texts. The majority of Buddhist teachings is, of course, designed with the ultimate goal of calming the mind and body, restraining the elements of human nature that lead to violent and passionate emotions and actions. Especially in the modern West, with the popularity of Buddhism first becoming well-known in the 1950s and 1960s through the zeitgeist of "alternative" beliefs and customs, Buddhism has acquired the well-deserved image of being a religion of peace, compassion, and kindness...and for some the perceived opposite of a violent and hateful Judeo-Christianity. There is no doubt many people were attracted to Buddhism for these reasons. Therefore, this has raised certain questions on the specter of Buddhists in uniforms and carrying weapons (especially in a postmodern context). For example, some of these questions may have first been brought to a widespread attention by the 1998 publication of Brian Victoria's Zen at War, which revealed that several prominent Japanese Zen teachers willingly participated in Japan's war effort by propagating war to their students. Many Western Buddhists were deeply shocked at these revelations. According to this view, Buddhists engaged in military actions, even as laypersons, are viewed as an aberration, something that "went wrong" somewhere and somehow. It is one thing if Buddhists undergo repentence for prior warlike activities, especially if they were not practicing Buddhists at the time; its is quite another thing if Buddhists knowingly and willingly serve in an armed forces.
We should not be surprised then, that we are sometimes called upon to defend ourselves as Buddhists, or considering ourselves whether our actions are in accord with Buddha-dharma. Many of us currently serving have been called on the carpet, so to speak, to justify (or even apologize) for our past and present decisions to willingly serve in the military, or even in a police department (so I am including you law-enforcement folks in here as well)! As I have stated in a previous post, I do not believe in only finding textual quotes as justification of actions (any text can be read out of context or to justify any position); right now, I am more interested in examining the causes and conditions that have led Buddhists to be engaged in military professions. I certainly do not view military service as something that needs to be "justified" or "apologized" for, however, I am also cautious about misuse of the Dharma for any aggressive action, whether it is against an "enemy" or other Buddhists. What is important, I believe, is to be mindful of our present situation.
The first thing to address is: who were - and are - these Buddhists? What causes and conditions caused them to take up arms and engage in what were undoubtedly violent activities? What reasoning did they give, if any, to do so? Were they simply hypocrites and "bad" Buddhists? Was it because of their "culture" and not, in fact, their religion? (We can hear modern echoes of these arguments about Islam). A knee-jerk answer may be "yes" but this only serves to further obscure. If there is no such thing as a warrior whose faith happens to be Buddhist, then we need not have any discussion of Buddhism and its teachings about violence, just/unjust conflicts, separation of church-and-state, and so on. We could simply ignore "those people" and believe that we have no relationship with them, but this runs counter to the teaching of interdependence - and what happens when a society loses its covenent with its armed forces?
We should be aware that the reality of "warrior" or military Buddhists is not a recent phenomena but was present in all countries and cultures which Buddhism touched. Historically, there has never been, except in Orientalist fantasies, a "Shangri-La" Buddhist nation in which an armed force was non-existent and peace prevailed for centuries without even the thought of conflict. In India, Tibet, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Korea, China, and Japan, there are and have been warrior Buddhists who have participated in conflicts. In the West there are Buddhists who have served in the armed forces. Each one experienced different religious, cultural, social, political, and personal tensions which caused them to take up arms. It may be true that there has never been a "Buddhist holy war" to convert others, but there certainly have been conflicts in which Buddhists were involved, even as a majority, and in which Buddhists fought with each other, and fought with non-Buddhists "in defense of Dharma."
Again, as the stated purpose of this blog is to support Buddhist servicemembers, none of this discussion is meant to argue for or against any particular "Left" or "Right" viewpoints, or if you are opposed to Buddhists serving in the military, it's not even to try to get you to change your mind on the subject. However, I do hope it will serve to give a proper perspective on past Buddhists in the armed forces, and present warrior Buddhists as human beings struggling on the path of Buddha-dharma, just as we all are.
Namo Amida Butsu