Sunday, January 20, 2008

Chaps' Dharma Talk: Sakyamuni - The First Warrior

Hello all!
This is the first of my posts about "warrior Buddhists," exploring the historical and present-day phenomenon of Buddhists-in-arms.
To begin with, let’s start this exploration by examining the founder of our religion: Sakyamuni Buddha. It might seem strange, initially, to think of the Buddha as a "warrior" when he is rightly seen as above all a figure of peace. The Buddha never advocated the killing or destruction of "infidels" of any religion or doctrine, and always recommended the path of nonviolence. However, Sakyamuni's life and teachings reveal a person raised to be a heroic warrior invested in honor. While he renounced the life planned for him by his parents, as a secular warrior-king, he used the language of warriors to convey the Dharma, so he could stress that following the path of Dharma required similar virtues possessed by warriors.
Let's begin by looking at the life of the Buddha before he was Enlightened.

Siddhartha Gautama (his birth name) was born into the kshatriya varna, or caste, of ancient India/Nepal. This was the caste of the warriors, the rulers and aristocrats of ancient India. A typical upbringing of a kshatriya male included study of the Vedas (the earliest religious texts of India) and the study of archery, swordsmanship, horsemanship, etc. Although the Buddha's early life may sound very pampered, with his three palaces and entourage of entertainers and harem (the ancient Indian equivalent of MTV's My Sweet Sixteen! Which would also inspire one to renounce the world), it would have been very unlikely that Siddhartha's father, King Suddhodhana, would have neglected to provide this rigorous training for the presumptive heir of a small, regional power (and he did not become a world-renouncer until he was about age 29). We may see evidence of this in the language that the Buddha used in expressing Dharma: martial imagery and terms like, "charioteer", "sword and shield," "war elephants", "banners," "fortress," "archers", "arrows", "poisoned arrows," are all used in expressing the struggle to overcome one's delusions and the oppositions of others. The Buddha's Enlightenment was described as a "battle" between himself and Mara, the embodiment of death and evil:

"King Mara, at the head of a great army of one hundred thousand, swooped down on the prince from four sides. The gods who up to that time had surrounded the prince and had sung his praises fled in fear. Now there was no one who could save the prince. But the prince thought to himself, "The Ten Precepts that I have practiced for a long period of time are my mighty army; they are the jeweled sword and the stalwart shield that guard my being. Carrying the virtuous practice of these Ten Precepts in my hand, I shall annihilate the army of demons...Instead of living in defeat, it is far better to do battle and die! But should they go to defeat to Mara's armies even once, mendicants and sages alike will be unable to recognize, know, or practice the path of the virtuous ones. Mara, riding atop a huge elephant, you came leading a whole army. Come, do battle! I shall emerge victorious. You will not throw me into disorder. Although the human and celestial worlds were both unable to destroy your army, I shall defeat your army as a rock destroys tree leaves." (Lalitavistara)

The ancient texts emphasize the need for determination, sacrifice, and courage for Buddhists to follow the path of Buddha-dharma, to bear up under hardships in order to acheive the highest goal a human being can attain: to conquer death, fear, ignorance, evil, and thereby attain liberation. The qualities of a good warrior are exactly the qualities needed for a serious Buddhist practitioner.

As a kshatriya, the Buddha had many advantages in getting others to listen to his message, rather than if he had been born as a shudra (peasant) or vaisya (merchant) or even a brahmin (priests);it is also said that the future Buddha, as a bodhisattva, was able to chose the time and society of his birth. The religious atmosphere of the time (5th-6th BCE) witnessed a resurgence of people of this caste re-examining and questioning the authority of the brahmins, so the Buddha's teachings became popular with them, as did the teachings of his contemporary, the Jain teacher Mahavira. Other kshatriyas also likely recognized him as such (perhaps similar to the idea of "Once a Marine, always a Marine"?), possibly one reason why he was readily accepted (and protected) by the local rulers such as King Bimbisara, and which may also explain a curious story that occurs near the end of the Buddha's life.

King Virudhaka declared war against the Buddha's own clan, the Sakyas, and marched against them. The Buddha stood in his way three times. Each time King Virudhaka dismounted, paid his respects, remounted and retreated, but he kept coming back every day. By the fourth day, the Buddha did not stand in his way, and the Sakyas were defeated. This story is very puzzling by contemporary standards: it could have been mcuh easier for this king to simply shoot the Buddha with an arrow the first time! If he wasn't threatened, why should the Buddha not have stood there, every day, to prevent war? This story is presented as a cautionary tale on the reality of karma. At our most idealistic moments, we may like to imagine that a simple and polite expounding of the Buddha-dharma to violent and ignorant persons can end conflict, but even the Buddha himself was unable to convince everyone he met to renounce violence, or even to accept the validity of the Buddha-dharma. This teaching infers then that not even the Buddha could prevent war; War, like other acts, results from the working of karma within the realm of samsara. If the karma is present, then we may commit any sort of act, whether or not we had even planned to do it, according to Shinran Shonin. As Plato said, "Only the dead do not know war." This is something to keep in mind when considering the importance of the role of the armed forces and our place within it.

Even given the reality of war, we should also keep in mind that the Buddha cautions against the glorification and worship of war and violence for its own sake. As is stated in the Dhammapada (Verses):

"Victory breeds hatred
The defeated live in pain,
Happily the peaceful live,
Giving up victory and defeat."

There is no Buddhist version of 'Valhalla.' Everyone is responsible for his or her own karma, and should be mindful of what our present and future actions may entail, which is the causing of death and death for ourselves in battle. Preferably, people should consider this before enlisting! Even though we have voluntarily accepted this path, we should also be prepared to accept the karmic results, and also know that, like any career, our own military path will end one way or another.

The military life is not for everyone. As servicemembers, especially those in leadership positions and those who have been in for awhile, we know that some are simply not cut out for military service, whether it is because, on one end, they are whiners, "dirtbags" (I'm sure many people have heard this word before) and outright criminals, or others (not bad people) who simply can't adjust to the military lifestyle. I'm sure many of us have encountered these individuals, and also knew that the best thing for all concerned was for them to get out and go home (preferably as quickly as possible). But we've also known others who become very successful, who take to the military life and deployments like fish to water, look out for their people, and thrive on the warrior lifestyle, hardships and all. Chaplains see this all the time. Therefore, there are many different teachings in the Buddhist canon concerning the use of force and conflict, just as counseling is different for different individuals, just as not all wars are alike. The Buddha must have encountered many similar situations in talking to people from different castes and professions, some he may never have associated with before, like barbers and shopkeepers; we also know that he included kings and their warriors in his audiences. We do know that he admitted them to his presence, and talked to them, advising some to renounce the life of a warrior, others he would not admit in the Sangha until after they had completed their military service. He did not shun them because of their profession. He had been one of them.
Namo Amida Butsu

The Jatakas: Birth Stories of the Bodhisatta (Penguin Classics)
Buddha-Dharma: The Way to Enlightenment (Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research)
The Kshatriyas of Ancient India by Madhumita Chatterji
Gotama Buddha: A Biography Based on the Most Reliable Texts Vol. 1 by Hajime Nakamura
"Buddhism and the Soldier" by Major General Ananda Weerasekera
"A Response to 'The Place for a Righteous War in Buddhism' by P.D. Premasiri" - Prof. Damien Keown

Monday, January 7, 2008

New Online Shobogenzo

The following is a message from Shasta Abbey, Mount Shasta, California:

"NEW TRANSLATION OF ZEN MASTER DOGEN'S SHOBOGENZO offered freely by Shasta Abbey in memory of our late master Rev. Roshi Jiyu Kennett. Our 14 year translation project is given to the world as a dana offering. The book is available for downloading at Look for the thumnail of the cover on the left side of the screen & follow the links. You can download (PDF format) the whole book or chapter by chapter."

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Buddhist Chaplaincy Degree Program

Hello all!

For anyone interested in pursuing Buddhist Chaplaincy at the professional level, the IBS has established a new degree program. This is an especially promising development as there are very few programs designed specifically for Buddhists clergy in chaplaincy. Please note that a graduate degree is a requirement for anyone applying to become a military chaplain. The information is below:

The Institute of Buddhist Studies at the Graduate Theological Union has established a degree emphasis in Buddhist Chaplaincy. This is a three year, graduate level program comparable to an MDiv and designed to cover all of the Association of Professional Chaplains educational requirements. Information about the program is available at our website: Select courses are offered online and the IBS cooperates with the Sati Center Training in Buddhist Chaplaincy,

Applications for admission to the Fall term 2008 are due by 15 February 2008. For applications and further information, contact the IBS Administrative Director and Registrar, Mrs. Kumi Hadler at Enrollment is limited.

The IBS was founded in 1949, and is affiliated with both the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, and Ryukoku University, Kyoto. The educational program offered is pan-Buddhist.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Chaps' Dharma Talk: Warrior Buddhists

Hello all!
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

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Happy New Year!

Traditionally in Japanese Buddhism, New Year's Eve is a time when we symbolically erase our 108 bonno, or blind passions, and have the opportunity to start the New Year afresh. For 2008 let us make a resolution to re-dedicate ourselves to the Three Treasures and together let us awaken to the peaceful bliss of Enlightenment.

May there be peace in the world and may the Buddha's teachings spread!
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Buddhist Military Sangha by Jeanette Shin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.
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