In the century preceding the birth of the Buddha, northeast India underwent sweeping transformations that profoundly reshaped the region’s geopolitics. The older tribal states gave way to monarchies ruled by ambitious kings who competed for dominance, leaving behind trails of blood and tears. The Buddha’s native land, the Sakyan state, became a tributary of the kingdom of Kosala, and late in the Buddha’s life the cruel King Vidudabha, rogue ruler of Kosala, massacred the Sakyans, leaving few survivors. The state of Magadha, with its capital at Rajagaha, became the nucleus of a new empire.
The Buddha’s discourses give us glimpses into the tumultuous tide of the era. They tell how “men take up swords and shields, buckle on bows and quivers, and charge into battle… where they are wounded by arrows and spears, and their heads are cut off by swords… and they are splashed with boiling liquids and crushed under heavy weights” (MN 13:12–13). We read of battlefields marked by “clouds of dust, the crests of the standards, the clamor, and the blows” (AN 5:75). Rulers obsessed by lust for power executed their rivals, imprisoned them, confiscated their property, and condemned them to exile (AN 3:69).
Against this backdrop of social chaos and personal disorientation, the Buddha propounded an ethic of harmlessness that rejected violence in all its forms, from its collective manifestation in armed conflict to its subtle stirrings as anger and ill will. He rested this ethic on the appeal to empathy, the ability to imagine oneself in the place of others: “All beings fear violence, all fear death. Using oneself as a criterion, one should not kill or cause death” (Dhammapada v. 129). The First Precept and first course of wholesome action call for abstinence from the destruction of life. The earnest follower “puts down the rod and weapon and dwells compassionate toward all living beings” (MN 41:12). Right Intention, the second factor of the Eightfold Path, calls for noninjury. The practitioner is advised to develop a mind of lovingkindness toward all beings, like a mother toward her only child (Snp 149).
But while the ethic of harmlessness may have served well as a guide to personal conduct, the governance of a state presented a moral quandary, with which the texts occasionally grapple. In a short sutta (SN 4:20) the Buddha ponders the intriguing question: Is it possible to rule a country righteously—without killing and instigating others to kill, without confiscating the property of others, without causing sorrow? No sooner does the question occur to him than Mara the Tempter appears and begs the Buddha to give up his monastic vocation in order to rule. The Buddha spurns Mara’s proposal with a statement on the misery of sensual pleasures: “Even a mountain of gold would not be enough for one.” Yet, strangely, the sutta does not answer the question with which it began. Perhaps the question was deliberately left hanging because the Buddha (or the compilers) did not think an unambiguous answer was possible. Yet the omission leaves us with this dilemma: What happens to our commitment to harmlessness when the evil of war seems necessary to deter a greater and more destructive evil?
The suttas, it must be clearly stated, do not admit any moral justification for war. Thus, if we take the texts as issuing moral absolutes, one would have to conclude that war can never be morally justified. One short sutta even declares categorically that a warrior who dies in battle will be reborn in hell, which implies that participation in war is essentially immoral (SN 42:3). This decree, however, seems inconsistent with our present-day norms, which recognize conditions under which the resort to arms is permissible. Are such norms mistaken, then, just further proof of human ignorance and moral fallibility?
The early Buddhist texts are not unaware of the potential clash between the need to prevent the triumph of evil and the duty to observe nonviolence. The solution they propose, however, always endorses nonviolence even in the face of evil. A case in point is SN 11:4, which relates the story of a battle between the gods, ruled by Sakka, and the titans, ruled by Vepacitti. In the battle, the gods win, capture Vepacitti and bring him to their city. Sakka’s servant Matali urges his master to punish his old foe, but Sakka insists that patience and forgiveness must prevail: “One who repays an angry man with anger makes things worse for himself; not retaliating, one wins a battle hard to win.” The Jataka stories, too, endorse strict adherence to the law of nonviolence, even for a ruler threatened by a foe. The Mahasilava Jataka tells the story of a king who was determined never to shed blood, even though this required surrendering his kingdom and becoming a prisoner of his enemy. Through the power of lovingkindness the king managed to win release, transform his captor into a friend and regain his kingdom.
In the real world, however, heads of state are hardly likely to adopt lovingkindness meditation as their principal means of deterring aggressors bent on territorial expansion or global domination. The question then returns: While adhering to nonviolence as an ideal, how should a government address real threats to its population? And how is the international community to deal with a nation determined to impose its will by force? While absolute nonviolence may be the rule when no contrary circumstances are apparent, specific situations can be morally complex, entailing contrary moral claims. The task of moral reflection is to help us negotiate between these claims while curbing the tendency to act from self-interested expediency.
Governments obtain their legitimacy in part from their ability to protect their citizens from ruthless aggressors bent on conquering their territory and subjugating their populations. The global community as well, through conventions and the mediation of international bodies, seeks to preserve a relative state of peace—however imperfect—from those who would use force to fulfill their lust for power or impose an ideological agenda. When a nation violates the rules of peaceful coexistence, the obligation to restrain aggression may trump the obligation to avoid violence. Thus the UN Charter sees physical force as a last resort but condones its use when allowing the transgressor to proceed unchecked would have more disastrous consequences.
The moral tensions we encounter in real life should caution us against interpreting Buddhist ethical prescriptions as unqualified absolutes. And yet the texts of early Buddhism themselves never recognize circumstances that might soften the universality of a basic precept or moral value. To resolve the dissonance between the moral idealism of the texts and the pragmatic demands of everyday life, I would posit two frameworks for shaping moral decisions. I will call one the liberative framework, the other the pragmatic karmic framework.
The liberative framework applies to those who seek to advance undeterred as rapidly as possible toward the final goal of the Dharma, the extinction of suffering. Within this framework—which proceeds through the threefold training of moral conduct, concentration, and wisdom—refraining from intentionally inflicting harm on living beings (especially human beings) is a strict obligation not to be transgressed through any “door of action,” body, speech or mind. A strict regimen of nonharming is inviolable. If one is subject to conscription, one must become a conscientious objector or even go to prison when there is no alternative. If one is confronted with the choice between sacrificing one’s own life and taking the life of another, one must be willing to sacrifice one’s own life, confident this act of renunciation will expedite one’s progress.
The pragmatic karmic framework serves as a matrix of moral reflection for those committed to Buddhist ethical values who seek to advance toward final liberation gradually, over a series of lives, rather than directly. Its emphasis is on cultivating wholesome qualities to further one’s progress within the cycle of rebirths while allowing one to pursue one’s worldly vocation. In this framework the moral prescriptions of the teaching have presumptive rather than peremptory validity. One who adopts this framework would recognize that the duties of daily life occasionally call for compromises with the strict obligations of the Buddhist moral code. While still esteeming the highest moral standards as an ideal, such a practitioner would be ready to make occasional concessions as a practical necessity. The test of integrity here is not unwavering obedience to moral rules but a refusal to subordinate them to narrow self-interest.
In time of war, I would argue, the karmic framework can justify enlisting in the military and serving as a combatant, providing one sincerely believes the reason for fighting is to disable a dangerous aggressor and protect one’s country and its citizens. Any acts of killing that such a choice might require would certainly be regrettable as a violation of the First Precept. But a mitigating factor would be the Buddha’s psychological understanding of karma as intention, whereby the moral quality of the motive determines the ethical value of the action. Since a nation’s purposes in resorting to arms may vary widely—just like a person’s motives for participating in war—this opens up a spectrum of moral valuations. When the motive is territorial expansion, material wealth or national glory, the resort to war would be morally blameworthy. When the motive is genuine national defense or to prevent a rogue nation from disrupting global peace, moral evaluation would have to reflect these intentions.
Nevertheless, if one relies solely on canonical statements, the volition of harming others would always be considered “wrong intention” and all acts of destroying life classed as unwholesome. But what moral judgment are we to make when citizens participate in a defensive war to protect their country and fellow citizens, or other peaceful nations, from attack by a vicious aggressor? Suppose we are living in the 1940s when Hitler is pursuing his quest for global domination. If I join a combat unit, is my participation in this war to be considered morally reprehensible though my purpose is to block the murderous campaign of a ruthless tyrant? Can we say that fidelity to the Dharma obliges us to remain passive in the face of brute aggression, or to pursue negotiations when it’s plain these will not work? Wouldn’t we maintain that in this situation military action to stop the aggressor is laudable, even obligatory, and that a soldier’s actions can be judged morally commendable? By the same token, if a policeman, in pursuit of his duty, is compelled to shoot a killer to spare the lives of innocent people, would we not consider his action commendable rather than blameworthy?
Hesitantly, I would have to adopt this latter position. In doing so, I must add that I am not seeking to condone any of the wars in which the U.S. is currently involved under the pretext of “defending our freedom,” or to excuse the often brutal behavior of our hypermilitarized police force. Taking life is always the last choice, and a most regrettable one. But it seems to me that in a morally complex world, our choices and judgments must reflect the morally knotty texture of the situations that confront us.
I admit that I can’t justify my standpoint by appeal to Buddhist texts, whether canonical or commentarial. It thus seems to me that the ethics of early Buddhism simply do not cover all the predicaments of the human situation. Perhaps that was never their intention. Perhaps their intention is to serve as guidelines rather than as moral absolutes, to posit ideals even for those who cannot perfectly fulfill them. Nevertheless, the complexity of the human condition inevitably presents us with circumstances where moral obligations run at crosscurrents. In such cases, I believe, we must simply do our best to navigate between them, rigorously examining our own motives and aspiring to reduce harm and suffering for the greatest number of those at risk.
(Abbreviations: AN = Anguttara Nikaya; MN = Majjhima Nikaya; SN = Samyutta Nikaya; Snp = Suttanipata)