Buddhism and War

The decline of Buddhism in India occurred for a variety of reasons such as sectarian conflicts within Buddhism, change in socio-political developments and a loss in public/royal support for Buddhism (Doniger, 1999). The key reason however can be attributed to the invasions of India from central Asia. The invasion by Muslim Turks and Persians destroyed the Buddhist monasteries and its institutional structure (Harvey, 2013), thereby ending Buddhism in India by the end of the 19th century (Johnston, 2000).

History seems to be repeating itself now in Southern Thailand. Thailand's national census has shown that the number of Buddhists in the area had been gradually declining over the last two decades. For example, the Buddhist population in Narathiwat in 1990 was 20.5 per cent, 17.9 per cent in 2000, and 14 per cent in 2010. In Yala, it was 35.9 per cent in 1990, 31 per cent in 2000, and 23.3 per cent in 2010. In Pattani, it was 21.4 per cent in 1990, 19.2 per cent in 2000, and 15.5 per cent in 2010. The main reason being the struggle for independence by Malay nationalists against the Thai state which had resulted in the separatists directing their attacks on Buddhist monks and teachers (Wongcha-um, 2017).
In order to prevent the recurrence of Indian Buddhism (i.e. extinction by violent insurgent), some Buddhist monks in Thailand is advocating violent and started to take arms (Jerryson, 2017). To some extent, this trend is also happening in Sri Lanka (Patel, 2018) and Mynamar (Ratcliffe, 2017).

Non-violence however is at the heart of Buddhist thinking and behaviour. The first of the five precepts that all Buddhists should follow is "Avoid killing, or harming any living thing”. Many Buddhists have refused to take up arms under any circumstances, even knowing that they would be killed as a result. The Buddhist code that governs the life of monks permits them to defend themselves, but it forbids them to kill, even in self-defence (BBC, 2009).

The Dharma clearly states that violent actions and thoughts, actions which harm and debase others and thoughts which contemplate the same, stand in the way of spiritual growth and the self-conquest which leads to the goal of existence and they are normally deemed unskilled (akusala) and cannot lead to the goal of Nirvana. Buddha condemned killing or harming living beings and encouraged reflection or mindfulness (satipatthana) as right action (or conduct), therefore "the rightness or wrongness of an action centers on whether the action itself would bring about harm to self and/or others". The right action or right conduct (samyak-karmānta / sammā-kammanta) is the fourth aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path and it said that the practitioner should train oneself to be morally upright in one's activities, not acting in ways that would be corrupt or bring harm to oneself or to others. As the mind filled with lobha, dosa and moha (lust, hatred and delusion) is led to actions which are akusala. Indulging in violence is a form of self-harming. Thus rejection of violence in society is recognized in Buddhism as a prerequisite for the spiritual progress of society's members, because violence brings pain to beings with similar feelings to oneself (Kalupahana, 1992; Brannigan, 2010; Harris, 1994).

For Buddhist countries this poses the difficult dilemma of how to protect the rights and lives of their citizens without breaking the principle of nonviolence (BBC, 2009). For example, should a police take down a shooter who is going around a shopping centre killing people at random? It will be hypocritical for a monk to say that he will not kill but expect the police to take down the aggressor quickly so that innocent lives are saved.

In the 2500 years of Buddhism history, differences in the practice and interpretations of precepts have given rise to different Buddhism schools and sects. The precepts are practiced differently due to environment, culture and era. We therefore see the Mahayana emphasising more on vegetarianism and the Theravada focusing on less consumption (no meal after noon) when it comes the execution of compassionate (no killing) precept because of the different climate conditions each is facing (ReligiousFacts.com, 2016).

Buddhism, like the other great faiths, has not always lived up to its principles - there are however numerous examples of Buddhists engaging in violence and even war in order to protect and save Buddhism (BBC, 2009). For example:

(1) In the 14th century Buddhist fighters led the uprising that evicted the Mongols from China

(2) In Japan, Buddhist monks trained Samurai warriors in meditation that made them better fighters

(3) In the 20th century Japanese Zen masters wrote in support of Japan's wars of aggression - It is just to punish those who disturb the public order. Whether one kills or does not kill, the precept forbidding killing [is preserved]. It is the precept forbidding killing that wields the sword
(BBC, 2009)

Results have shown that Buddhist countries that insist on not breaking the principle of nonviolence is now no longer a Buddhist country e.g. India, Middle Asia, Indonesia. Buddhist countries that are still around have shown some form of actions to protect the rights, lives and faith of their citizen e.g. China, Myanmar, Bhutan and Thailand.

Of course, the pure Buddhist attitude remains “If there is any truth to Buddhism and the Dharma it will not disappear from the face of the earth, but will reappear when seekers of truth are ready to rediscover it. In killing I would be betraying and abandoning the very teachings I would be seeking to preserve. So it would be better to let the invaders kill me and remain true to the spirit of the Dharma” (BBC, 2009). Not sure how this will work out when American police face off with shooter going round a school killing everyone in sight.

What is your view on this issue?


BBC, Reigions – War Web 3 Dec 2018 http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/buddhism/buddhistethics/war.shtml (2009)

Brannigan, M.C., Striking a Balance: A Primer in Traditional Asian Values, Rowman & Littlefield, U.S.A. (2010)

Champa, P., Sri Lanka stands at crossroads amid fears Buddhist-Muslim tensions will erupt in widespread violence Web 3 Dec 2018 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/sri-lanka-violence-state-of... (2018)

Doniger, W., Merriam-Webster's Encyclopaedia of World Religions. Merriam-Webster, Massachusetts (1999)

Harris, E.J., Violence and Disruption in Society A Study of early Buddhist Texts, Web 3 Dec 2018 https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/harris/wheel392.html (1994)

Harvey, P., An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices. Cambridge University Press, New York (2013)

Jerryson, M., Monks with guns Web 3 Dec 2018 https://aeon.co/essays/buddhism-can-be-as-violent-as-any-other-religion (2017)

Johnston, W.M., Encyclopaedia of Monasticism: A-L. Routledge, Michigan (2000)

Kalupahana, D.J., A History of Buddhist Philosophy: Continuities and Discontinuities, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu (1992)

Ratcliffe, R., Who are the Rohingya and what is happening in Myanmar? Web 3 Dec 2018 https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/sep/06/who-are-the-r... (2017)

ReligiousFacts.com, Buddhist Sects and Schools Web 3 Dec 2018 http://www.religionfacts.com/buddhism/branches (2016)

Wongcha-um, P., In conflict-hit southern Thailand, Buddhist nationalism is on the rise, Web 3 Dec 2018 https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asiapacific/in-conflict-hit-souther... (2017)