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Buddhism cannot accept a "just war"
by Rev. Ryo Imamura

Unlike some other religions, Buddhism does not have a “just war” theory. Wars and violence are to be avoided at all cost. Instead, Buddhism encourages understanding and compassion even in situations where one’s own life is at stake. The Suttanipata says: Do not kill a living being. You should not kill or condone killing by others. You should abandon the use of violence. You should not use force either against the strong or against the weak.

One of the clearest statements of Buddhist pacifism or peace-making is the Bhramajala Sutra, which teaches that we should not participate in any war. We must have nothing to do with lethal weapons. We should not participate in violent revolts, rebellions or uprising. We may not kill either directly or indirectly. Our minds must be filled with charity and kindness.

What this means is that, in the event of war, the Buddhist refuses to take up arms even though it may mean his/her own destruction. Ultimately there is no victor in war. We will surely find that the war with Iraq can only lead to more suffering, bitterness and strife. War is never a path to peace; peace is the only way. Victory breeds hatred, for the conquered is unhappy. He who has given up both victory and defeat, he, the contented, is happy. (Dhammapada)

In the history of Buddhism there are many instances in which respect for life has overruled violence. According to the Mahasilava Jataka story, when the King of Kosala invaded a neighboring kingdom, he gave its king a choice to fight or submit. Although he had the strength to resist the invasion, the kind replied, “I fight not . . . let him seize my kingdom.” He chose not to fight the Kosala army because he did not want his people to go through unnecessary sufferings. This compassionate decision eventually moved the heart of the King of Kosala and caused him to withdraw his troops. A similar but more tragic story is that of the son of Prince Shotoku, who is regarded as the father of Japanese Buddhism. When Prince Shotoku died in 622 C.E. (Common Era), his son Yamashiro became heir apparent. A power struggle ensued, and he was attacked by the rival Soga clan. Having been taught to live according to the Buddhist principle of nonviolence, Yamashiro stated the following: “If I had raised an army and attacked the Soga clan, I would certainly have won the battle. But I am unwilling to destroy the lives of so many people for the sake of this one man.” Rather than become the cause for much misery and sorrow for both sides of the struggle, Yamashiro and his wife committed suicide before the battle could begin.

The life of the Buddha contains many stories illustrating the folly of war. When the Sakyas and Lolinyas were about ot wage war over the rights to the water of the Rohini River, the Buddha intervened and settled the issue peacefully, saying most rationally, “Why, on account of some water of little worth, would you destroy the invaluable lives of these soldiers:” At another time, the Buddha successfully resisted in a non-violent manner the invasion of his father’s kingdom by a neighbor’s kingdom. And his advice prevented King Ajatasatta from invading the Vajjis in another story.

It is clear that violence is never justified by the teachings of the Buddha. The perpetrator of violence just suffers the karmic consequences in the present and future because each person is ultimately responsible for his/her thoughts, actions and words. Man reaps the karmic consequences even if he claims that he was “only carrying out orders.” If he participates in any profession which aids the cause of war, such as the manufacture and sale of weapons of war, such as guns and aircraft, he is knowingly involved in the taking of life and must suffer the karmic consequences.

This is a difficult dilemma for many Americans who work for companies that directly or indirectly design technology and manufacture tools used in war. Because of such dilemmas faced by its members, most American Buddhist organizations have not taken official stances against war even though the teachings of the Buddha are so clearly against war and violence. However individual Buddhists have often taken actions to promote peace and protest against war. The most courageous example of personal protest against the violence of war was the self-immolation of Vietnamese monks and nuns during the Vietnam War. The self-immolations were not suicides but rather acts of compassion, proof of the seriousness of their dedication and of their willingness to endure the greatest of sufferings for the sake of their fellow beings. The selfless purity of the self-immolations stunned the world and helped bring an end to the war.

One American organization that has consistently voiced its opposition to war as a means of resolving human problems is the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, a member organization of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. The Buddhist Peace Fellowship is an international group of individual Buddhists from many sects who feel it is imperative for Buddhists not only to personally protest against war and violence but to articulate their philosophy of love and compassion in relation to the complex issues of the world today.

In summary, Buddhists are strongly supported by their teachings and by their living tradition in their individual and joint efforts to bring peace and understanding to our world through completely non-violent means. They are grateful for being shown a path that leads from the turmoil of anger and self-serving interests to the bliss of understanding and compassion.

Rev. Ryo Imamura, a professor at The Evergreen State College, is a former national president of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. This article was submitted by Vi Tanabe, and is reprinted with the author’s permission. The Buddhist Peace Fellowship website is at

Letter to the Editor
We need to uphold separation of church & state

Dear Editor: This is a very important election year. Our nation is at war. We have a president who claims to be a “War President.” We as followers and seekers of the Buddha Dharma need to give serious consideration to deciding which candidate to support. In Rev. Imamura’s article, he points out that Buddhism does not have a “just war” theory. Another concern that we as members of a minority religion need to become aware of is that our constitutional separation of church and state is being eroded. Our politicians are using religion in an effort to win votes. Our president refers to his “Almighty God” in deciding national policies. Religion and politics should be kept separate. Religion should remain a personal aspiration. Our nation was founded on this motto: “One nation, many faiths.” We have a national organization called the Interfaith Alliance which is a watchdog in upholding and protecting our constitutional separation of state and church, and it needs our individual as well as organizational support. The esteemed Walter Cronkite is one of the leading supporters. Our now-retired BCA minister, Rev. LaVerne Sasaki, was one of its directors. A quote from Walter Cronkite: “The Interfaith Alliance is dedicated to protecting American basic freedom of speech, press and religion from the fringe groups who cloak in religious garb their challenges to these principles.” Please send your support/contribution to: The Interfaith Alliance, 1331 H St. NW, 11th Floor, Washington, DC 20005, or visit their website at

In gassho,
Vi Tanabe