Buddhism cannot accept a "just war"
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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
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
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
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 www.bpf.org.
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