Midweek Review
Buddhism and war - A reply
Combating terrorism is no crime!

by Sarath Weerasekera
If a notorious criminal enters the house of Priya and Prem by force and tries to harm them, then what would Prem do? Will he start practising ‘Metta’ in keeping with the Buddha’s teachings of non violence and Ahimsa, or would he try to study the root causes why men behave in such a manner and try to address those root causes, or would he simply try to overpower the criminal with whatever means available and save themselves from the criminal? If the latter course of action is the answer, how should the people act if their land is under siege and their lives endangered by a group of terrorists?

I thought of writing this after reading the article, ‘Buddhism and War.’ by Priya and Prem Jayasekera in The Island Midweek Review on 14th Aug. 2002. It said that they were both horrified, stupefied, and shocked to hear an ardent ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ say that the Buddha did not say anything against wars, and therefore war was justified and as such it was a horrendous statement founded entirely on ignorance. It then elaborated on loving kindness and Ahimsa of the Buddha and argued that Buddha was always against war.

I have little knowledge of Buddhism as against Priya and Prem, who appear to be well versed in Damma. However, I find it difficult to agree totally with their argument, as they have not touched upon national security or action in self-defence, when dealing with "Ahimsa".

Even a kid knows that Buddhism is against war. The Buddha has advocated and preached "non violence and peace" as his universal messages and said, "Never hatred is appeased by hatred but it is appeased by kindness." The Buddha not only condemned killing of all types of living beings but also condemned the destruction of plant life.

As Priya and Prem also agree Buddhism is not a religion but a way of life", a teaching, which should be practised in daily life. Now the question is: Has Buddhism, as a way of life, given permission for a State to raise and maintain an Army to protect its citizens from aggression? Can a good Buddhist be a good soldier? And can such a soldier kill to protect his land his people?

If a notorious criminal enters the house of Priya and Prem by force and tries to harm them, then what would Prem do? Will he start practising ‘Metta’ in keeping with the Buddha’s teachings of non violence and Ahimsa, or would he try to study the root causes why men behave in such a manner and try to address those root causes, or would he simply try to overpower the criminal with whatever means available and save themselves from the criminal? If the latter course of action is the answer, how should the people act if their land is under siege and their lives endangered by a group of terrorists?

While civilians are being killed, children forcibly conscripted, people extorted and arms amassed for destroying the country by the terrorists, should they practise Metta towards the enemy or try to find the root causes or try to save the innocents from being butchered? If Buddhism is a way of life and if that way of life prohibits any action against aggression and if the forefathers of Sri Lanka have acted accordingly, Buddhism in Sri Lanka would have vanished long time ago.

Now let us briefly see how the Buddha has responded when it came to national security.

The Buddhist texts show that the Buddha, though he preached non-violence, has acknowledged that a state must have an Army to defend herself. In Chakka Vam Seeha Nada Sutta in Deega Nikaya, the Buddha has justified the king in raising and maintaining an army to protect his people from external and internal aggression. Hence the Buddha was mindful of an army to protect the citizens and consequent use of force in defence, as a worldly necessity.

Once the Buddha asked King Pasenadi whether he would like to keep a noble youth in his Army if he was untrained, unskilled, timid, trembling and wanting to run away. The fact that the Buddha used similes from Pasenadi’s military implies that he accepted and acknowledged the existence of an Army as a tool of the state.

King Suddhodana one day came to the Buddha and complained that his soldiers were joining the order and it had resulted in depletion of the army. The Buddha immediately ruled that if someone in the army wanted to enter the order, he must get the consent of the king. (This rule is still valid in our country.) This incident too implies that the Buddha has accepted that a state must have a fully-fledged Army for defence whilst being fully aware of the role of the army during an invasion. Hence Buddhism recognises the validity of certain worldly needs which may not be fully compatible with the highest ideals of harmlessness and non-violence.

In the Seeha Senapathi Sutta (Anguttara nikaya) Seeha, the head of an army brigade, comes to the Buddha to clarify certain matters connected to Dhamma. The Buddha clarifies it and he attains "Sothapaththi" but continues to serve in the Army!! The Buddha never asked Seeha to quit the Army or demobilise his army.

Prem and Priya have also mentioned that terrorism is the answer of the desperate and hence the root causes have to be addressed as a solution. It may be so in the long term. "Terrorism" is, unleashing of violence towards civilians and civil targets to achieve a political objective. Does anyone expect a government to do nothing and allow the terrorists to kill civilians until the so called "root causes" are properly addressed? If someone argues that the government must wage war against the terrorists in order to save the lives of innocents and public property, can he be branded an extremist? Terrorism must be rooted out in terms of cause and effect. Treating the root causes if any, is operationally a long-term project whilst reacting immediately is necessary to deter the killers. It is best to preserve the complimentary character of the two. I am sure Prem and Priya would agree with me on this.

Not only against terrorism but, as we are all aware, countries fight for independence as well. Ven. Walpole Rahula Thera points out that fighting for national independence has become an established Buddhist tradition since freedom was essential to the spiritual as well as material progress of the community. The state cannot grant people Nibbana and all it can do is to ensure their freedom to attain it for themselves. In order to ensure that, the state may have to wage war in its defence.

Throughout the history of Sri Lanka, Buddhist monks have played an active role in protecting the country and Buddhism, against foreign invasions. In 5th century BC during the invasions of from south India Ven. Mahanama raised the Royal prince Dhatusena amidst attempts to assassinate him. He admitted the prince into Order and brought him up secretly training him in every sphere. Dhatusena subsequently liberated Sinhalese and Buddhism from aggression. Can anybody argue that Ven. Mahanama acted against the Buddha’s teachings?

As per Mahawansa when king Dutugemunu became remorseful at the thought of killing a large number of human beings in battle, some Arahats living in the island of Piyangu met the king and said that his path to heaven was not obstructed as his "intention" had been benign.

Ven. Rahula in his book "The heritage of the Bhikku" concludes that although the above record is diametrically opposed to the teachings of the Buddha, working for the freedom and upliftment of religion were considered so noble by both laity and Sangha that they seemed to believe that Arahats themselves had accepted that even the destruction of human beings in order to save the country was not a grave crime.

The precept to refrain from killing is one that is voluntarily undertaken. A Buddhist knows if violates that tenet he does so at his own peril. But the question is whether there is any mitigation, if killing is carried out as a duty that one owes to the state. In a situation like this hatred is not so dominant in "Chetana" or the mental volition that accompanies such an act.

We all have heard of the monk Therapuththabaya, who disrobed, joined King Dutugemunu’s Army, fought the enemy, and after winning the war joined the Order again and attained Arahathood !! We have read in texts how the Buddha has prevented many wars. But being a soldier is not one of the five forbidden livelihoods mentioned in Buddhism.

The Buddha has accepted that even a righteous king must have a well-trained Army to defend his people. I am sure the person, whom Priya and Prem took on so vehemently calling him an "ardent Sinhala Buddhist" was only trying to say that.
(The writer is Rear Admiral, Navy Camp, KKS)


NEWS | FEATURES | OPINION | BUSINESS | EDITORIAL | CARTOON | SPORTS