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The Buddha as warrior

Manjushri bodhisattva with swordIt might seem strange to think of the Buddha as a “warrior” when he is rightly seen as above all a figure of peace. Lieutenant (jg) Jeanette Shin, the US military’s first Buddhist chaplain, looks at the Buddha’s martial background.

The Buddha never advocated the killing or destruction of “infidels” of any religion or doctrine, and always recommended the path of nonviolence.

However, Shakyamuni’s life and teachings reveal a person raised to be a heroic warrior invested in honor. While he renounced the life planned for him by his parents, as a secular warrior-king, he used the language of warriors to convey the Dharma, so he could stress that following the path of Dharma required similar virtues possessed by warriors.

 Terms like charioteer, sword and shield, war elephants, banners, fortress, archers, arrows, poisoned arrows, are all used in expressing the struggle to overcome one’s delusions  

Siddhartha Gautama (his birth name) was born into the kshatriya varna, or caste, of ancient India/Nepal. This was the caste of the warriors, the rulers and aristocrats of ancient India. A typical upbringing of a kshatriya male included study of the Vedas (the earliest religious texts of India) and the study of archery, swordsmanship, horsemanship, etc.

Although the Buddha’s early life may sound very pampered, with his three palaces and entourage of entertainers and harem (the ancient Indian equivalent of MTV’s My Sweet Sixteen! Which would also inspire one to renounce the world), it would have been very unlikely that Siddhartha’s father, King Suddhodhana, would have neglected to provide this rigorous training for the presumptive heir of a small, regional power (and he did not become a world-renouncer until he was about age 29).

We may see evidence of this in the language that the Buddha used in expressing Dharma: martial imagery and terms like “charioteer”, “sword and shield,” “war elephants”, “banners,” “fortress,” “archers”, “arrows”, “poisoned arrows,” are all used in expressing the struggle to overcome one’s delusions and the oppositions of others.

The Buddha’s Enlightenment was described as a “battle” between himself and Mara, the embodiment of death and evil:

“King Mara, at the head of a great army of one hundred thousand, swooped down on the prince from four sides. The gods who up to that time had surrounded the prince and had sung his praises fled in fear. Now there was no one who could save the prince. But the prince thought to himself, “The Ten Precepts that I have practiced for a long period of time are my mighty army; they are the jeweled sword and the stalwart shield that guard my being. Carrying the virtuous practice of these Ten Precepts in my hand, I shall annihilate the army of demons… Instead of living in defeat, it is far better to do battle and die! But should they go to defeat to Mara’s armies even once, mendicants and sages alike will be unable to recognize, know, or practice the path of the virtuous ones. Mara, riding atop a huge elephant, you came leading a whole army. Come, do battle! I shall emerge victorious. You will not throw me into disorder. Although the human and celestial worlds were both unable to destroy your army, I shall defeat your army as a rock destroys tree leaves.” (Lalitavistara)

The ancient texts emphasize the need for determination, sacrifice, and courage for Buddhists to follow the path of Buddha-dharma, to bear up under hardships in order to achieve the highest goal a human being can attain: to conquer death, fear, ignorance, evil, and thereby attain liberation. The qualities of a good warrior are exactly the qualities needed for a serious Buddhist practitioner.

As a kshatriya, the Buddha had many advantages in getting others to listen to his message, rather than if he had been born as a shudra (peasant) vaisya (merchant) or even a brahmin (priests); it is also said that the future Buddha, as a bodhisattva, was able to chose the time and society of his birth. The religious atmosphere of the time (5th-6th BCE) witnessed a resurgence of people of this caste re-examining and questioning the authority of the brahmins, so the Buddha’s teachings became popular with them, as did the teachings of his contemporary, the Jain teacher Mahavira. Other kshatriyas also likely recognized him as such (perhaps similar to the idea of “Once a Marine, always a Marine”?), possibly one reason why he was readily accepted (and protected) by the local rulers such as King Bimbisara, and which may also explain a curious story that occurs near the end of the Buddha’s life.

 As a kshatriya, the Buddha had many advantages in getting others to listen to his message  

King Virudhaka declared war against the Buddha’s own clan, the Shakyas, and marched against them. The Buddha stood in his way three times. Each time King Virudhaka dismounted, paid his respects, remounted and retreated, but he kept coming back every day. By the fourth day, the Buddha did not stand in his way, and the Sakyas were defeated.

This story is very puzzling by contemporary standards: it would have been much easier for this king to simply shoot the Buddha with an arrow the first time! If he wasn’t threatened, why should the Buddha not have stood there, every day, to prevent war? This story is presented as a cautionary tale on the reality of karma. At our most idealistic moments, we may like to imagine that a simple and polite expounding of the Buddha-dharma to violent and ignorant persons can end conflict, but even the Buddha himself was unable to convince everyone he met to renounce violence, or even to accept the validity of the Buddha-dharma. This teaching infers then that not even the Buddha could prevent war; War, like other acts, results from the working of karma within the realm of samsara. If the karma is present, then we may commit any sort of act, whether or not we had even planned to do it, according to Shinran Shonin. As Plato said, “Only the dead do not know war.” This is something to keep in mind when considering the importance of the role of the armed forces and our place within it.

Even given the reality of war, we should also keep in mind that the Buddha cautions against the glorification and worship of war and violence for its own sake. As is stated in the Dhammapada:

Victory breeds hatred
The defeated live in pain,
Happily the peaceful live,
Giving up victory and defeat.

There is no Buddhist version of ‘Valhalla.’ Everyone is responsible for his or her own karma, and should be mindful of what our present and future actions may entail, which is the causing of death and death for ourselves in battle. Preferably, people should consider this before enlisting! Even though we have voluntarily accepted this path, we should also be prepared to accept the karmic results, and also know that, like any career, our own military path will end one way or another.

 Even the Buddha himself was unable to convince everyone he met to renounce violence  

The military life is not for everyone. As service-members, especially those in leadership positions and those who have been in for awhile, we know that some are simply not cut out for military service, whether it is because, on one end, they are whiners, “dirtbags” (I’m sure many people in the military have heard this word before) and outright criminals, or others who, although not bad people, simply can’t adjust to the military lifestyle.

I’m sure many of us have encountered these individuals, and also knew that the best thing for all concerned was for them to get out and go home (preferably as quickly as possible). But we’ve also known others who become very successful, who take to the military life and deployments like fish to water, look out for their people, and thrive on the warrior lifestyle, hardships and all. Chaplains see this all the time. Therefore, there are many different teachings in the Buddhist canon concerning the use of force and conflict, just as counseling is different for different individuals, just as not all wars are alike.

The Buddha must have encountered many similar situations in talking to people from different castes and professions, some he may never have associated with before, like barbers and shopkeepers; we also know that he included kings and their warriors in his audiences. We do know that he admitted them to his presence, and talked to them, advising some to renounce the life of a warrior, others he would not admit in the Sangha until after they had completed their military service. He did not shun them because of their profession. He had been one of them.

Namo Amida Butsu


Lt. j.g. Jeanette G. Shin serves in the U.S. Navy and was commissioned as a chaplain on July 22, 2007. She was the Department of Defense’s first Buddhist chaplain. She blogs at the Buddhist Military Sangha website. Prior to becoming a military chaplain she was ordained as a priest in the Nishi Hongwanji sect of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism — a school of Mahayana Pure Land Buddhism.

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Comment from Darren Littlejohn
Time: September 19, 2008, 5:27 pm

Wow, this is a nice article. I just took Manjushri empowerment last night with the amazing Two Khenpos. A friend of mine keeps having visions of swords at various teachings we go to. Thanks for writing this.

-d

Darren Littlejohn
the 12-Step Buddhist – a Simon and Schuster book
http://the12stepbuddhist.com

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Pingback from Shambhala Sun Space » Buddhism, Warriorship, and the Military
Time: September 21, 2008, 6:13 pm

[...] Wild Mind blog features a piece by Jeanette Shin, a Jodo Shinshu priest who in 2007 became the Dept. of Defense’s first Buddhist chaplain. (She also blogs for the Buddhist Military Sangha.) Jeanette makes the case that the Buddha taught warriorship, although what we do with that idea is up to us. [...]

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Comment from Rob messel
Time: September 30, 2008, 2:30 pm

Thank you!
As a Soldier currently serving over seas, I have been searching without success for other Buddhists in the service.
Not only did this confirm that there is in fact a Buddhist Chaplain “somewhere” there is also a Sangha for people like me!

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Comment from Sandy Andrew
Time: October 3, 2008, 9:26 pm

What an intriguing story to read. Extremely well written. Love the comments on Karma . . . you are responsible for our Karmic future . . . brilliant!

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Comment from Prem Gedera
Time: November 2, 2008, 9:14 pm

Wow! Wonderfull peace/piece of writing. You know what, I am a Buddhist by birth (born/raised in Sri Lanka), but I never saw/heard Buddhism from the Buddhist warrior’s point of view.

You are absolutely right. In general term, warriors fight against out side enemies (looking outward) could be in millions (max), but Buddhists are warriors too, ha ha, who are fighting against countless enemies within (looking inward), making no harm to others.

The other thing I like with your writing is the application of Buddhism in the contemporary world, depicting its AKALIKA quality.

” I also read some of your articles on visiting Buddhist places in Thailand. I added them to my next visit. On the other hand, I would also recommond a visit to Sri Lanka where ancient cities like Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa with full of Buddhist history going back to 230 BC (Stone era) with the Sri Mahabodhi, huge Buddha’s statues carved into rocks, pagodas (Sthupa), parks for meditation, etc..”.

Thanks Jeanette

Prem Gedera, P.Eng. from BC, Canada

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Comment from Jim Fowler
Time: March 6, 2009, 10:45 am

If you are not guided by wisdom, compassion for all beings, and renunciation of delusion then all the Ninja discipline and focus in the universe cannot change the fact that a warrior is just a thug. This was one of the first things that the Buddha left behind when he cut off his hair and left the palace.

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Comment from notso
Time: January 11, 2010, 1:35 pm

If Buddhism is not not pacifist, but non violent, then presumably a moral adjudication is required before one endeavors to join a military effort to slay his fellow man who are deemed an enemy to some group to whom he belongs. There is a period of moral calculation involved in the west. Does Buddhism concern itself with the detail of this moral calculus, or is war just war independent of the cause and methods employed? Of particular interest, what does Buddhism say about the Christian (Catholic anyway) prohibition against adoptions of “the end justifies the means” in doing your moral calculation. Does Buddhism believe that some actions are “mallum in se” – intrinsic evil and not subject to rationalization for any reason. e.g. Murder of innocents.-in war in particular. I know this is all “wordly” and Buddhism is more concerned with the spirit. Notwithstanding this, consider a soldier, acting on behalf of a country that has decided that because an enemy army will not surrender unconditionally ,that it will murder as many innocent civilians as it takes to make them kneel and permit their land to be invaded. This sort of this can be justified by such moral calculus propositions as- 1)they started it. 2) it ultimately saved lives cause it will end the war earlier 3) We were magnanimous to the vanquished after their surrender. 4) They were very bad, and committed numerous atrocities. 5) The would have done it to us. 6) They had it coming ….. Goes on and on. Nevertheless it comes down to the end justifies the means- or not.
The situation is world war II, with Japan and the strategic bombing comes to mind. Also the justification of murder of civilians by alQaeda.
An the numerous acts of vengeance and cruelty done in the name of God directed manifest destiny in the case of Israel.
What is the Buddhist teaching regarding malum in se. – and the end justifying the means. As a Catholic I reject such moral rationalizations and condemn murder of innocents as intrinsically evil, and I am forced to surrender my own life if need to be to avoid being forced into doing it.

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Comment from Joshua Clark
Time: March 29, 2010, 12:31 pm

I am not enlightened nor do I hold all the knowledge of Buddhism. I have been on the path for some years and I am a Soldier in the US Army. It is my understanding that all my actions are my own and through Karma I will answer for each of them. Knowing this does not change my desire to stop being a Soldier, a warrior. The reason I choose to jeopardize my own life is there are so many people who cannot defend themselves. I do this, take action in defense of others, by my own choice and I will happily accept the Karma that follows.
It honestly surprises me more when I talk about this with my Christian battles (friends), their beliefs say over and over to turn the other cheek, not even be angry at people, but in their heart they feel that because an order is given by someone above them it absolves them of the act.
In short the other Buddhists who I practice with take the same view that an individuals action are their own.

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Comment from notso
Time: March 31, 2010, 2:53 pm

Does the end justify the means or not then. If you are not required to judge the mission, but only your individual actions. then can you load a weapon about to be used to murder innocents, because some authority has adjudicated that this is a good in some ethical calculus? I myself believe that one cannot be a part of a enterprise that believes that evil can be done to accomplish some means judged by some authority to be a good. – Joshua – if you are Jewish, and somebody tels you that the somebody is an existential threat to Israel, is your Karma powered conscience fine with almost any action because the the bloody shirt of a good end is waived in the air? If Karma is rooted in individual perception of doing good, what does this mean if the measure of total good involves judgement of some clique in a chain of command far away, and requires the inclusion of dark back room deals about who is an enemy and why.

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Comment from Joshua Clark
Time: March 31, 2010, 8:14 pm

Notso, there is no ends justifying any means. I know that I will be judged for my actions, my karma will return to me. That was what I was saying, that I have no justification. I know that in the defense of others I may be sacrificing my own hope of moving forward in my next life. Many of my Christian friends believe that they are protected because others give them orders.
I believe that only those who completely understand what they are sacrificing can truly stand to protect those who cannot.

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Comment from notso
Time: April 2, 2010, 12:05 pm

Well we agree on the basic principle that end does not justify any means to attain it. If we explore this in connection with being a soldier, are you have justified what you do in your service as being in the defense of others. Do you justify strategic bombing of helpless civilians in a beaten country (Japan) to force them to surrender unconditionally? Many soldiers including MacArthur, Admiral Lehy, Eisenhower, etc said at the time it was unjustified. This is of more than historical importance now because this ties back into questions of the end justifying the means or not. If the end does not justify the means, are you willing to support mass murder of helpless people to make an enemy kneel to you in unconditional surrender?
http://www.fpp.co.uk/bookchapters/articles/Hiroshima.html
If so, then what kind of moral calculus is at work.
http://www.lewrockwell.com/raico/raico22.html

You can be a moral soldier, no doubt, but you have to be extra brave and willing to defy orders at times, and this might get you court Marshalled or maybe executed on the spot.

I am NOT talking about collateral damage- Thats another subject. I am talking about mass murder on purpose, to cause an enemy army to surrender, not to decrease the output of a factory or kill enemy troops, but to demoralize the enemy by murdering as many of his family as necessary to cause him to surrender. Can you go there in your mind if given the order? By what you said, I believe you will not obey this sort of order. An I correct?

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Comment from Arthur
Time: February 21, 2012, 4:00 pm

This day suhold be defined as The World’s Peace Day because Buddha was born to save all the people on this world and taught them to be tame with unrivalled affection and loving .

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Comment from notso
Time: February 21, 2012, 4:15 pm

So is there an answer for me somewhere in here. Does Budism believe in absolute evil which is forbidden regardless of your reason -to save yourself, your family, or your country? Is the notion of the clan or family so powerful it justifies murder of innocents on purpose to advance some objective or other?
Is this sort of question outside the scope of Budism entirely?

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: February 21, 2012, 7:10 pm

There’s no concept in the original teachings of Buddhism that supports the idea of violence being OK in order to protect family or clan. Violence was regarded as absolutely unethical. There were some later teachings emerged in which it was said that I wise person could take on the burden of killing one person in order to save many, but even then that teaching was framed in a very mythological way — and also the person who did the killing still had to suffer the painful consequences of his actions.

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Comment from LH
Time: February 24, 2012, 1:35 pm

Thanks. but killing one person to save many is not the issue. Murder of an innocent person for any reason is an entirely different matter. A pure pacifist will not kill for any reason, to save himself, his family, or his country. Killing of innocents is an entirely different threshold for evil, to which I personally subscribe. This is the issue at hand. When you say you are Buddhist, do you believe in the idea of evil (malum in se) at all? Under any stripe of Buddhism that you know of, is there any dispensation, for any reason at all, to murder innocents? Any sort of calculus of morality that would balance something against this and come out even?

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: February 25, 2012, 12:38 pm

There’s no concept in the original teachings of Buddhism that supports the idea of violence being acceptable.

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Comment from Joshua Clark
Time: February 25, 2012, 8:12 pm

I have to disagree. The Buddha taught clearly that there was a place for soldiers for the protection of people and that if a king were to ignore that he would be doing his people a great disservice. The king was the physical ruler of Buddha’s day. Today we have presidents and prime ministers, it is no different.

The path is just that a path and we are all on it at different parts. Some of us like myself see what the path is and still choose to help those that cannot help themselves.
The Buddha also taught that a soldier can not be a monk until he has put all of his soldiering behind him.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: February 25, 2012, 8:36 pm

I always like to see citations, Joshua. Here are a few:

Dhammapada 129. All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.

Dhammapada 130. All tremble at violence; life is dear to all. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.

In the Yodhajiva Sutta the Buddha tells a warrior that because of the ill will soldiers develop in battle they are reborn in hell.

I don’t doubt that the Buddha accepted that the authorities had to use force for protection, but I’m not aware of him ever having justified or advocated violence of any kind.

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Comment from notso
Time: February 26, 2012, 2:35 pm

OK Joshua, we are getting to the nub of it. Assuming there is any kind of dispensation to killing for a soldier (and thats a big IF), does this extend to killing of innocents if this will result in some sort of “good” or other, like causing an enemy to surrender, or maybe in some calculus of evil, to minimize the total number of people killed. Christians (Catholics anyway) are supposed to believe that there is something called malum in se, that is, an evil act intrnicically, which we are forbidden no matter what the supposed good side of some ethical scale may weigh in. This is NOT pacifisism. Soldiers can fight it out without mortal moral consequences (at least theoretically) in some Christian theology, but there is a bright line against killing of innocents or helpless soldiers even. Is there this same ethical split in Buddism? Many Christians don’t know or care and will celebrate mass murder (Hiroshima) if it shortens the war, even if the theology says its an evil and forbidden act.

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Comment from Joshua Clark
Time: February 26, 2012, 8:38 pm

Notso you misunderstand me. I am only pointing out that the Buddha recognized that a king could not serve his people by laying down and let others walk over them.
I have gotten into conversations like this before with my fellow soldiers who are Christians. Many of them believe that the responsibility for the actions they take fall on those who are commanding them. I don’t see it like that especially in an all volunteer army.
I grew up in a Christian home and have a deep knowledge of the teachings and it is quite clear that Jesus taught that a person should not kill but went on to say that people shouldn’t even get angry.
For me it boils down to this. My actions are my own just like your actions are yours. If I pull the trigger and I kill someone it doesn’t matter if they were good or bad, I took a life and it is my responsibility. Because I know that I choose to be a soldier. I did this so others wouldn’t have to make this choice especially those who don’t understand the consequences.
I know this doesn’t give you the cut and dry answer you want, but war is awful. I’ve been there and seen the devastation and in the end it doesn’t matter if it was one bomb that killed a city or one bullet that killed a person it’s all terrible and the one who makes the choice lives with the consequence.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: February 27, 2012, 10:15 am

LH/Notso: I haven’t posted your most recent comment because I think this discussion has gone on long enough. As I’ve repeatedly said, the Buddha offered no ethical justification for killing anyone for any reason. He offered no “dispensation” to soldiers, never mind any justification for killing “innocents.” There is no Buddhist theory of a “just war.” He tried to dissuade rulers from going to war in the first place, and never at any time tried to justify any war for any reason.

Now individual Buddhists may find themselves in situations where violence is an option, and they may decide that violence is the best option (to protect innocents, for example) but that is a matter for the individual conscience, and they will have to face the emotional/karmic consequences of their violent acts.

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