A Buddhist Theory of a Just War?

ฐานิสสโร ภิกขุ

A Buddhist Theory of a Just War?

There’s a depressing pattern in human behavior that Mark Twain noted more than a century ago, and it’s with us still: The powers-that-be want a war.

Politicians and the media start beating the drum, denouncing the evil intentions of the enemy and calling for all patriotic citizens to attack them. At first, people are reluctant to go along, but then religious leaders jump on the bandwagon, telling their followers that it’s their sacred moral duty to support the war machine. Soon the whole country is aflame with the moral need to fight the enemy. Those few who question this need are branded as traitors.

Young men march off to battle, only to find how ghastly war actually is. They realize that they were duped, and that their side is not as virtuous as they had been led to believe. Many of them are killed. Those lucky enough to return home tell their families and neighbors: Never again will they be tricked into going to war ever again.

But then, after a while, the powers-that-be want another war. Politicians and the media start beating the drum. If the arguments for the last war no longer work, they find new ways of raising the emotional pitch of their rhetoric so that soon the whole country is swept up in war fever all over again.

The only way to keep yourself from getting sucked into this pattern is to have strong principles against killing, principles you hold to no matter what. This is one of the reasons why the Buddha formulated the precept against killing in the most uncompromising way: Don’t intentionally kill anything or anyone. Ever. Don’t tell other people to kill. And don’t condone the act of killing. When asked if there were anything at all whose killing he would approve of, the Buddha answered with just one thing: anger ((SN 1:71) Chetvā Sutta, Having Killed).

That’s as clear-cut and absolute as you can get, and it’s clear-cut for a reason: Clear-cut rules are easy to remember even when your emotional level is high—and that’s precisely when you need them most.

If you approach every argument for war with this precept in mind, then no matter what reasons people might cite for supporting the war, always putting the precept first will protect you. If you leave room in your mind for exceptions to the precept, someone will find a way to exploit those exceptions, and you’ll be back where you were before you had the precept, fooled into supporting another war.

The precepts are like a fence around your property. If there’s a gap in the fence, anything that can fit into the gap—or enlarge it by wriggling through—will be able to get in. It’ll be as if there weren’t a fence there at all.

Now, it’s important to remember that the Buddha never forced the precepts on anyone. Instead of calling them obligations, he called them training rules, and the training is something you take on voluntarily. Your moral behavior is a voluntary gift of safety to the world. If you can make that gift universal, with no exceptions, you can have a share in universal safety as well ((AN 8:39) Abhisanda Sutta, Bonanzas ).

If you actually break a precept, the safe course of action is not to try to redesign the training to justify what you’ve done. Instead, you honestly admit that your training has lapsed and do your best to get back on course.

Given that the texts are so clear and unequivocal on the issue of killing, it’s hard to conceive that anyone would even think of trying to formulate a Buddhist theory of just war.

Yet there have been such attempts in the past, and they’re with us again now. If we have any concern for the Dhamma at all, it’s important to reject these theories outright.

Otherwise, we find ourselves quibbling over when and where it’s right to issue a Buddhist license to kill. And no matter how strictly we try to restrict the license, it’s like running a tank through the back of our fence and putting up a sign next to the resulting hole, saying that only those thieves and bears who promise to behave themselves nicely will be allowed to enter, and then leaving them to police themselves.

This reflection by Ajaan Geoff is from the Miscellaneous Essay, At War with the Dhamma (2022).