Do you believe a person can practice Buddhism and be in the military?

Ask the Teachers: Do you believe a person can practice Buddhist ways and still maintain a job in the military?

Lion’s Roar
1 March 2007

Question: Since the age of eighteen I’ve been in the military, training for combat, engaged in combat, and training other soldiers to do the same. When I was young, I thought peace came through aggression and never letting your defense down. But now I’m in my mid-forties, still young enough to do what has to be done but old enough to realize that peace and happiness are what make a life good. It’s that peaceful, happy feeling that I can’t seem to find.

Do you believe a person can practice Buddhist ways and still maintain a job in the military, even though the military is by nature an aggressive organization? As a Buddhist, must you always believe in “turning the other cheek” when something bad happens to you?

Zenkei Blanche Hartman: This question is tough for me to respond to, so I can only imagine how tough it must be for you to ponder it after having devoted your whole adult life to a military career.

I am reminded of a moment nearly forty years ago when I was participating in a peace demonstration and suddenly noticed how aggressive my mind was. I realized with chagrin that I was fighting for peace. There was no peace in me. I was making enemies of those who disagreed with me and wishing them ill. The inherent contradiction stopped me in my tracks, and I began to question how I could work for peace with a peaceful mind.

Fortunately, a friend told me about the Zen Center, although the idea of Zen Buddhism was so strange to me then that I didn’t go there for some months. When finally I did go for meditation instruction, it seemed very peaceful in the meditation hall, and the teacher’s calm mind was encouraging. In all the stillness, however, my mind was thrashing about all over the place.

I have found that cultivating a peaceful mind is the work of a lifetime. It is not something that I will finish and then “get on with my life,” as I first imagined. But that just means that I will never use up this practice or wear it out.

To respond directly to your question about whether a person can practice Buddhist ways and still maintain a job in the military, I think it depends on what you mean by “practice Buddhist ways.” If it means practicing meditation and mindfulness, becoming more intimate with how your mind works and what mind states are conducive to happiness or unhappiness, to harmony and disharmony, then my answer would be yes. Anyone can profit by studying his or her mind with careful attention and can become more content with a quieter mind.

But it’s quite possible, and even likely, that you will begin to discover for yourself that responding to aggression with further aggression does not lead to peace or happiness. “Turn the other cheek” was a teaching by Jesus of Nazareth, but you are correct in assuming that the Buddha gave similar teachings. One that comes to mind is, “Hate is never overcome by hate. Only by love is hate overcome. This is a law eternal.”

If, as you practice, you come to feel such an affinity for Buddhism that you identify yourself as a Buddhist and wish to take refuge in the triple treasure and embrace the precepts as a guide for your life, it will be clear to you that a livelihood that might involve killing or training others to kill is not a suitable livelihood for you.

Ringu Tulku Rinpoche: Dharma practice is not for any specific profession, gender, continent, color, nation, caste, or community. It is for everyone, and anybody can practice it to whatever degree one feels comfortable.

A person in a military profession can practice Buddhism just like anyone else. Of course, some Buddhists might hesitate to take up a military profession, as it requires killing when it is absolutely necessary. But the main aim of an army is to defend the nation and maintain peace. And in some cases, this is not even a choice. Whatever one’s profession may be, one can do the job honestly, compassionately, and with the well-being of others in one’s heart.

Right livelihood is very important, and it’s good to try to find a profession that brings greater well-being to many people and does not involve doing harmful things, but that is not to say someone who is not in a completely nonviolent profession can’t practice Buddhism. I think dharma practice is even more necessary for people who go through traumatic events, like through military battles that involve lots of death and suffering.

The practice of Buddhism is not about doing this job or that job. It is about how you live your life moment by moment and day by day, in whatever situation you are in. It is about how you transform your way of being, your emotions, your reactions, and your habitual tendencies.

Nonviolence is the essence of Buddhism, but that does not mean that you have to submit to injustice or can’t say or do anything if people are being subjected to gross atrocities. The notion of a bodhisattva is to be brave and courageous and work and fight for the benefit of beings without hatred toward anyone.

When someone harms you, you should not hate him but rather understand that this person is under the sway of anger, and while his negative actions are harming you a little, they’re harming him even more. He should not be an object of hatred but of compassion. Thus you can still love him and maintain no hatred. That is not to say that we should encourage the person to act badly and allow him to bring harm to everybody around him, including himself. Trying to stop him from doing negative actions, even with some force, would probably be more helpful to him.

Narayan Helen Liebenson: I want to be careful with my comments because I feel strongly that veterans in this country, who have given so much of themselves, have often been treated badly, particularly in recent times. Although I am not questioning your intention over these last many years, I don’t think that it’s possible to put the Buddha’s teachings into practice while engaging in combat or training others to engage in combat. This is because it is not possible to aspire to alleviate suffering in oneself and others while harming oneself and others. One factor of the noble eightfold path is wise livelihood, and one area that we are cautioned against is dealing in arms.

I do believe, however, that it is possible to bring peace in an arena of aggression, depending on one’s particular role and responsibilities in the military. If one’s values and understanding are different than the status quo, there may be a way to advise others and be of help. I know a practitioner who served in the marines and is now in an advisory position where she’s able to educate and influence military personnel whose decisions impact many people. I respect her decision to have taken on this position.

The Buddha stressed the importance of not meeting aggression with aggression or hatred with hatred because it simply perpetuates suffering. And as others have said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth means everyone ends up without eyes or teeth. Our task as practitioners is to bring as much creativity as possible to conflict, in the form of wisdom and compassion. It is true that there are rare instances where the path of least harm requires strong and decisive action. In these cases, it seems to me that clarity of intention, restraint, and limiting of physical harm are crucial.

Regarding your concern about a career change at this point in your life, I wonder if you are attached to doing what you have always done and are afraid to make a change. It can be easy to rely upon seemingly secure conditions even when we’ve worn out the original reason for our involvement. What do you really want to do? What is it that you love? Your present career seems in opposition to your growing understanding of what brings about peace and happiness. It can take a great deal of courage to do something different, but I encourage you to continue to ask yourself these questions. It might also be helpful to speak with former soldiers who are Buddhist practitioners. I imagine that there are many who have been through some of your experiences and who would have much wisdom to offer.

Zenkei Blanche Hartman is former abbess of the San Fransico Zen Center.

Ringu Tulku Rinpoche is a lama in the Kagyu order of Tibetan Buddhism.

Narayan Helen Liebenson is a guiding teacher at Cambridge Insight Meditation Center.

Lion's Roar

Lion’s Roar

Lion’s Roar is the website of Lion’s Roar magazine (formerly the Shambhala Sun) and Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, with exclusive Buddhist news, teachings, art, and commentary. Sign up for the Lion’s Roar weekly newsletter and follow Lion’s Roar on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.