How does Buddhism make sense of war? In the abstract, the teachings are straightforward. But according to Bhikkhu Bodhi, if we find ourselves supporting those who are fighting back in Ukraine, then we have to ask some hard questions—and maybe accept some uncomfortable truths.
Day after day, horrific images have flashed across our TV and computer screens, bearing painful testimony to the brutality of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Putin himself indicated that the intention behind this campaign is nothing short of obliterating Ukraine’s status as a sovereign nation and crushing its citizens’ distinct identity. Pummeled by bombs and artillery fire, the Ukrainian people faced a stark choice: to capitulate or to fight back. They chose to fight, and they have fought valiantly.
For us as Buddhists, this decision poses a moral quandary. While we don’t personally have to consider joining in combat on behalf of the Ukrainians, we do face the issue of moral evaluation, particularly from the standpoint of the dharma. And further, for us as Americans, we must decide whether we can morally endorse the U.S. policy of providing aid to Ukraine—including military aid—to help them stem the onslaught.
Buddhist ethics unequivocally calls for nonviolence and the resolution of conflict through peaceful dialogue. As the Dalai Lama put it in a statement soon after the invasion began: “Problems and disagreements are best resolved through dialogue. Genuine peace comes about through mutual understanding and respect for each other’s well-being.” When we sit on the seat of the dharma, our job is to insist on an end to violence, to call for a peaceful settlement negotiated by both sides of the conflict in trust and good faith.
But what position should we take when the aggressor shows no interest in honest dialogue, no wish to understand and respect the opponent, no genuine openness to mediation by the international community? Does an ethical stance require unwavering commitment to nonviolence, even when that means the country under attack will lose its territory and population to a murderous foe? Is nonviolent resistance obligatory when war crimes are committed in plain sight and ethnic cleansing or even genocide may lie right around the corner?
I don’t have easy answers to these questions, but to tackle this moral quandary I believe we need to balance ethical idealism with pragmatic realism. In accord with Buddhist tradition, I hold with His Holiness that we have to keep on pressing for peace, or at least for an end to violence on all sides. Certainly, war is hell, killing is always bad, and it’s a further moral travesty that we are squandering money on weaponry that can be far better used for more constructive purposes. But at the same time, I would hold, we cannot expect the victim to lay down arms in the face of naked aggression. A radically nonviolent approach might work when one is up against an adversary susceptible to the call of conscience. But against an opponent who bombs maternity hospitals, flattens residential neighborhoods, and massacres civilians—and then blatantly lies about it—I’m afraid it has little chance of success.
The position I suggest is to support the Ukrainian people in their fight for freedom while continuing to call for a peaceful end to hostilities as the way that best accords with the dharma. More conservative Buddhists might contend that this approach deviates from the ethical grain of the dharma. In response, I would argue that it preserves the spirit of Buddhist ethics while fulfilling the clear pragmatic end required by the circumstances. Of course, in conducting their campaign of armed resistance, the Ukrainians must abide by international protocols and not launch offensive attacks against Russia.
Does an ethical stance require unwavering commitment to nonviolence, even when that means the country under attack will lose its territory and population to a murderous foe? Is nonviolent resistance obligatory when war crimes are committed in plain sight?
The early Buddhist texts, it must be stated straight off, do not admit any moral justification for war. These texts show that the Buddha taught an ethic of harmlessness that rejected violence in all its forms, from its collective manifestation in armed conflict to its subtle stirrings in the mind. Thus, if we take the texts as issuing moral absolutes, we would have to conclude that war can never be morally justified, not even in defense of one’s own country. The texts are not unaware of the potential clash between the need to prevent the triumph of evil and the duty to observe nonviolence. The solution they propose, however, always endorses nonviolence, even in the face of evil. The Mahasilava Jataka, for instance, tells the story of a king who was determined never to shed blood, even though this required surrendering himself and his kingdom to his enemy. Through the power of loving-kindness, the king won release, transformed his captor into a friend, and regained his kingdom.
In the real world, however, such happy outcomes are improbable. The transformative efficacy of loving-kindness may work wonders in interpersonal relationships, but heads of state can hardly afford to adopt loving-kindness meditation as their principal means of deterring aggressors bent on territorial expansion or global domination. While absolute nonviolence may have presumptive validity—obligatory when no contrary circumstances are apparent—situations in the world often involve layers of complexity with competing moral claims. The task of moral reflection is to help us negotiate between these claims while curbing the tendency to act from self-interested expediency.
Governments obtain their legitimacy in part from their ability to protect their citizens from ruthless aggressors. The global community as well, through conventions and the mediation of international bodies, seeks to preserve a relative state of peace—however imperfect—from those who would use force to fulfill their lust for power or impose an ideological agenda. When a nation violates the rules of peaceful coexistence, the obligation to restrain aggression may trump the obligation to avoid violence. The UN Charter sees physical force as the last choice but condones its use when the alternative, allowing the transgressor to proceed unchecked, would have more disastrous consequences.
The moral tensions in the situations we encounter in real life should perhaps caution us against interpreting Buddhist ethical prescriptions as unqualified absolutes. And yet the texts of early Buddhism themselves never recognize circumstances that might soften the universality of a basic precept. To resolve the dissonance between the moral idealism of the texts and the pragmatic demands of everyday life, I would posit two frameworks for shaping moral decisions. I will call one the liberative framework, the other the pragmatic karmic framework.
The liberative framework applies to those who seek to advance undeterred along the path to the final goal of the dharma, the extinction of suffering. Within this framework—which proceeds through the threefold training of moral conduct, concentration, and wisdom—refraining from intentionally inflicting harm on living beings (especially human beings) is a strict obligation not to be transgressed whether by body, speech, or mind. Under this commitment, one must adopt a strict regimen of nonharming. In a private struggle to the death, one must choose to die rather than kill. If subject to conscription, one must become a conscientious objector or, if necessary, go to prison.
The pragmatic karmic framework serves as a matrix of moral reflection and conscientious action for those who are committed to Buddhist ethical values but who seek to advance toward final realization gradually, over a series of lives, rather than directly. Its emphasis is on cultivating wholesome qualities to further one’s progress within the cycle of rebirths while allowing one to fulfill one’s worldly vocation and social responsibilities.
In this framework, the formulated precepts have presumptive rather than absolute validity. One who adopts this framework would conclude that some situations we encounter in daily life call for responses that depart from the letter of the Buddhist moral code, but which still conform to their spirit. Such a practitioner, while still esteeming the moral standards embedded in the precepts, would give priority to their intent rather than their verbal formulation.
To take this approach, it must be stressed, is not a verbal ploy betraying moral integrity. The test of integrity here is not unwavering obedience to formal rules but a refusal to subordinate one’s actions to narrow self-interest. The agent trying to work through such a moral dilemma would recognize that the ethical quality of an action is determined not only by its conformity to formal rules, but also by the intention or motivation that lies behind it. When the motivation is to protect life or to prevent calamitous harm, the practitioner would be ready to place this greater good above strict adherence to the letter of the precept.
In time of war, I would argue, the karmic framework can even justify enlisting in the military and serving as a combatant, providing the reason for fighting is the compelling need to disable an aggressor and protect one’s country and its citizens. Any acts of killing that such a choice might require would certainly be a violation of the first precept, and to that extent regrettable. Such acts might also create for oneself negative karma bringing undesirable fruits. But the Buddha’s psychological understanding of karma as intention, as colored by the moral quality of the motive, can be cited as a mitigating factor.
Since a nation’s purposes in resorting to arms may vary widely—just like a person’s motives for participating in war—this opens up a spectrum of moral evaluations. When the motive is territorial expansion, material wealth, or national glory, the resort to war would be subject to moral condemnation. When the motive is genuine national defense, to prevent the slaughter of innocent human beings, moral evaluation would have to reflect these very different circumstances. Admittedly, there is a slippery slope to be navigated here, but that is precisely why such guardrails as those provided by UN protocols and the Geneva Conventions are necessary.
Nevertheless, if one relies solely on the texts of early Buddhism, the volition of harming others would always be considered “wrong intention” and all acts of destroying life classed as unwholesome. But what kind of moral judgment are we to make when citizens participate in a defensive war to protect their country and fellow citizens or other peaceful nations from attack by a vicious aggressor? We see this exemplified in Ukraine’s struggle to preserve its sovereignty against the Russian invasion, but we can also cite examples of this same moral dilemma from our own recent past.
Suppose we travel back in time to the 1940s, when Hitler was pursuing his quest for global domination. If someone were to join a combat unit, would their participation in that war be considered morally reprehensible, though their purpose is to block the murderous campaign of a tyrant bent on global conquest? Can we say that fidelity to the dharma obliges us to remain passive in the face of brute aggression or to placate the antagonist when it is likely that appeasement will only feed their ambition for more? In this situation, wouldn’t we regard military action to stop the aggressor as laudable, even obligatory, and a soldier’s actions as morally justified?
Interestingly, while the Pali textual tradition does not tackle such dilemmas, a Mahayana sutra faces it head-on. The “Sutra on the Range of a Bodhisattva” (Arya-Bodhisattva-gocara- mahayana-sutra) holds that “a ruler may use arms to defend his kingdom and protect his people, but he may only use as much force as is necessary to expel invaders. Once they are expelled, he must not seek to punish the invaders but instead try to make peace with them…. If the kingdom is invaded, the king is advised to deploy his forces in an advantageous manner to ensure victory. Injuring and killing the invaders should be avoided if possible, although it is acknowledged that this may not be possible” (summary by Barbara O’Brien, from the website Rethinking Religion).
I would have to agree with this position, even though I cannot justify it by appeal to the texts of early Buddhism, whether canonical or commentarial. Yet such dilemmas must certainly have confronted the kings of the Buddha’s time, including those who became his disciples. Is it conceivable that they never brought up such questions in their meetings with the Blessed One? Yet nothing is said in the early Buddhist texts about such encounters, or about the solutions that might have been proposed.
On reflection, I would have to conclude that the ethics of early Buddhism do not offer blanket solutions to all the complex predicaments of the human situation. Perhaps that was never their intention—perhaps their intention was to issue guidelines rather than proclaim moral absolutes, to posit ideals even for those who cannot perfectly fulfill them. Nevertheless, the complexity of the human condition inevitably confronts us with circumstances in which moral obligations run at crosscurrents. In such cases, I believe, we must simply do our best to navigate between them, using as our criterion the reduction of harm and suffering for the greatest number of those at risk. As Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist apostle of nonviolence, put it in Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet, “What is important is that you’re determined to go in the direction of understanding and compassion. Nonviolence is like a North Star. We only have to do our best, and that is good enough.”
Adapted and updated from a 2014 article by the author in Inquiring Mind.