Buddhism, War, and Morality

  • cc icon

    This essay discusses how Buddhism as a non-Abrahamic faith has dealt with the moral and ethical issues surrounding ‘organised violence’ most noticeable in just war thinking stemming from Christian theological scholarship. In considering how Buddhism as a religion stands on questions of war and conflict we consider Buddhist ethics from doctrinal or scriptural perspectives as well as that of institutional and/or popular Buddhism. To this end, the article reflects on how followers of the Buddhist faith have responded to issues of war and militant conflicts and specifically considers how Sri Lankan Buddhists have responded to terrorism and to the war ideology arising from the recent civil war in Sri Lanka. In conclusion it is argued that the approach to war and conflict in many Buddhist countries is intimately associated with issues of religion and politics underlying statecraft in these countries which purports to be based on Buddhist principles of moral righteousness.


    Religion , Ethics , Violence , Terrorism , Morality

  • I. Introduction

    A much debated and controversial topic in Western social and political discourse relates to the moral justification of ‘organised violence,’1 or the ethics and legitimacy of state sanctioned violence (using aggressive force against human beings), or more specifically, waging war. Moral reflection on the deliberate causing of death and destruction has resulted in two streams of thinking, pacifism and the just war tradition in Christian theology. Pacifism in its religious or secular forms is mostly associated with Buddhism, Jainism, strands of Christian thinking associated with the likes of St. Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther King, and other notable pacifists like M. K. Gandhi. Both religious and secular forms of pacifism can be overlaid by a sense of idealism which, while rejecting any right to war, ‘relies upon pragmatic arguments to advance the cause of peace [by] institutional means’ (Murnion 2007, 33).

    The other stream of thinking about organized violence is the just war tradition which draws mainly on Christian theological scholarship in defending the use of force. This, among other considerations, has brought to the fore questions of the moral limits of human savagery and acts of brutality in times of war (Johnson 1992). The notion of just and unjust wars gained currency in the West only after the fusion of religion and politics and the rejection of the notion of a holy war following the religious wars of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (Johnson 1992, 1997; Murnion 2007). The just war tradition serves to draw attention to the longstanding moral unease felt not just among all religions about the killing of human beings and even the wanton killing of animals in the wild

    The morality of war which straddles the gulf between politics and morality, it has been argued, revolves around two dimensions, jus ad bellum, and jus in bello (Walzer 2000). The former, jus bellum, relates to principles governing the right to war or the decision to wage war and jus bello is concerned with the conduct of war or how to fight the war. In short, the just war discourse straddles two related dimensions―the right to war or the causes of war and the lawful conduct of the war. There is an underlying concern among all faiths, ethicists and secular scholars about the need to control and limit war, ‘even to forbid it and always to remember the adversary is humanity’ (Guthrie and Quinlan 2007, 8).

    In acknowledging that the morality of engaging in wars specifically refers to the rules of war there is ‘a prima facie duty of acting justly and pursuing justice [while] engaging in particular actions’ (Childress 2001, 217). However, it is mainly the Abrahamic faiths, particularly Christianity and Islam that have evolved ‘moral values, rules, and understandings to govern and restrain the use of military force’ (Regan 1996, 6). In this context, this article endeavours to examine how a non-Abrahamic faith like Buddhism deals with issues of war and morality raised by the just war tradition.2

    1See Harvey (2000) and Harris (1994) for a useful discussion of Buddhist attitudes to violence, including issues relating to suicide, mercy-killing, euthanasia and abortion, etc.  2See Walzer (2000) for an overview of just war thinking in contemporary social and political discourse; also Jayasuriya (2010).

    II. War, Conflict and Buddhism

    Where does doctrinal Buddhism, a non-Abrahamic faith, stand on the question of war and conflict and, more specifically, the ‘just war tradition’? The basic tenets of Buddhism as found in all its main Schools or Traditions3 condemn war unreservedly as an evil and attests to its utter futility in gaining a meaningful resolution of any conflict. This is clearly revealed in the Buddhist scriptures of the Southern School, the Theravada tradition, where it is stated that violence has to be avoided because it brings pain to beings with similar feelings (Harris 1994). This is clearly stated in the Buddhist scriptures of the Theravada Tradition in the Pali cannon4 which recounts the Buddha’s intervention in the conflict between two kingdoms for the right to use the waters of the River Rohini. In the words of the Buddha:

    Accordingly, violence has to be eschewed because it brings pain to beings with similar feeling (Harris 1994) or as stated in the Buddhist scriptures:

    Non violence or ahimsa as a cardinal Buddhist moral principle originates from the first of the five Precepts in the Buddhist ethical co