A Buddhist View of Non-violence and the War in Ukraine
4:24PM Mar 21, 2023
Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede
This is March 20 2023. And it was 20 years ago today that United States invaded Iraq. And also, it was just recently that we passed the one year mark of the war in Ukraine. And I thought I would ask you to allow me to air some of my mixed feelings about the war in Ukraine and our country's involvement in the war in Ukraine. As we've been steadily fed reports on the war over the past year, I found myself considering the first precept not to kill, but to cherish our life. And I thought, I can't be the only one in the Sangha, who's pondering the karmic consequences of our country's military support for Ukraine? Or, or what would be the karmic consequences of ending our support or not having given so much military support, staying on the sidelines?
Someone want to just explore the morality of all of us? And some of it will be point counterpoint. of the Buddhist I'll presume to offer the Buddhist perspective on all this. So just to get the ball rolling on the face of it, how could we not give military aid to Ukraine? It's a sovereign state illegally invaded by the Russian Colossus. Few countries, surely few countries, besides Russia itself would claim that Ukraine is theirs to occupy. And we know there's a lot of history behind that.
But wait, what would the Buddha say, just to play on that bumper sticker? What would what would Jesus do? What would what would, what would the Buddha say? In fact, what did he say in the sutras? Or what did he purport to have said in the sutras? You know, we know that Zen has always been known as the teaching beyond words without reliance on the sutras. But still, you know, we could take that to mean, not over reliance on the sutras not attachment to the sutras, because many of the greatest masters studied deeply the sutras and, and quoted the sutras. So we can wonder, you know, what the Buddha really said. But it's, it's, I think, a good place to start. In one of the shortest and most famous of the Sutras, the Dhammapada. Again, these purport to be the words of the Buddha. He says, All beings fear violence, all fear death, using oneself as a criterion, one should not kill or cause death. Alright. United States and other NATO countries and other countries have been causing death. To the extent that we've been sending billions of dollars of military support to Ukraine. Here's another one. Just to sum up, what some of the sutras say that Buddhism rejects violence and all its forms from its from the collective manifestation in armed conflict war. Two, the more individual subtle stirrings of ill will
And of course we have our own first of the 10 Cardinal precepts, I refrain not to kill, ay, ay, ay, ay, cherish, a resolve, not to kill, but to cherish all life. So, broadly speaking, there's no question that Buddhism as a whole, for centuries, many centuries, has spoken out strongly against violence and war of all kinds. But wait. Governments obtain their legitimacy in part, from the ability to protect their citizens from ruthless aggressors. When a nation violates the rules of peaceful coexistence, the obligation to to restrain aggression, may trump the obligation to avoid violence. And we see this in the charter the United Nations sees physical force as a last resort but condones its use when allowing the transgressor to proceed. Unchecked would have more disastrous consequences than that of resisting through military means.
And, still, that's that's the United Nations that's that's worldly convention that's not in the realm of, of the religious or the spiritual, strictly speaking.
Scholars say that the Buddha considered wars of aggression utterly unethical. Of course, being an obvious expression of greed, and or hostility.
However, the state has to safeguard its citizens from aggressive enemy forces. And sometimes the need arises for the state to resist unjustified aggression. And yet, nothing in Buddhist sutras gives any support for the use of violence as a way to resolve conflict.
But now, let's get into more of the subtleties. The Buddha I did some have course did some reading before giving this talk the Buddha scholars say Buddha addressed himself as an individual to individuals. Even in when he spoke to larger groups, as he often did, he focused on individual responsibility. One One Buddhist scholar said that the Buddha had no theory of nor belief in supervening collective structures of society or government that could amend or replace the bedrock of individual choice.
So, the governance of a state even in the in the Buddhist time, presented a moral quandary. In one short sutra, this I found very interesting one short sutra, the Buddha ponders this question, is it possible to rule a country righteously? That is without killing and instigating others to kill without confiscating the property of others without causing sorrow. So now we're, we're getting into the middle of this arm, our involvement in Ukraine, but we're on the edge of our seats waiting to see what the Buddha says about it. Ah, what how a How To rule a country righteously. When in the sutra, Mara appears Mara is the personification of, of the devil. He appears and begs the Buddha to give up his monastic vocation in order to, to rule.
And then, and then that's it. The question is left hanging now it's it's, it's hard enough on an individual level to make moral absolutes out of this matter of violence in the first precept. What would that mean? What's it what's, what's absolute moral purity with regard to the first precept? No more on that later.
In my reading, I was reminded that the sutras don't admit any moral justification for war. So if we, if we took the sutras as moral absolutes, that is, if we took non violence as an ideal war can never be morally justified. And by extension, our military support for Ukraine can be morally justified.
So how is the international community to deal with a nation Russia determined to impose its will by force. So these specific situations, this one, and the other obvious one from the last century, the Hitler's aggression, his annexation of, of other countries and his invasion. These other than that these things can be morally complex. We need, in other words, to negotiate between these claims of, of moral absolutism. While curbing the tendency to act from self interest, there is self interest. And that, I think, is the key thing. It seems I'm pretty comfortable not entirely, but I'm pretty comfortable with continuing our country continuing to support giving military support to Ukraine. To the extent that it's largely not self interest, it's not for our own our own benefit more even more than other countries.
That's the key, isn't it?
I've given many TV shows over the years on the different moral criteria for ways of interpreting the precepts. the strictest is from the Tera Vaada point of view, this is this is very close to a moral absolute. And I've I've given the example of real life example of one of our members who, while living in Burma, now Myanmar, reported that a she and her husband had seen a rabid dog tearing into a playground, foaming at the mouth and how she had she had called the local police station, and they stood on their Buddhist principles and said, No, killing is wrong. Period. Killing any life is wrong. And the dog she said the dog went on to kill nine children. So okay, that's that's one extreme. The myanna of which Zen is apart the myanna tradition is to consider What is in any situation? What is the greatest good for the greatest number? Or another way of putting it is? What would what would entail the most compassion and you who would argue that from that point of view, they should have shot the dog that would be a compassionate response and hence, a morally correct one skillful one
so what happens to our commitment to non violence when the the the dreadful nature that dreadful consequences of war seem necessary to to deter a greater and more destructive evil?
There's there's the original Zen monastery in China, that is the one that Bodhidharma sat outside sat in the hills outside the monastery is called Shaolin. And there is this this distinction of Shaolin is the place where monks were trained and in martial arts. And if according to one's text, I read that that their their premise for using their their martial arts was to do so only when the with the minimum necessary defensive force, the minimum necessary defensive force. It seemed from what we read in the media that that's what President Biden and his advisers are trying to do trying to avoid. poking the bear, the Russian bear, to the point where no nuclear annihilation, or even less, some some wider war would be provoked. So that makes sense. A war of, of defend defense rather than aggression. Well, speaking of the 20th anniversary of our invasion of Iraq, that was certainly a war of aggression. I mean, we have many, many of us had good intentions, saw good intentions behind that. Based on these claims, this proved to be false claims of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Saddam Hussein. But still, it was initiated by us. Many would say in order to same thing to it was a compassion that behind it was compassionate. We wanted to liberate Iraq, from Saddam Hussein. But this one in Ukraine is different, I think one person who had quite an influence on my thinking about all this is Nicholas Kristof. He's a longtime columnist for the New York Times. Probably many of you know him from his his highly principled positions on other moral issues, trafficking of women, even pornography, where he pointed out the dark side of, of pornography, the pornography industry, but I think no one has more. More Got street cred than Nicholas Kristof, in terms of really, really getting involved, even on the ground to help all kinds of oppressed, people, women, minorities, refugees. It's just a career of compassion. And this is what one thing I found that he said, I found this on the web. When one nation invades a neighbor and commits murder, pillage, and rape, traffics and children, pulverizes the electrical grid to make citizens freeze in the winter. In such a blizzard of likely war crimes. Neutrality is not the high ground
it's, it's hard for me to disagree with him. We can we can cling to our our principles of non violence as Buddha says noble Buddhists. But I don't buy it in this case. He goes even further. He says, if anything, I'd like to see the Biden administration provide more weaponry to Ukraine. For the best way to end the war is to ensure that Putin finds the cost of it no longer worth paying. Yeah, I that's my concern as well that that month after month, Ukrainian civilians and soldiers are dying, Ukraine goes on bleeding and bleeding. Whereas if, if we provided the United States and other countries provided a stronger force, we'd have a better chance of ending all this.
And then, the CounterPoint. Now we see now we see China getting cozy with Russia. Just just this week. I read about that. And it's not beyond beyond our imagination, that this could lead if if China really goes formed supportive Russia, this could lead to world war three.
But who would suggest that Ukraine should have just rolled over without fighting? Or the we should have just watched from our safe perch here? Protected by oceans on both sides? Who would, who would argue now with the wisdom of hindsight, that more shouldn't have been done earlier, to hold back Hitler and his Nazis? Who would who would argue that you should watch your wife or child be assaulted because of your clinging to the moral absolute of non violence. It's just not. It just doesn't make sense. There's no moral absolutes are, are an abstraction. That kind of purity is an abstraction. We don't live in that world. We may aspire to and may do our best to uphold this first precept of not killing but cherishing our life. But look at these these other considerations.
Huh Is there anything more more complex than ethics? Is there anything more complex in ethics? Sometimes not sometimes it's clear what we should do crystal clear but reasonable people and reasonable people can argue this and and I'm not certain that we're doing the best specially if what's going on now. We in a year or three years we find ourselves in world war three, what then?
Well, that's how I see things right now, this point in time, and if it has helped at all, with the rest of you sorting through this, then perhaps Luke was in a word, waste of time, these 20 minutes or so, thanks for listening. Until next time,