War! What is it good for?

Buddhist stances on Persian Gulf War

Forum on Indian and Buddhist Studies
April 6, 1991

I am curious to know of any Buddhist groups in North America or elsewhere who took a stance on the recent war in the Persian Gulf. I am interested in compiling information on whether Buddhists in the United States tended to take a different view of the war than did Buddhists elsewhere.

I know of some Buddhist groups in Canada who took a strong position against American and Canadian military intervention in Iraq and Koweit. Some temples held peace vigils throughout the period of bombing and fighting, participated in peace demonstrations and prayed regularly for those who were killed, wounded and made homeless as a result of the war. Although there were not many dead, wounded or homeless Americans to pray for this time around, I'm sure the Canadian Buddhists would have been willing to pray for them too.

The background to this question is an observation made in an article in Le Monde Diplomatique (mars 1991) entitled “Des medias en tenue camouflée” to the effect that the American news media on the whole lost its spirit of critical independence during the Persian Gulf War and fell into line in support of American policy.

I noticed that even the Christian Science Monitor supported American policy as “the lesser of two evils.” (World Monitor, March 1991, p. 80). And I have been told by a Catholic peace activist that when the Pope denounced the use of force against Saddam Hussein, many editorialists in American Catholic publications condemned the Pope and supported George Bush.

Richard P. Hayes

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Forum on Indian and Buddhist Studies
April 6, 1991

In the course of a lecture on Buddhism in China during the Tang Dynasty, I mentioned in passing that Buddhists had launched persecutions against Christianity and other religions. One of the students was evidently so stunned to hear that Buddhists had ever persecuted anyone that he challenged my claim and suggested that I surely had the whole thing backwards—that surely it was the Christians who had done the persecuting of the Buddhists. (Do I detect some stereotyping of Christians behind this student's question?)

My only source of information about Buddhist persecutions in China (which is not at all an area in which I have any expertise) is D.Howard Smith's Chinese Religions and C.P. Fitzgerald's China: a short cultural history. Both of these sources mention the matter in one or two sentences but provide no detailed information. If any of you know of more extensive accounts of persecutions in China led by Buddhists, I would be grateful for references.

Incidentally, I recently reviewed a manuscript by a Buddhist studies professor on the Buddhist peace movement that had been submitted to a publisher. A claim was made in that manuscript that there had never been a single religious war in the history of Buddhism. I must confess that I was a little surprised that anyone (and especially a professor of Buddhist studies) could be naive enough to believe that any organized religion could exist for 2500 years without at least some blood on its hands. And I was also mildly surprised that someone could get to the stage of being a university teacher on Buddhism without having heard at least some rumours of the Sinhala King Dutthugamini's genocidal attacks on the Tamils, in which monks participated as combatants, and which are chronicled with obvious approval in the Mahavamsa; indeed, a group of arhants (no less) are depicted as telling Dutthugamini that killing masses of people who have not taken the Three Refuges and the Five Precepts is no more serious than taking the life of animals.

That one can study Buddhism without having heard of Dutthugamini or of the vicious treatment of non-Buddhists in certain periods of Tibet's history, or of the monastic wars in Japan perhaps serves as an interesting illustration of how it is that we tend to hear only what we want to hear.

Richard P. Hayes

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More on persecutions

Forum on Indian and Buddhist Studies
April 8, 1991

In response to my earlier references to Buddhist persucutions, a reader says:
I've never heard that the Tibetans oppressed other religions.

One often hears of Glang dar-ma's persecution of Buddhists, but one does not hear quite as much about the Tibetan kings who preceded him. The accounts I have read talk of early Tibetan Buddhist kings passing laws whereby people who read the scriptures of other religions were to have their hands cut off, their tongues cut out or their eyes poked out. I suppose that would count as religious persecution. At least I know that Amnesty International would frown on such laws if they were passed today. And it seems quite likely that it was the extreme behaviour of the Buddhist enthusiasts that prompted the later persecutions of the Buddhists by their former victims, the advocates of Bon.

But when you use the word genocidal to characterize the events in the past, you're just giving in to modern political correctness rhetoric. I don't understand the wars against the Tamils as a systematic attempt to kill every one of them. Am I wrong?

Of course you are right about this. I confess I was being deliberately provocative. (I'm much too ornery to be politically correct.) The word “genocide” was coined in 1944 to describe the systematic attempt of the National Socialists to exterminate the Jews, and it has come to be used in a much broader sense of mass destruction. I remember being a little taken aback when I went through the Atom Bomb memorial museum in Hiroshima to read a sign saying that the atomic bomb was the largest weapon ever used in a genocidal attack. The Japanese sign used an expression meaning mass destruction, which is certainly more accurate and less emotionally charged; as recent writings are showing, the main strategic purpose of the atomic bomb seems to have been to intimidate the Russians rather than to further weaken the Japanese. It was certainly not part of a policy of genocide. But I digress.

As for the Tamils, the Mahavamsa relates that tens of thousands were slaughtered, that the deaths were justified because the victims were not Buddhists, and that the victors were guiltless because they had killed to preserve the Dharma rather than out of anger. In using the word “genocide” to describe such attitudes, I was not trying to be politically correct as much as I was trying to make the point that killing for the Dharma is a bit like fornicating for chastity.

Richard P. Hayes

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Yet more on persecutions

Forum on Indian and Buddhist Studies
April 9, 1991

Someone asks:

Please correct me if I am wrong, but where the Sinhala invasion of Tamil India was concerned, don't you think that it may have been more a racial or a territorial war than a religious one?

I am inclined to think that all wars are essentially economic and territorial first, and that racial and religious factors enter into the picture secondarily. Even the wars that are often talked about as religious wars, such as the Christian Crusades or some of the early military campaigns of the Muslims, were primarily economic in nature. The first wave of the Crusades, for example, was approved by the Pope as a result of pressure from the landed aristocracy in Europe to help solve the problem of roving bands of unemployed peasants who were attacking members of the nobility. Solution: send the peasants to the Holy Land and get them out of Europe. I have read that the majority of victims of the first Crusade were brown-skinned Christians, whom the Europeans killed in droves. And yet the Crusades have come to be regarded as a religious war of Christians against non-Christians.

So what (aside from a contradiction in terms) is a religious war? I suppose it is an economic or territorial war for which somebody cooks up some justifications on religious grounds. This, as you rightly point out, was probably the nature of the Sinhala campaigns into Tamil India.

Richard P. Hayes

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War without anger?

Forum on Indian and Buddhist Studies
April 9, 1991

A reader has suggested that Buddhism can claim superiority over other religions on the grounds that it does not approve anger, even though it may in certain circumstances approve killing, even on a massive scale.

Sorry, but the reasoning on this one is too subtle for me. If someone kills someone else, I find it immaterial whether the killer was angry while doing the deed. The result is a death that is unwelcome to the recipient thereof. As for the claim that other religions approve of anger, I'd have to see evidence for that, but on first consideration it strikes me as false.

Richard P. Hayes

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Types of bellicosity

Forum on Indian and Buddhist Studies
April 9, 1991

Once again, someone has asked me for clarification. As usual, this request for conceptual clarity is timely and quite appropriate. Since I was the one who got this particular barrage of verbiage underway, let me try to distinguish among various types of religious persecution.

First of all, “persecution” is not a term that one would normally apply to one's own actions, because the word “persecute” carries strong connotations of maltreatment and abuse. So while one might say “they are persecuting us” one would not likely say “we are persecuting them.” (Just as one would say of another army that it is slaughtering innocent civilians, while saying of own's own army that its surgical strikes have resulted in collateral damage.)

On the principle that one should not apply terms to others that one would not apply to oneself, I suppose it might be good manners to refrain from saying of anyone that they engaged in a persecution. So perhaps words like “persecution” would be absent from the vocabularies of careful speakers, along with such terms as “fanatic” and “hinayana” and perhaps even “asshole.”

That having been said, I suppose a distinction could be made between bellicose behaviour onto which religious rhetoric is grafted, and bellicose behaviour that is central to and an obvious manifestation of one's religious principles.


The killing of large numbers of Tamils by Dutthugamini's forces could be seen as a campaign that was probably motivated by greed but for which a religious justification was later found. Even the fact that Dutthugamini reportedly marched into battle with Buddhist relics tied to his spear and with squadrons of armed monks behind him does not make his campagin essentially religious. I would say it happened in spite of the principal teachings of Buddhism.

It is hard, without being controversial, to find an example of bellicose conduct that is a natural manifestation of one's religious convictions, but I suppose one could cite Nichiren's petitions to the government calling for the death penalty for those who were teaching forms of Buddhism that Nichiren thought were false and therefore detrimental to the welfare of the Japanese people. Or one could cite the doctrine that killing a wicked person is a greater kindness to the person that letting him continue to accumulate bad karma—a doctrine that has been used to give the stamp of religious approval to political assassination.

Richard P. Hayes

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Just war?

Buddhist forum
April 10, 1991


It is unfortunate when appreciation for and gratitude towards one's own chosen religion leads to a denigration or systematic misconstrual of the ideas by which others live.

There are a few points in recent messages that seem to me inaccurate interpretations of the stances that religions other than Buddhism take towards war.

As a general point, I am not aware offhand of any religion that approves of unprovoked aggression. On the contrary, in such sacred texts as the Jewish Bible, the Christian Bible, the Qur'an, the Sikh Adi-granth and the Hindu Bhagavad-gītā, there seems to be a consistent condemnation of aggressive actions. But there is also in all these works an approval (often a reluctant one) of responding to aggression appropriately. In other words, killing another in defense of one's own life is seen as preferable to cowardly submission to injustice.

All the examples that have been cited so far on the subject are variations on the theme of the doctrine of just war. This doctrine as worked out in Roman Catholicism has been invoked just recently in the context of the War in the Persian Gulf; the consensus of experts in Canon law was that American action in the area violated five of the six criteria of just war, and this is why the Pope denounced the military actions ordered by President Bush as unjust.

As for Jihad in Islam, one must not forget that “jihad” simply means intense effort. There is presently in Iran a Jihad for Economic Renewal aimed at rebuilding after their costly war with Iraq (which might not have been quite so costly had Europeans, Americans and Canadians not pumped so much money into Iraq's military). In the life of an individual Muslim, jihad is that person's intense effort to resist temptation. Under extreme circumstances, such as when attacked, a Muslim may feel that a jihad (intense effort) is necessary to repel the attackers. But this is only one of many types of jihad. To translate “jihad” as Holy War, a favourite mistake of the Western media, is as perverse as translating the Buddhist term “upāya” as deception. Saddam Hussein's calls for jihad was a pathetic mockery of the notion of jihad in true Islam—and were so regarded by the majority of Muslims, who ignored his call. But it is poor hermeneutics to measure the meaning of a term only by its cynical misuse.

The Bhagavad-gītā is not a text advocating war as much as a text advocating doing one's duty, even if one's duty sometimes involves killing others in the course of defending oneself when unjustly attacked.

It is true that the Buddha condemned war as one of the many forms of incompetent behaviour, and for this I greatly admire him. But credit must also be given to such thinkers as Mengzi (Mencius), Xunzi, Mozi, Laozi, Zhuangzi and other Chinese philosophers who unambiguously condemned military campaigns as the greatest single waste of natural resources and human life. Mengzi made the poignant observation that so many had died in the battlefields in his day that all the crops werefertilized by human blood, thereby turning his generation into a generation of unwitting vampires.

It is true that every culture has had those who admired warriors. But I think you'll also find some people in every warrior culture who see the warmongers as pathetic and contemptible incompetents. The Buddha was one person who dreaded war. He also seems to have regarded war as being caused primarily by greed and the resultant maldistribution of resources. But the Buddha's pacifism was by no means unique even in his own time, let alone in world history as a whole.

Richard P. Hayes

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Kingship in early Buddhism

Forum on Indian and Buddhist Studies
April 19, 1991

Robin writes:

But to target one remark by Hayes: the idea that war is a typical form of human incompetence. How do you avoid it when two people want the same piece of ground for equally good reasons?

Let me answer this question from how I understand the remarks of the Buddha as recorded in suttas 26 and 27 of the Dīgha-nikāya of the Pali canon. (For a readable translation in literary English, see Maurice Walshe, Thus Have I Heard, Wisdom Publications, 1987, pp. 395-416) In both of these suttas stories are told about how righteous kings (dhammarāja) behaved in the remote past and how human society devolved into conditions of ever increasing suffering and degradation. Each of these suttas offers a different myth to explain the human condition, but what the two myths have in common is that the root cause of human misery and social malaise is private ownership and the hoarding of such resources as food.

Hoarding and private property, the argument goes, are the direct causes of shortages; shortages are the causes of theft; theft leads to the property-owners forming armies to protect their property against thieves; the formation of armies leads to wars among property-owners and to conflicts between those who have and those who do not have enough to eat. As a result of these wars, life becomes more and more brutal.

The short answer to Robin's question, therefore, is: according to early Buddhism, there are no good reasons for wanting a piece of ground, at least, for wanting to own, control, dominate and exclude others from occupying a piece of ground. It is the very fact that people want to own chunks of earth that makes life a living hell.

The righteous kings of old saw to it that no one tried to own things, and so they prevented wars by seeing to it that resources were evenly distributed among everyone. Moreover, one of the principal duties of the Buddhist monk was to demonstrate that a life without personal property is in fact a much more satisfying life than life in the world as it has come to be as a result of people's struggles to acquire and maintain possession of personally or even corporately owned property.

The later scholastic tradition reinforced these early ideas. According to Vasubandhu and Dharmakīrti, for example, the world of pain and suffering is the result of incompetence (akauśalya, lack of skill). The most basic form of incompetence, according to the scholastics, are the concepts of individuality (ātmagraha) and ownership (aatmīyagraha). Careful reflection (yoni`so-manaskaara), they say, will make it clear to us that in fact we have no individuality and nothing can be owned.

Robin continues:

My argument is that the use of the term bodhisattva indicates an approval of the concept of king. That concept has warfare built into it. You could never tell an Indian king that all war is automatically a form of human incompetence.

Perhaps, but before the time of Aśoka you might have been able to tell this to a Buddhist king. After the time of Aśoka, however, the practice of original Buddha-dharma pretty well disappeared from the face of the earth, leaving behind nothing but a religion that came to be virtually indistinguishable from Brahmanism. By the time of the 6th century C.E., for example, Buddhist kings in Orissa are proudly taking credit for maintaining the pure practices of the caste system and even reviving some of the Vedic rituals that had gone out of vogue. Nothing kills a religion more quickly than popularity with governments in power.

I agree that the Pali canon's characterizations of the historical Buddha depict a pacifist and a peace maker. But does that indicate a fundamental rejection of the activity of war as an instrument of policy? If you accept my linguistic arguments, you would say no.

As you can see, I think other considerations override your linguistic arguments. Furthermore, it must be borne in mind that a great deal of the enterprise of Buddhism lies in redefining and reinterpreting terms that were in common usage. Much of early Buddhist literature consists in giving wholly new meanings to such words as brahman, ariya (noble), khattiya (warrior), rāja (king), mahāpurisa (great man) and so forth. I would say that the Buddhist redefinition of these terms was as radical, and as vital to the emerging sense of being a distinct group, as was the Christian redefinition of the concept of messiah.

Richard P. Hayes

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Early Buddhist Pacifism

Forum on Indian and Buddhist Studies
April 20, 1991

Robin responds to my claims in various messages. For starters, he says:

Hayes argues that the idea of Kingship in Buddhism became warped after Aśoka into non-Buddhist concepts that were more in keeping with Brahmanism than with “original Buddhism” So, according to him, those fake-Buddhist kings were warlike, but the concept of the Buddha during his lifetime was pure and did not accept warlike behavior as ever proper. The religion just degenerated after a while and became the popularistic thing we know today.
If I have represented his argument correctly, then it has two flaws: 1) the linguistic argument I use is based on suttas supposedly composed long before Aśoka. These suttas reflect Buddhism's early attitudes towards the nature of kings and war. They are not just the reflection of a corrupted medieval Buddhism.

It is probably true that much of what is recorded in the Pali Canon is pre-Aśokan. The myths I alluded to are regarded by some Pali Canon experts to be rather late, perhaps even post-Aśokan. But the date of composition is entirely immaterial to my argument. My point was that your linguistic arguments are weakened considerably when one takes into consideration the huge volume of material in the Pali Canon in which the obvious agenda is to appropriate and radically redefine such words as Brahmin, ariya (noble), khattiya (warrior), rāja (king), and mahāpurisa (great man). In the light of this agenda of redefining key terms, one can hardly say that just because the Buddha and his followers used some of the terminology of the warrior classes, they thereby approved of war. My argument is precisely that the early Buddhists used the terminology of the warrior class and redefined it all in more irenic terms.

2) the argument that there are over-riding reasons for proclaming that true Buddhism is against war in every way begs the question. Hayes thinks he knows what “primitive Buddhism,”as it used to be called by Western scholars, was like. But his evidence isn't textual. What is the historical evidence for this primal, rationalistic Buddhism?

I make no claims whatsoever to know what “primitive Buddhism” was like. That is a term that refers to an hypothetical set of Buddhist teachings and practices that existed before any literature came into being. Like you, I am very dubious about speculative attempts to reconstruct what the “real” Buddha said. What I have been saying is based entirely on the Nikāyas, the Vinaya and the Abhidhamma of the Pali Canon. Thus I am not begging any questions but rather am simply taking a great many statements in Buddhist literature at face value. Among the statements I refer to (to give a small but representative sample):

I could cite a few hundred more passages from texts, but the few above may be enough to make my point that I am not simply projecting my modern middle-class liberal rationalistic democratic ideologies or superimposing the fanatasies (portmanteau word for fanatical fantasies) of my New England puritanical splinter-group pacifist Christian ancestors onto texts where such sentiments are totally absent. Nor, I think, can I be accurately accused of trying to say “that our current pragmatic and pacifist value system is the only rational one and the Buddha must have been a rational being.” Nor am I assuming gratuitously that “Buddhism began as a kind of Asian Age of Reason philosophy, for no better reason than that we wish it were once that way.”

Hayes quoted Buddhist origin myths which trace the development of greed to the development of the concept of property. Let's say that that Buddha was right. Does this tell us what to do right now?

It makes it pretty clear to me what to do as an individual: own as little as possible, consume as little as possible and do my best to stay out of the way of behemoths who get into disputes over property and resources.

The recent war in the Persian Gulf is hardly a counterexample to the myths recorded in the Pali Canon. A handful of Koweitis have become billionaires by sucking oil out of an oil-field ninety percent of which lies under Iraq. A power‐hungry megalomaniac in Iraq convinces his subjects that the Koweitis have been stealing Iraqi oil. Iraq invades Koweit. The Koweiti billionaires hire a New York advertising company and spend millions of dollars in a campaign to win public sympathy worldwide to their cause, and they hire the services of the most technologically advanced army in the world to dump several thousands of planeloads of bombs at the cost of $1 billion per day on a country whose gross GNP is the same as the state of Kentucky. And they persuade the leadership of the United States to explain to their subjects that this whole enterprise has nothing to do with oil and has everything to do with the territorial integrity of a sovereign nation (without explaining where this keen interest in integrity was when China invaded Tibet, or when the United Nations repeatedly over a period of sixteen years condemned Turkey for invading Cyprus and asked the United States to stop pumping hundreds of millions of dollars annually into the Turkish military).

This whole situation, wherein a country with an annual per capita income of $14,870 persuades another country with a PCI of $16,489 to lay waste to a country with a PCI of $1,950, seems to me a paradigmatic example of a war started and maintained by a few individuals whose greed for property and power has resulted in the suffering of millions of people.

What does a Buddhist do about all this? Well, I can speak only for myself. I begin by resisting every attempt made by those whose vested interests lie in manipulating public opinion in support of their bellicose actions. I continue by pointing out that if the leaders of Koweit, Iraq or the United States had followed Buddhist, Christian or Islamic principles, they would not have followed policies that led to war; and that no one interested in following Buddhist, Christian or Islamic principles will support the leaders of any one of these countries in their campaigns of war.

Can one bring an end to madness just by recognizing that it is madness? Of course not. There is no way to stop the collective madness of human civilization except by stopping some five billion cases of individual madness. At best there may be a way of freeing oneself from that collective madness as an individual and encouraging a few others to also try to break free. If enough people become sane, things will probably be a little better in the world. If not, things will probably grow even worse.

The Buddha is reported to have said: “If a person gets sick, then one of two things will happen: either he'll get better or he'll get worse. If he gets worse, then one of two things will happen: either he'll die or he'll get better.” The same can be said for human civilization as a whole. (I have no textual reference for this gem; I heard it from a monk from Thailand.)

Furthermore, we Mahayana practitioners like a lot of those later developments that separated from the hypothetical original buddhism.

So do we Zen practitioners. If you find practices that developed a thousand years after the time of the Buddha useful, by all means use them. There is no error in that. The only possible error that one could make in such a case would be an intellectual one consisting in having some somewhat inaccurate views about history. My job as an historian of Buddhist systematics and philosophy is to try to avoid anachronisms in textual interpretation. My job as a practitioner of Zen, on the other hand, is to say “piss on historical accuracy!” That is why it will say on my tombstone: “Here lies a man who spent his whole life doing painstaking work and then pissing on it. Thus did he keep his mind full and his bladder empty.”

Richard P. Hayes

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