Buddhism & The Soldier
Major General Ananda Weerasekera
(this article is an extract
from Beyond the Net
a Web Site on Theravada
Buddhism at ‘lanka.com’ )
Different people have
understood Buddhism differently. It is often debated whether Buddhism is
a religion, philosophy or a way of life or not. Since Buddhism contains all
these aspects one is justified in drawing any conclusion so long as one does not
give an exclusive and rigid title. The Buddha-dhamma (Doctrine),as most of the
scholars say , is a moral and philosophical system which expounds a unique path
of enlightenment, and is not a subject to be studied from a mere academic
standpoint. It is certainly to be studied, more to be practiced , and above all
to be realized by oneself.
All the teachings of the
Buddha deal, in one way or another with the path, known as The Noble
Eightfold Path. It was the path realised and introduced by Buddha and it is
This is also known as the 'Middle
Path', since in actual practice it avoids extremes. This Noble Eightfold
Path is discussed in detail in the Buddhist Texts. It is sufficient to
state that it is a code
of conduct clearly laid down by Buddha to all four sections of the Buddhist
Society. That is Bikkhu (monks), Bikkhuni (nuns), Upasaka (laymen), Upasika
The deciples of the Buddha
whether men or women belong to many walks of life from a King to a Servant.
Whatever their civil status may be a code of conduct and moral obligations for
each one has been clearly laid down by the Buddha. This code of conduct is
collectively referred to as Virtue (seela) which encompasses disciplined speech,
disciplined thought and controlled senses. A layman or a laywomen is advised to
observe the five basic precepts as the minimum limit of their 'discipline' in
the society. The limits of 'seela' are different for those who have renounced
the lay life in search of liberation, The Nirvana.
However the five precepts
are not commandments but aspirations voluntarily undertaken by each one. The
first precept is to abstain from taking life. "The life",
according to Buddhism covers the entire spectrum of living beings and are
covered in 'Karaneeya Mettha Sutta' as follows.
Buddha's teachings are quite
clear in regard to the extent to which 'love & compassion' should expand,. 'Sabbe
satta bhavanthu sukhitatta', ie. 'May all beings be happy' Buddha not only
condemned the destruction of living beings as higher seela, he also condemned
the destruction of the plant life. Buddhism being a 'way of life' where plant
animal and human lives are protected ,how does one explain the 'destruction
and suffering caused by war.'
War is violence, killing,
destruction, blood and pain. Has Buddha accepted these? According to Buddha, the
causes of war being greed, aversion and delusion are deep rooted in human
mind. The milestones of the path being seela, samadhi and panna make the human
being realize the causes that contribute to warfare and for the need for the
eradication of same.
The Buddha said,
All tremble at violence, All fear death,
Comparing oneself with others
One Should neither kill nor cause others to Kill' (Dammapada)
Hence any form of violence is not acceptable . He further says,
' Victory breeds hatred
The defeated live in pain,
Happily the peaceful live,
Giving up victory and defeat (Dammapada)
Victory and Defeat are two
sides of the coin of War. It is clear in Buddhism, what breeds in war whether it
is victory or defeat.
Let us now deal with those
having a direct involvement with War, The King or in today's context the
Government and the soldier. Does Buddhism permit the State to build and
foster an Army?. Can a good Buddhist be a soldier? and can he kill for the sake
of the country? What about the 'Defence' of a country.? When a ruthless army
invades a country, does Buddhism prohibit a Buddhist King to defend his country
and his people? If Buddhism is a 'way of life,' is there any other way for a
righteous king to battle against an invasion of an army.?
The Damma is a way of life
based on Right Thought, Right Livelihood, Right Action etc. culminating in the
supreme goal of Nibbana . However it is a gradual process of training and
progressing on the path through one's long samsaric journey until one has
fulfilled the necessery conditions and is ready to let go the cycle of birth
decay and death. Hence, until then the King has to rule, the farmer has to farm,
teacher has to teach, the trader has to trade and so on. But they are expected
to do it the Buddhist way in order to help them progress on the path.
In 'chakkavatti- sihanada
sutta' (The Lion's Roar on the Turning of Wheel) of
the long discourses of the Buddha, Buddha justified the requirement of the king
having an Army to provide guard, protection and security for different classes
of people in the kingdom from internal and external threats. It refers to a
Wheel Turning monarch named Dalhanemi, a righteous monarch of the law, conqueror
of the four quarters who had established the security of his realm and was
possessed of the seven treasures. He had more than 1000 sons who were heroes, of
heroic stature, conquerors of the hostile army. Explaining the noble duties of a
righteous king, Buddha also pointed out the advice given to the king in regard
to his obligation to provide security for its people. The advisor tells the king
" my son, yourself depending on the Dhamma, revering it, doing homage to
it, and venerating it having the Dhamma as your badge and banner, acknowledging
the Dhamma as your master, you should establish guard, ward and protection
according to Dhamma for your own household, your troops in the Army, your
nobles and vassals, for Brahmins and householders, town and countryfolk,
ascetics and Brahmins, for beasts and birds. Let no crime prevail in your
Explaining further the
duties of a righteous king, Buddha states, "…Son, the people of your
kingdom should from time to time come to you and consult you as to what is to be
followed and what is not to be followed, what is wholesome and what not
wholesome, and what action will in the long run lead to harm and sorrow, welfare
and happiness. You should listen and tell them to avoid evil and to do what is
good for the country. This sutta clearly indicates that Buddhism permits a king
to have an army since a righteous king, who is also the commander of the army,
knows, the righteous way to engage the army and to protect his people.
'Seeha Senapathi Sutta'
of Anguttara Nikaya-5
shows how, one of the army commanders named 'Seeha' went to Buddha to clarify
certain doubts on the Dhamma and how the Buddha advised him without requesting
him to resign from the Army or to disband the army. Having clarified his doubts
on the Dhamma, Commander Seeha requested Buddha to accept him as a deciple of
the Buddha. But Buddha instead of advising him to resign from the army advised
'Seeha, it is proper for
a popular person of your status to always think and examine when attending to
affairs and making decisions ' Seeha, the commander became a sotapanna (stream
enterer = first fruit of the Path) having listened to the Dhamma, but remained
in the army as a commander.
In this instance too one
could see that Buddha did not advise Seeha against the Army or being a commander
of an Army, but only advised to discharge his duties the proper way.
had a unsatiable desire to conquer other kingdoms. He even murdered his father
for the throne and aided Devadatta who was plotting to kill the Buddha. Once
Ajasattu having decided to conquer the kingdom of Vajjians sent his chief
minister Vassakara to Buddha to find out Buddha's views about his decision to
conquer the Vajjians. Ajasttu wanted to know whether he will gain victory,
cunningly using Buddha's ability to predict the future with accuracy.
Once the usual complimentary
greetings were exchanged, between the Buddha and Vassakara and the purpose of
his visit was made known, Buddha turned to his chief attendant Venerable Ananda
with praise of the Vajjians and their noble democratic confederacy. Buddha
further inquired from Venerable Ananda whether the Vajjians are strictly
following the conditions of Dhamma NOT leading to decline as taught to the
Vajjians by Buddha to which Ven. Ananda replied 'yes'.
Then Buddha turned to
venerable Ananda and declared thus, "As long as they would continue on
these lines, taught them by Buddha earlier at Vasali, they cannot be defeated
and not expected to decline but to prosper." The shrewd minister drew his
own conclusion that the Licchavis of vajji state could not be conquered in
battle at that moment, but if their unity and alliance is broken they could be
defeated and ran back to his king with this news. In fact Ajasattu defeated
vajjians not even three years after the Buddha's death purely by shrewdly
creating disunity amongst the rulers of the Vajjians
Numerous conclusions could
be drawn from this story too. Buddha knew that both States did have strong
armies and that they are needed for the protection of their people. Buddha did
not advice minister Vassakara that the concept on 'Army' is against Buddhism and
that he should advice the king not to declare war against Vajjis but to desolve
the army. Buddha at this instance also brought up important lessons in
'state craft.' It helped the crafty minister to adopt a different strategy to
invade Vajji State, by using psychological approach first and then the physical
assault next. Further, by having a conversation with Venerable Ananda Buddha
indicated to minister Vassakara that even though king Ajasasattu has a mighty
strong army, and have conquered several states he will not be able to defeat
Licchavis so long as they adhere to the said noble policies. It is also an
indirect advice to king Ajatasattu that it is in order having an army but that
army will not be able to conquer people with virtuous qualities. It was also an
indication to Ajasattu that he too should be a righteous king with an army where
no other king could defeat him, by adhering to the said policies which will not
lead a society to decline. These policies are referred to as 'saptha
aparihani dhamma' and they are as follows:
Soldiering was accepted by
the Buddha as a noble profession.The soldier was known as " Rajabhata."
Buddha did not permit rajabata to become monks whilst in service as a
Once Sidhartha Gauthama's
father, king Suddhodana came to Buddha and complained,
"Gauthama Buddha, my
son, when you were the most suitable for the throne of a Sakvithi King, you left
all of us and became a monk. Then you insulted me by begging for meals, walking
house to house along the streets in my own town. The relatives laughed at me and
they insulted me. Now you are trying to destroy my Army."
" Why " the Buddha
asked. " What has happened to your great Army, my father."
Then the king
answered," Can't you see, my soldiers are deserting the army one by one and
joining your group as monks."
" why are they becoming
monks, great king and why are they leaving the Army." Asked Buddha.
" Can't you see "
the king answered. " They know that when they become monks they get free
food, free clothes, free accommodation and respected by all."
Buddha smiled and requested
the king to go back to the Palace and said that he will settle the issue. Buddha
then promulgated a law ( Vinaya ) for the monks to the effect that, No
soldier could become a monk whilst in military service. This law is
still valid to date. Accordingly even today unless a soldier is legally
discharged from the army or unless a soldier retires legitimately, he is NOT
ordained as a monk and will not be accepted into the order of monks. This
ensures that soldiers do not desert the army even to join the Buddhist order.
Further in terms of the
Vinaya ( the code of conduct for monks) monks permitted to visit the battle
field but they were ordered to return before the sunset. Permission was also
given to visit the injured relatives in the battlefield.
Further whilst the
expressly referred to five occupations as unrighteous Soldiering is not included
The Buddha once describing
the qualities of a good monk, compared those to the essential qualities of a
good king to be as follows:
Once at the city of Savatti,
Buddha describing five types of monks in comparison to the five types of
soldiers in the world, (A.iii, duthiya yodhajeevupama sutta )
classified the soldiers as follows:-
Similarly in ' patama
yodhajeevacupama sutta' Buddha explains five types of soldiers or warriors.
When the Buddha recognized a
strong army as an essential requirement of the king he was also aware that the
Commander in Chief of the Army was also the king of the country and that a
strong Army four main divisions, then known as 'the caturangani sena',
consisting of Cavalry (horses), Elephant force, Armed vehicles and the
Infantry, each having its own functions in battle.
His knowledge of the
battlefield is so evident for the similis frequently quoted by him from the
battlefield. In Akkhama sutta of Anguttara Nikaya Buddha compares five
weak qualities of elephants selected to go into battle with that of 5 weak
qualities of monks proceeding through the battle of 'Liberation.'
In the Sutta the Buddha
says, An elephant belonging to the 'caturangani sena' [four divisions of
the Army of the ruler] will not be suitable if , it get frightened, trembles,
unable to control and withdraws,
From the above it is
clear that contrary to the popular belief the Buddha has not rejected or
prohibited soldiering as a profession or occupation and the right of a king or a
government to have an army and to defend one's country and its people. In the
contrary the Buddha has expressly recognized the necessity for a king to have an
army and providing protection to the subjects of a country has been recognized
as a prime duty of the king .
The Buddha in his wisdom did
not expect a nation or the rulers to be lame ducks in the wake of an enemy
invasion. However Buddha's expectations from one who is training to be an Arhant
whether monk or layman are different and it should not be mistaken with the
Buddha's expectations from the laity burdened with numerous worldly
responsibilities. It is also because the Buddha in his wisdom did not expect
every 'Buddhist' to opt for Arahantship nor to become an ascetic renouncing the
worldly affairs. To the majority Buddhism is a way of life rather than a faith,
philosophy, or a religion.
However it should be
stressed that a soldier like all others is subject to the law of Kamma and will
not escape the Kammic fruits of "taking the Life"of a sentient being (panatipatha)
even though he may have had the overall noble intention of protecting his
country and his people.
While killing may be
inevitable in a long and successful army career opportunities for merit too is
unlimited for a disciplined and conscientious soldier.
A disciplined soldier fights
his enemy in accordance with the best of traditions and norms maintained by an
army. He doesn't kill a defenseless person. A good soldier provides medical
treatment to the injured enemy captured. He doesn't kill prisoners of war,
children, women or the aged. A disciplined soldier destroys his enemy only when
his or the lives of his comrades are in danger.
Soldier is one who thrives
for peace within because he is one who realizes the pain of his own wounds. He
is one who sees the bloody destruction of war, the dead, the suffering etc.
Hence his desire to bring peace to himself as well as to the others by ending
the war as soon as possible. He not only suffers during the war but even after
the war. The painful memories of the battles he fought linger in him making his
aspire for true and lasting peace within and without. Hence the common
phenomenon of transformation of brutal kings having an insatiable desire to
conquer to incomparable and exemplary righteous kings such as Drarmasoka king of
Mourian dynasty of India.