The Buddha on War. To mark Full Moon of May, 2021. Day marks Buddha’s Enlightenment.

26 May 2021. Full Moon. Millions of Buddhists worldwide pay tribute to the Buddha’s enlightenment.

The Buddha on War

The Buddha pointed out that advocates of war, and many of those who engage in war, get a certain heightened pleasure from their desire (kama tanha) to engage in military conflict. Armed organisations and soldiers, as well as their leaders, experience a heightened sense of self, in declaring and making war on their enemies. Soldiers feel excitement in their willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of their cause.

The Buddha had no regard for such sacrifice since it involved so much pain on both sides and trauma for their families filled with anxiety for their loved ones in the war zone as well as for themselves and their family and friends at home.

The Buddha illustrated the power of belief in the views and behaviour of those labelled ‘heroes’ and ‘terrorists.’ He said one man assassinated a king. The police caught the man who assassinated the king. The court ordered him beheaded. One section of the population, who hated the king, saw the convicted man as a hero. Another section of the population saw the man as a terrorist. They cheered the man’s execution (SN IV 343).

Instead of supporting war and executions, the Buddha told people in power to give support to the poor, deprived and marginalised (DN 5/1 135). He proclaimed acts of compassion, provision of homes, work and community reduce violence, use of weapons and acts of terror.

In praise and blame, the view of the people depends upon who and what they identify with. If citizens let go of clinging to their identity with their nation-state, they might find a clear response to the situation of armed conflict. This is a core maxim in the Buddha’s teachings.

The wisdom of equanimity and impartiality enables the possibility to explore and understand the conditions for conflict and war. Then people can work to change those conditions. The taking of sides leads to views of good and bad, right and wrong, heroes and terrorists. Such views block the capacity to look at a deeper level.

Soldiers, Militants and Sacrifice

Sacrifice plays a key role in matters of war when soldiers and militants can receive immense rewards and prestige for making personal sacrifice. They can return home as heroes, awarded medals, get a promotion in military service and receive media attention.

Some believe that if they die, they will go to heaven, since they gave their life in a just or holy war – two terms widely used by those of a secular or religious persuasion. For the Buddha, these views of personal sacrifice and subsequent rewards in the military have no merit.

Yodhjiva, a senior officer in the army, said to the Buddha that if a soldier dies in battle, he would go to heaven.

“What do you say about that?” he asked the Buddha. Three times the Buddha refused to reply and then he responded bluntly.

“One who exerts himself in battle, his mind is already low, depraved, misdirected by the thought ‘Let us kill these people.’”

The Buddha said such soldiers could go to hell, not heaven. Hell includes loss of happiness, loss of love, PTSD, unresolved violence, depression, suicidal thoughts, self-harm, suicide and belief in an afterlife.

Then the Buddha added another blunt point. He said that those who promote the view that soldiers killed in battle go to heaven will also go to hell for holding such a view.

Tears came to eyes of Yodhijiva.  “I am not crying because of what you said. I am crying because my religious leaders tricked, cheated and deceived me for a long time.”

Such views from Yodhijiva and religious authorities confirm the delusion in believing in the inherent reality of ‘us’ above ‘them’.

The greater the identification with the notion of ‘us’, the greater the transference of blame and hate onto ‘them’.

This duality of us and them breeds fear, violence and ongoing dehumanisation.

Extract from The Political Buddha
Christopher Titmuss
234 Pages. Published 2018.

Photo of 27 metre high statue of the Buddha in the Thai Monastery, Sarnath, India.  Posture of hand for peace on Earth.

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  • Well said. I love the Buddha’s take on the afterlife for the soldier who is fighting for the cause. How they are deceived by those that think they know and told they will go to heaven if killed on the battlefield.


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