[Buddha-l] Buddhist warfare

L.S. Cousins selwyn at ntlworld.com
Sun Aug 1 02:47:35 MDT 2010

  What is striking about Buddhist warfare as a volume is that there are 
only two contributions relating to modern Southern Buddhism and none at 
all relating to earlier pre-Mahāyāna and non-Mahāyāna Buddhism. I 
suspect that this is partly because it would be hard to find support 
among scholars in these areas, especially the latter, for the kind of 
thesis the volume is putting forward.

I have already addressed the article on 'military monks' in southern 
Thailand by one of the editors of the volume. The second contribution is 
by Daniel W. Kent and concerns preaching by monks to soldiers fighting 
the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. Given the general tendency of the volume 
and some of the comments in discussion I expected more of the same. That 
is not what I found. This seemed a very fair and balanced account of 
what the monks actually had to say. I found it very interesting.

Kent specifically studies monks 'who had a relationship with the army'. 
This seems to vary and in some cases amounts to the monk happening to 
live near an army camp. Even so, in the contemporary situation one might 
have expected it to represent a section of the Sangha more sympathetic 
to warlike activities. That is not what he found. "Of all the sermons 
that I attended, only one preacher told the soldiers directly that they 
should kill the enemy" (n.33). "Indeed, the vast majority of monks deny 
that Buddhism can ever condone war." (p.159) I found that rather impressive.

Kent rightly focusses on the actual concerns of the soldiers and monks. 
I think he is correct to suppose that the Sinhalese do not usually have 
any kind of ideology of a 'just war'. The concern is much more about the 
nature of actions (kamma) and their results. His evidence rings true to 
me. He slightly misinterprets the situation in one respect, however. He 
asks a question about firing weapons in battle: "Of the twenty monks 
interviewed over the course of my research, eleven believed that firing 
a weapon on the battlefield produced negative karma, nine believed that 
it did not." (p.165) One in fact answered one way at one time and the 
opposite at another (n.24).

The problem here is that the question is too vague in terms of kamma 
theory. I suspect that the monks in this case did not disagree. They 
simply had different ways of interpreting the question. Simply firing a 
weapon does not necessarily involve any negative kamma. If by negative 
kamma is meant serious negative kamma i.e. killing, then there has to be 
intention to kill and somebody has to be actually killed. So depending 
on how it is envisaged, one can answer differently.

Sinhalese monks tend to be rather oblique in any criticisms they make 
and avoid saying anything directly offensive. This is rather un-American 
of them.

Lance Cousins

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