“Military careers and Buddhist ethics” (Kariyakarawana, 2011) explores Buddhist teachings on military service and military careers. This article was written by the first Buddhist Chaplain appointed to the UK Armed Services. The article argues the morality of military service by chaplains, even beyond the chaplain’s role of providing religious, spiritual, moral, and pastoral care for military personnel (Kariyakarawana, 2011, p. 99). The article presented reflections on the author’s military service as chaplain as well as arguments by Buddhist monks based on interpretations of Buddhist teachings.
Kariyakarawana noted that among Buddhists and non-Buddhists the perception exists that Buddhism, founded on values of pacifism and spirituality, is inconsistent with service in the military whether in the capacity of chaplains or soldiers. The article argued in favor of military service by chaplains, even beyond the chaplain’s role of providing religious, spiritual, moral, and pastoral care for military personnel (Kariyakarawana, 2011). The author pointed out that in spite of this debate, there is a strong tradition of Nepali Buddhists serving in the British Army for more than 200 years. Further, there are countries such as Sri Lanka which are primarily Buddhist which nevertheless maintain armies. The author also noted that the military within democratic regimes not only prosecutes wars but also serves a peacekeeping and humanitarian function as well. The author discussed these apparent contradictions, exploring the central questions of whether Buddhism allows a state to build and maintain a military organization; whether a Buddhist may take life on behalf of or in defense of one’s country; and whether the Buddhist “way of life” allows the righteous ruler to defend the country from invasion.
The author noted that even with so much diversity in Buddhist practices, there is a common agreement that Buddhism is based on moral ethical conduct (sila) which derives from the concept of universal loving kindness (metta) and compassion (karuna) (Kariyakarawana, 2011, p. 100). Morality leads to the attainment of mental purity and serenity (samadhi) which in turn promotes “wisdom and understanding (panna) of the true nature of things” (Kariyakarawana, 2011, p. 100). Buddhists strive to achieve final liberation by having lived according to the precepts of the eight-fold noble path. The attainment of full enlightenment within this ethical system is Nibbana. This system provides no justification for violence. The author cited the teachings of the Buddha, “Taking life is unskilful” and the first precept against killing “I undertake to refrain from taking life” as taught by the modern writer monk Thanissaro Bhikku (as cited in Kariyakarawana, 2011, p. 101).
Even with these prohibitions against violence, the author noted that nearly all Buddhist countries maintain strong military organizations that co-exist with Buddhist tradition. Buddhist Army Major General Ananda Weerasekera, currently a practicing monk, argued that life’s journey is a gradual process of training and progression to reach Nibbana, and along the way, everyone must perform their duty, including the king and the soldier (Kariyakarawana, 2011, p. 102). Further, the Major argued that when the Buddha was asked by a high ranking military officer about his becoming one of Buddha’s disciples, the Buddha could have but did not advise the officer to resign. Rather, the Buddha’s advice was that it was important only that the officer fulfilled his duties in the proper way.
The author concluded then that the moral ethical position of a Buddhist serving in the military is no different than serving in any other profession. As long as the job being done does not fall under the classification of wrong livelihood, the key consideration in serving in the military is having right intentions. The author argued that his willingness to follow orders to take life or to sacrifice his own is equally consistent with Buddhist ideals. Further, his service as a chaplain had not only allowed him to provide spiritual and pastoral support for the military community, but had also given him the opportunity to share knowledge of Buddhism with others, to strengthen inter-faith trust and friendship with others, and to alleviate suffering by promoting acts of community service by military personnel (Kariyakarawana, 2011, p. 105).
The author justified the need for military organizations by presenting well-reasoned arguments supporting the role of the military and showing how their existence is consistent with Buddhist ideals and doctrine. Kariyakarawana supported his position by citing examples of the Buddha’s teachings and also the thinking of modern monks reconciling what many consider to be opposing beliefs. Military service undertaken for the right reasons is entirely consistent with Buddhist precepts of pacifism and non-violence, which ethical system also promotes compassion and alleviating the suffering of others. Military service by Buddhists adheres to all these principles.
- Kariyakarawana, S. (2011). Military careers and Buddhist ethics. The International Journal of Leadership in Public Services, 7(2), 99-108.