Bohemian Buddhist Review

Buddhist Ethics, Chapter 5: War and Terrorism

Since we seem to be on the verge of "endless war," eerily echoing George Orwell's all-too prescient words in "1984," this chapter in Damien Keown's pithy little book, published by Oxford University Press, feels spot on.

Keown starts off by asking a provocative question: was America's response to 9/11 justified? As a Buddhist and unapologetic leftie-liberal-progressive, I've always said No. Not that individual violent perpetrators shouldn't be brought to justice, but because it's blindingly obvious that knee-jerk violence of the Shock and Awe category only ever begets more violence. And for proof of the failure of US policy in the Middle East, we now have ISIS, whose tactics appal even Al Qaeda.

That said, there are underlying complexities to the attack on the World Trade Center -- in which a member of my own extended family was killed -- and America's manipulated over-reaction by our hawkish military, about which we should not be naive.

Why is this precept so hard to grasp for supposedly-civilized countries? Jesus as well as Buddha both said not to kill -- no ifs, ands, or special dispensations because you don't like your neighbor.

Does this mean it would be easy to explain or accommodate "the pacifist ideal to the realities of social and political life"? Decidedly not. But is war ever "easy" or the intelligent answer to conflict? Decidedly not.  

"In marked contrast to the teachings of the Qur'an, the Buddha states that warriors who die in battle do not go to heaven but to a special hell, since at the moment of death their minds are intent on killing living beings," Keown writes. This would seem to be Buddhism's definitive answer on war.

However, what about the much-touted "war on terror"? Is that a "just" war? Keown goes through much of the West's thinking on the matter, starting with St. Augustine, but since these are not Buddhist sources or philosophical authorities, they don't apply. In fact I'm not sure why he spends so much time on them in the first place. Surely we don't need a retread of Western civilization's excuses for mass murder, genocide, and world wars.

"It has been wisely said that 'pacifism does not mean passivism,' and there is much useful work that can be done to remove injustice and the causes of dissent before they erupt into violent conflict." Yes, indeed, and let's see just a bit more of this, please!

After 9/11, the Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn asked, "Why would anyone hate us enough to do that?" 

If, in fact, the attacks were acts of terrorism and not, as some compelling evidence posits ("Zeitgeist," etc.), a false flag operation by a possible shadow government, Thich Nhat Hahn's words should be a wake-up call. However, one would need to have or cultivate deep listening skills and compassionate wisdom to be able to hear the answer.