As a practicing Buddhist, being in favor of any military action is problematic. Should a Buddhist ever support military action? Shouldn’t Buddhists be pacifists? After all, our first precept is to abstain from killing living beings, while the noble eightfold path emphasizes the intention of non-harming. When a warrior asked the Buddha whether he would go to a special heaven when he died, the Buddha reluctantly informed him he would be reborn in one of the lower realms. The Buddha taught unequivocally that violence breeds more violence and that practitioners should always strive for peace and reconciliation.
The question about whether it is ever permissible to apply force against another human being is complex. Are we allowed to cause harm in self-defense? In protecting our family? In preventing serious crime? Can we call the exterminator when termites eat into our home? (For a more thorough examinations of these issues, check out this post.) The Pali canon never condones violence or killing, but the Mahāyāna Upaya-kausalya Sūtra condones killing on compassionate grounds in extraordinary circumstances. Similarly, the Ārya-satyaka-parivarta Sūtra permits a ruler’s use of force to protect life when all attempts at negotiation and placation have failed. One can always cite scripture in support of whatever position one wants to take.
My own view is that there are times when resort to force is permitted, but it must meet certain conditions: 1) It must be undertaken as a last resort, 2) it must be undertaken for the compassionate protection of beings, and not out of hatred, greed, or revenge, 3) it must use the minimum force necessary to accomplish its goal, 4) it must have a reasonable chance of success, 5) it must not dehumanize opponents, 6) it must make all reasonable efforts to avoid harming innocent non-combatants, 7) the magnitude of reasonably anticipated “blowback” must not exceed the good it is hoped it will achieve, and 8), it must be undertaken with the understanding that even the most moral use of force still generates some degree of bad karma.
The Alīnacitta-jātaka, one of the Jātaka Tales that purport to tell the story of the Buddha’s many incarnations on the bodhisattva path before his birth as Siddhartha, seems relevant to this discussion. It tells the story of King Brahmadatta who befriended an elephant during his reign. Later, the King and Queen conceived a child, the Buddha-to-be in a future incarnation, but the King died before the child was born. The neighboring King of Kosala, hearing about Brahmadatta’s death, plotted to take over his kingdom, and proceeded to lay siege to it. On the day of the Bodhisattva’s birth the townsfolk began battling the Kosalan army:
“But as they had no leader, little by little the army gave way, great though it was. The courtiers told this news to the Queen, adding, ‘Since our army loses ground in this way, we fear defeat. But our King’s friend, the elephant, has never been told that the King is dead, that a son was born to him, and that the King of Kosala is here to give us battle. Shall we tell him?’
“Yes, do so,” said the Queen. She dressed up her son, laid him in a fine linen cloth, and went with all her court to the elephant’s stable. She laid the babe at the elephant’s feet, saying, “Master, your comrade is dead, but we feared to tell it you lest you might break your heart. This is your comrade’s son; the King of Kosala is making war against him; the army is losing ground; either kill my son yourself, or win the kingdom back for him!”
The elephant stroked the child with his trunk and lifted him upon his own head; then moaning and lamenting, laid him in his mother’s arms, saying, ‘I will master the King of Kosala!’
Then the courtiers put his armor and caparison on him and unlocked the city gate. The elephant trumpeted and frightened all the host so that they ran away and broke up their camp; then seizing the king of Kosala by his topknot, he carried him to the young Prince, and laid him at his feet. Some rose to kill him, but the elephant stayed them; and he let the captive king go with this advice: “Be careful in the future, and don’t be presumptuous because our Prince is young!” After that, the power over all India fell into the Bodhisattva’s hands and not a foe was able to rise up against him. The Bodhisattva was consecrated at age seven; his reign was just and when he came to life’s end he went to swell the hosts of heaven.”
The text implies citizens have a right to defend themselves and use force against an oppressor, but self-defense must be tempered by mercy and reverence for life. Of course, no lives are lost in this charming tale. The elephant is able to scare the invading army away without injuring anyone, and the invading king’s life is spared. If only U.N. sanctions and warnings had been effective in frightening Gadhafi into leaving his enemies in peace! It would have made this tale a perfect parable.
I could easily have cited another Jātaka Tale the counsels radical pacifism, however. In that tale a king threatened by an invader says “I want no kingdom that must be kept by doing harm.” He opens his city’s gates to the invader and allows himself to be taken captive. While imprisoned he cultivates compassion for his conqueror. The tale has a happy ending. The invading king develops insight into the wrongfulness of his actions, frees the virtuous king, and leaves his kingdom in peace. This tale is even more charming than the first. Can you see Gadhafi developing moral insight and leaving his enemies in peace?
Does our current military action in Libya meet these the eight conditions I outlined above? Well yes and no.
In order to meet such a test a military action would have to be motivated by compassion. As the stated purpose of the action is to protect civilians, and as there will be no occupation, and as President Obama’s rhetoric is neither dehumanizing nor bloodthirsty, I think the action meets those criteria, at least for the United States. It’s possible, however, that a desire for vengeance lurks in the background for some coalition members or U.N. supporters. The Lebanese remember Gadhafi’s murder of Musa al-Sadr in 1978, the British remember the Lockerbie bombing of 1988, and the Saudi’s remember Gadhafi’s 2004 plot to kill Crown Prince Abdullah. Gadhafi has created an enormous amount of low-grade karma over the past forty years, and human memories are long.
To the extent that the allies make all efforts to avoid civilian deaths and limit their actions to protecting the cities in rebellion a good case can be made for this being a moral intervention – or at least as moral an intervention as is possible given the inevitable negative consequences inherent in any use of force. We don’t know how this will turn out in the end. If a civilian bloodbath is averted; if a relatively free government is established in rebel-held territory; if tribal civil warfare and devolution into anarchy is avoided; if the war does not stir up virulent anti-Western sentiment in the Middle East; if the democratic strivings that began in Tunisia and Egypt and are sweeping through the Middle East are bolstered and supported, then this will have been worth it. But, as the Japanese say, “Ningen banji Saiō ga uma” (人間万事 塞翁が馬) — Everything is like Uncle Sai’s horse: Good? Bad? Who Knows? We never know how the story ends until it’s over. And of course, the story which we are a part of is never over.
Would the Buddha have approved of the Libyan no-fly zone? Would he have approved Allied bombing of the railroads leading to Auschwitz? Would he have approved an intervention in Rwanda? Maybe not. On the other hand, this Buddhist does approve, and hopes things turn out as well as they can. We live in a world where tough moral choices can’t be avoided. Going into battle creates bad karma. But so does sitting back and watching thousands die while arguing moral niceties.