Buddhism in War and Peace

            Nationsmith Writer K. David Du writes an article about his travel to a Buddhist Temple and reflects on a little known subject: buddhism and the military.

Philosophically, many would concur that Buddhism is a peaceful religion. This is because many famous Buddhist religious leaders such as the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Bhiksuni Cheng Yen are considered just peacemakers, humanitarians, and opponents of oppressive regimes. However, in my research, I have also found examples of theocratic Buddhist states (such as Imperial Japan) who have utilized the unity created by the Buddhism and have twist them to suit their state ideologies and thirst for power and control.

In my research, I also had to observe the rituals, practices, and sermons with an objective methodology. Therefore, I want to note that during my research my intent was to understand the focus of my faith while keeping a clear line between being subjective opinion and objective fact in looking for the answer to my question: what are the Buddhist opinions on war and peace? Is there a Buddhist solution to the problem of war? If so, what are some of the solutions?

Therefore, I will argue that while Buddhism has been an instrument of peace and justice within contemporary times, Buddhism has also been attached to the problem of war.

For my research, I decided to visit the Hsi Fang Temple in Park Boulevard, San Diego.

Hsi Fang Temple is a Chinese Mahayana Pure Land Temple. The temple itself is strange for a Buddhist temple. The building itself looked to be have been built during the 1990s, with stucco, cement, and wood. Why the actual building was strange was it was a Chinese temple without the trappings and architectural style of the Chinese tradition. The roof of the building was adapted towards the same tiling used in traditional Buddhist temples, the only indicator that the site was temple associated with the Chinese tradition.

In the second level of Hsi Fang temple, there was a traditional Pure Land Shrine to the Amitabha Buddha. Within this shrine, there was a gold plated statue of the Buddha, with two disciples. Within the room, the name of Amitābha Buddha is recited throughout the sutras read and sung aloud by the Buddhist nuns and laypersons.

During the service, the congregation bowed many times, sung the name of the Buddha and the sutra associated with the Pure Land. Demographically the congregation was highly diverse, yet the majority of its followers were Chinese, Chinese Americans, or Taiwanese Chinese. It was not surprising considering the traditional congregation of the Chinese traditions have been typically Chinese. However, there was a diversity of people who practiced within the confines of this temple.

I asked a few laypersons what their motivation was to go to temple each week. Answers varied from being those related to being Chinese, those related to the dissatisfaction some had with their previous religions, and many said that faith was an important aspect of life. On the question of war, violence and peace I found another avenue. It was not easy to get clear answers on the Buddhist perspective on war and peace.

Whilst writing this paper, I asked my mother about how war affected the Buddhist psyche, being that she had more expertise on the subject, and she handed to me a folded Buddhist pamphlet she had kept for safe keeping. Written on this pamphlet was the letter-head of the temple and upon the heading it was written “Special Prayer for Our Armed Forces, Memorial Service for those Deceased and Prayer for Peace”. Upon the paper, there was the praise to incense offering, the Heart Sutra, the Buddha’s Names-Light offering, and lastly the Transfer of Merits. What was poignant of this literature was also there was a prayer written in English, wrote that war was caused by the root evils of self-conceit, prejudice, and delusion. The prayer’s lines end:

“Oh great, compassionate Buddha! Please bestow peace upon the world! Please bless all sentient beings with harmony! Oh great, compassionate Buddha! Please accept my sincere prayer!”

            From my trip to the temple, the consultation of my mother, and my examination of the written material from His Fang’s international headquarters, I would conclude that mainstream Buddhism at least is against all conflicts and modernly has used it pull to progress humanitarianism, conflict resolution, and peacemaking.

However, as I stated in my argument, though Buddhism is a force for progressive, peaceful change, Buddhism also includes under its umbrella less savory aspects. Within the next two pages, I’ll document two case studies that promote both the peaceful and conflictive sides of Buddhism.

My first case study involves the negative aspect and involves the topic of Buddhism and Japanese militarism during the Second World War.

In Brian Victoria’s book Zen at War, he explains the use of Zen Buddhism by the Imperial Japanese Military during and leading up to the Second World War. In his book, there is a chapter on the “Incorporation of Buddhism into the Japanese War Machine”. Zen Buddhism in Japan had previously been associated with the warrior caste of Japan known as the Samurai and it heavily influenced their code of ethics, Bushido.

In Zen at War, Victoria documents the Japanese scholar-monk Nukariya Kaiten’s views of war and Buddhism:

“After the Restoration of the Mejji the popularity of Zen began to wane, and for some thirty years remained in inactivity; but since the Russo-Japanese War its revival has taken place. And now it is looked upon as an ideal faith, both for a national full of hope and energy, and for a person who has to fight his own way in the strife of life. Bushido, or the code of chivalry, should be observed not only by the solider in the battlefield, but by every citizen in the struggle for existence. If a person be a person and not a beast, then he must be a samurai- brave, generous, upright, faithful, and manly, full of self respect and self-confidence, and at the same time full of the spirit of self sacrifice,” (Victoria 58)

            Therefore, Zen Buddhism was idealized into the Japanese warrior code, with strong emphasis on self-sacrifice and honor being part of the Samurai Code. This code during the Meji Restoration had fallen into decline, due to the revival of imperial power over those of the Shogunate. During the Japanese-Russo War, the Zen-warrior spirit is rekindled as the Japanese, while out-gunned and out-manned; miraculously defeat the Imperial Russian military. This resurgence allows for the Japanese Buddhist establishment to support (and pray) for Japanese victories throughout the Eastern Asia in the 1930s and throughout the World War II era. Occupied areas of Asia by the Japanese were quickly protected under the aegis of the Japanese “Greater East Asian Sphere of Co-Prosperity”. This Sphere of Co-Prosperity was a clever euphemism for the expansive Japanese empire in Eastern Asia. During this time period, the Japanese begin to force non-Japanese people to appreciate Japanese religions such as Soto Zen Buddhism and Shinto. It was pure, oppressive colonialism and Zen Buddhism was well connected to the militaristic mentality of the Japanese Soldier.

Along with the militarization of Buddhism, the Japanese throughout the Second World War created large scale humanitarian offenses such as the event known as The Rape of Nanjing, in which the Japanese military murdered, tortured, raped, and destroyed the Chinese populace of the city of Nanjing. Contrasting the Rape of Nanjing to contemporary Japanese Buddhist views on militarism one can also see the erosion of Buddhist ethics in order to make place for Japanese military necessity. According to Furukawa Taigo, a prolific writer on Japanese Buddhist topics during WWII:

Looking at the war in Manchuria from the point of view of a believer in Buddhism, it can approved of as a just war…given that our actions toward China are legitimate, it is not only we who benefit from what we do, but the whole Orient, nay, the whole world. Beyond that, China ought to benefit as well. (Victoria 92)

            In this passage, Furukawa justifies Japanese militarization and aggression against China as “just war” and he also places this justification under the aegis of Buddhism.

Therefore, Buddhism has had a recent history of involvement in war. Though war is against the Buddhist precept against violence, it has historically been entangled with war.

The next case study of Buddhism relates to the more peaceful overtures of modern Buddhism. Daisaku Ikeda is the current president of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI), a lay Buddhist organization who follows the precepts of the Nichiren school of Buddhism. During WWII, his friend and mentor Josei Toda was imprisoned for his opposition of Japanese militarism.

Today, Mr. Ikeda is a proponent for global peacemaking, humanitarianism, and education. He views peace not just as the absence of violence or war, but as the condition in which the dignity and human rights of all individuals are respected. In fact, his organization SGI has members across 115 countries and they have an expressed interest in maintaining Mr. Ikeda’s vision of peace.

In the book Choose Peace, John Galtung and Daisakau Ikeda have a dialog on the contemporary issues such as the recent fall of the Soviet Union, post-war Japan, and other humanitarian topics. In one section, the two have a dialog on the issue of Article 9 of the Japanese Peace Constitution, in which Japan had renounced war as a sovereign right. In this dialog, Galtung questions whether it permissible to revise Article 9 in order for Japan to take on the responsibilities of Humanitarian missions such as peacekeeping.

Ikeda responds:

“Self-discipline is absolutely indispensable if we are to make optimum use of our devotion to lasting peace. As you [Galtung] know, many Asian nations, where memories of past Japanese militarist atrocities remain refresh, regarded Japan’s military participation in United Nations peacekeeping operations in Cambodia in the early 1990s with misgivings. To calm such misgivings, while making the most energetic international contributions, Japan must remain a model of self-discipline at home and abroad,” (Galtung / Ikeda 32-35)

                In his answer to Galtung, Ikeda wishes for Japan to continue the pacifist appreciation for Article 9. He even goes as far to say that it would be better if all nation states adopt similar articles in their constitutions to renounce war. The world would be much more peaceful.

I have researched Buddhist outlooks of war and peace by attending temple, researching both Buddhist views for war and for peace. In this paper I have proven that though Buddhism is seen by many as a proponent for peace, it has a recent history of violence that cannot be sugarcoated. In fact, one of Buddhism’s earlier proponents Prince Asoka was a known imperialist and conqueror who in his later life became a Buddhist peacemaker. Perhaps Prince Asoka was right in his later activity as a peacemaker and follower of Buddhism. As students of religion, philosophy, and politics, we sometimes we need to see the reality of our lives and consider that not all things are as they seem, as even one of the most peaceful religions has had a history of violence and we shouldn’t overlook this excess baggage. Why? Because we fall so we can get up, we learn from our mistakes and choose to change for the better.