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“Just War” is an Oxymoron

The pervasive conditioning of our culture leads people to ask variations of the question, “What is the Buddhist position on “Just War”? The answer is simple, bewilderingly simple for many.

There is no Buddhist position or doctrine of “Just War.” None. Zero. “Just War” makes no sense in a tradition dedicated to moral decency, non-harming, compassion, and wisdom.

War happens. Buddhism does not deny such facts. It tries to understand how war happens. But Buddhism never accepts or legitimizes war as necessary or “just.” One naturally defends oneself when attacked. One may prevent someone from doing harm to others. Neither, however, justify harming the alleged or imagined perpetrator/aggressor.

Kings, rulers, ministers, and governments often fall back on war as a crude means to their ends. This reflects a lack of intelligence, creativity, and courage in solving problems. The ends, even when decent and just, never justify the violence of war.

War is never peace. We often hear that the latest war, and this is repeated with each new war, is fought for the sake of peace. Governments and media claim that war now (over which they shed crocodile tears) will be the way to a more lasting peace. But whose peace? The peace that the victors would supervise, of course. Peace on their terms, enforced on others at gun and missle point. That hypocrisy is built into the rhetoric of war, since almost no one would support war otherwise. So we have Orwellian newspeak: war is peace. Such claims cannot make war just, no more than lies can create truth. Like "just war" theory which opens the floodgates: every war is justified as just, by those who wage it!

Since the Buddha’s time, Buddhist societies have indulged in war, yet no serious attempt has been made to legitimize or justify such wars. Buddhism understands them as motivated by anger and hatred, fear, greed (e.g., for land, oil, power), and ideology, but never wisdom or justice.

War happens. It is never desirable or beneficial. Too many innocents die, property is wasted, hatreds and feuds are prolonged, and we accustom ourselves to beastly behavior. There is no place in the Buddhist concept of “nobility” for war. It is never morally legit. It isn’t even a “necessary evil.” It is merely the bad policy of shortsighted, cowardly, selfish, and ill-informed leadership.

Scriptures show the Buddha …

Never is war recommended, justified, or blessed. That is left to the sort of priests who perform animal sacrifices and practice magic.

Over the centuries, the Buddhist hierarchies that have entangled themselves with state patronage and failed to ethically critique the abuse of power have nonetheless never stooped so low as to pervert the Buddha’s basic message on the subject.

Vengeance is never appeased by vengeance.

By non-vengeance alone is vengeance conquered.

“Non-vengeance” is the opposite of vengeance, anger, and hatred, that is, kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and peacefulness. By conquering the vengeance within we can overcome its behaviors outside.

War happens. It is never desirable or beneficial. Too many innocents die, property is wasted, hatreds and feuds are prolonged, and we accustom ourselves to beastly behavior. There is no place in the Buddhist concept of “nobility” for war. It is never morally legitimate. It isn’t even a “necessary evil.” It is merely the bad policy of shortsighted, cowardly, selfish, and ill-informed leadership.

Santikaro Bhikkhu
on behalf of BPF’s Dharma Council
March 2003