Around the neck of every American soldier hangs a pair of “dog tags” on a metal chain. Their purpose is to identify the name, Social Security number, blood type, and religious denomination of the owner’s mortal remains upon his or her death. On the final line of my dog tags one finds a designation many find curious: Buddhist. I am one of the few Buddhist commissioned officers in the U.S. Armed Forces not of an Asian ancestry.

Captain Lawrence P. Rockwood. Courtesy Lawrence P. Rockwood.
Captain Lawrence P. Rockwood. Courtesy Lawrence P. Rockwood.

While being a Buddhist in the U.S. Army is novel, it is a novelty based on simple geography (if I were a Burmese soldier no one would comment) and the fact that the relationship between Buddhism and the profession of arms is a subject given precious little discussion in the West. I have noticed that Western students of the dharma are often quick to erect a wall separating the history of Buddhism on one hand and the history of war on the other. I can certainly appreciate why. Many individuals, especially in this post-Vietnam era, are naturally drawn to spiritual traditions that appear untainted by the injustices of war. So it only seems natural that many of my fellow Euro-American Buddhists would be uncomfortable with the suggestion that soldiers in Buddhist societies have been just as adroit in accommodating the first Buddhist precept on nonviolence as soldiers in Judeo-Christian societies have been in accommodating the Fifth Commandment.

Considering the long historical relationship between Buddhism and the profession of arms in many Asian societies, I find the alignment of Buddhism with strict pacifism somewhat presumptuous. While strict pacifism rests on a categorical rejection of violence, what has come to be known as the “just war” tradition rests on the mitigation of injustice by military force. In the West, the “just war” doctrine is usually associated with Saint Augustine, the seventh century theologian who argued that war could be a means toward a just end. Unfortunately, it was not long before the Christian church was using Saint Augustine to legitimize blood-thirsty wars, starting with the Crusades.

On the other hand, it was none other than Shaku Soen Zenji, the Japanese Buddhist monk credited with first introducing Zen to the West, who came closest to articulating a Buddhist “just war” doctrine. Just ten years after his influential address to the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago, he defended Japan’s participation in the Japanese-Russian War and served as a chaplain for Japanese soldiers fighting in Manchuria. In serving as a military chaplain, Shaku Soen was following a Japanese Buddhist tradition going back for centuries. In his words are strong echoes of Augustine: “War is an evil, and a great one indeed. But war against evil must be unflinchingly prosecuted until we reach the final aim.”

The history of Buddhism and the profession of arms begins, as it were, in the beginning, in the fourth century B.C.E. Before his monastic career, Prince Siddhartha was a practicing member of ancient India’s warrior caste, the Kshatriya. A century later, the great warrior-emperor Ashoka, the first Buddhist monarch, built a memorial stupa at the site of the training hall where the young prince drilled in the arts of warriorship. The various codes governing the profession of arms were already highly developed in the Buddha’s time. Some of these even included military rules of conduct with ethical guidelines limiting the use of force that resonate with current international human rights accords such as the Geneva Conventions. From the days of the great Indian epic the Mahabarata, the Kshatriya warrior class had been bound by the rules ofdharmavijaya, which included the protection of civilians and those no longer capable of resistance.

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