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.

The monastic rules of the Vinaya prohibited monks from direct military service, or even observing military exercises. Yet, insofar as war is one of the greatest causes of human suffering, it was regarded as a legitimate concern by the Buddha. He demonstrated numerous times that he was willing to address war as a political and social reality. For instance, the Buddha stopped a great battle between his own clan, the Shakyas, and their adversaries, the Koliyans. He is recorded as advising the Warrior King Yoddhajiva that death in battle was not a path to salvation, and discussing with King Prasenadi of Koshala the similarities of monastic and military discipline.

Beginning with the conversion of the Indian emperor Ashoka in the third century B.C.E., a significant factor in the spread of Buddhism across Asia was the sponsorship of the dharma by the warrior class in various Asian societies, especially in societies at the height of their military prowess. However, although many kings and soldiers followed Ashoka’s example by becoming monks later in life, there are no historical examples of rulers subjecting their realms to unilateral disarmament after embracing Buddhism.

Mural in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Courtesy Lawrence P. Rockwood.
Mural in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Courtesy Lawrence P. Rockwood.

There is a very important historic distinction, however subtle, between the ethical basis for use of force in Buddhist societies as compared with those of the West. This distinction is very evident if one compares the role that the first Buddhist monarch, Emperor Ashoka, played in the spread of Buddhism to the role that the first Christian monarch, the Roman Emperor Constantine, played in the spread of Christianity. After spending the greater portions of their lives as military leaders, both emperors issued broad edicts of religious tolerance. However, while Constantine’s edict failed to stop the cycle of religious wars that began with his death and lasted for a thousand years, Ashoka’s edicts of nonviolence and tolerance survived him and are still influential to this day.

Ashoka’s edict succeeded in establishing an ethical tradition that, while not outlawing war, at least did not sanction the use of aggressive military force for the sole purpose of religious proselytization. Even though Ashoka himself did not completely dismiss the use of force and even retained the death penalty in extreme cases, Mahatma Gandhi pointed to Ashoka as his predecessor in his mission of nonviolence.

In China, Buddhism reached its cultural zenith under the patronage of the Tang Dynasty, a dynasty renowned for sustaining peace and prosperity by means of efficient military strength and organization. Remarkably, one of the main threats to the security of the Tang Empire was the expansion of Tibetan military influence in the seventh and eighth centuries under the Tibetan Yarlung Dynasty, the very same dynasty that was simultaneously introducing Buddhism to Tibet. Centuries later, the Tibetans skillfully converted the aggressively warlike Mongolians to Buddhism.

In Japan the military class influenced the development of Buddhism. The samurai military class aided the Zen, Pure Land, and Nichirin schools of Buddhism in shifting the balance of power away from the older Tendai and Shingon esoteric schools. Similarly, in Southeast Asia the triumph of the Theravada school over the Mahayana traditions of Buddhism was in part due to the sponsorship and the military conquests of the eleventh-century Burmese king Anawrahta.

The relationship between Buddhism and the profession of arms has not been limited to Buddhist warriors and monarchs, however; it has also included Buddhist scholars and philosophers. In the Mahayana tradition Buddhist masters often gave advice on what they considered the ethical use of military force. For example, the great second century Indian philosopher, Nagarjuna, counseled his royal disciple, King Udayi, on the need for a ruler to secure his domain from the threat of banditry. At that point in history, this would have been more of a military operation than a police action. The Mahayana philosopher Asanga even argued that it is ethical to forcibly overthrow a monarch who has tortured his subjects.

Western adherents of my own Vajrayana tradition often appear to overlook the fact that there were both secular and monastic military organizations in Tibet before the Chinese invasion. The monastic soldiers, called dobdos, belonged to a special class of monks who defended the three main Gelugpa monasteries in central Tibet. Traveling in India and Nepal a few years ago, I discovered that even today Gelugpa monks serve in special (all-Tibetan) frontier forces of the Army of the Republic of India. While I do not claim to be in any position to judge the doctrinal correctness of such monastic military practices, they do point to a view of the military profession that I have not found among Buddhist practitioners and scholars in the West. Even Sulak Sivaraksa—the renowned exiled Thai Buddhist peace activist who has opposed the repressive actions of the military leadership in Thailand and criticized the support that the military has received from the Buddhist hierarchy there—has called for the creation of an international military organization comprised of a permanent international peacekeeping force.

A real danger exists when a society is not willing to address military issues. This is especially true in a democratic society, where responsibility extends to each individual citizen. Too often the false cloak of righteousness can be used to mask what is really an indifference to the suffering of others. A horrendous example of this was the peace celebrations in the United States in 1972 when, even as “our” boys were coming home, there was nothing even approaching peace in Southeast Asia. The massive genocide about to burst forth on the “killing fields” of Cambodia would soon make it evident that what we were really celebrating was the distance between us and a war in which we retracted from further responsibility.

In general, peace movements and peace initiatives too often center on the prevention of war rather than focusing on the suffering of those already caught in the hell of war. War is to peace as sickness is to health. Just as it would be unfeeling for health care professionals to work only on the prevention of illness and not its treatment, I suggest that dealing only with the prevention of war and not the conduct of war is an inadequate approach to the suffering of war. Until just recently, the indifference of our Western societies gave a green light for the conduct of a genocidal war in Bosnia. The position the West now plays in the post-cold war world reminds me of an armed man sitting in hotel room with a loaded pistol hesitating to go to the aid of a woman being murdered in the next room. The fact that he is not sure whether he should be holding a pistol does not relieve him of his immediate obligation to go to the defense of his neighbor.

In any ethical consideration of war, Buddhist or otherwise, it is critical to examine the deliberate destruction of civilian populations in modern war, despite international treaties such as the Geneva Conventions. The introduction of personal firearms—which increased the distance between combatants—was a first step toward the depersonalization of one’s enemy. Over the last century aviation and the creation of weapons of mass destruction have increased that distance so far that we can no longer even see one another. To a military operator engaging a target, aircrafts, tanks, and even cities appear as nothing more than computer-generated symbols lacking humanity or physical existence.

I am not singing a song of nostalgia for ancient warfare. Even with ethical codes such as the Kshatriy and dharmavijaya of the Buddha’s time, atrocities were far too common. However, the history of the last century testifies to the fact that passing the colors from the more aggressive and selfless warriors of the past to the more collectivized and functionary soldiers of modern times has not been an occasion for celebrating the human race.


His Holiness, Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, once said, “Even in warfare, it is better to be aware of the suffering of others and our own discomfort for causing them pain. Warfare is killing. It is 100 percent negative. The way it is mechanized today is even worse. Where warfare remains ‘humanized,’ I mean where it remains in touch with true human feelings, it is much safer.” The Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who personally witnessed the horrors of Vietnam, wrote, “You cannot just separate people and say some are violent and some are not. That is why people with love, compassion, and nonviolence should be everywhere, even in the Pentagon, in order to encourage nonviolent attitudes within those we think are our enemies.” As war becomes more of a campaign against economies and societies instead of battles between armies, the truth becomes obvious that today it is the unarmed civilian who has become the primary target in military conflicts. It is now completely acceptable to sacrifice a multitude of an enemy nation’s women and children in order to save even a mere handful of our own soldiers. We are truly in a post-heroic period of military history.

In September of 1994, I landed in Haiti with the Multinational Forces sent to provide a safe and secure environment for the return of democracy. Concerned with human rights violations occurring in the proximity of U.S. forces and having realized that my superiors had no immediate plans to stop the abuses, I attempted to conduct an unauthorized survey of prisoners held in the National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince and was court-martialed for doing it.

The Army initially tried to discount my efforts as the actions of an oddity—a Buddhist oddity—who probably should not have been serving as an intelligence officer during a military operation in the first place. I disagree. The problem was not that I tried to bring alien beliefs into the military, as if I imagined that Buddhists held a monopoly on ethics or morality. My actions were based on American military tradition and international law, which, coincidentally, complement rather than detract from the ethical principles of my spiritual faith. Thankfully, due to the support of my case by organizations such as PAX Christi (the Catholic Peace Movement), the Friends Service Committee, and Catholic Workers, and by many ministers, rabbis, priests, bishops, and nuns, the Army wisely decided to drop all references to religion in their case against me. Sentenced to dismissal from the Army rather than prison by a military court-martial last May, I am appealing my conviction for disobedience and insubordination on principles of superior international law. I will remain on active duty until the final review of my case by the Secretary of the Army and Court of Military Appeals.

The Buddha counseled his followers to accept the world as it is, while at the same time, using every means at our disposal to relieve the suffering of others. George Bernard Shaw said: “The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: that’s the essence of inhumanity.” These words apply to those who hate wars, those who fight them, and those who do both.

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