Buddhism & The Soldier
Major General Ananda Weerasekera

Different people have understood Buddhism differently. It is often debated whether Buddhism is a religion, philosophy or a way of life or not. Since Buddhism contains all these aspects one is justified in drawing any conclusion so long as one does not give an exclusive and rigid title. The Buddha-dhamma (Doctrine),as most of the scholars say , is a moral and philosophical system which expounds a unique path of enlightenment, and is not a subject to be studied from a mere academic standpoint. It is certainly to be studied, more to be practiced , and above all to be realized by oneself.

All the teachings of the Buddha deal, in one way or another with the path, known as The Noble Eightfold Path. It was the path realised and introduced by Buddha and it is as follows.

    • Right views
    • Right thought
    • Right speech
    • Right action
    • Right livelihood
    • Right effort
    • Right mindfulness
    • Right concentration

This is also known as the 'Middle Path', since in actual practice it avoids extremes. This Noble Eightfold Path is discussed in detail in the Buddhist Texts. It is sufficient to

state that it is a code of conduct clearly laid down by Buddha to all four sections of the Buddhist Society. That is Bikkhu (monks), Bikkhuni (nuns), Upasaka (laymen), Upasika (laywomen).

The deciples of the Buddha whether men or women belong to many walks of life from a King to a Servant. Whatever their civil status may be a code of conduct and moral obligations for each one has been clearly laid down by the Buddha. This code of conduct is collectively referred to as Virtue (seela) which encompasses disciplined speech, disciplined thought and controlled senses. A layman or a laywomen is advised to observe the five basic precepts as the minimum limit of their 'discipline' in the society. The limits of 'seela' are different for those who have renounced the lay life in search of liberation, The Nirvana.

However the five precepts are not commandments but aspirations voluntarily undertaken by each one. The first precept is to abstain from taking life. "The life", according to Buddhism covers the entire spectrum of living beings and are covered in 'Karaneeya Mettha Sutta' as follows.

    • Tasa-Tava:- moving, unmoving
    • Diga-long, Mahantha-large,
    • Majjima-medium,
    • Rassaka- short,
    • Anuka-minute, Thula- fat
    • Ditta-that can be seen,
    • Additta-that cannot be seen,
    • Dure-which live far,
    • Avidure-which live near
    • Bhuta-born,
    • Sambavesi- seeking birth

Buddha's teachings are quite clear in regard to the extent to which 'love & compassion' should expand,. 'Sabbe satta bhavanthu sukhitatta', ie. 'May all beings be happy' Buddha not only condemned the destruction of living beings as higher seela, he also condemned the destruction of the plant life. Buddhism being a 'way of life' where plant animal and human lives are protected ,how does one explain the 'destruction and suffering caused by war.'

War is violence, killing, destruction, blood and pain. Has Buddha accepted these? According to Buddha, the causes of war being greed, aversion and delusion are deep rooted in human mind. The milestones of the path being seela, samadhi and panna make the human being realize the causes that contribute to warfare and for the need for the eradication of same.

The Buddha said,

All tremble at violence, All fear death,
Comparing oneself with others
One Should neither kill nor  cause others to  Kill' (Dammapada)

Hence any form of violence is not acceptable . He further says,
' Victory breeds hatred
The defeated live in pain,
Happily the peaceful live,
Giving up victory and defeat (Dammapada)

Victory and Defeat are two sides of the coin of War. It is clear in Buddhism, what breeds in war whether it is victory or defeat.

Let us now deal with those having a direct involvement with War, The King or in today's context the Government and the soldier. Does Buddhism permit the State to build and foster an Army?. Can a good Buddhist be a soldier? and can he kill for the sake of the country? What about the 'Defence' of a country.? When a ruthless army invades a country, does Buddhism prohibit a Buddhist King to defend his country and his people? If Buddhism is a 'way of life,' is there any other way for a righteous king to battle against an invasion of an army.?

The Damma is a way of life based on Right Thought, Right Livelihood, Right Action etc. culminating in the supreme goal of Nibbana . However it is a gradual process of training and progressing on the path through one's long samsaric journey until one has fulfilled the necessery conditions and is ready to let go the cycle of birth decay and death. Hence, until then the King has to rule, the farmer has to farm, teacher has to teach, the trader has to trade and so on. But they are expected to do it the Buddhist way in order to help them progress on the path.

In 'chakkavatti- sihanada sutta' (The Lion's Roar on the Turning of Wheel) of the long discourses of the Buddha, Buddha justified the requirement of the king having an Army to provide guard, protection and security for different classes of people in the kingdom from internal and external threats. It refers to a Wheel Turning monarch named Dalhanemi, a righteous monarch of the law, conqueror of the four quarters who had established the security of his realm and was possessed of the seven treasures. He had more than 1000 sons who were heroes, of heroic stature, conquerors of the hostile army. Explaining the noble duties of a righteous king, Buddha also pointed out the advice given to the king in regard to his obligation to provide security for its people. The advisor tells the king " my son, yourself depending on the Dhamma, revering it, doing homage to it, and venerating it having the Dhamma as your badge and banner, acknowledging the Dhamma as your master, you should establish guard, ward and protection according to Dhamma for your own household, your troops in the Army, your nobles and vassals, for Brahmins and householders, town and countryfolk, ascetics and Brahmins, for beasts and birds. Let no crime prevail in your kingdom"

Explaining further the duties of a righteous king, Buddha states, "…Son, the people of your kingdom should from time to time come to you and consult you as to what is to be followed and what is not to be followed, what is wholesome and what not wholesome, and what action will in the long run lead to harm and sorrow, welfare and happiness. You should listen and tell them to avoid evil and to do what is good for the country. This sutta clearly indicates that Buddhism permits a king to have an army since a righteous king, who is also the commander of the army, knows, the righteous way to engage the army and to protect his people.

'Seeha Senapathi Sutta' of Anguttara Nikaya-5 shows how, one of the army commanders named 'Seeha' went to Buddha to clarify certain doubts on the Dhamma and how the Buddha advised him without requesting him to resign from the Army or to disband the army. Having clarified his doubts on the Dhamma, Commander Seeha requested Buddha to accept him as a deciple of the Buddha. But Buddha instead of advising him to resign from the army advised thus

'Seeha, it is proper for a popular person of your status to always think and examine when attending to affairs and making decisions ' Seeha, the commander became a sotapanna (stream enterer = first fruit of the Path) having listened to the Dhamma, but remained in the army as a commander.

In this instance too one could see that Buddha did not advise Seeha against the Army or being a commander of an Army, but only advised to discharge his duties the proper way.

King Ajasattu, had a unsatiable desire to conquer other kingdoms. He even murdered his father for the throne and aided Devadatta who was plotting to kill the Buddha. Once Ajasattu having decided to conquer the kingdom of Vajjians sent his chief minister Vassakara to Buddha to find out Buddha's views about his decision to conquer the Vajjians. Ajasttu wanted to know whether he will gain victory, cunningly using Buddha's ability to predict the future with accuracy.

Once the usual complimentary greetings were exchanged, between the Buddha and Vassakara and the purpose of his visit was made known, Buddha turned to his chief attendant Venerable Ananda with praise of the Vajjians and their noble democratic confederacy. Buddha further inquired from Venerable Ananda whether the Vajjians are strictly following the conditions of Dhamma NOT leading to decline as taught to the Vajjians by Buddha to which Ven. Ananda replied 'yes'.

Then Buddha turned to venerable Ananda and declared thus, "As long as they would continue on these lines, taught them by Buddha earlier at Vasali, they cannot be defeated and not expected to decline but to prosper." The shrewd minister drew his own conclusion that the Licchavis of vajji state could not be conquered in battle at that moment, but if their unity and alliance is broken they could be defeated and ran back to his king with this news. In fact Ajasattu defeated vajjians not even three years after the Buddha's death purely by shrewdly creating disunity amongst the rulers of the Vajjians

Numerous conclusions could be drawn from this story too. Buddha knew that both States did have strong armies and that they are needed for the protection of their people. Buddha did not advice minister Vassakara that the concept on 'Army' is against Buddhism and that he should advice the king not to declare war against Vajjis but to desolve the army. Buddha at this instance also brought up important lessons in 'state craft.' It helped the crafty minister to adopt a different strategy to invade Vajji State, by using psychological approach first and then the physical assault next. Further, by having a conversation with Venerable Ananda Buddha indicated to minister Vassakara that even though king Ajasasattu has a mighty strong army, and have conquered several states he will not be able to defeat Licchavis so long as they adhere to the said noble policies. It is also an indirect advice to king Ajatasattu that it is in order having an army but that army will not be able to conquer people with virtuous qualities. It was also an indication to Ajasattu that he too should be a righteous king with an army where no other king could defeat him, by adhering to the said policies which will not lead a society to decline. These policies are referred to as 'saptha aparihani dhamma' and they are as follows:

  • Having meetings and assemblies frequently.
  • Rulers assembling in harmony, conducting their affairs in harmony and dispersing in harmony.
  • Adhering to the accepted ancient noble traditions and not extirpating the accepted established norms and traditions by introducing new laws.
  • Respecting the elders, worshiping them, consulting them, and believing that they must be listened to.
  • Respecting and protecting the women folk and not living with them forcibly or molesting them.
  • Paying respect to all internal and external places of worship, paying homage to those worthy of veneration and continue to make spiritual offerings traditionally done.

Soldiering was accepted by the Buddha as a noble profession.The soldier was known as " Rajabhata." Buddha did not permit rajabata to become monks whilst in service as a soldier.

Once Sidhartha Gauthama's father, king Suddhodana came to Buddha and complained,

"Gauthama Buddha, my son, when you were the most suitable for the throne of a Sakvithi King, you left all of us and became a monk. Then you insulted me by begging for meals, walking house to house along the streets in my own town. The relatives laughed at me and they insulted me. Now you are trying to destroy my Army."

" Why " the Buddha asked. " What has happened to your great Army, my father."

Then the king answered," Can't you see, my soldiers are deserting the army one by one and joining your group as monks."

" why are they becoming monks, great king and why are they leaving the Army." Asked Buddha.

" Can't you see " the king answered. " They know that when they become monks they get free food, free clothes, free accommodation and respected by all."

Buddha smiled and requested the king to go back to the Palace and said that he will settle the issue. Buddha then promulgated a law ( Vinaya ) for the monks to the effect that, No soldier could become a monk whilst in military service. This law is still valid to date. Accordingly even today unless a soldier is legally discharged from the army or unless a soldier retires legitimately, he is NOT ordained as a monk and will not be accepted into the order of monks. This ensures that soldiers do not desert the army even to join the Buddhist order.

Further in terms of the Vinaya ( the code of conduct for monks) monks permitted to visit the battle field but they were ordered to return before the sunset. Permission was also given to visit the injured relatives in the battlefield.

Further whilst the expressly referred to five occupations as unrighteous Soldiering is not included amongst those.

The Buddha once describing the qualities of a good monk, compared those to the essential qualities of a good king to be as follows:

  • Pure decent
  • Great wealth
  • Strong army
  • Wise ministers
  • Glory

Once at the city of Savatti, Buddha describing five types of monks in comparison to the five types of soldiers in the world, (A.iii, duthiya yodhajeevupama sutta ) classified the soldiers as follows:-

  • A soldier who enters the battle field armed with sword and shield, bow and arrows and who gets himself killed by the enemy during battle. This is the first type of soldier.
  • A soldier who enters the battle field bravely armed with sword and shield, bow and arrows but gets injured during battle and taken to his close relatives. But he dies on the way before he reaches his relatives. This is the second type of soldier.
  • Soldier who enters the battlefield bravely armed with sword and shield, bow and arrows, gets injured and having taken to his close relatives, receives medical treatment with care. But he dies with the same ailment although he was surrounded by relatives. This is the third type of soldier.
  • Soldier who enters the battlefield bravely armed with sword and shield, bow and arrows, gets injured and having taken to his close relatives, receives medical treatment with care. He recovers from the injury. This is the fourth type of soldier.
  • Soldier who enters the battlefield bravely armed with armourments destroys and defeats the enemy. Having won the battle he remains in the battlefront victoriously. This is the fifth type of soldier.

Similarly in ' patama yodhajeevacupama sutta' Buddha explains five types of soldiers or warriors.

  • Type -1- Tremble with fear, unsteady, afraid to get into the battlefield by seeing the dust and clouds created by fighting men, animals and vehicles.
  • Type - 2 - Could withstand the dust and clouds. But tremble with fear, unsteady, afraid to get into the battlefield by seeing the Standards and Banners of the enemy.
  • Type-3- Could withstand dust and clouds, the sight of the enemy Standards and Banners But tremble with fear, unsteady, afraid to get into the battlefield by hearing the frightening noises and the battle cries in the field.
  • Type- 4 - could withstand dust and clouds, Standards and Banners of the enemy, the noises and the battle cries But Tremble with fear, unsteady, afraid to get into the battlefield by a small attack by the enemy.
  • Type -5- could withstand dust and clouds, Standards and Banners of the enemy, the noises and the battle cries. He fights back and wins his battle. Having won, he victoriously enjoys the fruits seven days staying in the middle of the battlefield.

When the Buddha recognized a strong army as an essential requirement of the king he was also aware that the Commander in Chief of the Army was also the king of the country and that a strong Army four main divisions, then known as 'the caturangani sena', consisting of Cavalry (horses), Elephant force, Armed vehicles and the Infantry, each having its own functions in battle.

His knowledge of the battlefield is so evident for the similis frequently quoted by him from the battlefield. In Akkhama sutta of Anguttara Nikaya Buddha compares five weak qualities of elephants selected to go into battle with that of 5 weak qualities of monks proceeding through the battle of 'Liberation.'

In the Sutta the Buddha says, An elephant belonging to the 'caturangani sena' [four divisions of the Army of the ruler] will not be suitable if , it get frightened, trembles, unable to control and withdraws,

  • merely by the sight of other elephants, horses, military vehicles and soldiers in the battle field,
  • merely by hearing noises and sounds of the battle cries of elephants, horses, infantry and worrier drums in the field,
  • merely by the body smell and the smell of urine etc of other majestic elephants in the battle field,
  • merely for not getting its food and water for one day or few days in the battle field.

From the above it is clear that contrary to the popular belief the Buddha has not rejected or prohibited soldiering as a profession or occupation and the right of a king or a government to have an army and to defend one's country and its people. In the contrary the Buddha has expressly recognized the necessity for a king to have an army and providing protection to the subjects of a country has been recognized as a prime duty of the king .

The Buddha in his wisdom did not expect a nation or the rulers to be lame ducks in the wake of an enemy invasion. However Buddha's expectations from one who is training to be an Arhant whether monk or layman are different and it should not be mistaken with the Buddha's expectations from the laity burdened with numerous worldly responsibilities. It is also because the Buddha in his wisdom did not expect every 'Buddhist' to opt for Arahantship nor to become an ascetic renouncing the worldly affairs. To the majority Buddhism is a way of life rather than a faith, philosophy, or a religion.

However it should be stressed that a soldier like all others is subject to the law of Kamma and will not escape the Kammic fruits of "taking the Life"of a sentient being (panatipatha) even though he may have had the overall noble intention of protecting his country and his people.

While killing may be inevitable in a long and successful army career opportunities for merit too is unlimited for a disciplined and conscientious soldier.

A disciplined soldier fights his enemy in accordance with the best of traditions and norms maintained by an army. He doesn't kill a defenseless person. A good soldier provides medical treatment to the injured enemy captured. He doesn't kill prisoners of war, children, women or the aged. A disciplined soldier destroys his enemy only when his or the lives of his comrades are in danger.

Soldier is one who thrives for peace within because he is one who realizes the pain of his own wounds. He is one who sees the bloody destruction of war, the dead, the suffering etc. Hence his desire to bring peace to himself as well as to the others by ending the war as soon as possible. He not only suffers during the war but even after the war. The painful memories of the battles he fought linger in him making his aspire for true and lasting peace within and without. Hence the common phenomenon of transformation of brutal kings having an insatiable desire to conquer to incomparable and exemplary righteous kings such as Drarmasoka king of Mourian dynasty of India.