Armed conflict is when one party or more exercises force against the other(s). However, a party’s resort to violence in times of war must not be unlimited; rather, moderation is required. Armed conflicts are governed by a set of rules and principles known as the Law of Armed Conflict, or international humanitarian law (IHL) which imposes duties on parties to armed conflict, seeking to limit the suffering caused by war. At the core of these rules is a balance between humanity and military necessity, with proportionality one of the fundamental principles of IHL. IHL acts as a bridge between warring parties, providing a middle point of compromise from which efforts to reduce human suffering can transcend the conflict. Humanitarian organisations who monitor armed actors’ compliance with IHL must do so from an objective perspective, observing the conduct of all parties to the conflict. The present paper explores the compatibility of these features of IHL with Middle Way teachings in Buddhism. This paper pursues a greater understanding of the interface between Buddhism and IHL, under the assumption that doing so can bolster IHL compliance and ultimately reduce suffering in armed conflicts.

IHL was inaugurated with the first Geneva Convention of 1864, but the majority of its laws, provisions and norms are found in the four universally ratified Geneva Conventions of 1949. IHL covers two major areas: 1) protecting those who are not, or no longer, taking part in fighting; and 2) restricting the means and methods of warfare. At present, almost every country has agreed to comply with the formally enshrined rules of IHL through ratification of the aforementioned conventions. However, the legal applicability of IHL extends beyond treaty law as all states are bound by the uncodified obligations of customary international law. This includes, among many others, obligations to distinguish between civilians and civilian objects on the one hand, and combatants and military objectives on the other; the prohibition of indiscriminate attacks; the prohibition of the use of starvation as a method of warfare; and the requirement of proportionality in attack at all times (Henckaerts and Doswald-Beck 2005). Through the conventions and their additional protocols as well as customary international law, IHL forms a universal body of law today (ICRC 2004).

IHL’s relatively short history is far eclipsed by the teachings attributed to the Buddha. Some may suggest that IHL has roots in Buddhism, along with other ancient civilisations and religions (Bartles-Smith et al. 2021). However, one uncontested truth is that principles of IHL and Buddhism regularly interface and overlap. Indeed, their core objectives of alleviating suffering are aligned, with IHL seeking to reduce the suffering caused in warfare, and the teachings of Buddhism to reduce suffering at all times (M.I.140). One key convergence between IHL and Buddhist teachings, which this article seeks to highlight, is the Buddhist ‘Middle Way’ philosophy. A critical understanding of the Middle Way, and dialogue between it and principles of IHL, can help alleviate suffering in times of war.

Buddhism’s ‘Middle Way’

The entire teaching of the Buddha is reducible to the aphorism of the Middle Way teaching (majjhimā desanā) and Middle Way practice (majjhimā paṭipadā) (Karunadasa 2015: 17-18). In terms of dependent arising (paṭiccasamuppāda), Buddhism refers to the Middle Way philosophy, and in terms of the noble eightfold path (ariyo aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo) to the Middle Way practice. In other words, the former refers to the dialectical (apoha) thought, and the latter to its practice. From a Buddhist perspective, a Middle Way approach to opposites, accessed through meaningful insight, facilitates their practical integration, resulting in peace and harmony. Otherwise, for instance, suffering and the cessation of suffering will remain not only conceptual but contradictory as long as one hates the former and demands the latter. However, discernment of suffering from a multidimensional perspective transforms suffering into insightful knowledge (pariññāta) of suffering which results in confidence and self-reliance (dukkhūpanisā saddhā). This transformation leads to a process of experiencing cessation of suffering (S.II.31, Bhikkhu Bodhi 2000: 555). The more one is mature in this understanding, the more one lets and makes others experience the same. It is along these lines that compassion in action functions as selfless practice.

What Buddhism suggests in terms of the Middle Way practice is dialectical behaviour (apohacaraṇa) led by three major factors, namely right understanding (sammā diṭṭhi), right effort (sammā vāyāma) and right mindfulness (sammā sati). The more one understands suffering, the more one becomes mindful of giving space around it so that one becomes more open-minded by initiating wholesome understanding, wholesome efforts and wholesome mindfulness that make one’s behaviour increasingly selfless. It is significant that this practice is conducive to transforming the wrong to the right and the unwholesome to the wholesome. The entire Middle Way is a graduated training, action and practice perfecting one’s affective (saṃvedana), cognitive (saṃjānana) and conative (saṃcetana) domains. The other aspects of the path, namely right and wholesome thought, speech, action, livelihood, concentration, knowledge and emancipation are governed by the aforementioned three principal factors (namely right understanding, right effort and right mindfulness) which make the entire practice ethically edifying and practically useful (M.III.71-76, Bhikkhu Bodhi 1995: 934-940)

The Middle Way teaching rests on the precept that nothing has its own nature. For example, lines are only long or short lines in relation to one another. When ignorance and craving are present, so is suffering. In other words, everything is dependent, relative and empty of self-nature (Kalupahana, [1991] 1999). Hence it is Middle Way philosophy within which boundless sublime qualities like loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity are practicable.

Moreover, the path of the Middle Way represents not only the means to an end but also a transformation of the end to the means. That is how the noble path is declared as the wheel of Dhamma (dhammacakka) that one is supposed to set in motion for the purpose of ending one’s suffering (Vin.I.8-11, S.V.420-423). The entire Middle Way practice consists of a wholesome cognitive transformation and physical, verbal and mental development. As a result, the process of conceiving of identities in terms of mine, me, and myself will cease to continue. In other words, the birth of the identity ‘I’ will stop. When such an identity is not given ‘birth’, the question of decaying, dying, being agitated or envying with regard to it is not valid (M.III.237-246). This nibbāna-oriented Middle Way is boundless throughout practice as a path of peace in which the ‘end’ is transformed into means. It is in this sense the statement, that ‘there is no path to peace, peace is the path’ is meaningful. The preposition, ‘to’, postpones peace to a future time. The Middle Way practice brings peace to the present moment, hence it is the path of peace.

The Middle Way teaching does not suggest a middle position as such. Nor does it mean that one should make a compromise between extremes, mix a little from opposites, or deny them completely to find a Middle Way (Karunadasa 2015: 17ff.). Rather, it is a cyclically operating dynamic network bringing about peace and harmony. It is a process of developing insight into extremes or opposites to find an integration of them as a result of one’s critical response to them. For example, take the opposite concepts of birth and death. The birth that gives us suffering is understood in the Buddha’s teaching from a psychological perspective as the birth of ‘mine, me, and myself’ — ownership, i.e. craving. The psychological victory over this identity and related suffering is to experience birthlessness of ‘I’. If one’s identity is no longer being born (ajāyamāno) one is no longer subject to either decaying (ajīyamāno) or dying (amīyamāno) in the ordinary sense of these terms (M.III.246). The very moment of birthlessness is one’s experience of deathlessness. Integration of opposites, represented in the dialectical behaviour with regard to the Middle Way practice should be understood along these lines.

Similarly, the Buddha teaches that the opposites of war and peace should be viewed through Middle Way philosophy. Generally, we dislike war and love peace, making them diametrically opposite. Insight into war without hating it; however, opens a new dimension for discussion and dialogue within which we uncover the practice of peace in a present moment.

A Middle Way perspective within IHL

Though Buddhism encourages non-violence (ahiṃsā), its teachings also have relevance to the conduct of armed conflicts (ICRC 2020). Principles and values that echo the Buddha’s Middle Way philosophy punctuate IHL and its implementation:

Balance – IHL strikes a careful balance between humanitarian concerns and the military requirements of states and non-state parties to armed conflict (Bartles-Smith et al. 2021). The main mechanism through which balance is incorporated in IHL is through the cardinal principle of proportionality. Proportionality is the notion that loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, must not be excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage (Rule 14, Henckaerts and Doswald-Beck 2005). In any armed conflict the right of the Parties to choose methods or means of warfare is therefore not unlimited (API, Art 35.1). Armed actors are prohibited from employing weapons, projectiles and methods of warfare of a nature to cause superfluous injuries or unnecessary suffering (API, Art 35.2) (Bouvier 2015). The principle of proportionality thus imposes a degree of moderation and limitation during armed conflict. Furthermore, it concords with the principle of relativity that the Buddhist Middle Way teaching rests upon.

Compromise The compromise between conflicting extremes evident in the Buddha’s Middle Way teachings is a crucial process deployed in IHL as well. The Buddhist path of peace through understanding the relativity of two extremes can be understood in parallel with IHL’s approach to universal and equal application of humanitarian norms for opposing armed groups. IHL encourages a middle course through which armed groups can limit the suffering of war. The polarisation of opposites is acknowledged in both Buddhism and IHL as antithetical to peace.


IHL is applicable to all in times of armed conflict. A breach of IHL by an individual may result in a criminal investigation and ultimately conviction by either domestic or international judicial entities. Conversely, for Buddhist practitioners the precepts within the Middle Way practice are mere training rules. Failure to observe or transgression of them gives an individual the opportunity to humbly accept and be alert to one’s failure and re-observe the precepts. As far as ordained members are concerned, they are supposed to observe both minor and major precepts promulgated by the Buddha to be accepted as monks or nuns. Breach of their precepts leads to a punitive process according to their code of discipline.

Although the Middle Way practice in the Buddha’s teaching and the middle position of application of IHL are of different directions and purposes, a critical understanding of both will contribute to the promotion of procedures related to reducing suffering and achieving peace when minor or major conflicts erupt in society.



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PTS editions accessible through the Chaṭṭha Saṅgāyanā Tipiṭaka, Version 4.0 (CST4) — The PaliTipitaka.



D         Dīghanikāya

ICRC   International Committee of the Red Cross

M         Majjhimanikāya

S          Saṃyuttanikāya

Vin      Vinaya


Dr. Sumana Ratnayaka has been a Senior Lecturer, and has B.A. Honors from University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka, and M.Litt. from University of Oxford, U.K. Mr. Ratnayaka teaches and researches on early Buddhism, Buddhist philosophy, and Pali. He obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Peradeniya in 2018. His Ph.D. thesis was titled “Mindfulness: An Exploratory Study of Buddhist Meditation in Sri Lanka”. At the age of fifteen, he volunteered to become a novice monk, and received full ordination in 1974. Having been a Buddhist monk for over twenty-five years, he disrobed in 1993 and started his graduate studies at Oxford University.