What guidance can Buddhism provide to those involved in armed conflict, and to belligerents who must perhaps kill or be killed, or defend their families, communities or countries from attack? How, moreover, does Buddhism compare with international humanitarian law (IHL) – otherwise known as the law of armed conflict – which protects non-combatants and restricts the means and methods of warfare in order to limit the suffering it causes?
Despite the prevalence of armed conflict in parts of the Buddhist world, few contemporary studies have addressed these questions. While there is a wealth of material on Buddhist conflict prevention and resolution, remarkably little attention has been paid to what Buddhism says about the actual conduct of war. IHL is also still relatively little known in the Buddhist world, and might not therefore influence the behavior of belligerents who self-identify as Buddhists and are perhaps more likely to be guided by Buddhist principles.
It was for these reasons that in 2017 the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), whose mandate is to assist and protect victims of armed conflict and to promote respect for IHL, launched a project on Buddhism and IHL. Having reached out to Buddhist clergy, scholars, legal experts, and military and humanitarian actors around the world, the first phase of the project culminated in an international conference titled ‘Reducing Suffering During Armed Conflict: The Interface Between Buddhism and International Humanitarian Law’ in Dambulla, Sri Lanka, in 2019. It was here that the first drafts of the articles that comprise this volume were presented. A substantial co-written article with the same name (Bartles-Smith et al. 2020), an early draft of which served as the position paper for the conference, was also published in the previous volume of Contemporary Buddhism (21: 1–2), staking out the territory with regard to the study of both Buddhism and IHL and its potential practical applications.
This volume and the project of which it is a part has a number of aims. Firstly, it identifies correspondences between Buddhism and IHL by examining Buddhist teachings and concepts relevant to the conduct of war with which Buddhist belligerents might be more familiar. Insofar as Buddhism and IHL align, and Buddhist principles correspond with IHL rules, this should help to legitimize and improve compliance with IHL in Buddhist-majority contexts, and might be integrated into IHL education and military training programs. While militaries in Buddhist-majority countries have often adopted Western training models, this project offers the possibility that Buddhist combatants might also draw on a Buddhist legacy of restraint in war. Moreover, Buddhist clergy in many countries are often highly respected by their communities, governments, military personnel and non-state armed group members, and Buddhist guidance with respect to conduct of hostilities, and by extension IHL, can therefore be significantly enhanced through them.
Beyond correspondences between IHL and Buddhist principles, this volume also explores how Buddhist practices and psychological resources might be directed to improve voluntary compliance with IHL and equivalent Buddhist or humanitarian norms, thereby bridging the disconnect between IHL and its implementation to some degree. The Buddhist focus on the training of the mind, and its remarkable mindfulness techniques, hold out the possibility that military training might be enhanced to heighten resilience, self-control and situational awareness of the battlespace in high-stress conflict situations, better equipping combatants to act with precision and restraint.
A first milestone was achieved when Professor Peter Harvey, Professor P. D. Premasiri and Professor Asanga Tilakaratne wrote the initial drafts of position papers on the subject. This established a framework for research as it subsequently developed, and which informed the position paper and call for papers for the Dambulla conference. The articles in this volume have been reviewed and refined over the intervening period by project working group members, the editorial team of Contemporary Buddhism and IHL experts. Apart from Buddhist and legal scholars, they include contributions from humanitarian and other practitioners, and are not an exclusively academic endeavor.
The volume opens with an introductory article on Buddhism and IHL by Andrew Bartles-Smith, which outlines much of the rationale for the project and compares and contrasts the normative systems of Buddhism and IHL, including the just war roots from which IHL emerged. The article then identifies aspects of Buddhism most pertinent to the regulation of armed conflict, including the training of military personnel, and explores the degree to which Buddhism and IHL might complement and reinforce one another to humanize the conduct of war.
The first section of the volume, Situating Buddhism in Relation to IHL, contains articles that lay down some of the groundwork on the topic. It opens with an article by Peter Harvey, who argues that Buddhist compassion and concern to limit the bad karmic consequences of one’s actions mean that it is in the interest of Buddhist combatants to regulate their intention and minimize the harm they inflict during armed conflict strictly in accordance with IHL principles of humanity, military necessity, distinction, proportionality and precaution. Harvey explains that while IHL lays down rules to be followed, Buddhism emphasizes broader ethical principles and motivations that can be incorporated into military training and contribute to better IHL compliance.
P. D. Premasiri concurs that the fundamental principles of Buddhist ethics underline the minimization of suffering during war, and reflects on the inner roots of armed conflict. Focusing on the realm of political ethics, Premasiri examines Buddhist ideals of statecraft with respect to the conduct of war in Pali texts, and highlights examples of Buddhist restraint in the jātaka tales and stories about the god Sakka, as well as the edicts of emperor Ashoka and the Sri Lankan Mahāvaṃsa chronicle.
Asanga Tilakaratne argues that in the context of war, as elsewhere, ethical expectations for monastics aiming to achieve enlightenment or liberation from saṃsāra should be distinguished from those of lay Buddhist belligerents with the lesser ambition of achieving better rebirths within it. Lay Buddhists must pragmatically balance Buddhist ideals with their worldly responsibilities, not least to defend their loved ones, communities and countries from attack. Tilakaratne argues that acts that are ‘meritorious’ (puñña) by worldly standards, although skillful (kusala) to a degree, are not therefore the same as a nirvana-seeker’s kusala acts. Buddhism therefore understands that defensive or protective war, while unfortunate, is sometimes necessary, and that lay Buddhist belligerents must balance Buddhist and humanitarian ideals with military goals, in line with IHL.
Daniel Ratheiser and Sunil Kariyakarawana examine the apparent paradox between Buddhism and the military. By drawing on canonical Buddhist teachings as well as voices from the Sangha and Buddhist military practitioners, they challenge the idea that serving in the military is necessarily at odds with Buddhist ideas of ahiṃsā, karma and skillful (kusala) action. They then explore what guidance Buddhist teachings provide to soldiers and its implications for military training, arguing that Buddhism endorses the maintenance of disciplined, virtuous and skilled military forces to defend what is good.
Drawing on examples from the Sutta Piṭaka, Elizabeth Harris shows that, contrary to popular perception, the Pali texts of early Buddhism such as the Cakkavatti-sīhanāda Sutta (Dn.26), Mahā-dukkha-kkhandha Sutta (Mn.13) and Mahā-nidāna Sutta (Dn.15) are characterized by an empirical realism that is deeply acquainted with the grim realities of war. They also contain a sophisticated analysis of the psychological and societal causes of armed conflict and its intractable nature, and how greed, hatred and delusion produce different constructions of reality in human communities that are fed by papañca, or proliferating thought. Harris shows how these constructions exacerbate the bitterness of armed conflict and increase the likelihood that parties to conflict might resist compliance with IHL or hamper the work of humanitarian actors.
Diane Denis’s article explores the interface of IHL with the Dharmadharmatā-vibhāga (DDV), an ancient North Indian Mahāyāna Buddhist text often associated with the Yogācāra school. It explores how such texts can provide insight into the nature of the universal principles that IHL is said to embody, and how they might relate to the inner workings of the individual consciousness in relation to armed conflict, informing both the individual and collective concerns of IHL. According to the DDV, the nature of all living organisms is fundamental wisdom or intelligence which is inseparable from compassion, and Denis explores how these ideas might develop individual willingness to care for others and behave ethically even during armed conflict.
The second section of the volume, The Military and the Conduct of War, focuses on Buddhist guidance for combatants in particular, and how Buddhism might contribute to improving the conduct of hostilities. It opens with an article by Dharmacārin Siṃhanāda, who examines the idea of the Buddhist Soldier, viewed by some as something of a contradiction given the centrality of non-violence or non-harming (ahiṃsā) to Buddhism. Rather than look to examples of how Buddhist principles might apply within the military context, Siṃhanāda adopts a Madhyamaka approach to seek an understanding of what it might mean to be a Buddhist soldier using Buddhist conceptual tools.
Vishakha Wijenayake examines how both Buddhism and IHL encourage reciprocal restraint during armed conflict, not least to protect the lives of combatants themselves. She examines Buddhist teachings in this regard alongside IHL, particularly the narratives of the jātaka stories, and looks in particular at how unnecessary risk to combatants is mitigated through the IHL rule of surrender, which is endorsed in the Seyya Jātaka (no. 282).
Noel Trew investigates how Zen kōan practice, a form of meditation involving short stories or riddles to focus attention, might help alleviate the notoriously difficult problem of applying IHL to targeting in practice, since compliance requires combatants to correctly understand what is happening in the battlespace. He argues that kōan practice can better prepare combatants to make important decisions based on ambiguous information, and to correct errors in their thinking or perception, thereby helping them to cut through the fog of war.
Siege warfare is as old as civilization and still a depressingly frequent feature of contemporary warfare. Nishara Mendis draws on the Ummagga Jātaka (no. 546) and Asātarūpa Jātaka (no. 100) to examine how Buddhist ethics might support IHL to regulate siege warfare and prevent the intentional starvation of civilians, and argues that the complexity of these ancient case studies suggests their potential use in legal or military training and education.
The third section of the volume, Minimising Harm and Practical Values, focuses on specific Buddhist qualities, concepts and practices relevant to the practical minimization of harm during armed conflict. Alex Wakefield first explores how the Buddhist quality of khanti/kṣānti – patience, forbearance or tolerance – can support IHL by reducing unskillful behavior during war. Since khanti is the opposite of hatred and anger, and encompasses non-retaliation and forgiveness, it is particularly relevant to the conduct of war, negating anger and the consequent loss of self-control that can lead to the use of excessive force, including atrocities motivated by victimhood and revenge. Wakefield argues that brahma-vihāra meditations can be used to develop khanti, and can be combined with mettā practice and anattā analysis to reinforce military training and IHL compliance.
Bhagya Samarakoon examines how the Buddhist quality of appamāda or ‘heedfulness’, mentioned several times in the Buddha’s sermons and in his last words, can contribute to restraint in warfare and reduction of collateral damage. This is particularly important since the decision to proceed with an attack that could cause harm to civilians is dependent on the perceptions, values and good faith of the military commander in the specific instance, and is highly relevant to the IHL principle of precaution. She argues that the concept has a moral dimension that is useful in decision-making for Buddhists engaged in warfare, and can be transmitted through both sermons and meditation.
Christina Kilby presents abhaya-dāna, ‘the gift of fearlessness’, as a Buddhist framework for the protection of populations who are vulnerable to violence, terror or displacement during times of armed conflict. Although it is an ancient Indian idea rarely invoked by Buddhists today, she argues that abhaya-dāna is a vital Buddhist principle of protection that complements and reinforces principles of protection enshrined in IHL, and reminds governments and parties to conflict of their duty to protect those they purport to govern.
Conflict-related sexual violence remains prevalent in warfare despite global efforts to address it. Charya Samarakoon examines how Buddhist teachings and practices might complement IHL to help address this problem. She focuses in particular on the use of meditation training for combatants, and the importance of the Buddhist doctrine of a lack of a permanent self as expounded in the Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta (Sam.22.59), thereby increasing their capacity for empathy and compassion. Samarakoon argues that these Buddhist resources are a practical means of dispelling the toxic conceptions of power and gender that exacerbate sexual violence in armed conflict situations.
Ven. Kosgama Muditha, Ven. Koralegama Gnanawasa and Ven. Kirindiwela Pagngnawansa then examine how Buddhism can facilitate the practical application of IHL and reduce suffering in war by increasing awareness of the mental defilements at the root of conflicts. They argue that Buddhist teachings can help belligerents to develop the necessary self-control, discipline and responsibility for the humane and impartial treatment of all those caught up in war, with particular reference to the Vepacitti Sutta (Sam.11.4), and suggest that a formula provided in the Mahācattārīsaka Sutta (Mn.117) can aid in the practical application of these qualities.
The fourth and final section of the volume, Buddhist Historical and Humanitarian Dimensions, focuses on historical examples in which Buddhist principles have been put into practice in relation to war, and on Buddhist humanitarian responses to armed conflict. Michael Charney argues that while IHL rules for the protection of non-combatants are often attributed to Western origins, restraint in the conduct of war was pursued by many non-Western societies, and shows how the court of pre-colonial Myanmar developed its own Buddhist-inspired limits on warfare. He goes on to explain how this model was forgotten due to the British removal of the Burmese king, disintegration of the standing army and the brutal Pacification Campaign that followed, erasing the memory of earlier Buddhist-inspired restraint.
Hyein Lee examines a manual for Buddhist chaplains called Kukkun pŏbyo chip, Essential Buddhist Teachings for the Armed Forces, which was compiled by the Chogye Order of Korean Buddhism and is distributed in the military camps of South Korea. She describes how the manual draws on Buddhist classical texts and teachings to provide chaplains both with doctrinal and practical information, as well as guidance for performing funerals and other important rites. Combining Buddhist ideas with Korean nationalism, it reflects a tension between Buddhism and military necessity that chimes with IHL, even though IHL is not explicitly referred to. Lee suggests that there is therefore potential for developing education on complementary Buddhist and IHL values into Korean military chaplaincy.
Daiki Kinoshita explores how Mahāyāna interpretations of the Lotus Sūtra in China by Zhiyi, and in Japan by Nichiren and the Soka Gakkai, relate to core IHL principles. He examines three key Soka Gakkai doctrines in this regard, and analyses how Buddhist organizations can promote respect for IHL today, specifically with regard to the prohibition on nuclear weapons.
The volume closes with an article by Ha Vinh Tho, Edith Favoreu and Noel Trew highlighting the correspondences between Socially Engaged Buddhism and the core principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence originally adopted by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. While not part of IHL, these fundamental principles underpin the neutral, impartial and independent approach to humanitarian action in armed conflict situations where IHL applies, and also guide the work of many other humanitarian actors.
The list of people to thank for their invaluable contributions to this Buddhism and IHL project is too long to include here. Apart from the authors and editors of this volume and those involved in the Dambulla conference, the project would not have been possible without a host of collaborators and ICRC colleagues who have contributed to its arrangement. Information on many more Buddhism and IHL articles and events, as well as similar ICRC projects with other religions, can be found here on the ICRC’s Religion and Humanitarian Principles website.
Andrew Bartles-Smith, Leader of the ICRC Buddhism and IHL project and Guest Editor of the Special Edition
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Mn. Majjhima Nikāya. Translated by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi. 1995. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikāya. Boston: Wisdom.
Sam. Saṃyutta Nikāya. Translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi. 2000. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. Boston: Wisdom.