Zen Teacher James Ford has a piece on whether, as Buddhists, one might support possible military action in Syria in response to the chemical attacks, resulting deaths of nearly 1500 civilians and others suffering in that civil war.
Reluctantly, I feel much the same as Rev. Ford ... that to do so may be the least evil of evils.
We will also examine this and related questions when we sit with the Precept on Avoiding the Taking of life during our upcoming Jukai preparations.
Rev. Ford writes ...
I would merely add that sometimes, abiding by the Precept to Preserve Life and Avoid the Taking of life, it may be necessary to take life to save other lives and to restore peace. Such is my view and feeling.What I feel is my moral obligation at this time as a parish minister standing within the heart of the community I serve to call us to reflection and hopefully out of that to help us as we each must make decisions about where to stand and what to do. I fear as I do I will disappoint many. That acknowledged, I will be faithful to my vows to you, and I will speak my best, my deepest.
When I wrote on Facebook that I had to address this issue one friend suggest I preach how war is horrible. Certainly, true, but, far and away, not enough. In fact as I reflect on the great moral poles of war, pacifism and just war theory, I find both positions unsatisfactory.
Just War theories, grounded in an assertion of a right to self-defense, which, particularly thinking of that monument on Beacon Street in Boston I accept as a deep truth, are nonetheless so easily, too easily subverted by nationalist sensibilities. And even at best, the unsheathing of the sword trails a ribbon of blood, a great pooling of unintended consequences. As for pacifism, when moved into the nitty-gritty of real life, in situations like the one we’re forced to face today with that whiff of poison gas hanging in the air, becomes an opting out of the responsibility individuals have toward one another, abandoning one’s family and neighbors for an abstract higher good, one that, to put it brutally, has never existed in reality.
So, here I am.
Here’s what I know from the bottom of my heart. The individual is precious, beyond calculation. And, at the same time, we don’t exist in isolation. In fact we have no existence outside of relationships. This is a harsh, and at the same time, if we consider it, a beautiful truth. We’re all in this together. Every single blessed one of us on this globe, every one of us. We are connected.
We’re now watching the dying embers of the Arab Spring. It’s a mess. Democratic dreams have been captured by those who believe in one man one vote one time. In Egypt we see the response to a rising theocracy in a lurching back toward military dictatorship. In Syria the democratic Arab Spring fell into a smoldering revolution now in danger of being dominated by its own theocratic forces. I’m also painfully aware that among the various contending sects in Syria, the dictator Assad’s ruling Alouettes are the most liberal of the religious communities. The whole region is awash in tears and blood, all interconnected and complex. Shadows of the holocaust followed by the horrors of the nakba, dictators and princes, religious and ethnic hatreds. And, oh yes, oil. It seems no one has clean hands, and if we look at our own American hands in all this, they drip oil and blood. Wrong piles upon wrong, sadness upon sadness.
And, in the immediate, in this moment, the whiff of poison gas hangs in the air. Me, I painfully recall 1988 when we didn’t act when another dictator gassed Iraq’s Kurds, perhaps our most natural allies, a lingering shame.
I’m deeply concerned by the lack of a clear outcome from either action or nonaction in the face of those murders of civilian populations. I gather from several sources there’s a reluctance to strike the dictator personally or even to significantly degrade his forces for fear he will be brought down leaving the country to the mercies of the fundamentalists who appear to be the strongest and best prepared among the revolutionary contingents. It is a mess. It is a tangle of horrors.
And, still, the whiff of poison gas hangs in the air. Yes, conventional war leaves so many innocents wounded and maimed and killed, as well. But, the potentialities for horror are in fact so present in the use of chemical warfare that we stand at the edge of something unimaginable, roiling along the ground, a spreading fog of murder.
So, for us, for you and me, what are we to do?
For me the reality is that it is impossible to be right. As the Zen tradition often notes, its all one continuous mistake.
Me, I’ve decided, for the moment, the least evil stance is to not oppose these called for attacks that might degrade the Syrian dictator’s forces, to demonstrate that poison gas must not be reintroduced into modern conflict. Out of respect for the Kurds. Out of respect for those others who’ve been victim to these horrors, to prevent the reintroduction of this terror. To finally, finally draw a line in that one small regard, at last.
The Suttas and Sutras offered many opinions on these questions (having been written, of course, by men of many opinions), and modern teachers are of many minds on this.
Here is something I posted once ...
It is important to remember too that Buddhists do not generally believe in "bad people", only in "people who do bad things" because they themselves are victims of greed, anger and ignorance within. The real evil doer is "greed anger and ignorance".
From the opinions of Buddhist teachers from various traditions which I have read, I would say that almost all who saw the need for some response involving the taking of life saw it as a "necessary evil" ... not as a path or goal in any positive sense. Sometimes we must break a Precept to keep a Precept. And given modern warfare, most of the teachers were aware that this might include the unavoidable taking of civilian and other "non-combatant" lives in order to save a much greater number of lives.
I believe that the following responses, some by the Dalai Lama, are representative of the diversity of opinion.
http://www.tricycle.com/p/1487 (the comments which follow are also very interesting)
Thich Nhat Hanh may have been most representative of the "any violent response only leads to increased violence" opinion ...
The Buddha also seems to have been of two minds on this. On the one hand, there are some writings in which he is framed to say that killing is never skillful.
On the other hand, in other Sutta he did seem to countenance a nation having an army for certain limited purposes, and its discreet use.
Almost all the Buddhist teachers I can think of (including me too, for what it is worth) would say that we must also bear all the Karmic consequences of our volitional words, thoughts and acts, no matter whether we had a "reason" for killing or not.
You may kill the cat, but you still likely have to pay the price in some way.
A Tibetan teacher (Chagdud Tulku) relates this famous Jataka legend about a previous incarnation of the Buddha ...
I am not sure about the effect of our Karma in lives to come ... but I do know that we likely will bear the effects of our actions in this life in some way. I have a friend, an ex-policeman, who had to kill someone in a perfectly necessary and justified act to save lives. Yet, my friend still carries that with him to this day.(In a previous life, the Buddha was Captain Compassionate Heart, sailing with 500 merchants. An evil pirate, Dung Thungchen (Blackspear) appeared, threatening to kill them all. )The captain, a bodhisattva himself, saw the [pirate]'s murderous intention and realized this crime would result in eons of torment for the murderer. In his compassion, the captain was willing to take hellish torment upon himself by killing the man to prevent karmic suffering that would be infinity greater than the suffering of the murdered victims. The captain's compassion was impartial; his motivation was utterly selfless.
No, taking lives is never a "good" thing.
Even if one is required to act in self-defense ... of one's own life, the life of another, or to protect society as in the case of a policeman or soldier ... one should best not feel anger even if forced to use force, one should nurture peace as much as one can, avoiding violence as much as one can, using violence as little as one can even when needed.
Yes, most all flavors of Buddhism teach that, even should one be forced to break a Precept in a big or small way, one should bear the Karmic weight, reflect on having had to do so, seek as one can not to do so in the future.
The case I usually mention is that friend of mine, a Buddhist policeman, who had to kill someone in the line of duty in order to save an innocent person held hostage. It was a perfectly justified, necessary shooting. However, from that day he always felt a kind of mental scar, a heavy weight ... even though he knew he had to do the right thing. He always felt the need to bring peace into the world in some measure to make up for what he had had to do. So it is for all of us if we must reluctantly support the use of violence in order to preserve life.
Let me close with something recited by us in our Sutra Dedication ...
We dedicate our hopes and aspirations:
To all victims of war and violence and natural events
To the injured and to all families touched by these tragedies
To the healing of hatred in all countries and among all peoples
To the wisdom and compassion of our world leaders
To the peace of the world and harmony of all beings.