web analytics


by ratnawalli - September 22, 2014 at 9:45 am

Published in my  Column in The Nation (print edition here) and Colombo Telegraph on Sunday, 21 September 2014

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

Buddhist war studies, those that investigate the compatibility of Buddhism and war, have an awful potential for sanctimony. With the best intentions in the world, I don’t see how they can avoid it. I used to think that “How can Buddhists go to war” was on par with “How can Buddhists commit adultery?” But then I saw the fatal flaw in the analogy. Buddhism condemns adultery unconditionally, considering its proliferation among the laity as a symptom of decay in the religion. The Maha Kanha Jataka[i] (No 469-Full text) describes a time when the religion established by the Buddha Kassapa had fallen into decay. One symptom of the rot is men who “go after others’ wives, of teacher, or of friend, Sister of father, uncle’s wife.” In contrast, the Buddhist conception of Utopia (Cakkavatti-Sihanada Sutta, p395-405, The Long Discourses of the Buddha[ii]full text) imagines the King still with the full complement of the Army and blessed with heroic sons who are conquerors of the hostile army. The King “dwells having conquered this sea-girt land without stick or sword, by the law”. The method of “conquering by law” is to go to that particular region with the fourfold Army and take up residence there with the fourfold Army. Then those who oppose the King in that region come and say: “Come, Your Majesty, welcome! We are yours, Your Majesty. Rule us, Your Majesty.” And the King says: “Do not take life. Do not take what is not given. Do not commit sexual misconduct. Do not tell lies. Do not drink strong drink. Be moderate in eating.” And all the people of the world become his subjects. Under these circumstances it’s not surprising that certain passages in Daniel Webster Kent’s PhD thesis[iii] -(full text) should have set off all my sanctimony sensors.

  “The guiding question behind the vast majority of studies of Buddhism and war is “how can/does Buddhism justify, legitimate or otherwise allow war?” Scholars have asked this question, attempting to resolve the perceived conflict between the first precept against killing and the contemporary reality of active Buddhist participation in warfare.”- (p3)

Partly from a spirit of experimentation and partly in search of perspective, I thought; how if we replaced the “war” of this passage with “adultery”? It will read; “The guiding question behind the vast majority of studies of Buddhism and adultery is “how can/does Buddhism justify, legitimate or otherwise allow adultery?” Scholars have asked this question, attempting to resolve the perceived conflict between the third precept (that has always, from the inception of Buddhism up to the present without ambiguity or caveat included adultery) and the contemporary reality of active Buddhist participation in adultery.”

And I realized that such a para will never be written. It transgresses against everything that is fashionable and politically correct. Also it will be hard to find any scholar willing to admit to such naiveté as would be compatible with believing that Buddhism has the sole and dominant say in all inner moral discourses of Buddhists. Moreover, given the very universal nature of adultery, it will be a rare scholar who would not instinctively know, even without doing field work among Buddhists, that when a Buddhist holds board meetings of the conscience many other dhammas apart from the Buddha dhamma may get a vote.

The same universal awareness of human nature and unwillingness to appear naïve should technically have prevented the para on Buddhism and war from being written. Yet many such paragraphs have been written by a flock of scholars, earning not pitying glances as might have been expected, but considerable approbation from their peers. Today no social scientist who wanted to retain his or her relevance would try to use Buddhism to create moral repugnance to adultery. The following paragraph therefore could never be written; “As more and more contemporary Buddhists whose Buddhist identity was important to them took a conscious decision (often unbeknownst to their spouses) to make adultery a non-offence in their private moral codes, scholars were forced to reexamine their assumptions about Buddhism as a chaste religion. Confronted with this challenge to the integrity of Buddhism, scholars began posing solutions in order to reconcile the paradox that they perceived Buddhist adultery to be.”

And yet it’s a mere rewording of a paragraph in the Webster Kent thesis; “As Buddhist soldiers rushed off to fight and die on behalf of their raṭa, jatiya and agama, country, race and religion, scholars were forced to re-examine their assumptions about Buddhism as a religion of non-violence. Confronted with this challenge to the integrity of Buddhism, scholars began posing solutions in order to reconcile the paradox that they perceived Buddhist violence to be.”- (p14)

How came such a para to be written in a PhD dissertation submitted in 2008? What inconsistency in the current social norm makes one para ludicrous and the other not ludicrous? Did this inconsistency operate in the same direction in the societies where Buddhism began, came of age and matured? It’s my understanding that this inconsistency of the norm operated in the reverse direction in those societies. In other words, Buddhism began and grew up in societies where War was normal while Adultery was terrible, which contrasts with modern social mores where some wars are terrible while adultery is normal. The actual paragraphs on War would be credible and politically correct within these modern frameworks, while the imagined paragraphs on Adultery would lack relevance. In contrast, in a true Buddhist society uncorrupted by modernity, the parodying passages on Adultery would have weight while the Webster Kent paragraphs on War would sound sanctimonious.

Buddhism grew up in a society where war was a social norm. While certain social norms, most memorably the superiority of Brahmins, and Brahmanical animal sacrifices were strongly challenged by Buddhism, war as an institution remained unchallenged.  This adaptation to and co-existence with war is reflected in the earliest extant literature of Buddhists, the Tripitaka and the commentaries. Buddhism may well be the only world religion which legislated on the conduct of its Order of monks in the battlefield. Although not relevant to this topic, just as a reminder of the pragmatism of Buddhism, it may also be the only world religion to legislate in detail on the sleep emissions of its Order of monks (See Vin. I, 295 @ p420-421 of Horner IV[iv]full text).

The Vinaya Pitaka considers it the province of unruly monkhood to go to the battlefield solely to see an army fighting. It nevertheless recognizes that a monk may have a valid reason to go to a battle field. “Then it occurred to that monk: “A rule of training laid down by the lord says: ‘There should be no going to see the army fighting,’ but my uncle is ill in the army. What line of conduct should be followed by me?” He told this matter to the lord. Then the lord on this occasion, in this connection, having given reasoned talk, addressed the monks, saying: “I allow you, monks, to go to an army when there is sufficient reason for it. And thus, monks, this rule of training should be set forth: Whatever monk should go to see an army fighting, unless there is sufficient reason for it, there is an offence of expiation.””(Pacittiya 48 @ p374, 375, Horner II[v]full text)

Having gone to the battlefield on business, for a sufficient reason, the Vinaya considers it a sign of indiscipline in monks to extend their stay with the Army unnecessarily; “If there is for a monk some reason for going to an army, that monk may stay with the army for two nights, three nights. Should he stay longer than that, there is an offence of expiation.”(Pacittiya 49, p377, ibid). The Vinaya also identifies circumstances that would justify an extended stay; “There is no offence  if having stayed for two nights, having departed on the third night before dawn, he stays again; if he stays (because he is) ill ; if he stays because there is something to be done for one who is ill or if the army becomes invested by the opposing army; if he comes to be taken possession of by something (the Vinaya commentary explains this as ‘if he is invested by an enemy or by a chief’); if there are accidents; if he is mad, if he is the first wrong-doer.”(p378, ibid). The Vinaya also considers it bad discipline, if monks having gone to the battle field on reasonable business, get too interested in battle maneuvers; “If a monk, staying with the army for two nights, three nights, should go to a sham-fight or to the troops in array or to the massing of the army or to see a review, then is an offence of expiation.”(Pacittiya 50, p380, ibid)

With the addition of the battleground to the list of legitimate areas of activity for monks, the possibility of them committing graver offences there, namely parajika offences involving expulsion from the Order such as taking of human life under conditions of war had to be discussed and provided for. The commentaries to the Vinaya Pitaka, edited, translated and collated by the Thera Buddhaghosa into Samantapasadika, records just such a discussion; “Somebody decapitates someone else, who is running quickly in a battle, and the corpse continues to run. A third person causes the running corpse to fall by a blow: Who is guilty of a Parajika? Half the Elders say the one, who interrupts the walking; the Elder Godhaka, however, the expert in Abhidhamma, says the one who has cut the head” (Sp 478.16-20).” – (As quoted in p26 of Von Hinüber, 1995[vi] full text)

–      @ http://ratnawalli.com /  and rathnawalli@gmail.com



[i] MAHĀ-KAṆHA-JĀTAKA, No. 469, The Jataka, Vol. IV, tr. by W.H.D. Rouse, [1901], at sacred-texts.com.

[ii] The Long Discourses of the Buddha, A translation of the Digha Nikaya from the Pali by Maurice Walsh- (full text)


[iii] Daniel Webster Kent, “Shelter For You, Nirvana For Our Sons: Buddhist Belief and Practice in the Sri Lankan Army”, 2008, Dissertation presented to the Graduate faculty of the University of Virginia- (full text)

[iv] The Book of the Discipline (Vinaya-Pitaka), Volume IV (Mahavagga), translated by I. B. Horner- (full text)

[v] The Book of the Discipline (VINAYA-PITAKA), Volume 2 (SUTTAVIBHANGA), translated by I. B. Horner – (full text)

[vi] Buddhist Law According to the Theravāda-Vinaya: A survey of Theory and Practice, by Oskar Von Hinüber, Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, Vol. 18, No. 1 1995- (full text)


Leave a Comment


September 2014
« Aug   Oct »

a rukizone site