The First Precept on War; a Buddhist’s dilemma

Via Henry Schliff
on Jan 1, 2009
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New Year’s resolution number one: avoiding of course the inevitable New Year’s backlash of “did I resolve that?!” If you read my last blog you know I vigorously proclaimed, “we should all stop global climate change! Now!” Or something to that effect.

Inescapably associated with a resolve to change personal behavior, is an assessment of personal beliefs and ethics. You know: the vital “if you want to change the world, change yourself” idea. I am a practicing Buddhist, meaning I sit the obligatory meditation sessions every day, I attend occasional retreats, and I read the words of historical figures and contemporary inspirational writers. Often I think, “Is that all?”

I decided to start journaling on what I can do to fulfill the ideals of a Buddhist life and livelihood in the twenty-first century as a layperson. Starting with the five precepts: don’t kill, lie, steal, misuse sex, or intoxicants. Although these might seem as vague as the Ten Commandments, there are many teachings on them. Thich Nhat Hanh has made a wonderful start by interpreting them as the Five Mindfulness Trainings. Still, I think it’s essential for each of us Buddhists to contemplate how we carry out the precepts of our faith and refine our ethics from moment-to-moment.

What is not killing? There are obvious implications such as becoming semi- or fully vegetarian (I am not), which would limit the taking of life to the plant kingdom. There is the obviousness of non-violent action, not engaging in war and violent resistance.

That’s when it hit me. We American Buddhists are enveloped in a crisis of path. Our country is militarily engaged on two major battlefields, killing other human beings. Even by our military’s occupational presence, America is fueling the likelihood of violent confrontation. I do not blame our soldiers one bit. This is not about placing blame, but rather assessing a dilemma as a Buddhist: that, regardless of my political views and opposition to war I support the murder of other human beings every day. Because some percentage of the tax dollars I pay as an American are being funneled into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I could be more consistent with merging my life and my principles:

Become a full-fledged vegetarian, not a half-hearted one.

Buy local goods all of the time (instead of most of the time) thereby reducing my direct food-related contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.

Buy second-hand goods or sustainably, locally made goods all of the time (instead of most of the time).

Finally, I could continue to practice birth control to avoid a large family which would contribute to the violence and strained resources of an overpopulated world. The list goes on…

However, even with these measures and many more—which should be taken—if I abide the laws of my country and pay my taxes, I will be supporting to some small extent the murder of human beings.

Einstein said, “one cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war.” As Buddhists, can we follow our most fundamental precept and live for the well-being of all creatures while we are complicit in the deaths of hundreds of thousands, the fueling of hatred and the world’s devastation?

To be continued.


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2 Responses to “The First Precept on War; a Buddhist’s dilemma”

  1. admin says:

    That is an interesting link you posted (about the first precept and supporting war, etc). I have a friend who will not pay his taxes due to the fact that he does not wish to support the war. He sold everything he owns and basically lives out of his truck, doing small jobs for retreat centers to make enough money to get by but not enough to have to pay taxes or to accumulate anything that can be taken away. This guy has an MBA, a PhD, AND an MD. Every year he files, and sends a letter with his tax forms explaining why he doesn’t believe in supporting the war. I met him when I was on retreat at Zen Mountain Monastery… he is one of the most mindful, grateful, and at peace people I’ve ever met.
    This article was good for me, at a time when money is almost non-exsistant and I am jobless. Out of desperation I’ve I’ve even considered the military, and have looked into what types of non-combative jobs they might have. The fact is that no matter what, it’s still supporting the machine.

    Anyway, just wanted to let you know that your post was read and appreciated.


  2. Henry Schliff says:

    Hey Jamie, thanks for your sincere thoughts. It is truly a gift to hear your writing has had an impact for someone. I was at Zen Mountain myself for a summer, wonderful place, brings back good memories. I wish you all the best in figuring out your direction.