The very first of the major precepts given by the Buddha to laypeople is to not kill or harm other beings. One of the four offenses for which a monk can be permanently expelled from the Sangha (the monastic Sangha that is) is to kill another human being (a prohibition which includes participating in or encouraging abortion, suicide, or euthanasia). Monks are also prohibited from being present on battlefields or from travelling with armies. I speak only of the monks here because the nuns have a different set of precepts – though I know that the prohibition against killing is also one of the eight offences for which a nun can be permanent expelled.
On the other hand, the Buddha had several kings, princes, generals, and members of the warrior caste who were considered lay-followers and had taken refuge. The Buddha never forbid them from fulfilling the duties of their positions, and it is known that several of them did wage wars of self-defence during the life-time of the Buddha and did execute criminals. It is true also that the Buddha did on at least one occasion save a the serial-killer Angulimala from being apprehended and executed on the grounds that he had become an arhat. And on several occasions the Buddha prevented the Shakyas and another clan from going to war. But he did not stop every occasion of capital punishment and war. And on many occasions as the kings excused themselves to leave the presence of the Buddha he would say to them: “Now is the time to do as you see fit.” I take this to mean that the Buddha did not presume to tell these kings, generals and princes what to do – even though they were lay followers. Rather, he taught them the Dharma and then trusted them to follow their own good judgement for better or worse.
So what I am building to is this. The first precept would seem to prohibit war or the use of deadly force in any situation. NBIC’s publication “Awakening the Lotus” states:
The most important goal of any belief is the improvement of self and of the world in general. As a meaningful Buddhist group, Nichiren Shu and its practitioners must strive for the peace, happiness, and enlightenment of ever living thing. Human life and the environment must be cherished and protected, and society must be encouraged toward peace and happiness. Therefore, the Nichiren Shu firmly holds the convictions of opposition to all war, prohibition of nuclear arms, and justice and peace in society. Besides promoting these values in society, we believe that by living as the Buddha taught us in the Lotus Sutra and by following the teachings of Nichiren Shonin, we can manifest these values naturally. We also spread this peace and happiness through the world by teaching others to follow the Buddha’s teachings. ” (p. 20)
I think it should go without saying that war is a bad thing, no matter what the reasons are. By extension, police actions wherein the UN or some group of nations invades another to restore the peace or prevent genocide or some other grave injustice are also occasions in which violence has been resorted to out of desperation and so this too is a tragic occasion.


In Asia, Buddhism never had power or responsibility over any state (except perhaps briefly under King Ashoka and even then he did not establish Buddhism as a state religion). In fact, Buddhism was more often than not subsumed into the beauracracy and kept strictly under control. Buddhist peace activism is a product of the democracies of the 20th century. The point, however, is that Buddhism was never in a position to tell any government that it could not wage war, and if waged how to conduct it in a way that would not create more damage than the wrongs the war was supposedly being fought to redress.
In the West, however, the European nations for a long time were under the domination, to varying degrees, of the Church. This did not stop European nobles from waging war on each other, and of course the teachings of Jesus did not prevent Church leaders themselves from calling for crusades. In the face of all this, scholars and theologians drawing upon the resources of Western philosophy, ethics, critical thinking and respect for the conscience and responsibility of the individual evolved, for better or worse, the doctrine of the “just war.” The “just war” doctrine is interesting to me because it was, perhaps I could say is, an attempt by the West to find a balance between the ethical imperative to avoid war and the right to defend oneself, one’s family and community, and those for whom one is responsible (so a fuedal lord was responsible for protecting the lives of his serfs and vassals, today a policeman is responsible for the lives of the innocent people in his or her jurisdiction, the president is responsible for the lives of his or her nation).
In talking to the NBIC just this morning, I learned that while the Nichiren Shu definately opposes war (and really is there anyone who would try to argue that war is a good thing?), it is unclear as to whether this policy excludes legitimate self-defense. I was told that at the moment no one should say that there is an official policy which would exclude legitimate self-defense. Hopefully a clearer answer will come from Japan, and I currently await that and will share it when it is forthcoming.
In the meantime, I would like to present my own thoughts on the right of a nation to self-defense and to redress injustices that are so grave that war becomes a lesser evil. This should not be called a “just war” doctrine so much as “the proper way to end a war if force must be met with force” doctrine. Anyway, here is my unerstanding of this doctrine (the articulation of which I have borrowed and adapted from another source which I will not reveal due to the prejudices against that source – I wish it to stand or fall on its own merits and not its associations):
The first precept forbids the intentional destruction of human life. Because of the evils and injustices that accompany all war, Buddhists should witness in their daily practices and in their actions, as responsible citizens, to the possibilities of peace and to liberation from the three poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance which lead to war.
All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war.
However, “as long as the danger of war persists and there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power, governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed.”
The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:
- the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
- all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
- there must be serious prospects of success;
- the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.
These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine.
The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.
Public authorities, in this case, have the right and duty to impose on citizens the obligations necessary for national defense.
Those who are sworn to serve their country in the armed forces are servants of the security and freedom of nations. If they carry out their duty honorably, they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace.
Public authorities should make equitable provision for those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms; these are nonetheless obliged to serve the human community in some other way.
Buddhism asserts universal working of the law of cause and effect – including during armed conflict. Even if one must use force to defend oneself or others, this does not mean that violence suddenly becomes a good cause or that violence, coercion, and hatred will not sow karmic seeds which must at some point come to fruition. Bearing this in mind, combatants should restrain themselves as much as possible and not rationalize their actions.
Non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely.
Actions deliberately contrary to the law of nations and to its universal principles are crimes, as are the orders that command such actions. Blind obedience does not suffice to excuse those who carry them out. Thus the extermination of a people, nation, or ethnic minority must be condemned as a mortal sin. One is morally bound to resist orders that command genocide.
Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against the Buddha-nature of all sentient beings, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation. A danger of modern warfare is that it provides the opportunity to those who possess modern scientific weapons especially atomic, biological, or chemical weapons – to commit such crimes.
The accumulation of arms strikes many as a paradoxically suitable way of deterring potential adversaries from war. They see it as the most effective means of ensuring peace among nations. This method of deterrence gives rise to strong moral reservations. The arms race does not ensure peace. Far from eliminating the causes of war, it risks aggravating them. Spending enormous sums to produce ever new types of weapons impedes efforts to aid needy populations; it thwarts the development of peoples. Over-armament multiplies reasons for conflict and increases the danger of escalation.
The production and the sale of arms affect the common good of nations and of the international community. Hence public authorities have the right and duty to regulate them. The short-term pursuit of private or collective interests cannot legitimate undertakings that promote violence and conflict among nations and compromise the international juridical order.
Injustice, excessive economic or social inequalities, envy, distrust, and pride raging among men and nations constantly threaten peace and cause wars. Everything done to overcome these disorders contributes to building up peace and avoiding war:
Insofar as people contain within them all then worlds including the lower realms, the threat of war hangs over them and will so continue until the attainment of buddhahood; but insofar as they can overcme the defilements by cultivating the eightfold path and the six perfections in the true spirit of the Wonderful Dharma, violence itself will be vanquished and these words of the Lotus Sutra will be realized: “In reality this world of mine is peaceful It is filled with gods and humans. The gardens, forests, and stately buildings are adorned with various treasures. The jewelled trees have many flowers and fruits. The living beings are enjoying themselves and the gods are beating heavnly drums, making various kinds of music, and raining mandarava flowers on the great multitude and me.”
So this, to me, is a good articulation of how to prevent wars from arising (by working for justice before a conflict arises) and if one must defend oneself if attcked by an aggressor what constitutes a legitimate self-defense so as to end the conflict without creating even worse injustices. Interestingly, this “doctrine for ending wars” would illegitimize even the USA’s war against Japan in the 1940′s because it could be argued that while we were not the initial aggressor, we used means like the fire-bombing of civilians and ultimately the atomic bombs which were worse evils than those perpetrated against us. So the standards of this doctrine are so strict, that it almost automatically rules out all modern warfare. And well it should, because the escalation of modern warfare leads to the dead end of full scale nuclear war or at the very least the irreperable destruction of the environment by other forms of biological, nuclear or chemical warfare. The life of every being on the planet is now at stake due to the manner in which modern conflicts are faught.
So as I write this, I am unaware of any official policy which would prohibit Nichiren Shu Buddhists from acting to defend themselves if attacked. I feel that it is legitimate to use force of arms to defend oneself, one’s family, and one’s community. Nichiren certainly didn’t tell his disciples not to fight back when attacked at Komatsubara and it is known that his followers kept weapons for self-defence. Nichiren also never counselled any of his samurai followers to lay down their arms or not fulfill their duties. So there is no precedent in Nichiren’s teachings for an absolute pacifism. I would argue quite the opposite in fact. But it is also true that Nichiren in principle upheld the first precept against killing and wrote about it quite eloquently on occasion. So it would seem that Nichiren Buddhists must also struggle with this question that the West has struggled with for some time – how to reconcile the right to self-defence with the moral imperative not to kill or harm others? I think this is a legitimate question which needs to be asked and which should not be avoided or shucked off with absolutist authoritarian policies (or even less the claim that there are such policies when such may not exist). This is a matter of conscience and it is the role of Buddhism to provide the tools for the formation of that conscience and the awareness of the law of cause and effect so that those who wish to follow the Buddha’s teaching may “do as they see fit” in the full light of the Dharma.
Namu Myoho Renge Kyo,
Ryuei