War is hell, and today more than ever. Although high-tech weapons make it a videogame for some, those same weapons make it unbelievably destructive for many more. Whatever valor was once associated with hand-to-hand combat has long since disappeared due to gunpowder, and the massive slaughters of the twentieth century have made it increasingly difficult to romanticize the death and misery war causes. Nonetheless, it continues and we have learned, if not to accept it, to take it for granted. Obviously, not everyone loathes it. The U.S. economy would collapse without the obscene amount spent on the military-industrial complex, now well over $800 billion a year.
It’s hard to rationalize such a sum without a war once in a while. That’s why the end of the Cold War with the Soviet Union was so disconcerting. What would we do without an enemy! Fortunately the war on terror fits the bill perfectly. With a bit of luck it may never end (how would we know?) and the military budget can balloon forever.
But it’s not only those who get rich (or richer) off war who like it. They couldn’t promote war if the rest of us weren’t willing to go along with their manipulations. We support and follow the war-makers because, to tell the truth, there is something in us that finds war agreeable…even attractive. Can Buddhism help us understand what that is?
The official excuse for every war is always the same: self-defense. It’s okay to kill other people and destroy their society because that’s what they want to do to us. As Hermann Goering said, “The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders….Just tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.” They haven’t attacked us yet? Then we need a “preventive war.” That suggests the problem with all “just war” theories. Once there’s such a thing as a just war, every war becomes marketed as a just war.
But that’s not why we like war. That’s just how the propaganda works, how leaders get us to line up behind them. What makes us so gullible? Why are we so willing to sacrifice ourselves, even our children? Why doesn’t exposing the lies of the last war inoculate us against the deceptions that will be used to promote the next one?
Buddhist societies have not been immune from war. The Japanese Buddhist establishment wholeheartedly supported the imperialist ambitions of its fascist government. In Sri Lanka recently, politicized Buddhist monks opposed a negotiated solution to a civil war that cost many thousands of lives. In all the cases that I can think of, however, people who consider themselves Buddhists became belligerent because their Buddhism had become mixed up with a more secular religion: nationalism. Such war-mongering startles us because it so obviously contradicts Buddhist principles—not only incompatible with its emphasis on not harming, but also inconsistent with a worldview that emphasizes wisdom over power.
From a Buddhist perspective, the various conflicts in the Middle East look like a family quarrel. That’s because the three Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—share much the same understanding of the world. It’s a feud among brothers who have fallen out, which is, of course, sometimes the most vicious sort. Having been raised by the same father, they have a similar worldview: this world is a battleground where the good must fight against those who are evil. The most important issue is where each of us stands in this cosmic struggle. Our salvation depends upon it. It’s necessary to choose sides. Since there is no room in this grand cosmic struggle for neutrality, neither of them is much concerned about the fate of innocent bystanders. Bystanders are not innocent. Once something has been labeled as evil, the focus must be on fighting it. The most important thing is to do whatever is necessary to destroy it. This implies a preoccupation with power and victory at any cost. Whether one supports small-group terrorism or state terrorism, the issue is the same. Which will be more powerful, the forces of good or the forces of evil?
Buddhism offers a different perspective. In place of this battleground of wills where good contends against evil, the most important struggle is a spiritual one between ignorance and delusion, on the one side, and liberating wisdom on the other. And seeing the world primarily as a war between good and evil is one of our more dangerous delusions.
Looking back over history, we can see that when leaders have tried to destroy evil, they have usually ended up creating more evil. An obvious example is the heresy inquisitions and witch-trials of medieval Europe, but for sheer violence and collective suffering nothing can match the persecutions of the twentieth century. What was Adolf Hitler trying to do with his “final solution” to the “Jewish problem”? The earth could be made pure for the Aryan race only by exterminating the Jews, along with all the other vermin (gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally defective, etc.) who contaminate it. Stalin killed well-to-do Russian peasants because he was trying to create his ideal society of collective farmers. Mao Zedong eliminated Chinese landlords for the same reason. Like Bush and bin Laden, they were trying to perfect the world by eliminating its evil people. So one of the main causes of evil in our world has been attempts to get rid of evil (or what has been seen as evil). In more Buddhist terms, much of the world’s suffering has resulted from this delusive way of thinking about good and evil.
For Buddhism, however, this simplistic way of understanding conflict keeps us from looking deeper and finding other ways to resolve differences. What we call evil is, like everything else, an effect of causes and conditions, and it’s important to realize what those causes are. Buddhism emphasizes evil itself less than the three roots of evil (also known as the three unwholesome roots, or the three poisons): greed, ill will, and delusion. The Buddhist solution to suffering does not involve answering violence with violence, any more than it involves responding to greed with greed, or responding to delusion with more delusion. As the most famous verse in the Dhammapada says, hatred (vera) is never appeased by hatred; it is appeased by non-hatred (avera). We must look for ways to break that cycle by transmuting those poisons into their positive counterparts: greed into generosity, ill will into loving-kindness, and delusion into wisdom.