War and Violence in the Bible from the perspective of Buddhist Tradition
Reading the Bible, one learns of many wars and violence, thus raising the question whether God supported such conflicts and confrontations. Buddhism, on the other hand, has for many centuries been regarded as a religion of non-violence and peace. The religion’s widening vitality in places around the globe makes many people nowadays to turn to the faith for guidance and relief when peace appears to be problematic to achieve, especially now that wars in places like Africa and the Middle East, as well as terror acts that expand to places such as New York, London, and Bali are not showing any signs of ceasing. The study, nonetheless, neither argues that Christians support wars and disturbance of peace nor Christian teachings advocate for conflicts. It instead argues that God used war to do away with sinful acts and to restore goodness. Even though the Bible presents scenarios of wars to indicate that confrontations may be used to wipe out evil, Buddhism does not openly come out openly to support war, and instead advocates for peace, but believers may only under genuine reasons protect what is sincerely theirs.
Description of War in the Bible
Unlike, the Buddhist teachings that disregard war and completely hold that no justification for conflicts is permitted anywhere, Christian teachings, which presumably have the largest following, present numerous instances where people go to war, particularly in the Old Testament. The many instances of conflicts in the Bible develop the question as to whether war is really bad, or are there situations where people can disrupt peace and fight each other. Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, for example, informs that there is a season for everything, and proceeds to give specifications on what to do, and at what time. The Bible verse, for instance, states that that there is time to kill and the time to heal, a time to cry and a time to laugh, a time to show love and a time to hate, as well as a time to war and a time to maintain peace. Deuteronomy 20 is also clear about God’s directives about war. It states that if any community does not abide by the regulations Israel offers on peace the army should kill everyone and ensure nothing breathes.
Other than the Biblical verses, many instances of wars are documented in the Bible involving ancient Assyrians, Egyptians, Israelites, Judeans, Babylonians and other dynasties in the region. Whereas some of these conflicts might not have occurred in real sense, others did. Moses’ leading the Israelites away from the bondage they underwent in Egypt while being followed by Egypt’s forces is supposedly one of the best illustrations of a warfare-like situation. The Bible reports Moses calling on God to part the Sea, allowing the Israelites to pass across, but when the Egyptian troupe tried to make its way through, the waters receded submerging the entire group chasing the Moses-led team. Whereas scholars perceive the escape by the Israelites and the engulfing of the Egyptian army as being legendary, many debate whether such a scenario does not display an instance of conflict.
The Bible presents more stories about war that cannot all be documented here. The Hebrew Bible, for example, narrates of the Battle of Jericho, where Jericho was taken over by the Israelites who came across River Jordan. The Bible narrates that the Israeli troupes went round the city for a week (seven days) lifting the ark of covenant high and howling trumpets, and on the seventh day when Joshua commanded the army to shout so loudly, the wall of Jericho, like a miracle, collapsed permitting the Israelites to conquer the city. While many evaluators consider the miraculous fall of the wall to be fictional, debates still exist as to whether there was need for the Joshua-led army to stage such a war, and whether the Bible approves of such confrontations. Later, the Israelites proceed to take over the City of Ai, and here Joshua separates the army into two sides; an attacking group and a supporting team. The Israelites successfully enter the city, destroys it, and set everything on fire.
Yet there is another side of God as well. While Ezekiel, one of the major prophets, does not appear to par with wickedness in his recordings, he writes about the Lord’s gracious words. Ezekiel 18:21-23 insinuates that if a sinful person denounces his sins, obeys God’s laws, and acts in the right manner he will not die. The Lord further informs, as it comes out in the verse, that he does not gain anything through the death of a person, and that he is only happy when people repent their sins. All these narrations portray God as unwavering when it comes to dealing with evil, and would not hesitate to stage retribution, and also not shaking in his encouragement and love towards those hearts that repent and turn towards him. It is apparent from these descriptions that God’s main interest is that peace should prevail, but there reaches a point when war must be utilized to wipe out evil and restore peaceful coexistence.
Background Information regarding War in Buddhism
Buddhists tend to view things at the macro and micro levels. At the macro stage, Buddhists believe the universe is perceived and viewed as an interconnection of jewels and nodes, each of which depicts many other interconnections in a large structure called the Indra net, as described in one of the most vital Mahayana sutras, the Avatamsaka Sutra (Der-lanYeh 92). Every node in the web can have another structure of similar nature within it such that they can be infinite in number. Buddhists’ perception is that most people cannot see, or are not aware of the interconnection, and people are restricted by all forms of constraints due to their past deeds and encounters, yet the interrelations always exist (Der-lanYeh 92). Regarding the micro level, Buddhists view human beings as an interlock of processes regulated by the rule of dependent initiation. The believers hold that because all things within humans encompassing their thoughts and physicality are dependent on other things for their survival, nothing within the person is autonomous or does not depend on others (Der-lanYeh 93). The belief, however, does not take away individual’s capabilities to react to external stimuli through the mind as well as the body, and also acknowledges the distinctiveness among all human beings and the difference in each because every person encounters numerous transformations while reacting in their own ways to environmental features (Der-lanYeh 93). The ever-transforming quality in every person signifies the ability to witness change in any ways, either positive or negative.
The Buddhist rule of dependent origin and the Buddhist perception of human beings and the universe underscore an important aspect for believers who appreciate the interlinked state of their presence and the interrelatedness among everything – they would establish a robust feeling of responsibility for their actions, as well as empathy and appreciation for others. It is indeed from such realizations of the real form of existence that compassionate, non-harmful, and altruistic actions would emerge. The views of Johan Galtung who is a celebrated Norwegian scholar on peace influence Buddhists so much, especially with his argument that the world is comprised of people who interact symbiotically (Galtung 23). Galtung’s (23) perception is that the world comprises of multi-channeled forms that make peaceful coexistence quite unstable and unpredictable, thereby making it necessary to indulge in interactive processes, including looking into how individual actions interact with the world. Galtung’s (23) ideology of peace as viewed by many other scholars is the same to what Buddhists regard peace to be. Actually, the intricacy and the generality in factor either causing peaceful coexistence or wars have long been identified in the morphological description of these utterances.
Perception of War in Buddhism
Unlike the Bible that presents many instances of wars, Buddhism advocates for peace, and does not perceive war or conflict as a way of solving problems. One is likely to understand how the Buddhist tradition values peace by considering the religion’s five precepts that is perceived as the most vital guide for morality for all Buddhist people, most by the lay Buddhists. The believers have faith that adhering to the precepts helps them to develop a character and mind that makes it easy to become successful in the path of illumination (Yamamoto and Page 70). The Buddhists’ five percepts act as the core of the various aspects of Buddhists doctrines, both monastic and lay, and with regard to the vital role they play in shaping ethics, they have been compared and contrasted with the ethical codes followed by the believers of Confucianism or Ten Commandments issued to Moses in the Bible (Yamamoto and Page 70). Scholars also compare the five percepts ethical theories such as virtue, deontological, and utilitarianism, as well as with human rights because they are universal in nature, while some believe that they can effectively replace the rights humans enjoy. One of the precepts call on its believers to stay away from taking away the life of others, while the second one urges believers to refrain from taking what is not given to them (Yamamoto and Page 70). The third precept calls on believers to stay away from acts that would cause sinful deeds due to sense-pleasures, while the fourth urges believers to refrain from speech that is untrue (Yamamoto and Page 70). The fifth precept direct believers to stay away from alcohol and drugs as they could cause impaired judgment that could disrupt peace.
Other than looking at the five precepts, which are essential in preventing wars among the Buddhists, understanding the four immeasurables the religion consider as imperative could help to gain much awareness about the group’s perception about peace. Yamamoto and Page (72) while explaining the four immeasurable write that the widely-held Buddhist belief that it is impossible to achieve happiness in isolation because one’s happiness is dependent on another’s and on other people as well because life is interconnected. Yamamoto and Page (72) further argue that for peace to bring about happiness, it is essential to develop holistic perceptions towards others. The most effective way to nurture the healthy view towards other is through meditation, and among the many teachings associated with the practice, there are four areas focusing on the building of compassion, equanimity, appreciative or grateful joy, and love and kindness.
By building the four immeasurables, it becomes easy to do away with the ill motive, jealousy and cruelty thereby creating room for peace and happiness for themselves and other people. Love and kindness is the desire that every being regardless of their state be happy, and is equated with the love a mother gives to her newborn child (Yamamoto and Page 74). The mother in this case would desire that the child develops in good health, develop productive friends, and display intelligence and success. Buddhists believe that when someone displays such features to others, it becomes easier to overcome restlessness and bolster peace. Compassion depicts every person’s desire to be free from all forms of suffering (Yamamoto and Page 74). Buddhists believe that other than wishing others overcome their tribulations, it is more impacting by offering necessary assistance. Grateful joy advocates for rejoicing of the success others achieve, and tend to contradict jealousy and self-centeredness. Equanimity, which is ranked the fourth of the immeasurables, calls on individuals to regard each other as being equal regardless of their present relationships (Yamamoto and Page 74). Equanimity also urges people to respect the roles and responsibilities other individuals take, irrespective of the connection between the different sides. Buddhists work towards developing structures that would help individuals achieve the four immeasurables, and this further makes it easy to foster peace in the society (Yamamoto and Page 75). Adherence to the four immeasurables brings about significant transformations in one’s personal and social life such that an individual gets rid of cruelty, unnecessary desires, ill will, and jealousy. Instead, a person gains more happiness with themselves and others, thus making it easy to achieve peace and harmony whether at home, the place of work, school, or any other social gathering (Yamamoto and Page 75). Even after leading a wholesome life here on earth, the karma built by nurturing the four components would bring so much fortune once a person is born again as another being.
Disruption of Peace in Buddhism
As much as Buddhism appears as being based on peaceful coexistence compared with Christianity where sometimes peace might be breached, it does not mean that the religion does not have any history of wars and where peace is disrupted. Whereas most of the Buddhist scholars hold that there is no room for war in Buddhist teachings, and that the group has always separated itself from factors that could breach peace, historical documentation exist showing how in 621 CE Buddhists from a Chinese temple engaged in a war that helped to form the Tang Dynasty (O’Brien). O’Brien writes about Tibetan Buddhists who earlier established alliances with Mongol army leaders and gained much profit following a win in war. In Japan where Buddhism is highly practiced, the Japanese Army colluded with the Zen starting from the 1930s, and the coming together caused the twisting and bending of regulations to allow killing, with the two sides working hand in hand to raise funds to manufacture weapons and fighting jets (O’Brien). Yet observed in the sense of dharma, which is the doctrine that all Buddhists adhere to, such acts are highly forbidden.
The recent years has witnessed an increase in the indulgence of Buddhist monks in social and political movements and activism, mainly across Asia. Buddhists monks, for instance, joined in the Saffron Revolution, which commenced on August 19, 2007, after the Burmese military state refused to lower subsidies on fuel’s sales price (O’Brien). Monks also turned to the streets in Tibet’s capital in 2008 in what had commenced as a commemoration of the Tibetan Uprising day, and later became violent. The violence spread beyond Lhasa, and the Chinese officials reported that at least 150 protests occurred within two weeks, even though the estimations differ (O’Brien). The Chinese embassies were the main target of the severest protests ranging from throwing rocks and eggs at the offices to demonstrators entering the buildings and creating chaos. Even though the monks in the scenarios above tried to adopt nonviolent approaches, the Buddhist leaders who pioneered the development of the National Heritage Party amidst opposition from Sri Lankan-based Buddhist organizations that the religion, more so monks, should indulge in political practices, were radical in their moves (O’Brien). The party particularly promotes the use of a strong military intervention to the civil war in Sri Lanka.
The question among many Buddhist scholars, therefore, is whether war is always not permitted. O’Brien argues that Buddhist teachings challenge its believers to look beyond the dichotomy of what might be perceived as right or wrong. Buddhism is in such a way that a practice that yields harmful outcomes shall be regrettable even if it is difficult to avoid the situation. Sometimes, however, Buddhists are compelled to disrupt peace by fighting to protect their families, homes, and nations, and according to O’Brien this cannot be perceived as wrong whereas to have hate for one’s foes is highly forbidden in the same way as engaging in any practice of conflict that sows the seeds of destructive karma. Know that it is clear Buddhists adhere to its five precepts and four immeasurables, which advocate for love, kindness, sympathy, compassion, and equanimity as well as tolerance, gentleness, and mercy, not even harsh circumstances would violate the regulations, or make it presentable to contravene them. Yet neither is it correct or acceptable to stand aside while innocent individuals are killed (O’Brien). It is because of such compelling factors that pushed Dhammananda, who was a renowned monk and scholar to remind people that Biddha did not instruct his believers to give in to all forms of evil.
Dhammananda issued other directives, which may help to improve awareness on the factors that could lead Buddhists to go to war. He writes that Buddhists should not take an aggressive approach even in defending their religion or any other thing, and instead should try as much as possible to stay away from violent acts. Sometimes, Buddhists may be compelled to stage war against others who violate the concept of human hood as directed by Buddha, and may be mandated to defend the nation from external attacks and aggressions. So long as they have not casted the life here on earth, they are bound to be part of the struggle for freedom and peaceful coexistence (Dhammananda 91). Under such scenarios, they cannot have blames for serving as a military officer or being part of a defense team. Dhammananda (92) further explains that if every individual were to adhere to the teachings of Buddha, no war would occur thereby making it every person’s role to find suitable mechanisms of settling disputes in amicable and peaceful ways, without staging war to kill innocent people. The scholar also informs that choosing whether to fight or not is always a matter of morality, and every Buddhist ought to look into their motives very honestly. Dhammananda (92) asserts that in many scenarios it is easy to argue rule out one has real motives when in real sense they are angry and full of fear. The monk also informs that for many people, self-honesty at such circumstances require much maturity and dedication, and history reveals that even high priests with many years of experience can cheat themselves.
The more relaxed perception about war and peace among the Buddhists is the main reason why more Buddhists are joining military forces. O’Brien informs that today, nearly 3200 Buddhists serve in the American military, while others serve as religious leaders. At least 26 Buddhist cadets are already taking lessons from the Refuge Dharma Hall based in the United States Air Force Academy, an indication that as much as Buddhism acknowledges war is a criminal act that could disrupt peace, it might sometimes be compelling to take away life, although the religion does not take life lightly (O’Brien). Above all, the report serves to enlighten people on the need to be cautious, not to be swept away by the obsessions of the communities and cultures individuals belong to because as the report proves, in perilous times such commitments and beliefs are easier said than applied.
Whether Christians Really Supports War
The descriptions about the existence of wars in the Bible do not imply that Christianity takes a different course from Buddhism with regard to peace. Actually, scholarly works and sayings now in the past invoke biblical teachings that could promote fairness and peaceful coexistence. Dr. Martin Luther King during his famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C delivered on August 1963, for example, employs Biblical verses to make his call for equality and peace more appealing (Rathbun 43). Dr. King uses the teachings in Isaiah 40:4-5 to show his desires for people saying “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be praised, and every mountain and hill lowered, the rough terrain made smooth, and the rough places straightened, and God’s glory shall be clear for everyone to see” (Rathbun 43). Even though Martin does not use direct quotation from the Bible to express his desires, his use of the Biblical context shows how much Christians value peace and not war. Films, too, employ biblical teachings to call for peace thus showing the view of Christians about peaceful relations and coexistence.
The study focuses on the conflicts in the Bible and compares with how the Buddhists perceive such as approach to solving problems, and shows that as much as Buddhism does not advocate for aggressiveness and hostility, believers, especially in the modern time, know that it might sometimes be necessary to defend what is right through war. The report shows how Buddhism relies on a set of principles such as the five percepts and the four immeasurables that offer vital directives on how to avoid wars with others. The study considers Christians’ perception about peace and war, and rules that both Christians and Buddhists might be forced to enter into war when it is very compelling, and when defending what is one’s due. Buddhists, however, tend to be more thoughtful when entering into war, and would only breach peace when they are certain the fight is for the good and not as a result of anger and ill motive.
Der-IanYeh, Theresa. “The Way of Peace: A Buddhist Perspective.”International Journal of Peace Studies, vol. 11, no. 1, 2006, pp. 91-112.
Dhammananda, Sri. What Buddhists Believe. The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, 1993.
Galtung, Johan. Buddhism: A Quest for Unity and Peace. Dae Won Sa Buddhist Temple, 1993.
O’Brien, Barbara. “Buddhist Views on War.” ThoughtCo., May 23, 2019, https://www.thoughtco.com/war-and-buddhism-449732. Accessed 31 July 2019.
Rathbun, John. “Martin Luther King: The Theology of Social Action.” American Quarterly, vol. 20, no. 1, 1968, pp. 38-53.
The Bible. NIV.
Yamamoto, Kosho and Page Tony. The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra. Nirvana Publications, 2000.