in the service of war – the ethics of Buddhist Chaplaincy I

There has been a lot written about the quandary of being Buddhist and in the military.  There is even more heated debate about the ethics of being a Buddhist Chaplain serving in the military and being of service to military members.  This article, published in the Upaya Newsletter November 16, 2009 and reproduced here in three parts (with some grammatical editing of the original), adds to three previous publications in the Upaya Zen Center Newsletter.  The previous articles by Hozan Alan Senauke, Gerald Virtbauer, and Shari Naismith are instructive and highlight the many perspectives of Buddhist practitioners.  By raising more questions, I hope that we may see more dimensions of this very challenging topic and even hold my own feet closer to the fire.

Buddhist Chaplaincy and the Support of War – an ancient koan revisited

A dharma brother sent me this koan:  How does a man of war make global peace?

The issue of whether it is appropriate for a Buddhist to serve as Chaplain in the military is this koan reversed:  How does a person of peace sustain war?

As a military and police services psychologist, I have read with deep concern the many view points on the issue of Buddhist chaplains serving in the military.   Let me not make just yet that important distinction of whether Chaplains are serving in the military or serving members of the military.  To leap there before considering the gross details of inter-relationships makes the argument facile.  The newsletters, internet blogs and Facebook status updates are vibrating with the pros, cons, recriminations, judgments, and naïve suppositions we would expect to find when everyone has a right and a venue to express an opinion.

In my readings of all these commentaries and the three very thoughtful ones on the Upaya newsletter, I am struck by three things:

–       a subtle duality in the arguments of the appropriateness of being a Buddhist and Buddhist chaplain in an organization

–       assumptions about the purpose of military members, and

–       assumptions about the flexibility of the First Precept against killing

First, there is a subtly divisive message in the writings about whether Buddhist Chaplains should serve in the military.  It begins with a statement that Buddhist practice is peacemaking and carries on to a conclusion that Buddhists cannot be part of anything that supports killing.  Counter-arguments will bring out examples of the historical support of violence by Buddhist practitioners: Zen practitioners’ support of Japanese war ideologies is a favourite albeit acceptable point, the war in Sri Lanka, the human rights atrocities in Burma perpetrated by a putatively Buddhist government.  While this is a start to unpacking the question of the ethics of Buddhist Chaplains in war-focused organizations, it can be dangerously based on the assumption that other religious groups do not share this ethical concern.

The question perhaps is more whether any religious person or cleric can serve in the military and still honour their religious vows of not killing.  Consistent with the Western myopic vision, we have come to see war-making as a Western endeavour.  There is little reason to think we would not extrapolate this view to the participation of Western clerics as sanctioned both culturally and politically.  This is a serious blind spot in Western Buddhism: the belief that because the faith is 2600 years old, our experience of interacting with the world carries those years of wisdom.  In truth, Western Buddhism is only a hundred or so years young, if that.  We have much to learn from the religious groups who have faced these ethical dilemma and we cannot afford to set ourselves up as better than our sisters and brothers of faith.  This is the teaching of non-duality; we are not different from the Christian clerics who have walked this path for centuries.

Tomorrow:  Peacekeeping – a different ethic

One thought on “in the service of war – the ethics of Buddhist Chaplaincy I

  1. Pingback: 7 links – how to appreciate yourself « 108zenbooks

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