out of excuses – the ethics of Buddhist Chaplaincy III

This is the final installment of the article, published in the Upaya Newsletter November 16, 2009 and reproduced here in three parts (with some grammatical editing of the original):

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

[see previous posts I & II]

Third, and perhaps most difficult to resolve, is the fundamental vow of being Buddhist.  The First Precept is clear and absolute: do not kill.  Students of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh take the vow in the First Mindfulness Training to respect life.  All acts of body, speech and mind that lead to killing are foresworn explicitly.  In the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, the aspiration to have reverence for life is found in the Twelfth Mindfulness Training.  Positioning it towards the end of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings does not diminish its importance.  In fact, it is only through the practice of the first eleven that we can meet this aspiration that calls for absolute commitment to boundless love.  Our practice first must include training our attitude (openness, nonattachment to views, freedom of thought), capacity to bear witness (awareness of suffering), self-compassion (healthy living, transforming anger, happiness), and relationships (communication, speech, community, livelihood).

If it stopped at vowing not to kill, we would be able to justify any participation in a military organization.  We could rest safely in our belief that we are upholding our vow because we ourselves are not doing the killing.  We would be further reassured in serving the members of the organization because we strive for their suffering to be alleviated.  However, the aspiration to act with reverence for life carries the implication that we will also not participate in the support of any person or organization that creates the possibility of killing.  The Twelfth Mindfulness Training states categorically: We are determined not to kill and not to let others kill. The implication is inescapable.

As care providers in the military, our role is not only to support but to ensure that members can return to do the work they have contracted to do.  We must see this subtle collusion we will inevitably engage in as chaplain or health care workers.  We cannot be blind to the reality that our work will not be to release military members from their contracts or to discharge them from their obligations.  It will be, inexorably, to make them well enough to continue to do what we have vowed not to do.

We cannot be blind to this uncomfortable truth that in making others whole, we are supporting not only the good but also the ill-intentions contained in a military environment.

I have no solution to this koan.  As a psychologist who has both treated the wounded and selected personnel for missions, I am deeply aware of the ways in which I have violated my vows and fallen short of my aspirations.  I have my own rationalizations: the people I select are healthy and have a greater likelihood of surviving trauma or not doing more violence than is necessary.  The people I don’t select for missions are spared doing further violence to themselves and others; I am protecting their families and community.  The people I treat and who return to work are better equipped to manage their conflicting values and are stronger.

I have to, but don’t always believe, these mantras.  I also do not see a way to meet the world as it is without throwing myself willingly into the center of the storm.  I am a Buddhist who believes we must strive for peace and who knows the reality that creating peace requires an unthinkable sacrifice of the heart for all of us.

Thank you for practising,


3 thoughts on “out of excuses – the ethics of Buddhist Chaplaincy III

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful, passionate set of posts.

    In my life, it seems that I’m often asked to live with the impossible, to find a gate where no gate exists.

    In those times, the precepts and other good teachings of Buddhism do provide support and direction.

    But – really – sometimes these situations require me to open so fully that the only way forward is “don’t know.”

    It’s the unthinkable sacrifice of the heart/mind. And yet we do it, over and over.

  2. if we think we are refusing the choice to offer our heart/mind in sacrifice we are, in fact, choosing – we choose to continue to live in a deluded state of mind separated from our heart.

    Thank you, my friend. It was a difficult article to write and it was surprisingly well-received. I certainly felt the support of my dharma siblings from the ten directions.

    I hope you’re feeling better?


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

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