Just wars? Or, just war.

Like many people, I feel conflicted about the Libyan airstrikes. There’s some tension between my beliefs and what appears to be a practical reality. I’m sure that more than a few people feel the same thing. Add to that the anxiety that war naturally brings to the table.

Some Buddhists may want to look at the issue from the standpoint of the precepts, the first of which is not to kill. The Brahajala (Brahma Net) Sutra states,

A disciple of the Buddha shall not himself kill, encourage others to kill, kill by expedient means, praise killing, rejoice at witnessing killing, or kill through incantation or deviant mantras. He must not create the causes, conditions, methods, or karma of killing, and shall not intentionally kill any living creature.

On the other hand, the Buddha taught about suffering and its cessation and he said that intention (cetana) determined whether one’s actions were virtuous or non-virtuous. Nagarjuna offered this logical conclusion:

(The scriptures) maintain, ‘The mind is the prerequisite for all dharmas – the mind is the principle factor (in actions).’ So if one does something helpful with the intention to be helpful, how could it be unhelpful, even if suffering is involved?

No one wants to see another Rwanda. If the goal is to protect civilians and, as has been suggested, the airstrikes have succeeded, preventing Gadhafi from enacting retribution on a massive scale, wouldn’t this be a case where a non-virtuous act becomes virtuous through the intention?

It’s tempting to consider this second point of view as just another rationalization, more of “the end justifies the means.” I don’t think so, and no one has less use for that odious concept than me. Nagarjuna, who must be considered an authority given his status as a “Second Buddha” and as one of the chief architects of Mahayana philosophy, pointed out how important it was to understand the relationship between the Buddha’s two truths, the ultimate and the relative. As I’ve mentioned before we often have a tendency to apply the ultimate to the relative inappropriately. The admonition against killing is an ultimate truth, an absolute – but there are no absolutes in the relative world, everything is subject to change.

Awakening means understanding both truths.  The idea is to awaken to reality as it is, not as it should be, and reality can be dammed unpleasant. Awakening only to the pretty picture we paint or the “nice” ideals we aspire to, like peace and love, can be seizing on those things and clinging to them. Perhaps misunderstanding and attachment like this produces less suffering than bombs do, but it’s still suffering.

The use of force is hardly ever justified. But perhaps our reason for using force, our intention, can be justifiable. As for the world, it should be peaceful but it’s not, nor is it likely to be in our lifetimes. It has taken me a long time to realize that simple truth, and to understand that being an agent for the kind of change I want to see requires operating from that perspective. Otherwise, you just go crazy.

In any case, these are my thoughts about the subject today. I offer them only as something to think about, to consider. I hope they are helpful.


2 thoughts on “Just wars? Or, just war.

  1. I typed “ultimate relative” into the Endless Further search box and did some catchup reading. So much to chew on.

    “Look upon both ultimate and relative truths equably and without clinging”: Knowing that I tend to oversimplify… is that a fair summary?

    1. Yes, a lot there. Must be one of my favorite subjects.

      Your summary is pretty close. My point is people tend to latch onto one truth and then interpret everything through it. But reality is not one sided. That’s why Nagarjuna called his philosophy Madhyamaka – The Middle Way.

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