Throughout the duration of the Nanking Massacre, better known as the “Rape of Nanking,” Buddhist Japanese soldiers barbarically raped, tortured, and butchered 350,000 Chinese civilians. Nanking was brimming with rotting masses of mutilated corpses for months. One could ask, how could someone who follows Buddhism, the religion typically least associated with violence, to execute such horrendous and inhumane bloodshed? The answer is that these actions were primarily fueled by political and socio-cultural motivations that caused Buddhists to deviate from genuine Buddhist teachings (teachings of Buddha) against violence and justify that their actions were for the greater good to protect against threats to civilization, peace, and enlightenment (Sapardanis). Although these political and socio-cultural motivations may be inspired by Buddhism, behavior involving physical or psychological force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something, also known as violence, is not justified according to teachings by Buddha because they forbid violence for resolving conflicts as a primary virtue. However, because Buddhism’s doctrine is not dogma and is merely observational and experimental, it is possible for variations of Buddhism to justify forms of violence.
Buddhism was founded as an inherently peaceful religion, as the first precept, or rule to live by, forbids taking someone’s life. Buddha believed that actions and thoughts of violence heeded one’s potential spiritual progression and personal conquest that led to Nirvana, or the goal of enlightenment. The Fourth Noble Truth describes a path to follow in order to achieve Nirvana. Also known as the Eightfold Path, it explains “ethical, experimental, and doctrinal dimensions that are traditionally divided into three disciplines: ethical conduct (right speech, right action, and right livelihood); mental discipline (right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration); and wisdom (right understanding and right thought) (Prothero 183).” With the right ethical conduct, Buddha believed that one should train to be morally conscious in his exercises, abstaining from actions and behavior that could bring harm to oneself or others, therefore condemning the killing or harm of living beings. It is believed that a mind filled with lust, hatred, and delusion leads to unwholesome actions, thus, indulging in violence is considered to be self-harming. However, the people who follow these teachings of Buddhism are considered to be practitioners, rather than believers. Dharma is not considered fact or divine revelation, and its practitioners are challenged to experiment with this guidance in order to determine for themselves whether the Buddha was right and whether his teachings actually reduce one’s suffering. Therefore, the teachings of Buddhism can be interpreted in various ways, leading to many loopholes for justification of “right actions.”
After becoming the official religion of Japan in the 17th century, Buddhism had taken over and spread with its growing power and influence, eventually creating resentment and threatening the ruling class. As a result, attempts were made to reintroduce Shintoism as the traditional, ethnic religion of the country during the Meiji era, and the demolition of Buddhism was sought out through destruction of temples, and statues, and reassimilation of monks into civil society. Buddhism had to adapt in order to survive by becoming part of the new imperial regime (Victoria). “Buddha was replaced by the Emperor, Dharma (the cosmic law and order in Buddhism) was replaced by the dedication to the state and the Japanese spirit, and Sangha (community or assembly) was replaced by the nation (Sapardanis).” Imperial law and Dharma were seen as the same thing. Because of Buddhism’s varying interpretations, different branches of Buddhism were formed, such as Zen Buddhism. Zen Buddhism was prominent in Japan and did not necessarily rely on or follow scripture, doctrine, or ritual, but personal experience passed on from master to disciple through arduous training (Fischer). This being said, the legitimacy of original Buddhist scriptures were somewhat recognized. There was an integration of Japanese Zen Buddhism history with samurai culture and bushido, the way of the sword, a demonstration of the interlaced connection between Buddhism and militarism. “The sword was a Buddhist symbol for cutting through delusion, but it evolved from metaphor into an object of veneration and obsession, idealized and worshipped” under bushido (Baran). A Zen leader made the point that “Buddhism saw life and death indifferently and that the absence of a clear dogma made it flexible in adapting to any philosophical or moral system, as long as what was intuitively felt to be its truth was kept intact.” These Zen leaders advocated that if “killing is done in a state of no-mind or no-self, then the act is an expression of enlightenment. No thinking = No-mind = No-self = No karma.” With this mentality, the sword did the killing instead of the man yielding it, because the man had no desire to harm anyone. Therefore, the first precept remains intact.
As a loophole was found to evade the “right conduct” of the Eightfold Path because there was no thought, there was ultimately no effect on karma. In order to contemplate violence’s justification according to genuine Buddhist teachings and its loopholes, one must determine what are considered to be “genuine” Buddhist teachings. Earlier on, I had made the distinction between the original teachings of Buddha and the variations or sects of Buddhism. I believe that the answer is both no and yes, depending on the definition of these “genuine” Buddhist teachings. In terms of the teachings of Buddha, there is a very clear forbiddance to kill- so violence is not justified whatsoever. However, if there are variations of Buddhism due to no central dogma, violence could, indeed, be justified. Throughout the decades, some Buddhist traditions, such as Zen in Japan, have developed different approaches with regards to violence. In Zen at War, the author describes how Zen leaders “perverted the Buddhist teaching to encourage blind obedience, mindless killing, and total devotion to the emperor.” The Zen soldiers were taught that their individual lives were of no value and that complete adherence to the emperor would give their existence meaning. According to Sapardanis, the united Buddhist leadership said that, “in order to establish eternal peace in East Asia, arousing the great benevolence and compassion of Buddhism, we are sometimes accepting and sometimes forceful. We now have no choice but to exercise the benevolent forcefulness of ‘killing one in order that many may live’ (issatsu tasho). This is something which Mahayana Buddhism approves of only with the greatest seriousness.” In other words, the sword that kills serves as a function of justice, where it simultaneously gives life. Therefore, violence in this case is considered just.
Although it is hard to imagine that Zen Buddhism had shown such a deep familiarity with the way of killing for centuries, not all of those who identified as Zen were involved. However, this facet was a significant element of their culture. These acts of violence, inspired by Buddhism, were technically considered just by their own standards and were made possible by an unclear central dogma and text. Had Buddhism been more similar to religious scriptures such as the Bible, it would have been more clear on whether or not violence was justified.
- Baran, Josh. “Sword of Compassion?” Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, 1998, tricycle.org/magazine/sword-compassion/.
- Fischer, Norman. “What Is Zen Buddhism and How Do You Practice It?” Lion’s Roar, Lion’s Roar, 8 Jan. 2019, www.lionsroar.com/what-is-zen-buddhism-and-how-do-you-practice-it/.
- Prothero, Stephen R. God Is Not One: the Eight Rival Religions That Run the World. HarperOne, 2011.
- Sapardanis, Kostas. “Justification of Violence in Buddhism.” Sapardanis Kostas, Sapardanis Kostas, 6 Apr. 2016, sapardanis.org/2016/03/18/justification-of-violence-in-buddhism/.
- Victoria, Daizen. Zen at War. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006.