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Reply to a Reader: Buddhism and the Arts of Harm

Question: If I enter the military, does it violate the Right Livelihood of the Eight Noble Path?  How do you reconcile military service members with non-violence [ahimsa] emphasized in Buddhism?

Reply: This is a very good question.

First, you must understand something: guns do not kill people.  Bombs can never intentionally kill anyone.  Knives and chemical weapons, even missiles have never, ever killed people.  In all of human history, not a single weapon ever killed another human being.  Not one single time.  And they never will, because it is literally impossible for a gun or knife or bomb or missile to just jump up and kill someone.

Only human beings murder other human beings. (Yes, and diseases do, and sharks do, and lions do, but that is another matter of agency and will: we are concerned here, in this question, with the question of human agency and the matter of ahimsa.)

If you put a knife in front of someone, it is only according to their thinking that they either pick up the knife and butter some bread for you, or plunge the knife right into your chest.  The knife does not decide to make karma and suffering with itself; the deluded human mind does.

Several years ago, a Korean man who I never met before just cut me with a knife.  It was a very, very sharp knife.  He sliced open my left shoulder. So painful!!  There was much blood, and I could not use my arm for about one month.  I still have a prominent scar in the area where this Korean man cut me.  I had never met this man before that day, and I have not seen him since.  Can a man with a knife who cuts another man — who he does not know — be someone who practices Right Livelihood?  On the surface — if you just look at these actions quickly — it seems like this is not a good example of Right Livelihood.

Wouldn’t it be the moral thing to do for that man to spend some time in jail? Well, he never spent a single day in jail. “How unjust!”

Well, the Korean man who cut me was a doctor, an orthopaedic surgeon who operated on my shoulder after I broke it badly during a fall in the dark in an unlit temple in the mountains, during the Summer Ango retreat of 2001.  Through the man’s skilful and meticulous actions, my arm was saved, and it now has full functionality.

Before I added this important qualification about “the man” and his occupation to the story, the mind might automatically think “bad man.” After this crucial qualification is added, everyone thinks “good man.” Everything comes down to your intention: Why do you do something? Only for you, for your ego or feelings or ideas, or for all beings?

We can all agree that shooting a gun at someone to kill them is not really a good thing to do.  If you intentionally shoot someone to kill for personal motives and reasons, that is not Right Livelihood.  But if a bad man is hurting other people, holding them hostage or threatening them, then of course we expect the police to come when we call, and, if the bad man resists, to kill him!  In this case, the police officer does not hurt or kill the bad man for himself, for his own ego or deluded sense of glory: the policeman risks his life, and maybe takes the bad man’s life, in order to save other beings.  Claus von Stauffenberg and the other good German military men (including one of my personal heroes, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer) who tried to assassinate Hitler in 1944 with a briefcase bomb are rightly considered heroes — their memory is commemorated with the highest respect and honor, statues and plaques for them installed all over the world.  And don’t we believe that if someone could stop President Hafez el-Assad from killing more helpless Syrians, that person would be thanked and praised, even if it meant that it was necessary to kill Assad in order to accomplish this? And what about killing Putin? If a Ukrainian soldier or partisan was able to kill Vladimir Putin, and stop this insane war in Ukraine, wouldn’t he/she be celebrated in every home in Ukraine (and in many uncountable homes in the world)? If the death of one (or a few) prevents the deaths of many, than killing that person/those people is not making “bad” karma. It can be the Great Bodhisattva Way!

So, the question is not whether some job or action is Right Livelihood, as an absolute category.  Only you should ask yourself, With what kind of mind do I pursue this action?  Is it only for me, or for the benefit of other beings?

My Teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn, used to talk about a butcher who lived in the time of the Buddha.  Because of his low-caste status, the man could not have any other way to provide for his family.  So, every day he slaughtered many animals so that higher-caste people could eat well.  This was his station in life.

Yet the Eightfold Path speaks clearly about the issue of gaining a living from the taking of other lives.  According to the Buddha, to live off butchery is perhaps one of the clearest examples of a non-compassionate, non-helpful livelihood.

But this man was a devoted student of the Buddha, and tried, in his daily life, to live closely to the teachings.  He could not escape his station in life, in the absolutely restrictive caste system of ancient India: the only job open to him, to members of his caste, was to do the unclean work of butcher. So, every day, he only kept this question: “Who is killing this animal? Who?”  His question became a Great Doubt; he used the situation to fire up this question and give it real spiritual basis.

One day, as he struck a blow to the head of a lamb, the lamb bleated out loudly its shock and surprise as death was delivered on its head.  “Mm-baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!”  In that moment, the lamb’s sound and the man’s questioning mind completely became one.  BOOM!– in an instant, the man got enlightenment.

My Teacher used to tell this story often, and he would comment how if you use anything with a Great Question, and great effort, while having natural sadness for the suffering of beings, you can perhaps also get enlightenment.

The first Buddhist precept is “Do not take any life.” But this is not some mealy-mouthed escape from the very real challenges of this world. In Buddhist compassion, we keep a very clear yet wide view of the conditions and difficulties of life. In some cases, breaking this sacred precept is necessary.

The great Zen Master So Sahn Dae Sa (1520-1604) raised an army of monks to defend Korea against the Japanese invasions which began in 1592.  So Sahn Dae Sa was a great monk, one of the most influential meditators in Korea’s Buddhist history: how could he organise and train other monks to fight and kill the sons or other people? My Teacher would often say, “This monk-army of Korea was not conquering, only protecting Korea from invasion.  The central government of Korea at that time was Confucianist, and they had even suppressed Buddhist activity. But they had also not maintained any army or military capabilities. So, when the Japanese invaded Korea and ran up and down the countryside killing and burning and raping and destroying, when the king asked So Sahn Dae Sa to organise his communities of strong monks to help the nation in its desperate hour of need, the master agreed. 

Korea had correct Buddhist teachings, and it had an intellectual and spiritual tradition which was unique and had never encouraged previous kings to conquer or invade other countries during the time when Buddhism was the state religion. So, protecting the country was protecting other people — it was purely defensive. They never tortured Japanese who were captured. Therefore, So Sahn Dae Sa was truly protecting these unique and special teachings of Dharma.”  So Sahn Dae Sa did not join this action for his own selfish needs, or his wish for glory or booty: he joined the fight reluctantly, to help other people. His monks’ army was absolutely critical in defeating the invading Japanese forces and protecting the nation from ruin. He is considered to be a hero in Korea, even among Christians.

And Zen Master Seung Sahn himself was drafted into the Army during the Korean War, when Communists allied with China and the Soviet Union invaded the democratic southern regions of the peninsula.  His army service spanned 5 years, and he rose to the level of captain; he even hinted that he had been involved in actual conflict zones.  And this military service occurred after his Great Enlightenment experience, and after getting inga [approval of his enlightenment] from the great Ko Bong Sunim, so he was fully aware of the implications of this involvement in such a fratricidal conflict. He was aware of the “bad” karma he would need to make as a monk. But there was no other choice — everyone else was working hard to protect the country from annihilation, and my Teacher was no different. My Teacher went to war, and war means killing. This was the Great Bodhisattva Way.


The core of the issue must be decided by the “why.” That makes everything clear. About 20 years ago in Granby, Colorado, named Marvin Heemeyer who had had several personal conflicts with neighbors one day went on a rampage in a bulldozer which he had modified for the purpose. He destroyed several buildings, and terrorised a populace for several hours. The incident became known as “the killdeer rampage.” In the end, he committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.

Later, investigators found tapes and manifestos that he had written to explain his motivations. “God built me for this job,” Heemeyer said in the first recording. He also said it was God’s plan that he not be married or have a family so that he could be in a position to carry out such an attack. “I think God will bless me to get the machine done, to drive it, to do the stuff that I have to do,” he said. “God blessed me in advance for the task that I am about to undertake. It is my duty. God has asked me to do this. It’s a cross that I am going to carry and I’m carrying it in God’s name.” [Wikipedia] This man has become an icon and a hero for American right-wing extremists, who wish to intimidate or kill others for their twisted social and political ideas. This is pure murder, based on ego.

Nowadays, many people have an ideology or strong belief mixed in with their own unexamined karmic impulses, like Heemeyer. People on the right and on the left, and concentrated strongly in organised religions’ outer spectrums.

Once someone questioned Dae Soen Sa Nim, “You always teach ‘just do it!’ But what if someone takes that teaching and uses it to hurt or kill other people — is that still good Dharma?” And his answer was very helpful for shedding light on “where” the motivation should come from, and this informs your question about “killing” (or even being tangentially involved in communities that might harm). Dae Soen Sa Nim answered, “If you only have desire/anger/ignorance, and you operate from there, then ‘just do it’ only makes suffering for others and suffering for yourself. This makes bad karma, and one day you must pay back this bad karma. But if you keep a clear mind, from moment to moment, and you operate from this wish only to help all beings, then ‘just do it” makes Great Bodhisattva Action.”

So the difference here is how much you understand your mind. How much does this action come from thinking and karma, and how much does it arise from clearly seeing my own motives and the well-being of other sentient beings. In other contexts, he would also say, “If you any kind of action only ‘for me,’ then this is bad action. If you only help all beings, then your action is already correct.”

The point of this is that we must always be making effort to having a clear view of the nature of our own mind. The user-interface for that awareness is called “awareness,” sometimes referred to as “meditation.” The point is that there are no categorical answers: there is only the bright fact of the nature of our before-thinking mind, the mind that is already pure and unconditional love and compassion. This is why we must practice.

So, why do you join the military?  Why do you learn the arts of killing and war?  If you do it with a mind to save all beings from suffering, then this killing is a necessary kind of action.  Of course, all action which harms other beings is not helpful to us in wishing to get free from karmic hindrance.  And we should never wish for killing, or glorify it in any way.

But unless or until this world magically turns into a spotless and blissful Pure Land, there will be situations where having police and military (and good surgeons!) will continue to be necessary, for the good prospering of life.  Our job is, then, to wake up — from moment to moment — to bring this world closer to that mind where killing and intentional suffering are no longer a part of everyday life. In order to get there, it is important for us — for you — to make a daily effort to wake up to the nature of your mind. Then all of your ‘just-do-it’ actions only help other beings, and also help you.

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