Buddhism and War

In this Two-Question Interview with novelist Charles Johnson, E. Ethelbert Miller asks about the relationship between Buddhism and war.

1. When is it important for Buddhists to organize and oppose a war? How do you explain the actions of Buddhist monks in Vietnam who set fire to themselves in protest of war back in the 1960s?

Since the time of the great Buddhist ruler Ashoka, ruler of the Maurya kingdom from 272-236 B.C.E., and Udayi Shatavahana, who lived between the first century B.C.E. and the second century C.E., and was advised by the great Buddhist dialectician Nagarjuna, those who follow the Dharma have always publicly promoted peace and opposed war. But being non-violent does not mean one is a pacifist; rather, one works actively to reduce suffering in the world. So Martin Luther King Jr. and Thich Nhat Hahn, the Vietnamese Buddhist with whom we most associated the phrase “engaged Buddhism,” stood shoulder to shoulder in opposing the Vietnam War. A new article I have in the November issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review addresses this question. A Buddhist, like my friend Claude Anshin Thomas, works with war veterans, prisoners, and the homeless all over the world, to help them end the on-going war “within” all of us, which is the pre-condition for ending the wars and violence we see throughout the world.

2. Are there individuals in the Buddhist community whose writings you would recommend for instructing a person on how to live in today’s world?

Sharon Salzberg’s Loving-Kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness (Shambhala Publications, 2002), and Dharma, Color, and Culture: New Voices in Western Buddhism by Hilda Gutierrez Baldoquin, who is a Buddhist nun (Parallax Press, 2004).

Charles Johnson is the author of the National Book Award-winning novel Middle Passage. He is also a screenwriter and a professor at the University of Washington. E. Ethelbert Miller is an award-winning poet, the director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University, and the board chairperson of the Institute for Policy Studies. His two-question interviews are a regular feature of Fiesta.