Buddhist Soldiers?

Wednesday October 19, 2005


The Ministry of Defence has just appointed four new chaplains to minister to the forces, including one Buddhist chaplain. Paid between £26,000 and £37,000 the chaplain will be responsible for the care of the around 220 Buddhists in the British forces. The full story is available from the Times. There were ten applications for the post, although all but three dropped out during the selection process (see the Buddhist Society for more details). The final choice is said to be “outstanding”.

The idea of a Buddhist soldier might be seen to be a contradiction in terms, given the fundamental Buddhist precept of abstaining from harm; and the position of Buddhist chaplain in the army is even more fraught with problems. What is the role of the chaplain? How much, by accepting this post, will the chaplain be giving tacit support to the business of the military? Shouldn’t a Buddhist chaplain be urging their followers to put away their guns rather than to fire them?

The argument on the reverse side is that the military is not in the business of war, but of humanitarian aid – this, at least is the image that is put forward in recruitment advertisements these days. In this view, the army is a place where one can do good. It may indeed be true that the army can do good, and has done good, at various times. But one should not overlook the sheer brutality of the military, the fact that the day-to-day business of war is the tearing of flesh, the laying waste of lives. Anyone in need of convincing on this account should read Jonathan Glover’s Humanity: a moral history of the twentieth century, which explores in terrible detail how military training and service erode the moral identity of those who take part in them. Behind our rhetoric of duty and honour lies the wholesale denial of the brutalisation that takes place within the armed forces, in military training and on the field of battle. At the very least, to take on the role of chaplain without a deep moral unease one would have to possess a certain conviction in the virtue, humanity and political judgement of our leaders who make the decisions to go to war. And I fail to see how one could come by such a conviction.

This is not a new problem. There is a long and uneasy relationship between Buddhism and the military. Matthew Kosuta has published an interesting articles on the relations between military power and Buddhism at the dawn of Buddhist history, as seen in the Pali Canon. The article is available from Urban Dharma, and is well worth reading. Kosuta points to the ambivalence in the texts which admit that the military may, on the one hand, be “necessary”, but which see clearly on the other hand that the business of war is “prideful, destructive, and in vain, engendering a cycle of revenge which only leads to more suffering.” It is this reluctant concession to necessity that is interesting. Given that the world we live in is not a utopia, can we do without the military altogether? Perhaps not, the Canon suggests. But if not, should Buddhists serve? No, the texts say. Is this not having one’s cake and eating it?

Meanwhile, the new Buddhist chaplain – whose name has not yet been announced – will be taking up their post very soon. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

Image by Ronnieb at Morguefile

# · jez

Buddhist states have militaries:Japan, Thailand…and often brutal ones at that.
Perhaps the question should be:are Buddhism and nationalism(statehood) compatible?
The same can probably be said of Christianity and other religions which ‘forbid’ the taking of another person’s life if not in self-defence.
# · Will

Yes, I think you are right. Benedict Anderson says somewhere that the idea of the nation has been the myth in the service of which more people have died in the last 200 years than any other…
# · Anji

I think this poses a problem for all chaplains, not only buddhists
# · Will

It certainly should, Anji! Whether it does or not, I am unclear…
# · Rocco

I am interested in becoming the first Buddhist Chaplain in the Army. I have discussed this with numerous personnel and feel it is needed now more than every. The Army dipslays more of a humanitarian effort and engaged in peace keeping missions. Although countries such as China and Japan have fought wars, they have also had a basis of Buddhist culture strictly adhere to. It would be no different if the united States adapted a Buddhist view within their protective posture.

# · Will

Hi, Rocco,

Good to hear from you. If you do become a Buddhist chaplain, I’d be interested to hear about your experiences. It does seem as if there is a necessary tension (if not a contradiction) in the idea of “Buddhist army chaplain”, a tension that is not necessarily resolved by the assertion that the army’s concern is “humanitarian”. But I’d be interested to hear from somebody who had actually worked as a Buddhist chaplain to the military.

Best wishes,


# · general smith

Name is now available, and some contact details


# · Will

Thanks for the link, general smith. With best wishes,


# · Ananda

The first UK Armed Forces Buddhist Conference is being held in April.

Dr Kariyakarawana will be there, as will Buddhist service personnel, and speakers from several branches of Buddhism.

More details from

The link above no longer works. This one is still good:

# · Sunil Kariyakarawana

I just wanted to let you know that I have been the first Buddhist Chaplain to HM Forces and I held the first Buddhist conference which was attended by the Buddhist personnel from all three forces. Further more I would like to let you know that I am preparing an article describing my experience with the work for the military and how I see it from the Buddhist perspective. Once it is ready I will post the article. I need a this space to give the full picture. Sunil

# · Brundin

This website shows very interesting analysis of the role of the military and how Buddhism addresses the subject of Soldiering.

# · Gina

Reading from this post, apparently the comment about Buddhist Chaplain would post a moral problem to “Thy Shall Not Killed.” Hello, Clueless; is that in the 10 Commandments but Christians kill anyway.

Looking at Thailand, Lao, Korea, Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam, Japan, and China; they are Buddhist. Do they kill each other? Yes!
Buddha is a man not a God. He said it himself. Being a Buddhist doesn’t give mean close my eyes and let someone shoots me. As a Buddhist, I don’t kill anyone. However, if someone is trying to kill me or danger my family members; I will kill as and if necessary to protect myself and family. That is no sin from hell. It is a self-defense. Hello Clueless. Get some education.

# · Michelle

Hi Mr. Buckingham,

I just found your blog today. Do you have any updates on the story? Do you happen to have information about practicing Buddhist in the US Armed Forces?


# · Teik

Please western people stop practicing my religion.You misconception of our religion is very dangerous for us.All buddhist countries had very strong armies in the past,een Tibet now considered the most non violent country ever had a very strong army in the past.I don’t share the dalai lama..Please western people stop pretending to know our culture go back to you religion.

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