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
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