Buddhism, War & Bin Laden

“Forgiveness doesn’t mean forget what happened. If something is serious and it is necessary to take counter-measures, you have to take counter-measures.” Thus, the Dalai Lama addressed a question about the killing of Osama bin Laden. He indicated that from a Buddhist perspective, although all beings may deserve compassion and forgiveness, the killing of bin Laden might have been inevitable and justified. This attitude surprised many of those who only have a superficial understanding of the Buddhadharma.

Are war and killing ever justified? On the surface, the teachings of right livelihood and refraining from killing anything seem to speak against a Buddhist being a soldier and, most certainly, against going to war. However, this is not always the case. In his book, The Gospel of Buddha, Paul Carus (1852 – 1919) presents a translation of the story of General Simha, and his questions to the Buddha.

General Simha came to the Buddha with a troubled mind. He asked whether the Buddha permitted the punishment of the criminal, and if the Buddha taught that it is wrong to go to war to protect our lives and property. Is warfare waged for a righteous cause forbidden? The Buddha replied, “The Buddha teaches that all warfare in which man tries to slay his brother is lamentable, but he does not teach that those who go to war in a righteous cause after having exhausted all means to preserve the peace are blameworthy. He must be blamed who is the cause of war.” The Buddha then addressed the actions of the victor. The victor must remain aware that no matter how great his victory, this victory may be fleeting. The Buddha then states, “However, if he moderates himself and, extinguishing all hatred in his heart lifts his down-trodden adversary up and says to him, ‘Come now and make peace and let us be brothers,’ he will gain a victory that is not a transient success, for its fruits will remain forever.”

Seeming contradictions fill the Buddhadharma. Few things are black or white, just an endless parade of shades of gray. Was it wrong to feel joy over the death of Osama bin Laden? Perhaps the attitude of the Dalai Lama provides us with a clue. To celebrate death cannot lead to the lessening of suffering. However, to feel relief that the perpetrator of heinous acts is now eliminated, and that the future suffering he may have caused was avoided, is a cause for joy. From a Buddhist perspective, the question of whether or not he deserved to die is irrelevant. After all, there are many in the world who feel Osama bin Laden was right. The Buddhadharma does not address the question of right or wrong. The idea of karma teaches that all actions have consequences. When Osama bin Laden decided to wage war against the infidels, and cause the death of thousands of innocents, his ultimate death was inevitable. As has often been said, “You reap as you have sown.”

Something for us all to think about.