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Many people believe that Zen Buddhists are pacifists. This view is too simplistic.

Zen master Seikō Hirata, late head abbot of Tenryū-ji in Kyoto (1991-2008), recounts an illuminating story from the sutras about a 50-year-old Śākyamuni Buddha. The king of Kośala, a powerful neighboring country, decided to wage war against the Śākya clan, that had racially insulted him. Hearing of the threat against his people, Śākyamuni positioned himself by a tree in the path of the oncoming army. According to Indian custom of the time, an invading army had to stop if it encountered a holy person in its way. Three times this happened. The fourth time, though, despite pleas by his people, Śākyamuni declined to stop the army.

Most people at this point ask: Wouldn’t it have been more compassionate for the Buddha to intervene again to save his people?

Hirata writes:

“Realizing the forces of karma cannot be thwarted by human design, he was convinced that the Śākya people would inevitably be destroyed for having insulted Kośala. Śākyamuni therefore refused in the end to oppose the advancing Kośala army, maintaining an attitude of complete and total non-belligerence, even in the full knowledge that this would mean the extinction of his [clan].”*

From our human perspective, this does not appear compassionate, but true compassion does not always look or feel like kindness or mercy, especially in the short run. Plus, it is easy to become caught up in nationalistic, racial or ethnic concerns. We want – and need – to see war as having a just or unjust cause, to see political leaders and their policies as being humane or heartless. We want to find meaning behind actions.

Because the Buddha saw this conflict from the viewpoint of Absolute Time and Absolute Space, however, he was, as Hirata said, “free of nationalistic concerns.” In fact, from this perspective, the Buddha was not tied to any secular concerns. His level of compassion was deeper than what a mere human could see or understand.

The sutras go on to say that in “karmic retribution for the destruction of the Śākyas,” and in accordance with a prediction made by the Buddha, the Kośala and the king all drowned in a violent rainstorm.

This lesson is hard to grasp. To truly see and accept the Buddha’s act as one of compassion requires a better understanding of karma, which, briefly, is the consequence of a person’s thoughts, speech and deeds. The effect of karma is determined by both the act and the intent, and consequences may not manifest themselves till another lifespan.

Karma provides the situation, but you provide the response. You cannot change the karma of the universe, but you change your own karma through the choices you make in each situation. While previous karma, may predispose you toward one choice or another, you are still free to choose in each moment, here and now.

The universe may surround us with wartime conditions of suffering, fear and anxiety. We choose how to respond to this situation. Thus, must we not also wonder: Why did the king not change his mind and just stop fighting? He was given three opportunities to do so, but each time, he chose the path of war, which resulted in the karmic destruction of the Śākya and the Kośala.

Like Śākyamuni and the king, you are free to choose your response, and that choice determines your subsequent karma.

Hirata wrote: “Zen is not so much concerned with deciding issues of right and wrong, of war and peace, as with understanding the self that deals with these questions and makes these decisions.” [Italics added.] In other words, to truly see conflict from the Zen perspective of Absolute Time/Absolute Space, we must go back to the basic question of “Who?” (“Who is deciding?” Who is choosing?” “Who is agonizing over the question of war?”)

Who is this self?

When we can truly answer that question, then all other questions we may have – including how to act compassionately when it comes to war – will fall into place. Śākyamuni’s response from our human perspective did not appear compassionate, and yet from an Absolute Oneness viewpoint, it was.

How do we, as mere humans access this perspective? It is only by transcending the world of dualistic thinking, which includes attaching to concepts such as us/other, friend/foe, birth/death. Once we let go of these views, the heart works with true compassion, without intervention of ego or thought. This is how the Buddha operated when he made the decision not to intervene the fourth time.

So, are Buddhists pacifists? Who is asking this question?


* Hirata, Seikō, “Zen Buddhist Attitudes to War,” Rude Awakenings: Zen, the Kyoto School and the Question of Nationalism, Hesig & Maraldo, eds. University of Hawaii Press. 1994, pp.3,4.


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