War and Hate from a Buddhist Rebirth Point of View

I was at my weekly group meditation session when the topic of rebirth surfaced. There was not enough time to explore the topic in much depth, but the venerable participating in the discussion pointed out a fairly obvious implication if one believes in rebirth.

Buddhism and Peace

If rebirth is true, then one should never participate in violence. Not just because this is one of the core principles of Buddhism but because in essence, you’d be fighting someone you loved and someone who has loved you!

The thinking behind this goes something like this: If everyone has been reborn for many thousands of years, at some point every person has been in a loving relationship with everyone in one past life or another.

Understanding the Cycle of Rebirth and Karma

In Buddhism, the concept of rebirth is intricately linked to the idea of karma. Karma, the law of cause and effect, dictates that our actions in this life will have consequences in future lives. This cyclic existence, known as samsara, underscores the impermanence of life and the continuous journey of the “soul” (though it seems the word soul may have varying definitions – to be explored in another article) through various incarnations. With the concept of karma, we gain a more profound understanding of how our present actions shape our future existences.

Implications for Personal Relationships

The belief in rebirth fosters a profound sense of interconnectedness. If everyone has been reborn numerous times, the web of relationships becomes vast and complex. This perspective encourages practitioners to view others not merely as strangers but as beings with whom they share deep, karmic connections. Even in situations where individuals may seem unrelated, the recognition that they were once beloved friends or family in previous lives promotes empathy and compassion.

War is an extreme example that may place a believer in rebirth in direct conflict with their moral and ethical beliefs. A believer in rebirth would feel repugnance at the thought of killing or harming because, though those targeted in this current life are strangers, they would be harming their mother or their brother or their best friend from previous lives. I love this as one of the foundational ways to view non-violence. This may be one of the contributing beliefs that has kept Buddhism out of many wars and conflicts. There are not too many examples of Buddhists engaging in war in order to further Buddhism. The conflicts in Myanmar and Sri Lankan come to mind, but those are nothing on the scale of the Christian Crusades or ideas of the Islamic Caliphate.

But the principle doesn’t only hold in extreme circumstances where one may be asked to kill strangers on a battlefield, but in our everyday lives in much more mundane ways. For example, becoming overly angry at a person driving poorly. The person driving may have been your best friend in a previous life. Or viewing people who are in less fortunate situations in a judgmental manner. That person may have been your mother in a previous life. I feel that this way of thinking is one of the ways in which Buddhism fosters empathy and compassion for all people (and all sentient beings).

Explore Buddhist Teachings on Non-Violence:

Insights from Buddhist Scriptures

Buddhist scriptures, particularly the Pali Canon, provide explicit teachings on non-violence. The Buddha’s emphasis on the first precept, abstaining from harming living beings, reflects the core principle of ahimsa or non-violence. The Metta Sutta, found in the Sutta Nipata, elaborates on the cultivation of loving-kindness (metta) as a means to overcome ill will and promote harmony. Similarly, the concept of compassion (karuna) is woven into the fabric of Buddhist ethics, encouraging followers to alleviate the suffering of all sentient beings.

Realizing Non-Violence in Everyday Life

The application of non-violence extends beyond extreme circumstances like war. Everyday scenarios, such as road rage or judgmental attitudes, can be transformed through the lens of rebirth. The person driving poorly might have been a dear friend in a previous life, and the person in less fortunate circumstances could have been a mother. This perspective serves as a practical guide for cultivating empathy and compassion in the mundane aspects of life.

Address Challenges and Controversies:

Confronting Deviations from Non-Violence

While Buddhism advocates for non-violence, it is essential to acknowledge instances where adherents deviate from these principles. The conflicts in Myanmar and Sri Lanka highlight the complexities surrounding the application of Buddhist teachings in real-world scenarios. By openly discussing these challenges, we can better understand the factors contributing to such deviations and work towards a more nuanced interpretation of Buddhist ethics.

Historical Contexts and Distortions

Exploring historical contexts, such as the involvement of Japanese “warrior monks” during World War II, sheds light on the potential misuse or misinterpretation of Buddhist principles. This historical deviation emphasizes the importance of critically examining the appropriation of religious doctrines for justifying violence and serves as a cautionary tale for the contemporary followers of Buddhism.

The involvement of Japanese “warrior monks” in acts of violence during World War II is a complex historical phenomenon that requires a nuanced examination of both the religious and socio-political contexts. While it’s essential to note that such actions were deviations from the core teachings of Buddhism, understanding the specific texts or doctrines manipulated to justify violence is crucial.

Japanese “Warrior Monks” and World War II:

Historical Context:

During the early-to-mid 20th century, Japan underwent a period of intense militarization and imperial expansion. This militarization extended to various sectors of society, including religious institutions. In the case of Buddhist monks, who traditionally upheld principles of peace and compassion, there was a notable departure from the norm.

Manipulation of Religious Texts:

  1. Bushido and Zen Buddhism:
    • The concept of Bushido, the “way of the warrior,” was influential during this period. Some Buddhist monks, particularly those associated with Zen Buddhism, attempted to reconcile Bushido with their spiritual beliefs. This synthesis resulted in a distorted interpretation of Zen teachings that justified violence in the name of national defense and loyalty to the emperor.
  2. State Shinto Influence:
    • State Shinto, a government-sponsored version of Shintoism, played a significant role in promoting a nationalist and militaristic ideology. Some Buddhist sects, in an attempt to align with the prevailing political climate, incorporated elements of State Shinto into their practices. This syncretism contributed to the manipulation of religious doctrines to support wartime activities.
  3. Selective Interpretation of Buddhist Ethics:
    • Certain Buddhist texts, when selectively interpreted, were used to rationalize violence. The doctrine of “just war” is not inherent in Buddhism, but some monks may have selectively drawn from historical narratives or interpreted teachings in a way that justified their participation in the war effort.

Distortion of Religious Values:

The involvement of Japanese Buddhist monks in acts of violence during World War II represents a departure from the fundamental principles of Buddhism. Instead of adhering to the core tenets of compassion and non-violence, some monks succumbed to the pressures of the militarized environment and distorted their religious values to align with the prevailing nationalist sentiments.

Post-War Reflection:

After Japan’s defeat in 1945, there was a significant reevaluation of the role of Buddhism in supporting militarism. Many Buddhist leaders acknowledged the deviation from their ethical principles and worked towards restoring the spiritual integrity of their faith. Post-war Japan witnessed a revival of Buddhism’s emphasis on peace, compassion, and the rejection of violence.

In retrospect, the manipulation of religious texts by Japanese “warrior monks” serves as a cautionary tale, highlighting the susceptibility of spiritual traditions to distortion in times of political upheaval. It underscores the importance of maintaining the integrity of religious teachings and resisting their misuse for political ends. Today, Buddhist leaders and scholars continue to reflect on this historical episode to ensure that the core values of Buddhism remain aligned with principles of peace and compassion.

Wrap Up

I like looking at philosophical and religious ideas/doctrines and examining what behaviors play out if the ideas are pushed to extremes. In this case, Buddhism’s main occupation is to help people extricate themselves from the cycle of rebirth through the Four Noble Truths and the concept of rebirth encourages practitioners to view others in an empathetic way and to improve themselves so as to exit the game of rebirth. Basically, rebirth can bring out the best in people!

I read that the Dali Lama strives to greet each person as if they are a long lost friend that he is very excited to get to see and speak with. In a sense, through the concept of rebirth, he is indeed greeting old friends! I think this way of interacting with people is one of the most beautiful ways one can engage with people known and unknown.

P.S. I just read a passage from In Buddha’s Words that set the stage for a discussion on rebirth and how it can make sense given that Buddhists don’t believe in a soul or self. I’ll have to come back to this topic once I’ve read and contemplated the ideas in more depth.