Buddhism and anti-war activism

Oct 12 2019

I recently had a conversation (just posted on meaningoflife.tv and also available in The Wright Show podcast feed) with one of my favorite people: Bhikkhu Bodhi, a Buddhist monk who is also a renowned scholar of Buddhism and a prolific translator of ancient Buddhist texts.

One reason I like him so much is that when he laughs—and he laughs at more offbeat things than your average monk, I’d guess—it lights up the room. Consider, for example, this exchange, which started with him telling me what the Buddha said about eating meat:

Another reason I’m such a fan of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s is that he has such vast knowledge of Buddhist texts that you can interrogate him in depth about, say, Buddhist ethics and learn a lot—which is what I spent most of the conversation doing. We discussed, for example, Buddhism’s emphasis on the welfare not just of all people but of all sentient beings; the stringency of the Buddhist ideal of “right speech” (which I violate, oh, several times a minute); and the anti-militarist drift of Buddhist ethics (as expressed, for example, in the ideal of “right livelihood,” which rules out working in the armaments industry). 

This last point leads to a lamentation that Bhikkhu Bodhi and I briefly shared: the fact that American Buddhists who engage in political activism rarely engage in anti-militarist activism. They do environmental activism and social justice activism (both worthwhile things), but they don’t spend much time protesting, for example, the carnage and chaos wrought by America’s highly interventionist foreign policy.

In this respect they’re remarkably like non-Buddhists. American progressives in general don’t spend much time trying to alter American foreign policy. You can’t throw a rock in Brooklyn without hitting a millennial who works at an NGO that deals with the climate change or domestic policy issues, but good luck finding one who’s agitating against America’s forever wars. (I’m actually against throwing rocks in urban settings—that would presumably violate some Buddhist ideal—but you take my point…)

If you know of exceptions—hidden recesses of Buddhist, or even non-Buddhist, anti-war activism—or for that matter if you’d like to hear about any exceptions that we learn about, drop us a line at nonzero@substack.com or click “reply” on this email.

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