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In Defense of Dharma:
Just-War Ideology in Buddhist Sri Lanka

by Tessa J. Bartholomeusz
London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002. ISBN 0700716823. xxii _ / 209 pp.
reviewed by Professor Eric Sean Nelson, University of Toledo
Journal of Military Ethics, 2003, (2(3)) pp.253-255


The thesis that you should cultivate compassion, respect, and reverence for all life does not seem promising for justifying war. The argument that it is better to suffer than to do harm is even less encouraging. Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike thus often assume that there is no legitimate Buddhist justification of war much less a Buddhist tradition of just-war theory. To use violence is to betray the Buddha's teachings.

There are noticeable exceptions to the standard interpretation of the Buddha's first precept demanding non-violence/non-harm ( ahimsa ). Theravada monks and laity have been implicated in persecution and violence in the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict and civil war between a series of democratically elected governments, supported by the mostly Buddhist Sinhalese, and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) terrorist organization based in the mostly non-Buddhist Tamil minority.

Bartholomeusz's provocative book explores the arguments for and against the justice of war in the Buddhist tradition of Sri Lanka. She comprehensively investigates the possible legitimation of violence in the Pali Canon (the foundational texts of Theravada Buddhism), in postcanonical narratives such as the Mahavamsa (which describe the Buddha's legendary Sri Lankan visits and the victories of Buddhist warrior kings), and in contemporary discussions. This interdisciplinary work analyzes Buddhist ideas in relation to western just war and ethical theory. She contends that Buddhism not only has a rigorous tradition of nonviolence and loving kindness but also a long history of thinking about war from which the assertion of the possible justice or the unfortunate necessity of war can emerge. Her thesis is that although Buddhism privileges non-violence, it can be used to justify war if certain conditions are met.

Emphasizing the diversity within Sri Lankan Buddhism, she examines three approaches to the question of war. First, she depicts a position which she calls

Buddhist fundamentalism. This extreme view maintains that the war must conclude with the defeat of the LTTE and the restoration of a unified Sinhalese Buddhist Sri Lanka. The argument for a holy race war generally follows a three-step legitimation of anti-Tamil violence: (1) Sinhala and Buddhist identity constitute a unity that is radically distinct from the Dravidian Hindu Tamil interlopers from South India; (2) Sri Lanka is the island of dharma ( dhammadwipa ) ordained by the Buddha himself (by his three apocryphal visits) for Buddhism such that the whole island is the Buddha's sacred relic and the loss of its unity would destroy this legacy; (3) the justice of a defensive war for dharma justifies the preservation of Sri Lanka in its unity as a majority Sinhalese Buddhist nation through military action against the Tamils, identified with the invading damila of the medieval epics, thus associating the present situation with past threats.

The second view argues for the justice of undertaking defensive military action against insurgencies, even if the insurgents have some legitimate grievances. The war is interpreted as the defense of the territorial integrity and peace of the nation, as a proper function of the modern secular state, and/or the defense of the nation's endangered Buddhist identity. Appeals have been made to international law and its account of the justice and limits of war and to Buddhist principles.

There are a number of strategies used by Sri Lankans to answer the question of how Buddhism can justify war. Some stress the unfortunate necessity of military action despite its negative karmic consequences. Others, perhaps motivated by the need for a more inspirational message, suggest that righteous war (one with a morally legitimate goal and fought in an honorable fashion) has meritorious karmic consequences. The author argues that both strategies presuppose that the precept of nonviolence is a prima facie rather than an absolute duty. This means that nonviolence is one's first duty but that it can be overridden under certain circumstances as a last resort.

Theravadin ethics is sometimes seen as placing absolute value on compassion and avoiding harm. Yet, in practice, Sri Lankan Buddhists reason with a plurality of context-sensitive prima facie duties. The precept against violence is not absolute but can be overridden by more pressing obligations such as defense of one's parents or the dharma itself. The Buddha's account of skillful means suggests, according to this reading, the use of practical judgement or a sense of appropriateness in applying moral principles to any situation. Although the Buddha's precepts are unconditional, conflicts between precepts require contextual reasoning that employs utilitarian (maximizing compassion and minimizing suffering) and virtue ethical (the effects actions have on one's condition) considerations. Thus, Buddhist ethical reasoning is used to justify violence for the sake of nonviolence and the government's ‘war for peace'. The justification of war accordingly requires the fulfilment of certain conditions which Bartholomeusz compares in detail with Christian and western just war criteria.

Finally, some Buddhists reject all violence as an impediment to nibbana and promote the peace process. They argue for the deontological status of Buddhist precepts and the emotional and karmic consequences of all action: violence no matter how righteous always produces more violence and warriors no matter how virtuous suffer the consequences of war. ‘Conquest begets enmity; the conquered live in misery; the peaceful live happily having renounced conquest and defeat' ( Dammapada , verse 201).

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