Can a Buddhist Become a Marine?

Typical Buddhist deity found at the front of many temples in Japan. They are said to protect the Dharma.

My nephew is in the R.O.T.C. program at University of California, San Diego.  He is planning to enter the Navy afterwards and possibly be a fighter pilot.  Like his grandfather, his time in the service gives him a full ride, an option that makes total sense when money appears to be scarce.

My nephew shared with me recently that a friend of his, Tiffany, who is Buddhist and in training to become a full-fledged Marine is beginning to question the military training because some of it seems unnecessarily harsh and also at odds with her Buddhist practice.  How can a Buddhist justify going into the military still being Buddhist?

Many Buddhists face a similar conflict between their daily lives and Buddhist ethics, thinking they are not supposed to do any number of things – such as be the CEO of a billion-dollar company, or work with nuclear weapons, or make airplanes for the Air Force, or just plain not get angry when things don’t go their way.

I don’t have any adequate answers for Tiffany’s quandary.  Ultimately, she has to figure this out for herself. 

Karma and the Koan of our Lives

Part of the reality of Tiffany’s koan, and actually any adult – civilian or military – has to look at here is that there are two levels to the koan of what to do with our lives. The first has to do with the personal. This is the perspective that comes from one’s own way of seeing the world, and how best to deal with whatever situation arises as an individual, apart from any kind of organization.

The second level is about the organization of which the individual is a part. Karma is generated by an institution itself. The energy of the individual is merged with the activity of a whole organization. The individual and the organization are two separate entities, however, the individual feeds the organization becoming an integral part of it.

The first level is related to the karma generated as the result of one’s personal actions. The second level is related to the karma generated as a result of the actions of an entity––an institution, an organization, or a larger system.

Sometimes the distinction between the individual and the organization is not important. At other times, they appear to be two separate things. As a Buddhist priest, for example, I am both responsible as an individual for my personal actions. However, I am also a member of the Soto School, an entire organization, and when I act on behalf of that entity there may be at times little to no separation between me and the Soto School of Zen. Anyone who works for an institution such as the military is working in both levels simultaneously.

Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Zen Master in exile for 40 years in France after protesting the Vietnam-American War in the 1960’s. We was nominated by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for the Noble Peace Prize.

I am inspired by a response that the Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh gave to a man who was considering quitting his job in the nuclear arms industry. Apparently, he had a similar question whether he could ethically continue to do what he was doing. Thich Nhat Hanh, after a long pause, suggested he continue doing his work because someone who is less ethically inclined may fill his position if he lets it go. He suggested that we need to have morally thoughtful people working in this field so that the culture of that organization remains balanced.

Likewise, we need calm and clear-headed people in the military, and in all jobs and activities.  We need leaders who are compassionate both in and out of battle, that understand the dangers and the consequences of our actions, and that are not reckless.

The Buddha taught that hatred cannot dispel hatred.  Only love can dispel hatred.  We need people in the military and in all jobs and activities that understand this teaching.  It is possible to be both a warrior, or many other roles, and have compassion at the same time.  We talk about this as fierce compassion, and it’s in contrast to what’s called “idiot compassion”.  Idiot compassion is when you view yourself and act as though you are separate – inferior, superior, or equal to the person you are helping.  In reality, such distinctions are arbitrary.  Buddha teaches that there is no separation between self and other.  So when we act, can we come from a place of seeing others as an extension of our self?

What is true compassion?

At the gate of most Buddhist temples in Japan are fierce beings with huge muscles carrying thunder and lightning on their shoulders and ready to protect the Dharma at any cost.  A military leader can also be that Dharma protector. Being compassionate does not necessarily mean being soft.

Yet, this fierceness is not a sanctification for war.  The question of whether we should enter war is complicated and requires deep thought by everyone in the nation.  It may seem that there is no choice.  However, we are often not given enough information about the situation to make a truly informed decision. 

Being in the military makes one vulnerable to the choices and whims of others, who may not be well informed, or may be motivated by fear and greed. Anyone in the military needs to know this and be willing to accept this on some level if they are going to do their job effectively. The military is analogous to a knife. It can be used with both the intention to heal or to harm. Is it in a surgeon’s hand or a felon’s hand? The knife is simply an instrument for the person wielding it. Whether it’s used for good or bad is not the fault of the knife. In the same way, soldiers are not the focal point for evaluation and judgment.

However, as mentioned before, the first and second level – the individual and the system – often merge and are indistinguishable. The reality is that Veterans often do blame themselves for what they have done, even though they were just following someone else’s orders. Some, not all, have been forced into situations where they have had to take innocent lives. PTSD would not be an issue for Vets if they could simply accept and carry out orders without thinking about or agreeing to them on a personal level. But history has shown us this is an impossible expectation. In that sense, the analogy of the knife falls short.

Members of the military are thinking and feeling people each with their own sense of direction and intuition. Military personnel ignore this at their own peril. Unlike the knife, people generally (and eventually) take personal responsibility for their actions. This is karma or cause and effect.

We cannot ignore our intuitions. When something feels “off” that is a signal to pay closer attention. This is not only true in the military, but in any institution. The U.S. was built on the slaughter of native peoples and on the backs of slaves. Many of the institutions that form the backbone of our country are struggling to come to grips with the way the country was formed, and how systemic racism and other oppressions still play out in those institutions. We know that something is not right with our institutions.

Entering or staying within the military, or any institution, is a difficult decision to make physically, psychologically, and spiritually. I cannot say what is right for anyone else to decide. I’m not in control of anyone but myself… on a good day. My wish for Tiffany and for everyone of us is that we make conscious choices with clear and open eyes knowing as best we can the fullness of what we are choosing to be a part of. Regardless of the choices we make, I wish that we each know that we will always be loved, that we always have the possibility to tap into that love where ever we are and in whatever we choose to do, that we are ultimately in charge of our own decisions and destiny and that we have the capacity to change and make different choices at any time.

The words Zen Fields and a signature stamp next to a spare ink pen outline of a meditator in a field


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