In Buddhism can there be found any justification (whatever the perceived provocation) for war and military violence?

  • 1
    There's a bit of a book on this subject, titled, "In Defense of Dharma: Just-war Ideology in Buddhist Sri Lanka".
    – ChrisW
    Commented Feb 14, 2015 at 16:52

8 Answers 8


In the Theravada tradition, there's no justification for killing. But justification is a personal thing. Buddhism tells you about the consequences of an action. Not whether it is justified or not. Killing intentionally is always bad Karma, whether you, the society, a religious community, a religious book, judges of courts, a god, inner voice, patriotism, honor etc. justify it or not.

But one highlighting factor is that if you kill virtuous beings, you get a lot of bad karma, whereas killing an immoral being will result in comparatively less bad karma. A person who is trying to kill you is already an immoral being. And you may think of a justifiable reason to kill him. But killing him is still bad Karma which can cause much suffering to you in the future as well as corrupting your present mind state.

Karma is a law of nature. It is not a god who punishes you depending on how justified your reasons are for doing something. ex: Think of a newborn baby touching fire. Having no knowledge of fire, is it fair for it to get burnt? Is it justified? Probably not! But why does it still get burnt? Because fire doesn't judge. It's simply a process of causes and effect. So is Kamma.

  • 3
    This is actually one of the best explanations of karma I have come across. But what about the intention? Doesn't it take precedence over what ever the action/result of the actions was when it comes to karma?
    – Heisenberg
    Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 9:06
  • 1
    Yes, intention is Karma. If the intention is tainted by greed/hatred/ignorance, it's bad karma. ex: If someone justifies violence, it is intention/judgment tainted by ignorance. Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 10:12
  • I think one should add, that the Buddha did not only teach this. Also, that a monk would be excluded from the sangha (disrobed) and also that a lay disciple can no more call himself being part of the sangha - because he compromised his "refuge to the dharma-buddha-sangha" . (There is a vinaya which goes beyond what is good or bad karma) Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 14:44

There are places in the older texts that one can find passages advocating violence. For example the Tibetan Kalachakra Tantra has got anti-Islamic passages in it which can be used as a justification for violence

The Chakravartin shall come out at the end of the age, from the city the gods fashioned on Mount Kailasa. He shall smite the barbarians in battle with his own four-division army, on the entire surface of the earth.

More recently Japanese Zen was connected with militarism and violence in the Second World war. There is a book Zen at War which gives an extensive study. There is a famous quote from Harada Daiun Sogaku justifying violence from a Buddhist perspective (source: Zen at War)

march: tramp, tramp, or shoot: bang, bang. This is the manifestation of the highest Wisdom [of Enlightenment]. The unity of Zen and war of which I speak extends to the farthest reaches of the holy war

Of course you don't need to look in the past at all to find examples of Buddhist justifying violence. There is violence today being advocated and committed by Buddhists against Muslim minorities in Burma.

Even though it seems incredible, considering the first precept and the radical non-violence propounded by texts such as The Parable of the Saw, Buddhists can an do justify the use of violence. I guess ultimately Buddhism is a human institution (albeit pointing to timeless wisdom) and like all human institutions it can and does have flaws and sometimes very grave flaws.

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    One has to consider that these documents (like the Nirvana Sutras) were written many centuries after the death of the Buddha and include views that may or may not reflect what the Tathagata taught. In particular, the justification for killing directly contradicts much of the Buddha's dhamma. Commented Feb 14, 2015 at 19:21
  • It's all very well for the "Loonwatch" link to quote "the Nirvana Sutra" chapter 19 but it would be helpful to mention which root text and which translation For example, shabkar.org/download/pdf/… (linked from the Wikipedia article) renders the passage quoted above as "I heard the Brahmins slandering the vaipulya. Having heard this, I did away with my life." Still violent, but putting quite a different spin on the passage... Commented Feb 15, 2015 at 1:04
  • @BrianDrummond Thanks for that. You are right the Nirvana text quote was poorly referenced. I've taken it out and the loonwatch link as it does seem needlessly provocative. If I can find the original translation then I might put it back it or feel free to edit the question to add it if you do see it. Metta Commented Feb 15, 2015 at 8:04
  • I was and am happy for that link & quote to be restored - provocative can be good! Just wanted to point out the possibility of translation errors or different interpretations. Some of the other "loonwatch" quotes do roughly match this translation in wording. I can't help feeling a different interpretation of these words is intended, such as "kill the icchantika within yourself". But I can't point to actual mistakes so have to leave it to the experts Commented Feb 15, 2015 at 9:53

As far as I know there are no instances in the Suttas where violence is justified.

We are informed of the consequences of violence, how it prolongs samsara and suffering of oneself and others. We are told to fear even the slightest akusala (wrong deed).

Yet those of us still under the sway of desire, will justify violence. Even here in Sri Lanka some Buddhist monks advocate violence and war during the time of the LTTE and more recently against the Muslim community. Their primary argument is that they are doing it to preserve Buddhism for future generations. An argument rejected by the Buddha.

"Monks, even if bandits were to carve you up savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw, he among you who let his heart get angered even at that would not be doing my bidding. Even then you should train yourselves: 'Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading these people with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with them, we will keep pervading the all-encompassing world with an awareness imbued with good will — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.' That's how you should train yourselves. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.021x.than.html


Yes, there is justification for war in Buddhism, at least in Zen. A quote from D.T. Suzuki, who is sometimes considered the founder of modern Zen:

if a lawless country comes and obstructs our commerce, or tramples on our rights, this is something that would truly interrupt the progress of all humanity. In the name of religion our country could not submit to this. Thus, we would have no choice but to take up arms, not for the purpose of slaying the enemy, nor for the purpose of pillaging cities, let alone for the purpose of acquiring wealth. Instead, we would simply punish the people of the country representing injustice in order that justice might prevail. How is it possible that we could seek anything for ourselves? In any event, this is what is called religious conduct.

This quote approves of war under some circumstances. This is acknowledged even in an article by Kemmyō Taira Satō, who is clearly sympathetic to Suzuki.


I'm quoting from my other answer to support this.

Protection of arahats (DN 16):

"What have you heard, Ananda: do the Vajjis duly protect and guard the arahats, so that those who have not come to the realm yet might do so, and those who have already come might live there in peace?"

"I have heard, Lord, that they do."

"So long, Ananda, as this is the case, the growth of the Vajjis is to be expected, not their decline." - DN 16

I'm not sure whether Buddha, The Gospel (Paul Carus, 1894) is based on canonical texts:

Simha continued: "I am a soldier, O Blessed One, and am appointed by the king to enforce his laws and to wage his wars. Does the Tathagata who teaches kindness without end and compassion with all sufferers, permit the punishment of the criminal? and further, does the Tathagata declare that it is wrong to go to war for the protection of our homes, our wives, our children, and our property? Does the Tathagata teach the doctrine of a complete self-surrender, so that I should suffer the evil-doer to do what he pleases and yield submissively to him who threatens to take by violence what is my own? Does the Tathagata maintain that all strife, including such warfare as is waged for a righteous cause should be forbidden?"

The Buddha replied: "He who deserves punishment must be punished, and he who is worthy of favor must be favored. Yet at the same time he teaches to do no injury to any living being but to be full of love and kindness. These injunctions are not contradictory, for whosoever must be punished for the crimes which he has committed, suffers his injury not through the ill-will of the judge but on account of his evildoing. His own acts have brought upon him the injury that the executer of the law inflicts. When a magistrate punishes, let him not harbor hatred in his breast, yet a murderer, when put to death, should consider that this is the fruit of his own act. As soon as he will understand that the punishment will purify his soul, he will no longer lament his fate but rejoice at it."

The Blessed One continued: "The Tathagata teaches that all warfare in which man tries to slay his brother is lamentable, but he does not teach that those who go to war in a righteous cause after having exhausted all means to preserve the peace are blameworthy. He must be blamed who is the cause of war. The Tathagata teaches a complete surrender of self, but he does not teach a surrender of anything to those powers that are evil, be they men or gods or the elements of nature. Struggle must be, for all life is a struggle of some kind. But he that struggles should look to it lest he struggle in the interest of self against truth and righteousness. - Buddha, The Gospel 52

  • I think Carus is inspired by or includes some canonical texts, but that (contrary to what it titles itself) you shouldn't trust it as Gospel. IMO it's tainted by or altered for contemporary Christian views. If it's your only introduction to Buddhism then it's better than nothing, but IMHO we have more reliable sources these days. so I'd never quote Carus as authoritative.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Oct 25, 2020 at 8:54

In Buddhism can there be found any justification (whatever the perceived provocation) for war and military violence?

A mention regarding this could be found in Ashoka Vadana , a Buddhist text that describes the birth and achievements of Emperor Ashoka the great, perhaps one of the most prominent Buddhist Kings described in the literature.

Though Ashoka turned to Buddhism after having seen the perils of destruction in the Kalinga war and generally followed the principle of non-violence, the text describes that Ashoka did break the first precept many times in order to fulfill his military tasks. For instance,

In one instance, a non-Buddhist in Pundravardhana drew a picture showing the Buddha bowing at the feet of Nirgrantha Jnatiputra (identified with Mahavira, the founder of Jainism). On complaint from a Buddhist devotee, Ashoka issued an order to arrest him, and subsequently, another order to kill all the Ajivikas in Pundravardhana.


Killing is only reasonable if it is the only way to prevent worse circumstances. In the Jatakas there is the story of a bodhisattva who anticipates by his clairvoyance that a crew member of the ship is planning to kill all 500 others, so to prevent this person from causing all this suffering and simultaneously condemning himself to a hell rebirth, the bodhisattva compassionately kills him. Whether or not this results in the bodhisattva being reborn in hell is unclear, but I would guess not since karmic results are frame of mind induced, and his frame of mind was pure.

If buddhism really does advocate war under any circumstances where it does not lead to a better outcome then it has come far away from the teaching of mahayana.

  • Isn't that a truism which depends on the definition of "worse circumstances" and "better outcome"? For example, is it worse to wage war than to let a foreign power invade your country? Better to wage civil war than to let your religion be insulted, or diluted by foreign ethnicities? There are many ways to try to justify war.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Sep 19, 2015 at 16:51
  • worse circumstances is definitely vague, so a more clear version would be to reduce suffering. I have heard it commented that if a bear would suffer more by not eating the man than the man would from being eaten, then shouldn't the bear eat the man? But the problem with this assertion is that in reality after the bear has killed the man the bear will now suffer as well so that everyone suffers instead of just the bear, who is not actually suffering from not eating the man but actually from the desire to eat him.
    – Sam Reeve
    Commented Sep 19, 2015 at 17:25

Whenever Buddha or Arahant said something, it is only for Nibanna. "Have you done this war with your own will to kill the enemy?" " Did you do that killing by your own will or because of the king ordered you to do so?" When these questions when heard by the king Dutugamunu of Sri Lanka, and the executioner, they felt like relax and had chance to listen to Dhamma and finally got better afterlife. This is just the questions not proving it is right. No one is spared for consequences of Karma even Buddha, sometimes having low back pain because of deliberately injuring the opponent in previous life. So there is NO JUST WAR. When Buddha time all the Ariya of Buddha relative got killed without any defense. So every body can do what one like only the consequence of Karma will have to be suffered later in the very life or afterlife.

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