Buddhist Opposition to War and Killing
Buddhism, founded approximately 2,500 years ago is considered to be the oldest and is the third largest of the three world religions–Christianity and Islam are the other two. Buddhism has perhaps the strongest tradition of non-violence and peace of the three.

In the last century—one of almost unremitting strife—Buddhism has been a champion of peaceful coexistence and non-violent resolution of problems. There were notable exceptions: some Nichiren sects and the co-opted Zen of mid 20th century militaristic government of Japan are two examples. On the other hand, the five decades-long largely non-violent struggle for the independence of Tibetans, under the leadership the Dalai Lama, is notable.

The founder of the Buddhist religion, Siddh_rtha of the Gautama clan in India, at the age of 35 renounced worldly ambition by becoming a wandering monastic to seek enlightenment and salvation. Once he achieved enlightenment he became known as the Buddha (The Enlightened One). The religion that the Buddha founded has among its core precepts a prohibition on killing.

A lay follower, upon becoming a Buddhist, is expected to follow five rules, usually called the Five Precepts. The very first precept simply states:” I undertake to refrain from taking life.” The Buddhist monastic, upon ordination, takes on ten precepts, of which restraint from killing is also the first one.

This precept is restated by the noted Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, for members of the Interbeing Order of Buddhism, founded in 1966:

“Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivate compassion and learn ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life.”

The first precept of the new Peacemaker Order, co-founded in 1996 by Bernie Glassman with the expressed purpose of bringing together activists involved in living lives of creating peace, provides the following version of the traditional first precept:

”Recognizing that I am not separate from all that is. This is the precept of Non-Killing.”

The discouragement of killing is more than a mere statement of belief. Buddhism is a soteriological religion i.e., one focused on personal salvation. As such it is based on behaviors that promote actions that encourage salvation. Buddhism inherited from its Vedic Indian legacy the concept of karma. Karma, in essence, is the belief that all actions have consequences; these can be positive or negative. Killing is considered to create the most negative consequence (karma). From this it follows that in the Buddhist tradition killing is inimical to salvation in this life, and brings a promise of negative consequences in any possible future reincarnations.

We see, therefore, that the recommendation against killing is not only the first among the rules of Buddhism, but that it is central to effective practice of that religion.

Despite the strength and centrality of the anti-killing message in Buddhism, governments of Buddhist countries have not been loath to wage war. It is also probably fair to say that, until recently, there have been virtually no popular Buddhist anti-war movements in traditionally Buddhist countries.

There are many historical, sociological and cultural reasons for that. The traditional focus on personal salvation and dependence of monks on support by the population and rulers have probably contributed to a reluctance by the monks to challenge the status quo—despite possible personal condemnation of a state of affairs.

In recent years, however, more activist movements have emerged. Tibetan Buddhist, under the leadership of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, have waged a half-century struggle to emancipate their country from Chinese domination. Mostly the Tibetan’s labor has been peaceful and diplomatic. While this effort has not achieved its immediate goals, to date, it has served as a vehicle of unifying Buddhist and other international opinion in support of the Tibetan cause. Furthermore, the struggle has helped to bring Tibetan Buddhism to Western seekers, who in ever-greater numbers are adopting this faith.

In February 1966, Thich Nhat Hanh ordained the first six members into the Tiep Hien Order (the Order of Interbeing). The order was formed specifically to bring Buddhism directly into the arena of social concerns and peacework. For his efforts Thich Nhat Hanh was nominated by Martin Luther King Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize in the 1960’s. Today the Order of Interbeing is active in France, Australia, Great Britain and the United States.

In 1996, Bernie Glassman with his wife Sandra Jishu Holmes co-founded the Zen Order of Peacemakers. Today the order has changed its name to Peacemaker Circles, and while struggling to become established and institutionalized, it is present in the USA and Europe.

Another Buddhist group that can be included in a listing of activist pro-peace movements is the Soka Gakkai. Soka Gakkai is a Japanese Buddhist lay movement that began in 1930’s Japan, but became prominent in Japanese life after World War II in a time of great social stress and a period in which the American Occupation Authorities strongly circumscribed the activities of traditional Zen groups. The Soka Gakkai, which is usually known as SGI, is currently present in 140 countries. The SGI has formed a strong political party in Japan. Uncharacteristically dogmatic for a Buddhist organization, the SGI postulates world peace as its main organizational objective. In America the SGI is the most culturally and ethnically diverse Buddhist organization.

Avoidance of killing and warfare are fundamental tenets of Buddhism, but it is only in recent years that active organizational responses to promote peace have become part of Buddhist tradition

Nicholas Burlakoff
urchase Quarter Peace & Social Action Committee

For further Information:
For a competent bird’s-eye view of Buddhism:

Snelling, John. The Buddhist Handbook: A Complete Guide to Buddhist Schools, Teachings, Practice and History. Barnes & Noble Books, New York, 1991.

For peace writings and web site information regarding Thich Nhat Hanh
and the Order of Interbeing. Being Peace. Parallax Press, Berkeley, 1987 and
Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life. Parallax Press, Berkeley, 1991.

True Peace: Ending Violence in Yourself, Your Family, Your Community, and the World. Parallax Press, Berkeley, 2003.


For peace writing and web site information regarding Bernie Glassman and the Peacemakers Circles (formerly Peacemakers Order)
Bearing Witness: A Zen Master's Lessons in Making Peace. Harmony/Bell Tower, 1999.


A thorough study of SGI-USA is: Hammond Phillip E. and David W. MacHacke. Soka Gakkai in America: Accommodation and Conversion. Oxford University Press, London, Toronto and New York, 1999. The SGI has an extensive US web site and a wide-ranging English language Japanese web site.