The Buddha offered us a logical framework, the tetralemma, for unpacking the troubling morality of war. It clarifies not just the ethics of war, but the limits of ethics as well. In doing so, it offers a more nuanced and sophisticated perspective than the so-called “just war” doctrine that has so fascinated theorists of European traditions. Buddhism does not “lack” a just war doctrine; rather, it refuses to be drawn into the errors of thought that make such a doctrine necessary.
But first let me say this: war is horrifying and depraved, and the sooner humanity is rid of it the better. Right now, we are witnesses to the monstrous destruction of human life in Ukraine brought about by the naked imperial aggression of Putin’s Russia. It is a case of unmitigated evil, where one side has not even the shadow of an excuse for their atrocities, and the consequences of allowing their evil to prevail are unthinkable. This is a challenge to my ethical sensibilities, inclined as I am to see all sides in a conflict as bearing some responsibility. Here, this is simply not the case. A fascist psychopathy has taken grip in Putin’s Russia, and it threatens all of us in ways that go far beyond the already catastrophic plight of Ukraine’s people. How can we, as people committed to non-violence, respond to this?
In a series of discourses, the Buddha spoke of a fourfold analysis of deeds (AN 4.232–238).
- Deeds that are dark with dark results.
- Deeds that are bright with bright results.
- Deeds that are both dark and bright with both dark and bright results.
- Deeds that are neither dark nor bright with neither dark nor bright results.
This is an example of the tetralemma, a logical system widely employed in Buddhism. It contrasts with the two-sided dilemma which is fundamental to European philosophy. When treated as a dilemma, an ethical choice can be either right or wrong. But as a tetralemma, it can be both both right and wrong, and we also have the option to transcend all such choices. This lets us think about war in ways that avoid the failings of the just war doctrine.
The first precept of Buddhism is to refrain from killing, and so killing is given in AN 4.235 as the first example of a “dark deed with dark results”. In the case of an unprovoked war of aggression—such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, or the 2003 invasion of Iraq by a coalition including the US, UK, and Australia—the decision to invade and maintain the war is exclusively evil, and the karmic results of that decision fall squarely on those who made that choice and executed it. There is no excuse, no justification, no mitigation.
In such cases, the responsible parties still try to justify their deeds. In the absence of facts, they manufacture lies. Twenty years ago, the US-led coalition knowingly fabricated the lie that Iraq was in possession of weapons of mass destruction, even though, after inspection, the UN found no such weapons and declared the war illegal. Today, Putin’s Russia has abandoned even the pretense of manufacturing such a coherent rationale, instead flooding the infosphere with a never-ending churn of lies. There is no point in debunking each one, as the purpose of the churn is distraction, to get people on the back foot reacting to one absurdity after the other. The adage remains: truth is the first causality of war.
In this first case, a theorist of just war would reach similar conclusions. It is in the next case, of “bright deeds with bright results”, where we part ways. A just war theorist would argue that those who prosecute a “just war”, be they the politicians and decision-makers, the arms manufacturers, or the soldiers, are doing something good, even heroic, and their deeds should be lauded and remembered. Various religious systems allocate special heavenly afterlives for their war heroes.
A key problem with this narrative is that it elides the folks whose deeds are genuinely morally uncomplicated and uncompromised: the peacemakers. Most people most of the time abhor war and do what they can to build peace. This includes the politicians and the diplomats, the NGOs, the philosophers, and the peace protestors. But it also includes merchants who simply want to trade, families that simply want to live, farmers who simply want to grow their crops, and everyone who wants their neighbors to live a peaceful and prosperous life. The just war theory tries to turn our eyes away from these, from the people who build peace every day. It makes heroes of the ones who fire the guns. But peace is not something that is won in wartime. It is planted, grown, and harvested by those who live in and for peace.
These are the ones whose deeds are bright with bright results. It is the peacemakers who should be honored with monuments and celebrated with memorial holidays.
Does this mean that the principles of just war theory are useless? No, because in ethical philosophy we can distinguish between the theory and its application. Just war theory aims to limit and mitigate the consequences of war by setting out criteria that it considers to be “just”. These typically include such things as:
- Cause: War is justified only in defense of oneself and others against an imminent threat.
- Last resort: War is only contemplated when diplomatic and other means have been exhausted.
- Proportionality: The course and ends of war should be proportional to its cause.
- Authority: A just war may only be declared by a properly constituted nation-state.
- Targets: War should target the military, not civilians.
These are meaningful ethical principles and we need a moral language that captures such distinctions. If our ethical framework is not capable of distinguishing between what the Russians are doing and what the Ukrainians are doing, then we have a bad ethical framework and we need a better one.
When we speak of a war as being “justified”, however, we elide the compromises that it involves. Rather than speaking of “just” war, we would be better to think in degrees of badness. A war is less bad if it is proportional. A war in self-defense is less bad than one of aggression. In this way, we can mitigate the harm of war by enforcing legal constraints and conventions without thereby saying that it is “just”. From a Buddhist point of view, we should avoid endorsing any conventions that speak in terms of a “just war”, and instead insist on speaking in terms of mitigating the evils of war.
We have considered those who undertake a war of aggression for evil purposes and those who act with moral intentions to build peace. But what of those who abhor violence, yet are subject to violence against themselves, their families, and their country? Are they to take up arms, albeit unwillingly, against the invaders? Do they kill those who commit atrocities?
To defend the innocent is a bright deed. To kill is a dark deed. To kill in defense of the innocent is a deed both bright and dark and it has both bright and dark results.
Even those who subscribe to the just war theory know that there is a terrible cost for those who kill. For most, it is easier to sacrifice one’s own life than it is to take another’s. Those who kill, even if they believe in what they are doing, will be traumatized for the rest of their lives. They know this, yet still they persist.
Ethical principles contain within them a should. We should do what is right and should not do what is wrong. The Buddha said we should be swift to do good, for even the smallest good results in happiness; and we should not think lightly of evil, for even the slightest wrong will return to haunt us. But if something is both bright and dark, what direction does the should point? Let us think the logic through.
- If it is bad, then we should not do it.
- If it is good, then we should do it.
- If it is both bad and good, then we should what—both do it and not do it?
How can we both do something and not do it? We cannot. What this means, then, is that should does not apply.
The tetralemma shows us that there are limits to ethical reasoning. Ethics are there to guide our decisions. But no law of the universe states that every decision must have a clear ethical resolution. Sometimes, ethical questions have no answer.
And herein lies the crux of it. We still have to live. Even when no decision is possible, we still have to make a decision. How can we compute the consequences of choosing this or that? Morality is not accounting and we have no way of quantifying it.
A warrior once came to the Buddha, saying that he had heard that a warrior who dies in battle is reborn in the heaven of the fallen (SN 42.3). The Buddha says nothing until he is pressed three times to respond. Reluctantly, he says that the mind of a warrior in battle is degraded as they think only of annihilating their enemy. If they die in such a state they are reborn not in heaven, but in the hell of the fallen. The warrior burst out in tears, and the Buddha says this is why he was reluctant to speak. What comes through is the Buddha’s tremendous compassion. Even though he so strongly disagreed with what the warrior said, he still withheld judgment out of kindness and consideration. It is a reminder for we who are so hasty to judge those who face impossible choices.
But what of a soldier who is thinking of protecting his daughter? Of saving the lives of his countrymen? Of resisting the encroachment of evil? This is not a theoretical argument, it is the genuine living motivation of many soldiers. Their intention to kill is still dark. At that moment, they see through the sights of their rifle the shape of an enemy soldier, their face, their humanity. And they make the deliberate choice to squeeze the trigger and end that life. But their intention to protect is bright. They think of their homes, of their children’s laughter, of their longing for all this to be over.
There is a song by the Thai protest singer Aed Carabao called Duen Pen, “Full Moon”. It tells the story of a soldier going off to war. He looked above and saw the full moon shining down, and he realized that the same moon was shining down on his home village. All he could think was that he wanted to go home and see his family and hug his mother. But, so the story goes, it was not to be; he never returned from the war.
What are we to say to such a person? Are they nothing but evil degenerates, condemned to the same hell as the vicious monsters of war who kill, rape, and torture for the sake of it? Or are they nothing but paragons of virtue, for whom the fundamental principle of not killing is simply suspended, with no consequences at all?
No. Their destination will be mixed, just like their deeds. In AN 4.233, the Buddha says that such mixed destinies include the human realm, certain heavenly realms, and certain of the lower realms. Even the Buddha cannot say for sure.
The Buddha did not wish to lecture even a warrior about his bad deeds, yet today we find Buddhists who have no hesitation in telling Ukrainians how they should respond to the Russian invasion. They should try diplomacy, or look into means of non-violent resistance. And while we lecture them on the finer points of ethical philosophy from the comforting surety of our keyboards, Russian soldiers have taken the women of their village, chained them in a basement, and raped them to death.
The urge to think of the world as black and white, as solvable by elementary rational categories, is childish. It’s how kids think around eleven or twelve before they learn the terrible lessons of growing up. The reality of life is that we are faced with impossible choices and yet we must choose.
And this is why there are not just three feet in a tetralemma, but four.
A traditional legend says that when the young Siddhattha was sitting quietly by a tree as a boy, he saw the ploughs churning up the earth, preparing it for growing the rice that was essential for his people to live. Noticing birds flocking down in the wake of the plough, he looked closer. There were little worms, turned up by the plough, and they were making a meal for the birds. Though he was still a child, he saw. This is how life is; we cannot escape it. There is no way of living in this world that is purely good. This was his first step into adulthood and the seed that eventually led him to go forth.
In a little-known discourse in the Suttanipāta, “Taking Up Arms” (Attadaṇḍasutta, Snp 4.15) the Buddha looks back to his younger days. His renunciation, according to this account, was inspired by the pointless nightmare of war.
Peril stems from those who take up arms—
just look at people in conflict!
I shall extol how I came to be
stirred with a sense of urgency.
I saw this population flounder,
like a fish in a little puddle.
Seeing them fight each other,
fear came upon me.
The world around was hollow,
all directions were in turmoil.
Wanting a home for myself,
I saw nowhere unsettled.
But even in their settlement they fight—
seeing that, I grew uneasy.
Then I saw a dart there,
so hard to see, stuck in the heart.
When struck by that dart,
you run about in all directions.
But when that same dart has been plucked out,
you neither run about nor sink down.
The final category of deeds are neither dark nor bright and lead to neither dark nor bright results. These are the deeds motivated by the wish to escape suffering: the practice of the path that leads to Nibbana. The conflicts and contradictions of this world are unavoidable. We live with them and accept the consequences. But the Buddha promised us another way. A way out.
The story of the Buddha’s renunciation pivots on an ethical crisis caused by the inadequacy of black-and-white thinking. Whether it is the Buddha’s words in the suttas or the legends told about him by traditions, the quest for liberation starts where conventional notions of right and wrong break down. His realization of the limits of ethics precipitated a crisis of faith and meaning that drove Siddhattha to leave home in search of a way beyond.
Moralizers would have us believe that it is always possible to know what is right and what is wrong. For them, it is merely a matter of moral character. If we possess sufficient character, as they do, we will choose to do right every time.
But Buddhism is a path for grownups. We know better. So long as we live in this world we have to deal with its ambiguities. And sometimes that means that we do not know and cannot say. The Sri Lankan chronicle, the Mahāvaṁsa, concludes its account of the great king Mahāsena by saying that, having accumulated much merit and much evil in his life, he passed away to fare on in accordance with his deeds. That is all that can be said.
We do good. We know that it is not enough and we do it anyway. We do good as much as we can and we long for freedom because we know that one day, the soldiers will come pounding on our door. It will be our partner whose finger whitens on the trigger and our children who cower in the closet weeping. And on that day, not before, we will know what our commitment to non-violence really means.