A Buddhist “Just War” Theory?
The generously titled Arya-Bodhisattva-gocara-upayaisaya-vikurvana-nirdesa-nama-mahayana-sutra — Arya-Satyakaparivarta for short — is a Mahayana Buddhist Sutra written some time before the 5th century CE, possibly earlier. It appears to be canonical only within Tibetan Buddhism.
— most of which date to the 2nd century CE, give or take. But it’s of interest for a couple of reasons. One, according to Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman, this sutra may be the only Buddhist scripture that spells out anything approximating a Buddhist “just war” theory. The other is that some alarming things are being said about it in western academia.
For example, in the book Buddhist Warfare, edited by Michael Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer (Oxford University Press, 2010), an essay titled “Making Merit Through Warfare and Torture According to the Arya-Bodhisattva-gocara-upayaisaya-vikurvana-nirdesa-Sutra” claims the sutra actually promotes violence, including war and torture, as a means to make merit toward realizing enlightenment.
The author, Stephen Jenkins, is a professor of religious studies at Humboldt State University.
The only English translation is by Lozang Jamspal (The Range of the Bodhisattva, a Mahayana Sutra, American Institute of Buddhist Studies, 2010), which Professor Jenkins cites as the translation he is using. I acquired a copy, and read it. I assure you that the claim that the sutra somehow condones or promotes violence as a means to realize enlightenment is bogus.
Jenkins’s arguments rests heavily on analysis of other texts, Hindu and Buddhist, that Jenkins claims use similar wording and also promote violence. Among these is the Cula-Saccaka Sutta, in which, according to Jenkins, an armed bodyguard accompanying the Buddha threatened to kill a character named Saccaka, whom Jenkins calls Satyavaca, unless he conceded that kings have the authority to execute criminals. This interpretation not only misses the point of the sutta; it is simply not a factual account of the story the sutta tells. The “bodyguard” is a kind of celestial spirit, and the question Saccaka is pressed to answer by the spirit is about the nature of the self, not the virtue of executions.
So what does the Arya-Bodhisattva-gocara-upayaisaya-vikurvana-nirdesa-nama-mahayana-sutra say about warfare and torture?
Regarding torture, the speaker in the sutra, a sage named Satyavadin, advises that a king should chastise people in a benevolent manner, which is explained this way —
“When a ruler believes that punishment [of the wicked] will not be effected by means of mere obloquy, then, concentrating on love and compassion and without resort to killing, damaging of sense organs, or cutting off of limbs, he should try warning, scolding, rebuking, or beating them, or confiscating their property, exiling them from the state, tying them up, or imprisoning them. A ruler should be tough, but not in any heavier ways than these.”
Variations of this same wording are repeated several times and constitute the sutra’s advice for handling unrepentant prisoners. Here in the 21st century we do think of tying people up and beating them as “torture,” but I’m not sure the people who lived when this sutra was written would have seen it that way, especially given other options available at the time. But that’s as close to advocating “torture” as the sutra gets.
And then if the chastised individual mends his ways and behaves responsibly, the king obtains merit. However, he would obtain the same merit if he could get the prisoner to reform by reading him poetry. The punishment itself is not what earns the merit.
As far as warfare is concerned, the sutra explicitly denies any merit to wars of conquest or aggression. A ruler may use arms to defend his kingdom and protect his people, but he may only use as much force as is necessary to expel invaders. Once they are expelled, he must not seek to punish the invaders but instead try to make peace with them. Even better, he should do what he can to prevent war in the first place, such as settling disputes or making alliances with other kingdoms so that an aggressive foreign king would think twice about starting a war.
If the kingdom is invaded, the king is advised to deploy his forces in an advantageous manner to ensure victory. Injuring and killing the invaders should be avoided if possible, although it is acknowledged that this may not be possible.
But if the king has sincerely done his best to avoid war, if the self-defense is carried out so that there is no punishment or vengeance heaped upon the invaders, and if the king “undertakes these measures for the protection of the people and for the sake of their families, wives, and children without concern for himself and his property and possessions, he greatly will increase his immeasurable merit.”
It’s not warfare that earns merit, but carrying out the defense of a kingdom with the least possible harm — including harm to the invaders — that earns the merit.
The warfare section is only a small part of the Aryan-Bodhisattva-gocara-upayaisaya-vikurvana-nirdesa-nama-mahayana-sutra. Other chapters cover the Six Perfections and upaya, or skillful means, among other things. Lozang Jamspal’s translation is very clear and readable and deserves to be widely read, if only to dispel accusations about what it says.