Bad Karma

Torturers are planting horrible seeds in their own hearts and minds. Unfortunately, the same is true for nations.

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The prison guards are victims along with the prisoners. The guards have been overcome by fear and hatred to the point of losing touch with their own humanity. They are not in their right minds. They have stopped thinking of the prisoners as fellow human beings. Albert Schweitzer put it this way: "War makes us guilty of the crime of inhumanity."

Buddhism is known for advocating nonviolence. Is that realistic in this situation?

Nonviolence is indeed at the core of Buddhism. The first precept of moral behavior is "Do not kill. Cherish all life." Contemporary Buddhists believe that this principle is as applicable today as it was 2,500 years ago. Nonviolence has a force of its own, not to be underestimated.

Policy experts might say, "Nonviolence would never work in dealing with terrorists." Perhaps not. But imagine, just for a moment, that the United States built up its nonviolent capabilities on a scale comparable to our current investment in the military - with the necessary money and training, backed by a willingness to make sacrifices.. That would certainly yield a wider array of options.

Buddhism teaches that it is almost always possible to move in the direction of nonviolence, even though perfect nonviolence may be unattainable. This means that even in the midst of war, it is possible to honor the human rights of prisoners.

Does Buddhism have a "just-war" doctrine, as Christianity does?


Some Buddhists adhere to absolute pacifism; for them, all war is morally wrong. There are others who say that avoidance of war is always the ideal, but in some real-world situations the use of force may be required. Today's engaged Buddhists are working creatively on these questions. Whatever guidelines emerge, the starting point will remain the same: cause the least possible harm. Those who invoke just-war theory must also be willing to conclude that a particular war does not satisfy the necessary criteria, and therefore cannot be called just.

Is the notion of karma relevant here? Are we getting trapped in a vicious cycle of bad karma?

As you know, karma is about action and the consequences of action. All of our actions - and even our thoughts! - are continuously creating new karma. It's a dynamic process, unlike "fate." Buddhism holds that the laws of cause and effect apply in the realm of morality as well as the physical realm.

One traditional explanation uses seeds as a metaphor. We plant seeds of happiness in ourselves and others when we are kind, and we plant seeds of unhappiness when we treat others badly. Often the effects are not immediate. For example, in parent-child relationships, seeds planted in childhood may not blossom until much later in life.

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Interview by Deborah Caldwell
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