Russian Buddhists divided over war with Ukraine
Some monks have blessed volunteers and mobilised to the front; others condemn the Putin offensive. Buddhism has tens of thousands of followers throughout the country. Buddhist beliefs admit the defence of the population from external threats.
Moscow (AsiaNews) - A delicate debate is underway among Russia's Buddhists on the permissibility of war, which seems to contradict the teachings of the religion, as can be seen from the contradictory statements made by some senior members of local communities. If the head of the traditional Sangha (community) of Buddhists in Buryatia, Damba Ajušeev, blessed the volunteers and those mobilised at the front with the words 'Buddha is with us!', the head of the Buddhists of Kalmykia Telo Tulku Rinpoče condemned the military operation in a recent interview.
Historian Andrej Terent'ev, editor-in-chief of the Buddhist publishing house Nartang, published an article in the Nezavisimaja Gazeta on the subject of 'whether Buddhists can go to war', recalling that the Buddhist theocratic state of Tibet did in fact have its own army. "Everyone knows, however, that Buddhism is a doctrine about love and peace, in which the deprivation of the life of another human being is considered the most negative action".
In addition to the Buriyas, Calyukis and Tuvins, inhabitants of the three Buddhist-majority republics of the Russian Federation, Buddhism today has tens of thousands of followers across the country, even without ties to ethnic origins. Terent'ev recalls the teachings of the 'five vows' that underpin the Buddhist religion, starting with the principle that 'one cannot justify war as a simple result of past actions, i.e. karma'. The Buddha himself did everything he could to avoid wars and conflicts, trying to prevent bloodshed.
Karma is for Buddhists the main cause of every event, but 'it is not omnipotent, and by relying on morality in making decisions we can also overcome karmic tendencies', the specialist reminds us, because 'karma is not fatalism, which is alien to Buddhism'. The ethical discipline begins precisely with the prohibition of killing, not only by avoiding criminal actions, but also by refusing to encourage others to carry out such actions, as is also the case with the other four commandments: do not steal, do not lie, do not perform impure actions, do not drink.
For monks, the rules are even stricter, and apply to all branches of Buddhism, both the traditionalist Theravāda of South Asia and the more widespread Mahāyāna of the Lotus Sutra, the predominant school even among Russian Buddhists. The latter also adds the development of 'Bodichitta', compassion with all creatures to reach the level of the Buddha himself, without dividing people into own and outsider, friend and foe, and without which one cannot truly speak of Buddhist faith.
Terent'ev reminds us, however, that 'Buddhism admits diversity of views, and some doubt the canonical statements of pacifism', recalling a 2014 article by the influential US monk Bhikkhu Bodhi on the need for governments to defend the population from external threats, such as during the Second World War following Hitler's invasions. In such cases, 'fidelity to karma does not mean remaining passive in the face of cruel aggression, and warlike actions are permissible'.
In Russia, the opinion also seems to be spreading that only monks would be authorised to fight, having the purest hearts of the lay faithful, and thus living the necessary defence of the people without feeding the criminal hatred of murder. War must be waged 'while preserving the spirit of compassion, without fuelling hostility towards living beings', and in any case, the historian of Buddhism concludes, 'every possible alternative solution to war must be sought'.