The Buddha goes to war

Xue Yu’s new book Buddhism, War, and Nationalism: Chinese Monks in the Struggle against Japanese Aggressions, 1931-19451 is the first major work I have found on a very interesting topic. Religion and nationalism have always had a tendency to conflict. Nationalists like to claim that they are tying people together in a trans-local identity for the first time, but of course many religions have done that long before nationalists turned up, and this has often led to conflict between the two, as well as recycling of a lot of religious imagery by nationalists.

The Nationalist period in China was not good for Buddhists. They were portrayed as an example of the feudal backwardness that held China back. Given how well this fit with earlier Confucian critiques of Buddhists as parasites and Western missionaries’ dismissal of the religion as primitive hokum there was not much room for Buddhism in many nationalist’s visions of a new China. Buddhism vanished even more completely from Chinese history, and from reading most histories of 20th century China you would get no idea that there were still lots of lay Buddhists, clergy, temples, and an active Buddhist press. Like most of the rest of the Chinese press the Buddhist journals spent a lot of time talking about the threat of Japan.

War is of course problematic for Buddhists. Not only is Buddhism a religion of peace.2 but concern for the fate of the nation is concern for the world and thus antithetical to the concerns of Buddhism. To discard one’s hair and become a religious was to abandon the petty attachments of family and state. How could one then return to them? Various other religions have managed to get around this type of problem of course, and so too did at least some Chinese Buddhists. There was quite a debate about the proper role of Buddhists in wartime in the early to mid-30’s. Xue explains that while some older Buddhists were horrified by the idea of active involvement in war and wanted to limit their actions to prayers for the dead many of the younger monks favored a more activist stance. They pointed out that there was a long history of supporting emperors and the Chinese state, and the Sutra on Insight of Mind-State of Mahayana Jataka specifically listed the kindness of the king (now the nation) as one of the four kinds of kindness that all people were to repay. Even killing could be justified. The monk Yicheng pointed out the well-known passage from the Yogacarabhumi Sastra that stressed that killing a bandit who was about to kill many others was a good act, not only in that it prevented killing, but in that the bodhisattva took the sin of killing on themselves rather than leaving it to others.

While active killing could be perhaps be justified, most monks looked to other forms of service to the nation as most appropriate. Dai Jitao, a major Nationalist official and an active lay Buddhist favored ritual services and the recitation of sutras, which had helped China in the past, although the masses would not understand their efficacy. Sun Weide suggested that the Buddhists could learn a lot from the Muslims (a bit of jihad maybe?) and that the two religions could save China. It was at least suggested that Chinese Buddhists could appeal to Japanese Buddhists and transcend nationalist hatreds, but in Japan the Buddha and the nation had come to an accommodation already.

Buddhist War


Many Chinese religious, both male and female, went through military training. Usually this involved both political indoctrination and use of arms. This seen by many as being good for Buddhism. It re-connected Buddhists to society, made them look less like the lazy parasites they were accused of being, and would inspire others to want to copy Buddhist “skillful means”4 Dai Jitao pointed out that in his home province of Sichuan the area around Mt. Emei was and island of peace in the warlord period because monks trained in the martial arts showed the compassion of the Buddha by maintaining order. In any case, was not the discipline and self-transformation required of a monk similar to that of a soldier?

For many monks military training was just a pointless exercise to be completed and forgotten once you had your certificate. And in practice China was not defended by battalions of machine-gun wielding Shaolin monks.5 Once the war broke out collecting money and care for the sick were more common activities, as one might expect. Probably the most publicized activity was the Ciyuan Si Sangha rescue team, created by the monk Leguan in Chongqing as a fast response to Japanese bombing attacks. On June 12 1940 the monks of the team witnessed a bombing attack on the other side of the river. Without waiting for orders they paddled across the river on two rafts. On the crossing they were attacked by a Japanese plane, but the monks steadied their resolve by singing the national anthem. As they spread out on the opposite bank they were attacked again. Leguan’s account

With a desperate shout I ordered all the monks to lie down. At that moment, we saw the wings of the planes flip from right to left, and suddenly a series of bombs dropped down one after another as if it were raining. We had no way to escape, but shut our eyes, reciting the name of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva and waiting for the glorious moment of death. Within a second, huge explosions resonated around us, shaking the earth ad if the sky had fallen….All of us fainted….When we woke up we saw enormous flames and smoke in front of us…We stood up and checked our numbers. Thanks to the blessing and protection of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, all of us were alive.

Not only did Buddhism given them the courage to face death, it also helped them in their rescue work. Faced with the sight of “broken arms, legs, bloodied faces, heads and bodies…dead and disfigured bodies on the ground.” the monks “managed to control their fear and shock by reciting the name of the Buddha and concentrated on their work in order to forget their feelings.”6 As Dai Jitao had predicted, the gap between Buddhist and nationalist discipline was not unbridgeable.

  1. Routledge, 2005 

  2. Just like Christianity and Islam and all the other religions found in places where war is unknown 

  3. from 抗战漫画 

  4. 方便, a word with a long Buddhist history 

  5. Which would have rocked. 

  6. Xue, p.131 

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