By David Jones
When I became old enough to be drafted, I quickly filed a Conscientious Objector form.
I believed war and killing were against the message Jesus brought to us, and at the time I felt ready to go to jail if the alternative was to go to battle. I just assumed all Christians felt that way. (Spoiler alert! I assumed wrong.)
At first I couldn’t see things from their perspective because I was so convinced of the rightness of mine—that’s not a religious thing but a human thing. Watch an argument over which political party is better between A and B, or whether my sports team is better than yours. Humans are tribal critters by nature; it takes real practice to limit that influence.
Of course, I came to realize folks don’t have to agree, because mere disagreement isn’t a challenge to a duel. Their decisions and mine don’t need to line up, and we’ll both face the consequences of our choices either way. Their decision doesn’t negate mine, nor does mine invalidate theirs.
So as I sat on my bed, numbed by so much negative crap in every inch of my news feed, watching Russian armor roll into the Ukraine, my exhausted heart could only manage a quiet sigh.
I prayed for peace and comfort for the poor folks caught in the middle. Tanks still rolled down city streets.
I meditated, offering Metta to both sides, believing that if both sides were safe and happy, maybe they’d chill for a bit. Buildings still crumbled beneath mortars and shells. I sat in the quiet and darkness and felt my breath and heart reminding me to be present in the moment. Half a world away men, women and children still died without notice.
Suddenly I’m King Theoden wondering aloud: “So much death. What can men do against such reckless hate?”
Then I ran across an unexpected answer in a post on the Buddhism subreddit about a Ukrainian Buddhist who had tried to face the crisis non-violently to no avail. His decision? Join the defense force, pick up a weapon, and defend his land and people from the encroaching machine of death.
So that got one eyebrow: a Buddhist deciding to go fight, possibly to die, possibly to kill (I mean that’s not unheard of throughout Buddhist history, but it feels surprising today). The other eyebrow went up as one Buddhist after another wished it hadn’t come to this and then wished him safety and wellness on his path, just showering him with compassion. Not approval, but compassion.
For a while, not a single Buddhist in the thread lectured him on the First Precept.
No one quoted Martin Luther King or Thich Nhat Hanh about how only love defeats hate. No one appealed to him to reconsider. They wished him well, prayed he wouldn’t have to kill anyone, and hoped he’d soon return safely. A couple offered chants and sutras for their brother on the path.
Eventually a few tried to karma-shame him, but the community defended the man’s agency to make his own decisions. The Buddhist shamers were just like their Christian counterparts—everyone who didn’t agree with them were clearly idiots who didn’t understand anything the Buddha (or Jesus) taught.
Judgment and dogma can happily wear any uniform.
I just assumed all Buddhists would decline to fight, just like my young Conscientious Objector-self imagined all Christians would. But it’s easy to be an armchair cowboy when stuff goes down far away from me. It’s easy to judge others over decisions which aren’t mine to make.
If an invasion happened in my city, on my street, how inclined would I be to sit meditating vs. going out to do something? It’s a serious question, one I can’t honestly answer until I have to. I know what I want to say, what I should say, what I’m supposed to say, but then again I’m lying in a soft bed with plentiful food and movies on demand and no one’s pointing guns at my grandchildren.
This young Buddhist man’s decision may not be authentically Gautama’s, but it was authentically his. That’s important. He avoided violent options until all that he had left was literally fight or flight. What he should do was never for me to decide.
I went to my makeshift altar and spoke to Jesus and Buddha about my weariness of praying for peace because prayer and meditation and yearning for peace hasn’t stopped bullets or shells or tanks or hate. And then I just sat quietly in commune with my teachers.
They reminded me that the purpose of my prayer and meditation isn’t to magically fix anything or cure anyone, but to bring me into harmony with the love I claim to believe in.
I become more compassionate in my own life when I try (however I can) to relieve suffering in someone else.
That includes not piling more suffering on a young man I’ll never meet, making decisions I’ll never face, by hurling sutras or scriptures at him as judgemental ammunition. Anyone who claims to be against violence but actively joins conflicts and fights online should probably review how dedicated they really are to increasing peace and love or reducing suffering. We’re all interbeing, so what we do affects others as well as ourselves.
My job isn’t to solve the world’s problems but to increase my loving-kindness towards others. Only one of those is something I can actually do something about; the other is out of my hands.
Editor: Dana Gornall