APU Everyday Scholar Podcast

Religion and War: Applying a Buddhist Lens to Conflict

Podcast by Dr. Bjorn Mercer, DMA, Department Chair, Communication and World Languages and
Dr. Christina Kilby, Assistant Professor, Religion, James Madison University

Religion doesn’t often cause war, but it tends to emerge as a divisive tool used to identify differences between warring parties in support of the conflict. War is a universal human problem, and it may be surprising that Buddhist societies are no exception and have a long history of war, says religious scholar Dr. Christina Kilby. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to her about her work and research understanding the Buddhism approach to war and what non-Buddhists can learn about the conduct of war and governance. Learn how Buddhists apply the concept of equanimity even in wartime—the idea of non-discrimination, that all humans are equal and deserve dignity. Also learn about the gift of fearlessness, that a government’s rulers must be able to offer security to its people and protect civilians.

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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And today we’re talking to Dr. Christina Kilby, Assistant Professor of Religion at James Madison University. And today our conversation is about Buddhism, refugees, and war. Thanks for being here, Christina.

Dr. Christina Kilby: Thanks for having me. Good to be here.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. I found Christina on, it was the Academic Minute from the AAC&U, and I reached out to her and she has generously, agreed to be on The Everyday Scholar. So thank you so much. And so my first question is, most of our listeners wouldn’t associate Buddhism with war. What brought those two together for you?

Dr. Christina Kilby: Yeah, there’s this real sense of, I think romanticism. When a lot of us in the United States who aren’t from Asian heritages, think of Buddhism, we think that it’s a totally nonviolent religion. We think everyone’s vegetarian. Neither of those is true.

So Buddhism and war have gone together for as long as human history. Buddhists are people and Buddhists societies have had conflict. They’ve had armies. And in that sense, you know, war is a very universal human problem or method of dealing with conflict. It’s not unique to one tradition and no one’s excluded from that.

So, bringing those two together has been an interesting challenge because, in my work and the work of other colleagues that I’m collaborating with, there’s a bit of a hurdle to get over, just to have conversations about Buddhism and war, especially for those of us in the West that might romanticize the tradition.

But there’s also a kind of reticence on the part of Buddhists to think about war sometimes because they hold such a high ideal of their tradition. Nonviolence is a very important foundational tenant of the Buddhist path. So it’s also hard for Buddhists sometimes to think about what the ethics of war really look like through a Buddhist lens. So bringing these two together is not an easy thing, but history shows us that it’s important and that there’s plenty of human experience behind it.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s a wonderful intro. And it makes me think of how Buddhism typically is portrayed in U.S. media, where it’s very spiritual. People sometimes have a deep knowledge of the world because there’s some sort of Buddhism, and it’s not even always Buddhism, but it has all the veils and the symbolism of Buddhism. How do you think U.S. media say “misinforms” people about Buddhism?

Dr. Christina Kilby: Well, I think one of the challenges that US media has in general in terms of portraying religion is understanding nuance and complexity. And this is something that scholars of religion are trying to engage more and more with, is how to educate journalists in depicting the nuances of religion. It’s not just as easy as us versus them, in-groups and out-groups. It’s not just as easy as well, their sacred text says this, so, therefore, they must be doing this. There’s a lot of negotiation and interpretation that happens in religion and living it out. And it’s just as hard for Buddhists as for others to find ways to live out their traditions.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that totally makes sense, because it makes me think of even in the U.S. where there will be Protestant or evangelical ideas about Catholicism, all Christianity, but when you’re in a different denomination, you have these ideas, misinformation about the church that’s literally across the street from you. And that misinformation is then passed from person to person. And it’s not ill will usually, but it’s just usually not knowing the person who is living in the same city as you.

So it’s easy to imagine how it’s even harder when it’s Buddhism. And I think when I looked at a stat recently, like 0.7% of U.S. citizens are Buddhists or something so small that it’s very, very underrepresented in the U.S. versus it’s about 7% of the world population. Again, not a huge percentage of the world population, but here in the U.S., it’s very, very small. So when it comes to war and Buddhism, how does that affect today?

Dr. Christina Kilby: The reason I got into this topic is, I started collaborating with some work that the international committee for The Red Cross is doing to engage more religious groups and thinking about conflict and thinking about humanitarian ethics of armed conflict. And The Red Cross has been a real visionary leader, I think, in this area of recognizing that conflict happens. We have a lot of active conflicts going on in the world right now.

And religious people have a lot of influence in how those conflicts play out and how they can be resolved. And religious values and religious identities are very powerful forces in fueling or helping to resolve conflict as well. So it became apparent that Buddhism really matters for world peace. And it’s not just about sitting on a meditation cushion, but it’s about engaging the messiness of the battlefield and thinking about how in Buddhist societies, especially, how Buddhism can inform the way governments and civilians and military personnel think about their duties as human beings during times of conflict.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Definitely what you said that there’s so many conflicts. There’s so many conflicts, unfortunately, that are going on right now. And I always think that’s one of the great privileges of living in the U.S. is that we haven’t had an armed conflict here since well, the civil war. That continent has been relatively, I’ll say relatively safe for countless generations of Americans.

And so we don’t really know what it’s like to live in an area that’s actually has strife. And I’m glad you brought up the international committee for The Red Cross. And I know during the variety of different conflicts in the middle east, I believe it’s the Red Crescent, there’s so many wonderful organizations that try to do so, so many good things. But then human nature, unfortunately, I’ll say, leans towards war. And so, is international humanitarian law really international, or is a set of Western standards that are say imposed on everyone else?

Dr. Christina Kilby: Well, maybe I can go back and address one thing you mentioned a moment ago about how the United States has been relatively very fortunate, not to have conflict on our own soil for quite a long time. But I was thinking too about 120,000 Japanese Americans were interned during World War II, and many of them were Buddhist, most of them.

So, actually, Buddhism has had a role in how people have negotiated the experience of war, and of internment here on our own soil as well. So it’s actually, in some ways, it’s not as far from home for the United States as, as we might imagine. And of course, after the war in Vietnam, we had more than a million refugees fled from Southeast Asia and many of those came to our shores here.

And so, the fabric of our very democracy in our cultural landscape in the United States has actually been very influenced by Buddhists who’ve experienced conflict and who’ve witnessed this firsthand and really brought their value systems to this most difficult of human experiences.

In terms of international humanitarian law, which we abbreviate commonly as IHL, even though the codification and development and recognition of these principles was carried out by Western European actors beginning in the 19th century, one thing I really admire about this set of international law is that it really is so universal.

When we dig deep into the world’s most ancient religious traditions, when we dig into cultural history and indigenous thought, we find elements of these principles articulated very beautifully in many different cultural contexts, you know, hundreds and thousands of years before a bunch of white people got together and made some rules on paper.

And so part of the challenge today is to self-reflectively, I think for the west, but critique our own understanding of international humanitarian law and learn something from the rest of the world that has been valuing humanitarianism for a very long time. And doing more actually to promote humanitarianism than Western international bodies have done because of their longevity and their reach.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And absolutely wonderful statements. And it makes me think of like Western culture, a lot of great history. Then there’s a lot of very murky history with colonialism and Western cultures saying, “Hey, isn’t this great?” And a lot of countries and cultures accepting ideas and concepts from Western cultures then being like, “No, it’s not.”

And it’s part of the development of the world. And I’m guessing you say Western culture is where colonialism probably 120 years ago, people were like, “Yeah, it’s fine, whatever.” But you reflect now and it’s really just imposing one culture on another. And so I think a lot of people have, I don’t want to use the word matured because that implies that people were not mature in the past, but we’ve opened our eyes and we’ve realized that the world is very international. It’s very multicultural. It’s very everything. And everybody has a culture that is unique and precious.

And so, which areas of the world, so for our listeners, have more Buddhists than not? If that makes sense. So just like I said, previously, the U.S. has very few Buddhists. Europe has very few Buddhists. Is it mainly in Southeast Asia? Is it mainly in Japan, Buddhist Shinto, but also Buddhist?

Dr. Christina Kilby: Yes, there are really large Buddhist populations in all the Southeast Asian countries, also in China. Now, depending on how people identify religiously, sometimes they’re overlapping religious identities in East Asia, in Japan, and in China and Korea.

So, there are a lot of Buddhists obviously in Mongolia, across the kind of Himalayas of the Tibetan diaspora. So those are where the world’s kind of largest Buddhist communities are. And that’s where a lot of my work is focusing now because of the huge influence that Buddhism has on society there and how people think through conflict and otherness and what the responsibilities are during the most difficult of times. But, again, Buddhism is actually spreading and growing in many places. We have large Buddhist communities now in South America. So it’s truly a global religion now.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It truly is. But Buddhism doesn’t have the drive for evangelism, does it? Like Christianity or Islam?

Dr. Christina Kilby: It actually does. Propagating the religion is embedded in the tradition itself. The idea is that the Buddhist teachings can cross any border that they are meant for all people, that they should be shared because they benefit others. My take on it is that Buddhists are a little more patient about it because you have many, many lifetimes to come to an understanding of the Buddhist truths.

So, I find that Buddhists, and it depends on the group, it depends on their tradition, that the lineage are sect. But in general, Buddhists are a little more laid back about evangelism because they have a long view. Whereas for those religions that have one lifetime to get ya, it takes a little more speed.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that totally makes sense. Obviously, in Christianity and Islam, there’s one life. Everything you do in this life leads towards the afterlife and with Buddhism and Hinduism, there is that circle of rebirth that plays into it. Yeah, I can see how their long game is much longer than one lifetime.

Dr. Christina Kilby: That worldview is actually really helpful, I think, in terms of instilling humanitarian ethics on the battlefield too because the teaching in Buddhism is that even the person you’re fighting against, like your enemy, across the lines from you could have been your mother or your brother in a past life. Or in one of your past lives, you could have been the one that was doing all the things you’re angry about your enemy doing today.

There’s a real sense of universalism in human experience that we have all been the perpetrators, we’ve all been the victims, we’ve played every role. And so your enemy is not an absolute. Your enemy happens to be in that role at this moment in time under these conditions, but things are always changing.

So that sense of longevity can help in terms of some of the basic tenets of IHL, which are taking care of prisoners of war, not targeting civilians, making sure that precaution is taken in attack so that the collateral damage is not out of proportion to the military advantage you’re seeking to gain. All these kinds of modes of thoughtfulness and restraint and responsibility can be supported by this Buddhist worldview that we’re all connected and we’ve all been in each other’s shoes before.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Very, very well said. And I really like what you said about understanding your enemy. When you look at religious conflicts and I’m completely generalizing, so I apologize. If an army or a side has an overly religious perspective, they might view the other side as an “other” or not being with their God.

And so, you know, it doesn’t really matter if you kill them because they are “evil.” Of course, I would go into say that evil doesn’t exist, but that is my own personal thing. And so, where do refugees fit into this picture?

Dr. Christina Kilby: Well, I would say one of the foundations of Buddhism is this thing called mindfulness, which is practice of being aware of reality of what’s really going on and that’s harder than it sounds. And through the lens of mindfulness, we can see that refugee flows are a reality. They happen. We can wish them away. We can find them inconvenient depending on where we position ourselves.

But the reality is humans are on the move a lot today. At the end of 2020, I think the UN’s numbers were more than 82 million people are currently displaced and that’s the reality we’re in. And so, from a Buddhist perspective, not being in denial about that reality, but thinking proactively about how to respond in a way that causes the least amount of suffering and that is wise in terms of the long view, that’s the goal.

And conflict continues to be one of the largest drivers of displacement. So really matters in times of war that governments and militaries strive to prevent displacement when they can and take responsibility for protecting the displaced when that does happen, not closing our eyes in other words.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I really like that. And it makes me think of the refugee crisis on the U.S. southern border. It’s interesting when you hear commentary about that and this politician saying this and this politician saying that. And these politicians, not all of them, but some of them are from northern states. And as one who lives in Arizona and has lived in, I lived in Texas for a very long time. I lived right on the border and it’s one of those things where it seems like with Buddhism, having that humanitarian view of “the border crisis” is like step one, these are human beings.

And especially when you then throw into the fact that in Honduras and in El Salvador and Nicaragua, the U.S. has some pretty murky colonial past just to use the term colonialism, but we’ve interjected ourselves into those countries for many, many decades. And so, when we just kind of wipe our hands clean and say, “Why are these people coming?” Well, America is the place where a lot of people want to come and they want to come. And then yet at the same time, people are like, “No, they, it has to be a solid border and we can’t help people.” Obviously, it’s very complex. But how can Buddhist teachings help the U.S. with “our own order crisis?”

Dr. Christina Kilby: One of the key teachings and virtues of Buddhism that I think about a lot in terms of the border crisis and border crises are happening in Asia as well, not just in our experience here in the United States is this principle of equanimity. And it can mean different things, but in practice, it’s the idea of non-discrimination of viewing all human beings as equal and their basic dignity and their basic desire for happiness in life and to avoid suffering.

But I extend that also to the difference between individuals and states. Obviously, I’m really concerned about the humanitarian implications of these situations and the U.S. and Asia. But states, governments, also have their own interests. They also have their own responsibilities. They have to govern. They’re charged with the safety, security, and also sometimes cultural integrity over which they hold sovereignty.

So, for me, I think about in terms of equanimity, trying to extend this desire to reduce suffering. To think about extending it, not only to the individuals who are suffering most visibly at the borders. But also thinking about the patrol agents who have a really difficult job, how can we minimize their suffering? How can we create systems that are just and efficient in ways that reduce the suffering they experience?

And also, if you want to think of the government of the United States as an agent as well, reducing suffering for the government. There are some strategies that are wiser than others. Looking at information, looking at how much, what are the real economic effects, for example, of international migration, and what effects can the United States really benefit from and embrace?

So looking at information, trying to take fear and hatred out of the discourse as much as possible because those tend to lead to more suffering and also misinformation. So I think about all the different actors that are involved in these kinds of situations. And although my research is focused on the humanitarian dimension, where we’re thinking about the plight of the individuals who are in distress and fleeing for their lives. It’s important to balance that with the realities of governance and statehood and just being wise, as wise as possible. And I think there’s a lot of improvement we can make.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: There is. And I think for Americans, again, going to the safety issue, Americans for the most part have had a very safe country in the sense that they foreign adversary is not trying to take us over. Nobody’s tried to invade us.

You know, when I think of refugees two main areas in the world come up. And to me, it’s just about trying to have that understanding. And it’s in Israel with Palestine, where for decades, and I’m not even talking about, like, recent, but decades, Palestinians were pushed out of where they lived and they’ve been in Jordan. They’ve been in other countries around them.

And then with a more recent Syrian civil war, where the hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled. And so literally, the countries around them, Jordan and Turkey have had to absorb all these refugees and it’d be so difficult. And the lack of empathy or understanding is quite perplexing, I’ll just say, from certain governments.

And then in Myanmar, which has been a very, very unfortunate conflict over the last few years, which has a very high Buddhist population, doesn’t it? And so the conflict in Myanmar, which of course for many years, that was a military dictatorship. So, it was ruled very strictly. And then more recently it’s kind of democratic, but not really anymore.

So it’s interesting to see how these conflicts can just explode and I’m assuming pent-up anger comes out on the street. And then I’m assuming then the religious element complicates that. Is that as too simplistic view to describe it?

Dr. Christina Kilby: Well, one thing that some researchers have noticed more lately is that conflicts—they call it religious cleavage. So, a conflict can erupt based on complicated geopolitical factors about resources or about territory, but then often, once a conflict erupts, then it becomes common for religious dividing lines to emerge as kind of a safe and easy way for people to know where they’re safe or where they belong and to create the other. So, a lot of times, religion is not the instigating factor for a conflict, but it emerges as a divisive tool after the conflict emerges.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that totally makes sense. It makes me think of how the former Yugoslavia erupted and fell apart, where for decades under the communist regime, they lived in peace, you know, it was a country that worked. And then when it broke up, a variety of people decided, “Hey, we should X, these countries should stick together and these shouldn’t.” And instead, of course, talking it out, they started shooting at each other. And then there were the, you know, there was the religious strife.

Again, religious strife where that hadn’t been that, and it totally makes sense what you said, where people default to that, even though, again, for decades, it was “working” in Yugoslavia. And so this leads me to the last questions. Had you ever worked with a military audience before this project and how has your work with The Red Cross changed how you view the military?

Dr. Christina Kilby: This has been such an eye-opening experience for me. I’ve had very little prior, you know, exposure to the military in general. Like a lot of Americans, my grandfathers were all veterans from World War II, but The Red Cross has really changed how I’ve seen the military as a potential force for so much good in the world.

I think I had some stereotypical ignorances about military life, I’m just learning. But this all started with a conference I attended in Sri Lanka a couple years ago, and there were Buddhist monks and nuns there. There were Red Cross attorneys and humanitarian personnel there. And there were also military leaders from several Asian countries.

And it was humbling to be in that room with so many different voices. And to hear from people who had been on the battlefield, had been involved, for example, in the Sri Lankan civil war, had put their lives on the line and had to face these really difficult decisions about how to be Buddhist and how to do what they saw as the duty for their country at the same time.

These are challenges greater than those I’ve had to face. And I have a lot to learn. Many of us do, especially the humanitarian sector. So, I’ve really been interested in learning more about military experience and thinking about how the work I do as a scholar of religion can help support military folks because they carry a large burden, they have a huge responsibility.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It’s true. I watched my own father who was 24 years Army. And so, being around that military and seeing that first-hand was very eye-opening. And one of the things that’s wonderful about the military is that people serve typically with great reverence and a desire to really help their community and their country. And that’s where the military, no matter what country—I’m not speaking about just the U.S., every military in the world—every person who joins the military typically has that desire, which is absolutely wonderful.

Now, where I typically get suspicious is how politicians then want to use the military. And it’s not to say the politicians are all bad. They’re not. But oftentimes, most military leaders, the last thing they want to do is enter a hot war. Beause once you enter a hot war, all rules are out. And things happen that you can’t control. And it seems like with politicians, they seem to think, “Oh, well, X will happen. And then I will benefit because Y will happen.” And it’s like, everything is thrown out the window.

And so that really makes sense when you’re in that conference and there was so many different people because the number one thing is that most people want to do is they want to avoid conflict. The last thing you want to do is have a conflict. And I had a podcast with Dr. Larry Parker and he was a career Marine and it was about the philosophy of war.

And the first thing I asked him is like, “Why war? Why do we have war anymore?” There literally should be no reason for war, but war still exists. Most countries aren’t fighting for resources, most countries. And most wars are just because people can’t come to the table and talk it out. And so, how is it that we can use these Buddhist ideas for non-Buddhists to help prevent and further make war less inevitable?

Dr. Christina Kilby: Yeah, I enjoy thinking about this question of what non-Buddhists in the world can learn from Buddhists about the conduct of war and governance in general. And there’s one principle in particular that I’ve published a couple articles on that really seems compelling to me. And it actually comes from Hinduism because Buddhism was built on this foundation of Hindu tradition.

And it’s an idea called the gift of fearlessness and I’ve spoken about it before. But it’s this idea that offering people protection is the main measure of power in sovereignty. So if you’re going to rule a country, you must show that you are able to offer fearlessness, which means security for your life. You’re not in fear of mortal danger.

So, that basic security is what governments are charged with providing. And so in situations of armed conflict, if you think you’re good enough to take up weapons and fight for power, you also need to be capable of protecting civilians and protecting your enemies, whom you capture and showing that you have that moral stamina to be a leader.

That’s a model that’s beautiful to me because I think in the west, we have this tradition of Machiavellian politics. That’s who we read in our history classes, ruling by fear, fear is more important than love. But here’s a really interesting model from India about power as fearlessness, being able to offer people security.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It’s one of those things where our education oftentimes is so random and scattered. For those raised in the U.S., which most of our listeners are, it’s mainly from a Christian perspective, even if you’re not Christian, but you were raised in a Christian country, generally. And so we get a lot of Christian culture and ideas.

The Machiavellian idea, even though I think most people don’t follow that, it’s always there. It’s kind of like in business. “Oh, it’s, it’s just business.” And that idea kind of permeates a lot of people’s ideas of how things operate. I think most people don’t actually operate that way. Some people do and they’re usually narcissists. But then sometimes those people are in charge and it’s hard to get around, you know, when that person is that way.

I would hope that people of other religions and, say Christianity, would look at some of the great aspects of Buddhism and not view it as a threat because we live in a global world and cultures intermix all the time and say, these are some wonderful things that have come from a different tradition that we could learn from just like other people learn from us, but we could learn from that. And it’s a wonderful way to live your life. Absolutely wonderful conversation, Christina. Any final words?

Dr. Christina Kilby: Well, I really appreciate you having me and I just invite your listeners to think more about where they bring their own ethical systems into their work, whether they’re in the military or another field. How do those cultural values or religious values make them better human beings?

And it’s, it’s worth reflecting on. Even if you do a job that’s really hard, or even if you do a job that others might look on as morally compromised, for example, being a politician. So, it’s worth reflecting on. And we do have a lot to learn from each other. Each of the traditions that have been lucky enough to make it to today have so much wisdom. And we all focus on different things.

In Islam, the ethics of war is something that’s been deliberated on in great detail and written into the Quran. And that’s actually been a huge influence on international humanitarian law, the contributions of Islam. So we do have a lot to learn from each other. You might be surprised.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent, very well said. And today we are speaking with Dr. Christina Kilby about Buddhism, refugees, and war. And, of course, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And thank you for listening.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music in his spare time.

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