An interesting confluence of things came my way recently. Over the past couple of weeks I received three or four e-mails from people in the military saying how much they’d enjoyed my books. One was reading Hardcore Zen while stationed in Iraq. At just around the same time I received some other e-mails expressing concern over people in the military who practiced Buddhism. These other e-mailers seemed convinced that anyone in the military who got into Buddhist practice and philosophy would immediately be forced to go AWOL and quit the armed services. And here it is, Veteran’s Day, the perfect day to post a piece about the subject.
I feel very honored that people in the armed services are reading my stuff. I sometimes wonder how many other Buddhist authors have fans in the military. I’m sure some do. But a lot of Buddhist writers are so vehemently politicized I’d imagine they turn anyone involved in that line of work away from Buddhism. That’s a shame.
The title of this piece is a play on a bumper sticker you often see in the US that says, “Like your freedom? Thank a veteran!” Buddhism is a practical philosophy and practice for the real world, the one we actually live in, and not an idealistic religion that envisions the fantastic world we wish we lived in. I think we Buddhists ought to thank our veterans too.
You probably wish we lived in a world where our freedom to practice Buddhism was not underwritten by military power. I know I certainly do. But if wishes were tobacco-burst ’57 Gibson Les Paul guitars with coffee and cream PAF pick-ups I’d have a dozen of ‘em. The fact is Buddhism has only ever thrived in nations where the citizens’ right to practice it was guaranteed by a powerful military. The sad examples of Afghanistan and Tibet spring to mind.
I already wrote about this in a Suicide Girls piece called Buddhism Through Violence, so I don’t want to rehash all that here. But I do want to stress again, as I did in that article, that I’m not happy about the fact that our ability to practice Buddhism needs to be protected by violence, or at least the threat of violence. But whether I’m happy with it or not doesn’t change the fact. We can only make a difference in the world after we first come to terms with what kind of world we actually live in.
As for whether a person can continue to serve in the military after she or he starts practicing Buddhism, I don’t see why not. The job these people are doing is a necessary one. As long as the military continues to be necessary I want there to be a military. If military people practice zazen they’ll bring their own individual bodies and minds more into balance and they will do their jobs with greater efficiency and care. The outlook that develops as their practice grows will allow them to use the power we’ve given them in ways that will be more beneficial to everyone involved. They’ll be more interested in maintaining peace wherever they are and less interested in kicking butt. There will be less random violence, less drug and alcohol abuse and more individual stability in our armed services. This is a great thing.
Is there a chance that military people who practice Buddhism will be moved by its teachings of non-violence to leave the service? Some might. Some might not. But I don’t think it’s the place of those who think they know what Buddhism is all about to say that anyone who truly understands the philosophy of non-violence would certainly leave the military. That is a matter for each individual to decide for themselves. It ain’t up to you, no matter how well you think you understand this Buddhist stuff.
So on Veteran’s Day I’d like to extend my thanks to those who serve in our armed forces.