Ajahn Brahm on war

Last week Ajahn Brahm gave two talks at the Roselea Community Center, organized by Santi FM and the Sydney Buddhist community. As with last years talks, these were highly successful.

After the second talk, Ajahn Brahm was asked about war, especially in light of the recent conflict in Sri Lanka. He gave a great response, which you can see on youtube.


27 thoughts on “Ajahn Brahm on war

  1. Thank you for that link Bhante.

    Having listened in to both episodes of the BBC’s Forum (one of which dealt with this issue and the other was to do with gender) which were recorded in Sri Lanka this year…

    I’ve noted a tendency to shout down those who do not agree with how reconciliation and reconstruction should take place. I hope that all parties can at least allow each other to be heard with kindness. Kindness is the key here. Kind listening. I hope SL finds it way to a lasting peace.

  2. How cavalier to tell people to let kamma deliver justice! Aren’t the comments below the youtube very telling ….

    “Venerable Brahmavanso (Ajhan Brahm) is a well known Buddhist monk and a scholar. In this excerpt from a live talk given to an Australian audience, he talks about the war in Sri Lanka, its implications and how best to deal with war crimes and move forward for the sake of Sri Lankan people. A must see for those who pursue a path of violence, intolerance and seek vengeance in the form of prosecution against war crimes.”

    We should always be a little skeptical when people talk about “moving forward” for the sake of …. people. Sri Lankan here doesn’t include Tamils or Muslims, perhaps? And how are those who want to see war crimes prosecuted anywhere, from Cambodia to Liberia to Iraq to Northern Ireland ….. pursuing a path of violence, intolerance or vengence?

    • Dear Visakha,

      I was born in Sri Lanka but I believe you have lived there longer than I have. So my humble guess is that you know much more about the details of the situation there than myself.

      However, I humbly suggest that I know Ajahn Brahm better than yourself simply because I’ve had the chance to do long retreats with him and also, over the course of about 20 years, I’ve had the privilege of observing him in different situations. I’m sure his intentions and motivations were pure kindness and concern for all beings in Sri Lanka. I suggest that he wasn’t coming from any deep/broad knowledge of Sri Lankan politics but rather from the deep/broad knowledge of someone who’s practised and served as a Buddhist monk for about 35 years. And I very humbly suggest that the politics of a nation emerging from war and the wisdom of a being submerged in Dhamma are not going to marry easily, certainly not without great challenges being overcome.

      I don’t know, but i wonder if his comments here were in response to a question from his audience. It sounds a bit like that to me. I may be wrong.

      I hope I haven’t offended you with my comments.

      With metta, K

    • Dear Kanchana and all,

      This was an answer to a question given at one of Ajahn Brahm’s talks to an audience of roughly 700 in Sydney, most of whom (including the questioner) were Sri Lankan.

    • Re: the comments below the youtube…

      Ajahn Brahm is not the author of these, I am almost certain it was written by the person who uploaded the video; the name given is dcherath.

    • I can understand why Bhante Sujato spends so much time in a Swift Pair of Messengers talking about the inadequacy of words…

      We’re never going to hear each other as we intend to be heard. The vipallas are ever active.

      I’m always going to put my perceptions on to what I hear and read and so’s everyone else…can’t be helped. Just how it is.

      You hear ‘cavalier’… I hear Ajahn asking us not to seek to do violence or vengence or seek revenge. It’s his way of trying to encourage us to seek another way to reconciliation. Another way to let the victims have their voices heard and to have justice. Another way to deal with the perpertrators; one which doesn’t involve us becoming them.

      The Buddha set the standard high in the Similie of the Saw when he suggested that we wouldn’t be his disciples if we were even a little cross with two bandits who were using a two handed saw to slowly cut us in two! IMO he didn’t set the standard high so we could walk away from something that is beyond us…he set the standard high so we knew the direction in which to cultivate our hearts and minds and that we had much challenging work ahead of us.

  3. Absolutely no offense taken and I have no intention of discussing the Sri Lankan situation specifically. Let’s talk about Gaza or Pol Pot, or Abu Graib for that matter. Any war crimes, any crimes against humanity, any gross violations of human rights. I can think of nothing in the Pali texts that accords with this so I must agree with Peter.

    • Are you suggesting that Ajahn Brahm is suggesting that there are such things supported within the Pali texts??

    • ‘but with amnesty’ are his actual words in regards to having something like a truth and reconciliation commission. Just prior to this he also states that people must be heard.

    • In this video he also states:

      “why would you confess what you did, if you realised you were going to jail for that? So all those crimes would be hidden and would die with the perpertrators. But with amnesty they’d be honest; it’d be in there interest to be honest and the country would get the benefit from that honesty; but not with punishment. If an amnesty is give…you can have truth and reconciliation and you can move forward…”

    • Depends what one wants to hear.

      Does one want to hear a Dhamma teaching re-conditioning the mind in that particular moment (which is now passed and which we are now discussing)?

      Or does one wish to hear a comprehensive assessment about relevant responses to war and to the ending of war?

      I’ve been a student of AB for a long time. I know his teaching style. And I’m also a teacher myself. I have some understanding of the pedagogical methods he employs in order to teach the Dhamma of forgiveness/metta/renunciation/8 fold Path.

      If one is present, loving, open…one hears and sees it in one’s own heart…not just cos he’s saying it.

      But if one is looking for an intellectual thesis which reviews research on the topic of peace after war and makes subsequent evaluations about models that should be approached by governments, NGOs and other stakeholders…then one is not going to get that in this isolated comment…because that would not have been the purpose of the comment. The purpose of the comment was for the benefit of the growth in love, kindness and peace in the hearts and minds of whoever it was that was in the audience that needed to hear this.

      Yes, in this respect, I thought it was an awesome response.

    • So if I do not hear it and see it does this mean that I’m not “present, loving, open”?

      Would Ajahn Brahm not be aware that he was being filmed and that his response would reach a larger audience? The clip has actually been presented to a larger audiance as a “great response” by a fellow teacher.

      P.S. Does anyone know when Thailand was a Buddhist country according to their constitution and which countries are Hindu?

    • Basically…

      Well…maybe loving

      But if you don’t fully…i say fully…hear someone…well…speaking from personal experience…you’re not present or fully open.

      If you don’t hear it you’re not there at that moment. But so what? I can’t be present 100% of the time and often I’ll listen to a Dhamma talk that feels nice but it’s very rarely that something will go in deeply and when it does it’s cos it’s the right moment, the right time and cos I’m present. Perhaps after a particularly deep meditation.

      Ajahn Brahm’s Friday night talks are aimed at a large and varied audience…even before they’re sent out on the net. They try and take into account those who are old to Buddhism and those who are new, those who are tired after a hard week at work…

      But you don’t believe everything he tells you do you? Of course you don’t! That’s how it should be.

      That’s the point of the way he teaches…take it in, reflect on it and decide for yourself. We should be checking it out with our own experience first and then deciding. (Besides which not every teacher is for everyone.)

      Furthermore, and even more importantly, I’ve seen Ajahn Brahm talk to people one on one…he’s FULLY present when he does so. It’s like he’s listening to you with his whole being. If I was a betting person, I’d bet that he was responding to a question from the audience and suiting his response specifically to that person, right there, present in front of him. The rest of us just make what we can out of it and personally speaking, I consider myself incredibly lucky to be able to do so. The difference it’s made in my life in practical terms is massive.

      Just like when we read the suttas.

      Or when we read Ajahn Chah books.

      The Buddha and Ajahn Chah were talking to a particular audience/person. But their speech was saved for posterity and the rest of us now argue over what they meant! Perhaps they should’ve been more careful and thought of all the millions of people who might misunderstand them, hang on every word literally and not think for themselves and therefore perhaps they too should have decided to not speak at all or be more careful! Ha! Doesn’t matter how careful they’d have been, someone would have criticised them!

      And all power to the critics I say! I’d hate a world wear I had to agree with you all the time! At least I can’t get sent to jail for disagreeing with you!

      Wishing you well…and everyone well…I’m off for a while and won’t be blogging for a bit.

      Happy blogging everyone.

  4. Some classic examples of forgiveness in the suttas or Buddhist culture:
    Angulima, who murdered 999 people and was an extremely wanted man, the Buddha ordained him.
    The bandits sent to murder the Buddha by devadatta. The Buddha ordained them.
    The baby-eating yakkhini Hārītī, who was converted by the Buddha and became a temple guardian. The baby-eating Yakkhini Kala, who was trying to eat a woman’s baby, the woman fled to the Buddha for protection, the Buddha reconciled them.

    The Buddha consistently forgave people and beings, aimed at moving forward. And he didn’t just forgive the people who had said something rude, he forgave the worst murderers.

    This is offset by the stories of kammic retribution. In the suttas and other texts, when kamma gets the bastard, kamma gets them real good. Kammic retribution is not the slightest bit just because the suffering one undergoes as a result of doing evil, is far, far greater than the suffering caused by that evil – no human justice system would ever stand for it because it’s far too cruel.
    For example the kammic retribution for murdering your mum, is said to be an aeon in hell, and an aeon isn’t a short amount of time, and hell isn’t pleasant.

    If you accept this view, then you realize that whatever punishment can be inflicted in this world, is utterly insignificant, it’s not even a slap on the wrist. On the other hand, the possibility of redemption is significant, due to the potency of good action and renunciation.

  5. Why is Ajahn Brahm going around teaching other countries,politically, in particularly mentioning Sri Lanka? What’s the underlying statement?
    How about starting with Australia or England first.

    • Ajahn Brahm gets question, Ajahn Brahm answers question. Since a great many Sri Lankans came to the talks at the Roselea center (probably the majority of the audience were Sri Lankan), it is natural Sri Lanka will come up in the Q&A.

      One of the things I liked most about Ajahn Brahm when I first listened to his talks, is precisely that he would tackle the hard questions. Whether the answers good or not, is not so important, the point is, he actually tries, rather than just evading or answering not-to-the-point. This encourages people to think and discuss for themselves.

    • Nandiya,

      Was it then a response to a question. It sounds as if you were there.

      Knowing the manner in which AB speaks, it sounded to me very much as if someone had asked him a question…from the audience.

    • Ajahn Brahm gave two talks at the Roselea center, I was there for the first one, but I wasn’t there for the second one, and it was from the second one that this recording comes from. So I cannot speak definitively.

      In any case, Bhante Sujato (who was there) says that Ajahn Brahm was asked about war. From that it can be inferred it was part of the Q&A. Also since you can see the Nuns in the background are in visible discomfort or falling asleep it’s clear they’ve been sitting there for a good long time, so this section was almost certainly at the end of the talk.

    • Ha! Damith compassionately edited me out of the video; I was standing at AB’s shoulder trying to hint that it was time to wrap up!

    • Hi Sunnyata,

      This particular question was asked by a Sri lankan in front of a largely Sri lankan audience; i think the Sri lankan war was mentioned in the question, but I’m not sure on that.

  6. Hullabaloo has an interesting segment with Seymour Hersh and others on the Der Spiegel photos of gloating US soldiers with their Afghan trophies.


    War crimes, torture, crimes against humanity et al deserve some serious consideration from Buddhist thinkers, including the tremendous harm that such unwholesome actions do to the actors as well as to the victims.

    If there are good discussions of these issues, I’d like to learn where they are.

    It’s The Cameras
    by digby

    Seymour Hersh on the Afghan atrocities:

    It’s the smile. In photographs released by the German weekly Der Spiegel, an American soldier is looking directly at the camera with a wide grin. His hand is on the body of an Afghan whom he and his fellow soldiers appear to have just killed, allegedly for sport. In a sense, we’ve seen that smile before: on the faces of the American men and women who piled naked Iraqi prisoners on top of each other, eight years ago, and posed for photographs and videos at the Abu Ghraib prison outside of Baghdad.

    It’s also the cameras. Der Spiegel reported this week that it had obtained four thousand photographs and videos taken by American soldiers who referred to themselves as a “kill team.” (Der Spiegel chose to publish only three of the photographs.) The images are in the hands of military prosecutors. Five soldiers, including Jeremy Morlock, the smiling man in the picture, who is twenty-two years old, are awaiting courts martial for the murder of three Afghan civilians; seven other soldiers had lesser, related charges filed against them, including drug use. On Tuesday, Morlock’s lawyer said that he would plead guilty.

    We saw photographs, too, at My Lai 4, where a few dozen American soldiers slaughtered at least five hundred South Vietnamese mothers, children, and old men and women in a long morning of unforgettable carnage more than four decades ago. Ronald Haeberle, an Army photographer, was there that day with two cameras. He directed the lens of his official one, with black-and-white film in it, away from the worst sights; there is a shot of soldiers with faint smiles on their faces, leaning back in relaxed poses, and no sign of the massacre that has taken place. But the color photos that Haeberle took on his personal camera, for his own use, were far more explicit—they show the shot-up bodies of toddlers, and became some of the most unforgettable images of that wasteful war. In most of these cases, when we later meet these soldiers, in interviews or during court proceedings, they come across as American kids—articulate, personable, and likable.

    Why photograph atrocities? And why pass them around to buddies back home or fellow soldiers in other units? How could the soldiers’ sense of what is unacceptable be so lost? No outsider can have a complete answer to such a question. As someone who has been writing about war crimes since My Lai, though, I have come to have a personal belief: these soldiers had come to accept the killing of civilians—recklessly, as payback, or just at random—as a facet of modern unconventional warfare. In other words, killing itself, whether in a firefight with the Taliban or in sport with innocent bystanders in a strange land with a strange language and strange customs, has become ordinary. In long, unsuccessful wars, in which the enemy—the people trying to kill you—do not wear uniforms and are seldom seen, soldiers can lose their bearings, moral and otherwise. The consequences of that lost bearing can be hideous. This is part of the toll wars take on the young people we send to fight them for us. The G.I.s in Afghanistan were responsible for their actions, of course. But it must be said that, in some cases, surely, as in Vietnam, the soldiers can also be victims.

    Read on. That is so true. It reminds me of this post from a few years ago:

    “If you talk to people who have been tortured, that gives you a pretty good idea not only as to what it does to them, but what it does to the people who do it,” he said. “One of my main objections to torture is what it does to the guys who actually inflict the torture. It does bad things. I have talked to a bunch of people who had been tortured who, when they talked to me, would tell me things they had not told their torturers, and I would ask, ‘Why didn’t you tell that to the guys who were torturing you?’ They said that their torturers got so involved that they didn’t even bother to ask questions.” Ultimately, he said — echoing Gerber’s comments — “torture becomes an end unto itself.”


    According to a 30-year CIA veteran currently working for the agency on contract, there is, in fact, some precedent showing that the “gloves-off” approach works — but it was hotly debated at the time by those who knew about it, and shouldn’t be emulated today. “I have been privy to some of what’s going on now, but when I saw the Post story, I said to myself, ‘The agency deserves every bad thing that’s going to happen to it if it is doing this again,'” he said. “In the early 1980s, we did something like this in Lebanon — technically, the facilities were run by our Christian Maronite allies, but they were really ours, and we had personnel doing the interrogations,” he said. “I don’t know how much violence was used — it was really more putting people in underground rooms with a bare bulb for a long time, and for a certain kind of privileged person not used to that, that and some slapping around can be effective.

    “But here’s the important thing: When orders were given for that operation to stand down, some of the people involved wouldn’t [emphasis mine –ed]. Disciplinary action was taken, but it brought us back to an argument in the agency that’s never been settled, one that crops up and goes away — do you fight the enemy in the gutter, the same way, or maintain some kind of moral high ground?
    Read on …

  7. Over the years Ajahn Vayama gave numerous talks to the lay community at Dhammaloka Buddhist Centre. Apart form giving daily Dhamma talks at her monastery and offering personal councelling interviews to the lay community there she also taught in prisons attending to the ill and dying in hospital and held wedding and funeral services…At her monastery the first trainee nun Anagarika Elisabeth upon completing her two years training became ordained as sister Nirodha in May 2003.

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