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Are Buddhist Mindfulness Practices used to support International War Crimes?



War, a repulsive form of human behaviour, generates death, mutilation, trauma and destruction of people in cities, towns and villages. Every war has cost numerous lives of men, women and children, and their habitats. Families and friends of soldiers, who have died,   lost limbs or lost their sanity, have shed tears to fill the great lakes. We can never measure the intensity of the suffering due to the actions of armies and armed organisations.


Not surprisingly, the Buddha never wavered from his determination to persuade human beings to abstain from killing and to negotiate resolution to major conflicts involving nation states, tribes and political organisations. He spoke up tirelessly for a non-violent view towards the dynamics of human existence, rather than a compromise through justifications used to support the killing fields of war.


All retreats from the Buddhist traditions offer basic teachings on ethics including the first principle: “I undertake the training to abstain from killing.”


This precepts applies to people and animals. It is not an ideal but a living practice. The practice of not killing takes priority over the demands of the nation state.


The Buddha said:


The surgeon would cut open around the wound with a knife, then probe for the arrow head. Knife is a term for noble wisdom. Probe is a term for mindfulness.” MLD 105.


One abandons killing with weapon laid aside. MLD 27


Anger and bitterness are a blemish, a term for evil unwholesome wishes. MLD 5.


He experiences painful, racing, piercing feelings. Yet he does not die as long as that evil action has not exhausted its result. MLD 129.


He experiences pain and grief that have the killing of people as a condition. MLD 46.


All fear violence. All fear death. Using oneself as a criterion, one does not kill nor cause death.”Dh.v.129

He experiences pain and grief that wrong view as a condition MLD 46.


Mindfully, one abandons wrong intention of lust, harm and cruelty. Evil, unwholesome states originate with wrong intention. MLD117.


Others will kill people. We shall abstain from killing people. MLD 8.


Others will be cruel. We shall not be cruel. MLD 8.


Establishing mindfulness, he abides with a mind free from ill will. MLD 27.


Even if bandits were to sever you savagely limb by limb with a two handed saw, he who gave rise to a mind of hate towards them would not be carrying out my teaching. We shall abide compassionate for their welfare. This is how you should train. MLD 21.  


Four months after 9/11, I recall speaking with some Muslim friends, who were living in simple dwellings in a hamlet close to Bodh Gaya, India. We spoke about 9/11. They told me that when they heard the news of what had happened in New York, they felt very sad about the killing of so many Americans by the terrorists who hijacked the planes. One Muslim told me: “We all felt very sad that this happened. But we could not understand why Americans came a few weeks later and bombed the capital of Afghanistan and many other places in Afghanistan. None of the terrorists were Afghanis. Americans deliberately killed so many poor Muslims like us. Why do the Americans hate Muslims?”


Currently, there is an important debate taking place among Buddhists, peace activists, academics and thoughtful citizens about the application of Buddhist mindfulness practices for the US military including soldiers and drone pilots engaged in the killing fields of Muslim nations. There is also a wider debate about relationship of Buddhists to war. This critique expresses ongoing concern about these important issues and an appeal to stay true to the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha and his teachings.


Certain senior Buddhists in the USA offer justification for certain wars. They appear to identify with the violent objectives of the nation state that are removed from the teachings of the Buddha (who spoke up frequently against any use of violence). The Buddha criticised violent Kings and powerful rulers telling them to change their ways. He urged teachings and practices of non-harming towards others and ourselves. He spoke up for animals and all living beings to protect them from harm from humans. He gave full support to ‘going for refuge in The Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha’ and never sanctioned taking refuge in the nation state. He taught the resolution of suffering, not the perpetuation of it.


People might think that practising Buddhists, who have taken refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, would express unwavering support to stop the killing machines of the military. This is not the case with rationalisations, ambiguity and uncertainty.  A senior Buddhist, Barbara Gates, the editor of the Inquiring Mind, a popular US Buddhist journal wrote in the most recent 60 page issue of the journal devoted to the theme of War and Peace: “In Buddhist circles, there is hot debate on the impact of doing mindfulness training with the military. As editor, I still don’t know definitely where I stand on the issue.” Her reaction is quite common among Buddhists. Other Buddhists have made very clear their opposition to war and their concern about the use of mindfulness to train marines and drone pilots.


Associate Professor of Psychology, Amishi Jha. works with the US Army to measure neuro-behaviour under stress and develop ways to optimise mindfulness in battle. In the Inquiring Mind journal, she wrote: “I have had an easier time speaking at the Pentagon and talking to generals than I have convincing some Buddhists that what we’re doing is okay. This really surprised me.”  Amishi Jha believes that military mindfulness and psychology will provide soldiers and drone pilots with “mental armour so soldiers can base their decisions on what is in front of them.”


Abuse of Power


War ensures the unleashing of violence largely upon the innocent and a small number of the guilty. The United Nations has determined that international war crimes constitute the “wanton destruction of cities, towns and villages ….” War crimes also included deliberate attacks on citizens, property and neutral countries since citizens are classified as non-combatants.


International lawyers and Amnesty International have made a case that the current US President, as well as previous US Presidents, may have committed International War Crimes including through the use of drones to assassinate suspects. Since 9/11, US Presidents Bush and Obama have authorised the assassinations of suspects (four of whom were US citizens, including a father and later his 16 year old son living in Yemen) in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, as well as the bombing of cities, towns and villages.


Due to the alleged abuse of power, President Obama, some of the leaders of the 17 US intelligence agencies and drone pilots, could be subjected to prosecution in the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Haig, Holland. Along with Israel, the USA, however, has refused to sign up to the International Criminal Court because of fear of liability.


The ICC currently is making initial investigations into allegations that the British army committed  international war crimes between 2003-2008 in Iraq involving unlawful killings, torture and violent treatment of more than 400 Iraqi citizens. In its hands, the ICC has a 250 page dossier of evidence. The European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights and Public Interest Lawyers prepared the evidence. The former head of the British Army and the former Minister for Defence could also find themselves on trial in The Hague for War Crimes, as well as military officers and soldiers in the war zones and interrogation centres in Iraq.


Mindfulness in the Military


Studies by the Rand Corporation estimate that 1 in every 5 US military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan experiences post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with around 320,000 soldiers suffering in the past six years. Some soldiers may have been involved in war crimes or witnessed war crimes but remain afraid to speak up because of the consequences. The American Psychiatric Association reported that female soldiers were twice as like to develop PTSD as men. Nearly one third of the women reported that they suffered military sexual trauma while on duty in Afghanistan and Iraq including male soldiers forcing sexual contact on women in the military.


The US military have created and established the Mindfulness-Based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT – pronounced M-Fit)) to “build resilience and optimize individual and team performance.”


The MMFT website states: “These body-based stress resilience skills make MMFT distinct from other basic mindfulness-based approaches.  These skills are made accessible and relevant with applications to the real-world operational environment – with an emphasis on operational effectiveness and enhanced decision-making.”


The eight week MMFT programme draws some of its format from the eight week MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Programme) which, in turn, derives its inspiration from the Insight Meditation Retreats. Insight meditation retreats emerged from the threefold training of Ethics, Meditation and Wisdom from the Buddha. There is a deep concern that mindfulness for the military has become far, far removed from Right Mindfulness in the Buddha’s teachings.


Prior to deployment to war zones, a small but growing number of US marines engage in a training programme which includes several of the features of an Insight Meditation retreat. MMFT employs mindfulness of breathing, meditation in various postures, concentrated attention, working with painful sensations, relaxing mind body, reduction of stress and extended periods of silence.


The marines use these traditional methods of the Buddha to enable combatants to keep still in a particular posture, while firing bullets or launching missiles at the enemy, such as another army or armed civilians or at locations in populated areas. The teachers of the military mindfulness programmes believe the training will reduce stress levels in the military, including post-traumatic stress disorder, and enable soldiers to make quick decisions in the heat of a situation.


Before flying out to battle zones in Arab countries, Marines practise moment to moment mindfulness in a mock Afghan village in the USA with screaming actors dressed as Arabs and controlled blasts to prepare soldiers for combat stress in the killing fields.


Drone pilots also receive practice instructions in mindfulness of breathing and single pointed attention. The pilots sit in front of a television screen in Creech Air Force base, Nevada, to launch missiles to kill individuals, groups of citizens or drop explosives on villages in various Muslim countries. Owing to information overload coming through earphones, satellites, other drone pilots and military in the battle zone, mindfulness teachers train drone pilots to dwell in a calm, stress free manner as they kill suspects, and often people in close proximity to the suspects.


A military officer said that the practice of mindfulness helps “combatants conduct dangerous and stressful counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations.” Soldiers use mindfulness of breathing as an aid to kill people. MMFT founder, Military Intelligence Officer, Elizabeth A. Stanley wrote: “Soldiers learning how to fire the M-16 rifle are taught to pay attention to their breath and synchronize the breathing process to trigger the finger’s movement, squeezing off the round while exhaling.”


There are publicity photographs of marines sitting cross-legged practising meditation and equanimity with a rifle slung over their back, ready for use. Army psychologists believe that mindfulness and meditation will reduce Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for soldiers who kill or maim men, women and children or witness fellow soldiers being killed or maimed or suffer personal terror or anguish in the killing fields. The US military believe that their version of the Buddhist mindfulness based stress reduction courses can help make soldiers and drone pilots relax and stay immune from the emotional impact of their actions to kill and harm people.


Military intelligence officer, Elizabeth Stanley wrote a paper for the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), stating that the meditation practises of Buddhist monks were necessary for drone pilots coping with information overload and for soldiers on the ground.

The MMFT website states that the course is designed to “improve resilience and mission effectiveness in other high-stress environments.”


Orders from the Commander-in-Chief


On the third day of entering the White House, President Obama ordered his first drone strike that killed nine members from one family. Since then he has ordered around 400 drone strikes killing 2,537 – 3,646 men, women and children, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, while his predecessor, George Bush ordered 51 strikes.  Under Obama, drone attacks increased from one every 43 days to one every four days. Every Tuesday, known in Washington DC as Terror Tuesday, the President receives a list of names and locations of individuals the US government want assassinated. The President looks at brief narratives describing the individuals, and then ticks the name of each person he wants killed. In December, 2013, a drone fired on a fleet of cars in the Yemen accompanying the bride on her way to her wedding, killed 15 guests.


A constitutional lawyer, President Barack Obama (known derisively in Arab nations as President Obomber) has assumed the role of prosecutor, judge, jury and orders the execution of certain suspects. Knowingly or unknowingly, drone pilots send down missiles to kill suspects that often kill members of the suspect’s families, children, neighbours, travelling companions, wedding party guests and bystanders in their attempt to assassinate certain individuals. The authorisation of these acts of state terror, and the subsequent implementation may well constitute international war crimes.


If Buddhist mindfulness practices are being used to support international war crimes through mindfulness training in the military, then this constitutes the gravest abuse possible of the application of mindfulness as taught by the Buddha.


Drone pilots in Nevada refer to their work as watchers of “Death TV.” They have access to live video streams from drones above Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries showing the alleged safe houses of suspected insurgents and live streams that show American marines moving towards a battle zone. The robotics strikes of drones kill more children than suspects. President Obama has determined all military age adults are suspects in a drone strike zone. Forty nine people die from a drone strike for every suspect assassinated.


Drone pilots in Nevada use their mindfulness training to stay focussed hour after hour, through the drones’ cameras, on Muslims visible outdoors, occupants in cars and on the streets. When they believe they have spotted their target(s) they press the Death Button besides the keyboard of Death TV.


Stanford International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution have issued the results of their research into the psychological impact of drones upon civilians in northern Pakistan. The report states: “US drone strike policies cause considerable and under-accounted-for harm to the daily lives of ordinary civilians, beyond death and physical injury. Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment

The US practice of striking one area multiple times, and evidence that it has killed rescuers, makes both community members and humanitarian workers afraid or unwilling to assist injured victims. Some community members shy away from gathering in groups, including important tribal dispute-resolution bodies, out of fear that they may attract the attention of drone operators. Strikes have undermined cultural and religious practices related to burial, and made family members afraid to attend funerals.”


MMFT offers its mindfulness based stress reduction programmes to drone operators but ignores the terrible plight of the victims. A report by the Brooking Institute of Washington in November 2013 reveals that 17% of drone operators experience clinical stress, including depression and anxiety that has an impact on life with their families. The report states that “stress interferes with job performance” for the 1300 US drone pilots.


The Position of Three Senior Buddhists in the USA


1. Jon Kabat Zinn, founder of the Centre for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Mindfulness, supports the MMFT course for marines and drone pilots. Founder of MBSR, Jon Kabat-Zinn, states in the Inquiring Mind “woven into mindfulness is an orientation towards non-harming…. some way implies or at least invites seeing the interconnectedness between the seer and the seen. It is a non-dual perspective from the very beginning, resting on an ethical foundation….Even if your initial motivation is to cause harm by the time you finish you may have a different motivation.  I have to trust that”


Is teaching mindfulness to drone pilots and soldiers to stop all their engagement in the killing fields so they have a different motivation and a non-dual perspective from the very beginning? If so, then Jon Kabat-Zinn needs to make this motivation for mindfulness courses crystal clear to the Generals, drone pilots and soldiers. The first pilot study of MMFT for marines took place in 2008. That’s six years ago.


Have any group of marines engaged in operations refused to continue killing and harming the local population in Muslim countries after a mindfulness course?  Have any drone pilots changed their motivation while sitting in front of Death TV and walked away from their desk after a mindfulness course? Is there any evidence to show a change in heart of any military personnel from military mindfulness practices? Would the military permit the continuity of MMFT if soldiers and drone pilots developed compassion for their victims and walked away from the killing fields and death TV?


Jon Kabat-Zinn refers to a non-dual perspective. A non-dual perspective has two meanings in this situation.


  • 1. Not taking sides between the US military and Afghan Students (Taliban is the Arabic word for Students).

  • Treating both sides equally. This means JKZ would offer mindfulness training to the Taliban or Muslim villages. to develop resilience and mental armour.


On 9/11, JKZ visited Zen Master Harada Roshi in Washington State, who gave him a poster ‘Never forget the one thousand year view.’  Jon Kabat-Zinn added:  “I just love that. I would say that all of my work has been informed by that spirit….We need to recognise our own uncertainties and blindness’s and keep the one thousand year in view.”


Human beings do not have one thousand years to change. UN scientists warn us of the potential for a variety of catastrophes this century, devastating much of human life due to climate change. The 1000 year view offers no comfort to millions of citizens in Arab nations and military personal who continue to suffer at the hands of the US/NATO invasions and terrorists. By April 2014, 6,717 US soldiers had died and 50,891 were wounded in Afghanistan or Iraq. More US soldiers in a year commit suicide in a year than are killed in battle zones. The 1000 year view offers no comfort to them.


2. Jack Kornfield, author of A Path with Heart, and founder of Spirit Rock Meditation Centre, Marin County, California is on the eight member Board of Advisors for Mindfulness Based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT) that the military uses to train drone pilots and soldiers. Two Army Generals and a Congressman are also members of the Board of Advisors..


3. Bhikkhu Bodhi, the eminent translator from Pali into English of most of the 10,000 discourses of the Buddha, gives support to certain wars to “deter aggressors bent on territorial expansion or global domination.”  Which superpower does he have in mind as he writes?


In the Inquiring Mind, Bhikkhu Bodhi acknowledges that “the texts of early Buddhism (namely the words of the Buddha and Commentaries) never recognise circumstances that might soften the universality of a basic precept or moral value.”


He further states “I can’t justify my standpoint by appeal to Buddhist texts, whether canonical or commentarial…”


“Any acts of killing that such a choice might require could certainly be regrettable as a violation of the first precept…”


“The text of integrity here is not unwavering obedience to moral rules but a refusal to subordinate them to narrow self-interest.”


Is Bhikkhu Bodhi really saying that people who uphold the morality of non-violence only act out of self-interest?  Out of compassion for others, many millions of people worldwide refuse to support military invasions, acts of terror and the terrible consequential suffering.


Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote that he regards the teachings in the Buddhist texts as “moral idealism.” The Buddha took a different view through a strong emphasis on practical application and practice of moral values. The commitment to the protection of life shows the wisdom of a deep sense of ethics revealing:


  • acts of compassion,

  • commitment to resolution of conflict through dialogue and diplomacy

  • end to violence of body, speech and mind.

  • expression of non-duality

  • freedom from taking sides in armed conflict

  • inquiry into the causes and conditions for acts of terror

  • letting go of national identity to free the mind from prejudice

  • profound empathy for the suffering of others

  • statement of respect for the rule of international law


Bhikkhu Bodhi writes: “It seems to me the ethics of early Buddhism simply do not cover all the predicaments of the human situation.” Yes, that’s true. No exploration and application of ethics, East or West, past or present, can cover all the predicaments of the human situation around ethics. In his concluding paragraphs, Bhikkhu Bodhi states: “I am not seeking to condone any of the wars in which the US is currently involved under the pretext of ‘defending our freedom.’”


Do we take refuge in the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha or do we grasp onto the subjective opinions of a Western Buddhist monk? The answer to that question is surely a no-brainer. Bhikkhu Bodhi would agree with that!


Senior Buddhists, such as Jon Kabat-Zinn and Jack Kornfield, have made precious contributions in creative and valuable ways to bringing the Dharma to the West. They have worked for decades to establish a variety of courses and programmes for the exploration of the teachings of the Buddha in Western society. There are among the pioneers of establishing some of the expressions of the Dharma in the West.

Forgive the impertinence: What are senior Buddhists thinking when they offer support to military mindfulness training before deployment for ‘resilience’ and ‘mental armour’ in the killing fields? Do they believe that MMFT bears a relationship to mindfulness training taught by the Buddha for ending greed, hate and delusion? The MMFT website clearly states that their mindfulness course is ‘distinct from other mindfulness courses.’ It is very, very distinct bearing no obvious relationship to the Buddha’s teachings on mindfulness.


Right Mindfulness and the Military


The Buddha spoke of right mindfulness as inquiry into body, feelings, states of mind and Dharma, inwardly and outwardly. He also referred to wrong (harmful) mindfulness. It is hard to imagine a more harmful application of mindfulness of breathing than to use the practice to focus on and assassinate human beings through a drone missile, or a marine mindfully breathing out to pull calmly a trigger on an M-16 rifle to kill a person.


There is a vital place for the application of right mindfulness for the military. This application requires Buddhist teachers, MMFT teachers, boards of directors of Buddhist centres and organisations, to make clear to Buddhists and the military that right mindfulness remains inseparable from ethics, kindness, wholesome action and respect for life. The links in the Noble Eightfold Path weave together. For example, the undertaking not to kill people is not an add-on to right mindfulness at a future convenient date, after killing people on behalf of the Commander-in-Chief.


If MMFT and Buddhist teachers working with the military wish to serve the real interests of US military, drone pilots, Arab fighters and US and Arab/Muslim citizens, then a bold approach and a vision for change is required.


May all beings engage in fearless negotiation

May all beings live with compassion

May all beings engage in wise action

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