The Myanmar military’s violent response to the democracy movement has caused angst among many devout Burmese Buddhists about how to defend themselves and their fundamental freedoms, while remaining true to their religion. Many are faced with that line where the cold edge of sila (ethics) melts along the warm edge of lived experience. Is sila black-and-white, or might there be more shades of grey? Bhikkhu Bodhi helps unpack this moral quandary in this follow-up discussion to our interview last year.
Bhikkhu Bodhi acknowledges that the farther one’s own reality is from needing to make terrible, life-or-death choices, the easier it probably is to take an absolutist perspective on observing sila. However, those situations now unfortunately symbolize the “real reality” that the people of Myanmar face on a daily basis. What is compassionate guidance for those who do face such kinds of choices, who do have to act to save loved ones from the indiscriminate, murderous violence of the Tatmadaw, and restore basic safety and freedoms to their country?
Bhikkhu Bodhi establishes two related frames of reference within which we can make reasonable choices. The first is to know the intent of our mind. It is not the action itself, but the intention that matters from a karmic perspective, and we should never kill out of hate. The second is to be sure of the reasons behind our actions. If we are not motivated by hatred of the enemy, but feel there is no other choice in order to save the lives of innocent people, it’s the very best we can do. Bhikkhu Bodhi also stresses that in the suttas, the Buddha is never depicted as being faced with these kinds of moral dilemmas. And he reminds us that this is the complex, modern, 21st century world we live in, not the 5th century BCE. So he says that the appropriate teaching around these issues is perhaps not so “obvious.”