Buddhist Right Action in Practice: U.S. Marines

Photo by Sgt Frank Thompson.

In January, Lance Armstrong admitted to Oprah that he used “doping” to win the races.  One of the best responses I saw was a quote posted by Simon Sinek on Twitter:

That message was very simply put, but impactful.  Does it really matter to apologize or take responsibility AFTER you are caught? Even if you don’t get caught, you are still responsible to yourself. Planting the wrong seeds in your mind only grow the wrong fruit. Being mindful in the moment is a large part of ‘right action’. As Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh said:

The basis of Right Action is to do everything in mindfulness.

If you are so caught up in your ego, in doing something wrong, being un-compassionate, or selfish, you are can very easily fall and not practice right action. This also led me to think about what makes up a “U.S. Marine” and what we as Buddhists can learn from them and their values as it applies to our practice.

The Marine Bodhisattva 

In Mahayana Buddhism, a “Bodhisattva” is an enlightened person who decides to forgoe any personal benefit and help others.  To me, this is much like a Marine.  Often, they are the first ones on scene at any hot spot in the globe and required to save lives, provide humanitarian assistance, or fight in a battle with little time to prepare.  

Marine Precepts

While a Bodhisattva has a set of precepts, the Marines also live by their own known as:  Honor, Courage, and Commitment.  Honor has a very strong place in Marine culture:

A code of personal integrity, honor guides those who do the right thing when no one is looking. It is not only a duty, but also a distinction, as those who possess honor are held in honor. It’s found in one’s beliefs, but exhibited through one’s actions. Marines are held to the highest of standards, ethically and morally. Marines are expected to act responsibly in a manner befitting the title they’ve earned.

Selflessness and Interconectedness

The Marine motto “Semper Fedelis” means “Always Faithful”, and are they ever…especially with each other.  They realize that being a Marine, and the mission, is not something done alone.  In-fact, you rarely will hear about “victories” with Marines, but about their greatest sacrifices.

A Marine will always follow the “no Marine left behind” core value.  It doesn’t matter if they someone is injured (and going out to help them will mean you also will get shot), or those returning from battle who are prone to suicide, Marines never let each other go at it alone.

This is much like the Bodhisattva who, although attained enlightenment, decides not to become a Buddha and stays behind to help others on their path.

The Marine Leader

Ductus Exemplo is latin for “Lead by Example”, and it’s something not taught in boot camp.  Every Marine leader shows how to be a Marine, by being a Marine.  They are living, breathing, role models of the principles and values of the Corps.

In this way, they are like a Bodhisattva who also ‘leads’ by example, following the Bodhisattva precepts, and devoting themselves to helping all living beings.

Marines and Buddhists Are Human Too

Of course, there are those who don’t follow the values.  In 2008, a Marine had himself filmed throwing a puppy off a cliff to it’s death in Afghanistan.  The Marines took swift action stating:

The actions seen in the Internet video are contrary to the high standards we expect of every Marine and will not be tolerated.

They promptly discharged both the Marine who tossed the puppy, and the one who took the video.

Another example was when Marines urinated on dead bodies in Afghanistan, and once again Marine leadership was swift in condemning it saying “While we have not yet verified the origin or authenticity of this video, the actions portrayed are not consistent with our core values and are not indicative of the character of the Marines in our Corps,” ABC quotes an official statement.  “This matter will be fully investigated.” We can also see Buddhists behaving badly and not always following the precepts or the eightfold path.

Pushups for the Brain

This year, the Marines became famous for testing and implementing ‘Mindfulness’ to help Marines on the battlefield, and off.  The goal was to reduce the post-tramatic stress syndrome (PTSD) related to constant combat and intense fighting situations, which for many who are either still in their teenage years or early 20’s, can be overwhelming.  The results were so impressive that the program is beginning to take off and showing real benefits.  As Major General Melvin Spiese said:

It’s like doing pushups for the brain.

Always Helping

While the common image of any soldier is that of combat, it may surprise many to know that humanitarian work is a large part of what the Military does as well.  Not only does this help those in need (earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, medical assistance, building schools, etc.), but it also helps the Marines connect and grow beyond that of warfighting.  Famously, Marines are known for their ‘Toys for Tots‘ campaign, which provides toys for children during Christmas when parents cannot afford them.  This is known as Mettā or “Loving Kindness” that is often promoted and revered in Buddhism.

Whether it’s helping provide medical aid in Afghanistan to pregnant women, to saving lives after a major disaster, Marines are often the first on the scene worldwide.  You can view more about their worldwide humanitarian efforts here.

U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Sienna G. De Santes, left, with a female engagement team supporting 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, helps give a medical class during a health initiative in Sangin, Helmand province, Afghanistan, Jan. 4, 2011. During the health initiative, local health care providers were trained to treat sick and injured Afghans. (DoD photo by Lance Cpl. Joseph M. Peterson, U.S. Marine Corps/Released)

U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Sienna G. De Santes, left, with a female engagement team supporting 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, helps give a medical class during a health initiative in Sangin, Helmand province, Afghanistan, Jan. 4, 2011. During the health initiative, local health care providers were trained to treat sick and injured Afghans. (DoD photo by Lance Cpl. Joseph M. Peterson, U.S. Marine Corps/Released)

Part of this is also combat, where Marines are often the first on the scene to help those who are being killed, raped, oppressed, and attacked.  Although killing is not allowed as part of the Bodhisattva precepts, exceptions can be made as was taught by the Buddha.

A Few Good Men (and Women)

A fitting end to this article is from the movie A Few Good Men where the two Marines on trial for the death of a fellow Marine (“Willie”) were acquitted on murder, but not on the other charge of “conduct unbecoming a United States Marine.”, and they were to be discharged:

Downey: What did we do wrong? We did nothing wrong.
Dawson: Yeah, we did. We were supposed to fight for the people who couldn’t fight for themselves. We were supposed to fight for Willie.



“After the smoke of battle had cleared on Betio Island, Tarawa, this tiny kitten crept out from beneath a wrecked Japanese tank, to receive a drink from a U.S. Marine.” Tawara Invasion, November 1943


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