The quantity of blood shed has historically been the standard measure for what makes a warrior great. Warriors are traditionally described as fearsome and merciless. The military general Xiahou Dun of the Eastern Han dynasty (25–220 CE) was known as “The One-eyed Warrior” by his enemies after being hit by a stray arrow during battle in the late 190s, pulling the arrow out, and swallowing his own eyeball.* Leonidas I (r. 489–80 BCE) was a warrior king of the Greek city-state of Sparta and was thought to be a descendant of the mythological demigod Heracles. He is known for taking on a massive Persian force of 700,000 warriors with a small army of 60,000. They gave a good fight against the odds, but Leonidas I was killed in the Battle of Thermopylae and, even after his death, the Persian enemies severed his head from his body, which was then crucified.**
The term “warrior” therefore takes on a provocative meaning. Throughout time, warriors have been honored for being at once self-sacrificing and courageous but also violent and power-obsessed. Some now shy away from using the word as a descriptor because they believe it carries negative connotations. “Social justice warrior” is a phrase developed on the internet to label bloggers and activists who engage in hostile debates and are distinguished by the use of egotistical rhetoric.***
Coming at a different angle, the Dharma teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche taught that anyone can become a warrior on the path to society’s enlightenment. In 1959, at the age of 20, he escaped eastern Tibet by foot over the Himalaya as the Chinese military invaded. He emigrated to the United States about a decade later with the intention of bringing the teachings of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism to a curious Western audience.****
Trungpa disseminated a practice of Shambhala vision, based on the legendary Himalayan kingdom of Shambhala, as a way of using mindfulness meditation to connect with one’s basic goodness. In his book, Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, Trungpa explains that to be a warrior means to manifest the bravery to be without self-deception and the courage to believe in the limitless kindness of others. It is a secular approach accessible to individuals of any spiritual tradition, and he compared it to finding a warrior’s mindset, based on the principles of warrior-ship embodied in the ancient civilizations of Asia and the Americas. Similar to the practice of a samurai, training the mind is just as, if not more important than being physically prepared for battle.
As Trungpa describes:
Warriorship here does not refer to making war on others. Aggression is the source of our problems, not the solution. Here the word “warrior” is taken from the Tibetan pawo, which literally means “one who is brave.” Warriorship in this context is the tradition of human bravery, or the tradition of fearlessness.
In the definition of warrior presented here, true bravery comes from not being afraid of oneself, by letting oneself be both heroic and kind in the face of the world’s great problems. With this in mind, I consider Mahatma Gandhi, Malala Yousafzai, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Teresa to be warrior figures, holding a deep awareness of where help is needed in the world and having the courage to fight for it. This warrior does not conquer the world through violence or aggression, but through gentleness and perseverance.
The word warrior shifts through different meanings, but I propose using Trungpa’s approach. Malala Yousafzai is a present-day warrior for educating young women. The term “eco-warrior” has been coined for environmental activists fighting on behalf of the Earth.
Trungpa was a warrior for revealing the way for others. He showed that any being who seeks a genuine and fearless existence can be a warrior. Whether you have a cause to fight for, or you simply seek to connect the wisdom of your own divine being with the power of things as they are, you can find energy beyond aggression. Rather than harbor averse feelings for the term, I prefer to honor the warrior as a concept rooted in history and positively relevant today.
** Leonidas I of Sparta (Ancient History Encyclopedia)
*** Social Justice Warrior (Know Your Meme)
**** Chögyam Trungpa (Shambhala)