The Zen Buddhist Nuclear Weapons Expert in Trump's White House
A senior official in the White House tasked with advising President Donald Trump on weapons of mass destruction is an ordained Zen Buddhist chaplain.
A senior official in the White House tasked with advising President Donald Trump on weapons of mass destruction is an ordained Zen Buddhist chaplain, who long ago reconciled Buddhism's non-violent teachings with his support for aggressive, sometimes violent American foreign policy.
Christopher A. Ford, special assistant to the president and National Security Council senior director for weapons of mass destruction and counterproliferation, who is also a former Navy reserve intelligence officer, a Rhodes scholar and a State Department veteran, was ordained in the Prajna Mountain Order of Soto Zen Buddhism at the Upaya Institute and Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico in March 2010. A graduating class photograph in the school's newsletter shows Ford with a dozen of his fellow newly anointed chaplains surrounded by friends and family.
Buddhism has hundreds of millions of adherents worldwide, but its followers only account for an estimated point-seven percent of the American population—and far, far fewer in hawkish foreign policy circles in which Ford said he runs.
"It's like I'm a weird zoo animal," he told The Daily Beast with a laugh during a recent interview. "Like, 'Hey, come over here, check out the Buddhist.'"
Ford, a lifelong conservative, said it was a "long, slow drift" to Buddhism for him, starting in the late 1990s when he became interested in martial arts. (Until recently, Ford was a volunteer instructor at a local jujitsu dojo in D.C.) He said that for him, Buddhism offered "useful tools for encountering the world" without feeling like its allegorical teachings "asked factual things of [his] brain that [his] brain wasn't able to accept."
In his government work Ford said he hasn't hidden the fact that he's Buddhist, and it rarely comes up. So far, he said, some people may have looked at him funny, but he's "never been aware of it being a problem." Rather, he said he believes it has been "constructive" for him to be coming at policy problems from a more unique philosophical perspective.
Ford has worked in Washington, D.C. since 1996, serving on the staffs of various Senate committees before joining the State Department in 2003 as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State reponsible for arms controls, non-proliferation and disarmament verification and compliance policy. In 2006 he took over the job of U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Proliferation, which has diplomatic responsibilities related to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and other nonproliferation activities worldwide.
In 2008 Ford left the government to join the Hudson Institute as a senior fellow and to delve deeper into his Buddhist education. He signed onto the two-year chaplaincy program at Upaya, which describes itself on its website as "a Zen Buddhist practice and educational center dedicated to the development of the relationship between traditional Buddhism and compassionate engagement with our world."
Angela Blake, a fellow trainee from Ford's class, told The Daily Beast she remembered as a "really lovely man, very intelligent." Maia Duerr, the director for Ford's chaplaincy program, wrote in 2010 that Ford "is a dedicated Buddhist practitioner as well as a brilliant man."
Though he had left State Department work behind, it was clear that the political, moral and spiritual questions surrounding American security and foreign policy held Ford's attention. He penned at least two academic-style papers related to the subject, which were then posted on Upaya's website.
The first, from 2009, is six pages, titled "Nukes and the Vow: Security Strategy as Peacework" and argues that Buddhists should not blindly latch onto complete global nuclear disarmament in the name of peace if their goal is indeed to "create a world that contains as little human suffering as possible." Nuclear weapons, Ford said, may be necessary for such an end.
"One foreign diplomat friend of mine likes to joke, at least privately, that the disarmament movement needs to be careful lest it 'make the world safe again for largescale conventional war,'" writes Ford, who took on the name Daigan during the training. "He is only partly joking, however. From the perspective of Buddhist compassion, some global security environments without nuclear weapons are surely less desirable than some scenarios that contain them. We must do what we can to avoid offering cures more harmful than the disease we seek to treat, and while it is notoriously difficult to predict outcomes -- one way or the other -- in the complex adaptive system of modern international politics, we are no friends of compassion if we do not at least worry about the potential unintended consequences of our policy agendas."
In a much longer paper, Ford's 90-page, footnote-heavy 2010 dissertation for the chaplaincy program, he examines "undertaking public policy choice through the prism of Buddhist engagement." In the paper, Ford argues in part that despite its reputation, "engaged Buddhism" is not strictly pacifist and, in some contexts, the use of force is appropriate.
"Sometimes 'not taking sides' is to take a side: the side of the status quo. Engaged Buddhists clearly understand this point in the context of other social justice issues, but many of them remain curiously resistant to admitting it in the arena of organized violence," he writes. "Nor is it the case that we always have an entirely nonviolent option when confronted even by the difficult choices presented by everyday life."
In a similar vein, Upaya posted a 2009 email exchange between Ford, chaplaincy course instructor Duerr and Upaya Institute and Zen Center founder Joan Halifax Roshi, in which Ford takes issue with what he perceived as anti-U.S. sentiment at the center related to the war in Afghanistan.
"But while [they] might disagree about methods, can Engaged Buddhists, of all people, really object in principle to America’s commitment to engagement in the world in order to improve it?" Ford writes. "Truth be told, Engaged Buddhism in America is not so much a departure from this country’s noble if sometimes badly managed activism for the improvement of samsara [the cycle of life and death] as it is a manifestation of that very predilection. We should not denigrate America’s instinct for involvement: we should honor and embrace it, even as we work to ensure that it is better guided in the future, for it is our own dear mother. Would it be too much for Upayans to honor the nobility of purpose and intention behind so much of what 'we' do, even when we screw things up?"
According to Upaya, one of the Five Precepts, or instructions, in Buddhism forbids taking the life of another living thing. But the use of deadly force has been considered allowable depending on the situation. In 2009 the Dalai Lama explained that "wrathful forceful action" as long as it had "compassionate motivation" could be appropriate.
The Dalai Lama indicated after the death of Osama bin Laden in May 2011 that the killing was justified as an appropriate "counter-measure."
Ford's views on the subject today match his from 2010: "My instinct was that acting, living in the real world can't be completely incompatible with spiritual life because that would be to allow ugliness and danger in the world" to thrive, he told The Daily Beast. “Surely it’s sometimes okay to try to fix things rather than just stay pure by standing aside.”
Still, Ford understood his relative hawkishness in a Buddhist school was unusual. In a dedication in his 2010 dissertation he writes, "I suspect that I part company from [my] teachers in some or many of my own views and interpretations of the politics and policy programmatics of Buddhist engagement, but I remain deeply and humbly grateful for their wise guidance and good counsel."
In 2013 Ford returned to government service, working in senior positions on the staffs of other Senate committees, before being nabbed by the White House in 2017 to join the National Security Council. Since then, he has made a few public appearances as the administration's nuclear weapons and non-proliferation expert, toeing the party line with apparent gusto.
In March, Ford sported a bow tie as he gave the key note address at the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference where he addressed the current crisis with North Korea and gave his version of the "all options are on the table" line so loved by the White House. During the 2016 campaign Trump had said he would sit down and eat a hamburger with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and Ford said at the time, hamburgers were on one end of the scale and "war hammers" were on the other.
"This is a super challenging time right now for North Korea," he told The Daily Beast, adding that since the U.S. settled on a "maximum pressure" strategy. "Right now we're kind of in a race to see if we can pull enough levers to slow down the development of the threat and create enough pressure on them in ways that haven't been done before" before the U.S. gets to a "really uncomfortable binary choice."
He described the current U.S. objective as not "regime change," but "regime change of mind."
Ford said the point of the dreadful binary choice has not come yet, and that there's still room for Pyongyang to change course, "but damn, it's moving fast."
Amid all this, Ford said, being a Buddhist has little-to-no direct impact on his day-to-day job, any more than it would any other "basically spiritual person... caught up in the real world."
"You don't hear people arguing [security] policy issues back and forth on spiritual grounds," he said. In policy debate Buddhism "isn't a driver. It's a place out of which I come. It's a background."
In the two ways it sometimes does have a near daily impact, he said, it's beneficial.
"One of the things that's much talked about is the idea of not knowing," he said, referring to one of the Three Tenets of a Zen Peacemaker that says practicioners should abandon fixed ideas about themselves and the universe. "As applied to policy questions... I take not knowing as an admonition to continually be intellectually humble... to remember how complex the world is and that we're really pretty bad at predicting how everything's going to turn out."
The other place where Buddhism has an impact for him? Ford said he hasn't formally meditated in "at least a couple years," but he believes Buddhism has allowed him to be more calm and centered during stressful days in the White House.
"When it really matters is if you can do some aspect of that, if you can still get a whisper of that [centerness and peace] in the middle of the s**tshow that is some crisis day at the office. That's the real paydirt," he said.
Is that really possible in a tumultuous White House with a steady flow of domestic and international crises?
"Not always," he said.
Lee Ferran is a freelance reporter currently based in Europe and is the founder of Code and Dagger.