From the start of the Buddhist religion in India, Buddhism has since spread influential ideas to countries including Sri Lanka, Thailand, China, Tibet, Mongolia, and Japan (The Buddhist Society). The proliferation that has occured within the religion is accompanied by a number of different interpretations of Buddhist teachings. These altered interpretations, when combined with the influences of various geographic cultures, is what makes for the same religion to be practiced in different ways around the globe. One Buddhist concept that has been widely debated is that of violence. Extensive research on the topic has shown that an array of scholars and Buddhists themselves do not always take the same stance. Some believe that ancient teachings from the Buddha clearly point out that violence is not condoned within the religion. Others argue that violence is justified within the Buddhist practice because recent events have provoked circumstances that require violence. So, who is right? Although interpretations of the Buddhist religion have changed over time, analyzing genuine Buddhist teachings reveals that violence is under no circumstances a justified practice.
To understand this argument, it is crucial that we first understand the question. Because Buddhism is practiced differently in a number of different regions, a case can be made for each one regarding violence. Here, we are discussing just one Buddhism, that which came first. In order to argue for this original form of Buddhism, we draw from genuine Buddhist teachings. To meet the criteria of genuine, teachings must have a certain degree of authenticity. Because the religion of Buddhism revolves around teachings from the Buddha, teachings used in this argument should not have been filtered throughout the years to reflect the ideals of someone other than the Buddha himself. They should be accurate representations and translations of original Buddhist ideas. Accordingly, I will be drawing evidence from concepts such as the Noble Eightfold Path, the Dhammapada, the Pali Canon, and a Buddhist parable.
The topic to which we are debating is that of violence in Buddhism. Violence can come in many forms, including physical, verbal, and emotional. For the purposes of this paper, I will refer to violence as that which causes physical harm to oneself or others.
A broad look at Buddhism reveals that to rid oneself of suffering, nirvana must be attained. To achieve this task, it is crucial for Buddhists to follow and apply the Noble Eightfold Path (Romanov). According to Bhikkhu Bodhi, an ordained Buddhist monk and the author of multiple published works on Buddhism, the path represents the “essence of the Buddha’s teaching”. The path aids in eliminating suffering by practicing eight righteous concepts: The right view, the right intention, the right speech, the right action, the right livelihood, the right effort, the right concentration, and finally the right mindfulness. (Bohdi) Of the eight, four of which denounce violent life. Having the right intentions entails ridding the mind of states such as ill will, hatred, repulsion, anger, and resentment. Practicing right actions calls for actions which provide good, not harm. Righteous livelihood declares respect for life, which violence does not. Lastly, attaining the right effort means refraining from any evil acts that would cause one to veer off the Noble Eightfold Path. When examining this teaching, it is quite evident that violence is not a part of achieving nirvana.
According to the Dhammapada, a collection of the Buddha’s sayings, there is no place in society for violence. The text says “hatred is never ceased by hatred” (Thera, Bodhi). Buddhist scholar Mahinda Deegalle uses this quote to argue that even as a means to an end, violence is not justified in Buddhist societies. He goes on to say that if violence is observed in a so-called Buddhist society, it “is merely a deviation from the doctrine of the Buddha and a misinterpretation of the Buddha’s valuable message or not leading one’s life in accordance with the Buddha’s teachings” (Deegalle). Deegalle is emphasizing here that not only is violence against Buddhist practice, but those who call themselves Buddhist yet act violently, are simply not true Buddhists.
Opposers to the concept of nonviolence in Buddhism may use the Mahavamsa as evidence for justification of violent acts. The Mahavamsa is a documentation of the history of Sri Lanka which cites occasions in which violence was condoned. For example, the Mahavamsa refers to a king confessing murders, which had taken place in battle, to Buddhist monks. The monks reply to the king with “From this deed arises no hindrance in thy way to heaven. Only one and a half human beings have been slain here by thee, Oh lord of men. The one had come unto the (three) refuges, the other had taken on himself the five precepts. Unbelievers and men of evil life were the rest, not more to be esteemed than beasts. But as for thee, thou wilt bring glory to the doctrine of the Buddha in manifold ways; therefore castaway care from thy heart, Oh ruler of men!” (Deegalle). It can be seen in this excerpt that monks are relieving the king of any guilt of violence and ensuring him that his path to nirvana has not been hindered by his acts. Accordingly, one might argue that Buddhism justifies violence in situations such as war. Deegalle trumps this argument with the use of a different historical text.
The Pali Canon, a collection of ancient Buddhist scriptures, further proves that genuine teachings are against violence. Mahinda Deegalle combats the previously mentioned counterargument by citing this text and proving its legitimacy. He remarks “The pacifist image of Buddhist teachings and historical practices of non-violent actions in Buddhist communities are very much supported by and grounded on Pali canonical scriptures”. More specifically, the scriptures record instances where the Buddha himself witnessed wars and intervened, arguing “that human life is worthier than what they were fighting for” (Deegalle). This confirms that violence, even when occurring in war, could not be justified by the Buddha. Although violence has indeed existed in history, the existence of it does not amount to the justification of it. To validate the legitimacy of the Pali Canon as authentic work, Deegalle observes it as text which “contains the word(s) of the Buddha and his message of human liberation from suffering as can be seen through the lives and practices of his noble disciples”. The Mahavamsa, on the other hand, has often been considered to be controversial in terms of trustworthiness (Geiger).
The Story of Venerable Punna, a narrative contained within the Pali Canon, further promotes the pacifist image within Buddhist societies. As the story goes, Punna sought to live in a land known as Sunaparanta, supposedly notorious for violent occurrences. Aware of the land’s reputation, the Buddha asked Punna what he would do if the people of Sunaparanta acted violently towards him, to which Punna replied, “If the people of Sunaparanta revile and abuse me… I will say. ‘Goodly indeed are these people of Sunaparanta … in that they do not strike me a blow with their hands … If the people of Sunaparanta deprive me of life with a sharp knife … I will say, ‘There are disciples … disgusted by the body … look about for a knife … 1 have come upon this very knife without having looked about for it.” In this quote we can observe Punna maintaining a pacifist state of mind, even though his life is being threatened by violence. In this story, Punna is a disciple of the Buddha, practicing the teachings of the awakened one and traveling on the path to nirvana. It is clear in The Story of Venerable Punna that this path is one which exercises nonviolence (Deegalle).
The Buddhist parable known as the Parable of the Saw serves as evidence that violence is prohibited within the religion of Buddhism. Similar to The Story of Venerable Punna, the Parable of the Saw depicts how the Buddha’s teaching focus on nonviolence and loving-kindness. The parable is as follows:
‘Monks, even if bandits were to savagely sever you, limb by limb, with a double-handled saw, even then, whoever of you harbors ill will at heart would not be upholding my Teaching. Monks, even in such a situation you should train yourselves thus: ‘Neither shall our minds be affected by this, nor for this matter shall we give vent to evil words, but we shall remain full of concern and pity, with a mind of love, and we shall not give in to hatred. On the contrary, we shall live projecting thoughts of universal love to those very persons, making them as well as the whole world the object of our thoughts of universal love — thoughts that have grown great, exalted and measureless. We shall dwell radiating these thoughts which are void of hostility and ill will.’ It is in this way, monks, that you should train yourselves.
‘Monks, if you should keep this instruction on the Parable of the Saw constantly in mind, do you see any mode of speech, subtle or gross, that you could not endure?’
‘Therefore, monks, you should keep this instruction on the Parable of the Saw constantly in mind. That will conduce to your well-being and happiness for long indeed.’
That is what the Blessed One said. Delighted, those monks acclaimed the Teaching of the Blessed One. (Buddharakkhita)
As we dissect this parable, it is evident that the Buddha sees no place for violence within the religion. He says that anyone harboring ill will “would not be upholding [his] Teaching” and therefore not be practicing Buddhism. Furthermore, the Buddha goes on to say that even in such situations where people are savagely severing your limbs with a saw, “we shall live projecting thoughts of universal love… we shall dwell radiating these thoughts which are void of hostility and ill will”. There is absolute clarity in this quote as to the Buddha’s teachings. Even in the extreme circumstance of the saw, we are to remain loving, feel no hatred, and reciprocate no violence. So long as we do, according to the Buddha, there will be no violence which we cannot endure.
Individuals with knowledge on recent events in the news about violence in Buddhist societies may argue that the violence is justified. In some regions, such as Burma, a spike in violence has been seen. According to BBC news, Buddhists have been violently attacking Muslims, Muslim businesses, and the overall spread of Muslim influence (Strathern). Some may argue that they are doing this for the noble cause of preserving Buddhism. So, would it not be justified in Buddhism to use violence for the sole purpose of saving Buddhism’still, the answer is no. Mahinda Deegalle adds “Buddhist teachings maintain that under any circumstance, whether political, religious, cultural or ethnic, violence cannot be accepted or advocated to solve disputes between nations” (Deegalle). Buddhists may be facing Islamic expansion, but this is not cause for violence.
A final stab at justifying the use of violence in Buddhism is relating violence to human nature. Some people may argue that before we all are religious, we all are human beings, and violence is inherent to our human nature. Accordingly, religions truly cannot declare pacifism when our very wiring condones violence. We do not need any sort of Buddhist teaching to dispel this belief. Instead, we use David Adam’s work, the Seville Statement on Violence. In this work, Adams concludes the following: “It is scientifically incorrect to say that war or any other violent behavior is genetically programmed into our human nature. The genes do not produce individuals necessarily predisposed to violence. Neither do they determine the opposite. While genes are co-involved in establishing our behavioral capacities, they do not by themselves specify the outcome.” (Adams). Interested in how our brain functions in response to aggression, Adams found that violence is not human nature, but a behavior unrelated to our genetics.
It is important to note that this essay in no means is meant to invalidate individuals who identify themselves as Buddhist. As Buddhism has spread to new regions of the world, it has been interpreted differently and therefore practiced differently. In this essay, we examine genuine teachings to prove the pacifist way of life the Buddha envisioned. With that said, it is true that the world has changed immensely from when the Buddha supposedly walked this earth. Nowadays, some people may consider violence to be a necessary evil in the world. If so, these people should step away from Buddhism with the realization that violence is not accepted within the religion. As the world continues to change, the future is up in the air. The past is not. Historic Buddhist teachings very well may be outdated, but they cannot be changed. We must take the teachings for what they are, and then decide to either follow them or not. What we cannot do, however, is argue what is said in these teachings. It has been made very clear in various workings that violence is not accepted in Buddhism.