All beings fear death and they all fear the pain of a club. Think: how do they make you feel? Then do not kill and do not club; live peacefully with all beings and do not add to the violence of this world. Harm no one here and you will pass your next life in peace.
~ Shakyamuni Buddha (from the Dharmapada)
For many in Western countries, violence and Buddhism would be a strange topic to talk about. After all, most would think, aren’t we talking about those pacifist monks who are afraid to even step on an ant? But nowadays it’s a hot topic in part to violence in Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand. The topic even made the cover of Time magazine this month titled “The Face of Buddhist Terror“.
So are Buddhists truly violent or pacifist? Evil or good? If you are just beginning your path in Buddhism, or contemplating it, this is most understandably an important topic for you.
To Be Painfully Obvious
Let’s start by getting the facts in the way: Buddhists are regular people. There, I said it. We are unable to levitate in the air and fly among the clouds, we feel pain, have emotions, bleed when cut, suffer like people of any other religion (or no religion), and have individual minds (there is no mystical worldwide mind collective here).
This means that as a Buddhist, you are free to think and feel as you’d like and take your own actions (and the consequences that come with that). There is no mystical Buddha floating in the sky observing everyone’s behavior and inflicting justice. You create the repercussions (karma) for yourself and others, not some mysterious cosmic force.
A Buddhist is capable of becoming a Buddha, but still has to face the challenges of being a human. Buddhism isn’t violent, human nature is.
A Westerners Fantasy
The preconceptions and fantasies Westerners have about Buddhists are self-inflicted, and part of what they actually see.
The book Buddhist Warfare presents essays about how “violent” Buddhism truly is, its “dark side”, and the “propaganda” of non-violent Buddhism (they even use a picture of a young child Buddhist monk with a toy gun on the cover). One of the authors, Michael Jerryson, wrote about his book and how he essentially was disillusioned while he was in Southern Thailand and spoke to Monks who had guns for protection (Monks were being killed by the Islāmic insurgency in the South).
What he leaves out that is that in countries where “Buddhism” is the majority religion, many go into the monastic lifestyle for short periods of time (much like going away to college, or because they are expected to be a monk for a short time because their family desires it), so their commitment to the path isn’t always that clear. Compared this to monastics we see in western countries that are often committed to the lifestyle for a lifetime.
Our intention is not to argue that Buddhists are angry, violent people—but rather that Buddhists are people, and thus share the same human spectrum of emotions, which includes the penchant for violence.
So save yourself over 20 bucks if you already knew that Buddhists were regular people like you and me. If you want some real insight, read the article Bodhipaksa wrote. As he stated:
The Buddha was completely uncompromising on the question of violence. When people are violent they’re not following the Buddha’s teachings.
Are There Exceptions?
A Buddhist who follows the teachings should strive not to kill, but there may be circumstances where it becomes necessary when all other options don’t work. For example, if a Nazi was to kill a Jewish family during World War II, and no other action could have prevented it, then they could act. Or take an example of a Police Officer responding to the scene of a school shooting where the shooter is still ‘active’ and their main priority is to stop them from killing. All of these actions, even when protecting the innocent from true violence, have consequences for all involved. But the consequence of not acting can be even more damaging.
The 14th Dali Lama gave some insight about this as well. He said in 2011 after Osama Bin Laden’s death:
Forgiveness doesn’t mean forget what happened. … If something is serious and it is necessary to take counter-measures, you have to take counter-measures.
In 2001, the Dalai Lama talked about how to react during a shooting:
But if someone has a gun and is trying to kill you, he said, it would be reasonable to shoot back with your own gun. Not at the head, where a fatal wound might result. But at some other body part, such as a leg.
None of these would be acceptable, however, if they were done out of violence and anger.
Burma, Sri Lanka, and Thailand
The reason we are talking about violence and Buddhism in the same sentence today is aimed directly at the countries of Burma, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. All three of these countries have majority Buddhist populations, and have also had violence mainly against minority Muslim groups.
The country that has received the most attention now is Burma (officially called the Republic of the Union of Myanmar since the 1960′s). I’ve written about the violence in Burma, and explained what you’re hearing about is a mixture of special interest groups (from both sides) and not the truth.
Just like the Time cover story, showing “Buddhists” as violent (based on their religious affiliation, rather than individuals) gathers attention, and money. For example, if all you read was from the news and other things on the internet, you may believe that Buddhist monks everywhere in Burma were killing and attacking Muslims. So seeing a video like this (from Al Jazeera) gives a different perspective, yet you’ve probably never even heard or seen it:
This is not to say there is not violence in these countries, but that this has nothing to do with religion (by any religion in these countries) Often politics, money, greed, land, cultural differences, desire, power, fear, and human emotions on both sides have created the violence…not religion. The Samyukta Agama explains this perfectly:
Returning anger with anger is evil. Don’t return anger with anger. Not being angry is always better than being angry.
Taking the Path of Nonviolence
While some may regress to using violence, the majority other Buddhists follow the path which does not harm others. However what happens when the extremes of war and conflict come into play? The most dramatic illustration in the face of conflict has been self-immolation (a topic and debate in its own right). This has happened in recent years in Tibet to protest China, but was most famously seen for the first time by Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc during the Vietnam war.
To protest and gain attention to the South Vietnamese governments brutal and heavy-handed oppression of Buddhists (the majority religion), he performed an act of self-immolation. At the time, this was shocking and made headlines across the world and had a direct impact (and that was the goal). Compared to forcing action through violence, Thich Quang Duc upheld Buddhist ethics and could not hurt anyone else, so he did this instead. The following video shows the self-immolation and is graphic:
Buddhist leaders such as Thich Nhat Hanh (also known as “Thay”) also emerged during this violent conflict and showed the path of peace, rather than violence, to create change. Most notably, Thay created the Order of Interbeing which included the Fourteen Precepts of Engaged Buddhism (with one that required not killing, and preventing others from killing).
Venerable Master Hsing Yun said this about killing in his book Being Good (Buddhist Ethics for Everyday Life):
Whenever we kill anything, we violate that being at the deepest level possible. Killing, thus, is an action that must be avoided by all Buddhists.
On a larger scale, we often see how Buddhism (as a religion) doesn’t resort to violence when Buddhism is attacked. For example when the 6th century Buddha statues carved into the mountains of Bamiyan was blown up in Afghanistan by the Taliban, there was outcry (of course) but no wars, bombings, or other violence were committed by Buddhists “in the name of Buddhism”.
Parting Thoughts on Buddhist Ethics and Violence
As a Buddhist (or beginning Buddhist), you can rest assured that Buddhism is not violent and does not preach nor condone it. While there may (unfortunately) always be a few cults and teachers promoting their own causes, this is not the true Buddhist way. I believe this article by Stephen Jenkins in The Guardian sums up what a true Buddhist should practice during conflicts if they are really following the path:
The Buddhist world is racked with violence and it has never been more important to understand Buddhist ethics. These include never acting in anger; exhausting alternatives such as negotiation; striving to capture the enemy alive; avoiding destruction of infrastructure and the environment; and taking responsibility for how one’s actions and exploitation cause enemies to arise. They also emphasise the great psychic danger to those who act violently, something we see in the large number of suicides among youth sent to these wars. Above all, rather than “national self-interest”, the guiding motivation should be compassion.