Buddhism and Violence

I don’t have any problem admitting that we in the West have a rather romantic view of Buddha-dharma, especially when it comes to the image of Buddhism epitomizing pacifism. I also don’t think that having a romantic view is necessarily a bad thing, as long as it is grounded in hard, cold reality, nor do I think the conception of Buddhism as a pacifist philosophy is incorrect.

Japanese warrior helmet from Edo period with “sacred title” of the Lotus Sutra headpiece.

Many times, I have heard it said that there has never been a Buddhist war, or a Buddhist crusade. This is true as far as large-scale conflicts are concerned, however, it is also true that Buddhism has had its violent periods. Buddhism in Japan has a particularly violent history. Almost all of the Japanese Buddhist sects (and their sub-sects) during the Medieval Era maintained standing armies. Warrior-priests were called sohei. In my last post I talked about the Tendai “marathon monks.” At one point, Enryaku-ji, the Tendai headquarters, was split into two factions: the Mountain Branch (Sanmonha) and the Temple Branch (Jimonha). One day the Temple Branch decided to visit their brothers up the mountain, and when the two groups were finished with their exchange of greetings, some 4000 Tendai priests lay dead. Think about it: that’s more than were killed on 9/11, and the slaughter was accomplished using primate weapons such as swords and spears, in a single afternoon.

While it seems to be less well-documented (historically speaking), Buddhism in China has its violent past, as well. The warrior-monks of Shaolin Temple are well known, and they wouldn’t have been fighters if there hadn’t been some fighting to do. And there is an entire genre of Chinese fiction called wuxia that dates back 1700 years and is still popular today, concerning the martial exploits of warriors who were often Buddhist or Taoist, involved in adventures which had Buddhist/Taoist philosophy woven into the narrative.

Suppression of racial minorities is not unknown in the Buddhist world either. The often “un-Buddhist” like treatment of the Sri Lankan Tamil people by the Theravadin majority resulted in a long civil war that officially ended in 2009, however tensions between the two groups still persist.

Now we have reports of the Buddhist oppression of the Rohingya Muslim community in Burma. This is not a new situation. The Rohingyas have been persecuted in Burma since the end of World War II. I wrote a post about it on June 11 called Sectarian Violence in Burma. Unfortunately, something happened to this post and half of it is missing, including some historical information I provided. The copy I normally keep on my hard drive is missing, too.

In any event, the causes for the current turmoil in Burma are not clear. I have yet to see anything in print that provides an explanation of just what the Rohingya have done to warrant this repression, other than that they are considered illegal immigrants. Naturally, I can’t conceive of anything that would justify the violence committed against them. And while the headlines you see on the Internet play up the Buddhist angle, it is the Burmese military government that is the main oppressor here, and perhaps have been inciting the Buddhist involvement.

Already, some people have taken this as an opportunity to poke holes in Buddhism’s pacifist image. But the holes were already there if you took time to see them. What is always “true” Buddhism to me is that which is true to the spirit of the historical Buddha. Over the centuries, we have drifted far afield from that spirit. For instance, the Buddha discouraged his followers from revering his image. That didn’t last very long. Sometimes this drift has resulted in an positive evolution of Buddha-dharma, and other times it has just been the layering-on of nonsense.

As far as I am concerned, Buddhism is a philosophy of ahimsa, “to do no harm,” which is reflected in the many texts in the Pali Canon that deal specifically with the subject of non-violence, although term ahimsa may not be actually used.

There is an undeniable set of facts, as Buddhist historian Robert Thurman told the New York Times,

There is a Buddhist theory of war, of self-defense, and there is also a kind of theory of surgical violence. The optimal ideal thing is non-violence. But sometimes you have to do a little violence to prevent a larger violence. The Buddhist have thought about this as they are not simplistic.”

While at the same time, another historian, Huston Smith, reminds us that,

[Actually] Buddhism has, I think, probably the best social record of any of the great religions . . . [looking] at the whole history, we see relatively few instances where Buddhist teachings were used to justify violent action. There are exceptions, but overall not many.”

And we have these words, reportedly spoken by the Buddha:

“Violence breeds misery; look at people quarreling. I will relate the emotion agitating me. Having seen people struggling and contending with each other like fish in a small amount of water, fear entered me. The world is everywhere insecure, every direction is in turmoil; desiring an abode for myself I did not find one uninhabited. When I saw contention as the sole outcome, aversion increased in me; but then I saw an arrow here, difficult to see, set in the heart. Pierced by it, one runs in every direction, but having pulled it out one does not run nor does one sink.”

Sutta Nipata IV.15*

Because human beings have a mind and not ruled completely by instinct, I don’t accept the proposition that the world must forever be sunk in violence. We choose violence, in myriad ways. We can choose a world without it. And I believe that Buddhism is an excellent vehicle to help accomplish that goal. Maybe I’m just a romantic dreamer. That’s all right. I choose it.

*From The Discourse Collection: Selected Texts from the Sutta Nipata (WH 82), translated by John D. Ireland (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1983).

Helmet photo adapted from tokyo-samurai-armor.com


2 thoughts on “Buddhism and Violence

  1. Terrific post, David. I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest we can choose a world where we respond differently to aggression. Given the vagaries of our biology and the unpredictability of how it manifests, I fear we will always have that continuum in levels of forcefulness. I do believe however that we can make changes to divert these occurrences – even at a day-to-day, person-to-person level – which can have epigenetic consequences. I’m trying to recall a study that was done with tribes of monkeys in which aggressive behaviours were shaped out of the tribe by the “elders” even with younger adolescent (and aggressive) monkeys who entered the tribe later in their development. It is possible but it has to be done through perpetual attention to unrooting the aggression as it appears.

    1. I don’t think you need go out on a limb to say what you said. It’s sounds very reasonable to me, and I agree completely. As you say, we can choose a world where we respond differently to aggression. So then aggression needed always be violent. We can temper it.

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