On Buddhist Violence

| June 21, 2013 | 17 Comments
 Photograph by Adam Dean / Panos for TIME

Photograph by Adam Dean / Panos for TIME

Buddhist violence against Muslims in Myanmar has been in the press in the last few weeks, with recent front-page treatment in the New York Times and international editions of Time Magazine. While this has nothing to do with Secular Buddhism per se, it’s nonetheless worth consideration.

In the New York Times article we read of the monk leading the politically extremist “969 movement” saying,

“You can be full of kindness and love, but you cannot sleep next to a mad dog,” Ashin Wirathu said, referring to Muslims.

“I call them troublemakers, because they are troublemakers,” Ashin Wirathu told a reporter after his two-hour sermon. “I am proud to be called a radical Buddhist.”

The subtitle to Christopher Hitchens’s recent book is “How Religion Poisons Everything”. This suggests that one question we should ask is whether the Buddhist religion is at fault here, and if so to what extent. Unfortunately I am no expert on the history of Buddhist violence. Michael Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer’s recent book Buddhist Warfare apparently illuminates some of that history. It is not a book I have read, though Jerryson’s essay on the topic is interesting.

The problem in all these cases, however, is one of figuring out causal responsibility. We already know that people can be ignorant, hateful, and prone to violence. This is so whether or not they belong to any given belief system. If we are to seek answers as to the culpability of a particular belief system, to ask whether or not it is a “poison” in Hitchens’s sense, we need to go further. For if all we ask is, “Do people with this belief system engage in violence on its behalf?” the answer to that question will nearly always be, “Yes.” Or at least it will always be for any belief system large and prominent enough to draw a crowd. For example, I have no idea whether or not self-described Secular Humanists have ever engaged in violence on its behalf, but if they have not, this may simply be because there are not enough self-described Secular Humanists to have done so.

One way we may ask whether or not, say, Secular Humanism would be responsible for people engaging on violence on its behalf is to look at some of the founding principles of Secular Humanism, its various declarations and so on. There one finds advocacy of principles such as tolerance, free inquiry, and naturalism.

One does not, however, find specific advocacy for non-violence. Does this mean that Secular Humanism would be to blame if a Secular Humanist were to commit violence on its behalf? I leave that up to others to decide. At any rate, the principles of Secular Humanism do not promote violence.

On the other hand, many of our most famous religious books do promote violence, such as the Bible, the Koran, and the Book of Mormon.

What about Buddhism? Of course, there is well over two millennia of material in the Theravāda, Mahāyāna, and Vajrayāna Buddhist corpus: it’s a lot to contend with. As I understand it, virtually all of the material in Jerryson and Juergensmeyer’s book comes from the later traditions, virtually none from the Pāli Canon. In the comments that follow his blog post on Buddhist and Islamic fundamentalism, Justin Whitaker points out that,

The earliest Theravādin case [that can be used to justify hatred or violence] seems to be in the Mahavamsa (4th-5th century CE), wherein the basic tenets of karma, the 3 refuges, and the 5 precepts were employed by a group of eight Arahats to let a ruler off for killing countless non-Buddhists, setting a precedent that has been invoked ever since. There is no passage in the Canon cited …

Stephen Jenkins makes what I would consider a very feeble attempt to show that early Buddhism is rife with violence in the book “Buddhist Warfare” – worth reading just to see how badly mangled an early text can be (note: he calls Vajrapani – Vajirapani in the Pali – the Buddha’s “bodyguard.”; you can find Vajirapani in action in DN3) …

In the Ambaṭṭha Sutta (Dīgha Nikāya 3), the Buddha gets into an argument with Ambaṭṭha, a young and arrogant Brahmin who advocated that the other castes be “entirely subservient to the Brahmins” (1.14), including the Buddha’s Khattiya caste. The Buddha pointed out that in fact Ambaṭṭha himself did not know, or was unwilling to say, where his own ancestors came from. (The Buddha claims they came from a slave girl).

“Answer me now, Ambaṭṭha, this is not a time for silence. Whoever, Ambaṭṭha, does not answer a fundamental question put to him by a Tathāgata by the third asking has his head split into seven pieces.”

At that moment Vajirapāni the yakkha [a supernatural being], holding a huge iron club, flaming, ablaze and glowing, up in the sky just above Ambaṭṭha, was thinking: “If this young man Ambaṭṭha does not answer a proper question put to him by the Blessed Lord by the third time of asking, I’ll split his head into seven pieces!” The Lord saw Vajirapāni, and so did Ambaṭṭha. And at the sight, Ambaṭṭha was terrified and unnerved, his hairs stood on end, and he sought protection, shelter and safety from the Lord. Crouching down close to the Lord he [answered the Buddha's question]. (1.20-21, trans. Walshe)

To me, this scene resembles slapstick more than any sort of a literal promotion of violence, occurring as it does in the context of a nitpicking verbal argument, with the appearance of a wild supernatural creature who ends up doing no more than frightening someone into answering an embarrassing question. But more’s the point, even this kind of stylized threat is virtually unique in the Canon*: Vajirapāni himself appears only to have that one appearance, as he is not listed in the indices of any other four main Nikāyas.

More common in the suttas is the claim that committing violence of any kind will end one up in a bad destination in a future life:

The Blessed One said: “There is the case, student, where a woman or man is a killer of living beings, brutal, bloody-handed, given to killing & slaying, showing no mercy to living beings. Through having adopted & carried out such actions, on the break-up of the body, after death, he/she reappears in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, hell. If, on the break-up of the body, after death — instead of reappearing in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, hell — he/she comes to the human state, then he/she is short-lived wherever reborn. This is the way leading to a short life: to be a killer of living beings, brutal, bloody-handed, given to killing & slaying, showing no mercy to living beings. …

“There is the case where a woman or man is one who harms beings with his/her fists, with clods, with sticks, or with knives. Through having adopted & carried out such actions, on the break-up of the body, after death, he/she reappears in the plane of deprivation… If instead he/she comes to the human state, then he/she is sickly wherever reborn. This is the way leading to sickliness: to be one who harms beings with one’s fists, with clods, with sticks, or with knives. …

“There is the case, where a woman or man is ill-tempered & easily upset; even when lightly criticized, he/she grows offended, provoked, malicious, & resentful; shows annoyance, aversion, & bitterness. Through having adopted & carried out such actions, on the break-up of the body, after death, he/she reappears in the plane of deprivation… If instead he/she comes to the human state, then he/she is ugly wherever reborn. This is the way leading to ugliness: to be ill-tempered & easily upset; even when lightly criticized, to grow offended, provoked, malicious, & resentful; to show annoyance, aversion, & bitterness. … (MN 135).

Now, to be fair, much of the advocacy for violence in the passages from the Bible, Koran, and Book of Mormon linked above comes in terms of eventual punishment in hell. One distinction between the Buddha’s claims about hell and those of the Western holy books is that in the West, one’s destiny in hell is determined by a perfectly good person whose decision it is to put one there for all eternity. (Or at least this is so on a traditional interpretation of these books). On the Buddha’s picture, hell is something that happens as a kind of natural law, and is itself temporary. The fact that one ends up in hell is itself neither good nor bad, it is a simple fact of how kamma is supposed to work. Hence there isn’t quite the same aspect of recommending hell in Buddhism that there is in the Western religions. Hell isn’t some choice made and hence advocated by someone perfectly good. Instead it’s the natural (or supernatural) outgrowth of certain sorts of intentional action.

At any rate, along with such canonical passages, more common also is the sentiment one finds in the famous Mettā Sutta (Sutta Nipāta 1.8)

Whatever living beings there may be;
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born —
May all beings be at ease!

Let none deceive another,
Or despise any being in any state.
Let none through anger or ill-will
Wish harm upon another.
Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings …

While many focus on the profound simile of mother and child, the key phrase in this sutta is “omitting none”. This is the same message we get, even stronger, in the famous Parable of the Saw, the Kakacūpama Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya 21): “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.” This is, to say the least, a radical teaching of non-violence.

True, elsewhere the Buddha recommends that a householder provide “protection and guard over the wealth he has acquired” (Aṇguttara Nikāya 8.54), but there is no indication that it should be anything more than self-protection, and it does not apply to monastics, since monastics have no wealth to protect.

The upshot of all this is that so far as I know, though I have not read every line of the Tipiṭaka to be absolutely sure, the Pāli Canon contains no advocacy of hatred, violence, or killing. I do know it contains much the opposite: advocacy of ridding ourselves of hatred, along with greed and delusion, and against committing acts of violence.

There are bad destinations for people who do bad things, but there is no suggestion that these are carried out under the direction of an ethically perfected being. Indeed, the ethically perfected being is an arahant who has escaped the round of heavens and hells, and is incapable of hatred or killing. (AN 9.7).

It may be I’ve missed some critical portion of the Canon. If so, I’d be interested for someone to point it out, perhaps in the comments. At any rate, the mainstream teaching implies that the monks in Myanmar (and other places mentioned in the book Buddhist Warfare) are simply deluded by greed and hatred. The New York Times article says of the prominent Buddhist monk, “Ashin Wirathu denies any role in the riots. But his critics say that at the very least his anti-Muslim preaching is helping to inspire the violence.” Certainly descriptions like “mad dog” and “troublemakers” are not helpful in this sort of situation.

What did the Buddha have to say about Right Speech?

Having abandoned slander, the recluse Gotama abstains from slander. He does not repeat elsewhere what he has heard here in order to divide others from the people here, nor does he repeat here what he has heard elsewhere in order to divide these from the people there. Thus he is a reconciler of those who are divided and a promoter of friendships. Rejoicing, delighting, and exulting in concord, he speaks only words that are conducive to concord. (Dīgha Nikāya 1).

Once again, to be perfectly fair the Buddha was not beyond scolding recalcitrant monks, nor beyond arguing in strong terms with those with whom he disagreed. He was willing to use speech “unwelcome and disagreeable” so long as it was “true, correct, and beneficial to others”, done at the right time. (MN 58.8). It is not at all clear that these describe of the sort of speech heard in monks from Myanmar.

To what extent is Buddhism at fault in this sectarian violence? Has Buddhism “poisoned everything”, in Christopher Hichens’s phrase? Or is this rather a matter of people acting in disregard of Buddhist teachings, inciting, injuring, and killing in spite of them? One problem is to determine which teachings we consider “Buddhist”. To a historian of religion, “Buddhist” includes all teachings proclaimed under that banner, and it includes later teachings that apparently do justify violence.

If, on the other hand, we consider only the material of the Pāli Canon, that determination is much less secure. Ironically, as Theravādins, the monks and laypeople of Myanmar should consider those to be the original teachings of the Buddha; hence they should be given particular attention at the time of considering correct motivations to speech and action. It would appear they have not been.

Historians and anthropologists of religion like Scott Atran love to repeat to thick skulled philosopher/atheist types like myself that nobody really follows texts, doctrines, or teachings anyway. Religions are largely non-cognitive socio-cultural forces having to do with group identity and the like. But I like to hold out hope that at least in a case like this a more careful attention to the earliest documents in the Buddhist tradition might mitigate hatred and violence in Myanmar and elsewhere. If so, there is a good sense in which Buddhism — or at least one central part of Buddhism, which is the Buddha dhamma — is not responsible for the “poisons” we see in parts of contemporary South Asia.

—————

* It is not, however, completely unique. I have not searched out the entire Canon, but there is a similar occurrence in the Cūḷasaccaka Sutta, MN 35.13-14.

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Doug Smith

About the Author ()

Doug has a PhD in Philosophy, with a minor in Buddhist philosophy and Sanskrit. In 2013 he completed the year-long Integrated Study and Practice Program with the BCBS and NYIMC. As a long time scientific skeptic, he pursues a naturalized approach to practice. He is also interested in scholarship about the Tripiṭaka, and the theoretical and historical origins of the dhamma.

Comments (17)

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  1. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    Great post, Doug! IMHO, the Buddhist texts make it absolutely clear that the foundation of Buddhism is to reduce/end suffering. How can you attack people or their things without creating suffering? You can’t.

    One of my favorite Buddha quotes (wish I could remember the sutta!) was when a group of monks went to Buddha to tell him that their enemies were calling them names, throwing rocks at them, etc. They asked him what they should do. He said, “You have no enemies. Hatred is a defilement of the mind, and you can overcome that defilement.”

    I found that to be an incredibly sophisticated thing to say, especially compared to say, the Jesus quote where he tells people to turn the other cheek to their enemies. Jesus used divisive language like “your enemies”, “the sinners”, “the fools”, but Buddha recognized that hatred in and of itself is the problem, and if we overcome hatred, the idea of enemy disappears.

  2. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Oddly enough, I was just reading about this in Bronkhorst’s book “Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism.” He points out that one of the competitive disadvantages Buddhism had around the turn of the first millenium CE, at least in terms of garnering royal support, is that Brahmanic notions of caste duty made an explicit case for violence. We see this voiced in the (much later) Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna makes it clear that if your duty is to be a warrior you have to kill your enemies, whether you want to or not. So while a Brahman priest would gladly do a ritual to give your army success in battle or confound your enemy, the bhikkhus had no basis to do so, and he quotes some early CE texts that seem to be trying to find a way around this to enable Buddhists to be better servants to the state (on which all sects depended for protection, gifts of land and support, etc). So apparently the earliest Buddhists understood the injunction against violence and took it seriously even when it worked to their political disadvantage.

    By the way, Bronkhorst also presents evidence that Maghada was not Brahmanized during Gotama’s time, so suttas like the one you quote which appear to refer to a thoroughly Brahmanized society could not have been composed until after, and perhaps well after, the time of Ashoka. But that’s for another discussion.

    • David Chou David Chou says:

      What an interesting theory! It’s certainly what Brian Victoria describes of Zen in WII-era Japan. Perhaps it’s another discussion, too, how Buddhism was incorporated into the martial arts of China and Japan but that would certainly fall under the general category of “Buddhist violence”…as would the possibility for such even (especially?) in secular Buddhism, such as national defense.

  3. mufi says:

    Doug: …there is a good sense in which Buddhism — or at least one central part of Buddhism, which is the Buddha dhamma — is not responsible for the “poisons” we see in parts of contemporary South Asia.

    I’ve long thought of sacred texts in general as “grab bags” – reach in and you might very well find something to support your cause, whatever it is.

    If not, then use common ignorance to your advantage. Most adherents don’t read them, anyway (or at least not that closely), and even if they do, then it’s an age-old practice for religious leaders to “read in” meanings to sacred texts that the author(s) most likely never intended. Apply as needed.

    I realize that this is a cynical, machiavellian view of the situation, but then even if only a tiny percentage of the human population thinks and/or acts in this way, then that – say, in combination with certain socioeconomic circumstances (like ethnic tensions) – seems enough to explain how this can happen.

    But I would agree that it’s good to remind ourselves that these sacred texts plainly defy what’s happening in Myanmar (even if the perpetrators there are already aware of the contradiction). Nice job!

  4. Simon says:

    Interesting piece, but I’d love to see some more thought on the bit about all belief systems, given enough size, having members that advocate and/or engage in violence on its behalf. It seems to me that in one way buddhism is to “blame” for the violence. Buddhism, like any other ism, creates an identity and a group, and any group clearly defined by commonalities will create some manner of “us and them” thinking. Buddhism, much like (other) religions seems to me to contain a large amount of ritual and symbols that serve to distinguish its members from other groups. Especially monks are very clearly separated from the rest of society. They dress a certain way, eat a certain way, live by a certain code of rules and even shave their heads, all of which clearly separate them from others. The same is true to a lesser degree of buddhists in general, by observing certain holidays, following certain rituals and so on. And of course many rituals found in religions, like marriage, serve to keep members of different groups from intermixing. All of this is true of Islam as well, of course.

    My point is that these types of separators uphold groups and show how “we” are different from “them”. Even if buddhism doesn’t directly encourage violence, it upholds a separation which encourages a natural human tendency of tribalism, which in turn is a nearly universal component in large-scale violence.

    Thoughts?

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Thanks for the comment, Simon. Yes, this is kind of what I was getting at in my last paragraph re. issues of group identity. Thing is, if simple group identity is all that’s responsible here, then it would be equally responsible in the case of a group of Secular Humanists or even complete pacifists. I do think that group identity works that way: literally anything can count as a group, including putting together a random bunch of people and giving them the same colored shirts.

      But then it’s no longer an argument (e.g.) of ‘religion poisoning everything'; it’s us/them thinking doing so. And then Buddhism per se isn’t at fault. Yes, as you note, Buddhists do certain things to separate themselves from society, but so do all human organizations and groups, to one extent or another.

      You might also be interested in my last post, about self-labeling. There I note that Secularists do seem to reduce this amount of ritual-based identity, but only at the loss of some of the power associated with group cohesion.

      • Simon says:

        Oh, I agree that any group is subject to the same phenomenon, but, as you say, to a greater or lesser extent. Having the same colored shirt is not going to be as important part of one’s identity as for example Buddhism. Just about all religions have a large amount of identity-forming aspects. I’d even argue it’s a competitive advantage for a religion and thus something that has evolved to be prominent in all successful religions. Group cohesion and community are positive aspects of this phenomenon, and tribalism and xenophobia are the negative aspects. It’s a double-edged sword and I don’t think we can call it wholly positive or wholly negative. I do think this is something to have in mind when “designing” a secular version of Buddhism. How can one have the positive effects without encouraging the negative side-effects?

        EDIT: Or, to put it differently, simply by being a religion, Buddhism creates an exclusiveness since religions are by nature exclusive. Sure, to some extent this is less true of Buddhism than of many other religions, but it’s much more true of Buddhism than of, say, liking Pearl Jam. You can like Pearl Jam AND like The Rolling Stones, but it’s much more difficult to be a Buddhist AND a muslim. This creates two communities that live side by side but don’t intermix. There are few or no people who are members of both groups.

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          Yes, I think we agree on this. Unfortunately I don’t have any very good answers, since as you note, and as I discussed in my prior piece on self-labeling, this sort of phenomenon is a double edged sword. It has both beneficial and harmful aspects, which are very tightly interrelated. Insofar as you lessen group identity (getting closer to ‘liking Pearl Jam’ than being a member of a team, religion, or army), I expect you will also lessen certain of the psychological benefits and social harms that stem from in-group identity.

          Some people have argued that Buddhism is unique in allowing members of other religions to be Buddhist alongside their other religion. Certainly many urban sanghas include Jews and liberal Christians. Depending on how one understands Buddhism (and Judaism/Christianity!) this may be possible. But again, this is on the liberal/Pearl-Jam-fan end of the spectrum. I don’t think there’s anything in the Pali texts that would disallow it, although the Buddha makes very clear that in order to completely fulfill the path, his technique is the only way.

          • Simon says:

            Cool! I think we agree and it’s a thought-provoking subject. Thank you for a good article and discussion. I have nothing more to add.

  5. David Chou David Chou says:

    “Buddhist” is now an accepted category in the U.S. military. I’ve always wondered about that, even before I had an interest in Buddhism. (The British military has a long tradition of Buddhist soldiers, sailors, and seamen, apparently — for understandable reasons.) Perhaps the history of Buddhism in the martial arts of China and then Japan would be useful in cobbling together a secularly Buddhist perspective or even “policy”….

    • mufi says:

      There was a book published some years ago about the conflict in Sri Lanka, to which Buddhism scholar Richard Gombrich contributed an essay, called “Is the Sri Lankan War a Buddhist Fundamentalism?” I wouldn’t say that it’s an essay on “Buddhist policy” per se, but it does mention that there’s evidence from as early as the time of the Buddhist emperor Ashoka (4th-Century BCE) that the reigning principle was not a renunciation of violence per se, but rather a renunciation of agressive violence.

      In other words, Ashoka (according to one of his more famous edicts, inscribed on rock) did not abjure violence in self-defense.

      Gombrich also pointed out there that it’s erroneous to call violent militant movements of modern-day Buddhists “fundamentalist”, since – as Doug demonstrated above – these movements are clearly at odds with their own sacred texts.

      You might even say that those of us who criticize their words & actions on the basis of those same texts are, in this case, the true fundamentalists.

      • David Chou David Chou says:

        Fascinating. But this is the thing about military thinking: it’s pre-emptive…train hard today so that you fight better tomorrow (or needn’t fight at all [if the military has to fight, it's failed its primary task of deterrence]) — that kind of idea.

        So how’s it possible to develop a Buddhist approach to defensive uses of violence, when, living in an interconnected world, states seem forced to conduct pre-emptive operations such as spying, undermining regimes, researching weapons, et cetera??

        This Burmese monk agitator is basically raising that issue: Muslims are taking over the country, we have to defend ourselves. Forgetting the fact that he’s plain wrong and just a rabid nut-job, he’s actually arguing realpolitik: if there’s a threat, you can’t just wait for it to come to you. Yet preparing for violence is just a step away from engaging in it, and certainly why would anyone want to spend time imagining strategies and tactics designed to cause suffering (suffering is the grammar of war, violence its vocabulary, no matter the alleged higher purpose of final peace) when they’re supposed to promote its diametrical opposite…thus (true) Buddhism seems necessarily pacifist!

        It’s a conundrum, to be sure, and one more reason why I hesitate to devote myself to the Path just yet. The closest I’ve seen to a resolution would be in the admittedly self-serving metaphysics of Buddhist martial arts in China and Japan.

        • mufi says:

          Agreed, and it’s a feature of the path that I struggle with, as well (in a way that’s analogous to previous struggles I’ve had with the pacifism of my Quaker neighbors, despite our common political goals).

          The early example of Ashoka’s accommodating Buddhist teachings to the realities of ancient Indian statecraft – let alone more recent stories of violent Buddhists in Sri Lanka and Myanmar – suggests to me that the Ideal Buddhism of the scriptures and the Real Buddhism of history are overlapping, yet nonetheless distinct, topics.

          • David Chou David Chou says:

            I try to take it this way: insofar as Buddhism would claim to be a “Middle Way” between extremes, even moderation itself must be moderate!

            But the natural zealot in me would try to insist on an all-or-nothing pacifism…because I admire the symmetry of intellectual consistency, its almost supernatural beauty.

          • mufi says:

            But the natural zealot in me would try to insist on an all-or-nothing pacifism…because I admire the symmetry of intellectual consistency, its almost supernatural beauty.

            I get that, although the pragmatist in me would try to find a balance between the ideal of non-violence and the practical concern of security.

            I guess another way to say that is: The pacifists and the soldiers should each have a vote, but neither should have a veto (or something like that).

          • David Chou David Chou says:

            Yes, that’s a good way to put it! And that’s how it will be, certainly, despite our speculative concerns. So what you call Ideal Buddhism is a bit like Communism (heh), while your Real Buddhism is rather like Socialism — a bridge for zealots, a haven for pragmatists!

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