The Buddha and Blasphemy

Image courtesy of pakorn at

Image courtesy of pakorn at

With the recent tragedy at Charlie Hebdo blasphemous satire is in the news, and many ask if it should be allowed.

There are many different degrees of “allow”, and most discussions on the matter, particularly the more virulent, trade off of these different degrees. First there is the plain issue of legality: should the state allow satire? Then there is the ethical issue: even if the state allows it, is it ethical to satirize deeply held beliefs? Third is the prudential issue: even if such satire is legal and ethical, is it prudent?

Depending on one’s views of the matter, these may elide together in various ways. But for clarity’s sake it is worth pointing out that there are differences.

One central principle of a secular belief system is that the state should not play a role in arbitrating satire, particularly when it comes into contact with religion. For then the issue is, as is often put, one of blasphemy, defined as “the act or offense of speaking sacrilegiously about God or sacred things” (New Oxford American).

The problem with sacrilege, so put, is that in a pluralistic society there will be no agreement on what counts. One person’s simple statement of fact (e.g., “There is no God”, “Faith healing is quackery”) is another’s blasphemy. To countenance legal protection against blasphemy is to privilege one religion’s understanding of the truth above all others, or to narrow the scope of reasoned discourse down to near nothing.

The same should be true of any secular ethics: insofar as our ethical system is not simply derived from the traditions of one particular religion, it will not be apt to countenance as unethical the denial — even the strong denial — of the dictates of any particular religious view.

However, issues come up around the edges, particularly when we get into whether such blasphemy is prudent. (And then, insofar as we accept a vaguely prudential form of ethics). A strong supporter of blasphemy may claim at least that is never not prudent to blaspheme, because in the words of Richard Dawkins, “blasphemy is a victimless crime”:

Further, at least in this day and age blasphemy can carry the political purpose of furthering the cause of free expression, as for example it does in the Center for Inquiry’s Campaign for Free Expression, which they publicize with their yearly “International Blasphemy Rights Day”. (Note: I volunteer for CFI).

On these matters enough has perhaps already been written, and all of us I am sure can make up our minds easily enough in most cases. Nevertheless it may be interesting to consider what the Buddha might have said in these circumstances, since I don’t think it is well understood.

The Buddha and Blasphemy

So far as I know the Buddha never considered blasphemy a legal issue. I am not an expert on the Pāṭimokkha or monastic code of discipline, but even within the saṅgha of bhikkhus blasphemy (or anything very much like it) is not counted among the violations requiring expulsion (pārājika). It is a most grave offense to improperly claim a superior state of mind such as enlightenment, however in this case that amounts more to a vain boast than blasphemy, and would certainly not qualify as satire. If the boast were satirical it would ipso facto not be mendacious. Trying to split the saṅgha is in the second category of violations, those requiring a meeting of the saṅgha (saṅghādisesa), but neither does this quite qualify as blasphemy, and certainly not satire. This is rather an issue of doctrine or practice: the Buddha preferred collegiality to schismatics.

Among the lesser violations entailing confession (pācittiya) is that of insult, which may fit, although in this case “insult” is more likely something akin to name-calling between monks, rather than an issue of blasphemy in particular. It is also well to note that in the Buddhist saṅgha, one confesses to any fellow monk, not to a higher authority.

It may of course simply be that anything much like blasphemy isn’t mentioned in the monastic code because no monk ever went so far as to engage in it. Doubtless the saṅgha would have found ways to rid itself of any particularly difficult or annoying monk, no matter the specifics of the case.

I have argued in the past that Buddhism at times appears more ‘creedal’ than some would give it credit for: the Buddha did believe there was real bite behind “wrong view”. This entails that people with “wrong view”, including those who speak ill of the Buddha, the dhamma, or the saṅgha, would almost certainly expect a bad kammic rebirth. Nevertheless there is at least one good sense in which Buddhism is ‘non-creedal’: notwithstanding the clear kammic issue, very little is made of blasphemy. There is certainly nothing remotely equivalent to the Biblical commandment not to take God’s name in vain, which in the western tradition is arguably the root of blasphemy. Nor is there anything akin to the notion that salvation comes through faith in God alone. Since the Commandments begin with one’s duty to God, it follows that blasphemy is the most heinous of moral failings. Again, there is nothing remotely similar in Buddhism.

Nevertheless in modern Buddhist cultures blasphemy is not entirely absent. For example, we can look back on the December, 2014 case of V Gastro bar in Rangoon, Myanmar where three men were arrested for “portray[ing] a psychedelic mock-up of the Buddha wearing DJ headphones as part of a drinks promotion for an event on Sunday night.”

Dr. Paul Fuller points out in an insightful article, “That the image of the Buddha is sacred and has very real power appears to be lost in the form of Buddhism practiced in modern, urban Asian and Western cities.”

In a culture where images of the Buddha are sacralized and believed to contain magical powers, their misuse can become cause for alarm and intervention. This is, of course, one way in which the religion of Buddhism is different from the teaching of Buddhism, at least in its earliest texts. Fuller points to a contrasting passage in the Brahmajāla Sutta:

If, bhikkhus, others speak in dispraise of me, or in dispraise of the Dhamma, or in dispraise of the Saṅgha, you should not give way to resentment, displeasure, or animosity against them in your heart. For if you were to become angry or upset in such a situation, you would only be creating an obstacle for yourselves. (Dīgha Nikāya 1.1.5).

This passage is similar to one from the Alagaddūpama Sutta:

Bhikkhus, both formerly and now what I teach is suffering and the cessation of suffering. If others abuse, revile, scold, and harass the Tathāgata for that, the Tathāgata on that account feels no annoyance, bitterness, or dejection of the heart. And if others honor, respect, revere, and venerate the Tathāgata for that, the Tathāgata on that account feels no delight, joy, or elation of the heart. …

Therefore, bhikkhus, if others abuse, revile, scold, and harass you, on that account you should not entertain any annoyance, bitterness, or dejection of the heart. And if others honor, respect, revere, and venerate you, on that account you should not entertain any delight, joy, or elation of the heart. (Majjhima Nikāya 22.39)

The Buddha makes a similar, if stronger, point in the sutta on “The Simile of the Two-Handed Saw” (Kakacūpama Sutta, MN 21). This is one I discussed previously in “On Buddhist Violence”. There the Buddha enjoins his monks to endure the harshest of speech and even extreme physical violence “with a mind of lovingkindness, without inner hate.”

The Buddha’s Message on Speech

One key part of the Eightfold Path is “Right Speech”. This is defined as refraining from lying, slander, abuse, and idle gossip. (DN Now, one might well want to say that satire and blasphemy count as “abuse” and as such are strictly against the Buddha’s teachings on “Right Speech”. There are a couple of things that should be said in response, however.

Firstly, “Right Speech” is an ethical concept in the service of the end of the Buddhist path. That is to say, the Buddha enjoins us to avoid abuse because abusing others is cruel, and cruelty does not lead to the end of suffering. It causes pain in others, and springs from an afflicted mind. Insofar as blasphemy is a “victimless crime” (and it may or may not be), it is not cruel, hence not abusive.

Secondly, the Buddha himself engaged in speech that might seem abusive, when it was for a particular end of shocking someone into recognition. For example, in his famous rebuke of the monk Ariṭṭha of the vulture killers, or of Sāti the fisherman’s son:

Misguided (or: stupid, worthless, useless) man (mogha purisa), to whom have you known me to teach the Dhamma in that way? (MN 22.6; MN 38.5).

After their tongue-lashings, both these men are then described as sitting “silent, dismayed, with shoulders drooping and head down, glum, and without response.”

Are these examples of cruel abuse? Not within a Buddhist context. In the Abhayarājakumāra Sutta (MN 58) the Buddha outlines his own method of right speech in more full detail. In particular,

Such speech as the Tathāgata knows to be true, correct, and beneficial, but which is unwelcome and disagreeable to others: the Tathāgata knows the time to use such speech. (MN 58.8).

It is proper to speak in ways that are unwelcome and disagreeable, but only if such speech is true, correct, and beneficial, and only if it is used at such time as will make a beneficial difference. Undoubtedly in many cases these will be difficult to determine precisely, but wise intention counts.

What about blasphemy? Is it ever beneficial to satirize the deeply held religious beliefs of others? One might expect that this would be an idle question within early Buddhism, but in fact it is not. In an earlier piece I dealt with the Kevaddha Sutta (DN 11) which involves a broad satirization of Brahminic deities, in particular the Great Brahmā himself, who is revealed as an incompetent blowhard. And in suttas such as the Cankī (MN 95), in argument with the young brahmin Kāpaṭhika Bhāradvāja the Buddha takes direct aim at the claimed religious knowledge of his brahmin opponents, in words reminiscent of Jesus’s teaching centuries later:

So … in regard to their statement [that “only this is true, anything else is wrong”] the brahmins seem to be like a file of blind men: the first one does not see, the middle one does not see, and the last one does not see. What do you think, Bhāradvāja, that being so, does not the faith of the brahmins turn out to be groundless? (MN 95.13).

In both the Kevaddha and the Cankī the Buddha put forward satirical claims that would have been seen as blasphemous by the brahmins of his day: claims that ridiculed their claims to religious knowledge and even their highest deities.

This is not to say, of course, that the Buddha went around accosting brahmins. In passages such as these the “right time” for satire was either in discussion with his own saṅgha, or when a brahmin came to him looking for debate. Particularly in the second case, the Buddha did not feel constrained to keep only to welcome and agreeable speech.

The environment in which the Buddha taught was in philosophical and religious ferment, with a great number of competing viewpoints, in which teachers were required to engage in open debate in order to gain adherents. It was a world not unlike that of classical Greece. Many of the Nikāya texts recount those very debates, as well as the Buddha’s claims and arguments against rival views, none of which can have been particularly welcome to his opponents. Indeed, the Brahmajāla Sutta (DN 1) is a veritable compendium of opponents’ wrong views.


Would the Buddha have supported Charlie Hebdo? Would he have supported “Blasphemy Day”? Of course it’s impossible to know for sure. What we do know is that the Buddha was not opposed to using harsh, even blasphemous speech in defense of his viewpoint. Although he held that cruel and abusive speech was wrong, unwelcome and disagreeable speech would not be, so long as it was beneficial and spoken at the right time.

I daresay that within contemporary Buddhist religion there is little emphasis upon blasphemous speech, which makes cases such as recent ones with extremist nationalists in Myanmar stick out so much. (I do not call them “fundamentalists” because I do not believe they care about the fundamentals of the dhamma). If we look back at the earliest texts and see how the Buddha suggested we approach issues of abusive speech directed at his followers, we see something quite different from this case in contemporary Myanmar. His advice was always the same: toleration and equanimity, whether speech was reverent or abusive.

It is advice such as this that makes the Buddha’s teachings so valuable to a contemporary audience, even a secular one. For in teaching tolerance towards strong and abusive dissent he opens up a space for real and honest dialogue with those of differing opinions. In using satire and even blasphemy (again: “the act or offense of speaking sacrilegiously about God or sacred things”) the Buddha was something of a model in the ancient world.

Nevertheless the Buddha did not take his disagreements to the moneychangers in the temple, as it were. He was not a rabble-rouser. One does not get the feeling that he saw his place primarily in contradistinction to the other believers of his day. Rather his point was always “dukkha and the cessation of dukkha”; he engaged other views insofar as he felt that they were incorrect, unsuitable, unwise, or unskillful (akusala).

In today’s complex, multifarious world there will likely always be a place for people who work tirelessly for free expression, the price of freedom being eternal vigilance. But I think it would also be worthwhile to recall the Buddha’s injunctions to avoiding cruel and abusive speech, and to holding unwelcome and disagreeable speech until the time is right. Some seem to feel that since speech is free, cruel and abusive speech must always be allowed, and since cruel and abusive speech is always allowed, it must be engaged upon regularly. This is not a path to wise action. Nor is it wise to engage in disagreeable speech whenever one likes: the better question is when such speech will do the most good. If it can do no good at all, it is best not engaged upon. Or in the words of Phil Plait, “Don’t be a dick.

Are these questions of law, ethics, or prudence? Under the law, as much as possible must be tolerated, since the law is a blunt instrument, and reasonable people will disagree as to what constitutes abuse, blasphemy, even satire. I believe that ethics on the other hand will tend to follow prudence in this matter: there are times and places to push, and times and places to wait. Cruelty and abuse for its own sake has no place. It may be that blasphemy is a victimless crime, but it would be obtuse not to note that words can cause pain, even those not directed towards us in particular.