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.

No Comments

  1. Mark Knickelbine on January 28, 2015 at 10:33 am

    I think Gotama’s teachings on intention are crucial here. When he used satire or rough admonition, it was always (one gathers from the stories) with the intention of leading his audience to Right View and thus helping to alleviate their suffering. If we are looking for guidance for our own ethical decisions, that is where I think he would have us look. I think blasphemy can in fact be cruel if it is motivated by a desire to wound the adherents of a religion (think of Nazi desecration of synagogues, for example). If we use racial stereotypes to satirize religion (as the Charlie Hebdo cartoons often do)we need to be careful that this isn’t arising from and reinforcing xenophobia in ourselves and others. When we engage in any kind of humor or satire that has someone as its “butt”, it would be good to examine our intention to see what mental and emotional patterns we are reinforcing in ourselves and to consider whether its effect on others will promote the kind of environment we want to live in ourselves.

    • Doug Smith on January 28, 2015 at 10:44 am

      Agreed, Mark. Kind intention is key, even if one acts out of sternness.

      I think it’s also good to try holding these concepts lightly, so as not to get drawn into ideological clinging or reactivity. (Something one sees on all sides of these debates).

  2. mufi on January 28, 2015 at 11:36 am

    A problem with putting so much emphasis on intention as the criterion of rightness is that it’s easy to spin that into a “road to hell” narrative, if the consequences of one’s actions are nonetheless harmful. Presumably, the wise (including the Buddha) warrant their social status, not only because they profess good intentions (even a fool can do that!), but also because they tend to choose actions that in fact are followed by welcome outcomes.

    That said, I admit that I struggle to see the outcome of the Charlie Hebdo affair as helpful, even as I support the magazine’s legal right to criticize religion.

    • Doug Smith on January 28, 2015 at 11:49 am

      Right, but to be clear, the issue is not the profession of good intentions (which as you note, any fool can do), it’s the actual having of good intentions.

      The problem then becomes one of knowing the quality of our own intentions. Do they come from benevolence? Or a wish to harm? It can often be difficult to tell, especially if we are unmindful.

      Much of the point of mindfulness training is to become better aware of the quality of our own intentions. Not an easy task.

      • mufi on January 28, 2015 at 12:20 pm

        Is benevolence compatible with folly? I think so, if one’s desire to be helpful is poorly served by one’s capacity to achieve the desired effect, or if one’s idea of helpfulness is not widely shared.

        I realize that Buddhist tradition helps to define these terms, but my point was that an evaluation of consequences inheres in them, as well as an evaluation of intention. As Damien Keown put it in The Nature of Buddhist Ethics:

        cetana was followed by a praxis of some kind…motive alone is not the sole criterion of rightness…the ritual slaying of animals is not meritorious merely because Brahmins believe it to be so; nor is euthanasia for aged parents morally right even though it is the custom in certain countries…This suggests there is an objective standard of rightness discoverable and attainable through partnership of reason and right desire. For cetana to be virtuous it must conform to these requirements, and even acts performed from a good motive are wrongful if based on moha.

        I’m not saying that I accept Buddhist ethics as an “objective standard”, although I do more or less accept Keown’s descriptive account of it.

        • Doug Smith on January 28, 2015 at 2:16 pm

          I would say one of the hallmarks of folly is a basic lack of mindfulness, though ignorance is the root problem. One of the thing the fool will be ignorant of is the quality of his or her intentions.

          To put it another way, what seems like benevolence may be compatible with folly, but true benevolence is not. It is normal for us fools to confuse the two in many cases.

          • mufi on January 28, 2015 at 2:44 pm

            One can surely define “benevolence” that way, but I’ve been working from a more conventional sense along the lines of a “disposition to do good” (Merriam-Webster) or “well meaning and kindly” (Oxford).

            Is there a “truer” (as in “more objective”) definition of “benevolence” than these? I think not, and neither of them rules out in advance an unwelcome outcome that follows from acting upon them, which seems a good reason to weigh consequences along with intentions when judging an action to be right or wrong (as, e.g., our legal system does when it considers “criminal negligence” in homicide cases).

          • Doug Smith on January 28, 2015 at 2:52 pm

            Correct, acting out of benevolence does not guarantee a welcome outcome. There can always be unforeseen circumstances, for example.

          • Mark Knickelbine on February 2, 2015 at 3:05 pm

            mufi, the problem is that we often can’t know what the consequences of our actions will be. I think if one is truly acting out of an intention to be compassionate, one will try to think such things through as well as one can, precisely because one intends a compassionate outcome. What frequently happens, however, is for people to believe they are acting out of a benevolent motivation when they are in fact blind to their true intention.

          • Linda on February 2, 2015 at 3:59 pm

            Agreeing with Mark, and this is the reason I have a problem with the use of “volitional” in explanations of karma and intention. When we talk about “volition” it implies “having thought things through” which, yes, is a big part of the point of what we do with our practice, but it seems to suggest that any well-thought out, good intention, followed by volitional action, is going to be right. (Maybe that’s where some of our teachers go wrong when — to our point of view — we find them taking advantage of vulnerable student: they’d thought that “their intentions were good”).

            But there is ignorance-driven intention, and there is Buddhist-knowledge-driven intention, and they are two different things. The road to hell is paved with volition that is informed by “just doing the best we can with common sense” but it’s volition that hasn’t actually seen how we operate in ways that make even “good intentions” go awry. The volitional acts that replace those, are ones that are informed by having seen how we tend to operate by default — and where it leads — over and over and over again until we just stop operating that way because it makes no sense to keep on doing what leads to bad ends. No doubt it starts with us having to choose to think about what we are about to do first — to actively think about how what we would normally do of our own free will (volition) in this situation usually has a bad outcome — and change course, but eventually it requires less active thought in the moment, and we just change our ways. When it becomes almost instinctive to not instantly react, but to stop and let compassion fill us first, is that still “volitional”?

  3. mufi on February 3, 2015 at 11:22 am

    Mark: Learning the consequences of our actions is often quite easy, given a commonsensical theory of causation. Simply correlate events with personal actions: If I do such-and-such action(s) then, such-and-such event(s) usually follow(s).

    In fact, that seems a lot easier than divining one’s “true intention”, whatever that is (quite possibly a myth).

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.