The Urban Dharma Newsletter April 22, 2007
In This Issue: Buddhism and Violence
1. Who Shot the Arrow? by Ruchiraketu
2. Buddhism and Violence by James Ure
3. Is violence justified in Theravada Buddhism? by Mahinda Deegalle
A little late again, sorry... The 12th Annual Monastic Western Monastic Conference was a success... Forty monastics from around the US attended... More information to follow. This newsletter is focused on understanding violence as it relates to Buddhism.
1. Who Shot the Arrow? by Ruchiraketu
How does one avoid adding to the world's violence? Ruchiraketu examines the work involved.
The victim lives unaware of the danger; the poison glistens on the arrow's point. The bow bends smoothly back as the string is drawn taut, there is a soft twang and the arrow whistles towards its unsuspecting mark. A sharp cry of agony pierces the air as the convulsing victim hits the ground; the poison is seeping into the wounded body....
A friendly hand reaches down to pull out the deadly shaft, but the victim cries out: 'No! Stop! First, I want to know the name of the person who shot it, and what kind of arrow it is, and ...' Has shock confused the victim? Surely the arrow must be speedily drawn before death ends all questions. It is time for action, not enquiry.
We are all inextricably bound up with violence, immersed in a world where millions of animals are slaughtered daily for food or clothing, where gross acts of violence are depicted hourly in the mass media: war, murder, sexual abuse, muggings, vandalism, exploitation of the innocent an endless and sickening catalogue of cruelty and destruction. And yet, in an escapism which effectively bars any efforts at escape from this round of suffering, we may not acknowledge that this is happening in our world.
For some, an awareness of the violence inherent in human life arises suddenly, with a shock. An unexpected outrage may jolt anxiety and concern into a previously placid life, and innocence and some ignorance are lost. Others wake up to the violence in their lives more gradually, perhaps as they develop a more general awareness. For many, a grim, hostile environment is a grinding reality accepted, semi consciously, as a dull pain. Life rolls relentlessly on, and in the battle against the 'slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' harsh words and hateful thoughts may be so much the norm that their violent nature is not noticed for what it is.
Whilst spiritual practice enhances awareness and leads to greater joy and happiness, one of the burdens of a more developed consciousness may be a keener sense of pain and the ways in which it is caused: the extent of human involvement in violence may become clear. For, even if we have tamed nature without we have not tamed Nature within.
Our first response to violence is emotional: sometimes excitement or exhilaration, sometimes sadness and frustration, with maybe an angry impulse to lash out. Puzzling over these responses, and realizing that hatred hurts as much as does grabbing a burning coal to hurl at an enemy, we may start asking questions. Why is there violence in the world? What is its cause or source? Who, or what, started it? Who is to blame? Who shot the arrow?
But the only questions worth asking, or trying to answer, are those which lead to an ending of pain. The Buddhist path begins with a realization of the truth of suffering, and is defined by the extent to which it leads to freedom from that suffering. The Buddha, who told the poisoned arrow story in response to philosophical questions about the nature of existence, tried to help others find the way to the liberation he had discovered. Rather than dealing in speculations about first causes and the like, he pointed to suffering as a fact of experience and taught remedies for its alleviation. His teaching may be summarized as a teaching of conditionality: things arise in dependence upon conditions, and cease when those conditions cease. Applying this teaching to violence, we may seek to understand the conditions leading to violence, and the conditions leading to its cessation.
Many today would accept that we are each a product of certain conditions. How we are and how we act are often seen to be influenced by such factors as our genetic inheritance and psychological conditioning, or environmental factors such as the political or social contexts we live in. To consider these influences may be useful, but it is important not to make the easy slide from conditionality into determinism, with a resulting loss of individual responsibility and initiative. Views like the following, for example, may lead us to feel unable to escape from our more destructive tendencies:
Our animal heritage is still carried in our genes so we will act viciously at times.... If our grandfather had a nasty streak in him well it's no surprise that we have, too.... As a child the drama of our life was 'scripted' into us by our parents, so we still unconsciously act out patterns beyond our control.... Conditioned to respond in various ways from birth onwards, our path through life is as determined as that of a rat in a maze.... We are only pawns in a game very difficult to understand a complex play of social forces, at the mercy of governments and multinational companies....
Whilst such views may throw light on some of the conditions which lead to violence in our world, they may also imply that there is little we can do about it. But many of them are just speculations as to 'who shot the arrow'. The Buddha's is an 'Art of the Soluble'. He was concerned with identifying the causes and conditions which we can do something about and distinguishing them from those in the face of which we are powerless. Dwelling on insoluble problems is depressing and saps the will to act. While being aware of the evil in violence it is vital that we passionately believe in peace and act vigorously to bring it about, otherwise we will repeatedly find ourselves in the situation portrayed by Yeats in which:
'Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
The blood dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.'
By distinguishing between what it is possible for us to achieve and what is not, we pave the way for meaningful solutions and generate the confidence to implement them. While the Buddha described how the world is burning with the fires of greed, hatred, and ignorance, he also showed the way to Liberation. Being unenlightened and ignorant we do not know things as they really are, but we can at least begin to tread the peaceful path towards Reality.
According to traditional Buddhism it is Mara's attacks that we are prey to the Evil One, with his sons and daughters, who heads a mighty army of malevolent forces. He represents the forces of greed, hatred, and ignorance at work in the world and in our minds. We can protect ourselves by repeatedly acting skilfully: ceasing to do evil, doing good, purifying the heart. Though on the path to Enlightenment we are beset by all sorts of confusions, egotistical motives, distractions, cravings, hatreds, and foolish doubts, through spiritual practice we gradually cause radiant qualities to bloom out of this unpromising soil:
'Mara does not find the path of those who are virtuous,
Who live mindfully, and who are
Freed through Perfect Knowledge.
'As pink lotuses, sweet scented and lovely,
Spring from a heap of rubbish thrown in the highway,
So among rubbishy beings, among ignorant worldlings,
The Disciple of the Perfectly Awakened One
Shines forth exceedingly in wisdom.'
(Dhammapada vv57 9).
It is useful to distinguish between the violence which has its source in the world, and that which begins in ourselves. We cannot control the whole world but we can do something about our responses to it and our interactions with it. Walking through this world we will be cut and bruised by the harsh terrain, and though we cannot make the whole world smooth or cover it in some protective layer, we may achieve an equivalent effect by covering the soles of our feet. If we guard our own minds against Mara's destructive influence, there is a chance that some of our wounds will heal; we may then take steps to make the world a safer place for all. Practising 'wise attention' we take care to ensure that we are not stirring up further greed, hatred, or ignorance. It is only as we become free of the influence of the poison in our own hearts that we can begin to see how best to respond to the violence in the world. As the candle flame of our awareness steadies we may more accurately discern the nature of the leaping, threatening shadows in the world around us.
Distinguishing between our own violent tendencies projected out onto the screen of the world and the world itself, we can work to create a harmony between ourselves and the world which knows no limit ultimately transcending the distinction between self and other. In the meantime, armed with an attitude of loving kindness, we can set about creating merit through skilful actions. As we make progress on the spiritual path we will develop an aura of positive emotion which will protect us from harmful forces. Dwelling in this aura we will be free to develop Insight to see for ourselves things as they really are and wake up to the nature of Reality. Until then we will always be in danger of Mara's attacks.
Eventually we can be like the Buddha, as he is often depicted in Buddhist art, on the eve of his Enlightenment. With a peaceful smile on his face, he sits in meditation beneath the Bodhi tree surrounded by a glowing radiant light. All about are forces inimical to spiritual development Mara with his armies. In their rage they fling weapons and boulders at the calm figure: rocks, trees, whole mountains, along with arrows, spears, javelins, and a multitude of other instruments of war. But the Buddha sits there firmly concentrating, immune from their attacks. As the weapons enter his aura they are transformed into flowers beautiful symbols of spiritual growth and attainment which rain gently down. The great being is unconcerned with the arrows or their malevolent source: he is bent on Enlightenment for the sake of all beings.
2. Buddhism and Violence by James Ure
http://thebuddhistblog.blogspot.com/2005/05/buddhism and violence.html
I promised a controversial post and well, here it is. It is kind of long only because I really want to try and present both sides for this discussion.
I can not think of anything more controversial in Buddhist circles then the issue of violence. The Buddha and our teachers preach against violence and to promote peace. This stance of non violence was one of the things that attracted me to the path of the middle way.
Is there EVER a place for violence?
Such as defending yourself or are you to just let people kill you? The other example I have is in defending your country and defeating evil such as in defeating Hitler in World War II. Do you not have a right and obligation to stand up to forces that would threaten to destroy the world and the balance of the middle way that is found in the various forms of democracy in the world?
The current Dalai Lama said in a recent interview with Canadian Broadcast News for example that some violence may be necessary in the short term but that it should be a last resort:
Yes, in particular circumstances, under particular circumstances, yes, it could be justified. However, this is not the full answer for the long run.
Hana Gartner: But this is extraordinary. The Dalai Lama said violence under certain circumstances you could see as justified?
Dalai Lama: Possible. Look, First World War, Second World War. I think Second World War, at least, although millions of people killed, suffer, immense, but really I was against war because war is some kind of legalized maximum violence. I'm always against. However, and like Second World War and Korean War, at least to protect the rest of the democratic civilization, and Korea, South Korea protected. As a result, more prosperity and democracy, freedom, these things. So sometimes... But then I think the difficult thing is when violence is started, eventually there's always a danger the situation become out of control, chain reaction, chain violence like Vietnam. All those same motivations, same strategy, same goal, but fail. Therefore, I always believe right from the beginning, must avoid violence.
Hana Gartner: But while you can concede that sometimes it's necessary, there are those in Tibet who believe there is justification that if you do not stand up, if you just are a pacifist, you empower the person who is oppressing you.
Dalai Lama: Individual case? For example, if mad dog coming, almost certain now bite you. Then if you say, non violence, non violence and compassionY
Hana Gartner: You get bitten!
Dalai Lama: That's kind of foolish! You have to take use of self defence. But without harming, without serious harming another, I think that's the way I feel. If someone try to shoot on you, then there is no possibility to run away, then you have to hit back. Then possibly not on head, but leg or something like that. So that's not serious hit back, but more lenient way, more gentle way.
I found an excellent article on this issue by Roger Corless in which he said:
At the moment that the being is our enemy we may have no choice but to kill our former friend, but we will kill with regret and compassion for someone who has, as it were, become temporarily insane and does not recognize us.
However one of the Buddha's sermons says flat out that violence is wrong:
Even if thieves carve you limb from limb with a double handed saw, if you make your mind hostile you are not following my teaching.
Kamcupamasutta, Majjhima Nikkaya I ~ 28 29
The Buddha was quite clear in his renunciation of violence: "Victory creates hatred. Defeat creates suffering. The wise ones desire neither victory nor defeat... Anger creates anger... He who kills will be killed. He who wins will be defeated... Revenge can only be overcome by abandoning revenge... The wise seek neither victory nor defeat."
After waging many wars, Emperor Asoka was so moved by sayings such as these that he converted to Buddhism and became the model for later Buddhist kings. Buddhism retreated from India, China, Vietnam, and other countries rather than involve its believers in armed struggles to preserve itself. Again, this illustrates the strengths and the weaknesses of Buddhism.
So, I think that some violence is o.k. when self defense is in danger but even then you should only go for the kill as the VERY last resort. Instead, shoot or go for the head. Rather, incapacitate the attacker by going for the legs or arms. I also gather from the Dalai Lama's comments that he suggests that violence is necessary when world democracy (or the very roots of Buddhism) is threatened such as during WWI, WWII. I think that "Right Action" sometimes means doing the difficult thing such as defending democracy in WWI and WWII via war. I believe though that war should be the very, VERY last resort and that this war in Iraq is an unjustified war in that regard. However, at the same time I recognize that advocating any violence is a like walking a thin, razor line. Also, hate, retaliation, revenge only continues the cycle of violence. The emphasis on non violence in Buddhism seems to be at once a great strength and a great weakness at the same time. From the Buddhist point of view, the end result is less important than the way we work with it.
Let me leave you with these words from Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh:
Before the end of the Vietnam War, I asked Venerable Thich Nhah Hanh whether he would rather have peace under a communist regime that would mean the end of Buddhism or the victory of democratic Vietnam with the possibility of Buddhist revival, and he said that it was better to have peace at any price. He told me that preserving Buddhism does not mean that we should sacrifice people's lives in order to safeguard the Buddhist hierarchy, monasteries, or rituals. Even if Buddhism as such were extinguished, when human lives are preserved and when human dignity and freedom are cultivated toward peace and loving kindness, Buddhism can be reborn in the hearts of human beings.
**James: So my question to you is what do we do when faced with the choice of violence or death? Violence or the destruction of this world? Violence of the destruction of Buddhism?
Peace to us all
3. Is violence justified in Theravada Buddhism? by Mahinda Deegalle
Is there a place for violence in Theravada Buddhism? This question is often raised when various recent events are examined in relation to the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka and the genocide of 2 3 million Khmers (mostly Buddhists) between 1975 and 1979 by Poi Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. (1) Both Sri Lanka and Cambodia are primarily Theravada Buddhist societies and in the last three decades both countries have witnessed a great deal of physical violence and abuse of human rights. While the violence can be attributed to various political problems, civil unrest, growth of communist thinking and fanatical armed groups, corrupt politicians and poor economic infrastructures, at least in the case of Sri Lanka ethnic prejudices are the pre eminent cause for the turmoil and recent violent struggle.
As a Buddhist, can one justify any form of violence, whether verbal or physical, whether directed towards the destruction of Buddhists or non Buddhists? Is there a Theravada attitude towards violence? Either historically or socially, have Theravada Buddhists advocated violence? Is there anything within Theravada scriptures or practice advocating violence? How should Theravada Buddhists react in the face of violence in the modern world? Should they resort to violence? Or should they let others perpetuate violence themselves? All these are practical questions when Buddhists and Buddhist practices come to face to face with situations in today's world. The purpose of this paper is to examine these questions in light of doctrinal discussions and recent events in Buddhist history in Theravada Sri Lanka.
I will begin by addressing the three points mentioned by Hans Ucko in his invitation letter to the St Petersburg consultation in February 2002. For our reflections as a community of scholars and practitioners of interfaith dialogue, Ucko identified the following three issues: two are "universal" affirmations with regard to the broad category of "religion" and its relationship with "violence" in the modern world, and the third is a question for us to explore: (1) "Every religion is against violence", (2) "We live in a world of violence", and (3) "Is there a place for justifying violence in our religious traditions?" My main purpose here is to explore the last issue in relation to Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
Buddhism has studied the relative value of the use of force (2) in the case of a single parent, whose only concern is his or her child's future welfare. In moulding the character of the child to make him or her a civilized citizen, the parent would use a little force to discipline the naughty child if he is naughty, in the hope of achieving a higher and noble goal. What I am trying to convey is that a certain degree of mental and physical pain is inevitable and allowed in achieving a satisfactory goal for the welfare of everyone in society at large. If one has the best interests of a child at heart, one has to take measures to ensure that the child grows up in a conducive and positive environment. It does not mean necessarily that the parent should resort to corporal punishment from the very beginning in order to discipline the child. But the child's knowledge of the possibility of physical force, indeed, may prevent him or her from many misdeeds. For a well behaved child, even verbal pressure would not be necessary. Nevertheless, the parent should keep in mind that one first has to establish what is proper (3) before guiding the child to the correct action.
At the outset, I should reiterate that there is no direct validation of violence, verbal or physical, within Theravada canonical scriptures. However, at least one post canonical work the Mahavamsa of Mahanama, a Pali chronicle of the 5th century CE contains a controversial reference to physical violence at times of civil war and conflict in Sri Lanka which will be discussed in detail later. Here, however, notwithstanding that controversial issue, it is important to emphasize that any resort to violence in Theravada communities is against the Theravada norm prescribed by the Buddha. Violence cannot be used either as a path or goal because of the Buddhist conviction, well expressed in the Dhammapada (v.5) that "hatred is never ceased by hatred". As demonstrated in this paper, thus, it is hard to attribute the slightest importance to violence, even as a means to an end.
In theory and in practice Theravada Buddhism does not and should not profess violence, since the basic tenets of Buddhism are completely against imposing pain on oneself or others. There is no room for violence in the doctrine. Whatever violence is found in so called Buddhist societies is merely a deviation from the doctrine of the Buddha and a misinterpretation of the Buddha's valuable message or not leading one's life in accordance with the Buddha's teachings.
In this paper, I will use three types of examples to illustrate Buddhist attitudes towards violence: (1) The Pali Canon: This canon is more authentic for Theravada Buddhists than the following two resources since they believe that it contains the word(s) of the Buddha (Buddhavacana) and his message of human liberation from suffering as can be seen through the lives and practices of his noble disciples. (2) The Pali Chronicles, written in Sri Lanka from the 4th century CE onwards, are taken into consideration by scholars in reconstructing the history of Buddhism and the historical events of Sri Lanka. They are quasi historical since they are monastic chronicles highlighting sectarian conflicts among monastic fraternities and monastic achievements in other civil matters; as books of an influential literary corpus within Sri Lanka among Buddhists and outside Sri Lanka within Western scholarship on Buddhism, they focus on the role of Buddhism, Buddhist institutions, and monastic fraternities and their relationships with the king and the state of Sri Lanka. It is rather ironic that they were composed in Pali rather than in Sinhala, the vernacular language of most inhabitants in modern Sri Lanka. As I will illustrate below, certain violent narratives in the Pali Chronicles raise crucial moral dilemmas for readers, whether they are Buddhist or not. The issues they raise and focus on are practical and the solutions they suggest are also utilitarian and contextual. (3) Finally, the vast Sinhala Medieval Literature which was composed from the 13th century onward for the consumption of Sinhala speakers is religious and Buddhist in nature rather than being nationalistic.
How do we understand violence?
The first question is, what do we mean by violence? How should we define it? What are its boundaries? In particular, what does it mean in English? Is it something very vague? In modern usage "violence" is used very broadly to include a wide range of negative human actions harmful to other living beings, living organisms, ecosystems and environment. While physical assault can be taken as its primary meaning, it also includes minor violations such as verbal abuse. In texts, violence can be understood primarily as physical assault and killing.
First, let us examine the terms for violence in Indian religious contexts. The most common Indian term for violence was himsa; the absence of violence in one's life was rendered in Indian religious contexts as ahimsa. Ahimsa as a technical term in religious vocabulary emerged with strong relationships with the notions of karma that Hindus, Buddhists and Jains held dear. (4) In all three traditions, ahimsa played a crucial role as a religious way of life. These two terms can be taken as the closest words for violence and non violence, not only in Buddhism but also in Hinduism and Jainism. These pre Buddhist concepts were widely used in Buddhist literature, in particular, in the Jatakas. Some figurative narratives in this collection highlighted and professed the life of extreme non violence (ahimsa). Historical Buddha's previous life as the ascetic santivadin, in particular, is extremely important in understanding the values attached to non violence. The ideal which emerges from these narratives is one of extreme patience and compassion. They can be used as an antidote for violence.
However, in modern Asian languages, for example, Sinhala, there does not seem to be one term for violence. In the English Sinhalese Dictionary (1978), G.P. Malalasekere translates "violence" into Sinhala as balatkaraya" ("force" (5)) sahasikama", adantettama ("assault"), sarakama ("severity"), ugratvaya ("severeness"). These examples, which are attempts to convey various nuances of the English term "violence", show the difficulties involved in communicating its varied meanings. In addition, it demonstrates, at least in the context of Sinhala, that the very notion of "violence" in Sri Lankan society is ambiguous and convoluted. What does a Sinhala speaker mean by "violence"? Does it mean only physical assault? What about verbal abuse and psychological pressure?
Cases for violence
Though Pali canonical texts do not contain explicit evidence to support violence or remarks to justify violence, a certain genre of post canonical literature, for example, one of the Pali Chronicles, the Mahavamsa of Mahanama, composed in Sri Lanka in the 5th century, unfortunately contains a narrative which disturbs the pacifist image of Theravada Buddhism. Though the intention of this particular monastic author is open to debate, this isolated reference is problematic when placed within the early Buddhist Pali canonical corpus of texts. This narrative gives the impression that, in certain circumstances when the ultimate end is noble, the use of a certain degree of violence will not harm the Buddha's doctrine of non violence and the path of pacifism.
To examine justifications of political violence in Sri Lanka and the growth of nationalism, a careful study of the myth of the battle between King Dutthagamani and King Elara is essential. What Steven Kemper has rightly put as "the past inhabits the present in a variety of ways in practices, things and memory" (6) demonstrates the implications of this myth on both Sinhala and Tamil communities in modern Sri Lanka.
The Mahavamsa narrative discusses this war. While Dutthagamani was a Sinhala in origin, a native of Sri Lanka, Elara was a Dravidian and an invader. As the text records, in this complex ethnic battle Dutthagamani presented his war as a measure to protect Buddhism from the foreign role of Elara:
When the king Dutthagamani had had a relic put into his spear he
marched to Tissamaharama, and having shown favour to the brotherhood
he said: "I will go on to the land on the further side of river to
bring glory to the doctrine. Give us, that we may treat them with
honour, bhikkhus who shall go on with Us, since the sight of the
bhikkhus is blessing and protection for us." (Mahavamsa 25.1 4)
In this Mahavamsa passage, the reference "bring glory to the doctrine" can be taken as providing safety and protection to the Buddhist teachings, practices and institutions in Sri Lanka. "Brotherhood" refers to the Buddhist monastic community collectively known as the sangha. Having a company of bhikkhus (monks) with him while marching for war is perceived as an act of securing protection for Dutthagamani himself at the time of war. However, the monks' marching with troops is perceived by the monks themselves "as a penance" (25.4). Placing a relic in the spear is an apotropaic action intended to ward off evil forces at times of troubles, as believed in many pre modern societies.
Nevertheless, the task at hand for Dutthagamani was a rather difficult one since the text represents Elara as a righteous king. In a duel, Dutthagamani killed Elara (25:6770), and honoured him by cremating him, marking the place with a monument and instituting a worship there.
The remorse of Dutthagamani after the battle was quite severe and similar to Emperor Asoka's after his battle in Kalinga. As in the case of Emperor Asoka, a transformation occurred, though not so dramatic, in the life of Dutthagamani through the intervention of the Buddhist monastic community. Their intervention in relieving Dutthagamani's remorse can be seen as a "rehabilitation strategy" for an evil king who had caused much suffering by pursuing a battle. In this case, the strategy directs the king to Buddhist works. Though the "rehabilitation" of the king is noble, the justifications that the monks provided in consoling the king are controversial and problematic. They bear serious implications for the issue of whether there are justifications for violence within Theravada Buddhism.
The Mahavamsa states (25:104) that the arahants (i.e. the "worthy of reverence", people who have reached the stage before nirvana) in Piyangudipa, knowing Dutthagamani's remorse, sent a group of eight holy monks to comfort him; when Dutthagamani confessed that he had slaughtered millions, what they said to him to eliminate his remorse is highly problematic:
"From this deed arises no hindrance in thy way to heaven. Only one
and a half human beings have been slain here by thee, O lord of men.
The one had come unto the (three) refuges, the other had taken on
himself the five precepts. Unbelievers and men of evil life were the
rest, not more to be esteemed than beasts. But as for thee, thou
wilt bring glory to the doctrine of the Buddha in manifold ways;
therefore cast away care from thy heart, O ruler of men!" Thus
exhorted by them the great king took comfort. (Mahavamsa 25:109 112)
As this Mahavamsa passage demonstrates, Dutthagamani's remorse is eliminated by being told that killing "evil unbelievers" carries no more weight than killing animals. As practitioners of "loving kindness" (metta), Buddhists have an obligation to protect all forms of life. It is important to note that killing not only human beings but even animals is not encouraged in Buddhism. (7) When contrasted with canonical doctrines and early Buddhist practices, the position of this 5th century chronicle is rather controversial. This passage in the Mahavamsa seems to suggest that certain forms of violence such as killings during war can be allowed in certain circumstances such as in the case of threats to the survival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka during the time of Dutthagamani. However, it is hard to justify this Mahavamsa position either through Buddhist practice or doctrinal standpoint as found in the Pali Canon of the Theravada Buddhists.
Yet, an alternative explanation of this "rehabilitation strategy" is also possible. This unusual statement can be interpreted differently as an instance of a means to an end. In the long run, it would not help the Buddhist monastic community to keep the victorious king in remorse or in a depressed condition. Rather than aggravating the situation, as spiritual advisers the monastic community should have made every effort to console the king. Up to that moment, whatever bad actions the king had committed became his own karma. The monastic community as a group could not change his past karma, but as a community who believed in free will and individual effort it was possible for them to channel the king in a positive direction: their rehabilitation strategy was to identify that positive dimension, a sphere of potential growth and creativity. However, the unforeseen consequence of that strategy was a "gross calculation" of the victims of war as "only one and a half human beings" and "unbelievers and men of evil life".
Nevertheless, this reductionistic explanation is problematic for Theravada Buddhist teachings and traditions. Justifying that killing Tamils during the war is not a papa (i.e. sin, evil) is a grave mistake even if it was used in the Mahavamsa as a means to an end. Such violations of the tolerant sensibilities found within post canonical Pali Chronicles cannot be justified since Buddhist scriptures do not maintain that the severity of one's negative acts varies depending on one's caste, race or ethnic group.
The complexity of the way in which this single, controversial myth is interpreted, perpetuated and received both as an inspiration and justification is well illustrated by a comment made in Ananda Wickremeratne's recent work Buddhism and Ethnicity in Sri Lanka. Wickremeratne comments on the way a monastic member sees this pervasive myth and explains it as a historical document of self righteousness:
According to another monk, it was King Dutthagamani who best
exemplified the idea of self imposed limits in the exercise of
violence. The king gathered his forces to wage war against an enemy
who had invaded the land, and threatened the secular order of things
on which the very existence of Buddhism depended ... "He prevails
over the Tamil invaders and kills their leader, Elara, in single
combat. He honours the fallen foe and immediately stops
his campaign, as he had achieved its purpose, waging a purely
defensive war. He does not cross over to India to chastize the
Tamils and refrains from wrecking vengeance on Tamils who were
living in Sri Lanka, side by side with Sinhalese as its
It seems that the myth of Dutthagamani and Elara is reinterpreted not only by Sinhala communities in Sri Lanka but also by Tamil communities with different emphases. Tamil communities seem to have appropriated this myth in their own way by highlighting the role of the Dravidian King Elara for their own nationalistic ends. (9) These nationalist readings demonstrate the pervasive power of the myth in Sri Lankan society, whether Sinhala or Tamil.
Cases against violence
The overwhelming consensus among the scholars of Buddhism is that Buddhism is against violence. This scholarly consensus is neither a confessional view nor an exaggeration of the real situation. The pacifist image of Buddhist teachings and historical practices of non violent actions in Buddhist communities are very much supported by and grounded on Pali canonical scriptures.
Presenting an emic (emic = an attempt to understand the viewpoint of the people themselves, as opposed to etic which is the viewpoint of the observer) view of the pacifist image of Buddhism, Walpola Rahula, the renowned Buddhist scholar monk of Sri Lanka, articulated well the Buddhist non violent perspective in one of his early popular writings:
This spirit of tolerance and understanding has been from the
beginning one of the most cherished ideals of Buddhist culture and
civilization. That is why there is not a single example of
persecution or the shedding of a drop of blood in converting people
to Buddhism, or in its propagation during its long history of 2500
years. It spread peacefully all over the continent of Asia, having
more than 500 million adherents today. Violence in any form, under
any pretext whatsoever, is absolutely against the teachings of the
Thus Rahula clearly reiterated that violence has no place within Buddhist teachings or cultural practices in Buddhist communities. He highlighted that in the expansion of Buddhism from India to Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, China, Korea, Japan, Tibet and Central Asia, Buddhist monks and nuns embraced the principles of "tolerance" towards pre Buddhist religious practices and beliefs while injecting intellectual and spiritual resources to enrich and nourish whatever culture, civilization or ethnic group they encountered.
Buddhist teachings maintain that under any circumstance, whether political, religious, cultural or ethnic, violence cannot be accepted or advocated to solve disputes between nations. All Buddhist traditions unanimously agree that war cannot be the solution to disputes and conflicts either. Even to achieve a religious goal, violence cannot be used and justified. A Buddhist cannot imagine a principle of "just war". How can a "war" be a "just" one? How can the slaughter of human beings be justified as "morally right"? As Premasiri has convincingly asserted by examining the early Buddhist standpoint, even in the case of solving social conflicts such as war Buddhism "does not advocate violence under any circumstance". (11) When "insider" perspectives are examined across Buddhist cultures and combined with doctrinal understandings, one can comprehend the Buddhist abhorrence of violence and desire to seek creative strategies for a non violent path in overcoming violence.
Buddhist commitment to the teaching of loving kindness and compassion in a violent world
Several narratives in the Pali Canon illustrate that Buddha's disciples adhered to the Buddha's teaching of loving kindness. The story of Venerable Punna, (12) for example, relates that he desired to live in a remote province called Sunaparanta which was notorious for cruelty and violence. When the Buddha asked Punna how he would respond if the residents there reviled, abused and assaulted him, he replied that he would not show anger and ill will towards them:
"Punna, the people of Sunaparanta are fierce ... If the people of Sunaparanta revile ..., how will it be for you there, Punna?" "If the people of Sunaparanta revile and abuse me ... I will say, 'Goodly indeed are these people of Sunaparanta ... in that they do not strike me a blow with their hands ... If the people of Sunaparanta deprive me of life with a sharp knife ... I will say, 'There are disciples ... disgusted by the body ... look about for a knife ... I have come upon this very knife without having looked about for it.'" (13)
This narrative alone clearly demonstrates the tolerant attitude towards violence of an early disciple of the Buddha. What attracts one most is Punna's deep commitment to non violence and his practice of patience even if he risks losing his own life.
The Buddhist attitude towards violence stands out as an extreme non violent position: a path leading to total abstention from engaging in violent activities. Even in cases of extreme aggression and violence, Buddhism seems to advocate moral restraint and kindness towards those who commit crimes. This is because of the belief that only action based on loving kindness (metta) will in the long run generate a stable and peaceful environment.
Several canonical and non canonical sources elaborate the appreciation of a nonviolent path. One of the Jataka narratives, for instance, illustrates the Buddhist standpoint towards violence and non violence. It discusses the policies of two kings and their strategies in overcoming violence and other social problems. One king has a reactionary approach in which "he meets force with force, mildness with mildness, he wins over the good with good and conquers the evil with evil". The other king has a completely different strategy of a pacifist nature. In responding to social conflicts and other problems, rather than repeating violent actions he "conquers wrath with kindness, evil with good, greed with charity and falsehood with truth". His state policy seems to be based on the principles proposed in the following Dhamampada verse 223:
Hatred should be conquered by non hatred. Unrighteousness should be
conquered by righteousness. Miserliness should be conquered by
generosity. A person who speaks untruth should be conquered by
This latter king's approach represents a Buddhist approach and a Buddhist solution to overcoming unhealthy social problems; its strength is love, kindness, charity, truth and forbearance. It is a virtuous approach, overcoming violence through a path of non violence. Because of the healthy aspect of the approach, the state policy of the latter king is considered superior to that of the former. This appreciation is based on the fundamental conviction that only a non violent path will generate a long lasting solution to any violent situation.
During his life time, the Buddha himself faced both verbal and physical violence. As the Pali Canon records, some had verbally abused him; others, like his cousin Devadatta, had even physically abused the Buddha, attempting to kill him. This is not the whole story of the Buddha's encounter with violence during his teaching career. In his own life, there were a few rare cases in which he himself had to intervene, for instance when some of his relatives waged war against each other over a petty dispute about water. After considerable deliberation, the Buddha himself once intervened in the war between the Sakyas and Koliyas over a dispute concerning the use of water taken from River Rohini. In that context, the Buddha pointed out that human life is worthier than what they were fighting for. It was the Buddha's fundamental conviction that human life is intrinsically more valuable than any other material or ideological thing. From the textual sources of the Pali Canon, it is clear that an appropriate method of conflict resolution is possible only through the reconciliation of the parties involved.
According to Buddhist teachings, a viable solution to conflict is less likely through the use of violent means. This is because of the belief in Buddhist doctrine that violence breeds hatred. Thus victory achieved through violence is not a permanent solution to any conflict. As the Samyutta Nikaya puts it, "Victory arouses enmity and the defeated live in sorrow." (14) By causing pain to others, one cannot achieve happiness: one always has to think how one's actions affect others. The Dhammapada verse 131 asserts that one's own happiness comes with the happiness of others:
Whoever, seeking one's own happiness, harms with a rod other
pleasure loving beings, experiences no happiness hereafter.
The most outstanding and famous Buddhist pacifist attitude is found in the Dhammapada verse 5: "Hatred is never ceased by hatred in this world." From a Buddhist point of view, reconciliatory methods of conflict resolution are more effective than coercive methods. As Buddhists, we are more encouraged to seek peaceful solutions to any conflict by abandoning force, intimidation and threats. In the short run, those who are involved in violent activities in the hope of liberating the masses may think that violent means can be very effective. However, in the long run, only a peaceful solution will bring harmony to society at large.
This pacifist standpoint of the Dhammapada was elaborated and extended in the 13th century Sinhala prose text, Dharmasena Thera's Saddharmaratnavaliya ("The Jewel Garland of the Good Doctrine"). Since this late medieval text is useful in understanding the Sinhala world view, let us look at the Saddharmaratnavaliya's positions towards hatred and its reaffirmation of the power of loving kindness and compassion. The narrative of the Demonness Kali illustrates the Theravada attitude towards violence, and maintains the early Buddhist pacifist doctrine without recommending violence and completely ignoring the controversial position of the Pali Chronicles. The Saddharmaratnavaliya states that hatred can be overcome only with compassion. This important narrative begins with a cliche:
As a bush fire burning out of control stops only when it reaches
a vast body of water, so the rage of one who vows vengeance cannot
be quelled except by the waters of compassion. (15)
Thus from a Buddhist point of view, anger and violence have to be met with the opposite, compassion. By meeting anger with anger, one adds fuel to the fire. This crucial message is clearly expressed to a Buddhist audience in very simple language. Its moral position is: "Vengeance is an extremely vile sin. Therefore, give it up." (16) Following the canonical standpoint, it also reiterates that one cannot overcome violence through violence:
When your body is filthy with spit ... you cannot clean it with that
same spit ... So when you abuse those who abuse and revile you, or
kill or beat up those murderers who beat you ... it is like adding
fuel to fire; enmity on both sides never ceases ... hatred that
burns on the fuel of justifications must be quenched with the water
of compassion, not fed with the firewood of reasons and causes.
Compassion is fundamentally right, free of malice, and is the source
for all good actions. Good, founded on compassion, destroys evil
and puts out the fire of enmity. (17)
This single narrative in the Saddharmaratnavaliya clearly states the Buddhist position towards violence. Violence, no matter in what form it is manifested, has to be met with non violent measures. Solutions to conflict should be found only through non violent means. Violence cannot solve problems. Only non violence brings peace.
Through a close examination of three textual resources, we can see that a Buddhist cannot justify violence under any circumstance. Examining a pervasive myth used for violence, we perceive that the position of the Pali Chronicles, the Mahavamsa, is rather contradictory to the fundamental Buddhist teachings of the Pali Canon. In addition, with an examination of terminology related to "violence" in the Sinhala language, it is clear that the corresponding terms used in Sinhala to communicate the multiple dimensions of violence are rather ambiguous and convoluted. A Buddhist cannot justify violence. The challenge for a modern Buddhist is to meditate on the Saddharmaratnavaliya's message that "the rage of one who vows vengeance cannot be quelled except by the waters of compassion".
(1) May M. Ebihara, Carol A. Mortland and Judy Ledgerwood eds, Cambodian Culture Since 1975: Home land and Exile, Ithaca NY, Cornell UP, 1994, p.2.
(2) In this case, I will qualify "force" as "harmless". I do not mean the use of abusive mental, verbal or physical pressures but instead creating a context in which the child becomes aware of the gravity of his or her own actions. The purpose of the use of force is to create an "awakened" state of mind.
(3) The Dhammapada (v. 158) reminds us that a wise person who advises others, having first established one self in the proper practice, will not lose dignity.
(4) See Christopher Key Chapple, Nonviolence to Animals, Earth, and Self in Asian Traditions (Albany NY, State Univ. of New York Press, 1993, p.320) for historical developments of these notions.
(5) Pages 363, 49, 828. These corresponding English equivalents are my translations of the Sinhala originals in the English Sinhalese Dictionary.
(6) Steven Kemper, The Presence of the Past: Chronicles, Politics, and Culture in Sinhala Life, Ithaca NY, Cornell UP, 1991, p. 1.
(7) Schmithausen has pointed out that it is possible that this adjustment of precepts for violence could have been influenced by certain Mahayana thoughts developed two centuries, earlier, where the transgression of the precepts including the killing of living beings is allowed in certain exceptional circumstances (see Lambert Schmithausen, "Aspects of the Buddhist Attitude towards War", in Violence Defined: Violence, Non violence and the Rationalization of Violence in South Asian Cultural History, Jan E.M. Houben and Karel R. van Kooij eds, Leiden, Brill, 1999, pp.57 58).
(8) Ananda Wickremeratne, Buddhism and Ethnicity in Sri Lanka: A Historical Analysis, Delhi, Vikas, 1995, p.294.
(9) When I delivered an early version of this paper at the St Petersburg consultation, Wesley Ariarajah pointed out that Tamil narration of this myth highlights that it was King Elatra who proposed a dual battle, as opposed to King Dutthagamani, who is credited with that suggestion as recorded in the Mahavamsa. These diverse nationalistic readings of this pervasive myth by Sinhalese and Tamils need detailed future investigation.
(10) Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, Bedford/London, Gordon Fraser, 1959, p.5.
(11) P.D. Premasiri, "Treatment of Minorities in the Buddhist Doctrine", Ethnic Studies Report, 3, 1985, 2, p.65.
(12) The Middle Length Sayings (trans. I.B. Horner, London, PTS, 1959), IIII.319 22.
(13) Ibid., pp.320 21.
(14) Samyutta Nikaya I.83.
(15) Dharmasena Thera, Jewels of the Doctrine: Stories of the Saddharma Ratnavaliya, transl. Ranjini Obeyesekere, Albany NY, State Univ. of New York, 1991, p.98.
(16) Ibid., p.105.
(17) Ibid., p.103.
* Mahinda Deegalle is a Buddhist monk from Sri Lanka and lecturer in the study of religions at Bath Spa University College, United Kingdom.
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