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Readings in Nonviolence

Readings in Nonviolence' features extracts from our favourite books, pamphlets, articles or other material on nonviolence and related areas, or reviews of important works in the field (suggestions and contributions welcome)

Buddhism is the world religion or belief system perhaps most identified with nonviolence. We try periodically to have features on nonviolence and different beliefs but have not to date carried anything on Buddhism and nonviolence. The article below by Lisa Patten redresses that omission, and does so in a very clear manner.
We would welcome other contributions on religion and nonviolence, or secularism and humanism and nonviolence. We have previously carried thoughts on Christianity and nonviolence in this feature (check out the ‘Readings’ index ) and on the Jain approach to understanding others The website also has a workshop on nonviolence in Christian belief. A statement on INNATE’s approach to religious and secular beliefs and general exploration.

Buddhism and Nonviolence

By Lisa Patten

The first precept, or ethical guideline, in Buddhism is set out as “Panatipata Veramani Sikkhapadam Samadiyami” [1] which can be translated as “I undertake to abstain from taking life”. The principle of nonviolence, in its negative form, is thus clearly and unambiguously stated. This principle is to be widely found in the Buddhist scriptures, for example:

All living beings are terrified of punishment; all fear death. Making comparison of others with oneself, one should neither kill nor cause to kill.

All living beings are terrified of punishment; to all, life is dear. Making comparison of others with oneself, one should neither kill nor cause to kill. [2]

These lines are verses from the Dhammapada, a collection of the sayings of the Buddha, and set out clearly the ‘Golden Rule’ in Buddhism, namely that you should not do to others, what you would not want them to do to you. It has been stated that “Killing is tantamount to a complete rejection of the Golden Rule, and without the Golden Rule there can be no human society, no culture, and no spiritual life.” [3] However the Golden Rule as expressed here, however, simply states the principle in its negative form; its positive form calls for the cultivation of Metta or loving-kindness: “with deeds of loving-kindness I purify my body”. This first precept, particularly, in its positive form, sets the context from which all the other precepts flow and clearly extends the precept far beyond mere abstention from killing. Perhaps its most well-known expression is in the Karaniya Metta Sutta, the Buddha’s words on loving-kindness, which encourage us to develop an unlimited heart of friendliness towards all living beings. [4]

One application of the principle of nonviolence in Buddhism is vegetarianism. While the Buddha did not insist on vegetarianism – instead regarding it preferable that his followers should practice not being particular about what they eat – he did make it clear that they should not eat meat from animals that were killed for their benefit. Vegetarianism however, naturally flows from the principle of compassion or solidarity with all forms of life which is at the core of Buddhist practice. Likewise abortion is traditionally viewed as a breach of the ethical precept of nonviolence – although this is a much debated topic among modern Buddhists with no clear consensus. [5]

The precepts do not hold an absolute fixed position, but call on us to apply them appropriately in the situation we find ourselves, always bearing in mind that we are trying to cause as little harm to living beings as possible: “No one is perfectly non-violent; it is always a matter of degree. But we should reverence life as much as possible.” [6] The world we live in is complex and it is impossible to avoid causing any harm but what at all times should be borne in mind is our intention when we act: in each situation we bring to mind our compassion, mindfulness and wisdom and try to act non-violently. [7]

The principle of nonviolence extends also in the arena of livelihood, with certain livelihoods being prohibited – those such as trading in living beings (either slavery or working as a butcher or in a slaughterhouse), or making or trading in weapons. Taking the precept to its logical conclusion then, violence of all kinds must be resisted and peace pursued – but pursued in a non-violent manner: “Violence of any kind would be totally out of place on a march, or at a demonstration, or in connection with any other such expression of public opinion, the purpose of which was, ultimately, the achievement of world peace.” [8]

Another way of thinking about the first precept is in terms of the trying to operate more in terms of the ‘love mode’, as opposed to the ‘power mode’. The power mode uses force, even violence, and negates the life of other beings. It includes fraud, oppression, exploitation, blackmail and intimidation. The love mode is the opposite – it is about cherishing other beings, being friendly and open, encouraging, appreciating and sympathising. Sangharakshita, founder of the Triratna Buddhist Community, argues that while sometimes the power mode is unavoidable, it should always be subordinate to the love mode – for example, when a mother, out of love, uses force to restrain her child from hurting herself. [9]

If we look at an example from the time of the Buddha we can see the operation of the precept of nonviolence at a societal level. Five years after the Buddha gained Enlightenment he went back to visit the clan into which he was born, the S’akyans (who lived just inside the boundary of Nepal). War had been escalating with a neighbouring clan, the Koliyans (to whom the Buddha was also related via his mother’s family). The cause of the dispute was around access to water and, due to a lack of compromise on either side, it was on the verge of breaking into outright war. He asked both sides: “How much is water worth?” and was told “very little”. Then he asked “how much are warriors worth?” and was informed “Warriors are beyond price”. The Buddha replied, “It is not fitting that because of a little water you should destroy warriors who are beyond price.”

By means of communication, and the fact he was held in respect by both sides, he was able to intercede and prevent them from destroying each other. Incidentally, some years later, the paternal relations of the Buddha, having been so completely converted to nonviolence following this incident, were completely massacred when they were attacked by the King of Kosalaas - they chose not to take up arms to defend themselves. They held that it was not fitting that the relations of the Buddha should take life. [10] This demonstrates how strongly they valued the principle of nonviolence.

Sangharakshita distinguishes the incident of the conflict between the S’akyans and the Koliyans from modern times by arguing that with nuclear weapons it is impossible for world peace because of the potential scale of destruction such weapons can cause. “Peace has become a seamless garment, and the world has either to wear the whole garment or go naked to destruction. There can no longer be any question of a scrap of peace covering one part of the world’s nakedness and not another.” [11]

Accordingly, he argues, to work for world peace means to work for the abolition of such weapons.
Of course countries where Buddhism is the dominant religion have not always lived up to this precept. There is the example of Japan, where the Buddhist establishment supported the war effort in World War Two, and the current example of where monks in Burma/Myanmar are responsible for the persecution and genocide of Muslims. This behaviour is completely opposed to the teaching of the Buddha. [12] David Loy, a contemporary Buddhist commentator, argues in all cases where Buddhism has taken a belligerent stance is where Buddhism has become mixed up in nationalism: “Such war-mongering startles us because it so obviously contradicts Buddhist principles – not only incompatible with its emphasis on not harming, but also inconsistent with a worldview that emphasises wisdom over power.” [13] Similarly, Sangharakshita makes the same case: that peace and nationalism are incompatible, “so long as the governments and peoples of sovereign nation-states insist on regarding their separate, sometimes mutually exclusive, interests as paramount and to be pursued at all costs.”[14]

To conclude, the great principle in Buddhism is that we should have solidarity with all forms of life. Implicit in this is that we cannot possibly avoid all harm but we can work on becoming more sensitive to other forms of life by practicing mindfulness and Metta (loving-kindness) – this in turn will enable us to behave more in line with the principle of nonviolence. As it is stated in the Dhammapada:

Not by hatred are hatreds ever pacified here (in the world). They are pacified by love. This is the eternal law.

Lisa Patten was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order in 2016 and given the Pali name Sadayasihi (“she who is a lioness of compassion”). She has been practicing Buddhist meditation since 2007 and works part-time in Afri as a Programme Manager. To find out more about the Triratna Buddhist Order.

[1] This is Pali – an ancient Indian language in which much of the oldest Buddhist scriptures are to be found.
[2] Dhammapada: The Way of Truth, translated by Sangharakshita, (Windhorse Publications: Cambridge, 2001), p. 51.
[3] The Ten Pillars of Buddhism, Sangharakshita.
[4] The Karaniya Metta Sutta
[5] For a nuanced consideration of abortion see Vishvapani’s article.
[6] The Essential Sangharakshita, p. 593.
[7] Akuppa, Touching the Earth, p. 47.
[8] Sangharakshita, ‘Lecture 162: Buddhism, World Peace and Nuclear War’.
[9]The Ten Pillars of Buddhism, Sangharakshita.
[10] Sangharakshita, ‘Lecture 162: Buddhism, World Peace and Nuclear War’.
[11] Ibid.
[12] See the following statement on Buddhist led violence in Burma/Myanmar in 2017:
[13] Loy, Money, Sex, War, Karma, p. 128.
[14] Sangharakshita, ‘Lecture 162: Buddhism, World Peace and Nuclear War’. Note: he distinguishes patriotism from nationalism here.

Further Reading:

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