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Thread: Buddhism and Violence

  1. #1
    Forums Member PhillyG's Avatar
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    Buddhism and Violence

    Hello dear forum members,

    yesterdays live chat inspired me to write about a controversial topic and “pep up” the discussion in forum a little bit.

    What is the relationship between Buddhism and violence or harm, both in the scriptures and in religious practice?

    In the history of Buddhist countries violence was always present. In many cases the warrior cast/class of the society was explicitly Buddhist, such as the warrior monks in China (Shaolin) or the Samurai in medieval Japan. Among religious study scholars seems to exist a general dispute between two positions:

    1. Original Buddhism or new “Buddhist root” movements are seen as inherently peaceful, but change trough it’s institutionalization and adaption two the necessities of the real world (e.g. a defence war). Furthermore this position has a strong focus on religious texts.

    2. In Buddhism are seen violent and harmful tendencies, both in scripture as in practice. None the less the focus of this side of the argument lies more on the religious practice. The actions of laypeople and authorities are valued higher that the scriptures.

    For both positions I found good examples. I will comprehend the first position here, because my source is a German paper of Prof. Lambert Schmidthausen.
    See: https://www.tibet.de/fileadmin/migra...uddhgewalt.pdf

    For the second, simply read this interview with religious scholar Michael Jerryson.
    See: https://www.lionsroar.com/buddhism-violence/

    What do you think about the topic in general and about the two positions? Jerryson seems to be quite provocative.

    It strikes me that in other world religions, especially Islam, a similar discussion and similar arguments take place. But no back to the first position:

    Schmidthausen narrows his focus on big violent acts like killing, stealing and raping of other sentient beings. He argues that originally they were forbidden by the first, second and fourth precepts with no exception:

    This suttas [ Saþyutta IV 308 ff.] state explicitly that the precept not to kill is valid also in wartime. No difference between offensive and defensive war is made. According to a later tractate, the Abhidharma-koœa (240,19; 243,4 ff.), not only killing in wartime but also killing in self defence, killing to protect the innocence, participating indirectly in war either by free will or by force is a validation of the precept. (8) (my own translation)
    In Buddhist “mythology” this view was shared by the clan of Siddharta, the Sakyas, which led themselves rather been slaughtered than harming the precepts in a defensive war. According to Schmidthausen the strict view is moderated a little bit with respect to the king, the political leader. In the Pali Canon the Buddha doesn’t give war advise for king Ajåtvatru. He just remains silent about it.

    With Buddhism becoming a larger religion rather than an ascetic movement this strict view was played down. I will just list the justifications Schmidthausen mentions, because some of them are really interesting:

    1. The threat of extreme violence is justified for the cakravartin, the ideal world ruler (Weltenherrscher), because under his rule the new world order will be peaceful and in accordance with Buddhist ethics. The showoff of violence (e.g. his big military force) is only valid if the other rulers submit to him by free will.

    2. Non-Buddhist entities, demons are allowed to use violence to defend innocent buddhists

    3. A defence war or defence action is justified because it fights off evil. The other hostile party is seen as the personification of Mara and a direct threat too the well-beeing of other.

    4. Violence actions are allowed, killing included, if they are acted out in a sense of compassion for the other violent party. If I kill a terrorist in the run I’m only allowed to do it, because I want to prevent him of loading bad kamma or suffering on his shoulders. If I hadn’t done anything he would be in very bad state.

    5. An arhat or other enlightend persons can take on the bad kamma, which results off his violent actions, if he prevents in the long run more suffering. By killing or harming him he gives the offender the possibility to improve his situation in a new life/other realm. His actions are also motivitaded by compassion for the offender. Schmidhausen gives to examples, where this justification was used to cause massive violence and war. First Lama Zhang Tshal-pa (12. Jh.), second Asahara in Japan.

    6. To kill an unbeliever or wrong-believer is less harmful as killing an animal. Thus in extreme situations it’s justified.

    7. Killing in wartime is justified if you compensate your actions afterwards, e.g. by financing a pagoda

    8. In the Kålacakra-tantra, Buddhism enters an apocalyptic time period. The killing of beeings, who threaten the Dharma is explicitly justified. The rescue of the Dharma is more important than the precepts.

    Schmidthausen concludes:

    […] [I] […] don’t want to give the impression that the […] presented lines of thought represent an authentic position of the Buddhism. I rather hope to show that they stand in contrast with the original Buddhist position about violence and warfare. (11) (my own translation)
    Last edited by PhillyG; 04 Jul 21 at 09:44.

  2. #2
    Global Moderator KathyLauren's Avatar
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    An interesting topic, for sure!

    I see that there are two ways of dealing with moral conduct: rule-based or principle-based. All moral guides or codes tend towards one or the other of those bases.

    I like to think of Buddhist morality as being principle-based. Perhaps this is more prevalent in the Mahayana - I don't know. I see it as being based on the principle of reducing suffering. We are asked to do actions that reduce suffering and to refrain from actions that increase suffering. This requires knowledge that may be unavailable (i.e. what are the possible consequences of my action?) and fine judgment (which action minimizes suffering?).

    People tend to be lazy, and unwilling or unable to access the necessary knowledge or exercise the necessary judgment in order to be guided by principle. As a result, they gravitate to a rule-based morality. Following rules requires little knowledge or judgment, just a basic understanding of the rule. The reasons for the rules are often lost.

    So, to kill or not to kill? That is the question.

    In most rule-based systems, the answer is, do not kill. Buddhism is no exception: we have the first precept. And, as rules go, it is a good one. In most cases, this will cover the right course of action. Yet almost everyone recognizes the need for exceptions. They will make up unwritten sub-rules coding the exceptions that they believe are warranted. Many Christians will tell you that "Thou shalt not kill" does not apply to governments, for example, thus permitting war and capital punishment. The list of exceptions could get very long. There is seldom agreement on what they are. Nor is there agreement on the moral basis for the exceptions. It is a problem that rule-based systems have not yet solved.

    A system based on principles is certainly simpler to encode. Take the action that minimizes suffering. The problem is obvious: it may require some superhuman knowledge, and always involves some difficult judgment. Which action produces less suffering: the extermination of 6 million Jews, or the wartime death of 50 million soldiers and civilians? Tough one! Is it any wonder that we look for rules?

    Being governed by principles has the danger of a certain arrogance: "I know what is best for you better than you do." That may actually be true or it may not. How can the average person, either the actors themselves or bystanders, know?

    I like how (Mahayana?) Buddhism balances the two systems. We have our precepts, which cover most situations, but we also are taught the principles behind the rules, to aid our judgment of exceptions. We are taught that there are no easy answers, and that we will bear consequences for whatever course of action we decide upon and for the intention behind the action. And we are taught mental discipline to help refine our judgment.

    Om mani padme hum
    Kathy

  3. #3
    I'm reminded of Sutta MN21 The Simile of the Saw:



    Even if low-down bandits were to sever you limb from limb, anyone who had a malevolent thought on that account would not be following my instructions. If that happens, you should train like this: ‘Our minds will remain unaffected. We will blurt out no bad words. We will remain full of compassion, with a heart of love and no secret hate. We will meditate spreading a heart of love to that person. And with them as a basis, we will meditate spreading a heart full of love to everyone in the world—abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will.’ That’s how you should train.

    https://suttacentral.net/mn21/en/sujato

    and here's an excerpt from "Chapter 8 An Awakened Response to Violence" in Ajahn Sumedho's book : "The Wheel of Truth":


    The Buddha’s teaching points to the realization of the pure mind beyond cultural or religious conditioning. The simple act of living in awakened awareness is very powerful and worthy of great respect. And this power is universal. By learning to let go of our conditioned reactions to violence and hatred, all of us can learn to respond with the natural purity of the mind.

    Awakening our minds allows us to get beyond the conventions of race, religion or culture and our tendencies to blame and react with violence, so that the power of love and compassion can arise unimpeded and spread. It’s up to us to realize this, to try it out, to begin to awaken ourselves to this realization.

    https://amaravati.org/dhamma-books/a...heel-of-truth/




  4. #4
    Moderator justusryans's Avatar
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    I agree with Kathy on this one. It can be a sticky subject when it comes to principle based versus rule based.

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    What is the relationship between the Dhamma and violence or harm, both in the scriptures and in religious practice?

    Actually, there is none. What there is, is the lack of understanding of the purpose of the teachings.

    The Buddha said it best.

    "This Dhamma that I have attained is deep, hard to see, hard to realize, peaceful, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise. But this generation delights in attachment, is excited by attachment, enjoys attachment. For a generation delighting in attachment, excited by attachment, enjoying attachment, this/that conditionality and dependent co-arising are hard to see. This state, too, is hard to see: the resolution of all fabrications, the relinquishment of all acquisitions, the ending of craving; dispassion; cessation; Unbinding. And if I were to teach the Dhamma and if others would not understand me, that would be tiresome for me, troublesome for me."

    Ayacana Sutta: The Request

  6. #6
    Global Moderator Esho's Avatar
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    It's quite simple. It is about oneself and how and what we practice in our everyday life. If you follow the teachings of Buddha as the foundation of your day to day practice then there is no room for violence; of any sort.

    Around 5 years ago I set for myself a quest... to reach the deepest peace of mind possible; to quench hate, delusion and craving. I took Zazen as my guide in life and I support this fundamental practice with what the Buddha taught. No room for violence. No room for stichy subjects. All is cristal clear. Meditate. Develop a peaceful mind. Train your mind in compassion, peace, equanimity and there will be no questions to discuss or to be solved.


  7. #7
    Global Moderator Esho's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Pegembara View Post
    What there is, is the lack of understanding of the purpose of the teachings.
    That's it!


  8. #8
    Forums Member PhillyG's Avatar
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    Thanks for the input folks. I answer by trying to play the devil's advocate for Jerrysons position:

    He makes a crucial definition of religion. For him religion is more than the scriptures and the theory. Rites, practices and religious authority such as the teacher are a constitutive part of it. I think because of this definition his arguments go beyond Kathy's description of the problem. The discussion about principle and rule morality as it's sticky problems can also be held and guide a bunch of atheists or moral philosophers. But they didn't participate actively or indirectly in the slaughter of people because of the be outcome of their discussion.

    Religious theory and practice seems to be different in that manner. In Zen Buddhism for instance the practice of daily routine (Samu, cleaning, arranging flowers) is used as a meditative practice. But also sword fight and bow shooting are traditional forms of practice. During wartime this daily practice was widened even to killing. And frankly from a military perspective it makes sense: Someone who is practicing Zazen and Samu is not attached to killing. That makes him much more precise and effective. Ordinary soldiers mostly avoid killing because it's not a pleasant experience. Also the aftermath of it (e.g. PTSD) are reduced.

    Furthermore Jerryson makes the distinction between emic and etic perspective, outside and inside view. Making a case for Buddhism because the Suttas prohibit killing or the principal behind them does, is arguing from the inside perspective.
    In philosophy of Argumentation you also call this a "not a real Scotsman" argument. People who proclaim violence in the name of X are not true members of X, haven't understand X properly or practice X wrong. But this type of argument is problematic. Who decides what X really consists in? Is person A really qualified to disqualify person B as a member of X? And finally by saying "A is not a true member of X" you can justify almost every ideology.

    These point illustrates why it's useful to look at the outside perspective as well.

    So in conclusion Jerryson has some sound but controversial arguments.

  9. #9
    Another article:

    "Why are we suprised when Buddhists are violent":

    https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/05/o...tolerance.html


    .... and also for some consideration: "Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism:


    https://jorvikpress.com/books/sex-an...etan-buddhism/


    .

  10. #10
    Global Moderator Esho's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Aloka View Post
    Another article:

    "Why are we suprised when Buddhists are violent":

    https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/05/o...tolerance.html


    .... and also for some consideration: "Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism:


    https://jorvikpress.com/books/sex-an...etan-buddhism/


    .
    Sorry Aloka but I couldn't read the first article. The web site says that I reach the limit of free articles and asks me to subscribe to the magazine.


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