Buddhism and Violence

by Bernard Faure, Professor of Religious Studies at Stanford University; An International Review of Culture & Society, Issue No. 9, Spring 2002

Is Buddhism pacifist? One would think so, to hear the Declarations of the Dalai Lama and those who claim there has never been “Buddhist war.” So has Zen Buddhism’s “drift” to militarism been only an aberration, after the timeless message of Gautama, the warrior-prince who, once he became the Buddha, preached nonviolence? We are not simply faced here with a gap between theory and practice. Even though Buddhism has no concept of a “holy war,” it doesn’t mean its doctrine does not at times legitimize the recourse to violence and the just war.

In whatever countries Buddhism has became official ideology—whether Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia or Tantric Buddhism in Tibet or East Asia—war has often been zealously waged. At present, the Buddhists of Sri Lanka, for example, have openly taken up the struggle against the Tamil freedom fighters. What is true of Japanese Zen holds equally for other forms of Buddhism. Long before its lyrical metaphysical flights exerted their charm, Buddhism took hold first and foremost as a tool for protecting States.

The Buddha’s sermons seem, however, to condemn all violence, toward oneself and toward others. Suicide, it is true, is not formally forbidden. And Buddhism remains ambivalent toward the interiorized form of violence that is asceticism. Well-ordered violence begins with oneself. Chinese monks, to show their determination, would sometimes mutilate themselves—cutting off or burning one or more of their fingers. In extreme cases self-denial could extend to self-immolation by fire. We recall the horrific image of the Vietnamese monk who, at the start of the U.S. military intervention in his country, chose this death as a sign of protest.

Murder, on the other hand, is clearly condemned. As the Buddha states in the Brahma Net Sutra: “If a child of Buddha himself kills, or goads someone else to kill, or provides with or suggests means for killing, or praises the act of killing or, on seeing someone commit the act, expresses approval for what that person has done, or kills by way of incantations, or is the cause, occasion, means, or instrument of the act of inducing a death, he will be shut out of the community.”

Buddhist compassion extends to all beings. By the principle of karmic transmigration, animals are perceived as future Buddhas or past humans, linked to us perhaps by ancient bonds of kinship, so that it seems natural to extend our concern to them. Furthermore, Indian Buddhism distinguished itself from Brahmanism by its rejection of animal sacrifice—whence its vegetarianism. Yet it does not appear that the first Buddhists were strict vegetarians, and the Buddha himself, if we are to believe legend, was said to have died from indigestion after eating pork. If vegetarianism and the related concept of nonviolence gradually took hold in India, the credit seems to belong to Jain rather than Buddhist ascetics. In societies such as Tibet and China, in which a meat diet predominated, a less strict clergy sought to eradicate its sins through grand rites that set fish and birds free.

On the iconographic plane, if compassion is well expressed by serene images of meditating Buddhas, the angry gods of Buddhism and Mongolia partake, conversely, in a puzzling symbolic violence: does it mark a return of the repressed, an outlet for real violence, or is it, on the contrary, its mirror-image, indeed, its underlying cause?

Buddhist law often had to bow to reason of State. But in many instances it also provided an ideology for counterforces, inspiring peasant revolts in the name of a millenarianism centered on the coming of the future Maitreya Buddha. In one of these movements, in China, arising at the start of the sixth century c.e., the rebels, using the Buddhist title of “Grand Vehicle” (Mahayana), undertook to rid the world of its “demons”—starting with the era’s Buddhist clergy.

In Japan, on the other hand, Buddhism managed to pave the way for feudal struggles, creating a new type of religious figure, the “warrior monk.” It is only at the end of the sixteenth century, after centuries of internecine struggles, that the great monasteries were subdued by the military government. The ensuing subordination explains in part why, after the Meiji Restoration (1868), Japanese Buddhism proved no force against militarism, and fell into line with “spiritual mobilization.”

Thus, Japanese militarism blended Buddhist doctrine with the imperial sauce, reducing it to its simplest expression, to bend it to official propaganda. The Buddhist theory of selflessness served, for instance, to justify giving one’s life for the Emperor, while the notion of the Two Truths (conventional and ultimate) served to explain the contradiction between the principle of respect for human life and patriotic duty. However, these ideas are not merely belated deviations in the necessary adaptation of Buddhism to Japanese culture. They have a long history.

In fact, reasons for bending the principle of nonviolence were never wanting. There were considerations of a practical nature: when Buddhist Law is threatened, it is necessary to ruthlessly fight the forces of evil. Kill them all, and the Buddha will recognize his own. Murder in this case is piously qualified as “liberation,” since the demon, duly killed out of compassion, will be released from its ignorance and can then be reborn under better auspices. The crucial moment in Tibetan ritual dances comes when the priests stab an effigy personifying the demon forces. This ritual is thought to repeat a monk’s murder of King Glang dar ma (842), a persecutor of Buddhism (as such, clearly “possessed” by Evil). Various other theories use this same casuistry, including the idea that it is just to kill out of charity or compassion, to prevent another person from comitting evil.

Indeed, how can one kill another person, when, according to good Buddhist orthodoxy, all is emptiness? The person who kills with full knowledge of the facts kills no one, since he has realized that all is but illusion, himself as well as the other person. The idea, moreover, is not exclusive to Buddhism, since it can be found in the Hindu scriptures, in the Bhagavad Gita. In China a Zen text similarly states that, if a murderous act is perfectly spontaneous, it is of the same order as a natural disaster, and thus entails no responsibility. One finds this sort of sophism in the writing of Zen apostles like D.T. Suzuki. Here as elsewhere, the recourse to higher truths provides justification for the worst aberrations.

Thus, there have been, and will again be, “Buddhist wars,” and Buddhism’s superiority in this regard is entirely relative. Yet, on the whole, it remains more tolerant than the other great religions and ideologies—which is no small matter, at a moment when the world seems threatened once more by fundamentalisms. In every age, the Buddhist clergy’s will to power has been balanced by the ideal of compassion. But Buddhist doctrine, in order not to remain a dead letter, must take account of the violence inherent in the human heart, in society, and in Buddhism itself.

translated by David Jacobson

Source: A shorter version of this article appeared in Le Monde, October 12, 2001.

An International Review of Culture & Society, Issue No. 9, Spring 2002.

originally published December 6, 2003

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