Buddhist Nonviolence

By Paula Green The Buddha was once asked by a disciple, "Would it be true to say that a part of our training is for the development of love and compassion?" The Buddha replied, "No, it would not be true to say this. It would be true to say that the whole of our training is for the development of love and compassion."

All of Buddhism is founded on non-harming and the development of compassion and loving kindness. Two thousand five hundred years ago the Buddha taught, "Do as much good as possible, avoid harm, and purify your mind." Recently the Dalai Lama responded to a question about basic Buddhist practice, saying, "It is best, if you are able, to help others. This is the main practice."

Thus Buddhism, from its beginning, has had a deep commitment to nonviolence and to caring for others. Buddhism and nonviolence cannot be separated; all of Buddhism is about nonviolence. The fullness of this belief was exemplified by the Dalai tama, who said in his acceptance speech for the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, "I speak not with a feeling of anger or hatred towards those who are responsible for the immense suffering of our people and the destruction of our land, homes, and culture. They too are human beings who struggle to find happiness and deserve our compassion."

For Buddhists, nonviolence is a way of life, born of the fusion of spiritual insight and practical action. Meditation is at the core of Buddhism and from it comes experiential understandings of the nature of suffering and responses to help alleviate suffering and its causes. Buddhism is an engaged and active practice: meditation leading to insight, and insight leading to behavior and action on behalf of the happiness and liberation of all.

One of Buddhism's unique contributions to today's nonviolence movement is its emphasis on the importance of spiritual training to develop the self-knowledge and awareness that creates skillful responses in a violent world. Buddhists understand that to heal self and society are one and the same, that inner and outer work are imperative and interrelated. As one engages in confronting society's violence one must simultaneously acknowledge and tame the violence within the self. Personal and world peace are linked by the thoughts and actions of every human being; in myriad ways we each contribute daily to a violent or a pleasant world.

A further contribution, and again one that is directly experienced in the meditation practice, is the interconnectedness of all life. In meditation, the concept of a strong, separate self-identity becomes more permeable. A vision of interdependence arises, in which everything is connected, mutually influenced, and conditional upon everything else. This deep understanding of the profound reverberations and consequences of every act gives rise to behavior based on an infinite responsibility for nonviolence, as it is seen that any other behavior produces harm to the self as well as to others.

According to Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy, "This law of dependent co-arising is such that every act we make, every word we speak, every thought we think is not only affected by the other elements in the vast web of being in which all things take part, but also has results so far-reaching that we cannot see or imagine them. We simply proceed with the act for its own worth, our sense of responsibility arising from our co-participation in all existence."

The clear and direct Buddhist teachings on the causes of suffering, unhappiness, and violence are of great benefit to all people, whatever their spiritual or political orientation. The Buddha devoted his life to the problems of the human mind. "I teach one thing and one thing only," he said, "suffering and the end of suffering." He identified three root causes of suffering and saw that through meditation and principled conduct the practitioner could develop behaviors to counterbalance each of them.

The three roots are greed, hatred, and delusion; the antidotes for these poisons are generosity, loving kindness, and wisdom. These wholesome and unwholesome conditions of mind exist in all beings, including the Buddha, who noted: "In this fathom-long body, the whole universe is contained."

Greed, the first of the violence causing mindstates, can also be described as desire, selfishness, or clinging. Thai meditation master Buddhadasa believes that this state is a spiritual prison and the core cause of misery in individual and communal life. "The heart of Buddhism is just to uproot or cut off this greed and selfishness; then suffering will be finished. To do so, we must practice, which is to study from inside."

Generosity, letting go, and being open is the remedy for greed and desire. It is a practice that can be cultivated as a nonviolent way of life, as a statement of personally reversing the global trend toward more wanting in the mind, as a way to create daily happiness for self and others.

Hatred and anger are difficult mind states that are at the heart of violence. The Buddha likened anger to a burning coal, which in the process of picking up to throw at another causes burning in one's own hand. In anger, the mind is contracted and tight, so that one experiencing anger is already suffering very deeply.

In the peace movement, righteous indignation and anger are often used to energize, to propel action. Buddhists believe that this tempting reflex to create separations and "us/them" must be avoided, as it is a violence that in the end can only beget resentment and thus more violence. "Anger cannot be overcome with anger," wrote the Dalai Lama, "and world problems cannot be challenged by anger or hatred. They must be faced with compassion, love, and true kindness."

Compassion and loving kindness, the fruits of practice, are the antidotes to anger and hatred. Thich Nhat Hanh believes that, "We are challenged to apply an antidote as soon as anger arises, because of the far-reaching social effects of individual anger." And Sri Lankan monk/activist Dr. Rewata Dhamma writes, "The cultivation of universal compassion by every possible means is essential, a compassion that has immediate, practical, and sustainable results in the alleviation of suffering."

The third and last violence-producing mind state is delusion, or ignorance. This is born and maintained out of an untrained, undisciplined mind that has not been penetrated by its "user," who has not directly experienced interdependence, the consequences of harm and anger, or the roots of alienation and violence within the self. It is the state of mind that most human beings live with: confused, restless, and unhappy.

Through practice in one of the various forms of meditation, insight into the nature of reality can gradually replace ignorance. With devoted practice comes purification, which makes the mind less violent on increasingly subtle levels. Gross harm is avoided, awareness, and self-control is increased, and with time, wisdom develops. Ethical conduct, which is itself a foundation of Buddhism, becomes internalized, so that behavioral choices are made with great care and personal responsibility.

The Buddha was asked by his disciple Ajita, "What is it that smothers the world? What makes the world so hard to see? What would you say pollutes the world and what threatens it most?" The Buddha answered, "It is ignorance which smothers, and it is carelessness, and greed that makes the world invisible. The hunger of desire pollutes the world, and the great source of fear is the pain of suffering."

"In every direction," said Ajita, "the rivers of desire are running. How can we dam them and what will hold them back? What can we use to close the floodgates?" Replied the Buddha, "Any river can be stopped with the dam of mindfulness. I call it the flood stopper. And with wisdom you can close the floodgates."

These are a few of the many Buddhist roots of active nonviolence. Violent and nonviolent behaviors arise according to the conditions of the mind and the society. Purifying and strengthening the mind, cultivating consciousness, acting from awareness, developing abundant compassion, and loving kindness, and understanding the interdependent nature of being and doing in the world, can all contribute to nonviolence within the self and in the global community.

For Buddhists involved in active nonviolence, Buddhism begins but does not end on the meditation cushion. The notion that Buddhism is passive is based on misinformation. As Thai scholar/activist Sulak Sivaraksa writes, "Many people, particularly in the West, think that Buddhism is only for deep meditation and personal transformation, that it has nothing to do with society. This is not true. Particularly in South and Southeast Asia, for many centuries Buddhism has been a great strength for society." In Tibet as well, a unique and highly principled society arose from centuries of devotion to Buddha Dharma.

Buddhist principles and practices can be applied equally to family/community life and national/international movements for social change. The insight, discipline, and wisdom gained from meditation retreats leads to skillful choices of behavior and action. The lotus, the symbol of Buddhism, can grow only when planted deeply in the mud. The fruit of awakening, the personal transformations that gradually occur with years of practice, the tools of understanding and compassion that accrue to the mediator, these are for the benefit of all beings and for the implementation of nonviolent changes in our cultures and institutions. In engaged Buddhism, response to the needs of others comes out of the practice and becomes the practice. One does not wait until personal enlightenment, or even full moral development, is attained before embarking on the path of engaged Buddhism. Rather, one sees the reciprocal nature of practice in the meditation hall and service in the world.

The contemporary era, as we all know, is one of great and interrelated crises. To cope with these challenges, we do well to call forth the teachings of the world's spiritual traditions, such as Buddhism, for they contain the distilled truths of all the centuries of human experience. The Buddha's teachings are as relevant today as they were 2,500 years ago, for they are the essence of what the planet needs most: wisdom, love, and compassion.

Buddhist nonviolence training is currently being used by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship in the United States, and the International Network of Engaged Buddhist in Thailand, to bring such Buddhist principles as mindfulness and compassionate conduct to further the causes of justice and peace. Thus Buddhist activists add their particular expertise to the growing worldwide commitment to nonviolent social change.

Buddhist poet Gary Snyder writes, "Buddhism's traditional harmlessness and avoidance of taking life has nation-shaking implication." May the fruits of these trainings shake the nations from their long slumber and create a world where violence ends and love begins.

Paula Green is the Director of the Karuna Center for Social Change, Leverett, Massachusetts. She is also on the National Council of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Steering Committee of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists.

PDF of this article