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Part 2: Reasons for Buddhism's Attitude Towards Violence

11/03/201417:55(Xem: 1320)
Part 2: Reasons for Buddhism's Attitude Towards Violence
Violence And Disruption In Society:
A Study Of The Early Buddhist Texts

Elizabeth Harris


2. Reasons For Buddhism's Attitude Towards Violence

Before looking more closely at what is said about the roots of violence, it is worth drawing out reasons given in the texts for the avoidance, questioning or non-espousal of violence. Interconnected frameworks emerge:nibbana as the goal of the spiritual life; the demands of metta and karuna (loving kindness and compassion); the need for peace, concord and harmony within society.

Since the ultimate goal of the spiritual path for the Buddhist is nibbana, attitudes towards violence must first be seen in relation to it. Nibbana is the ultimate eradication of dukkha. It is a possible goal within this life and, among other things, involves a complete de-toxification of the mind from greed, hatred and delusion, a revolution in the way the world is perceived, freedom from craving and liberation from the delusion of ego. TheTherigatha or Songs of the Sisters contain some of the most moving testimonies to this reality; they are paeans of joy about liberation:

"Mine is the ecstasy of freedom won As Path merges in Fruit and Fruit in Path. Holding to nought, I in Nibbana live, This five-grouped being have I understood. Cut from its root, all onward growth is stayed, I too am stayed, victor on basis sure Immovable. Rebirth comes never more." [31]

Nibbana and samsara are antithetical. One is the ceasing of the other. In the context of the goal of nibbana, actions, thoughts and words can be evaluated as to whether they build samsara or lead to nibbana: whether they are unskilled (akusala) or skilled (kusala). Indulgence in violence is normally deemed akusala. In other words, it cannot lead to the goal of nibbana. In the Ambalatthika-Rahulovada Sutta, the Buddha says to the Venerable Rahula:

"If you, Rahula, are desirous of doing a deed with the body, you should reflect on the deed with the body, thus: "That deed which I am desirous of doing with the body is a deed of the body that might conduce to the harm of self and that might conduce to the harm of others and that might conduce to the harm of both; this deed of body is unskilled (akusala), its yield is anguish, its result is anguish." [32]

Harm to others is central to what is unskilled. In the Sallekha Sutta advice is given to monks about the cleansing of the mind as the basis of spiritual progress. Foremost among the thoughts which have to be cleansed are those connected with harming and violence; both represent unskilled states which lead downwards:

"Cunda, as every unskilled state leads downwards, as every skilled state leads upwards, even so, Cunda, does non-harming (avihimsa) come to be a higher state for an individual who is harmful, does restraint from onslaught on creatures come to be a higher state for the individual who makes onslaught on creatures." [33]

When the Buddha is in conversation with Bhaddiya, sarambha is added to lobha, dosa and moha (lust, hatred and delusion) as a defilement which flows from them. Sarambha can be translated as "accompanied by violence." As the mind filled with lobha, dosa and moha is led to actions which are akusala, so is the mind filled with the violence which accompanies the triad. All lead to a person's loss:

"Now what think you, Bhaddiya? When freedom from malice (adosa) ... from delusion (amoha) ... from violence (asarambha) that goes with these arises within oneself, does it arise to one's profit or to one's loss?" -- "To one's profit, sir." [34]

The point of the above suttas is that violent action and violent thought, actions which harm and debase others and thoughts which contemplate the same, stand in the way of spiritual growth and the self-conquest which leads to the goal of existence. In this respect, indulging in violence is doing to oneself what an enemy would wish. It is a form of self-harming:

"He who is exceedingly corrupt like a maluva creeper strangling a sal tree does to himself what an enemy would wish." Dhp. v. 162

In contrast, abstaining from violence has personal benefit in the present and in the future. It is part of the training of mind and body which lays the foundation for spiritual progress.

The accusation has been made that the application of the terms kusala and akusala are oriented only towards an individualistic goal, making the motivation for abstention from violence a selfish one. But it can be argued that the distinction between altruism and egoism breaks down for anyone truly following the Noble Eightfold Path. There are also many textual references to the inherent importance of harmony, justice and compassion in society to balance those passages which seem to be solely individualistic. Harmony and justice are recognized as worthwhile in themselves as well as a prerequisite for the spiritual progress of society's members. Hence, in society, violence is to be eschewed because it brings pain to beings with similar feelings to oneself:

"All tremble at violence, Life is dear to all. Comparing others with oneself One should neither kill nor cause others to kill. " Dhp. v. 130

On the level of personal analogy, men and women are to condemn violence. It is an analogy which demands metta (loving kindness) and karuna (compassion) of the human being. [35] They call on a frame of mind which cannot remain insensitive to suffering in others or untouched by the agony produced by violence. Non-violence, therefore, arises through the urge to prevent anguish in others:

"Comparing oneself with others in such terms as "Just as I am so are they, just as they are so am I" (yatha aham tatha ete yatha ete tatha aham), one should neither kill nor cause others to kill. "Snp. v. 705

The Buddha, however, did not credit all people with this level of awareness. He is recorded as saying that shame and fear of blame protect the world, and if there were not these forces, the world would come to confusion and promiscuity. [36] Not all beings rally to the call for compassion on the grounds that others have like feelings to themselves or that harmony in society is necessary. Therefore, some texts invoke the concepts of heaven and hell, rewards and punishments, to control violence. Vivid pictures are drawn of the agonies of hell:

"Brahmin youth, here some woman or man is one who makes onslaught on creatures, is cruel, bloody-handed, intent on injuring and killing, and without mercy to living creatures. Because of that deed, accomplished thus, firmly held thus, he, at breaking up of the body after dying, arises in the sorrowful way, the bad bourn, the Downfall, the Niraya." [37]

"Even so, monks, that anguish and dejection that man experiences while he is being stabbed with three hundred spears, compared with the anguish of Niraya Hell does not count, it does not amount even to an infinitesimal fraction of it, it cannot even be compared to it. Monks, the guardians of Niraya Hell subject him to what is called the fivefold pinion. They drive a red-hot iron stake through each hand and each foot and a red-hot iron stake through his breast. Thereat, he feels feelings that are painful, sharp and severe. But he does not do his time until he makes an end of that evil deed." [38]

Here, self-interest in terms of avoidance of future pain is appealed to as a reason to desist from violence. This emphasis can also be seen in the Petavatthu in which those fallen to the realm of the petas speak to those on the human level about the reasons for their suffering. [39] Falsehood, failing in the duties of wife or husband, stinginess and fraud are some of the actions mentioned. Story No. 32, however, speaks of a deerhunter who explains that he was

"a ruthless man of bloody hands":

"Among harmless creatures, I, with wicked mind, walked about, very ruthless, ever finding delight in slaying others unrestrained," he declares in verse three. His punishment is to be devoured by dogs during the daytime, the hours when he used to be involved in slaughter. He is able to teach the living that the First Precept should be kept and that it applies not only to the killing of human beings but also to animals. The deerhunter, therefore, is held up as an authoritative witness to what happens to violent individuals. His story is useful as a deterrent to socially disruptive elements and is confirmation of the importance Buddhism places on non-violence within the social fabric. The threat of future punishment is used to control potentially violent elements.

Two broad, interconnected areas, therefore, emerge in the reasons for the condemnation of violence within the Early Buddhist texts. Firstly, thoughts of violence and violent action are defilements and must be eradicated ifnibbana is to be reached. In this light, nibbana is the highest ethical good. This stress alone, however, can lead to distortion if nibbana is seen as a metaphysical state above the empirical world and the path to it as divorced from society. Early Buddhism was rooted in the empirical. Violence was to be repudiated because it caused anguish to men and women and disruption in society. The human person was seen as precious. Harming a being who desired happiness and felt pain could rarely be right. If a society was to be established in which people could live without fear and with the freedom of mind to follow the Eightfold Path, violence had to be eschewed.

The question of political, defensive violence, however, must be mentioned here. Can violence be justified in a situation where the state needs to defend its citizens against external and internal threats? Is this a situation in which violence is not condemned? The texts suggest Buddhism would here insist on discrimination. The Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta gives this advice to the righteous king:

"This, dear son, that you, leaning on the Dhamma, honouring, respecting and revering it, doing homage to it, hallowing it, being yourself a Dhamma-banner, a Dhamma-signal, having the Dhamma as your master, should provide the right watch, ward and protection for your own folk, for the army, for the nobles, for vassals and brahmins and householders, for town and country dwellers, for the religious world and for beasts and birds. "[40]

This passage implies that the need for an army and consequently for the use of force in defense is accepted as a worldly necessity. But the picture which emerges is not glorification of the "just" war but an appeal for war and violence to be seen against a higher set of values.

Relevant perspectives on these political realities are seen in the Buddha's advice to the Vajjians and to King Pasenadi. The Vajjians are faced with vicious aggression from King Ajatasattu, King of Magadha, who is bent on destroying them. The latter sends a brahmin to the Buddha for advice and a prediction about how successful he will be in war. The very fact that he does so shows that he does not consider the Buddha either ill-informed or dismissive of such political conflicts. The reply he receives is significant. The Buddha does not refer directly to Ajatasattu but implies that the use of arms against a people who are morally pure and in concord would be fruitless. His words to Ajatasattu become words of advice to the Vajjians that they should meet together in concord and give respect to their elders, their ancient institutions, their traditions and their women. No mention is made of the Vajjian military strength; only of their moral strength. Moral strength is held up as defense against violence. Yet it is not denied but implicitly understood that the Vajjians would have to use force to repulse aggression, and also present is an implicit condemnation of Ajatasattu's intentions. [41]

King Pasenadi is also seen in conflict with Ajatasattu, meeting force with force. At first, Ajatasattu is the aggressor and the victor. The reported response of the Buddha is significant:

" Monks, the King of Magadha, Ajatasattu, son of the Vedehi Princess, is a friend to, an intimate of, mixed up with, whatever is evil. The Kosalan King Pasenadi is a friend to, an intimate of, mixed up with, whatever is good." [42]

Thus Pasenadi's role as defender of the nation against aggression is accepted as necessary and praiseworthy. In the next battle, Pasenadi is the victor. Ajatasattu's army is confiscated but Pasenadi is merciful enough to grant Ajatasattu his life. It is still Ajatasattu who is condemned. His fate is seen in kammic terms:

"A man may spoil another just so far As it may serve his ends, but when he's spoiled By others he, despoiled, spoils yet again. So long as evil's fruit is not matured The fool does fancy: "Now's the hour, the chance!" But when the deed bears fruit, he fareth ill. The slayer gets a slayer in his turn, The conqueror gets one who conquers him, The abuser wins abuse, the annoyer frets: Thus by the evolution of the deed A man who spoils is spoiled in his turn." [43]

In one respect, Pasenadi becomes an instrument of kamma for Ajatasattu. At another level, acceptance of political realities emerges. The king has a duty to protect his citizens from external threats of violence. Therefore, the advice given to a king or those with responsibility for government about reacting to the violence of others is fitted to the situation, a situation in which the use of violence may become a political necessity in a world governed by craving (tanha). Yet, even with affairs of state, war is placed in the perspective of a more important set of values. To Pasenadi, burdened by responsibility, the Buddha says:

" Noble and brahmin, commoner and serf, None can evade and play the truant here: The impending doom overwhelms one and all. Here is no place for strife with elephants Or chariots of war or infantry, Nay, nor for war or woven spell or curse Nor may finance avail to win the day." [44]

War is not presented as worthy of praise in itself. It is recognized that battle cannot take place without hatred and the wish to kill, in both the mind of aggressor and victim. A Samyutta Nikaya passage illustrates this. A fighting man comes to the Buddha and explains his belief that the warrior who is killed whilst fighting energetically in battle is reborn in the company of the Devas of Passionate Delight. The Buddha's answer condemns this idea as perverted. A warrior is always led by the idea, "Let those beings be exterminated so that they may be never thought to have existed." Such a view can only lead downwards rather than to any heavenly world. The Buddha thus rejects any glorification of war, since there can be no glory when the mind is dominated by hate.[45]

Another duty of the state is to punish. Punishment, although a harming of creatures and a cause of pain to them, is nevertheless seen as a social necessity because of the need to protect society from the greater violence which would flow from undeterred greed. Fear of punishment (dandabhaya) is described in vivid terms, with the mention of specific punishments. A man sees them and thinks:

"If I were to do such deeds as those for which the rajahs seize a bandit, a miscreant, and so treat him ... they would surely treat me in like manner." [46]

Important here is the fact that Early Buddhism would make discriminations about the question of punishment. As a deterrent, punishment has value. Meted out as an expression of hate, it is to be rejected. Inflicted where social justice is the requisite, it is also condemned, as seen in the Kutadanta Sutta, referred to in the next part.
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