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Part 4: Can Violent Tendencies Be Eradicated?

11/03/201417:55(Xem: 1283)
Part 4: Can Violent Tendencies Be Eradicated?
Violence And Disruption In Society:
A Study Of The Early Buddhist Texts

Elizabeth Harris


4. Can Violent Tendencies Be Eradicated?

praiseworthy, saying seasonably what is fact and true -- he is the most admirable and rare. Why so? Because, Potaliya, his discrimination of proper occasions (kalannuta) is admirable." [84]

The Buddha mentions the quality of kalannuta, in place of the word used by Potaliya -- upekkha. The translation given by the Pali Text Society is "discrimination of proper occasions." The ability to discriminate and make objective evaluations, not indifference, is the consequence of curbing papanca. A certain silence of the mind is indicated but it is not the silence of apathy. The proliferation of concepts which is papanca results in an obscuring of the empirical, since this proliferation moves one further and further away from the empirical because of the linguistic edifice of "therefore" and "therein" erected on top of the initial emotion of like or aversion. Preventing the erection of this edifice on the foundation of tanha leads to a clearer perception of the empirical and to judgments and analyses being made with greater validity. The conclusions reached through papanca may seem to be analytical. They are not. Resisting papanca is not a moving away from analysis but a moving towards objective analysis unclouded by emotional responses. It is this kind of analysis which is so often lacking when there is violence and conflict in society.

When perceptions, judgments and consequent action are governed by the roots of papanca, there will be no objectivity but a danger that obsessions will grow. When papanca is allayed, what is good and bad, kusala and akusala, praiseworthy and blameworthy, will be more clearly visible. The injustices in society, for instance, will be more apparent. Judgments about those who are oppressed in society or about those who gain wealth illegally through violence and extortion will not be clouded either by the tendency to look down on those who suffer or the wish to gain patronage from the wealthy. What is wrong and what is right, what harms and what promotes happiness, will stand out untouched by personal wishes or personal greed.

This clarity of judgment can be seen in the words of the Buddha. In the Assalayana Sutta, the Agganna Sutta and the Madhura Sutta the caste system is vigorously opposed. [85] The Esukari Sutta condemns the kind of service which becomes slavery. [86] Meaningless ritual is attacked in the Sigalovada Sutta. [87] Brahminical excesses are uncovered in the Brahmajala Sutta, the Ambattha Sutta and the Tevijja Sutta. [88] The violence and shame of sacrifices is condemned in the Kutadanta Sutta. [89] These are not the only examples. The Buddha is revealed as a person who was unafraid to point out wrong when he saw it and to use uncompromising words. It is this kind of effective speech and action which should flow when tanha, mana and ditthi are reduced.

Abstention from the harmful or violent is not enough by itself. The texts stress that the active cultivation of the opposite is necessary. A replacement is needed as well as an annihilation. This is seen at lay level as well as among the ordained. For instance, in the Saleyyaka Sutta, addressed specifically to lay people, the two courses of faring by Dhamma and not-Dhamma are explained. Malevolence is explained by reference to the wish to kill:

"He is malevolent in mind, corrupt in thought and purpose, and thinks: "Let these beings be killed or slaughtered or annihilated or destroyed or may they not exist at all." [90]

Faring by Dhamma is explained in opposite terms and yet the effect is not merely a negation of or a restraining from not-Dhamma but the practice of positive virtue. So, the one who abandons slanderous speech becomes

"a reconciler of those who are at variance and one who combines those who are friends."

The one who restrains himself from malevolent thought is the one who thinks:

"Let those beings, friendly, peaceful, secure, happy, look after self." [91]

Similarly, during meditation, positive qualities are to be cultivated to replace the five hindrances. For instance:

"Putting away ill-will and hatred (vyapadapadosa), he abides with heart free from enmity (avyapannacitta), benevolent and compassionate towards every living being (sabbe panabhutahitanukampi) and purifies his mind of malevolence." [92]

The Early Buddhist emphasis, therefore, indicates that the eradication of the tendencies which cause violence leads to greater realism, the growth of positive, wholesome qualities and more effective speech and action against what is unjust and exploitative. An important question, however, remains unanswered, the third question mentioned at the beginning of this section: When there is violence inherent in the structures of society as a whole, what steps can be taken?

In many societies, violence is institutionalized in structures which oppress certain sections of the people. Some would mention the caste system in India in this context, corrupt trading practices, or the forces which keep some groups of people poor. On the other hand, violence can flow from the monarchy or state, from internal terrorist groups or an outside threat. In these situations, violence is rarely lessened by changes in a few individuals, unless these individuals have considerable power. What strategies should be used to oppose such violence? Is there any situation where violence should be met with violence? Is there a different path for the lay person than for the monk? Is there a situation where it might be justifiable to overthrow the state? If so, could this lead to a changed society? If undeserved suffering occurs because of the greed of others, do the demands of compassion (karuna) ever involve what could be called violent resistance to the perpetrators? These are crucial questions in the light of current world tensions such as racial injustice, capitalistic monopolies, terrorism and fascism. The question here is whether any guidelines can be gained from the Buddhist texts themselves.

There is no doubt that the person who renounces the household life is called to abstain from violence completely. It is one of the hallmarks of the bhikkhu. Not to react in violent retaliation to abuse was part of the training of the disciple. Where there was state-instigated violence, the Early Buddhist position seems to have been that the Sangha could act as advisers to rulers and, in this capacity, could raise issues connected with righteous government, but it could not become involved in violent resistance. As for the lay follower of the Buddha, he or she undertakes to desist from harming others through the first precept. To break this intentionally is to risk serious kammic consequences. For the lay person, as for the monk, the approved line of action would seem to be advice and non-violent pressure or resistance towards those in a position to change violent structures.

A different set of responsibilities, however, is laid on the state itself. As previously discussed, rulers with the protection of their citizens at heart were inevitably drawn into conflict when threatened by aggression. The question can therefore be raised as to whether non-violence is an absolute value in Buddhism. For instance, is a father, as head and protector of the family, justified in using violence against a person forcefully entering his house with the intention to kill? Has an elder sister the duty to protect a younger brother if he is attacked violently, by using similar violence? Has a group of citizens the right to kill a dictator if, by doing so, they might save the lives of oppressed minorities to whom the citizens feel a duty? Should the terrorist gun be challenged with similar methods? These are areas where absolutes seem to break down. As a ruler might realize that some aggressor cannot be deterred by persuasion, so some citizens might feel that violence or injustice in society cannot be stopped merely by giving advice to those in power. That lay people should never initiate violence where there is harmony or use it against the innocent is very clear. That they should not attempt to protect those under their care if the only way of doing so is to use defensive violence is not so clear.

Guidelines about the consequences of violence, however, are laid down. The danger of violence, even if it is defensive, is that it will generate further violence. Non-hatred (avera) and loving kindness are the powers which halt it. Metta (loving kindness) is shown to have great power: it can turn away the poison of a snake or the charge of an elephant; [93] it can render burning ghee harmless. [94] The latter story concerns a wife, Uttara, who is married to an unbeliever. A courtesan, Sirima, is given to her husband so that Uttara can be released to attend on religious duties. A quarrel arises between the two women which ends in Sirima pouring boiling ghee over Uttara. As she prepares to do this, Uttara thinks:

"My companion has done me a favor. The circle of the earth is too narrow, the world of the devas is too low, but the virtue of my compassion is great because by her help, I have become able to give alms and listen to Dhamma. If I am angry with her may this ghee burn me; if not, let it not burn me."

The ghee does not burn. Sirima tries again. Then the other women present attack Sirima and throw her to the ground. Uttara continues to show compassion by coming to her rescue, by preventing her from being hurt.

Responding to violence with metta and non-anger is deemed superior to any other path. Non-violent resistance is clearly the best path. Yet Buddhism cannot claim to be completely pacifistic. Absolutes of that kind cannot be found and perhaps should not be sought for in a teaching which spoke of the danger of claiming of a view, "this alone is truth, all else is falsehood." The person who feels violence is justified to protect the lives of others has indeed to take the consequences into account. He has to remember that he is risking grave consequences for himself in that his actions will inevitably bear fruit. He or she has to be aware that there is a dynamism within hatred and violence when the causal chain has not had its nourishment removed. Such a person needs to evaluate motives in the knowledge that violent tendencies are rooted in the defilements of lobha, dosa and moha, and in the obsessions generated by papanca. Yet that person might still judge that the risks are worth facing to prevent a greater evil. Whether the assassination of Hitler would have prevented numerous innocent deaths is still an open question.

In conclusion, it can be said that Buddhism lays down a form of mental culture to lessen the mind's tendency to veer towards violence. However, it is a culture which involves qualities of faith (saddha) and effort (vayama) that many in society are unable to cultivate. Therefore punishment either by the state or in an after-life is seen as a valid deterrent for extremes of violence. However, where violence flows directly and unjustifiably from the state or from other groups or institutions, questions are raised which are not dealt with directly by the texts. The drawing of conclusions is therefore fraught with difficulty. Yet these questions must be tackled if Buddhism is to provide guidelines in a violent world. What seems to emerge from the above analysis is that non-violence in the face of violence, although preferable for all and incumbent on the monk, is not a moral absolute in all circumstances.
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