Violence And Disruption In Society:
A Study Of The Early Buddhist Texts
At 8.15 a.m. Japanese time, on August 6th 1945, a U.S. plane dropped a bomb named "Little Boy" over the center of the city of Hiroshima. The total number of people who were killed immediately and in the following months was probably close to 200,000. Some claim that this bomb and the one which fell on Nagasaki ended the war quickly and saved American and Japanese lives -- a consequentialist theory to justify horrific violence against innocent civilians. Others say the newly developed weapons had to be tested as a matter of necessity.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki ushered in a new age. Humankind's tendency towards conflict and violence can now wipe out the entire human habitat. The weapon used on Hiroshima had a destructive force of 12.5 kilotons; a contemporary cruise missile has the power of 200 kilotons. All war, violence and conflict at national and international levels in the last quarter of the twentieth century has thus taken on sinister proportions. It is not that human nature has changed but that the resources at our disposal have. No country is free from the threat of nuclear annihilation; no country is free from internal conflict and the barrel of the gun. It is against the urgency of this background that the teachings of Buddhism about violence must be studied and interpreted.
Excerpts such as the following have been extracted and used to sum up the Buddhist attitude to this issue: All fear death; Comparing oneself with others One should neither kill nor cause others to kill." Dhp. v. 129
"Victory breeds hatred, The defeated live in pain. Happily the peaceful live, Giving up victory and defeat." Dhp. v. 201
These verses would seem to indicate a clearly defined Buddhist perspective. Yet such text extraction can lead to misrepresentation if not undergirded with a strong supporting framework. Furthermore, if Buddhism has a message for a violent world, it must do more than condemn violence. It must be able to interpret its nature, its roots, its hold on the world and the possibilities for its transformation. It must dialogue with other philosophies and ideologies such as utilitarianism,  scientific socialism and the belief in a just or "holy" war. For instance, utilitarianism still lives among those who believe that violence can be justified if more people will benefit than will be hurt, and the consequentialist theory mentioned with reference to Hiroshima is similar to this. Then there are those who hold that certain forms of injustice and exploitation can only be destroyed through violence and that history will justify its legitimacy. The view that violent change is a historical inevitability is close to this.
Buddhism must be able to comment on the stance which argues that if Hitler had been assassinated early in his career numerous deaths would have been avoided, or the claim that force is justified against a government which is using violence against its people under the pretext of law. If it cannot, it will stand accused of irrelevance.
In this study, I define violence as that which harms, debases, dehumanizes or brutalizes human beings, animals or the natural world; and the violent person, as one who causes harm in speech or action, either directly or indirectly, or whose mind is filled with such thoughts.  The approach will be scriptural, and the resource I use will be the Pali texts. The basic issue I investigate is what this resource says on the subject of violence. Identity is not assumed between the sixth century B.C. and the twentieth century A.D. Rather, the potential of the scriptures of any religion to provide guidelines for action and models for contemporary interpretation is recognized. Hence, the following specific questions will provide the framework for my study:
- What different forms of violence do the Buddhist texts show knowledge of?
- For what reasons do the texts condemn violence or call it into question?
- What do they see to be the roots of violence?
- Do the texts give any guidelines for the eradication of violence in the individual or in society?