Religious Beliefs

What does Buddhist tradition teach about religious justification of violence?

Though the Buddha himself grew up in a Kshatriya (warrior caste) family, he was also steeped in the tradition of ahimsa, noninjury, that was an increasingly important theme in religious groups emerging in his day, especially the Jain tradition. Classical Buddhist sources analyze the human tendency to violence as arising from a deep-seated pattern of consciousness. The fundamental problem is that the “three poisons” (hatred or anger, lust or craving, and ignorance or delusion) can easily control one’s choices. People crave something and become insecure when they fear losing the object of their desire. Hatred and anger arise with the fear that an enemy will take what one prizes most, and one can then be easily deluded into thinking that violence is the only solution. Gradually the power of this delusion can become the dominant conviction of whole societies, leading to wholesale identification of large segments of humanity as “the enemy.”

Over the centuries, schools of Buddhist thought in effect conceded that there were nonetheless certain circumstances in which violence might indeed be the solution of last resort. As so often happens in religious traditions of all kinds, Buddhist scholars sought specific justification in ancient sources. The example of the Buddha himself provided such legitimation. In one of the Jataka (stories of previous lives of the Buddha), the Teacher actually killed some Hindu “heretics” in order to preserve the dharma from degradation. A general principle arose that it was acceptable to kill one person to prevent the deaths of many others, though the killer would still be condemned to suffer a stint in Hell. By extension, a secondary principle allowed that it was preferable to kill another who is himself about to kill, on the grounds that the actual killer is acting altruistically, taking on himself the suffering that his victim would otherwise have had to undergo once he had carried out his crime. On a theoretical level, some have argued that since there is no individual “self,” killing in any case results only in the illusion of ending “someone’s” existence.

In practice, even Buddhist monastic organizations have been involved in systematic violence on the grounds that liberating others from the snares of delusion is actually a form of compassion. Buddhist elements infiltrated even the Samurai code, and during the mid-twentiethth century, some Japanese Buddhists argued that America must be vanquished lest its values destroy the possibility of peace altogether.


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