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BuddhismandNonviolence

ProfessorRichardGombrich
Oxford,England
Itistrulyagreathonortohavebeeninvitedtoaddressyou.Iamgoingto
speakaboutBuddhismandnonviolenceinpubliclife.
WeallknowthattheBuddharecommendedthatoneshouldnotsaynothing
[Editor:anything?]unlessitisbothtrueandpleasant,andthatissurelyan
admirableprincipleforprivatelife.Inpubliclife,however,itissometimesnecessary
tosaythingsthatmaynotbewelcome.Weshouldnotanddonotadmirepoliticians
orotherleadersofpublicinstitutionswhotrytoconcealunpleasantfactsfromthe
public.Thisisapublicoccasion,andIhopeyouwillforgivemeifnoteverythingI
sayispleasantandreassuring.
Myfirsttheme,therefore,hastobetherelationbetweenBuddhismandpublic
life.IshallarguethatBuddhismhasaclearandcogentvisionoftherelation
betweenreligionandpolitics,andthattheSanghaandpoliticianshavequitedifferent
partstoplaybutthattosaysimplythatBuddhismmustbekeptoutofpoliticsis
dangerousandabsurd.
Ishallthengoontoarguethatpubliclife,allovertheworld,isindesperate
needoftheBuddhaswisdom.Ibelievethatwhilewewhoareheretodaymustbe
individuallygratefulthatwehavehadthegoodfortunetolearnabouttheBuddhas
teaching,thereisnoroomforselfcongratulation:theimpactofBuddhismonpublic
lifeintheworldasawholeisclosetozero,andthisisascandalandatragedywhich
wemustsetouttoremedy.Ishallthereforeexplainhow,inmyview,Buddhist
principlesofpeaceandlovehavetobeappliedinastatesinternalaffairsontheone
handandinforeignpolicyontheother.
SoIbeginwiththerelationbetweenreligionandpolitics.InancientIndia,even
beforethetimeoftheBuddha,atraditionbecameestablishedconcerningthe
relationsbetweenwhatwewouldnowcallchurchandstate.Anobleruled,and
wieldedtherealpowerbuthewasnotrecognizedasthelegitimaterulerunlesshe
hadbeenconsecratedbyabrahmin.Thebrahminpriestthenbecamethekings
chiefadviser,hisprimeminister.Brahminswerethehereditarybearersand
transmittersofwisdomandlearning.Intheory,atleast,brahminsdidnotbecome
kings,andkingscouldnotbecomebrahmins,Thebrahminandtheking

complementedeachother:thebrahminknew,atleastinprinciple,whatshouldbe
doneandthekingcarrieditout.Althoughthistheorydidnot,ofcourse,always
representwhatactuallyhappened,ithasrepresentedthepubliclyacknowledged
idealinHindukingdomsforperhapsthreethousandyears.
TheBuddhacriticizedthebrahminsandtheirtheoriesinmanyways.The
religiouspracticeofbrahminscenteredonritualandtheyweresocietysmainritual
specialists.TheBuddhasubstitutedethicsforritual.Infact,thecommonestwordfor
ritualinbrahminism,karma,cameinBuddhismtodenoteanyactionwithanethical
value,goodorbad,rightorwrong.Thepathtowardssalvation,nibbana,begannot
withritualsbutwithethicalunderstandingandbehavior.Thosewhocaredmost
abouttheirownspiritualprogressweresupposedtojointheSangha,tobecome
monksornuns.Buddhistmonksandnunsarethusthereligiousspecialistsin
Buddhistsocieties,andinthosesocieties,theyoccupyapositioncloselyanalogous
tothatoccupiedbybrahminsinHindusocieties.Therulerissupposedtoturnto
themforadviceonmattersofprinciple,sinceasbearersoftheBuddhisttradition
theyhavespecialexpertiseinethics.Itisuptotheexpertiseofothersthentoput
thoseethicalprinciplesintopractice.TherulerhasthedutytosupporttheSangha,
sincethatisthefirstpracticalsteptowardssupportingBuddhism.Ontheotherhand,
ifthekingdoeshisdutytowardsBuddhism,theSanghashouldreciprocateby
lendinghimtheiractivesupport.
Asweallknow,theBuddhapreachedwhatisfirstandforemostawayforeach
individualtomakespiritualprogress.Thepathtothegoalofnibbanaconsistsof
ethics,meditationandunderstanding.Whatcountstowardsthisgoalcanonlygoon
intheindividualmind.Moreover,everyadultisfreetodevotetheirlifeexclusivelyto
thisgoal,whichtheyshoulddobybecomingamonkornun.JoiningtheSanghawill
givethemtheopportunitytodevotealltheirtimeandefforttoethics,meditation,and
realizationofthehighesttruth.
ButwealsoknowthattheBuddhaneverenvisagedthateveryone,oreventhe
majority,wouldjointheSangha.Indeed,theSanghacouldnotsurvivephysically
withoutthematerialsupportofthelaity.EverytimetheBuddhalaysdownaVinaya
rule,hesaysthatthisisdoneforreasonswhichprominentlyincludeenlistingthe
supportofthelaity.BuddhistlaityinfacthavethesamedutyasaBuddhistruler,
onlyonthemoremodestscaleappropriatetotheirposition.Theyaretosupportthe
SanghaandtheyaretodotheirbesttofollowtheBuddhistrulesofmorality,which
aresummarizednotonlyinthe fiverulesofselfrestraintwhichtheyaresupposedto

repeateveryday,thepaGcasIla[ed:fiveprecepts],butalsointhepositiveprinciples
ofgenerosityandkindnessdAnaandmetta. ThereisonlyoneBuddhistpath,but
thelaityandtheSanghahavecomplementaryroles,muchlikethebrahminandthe
Hinduking.Itwasnotenvisagedintraditionalvillagesocietythatalaypersonwould
havethechancetodomuchmeditationandthustoacquirethesubtleunderstanding
thatmeditationcouldbring.Ethics,however,applytoall:theyarethevery
foundationoftheBuddhasteaching.
CertainwellknowntextsinthePaliCanonillustratetheabovepoints.Howthe
Buddhist[layperson]istoapplyethics[into]dailylifeisspeltoutinthemostdetailin
theSiBgAlovAdaSutta.Mostrelevantformythemetoday,however,istheadvice
thattheBuddhagivestorulers.Thegeneralethicalprincipleisstatedinthe
Dhammapada:1 Neverinthisworldishostilityappeasedbyhostilityitisappeased
bylackofhostility.IntheKUTadantaSuttathisismemorablyappliedtopolitics.A
greatkingofformertimestellshisbrahminpriestandprimeminister(whoislater
revealedtohavebeenthefutureBuddhainaformerlife)thathewantstoperforma
greatsacrifice.Thiswillrequirehimtoraisetaxes.Hiswiseprimeministerwarns
himthatthecountryisfullofcrime.Hesays:YourMajestymaythinkthathecan
rootoutallcrimebykillingthecriminals,imprisonment,fines,censureorexile.But
thiswillneversucceedcompletely:therewillalwaysbesurvivors,whowillgoon
harassingyourkingdom.Hereistheonlysystemwhichwilleradicatecrime.Your
Majestyshouldsupplyseedandfoddertothosewhoworkinagricultureoranimal
husbandryheshouldsupplycapitaltothosewhoworkincommerceheshould
organizefoodandwagesforthosewhoworkinhisservice.Thenthosepeoplewill
concentrateontheirworkandnotharassthecountryside.YourMajestywillacquire
agreatpile.Thecountrysidewillbesecure,freefrompublicenemies.Peoplewillbe
happy,anddandlingtheirchildrenintheirlapswilllive,Ithink,withopendoors.2
ThosewhoclaimthatBuddhismhasnoplaceinpoliticshaveapparently
forgottenthegreatIndianemperorAsoka,whoruledalmosttheentiresubcontinent
foroverthirtyyearsinthemiddleofthethirdcenturyBC,andwhoseedictsshowthat
hedrewallhisprinciplesfromtheBuddhasteaching.IshallreturntoAsokavery
soon.ButfirstIwanttoansweranyonewhosaysthatAsokaisallverywell,butthat
waslongago,anditistheconditionsofthemodernworldwhichdemandthatreligion
keepoutofpolitics.Letusglance,then,atthemodernwesternworld.Inmany
EuropeanstatesoneofthemainpartiescallsitselfChristianDemocratorChristian
Socialist.Infact,asagreatreactiontoFascismattheendoftheSecondWorldWar

bothGermanyandItalyelectedChristianDemocratgovernmentsinItalythe
ChristianDemocratsheldpower(withvariouscoalitions)for44years,andin
GermanythepresentgovernmentisagainheadedbyaChristianDemocrat.But
perhapsthemostinterestingcaseistheUnitedStates,whichsorigidlyseparates
ChurchandStatethatitsconstitutionforbidsthestatetofavoranyreligionatall.
Thishasmanyradicaleffects,suchasmakingreligiousworshipandreligious
instructionillegalinstateschools.Andyettherearefewcountriesintheworldwhere
Christianvaluesandevendoctrines,someofthemextremelyspecific,playsucha
largepartinpolitics,becausethosearethingsmanypeoplefeeldeeplyabout,anda
democracycannotkeeppeoplefromexpressingtheiropinionsbycampaigningand
votingonwhattheyconsiderimportant.InAmericaabortionisagoodexampleofan
ethicalissuewhichplaysahugepartinpolitics.
Thosewhosaythattheywanttokeepreligionoutofpoliticsoftenmeanthat
theydonotwanttoacceptthemoralvaluesproposedbyareligion,butpreferother
values,suchasthoseofcommunismornationalism.Oneofthemostfamous
sayingsintheliteratureofthewesternworldisthelineofpoetrybytheRomanpoet
Horace,publishedin23BC:Itissweetandfittingtodieforonescountry.3
Politiciansusuallypreferthatsentimenttotheantiwarviewsheldbysomeofthe
greatreligioustraditions.
Letmemakeoneotherpointaboutethics.Thegreatreligioustraditionsall
teachthatpeopleshouldloveeachother,bekindandcompassionate.Bythis,they
meanthatoneshouldloveeverybody,notjustthosewhomitiseasytolove.Loving
someonewhoisalwayskindtoyouisnomorethanmostanimalsdobyinstinct.
Lovebecomesanethicalaccomplishmentwhenitisdirectedtoourenemies,or
otherswhomitishardtolove.
SowhatpartcanBuddhism,whichprofessesnonviolenceandloveforall,play
inpubliclife?Formetomakemymainpoint,Ineedlooknofurtherthanthefirst
precept:nottotakelife.Morethanhalfthecountriesintheworldhaveabolished
capitalpunishment,whichmeansthatthestatedoesnottakelife.Yetinthelistof
thosewhichhavenocapitalpunishmentfigureonlytwoBuddhiststates,Bhutanand
Cambodia.Thisdespitethefactthattherehavebeennumerousstudiesofwhether
capitalpunishmentlowersthecrimeratebyactingasadeterrent,allofwhichhave
concludedthatitdoesnot.Sothereisnotevenapragmaticargumentforretaining
capitalpunishment:itisthereonlytosatisfythedesireforrevenge.

Shouldthatdesireforrevengebesatisfied?Capitalpunishmentusuallyfollows
aterriblecrimesuchasmurder,andsuchcrimesarecertainlydetestable.Thatis
whytreatingthosecriminalshumanelyreallyputstothetestwhetherwearesincere
aboutoutprinciplesofloveandnonviolence.Ofcourse,ifsomeonemurdersa
persondeartome,itistoomuchtoexpectmeevertolovethatmurderer.Thatis
whywehaveajudicialsystem,ratherthanallowingeveryonetotakethelawinto
theirownhands.ButifIamasincereBuddhist,howcanIaskthestatetokillonmy
behalf?Buddhismsaysthatanyonewhohasdoneanevildeedwillhavetosufferfor
it:thatisthelawofkarmaandretribution.Whymultiplytheviolencebymakingjudge
andexecutioneralsocommitmurder?IntheCakkavattiSIhanAdaSuttatheBuddha
describeshowakinghasathiefexecuted,butthisonlybeginsaviciouscircleof
violence.4 Inthe amiyaJAtaka5 theBuddhaisbornasakingsheirapparent.He
istakentohisfatherwhilethelatterisonhisjudgmentseatsentencingcriminalsto
violentpunishments,includingdeath.Thereisnosuggestionthatthesesentences
areimproper:thekingisonlydoingwhatisexpectedofhim.Butthebabyfuture
Buddharemembersthatinaformerlifehetoowasakingwhosentencedpeopleto
death,andthatasaconsequencehehadtoundergotormentinhellforeighty
thousandyears.6
IfweseekamodelofnonviolentBuddhistrule,wehaveonetohandinthe
emperorAsoka.Iwouldlikeeveryschoolsystemineverycountrytoteachitspupils
notonlysomethingabouttheBuddhasteachings,butalsoabouthowAsokaput
manyofthemintopractice.Theinscriptionsheleftrecordedhowmuchhecurtailed
theuseofviolenceagainstbothmenandanimals.Sometimeshislanguageis
difficultforus,andearlyEuropeanscholarsbelievedthatthefourthpillaredict
showedthatheretainedthedeathpenaltybutProfK.R.NormanofCambridge
Universityshowed,somethirtyyearsago,thisisamistake,andthewordwhichhad
beentakentorefertoexecutionrefersonlytoflogging.7 SoAsokaisthefirst
[known]rulerinhistoryrecordedtohaveabolishedthedeathpenalty.
Makenomistake:thestatethatusesthedeathpenaltyistothatextent
corruptingitscitizensandgoingagainsttheBuddhasteaching.
Ifitiswrong,byBuddhiststandards,tokillpeoplewhohavebeenfoundguilty
afteratrial,whatcanonesayofkillingsuspectedcriminalswhohavenotbeen
broughttotrial?Onecontextinwhichthishappens,asweregularlyreadinthe
newspapers,iswhenawholesegmentofthepopulationisatoddswiththe

government.Violenceseemstobethewaytodealwithsuchanuprising.Yetthe
BuddhasadvicewhichIhavealreadyquotedfromtheKUTadantaSuttateachesus
thatthismeetinghostilitywithhostilityisnotonlyunethicalbutlikelytomakematters
worse.Ifwefeelthattherebelsdonotdeserveourkindness,wemayhavetogrit
ourteethinordertoshowselfrestraint,butthatisasmallpricetopayforsavingso
manylivesandsomuchsufferinginthelongerrun.
NotethatIamnotarguingforpacifism.Thisiswherethedifferencebetween
thepublicandtheprivatespherebecomescrucial.Ifsomeoneattacksme,Imay
decidenottorespond,eveninthewordsofJesusChristtoturntheothercheek.
Butifapopulationhaselectedmetolookaftertheirinterests,andtheyareattacked
orthreatenedwithattack,thesituationisdifferent:Ihavearesponsibilitytoprotect
them.Countriesneeddefenseforcestodeterattack,andpotentialaggressorsneed
toknowthatthoseforcesmaybeused.Thereisallthedifferencebetween
aggressionanddefense,betweeninitiatingviolenceandrespondingtoit.Herewe
returntothegreatestBuddhistruler,theemperorAsoka.Inhisthirteenthmajorrock
edicthetoldtheworldhowmuchheregrettedhavingwagedwaronthepeopleof
Kalinga.Hehopednevertohavetodosuchathingagain.Buthealsowarnedhis
neighborsthatwhilehewouldtoleratewhatcouldbetolerated(hiswords),they
shouldnotprovokehim.Thatsurelyistherightwayforagovernmenttominimize
violence.
Thoughthefirstresponsibilityofaruleristowardshisownpeople,thatcannot
excusecallousdisregardforthelivesofothers,letalonepolicieswhichneedlessly
bringdeathtoforeigners.IntheserespectsIfearsomeBuddhistgovernmentshave
disgracedthemselves.Inthelate1950s,forexample,theostentatiouslyBuddhist
governmentofSriLankarefusedtojoininanycriticismofthekillingofmonksand
destructionofmonasteriesinTibet,andSriLankanBuddhistgovernmentshave
continuedtodenysupporttotheDalaiLama,evensuggestingthatheisthewrong
kindofBuddhist,asifthelivesandwelfareofMahayanaBuddhistshadnocallon
theconcernorsympathyofTheravadins.Equallydistressingthingscontinueto
happenevennow.InBritainwehaverecentlyseenforourselvesontheBBCnews
howinMyanmar,notfarfromtheThaiborder,largenumbersofmen,womenand
childrenarebeingkilledandtheirhomesandpropertydestroyedtoclearlandfor
hydroelectricpowerschemesinordertosellcheapelectricitytoThailand.This
murderofinnocentBuddhistcitizensmaywellbegoingonevenasIamtalkingto
you.

ThereisastorythatMahatmaGandhiwasonceaskedwhathethoughtof
Britishcivilization.Hereplied,Ithinkitwouldbeagoodidea.Iventuretosuggest
thatBuddhistnonviolencetoowouldbeagoodidea.Wecannotpretendthatwedo
notknowwhatisgoingonnextdoor.Ifanyoneinthisassemblyhasanyinfluence,
letthemuseit.
RichardGombrich
ReferencestoPalitextsaretotheeditionsofthePaliTextSociety:
1Verse5.
2DIghaNikAyaI,135.
3Dulceetdecorumestpropatriamori.
4DIghaNikAyaIII,678.
5AlsoknownastheMUgapakkhaJAtaka.
6JAtakaVI,34.
7AsokaandCapitalPunishment,JournaloftheRoyalAsiaticSociety1975,
1,pp.1624.