1 Buddhism as a Resource for Peace.

I am grateful for the honour that the High Commissioner has done me by inviting me to speak to you today. As you know, it is the anniversary (by the lunar calendar) of one of the greatest events in human history, the attainment of Enlightenment by the person who thereby became know as the Lord Buddha, the Awakened One. His Excellency suggested that I speak on a theme connected with international relations. More specifically it was suggested that I might talk on how Buddhism has connected Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom. I hope that I may be forgiven if I have felt that on an occasion of global significance I should tackle a more significant topic which everyone present will feel to be of immediate and pressing relevance. I can only hope that what I have to say may justify my presumption. There is a Sanskrit proverb that one should not speak unless what one says is both true and pleasant. This sounds like folk wisdom, and I dare say many cultures have such a proverb. The Buddha, however, changed this principle. Questioned by a prince called Abhaya, he said that he would only speak what he knew to be true and beneficial, and that he knew when to say it even if it was disagreeable. It would be absurd of me to lay claim to the Buddha’s practical wisdom. But Wesak does seem to me to be an appropriate time to speak up for peace and non-violence, and I am going to do so even if it may offend some who will always nod approvingly at conventional rhetoric in favour of peace, but become evasive or aggressive if it is suggested that these generalities should apply to them. In public life it is sometimes necessary to say things that may not be welcome. We should not and do not admire politicians or other public leaders who try to conceal unpleasant facts. The public are not grateful for such dishonesty – as I think the recent British General Election results have shown. I am here therefore to ask what we are doing to meet the challenge that the Buddha laid down in his ethical and political principles. Let me go straight to the heart of the matter. In the earliest corpus of Buddhist texts, the Pali Canon, the Buddha does not have a great deal to say directly about politics; but what he does say deserves to be read and taken to heart by every citizen the world over. The most important principle is stated in the Dhammapada:i “Never in this world is hostility appeased by hostility; it is appeased by lack of hostility.” In the Kˆadanta Sutta this is memorably applied to government. A great king of former times tells his brahmin priest and prime minister (who is later revealed to have been the future Buddha in a former life) that he wants to perform a great sacrifice. The cost of this will oblige him to raise taxes. His wise prime minister warns him that the country is full of crime. He says: “Your Majesty may think that he can root out all crime by killing the Prof.Richard F. Gombrich presented “Buddhism as a Resource for Peace and Progress : Who is Prepared to use it?” in Vesak Commemoration Lecture-2010 on May26,2010. หน้า 1

2 criminals, imprisonment, fines, censure or exile. But this will never succeed completely: there will always be survivors, who will go on harassing your kingdom. Here is the only system which will eradicate crime. Your Majesty should supply seed and fodder to those who work in agriculture or animal husbandry; he should supply capital to those who work in commerce; he should organise food and wages for those who work in his service. Then those people will concentrate on their work and not harass the countryside. Your Majesty will acquire a great pile. The countryside will be secure, free from public enemies. People will be happy, and dandling their children on their laps will live, I think, with open doors.”ii In another text in the same collection, the Cakkavatti-s¥hanåda Sutta, a mythical emperor of the world retires and instructs his son in the principles of good rule. These are mainly to protect and respect everyone according to the Dhamma, and periodically to seek the advice of selfcontrolled holy men. But in the midst of this piety comes the sentence, “You should provide wealth, my son, to anyone in your kingdom who is poor.” We have already heard this in the Kˆadanta Sutta. But this text takes the story and the argument further. After a while, the son neglects his father’s evidence. Admonished, he restores the protection of the righteous, but fails to give wealth to the poor. This omission proves crucial. Theft appears for the first time when poverty forces a man to steal. Brought before the king, he explains his predicament, and the king gives him money. When other people hear of this they decide that theft is lucrative and follow the thief’s example. To remedy this, the king has thieves executed instead; but this only starts a vicious circle of violence and from then on things spiral downwards and society descends into chaos. I summarise: the text states that stealing and violence originate in poverty, and that poverty is the king’s responsibility; punishment becomes necessary only because of the king’s earlier failure to prevent poverty. This humane theory, which ascribes the origin of crime to economic conditions, is not typical of Indian thinking on such matters. I think it is so bold and original that it must come from the Buddha himself. But whether that is so or not hardly matters: it is there in early Buddhist texts and available for all to be guided by. I could say much more about Buddhism as a resource for peace but my time is limited, and I think this is already enough to prove my point. So let me move to deal with potential objections. One often hears people say that Buddhism needs to be kept out of politics. On the contrary, I believe that public life, all over the world, is in desperate need of the Buddha’s wisdom. I believe that while some of us Prof.Richard F. Gombrich presented “Buddhism as a Resource for Peace and Progress : Who is Prepared to use it?” in Vesak Commemoration Lecture-2010 on May26,2010. หน้า 2

3 here today must be individually grateful that we have had the good fortune to learn about the Buddha’s teaching, there is no room for selfcongratulation: the impact of Buddhism on public life in the world as a whole is close to zero, and this is a scandal and a tragedy which we must set out to remedy. Whatever our individual political allegiances, I wonder whether anyone in this room who has just heard what the Buddha has to say about poverty, civil unrest and the cycle of violence has been able to keep the current crisis in Thailand out of their minds. I agree that the Sangha and politicians have quite different parts to play. From the very beginning it has been essential to Buddhism that the Sangha and the laity have roles that are complementary. Those who take the Buddha’s message seriously are to renounce the world, giving up both the burdens and the pleasures of lay life, and devote themselves to Buddhist principles. It is the role of the Sangha to keep the Buddha’s message alive, and that means to preserve Buddhist values and ethical principles. The Sangha are moral leaders, or they are nothing. Many things, from economics to sexology, they are to leave to the laity. Monks and nuns are no more expected to get into the rough and tumble of political detail than they are expected to carry arms and fight; but it is their duty to advise political leaders on the moral principles which must guide how they govern, and even how they make war, if that cannot be avoided. Why should Buddhist principles, under that name, be kept out of government and politics? Buddhism is not some kind of frivolous game or pastime: it is there to be applied to the whole of life. Some who know little history may ask, “How can this be done? In the 3rd century BC the Emperor Asoka proved for all time that it can. He ruled almost the whole of the Indian subcontinent for thirty years. In the many edicts which survive to this day he showed how a ruler can follow Buddhist principles – in many ways, but above all in limiting the use of violence. Let us be clear: Buddhism is not pacifist. Here the difference between the public and the private sphere becomes crucial. If someone attacks me, I may decide not to respond, even – in the words of Jesus Christ – to turn the other cheek. But if a population has chosen me to look after their interests, and they are attacked or threatened with attack, the situation is different: I have a responsibility to protect them, just as parents must do whatever they can to protect the lives of their children. Countries need defense forces to deter attack, and potential aggressors need to know that those forces may be used. So there is all the difference between aggression and defense, between initiating violence and responding to it. In his thirteenth major rock edict, Asoka told the world how much he regretted having waged war on the people of Kalinga (modern Orissa). He hoped never to have to do such a thing again. But he also warned his neighbours that while he would “tolerate what could be tolerated” (his words), they should not provoke him. That surely is the right way for a Prof.Richard F. Gombrich presented “Buddhism as a Resource for Peace and Progress : Who is Prepared to use it?” in Vesak Commemoration Lecture-2010 on May26,2010. หน้า 3

4 government to minimise violence. In my view a political leader who claims to respect Buddhism but refuses to apply Buddhism to politics is a despicable hypocrite. Since sometimes they do so because they are claiming to be “modern”, let me draw a parallel with the modern western world. In many European states one of the main parties calls itself Christian Democrat or Christian Socialist. In fact, as a reaction to Fascism at the end of the Second World War both Germany and Italy elected Christian Democrat governments; in Italy the Christian Democrats held power (with various coalitions) for 44 consecutive years, and in Germany the present government is again headed by a Christian Democrat. But perhaps the most interesting case is the United States, which so rigidly separates Church and State that its constitution forbids the state to favour any religion at all. This has many radical effects, such as making religious worship and religious instruction illegal in state schools. And yet there are few if any countries in the world where Christian values and even doctrines, some of them extremely specific, play such a large part in politics, because those are things many people feel deeply about, and a true democracy cannot keep people from expressing their opinions by campaigning and voting on what they consider important. In America abortion is a good example of an ethical issue which plays a huge part in politics. And why not? The great religious traditions all teach that people should love each other, be kind and compassionate. By this, they mean that one should love everybody, not just those whom it is easy to love. Loving someone who is always kind to you is no more than most animals do by instinct. Love becomes an ethical accomplishment when it is directed to our enemies, or others whom it is hard to love. Those who say that they want to keep religion out of politics usually mean that they do not want to accept the moral values proposed by a religion, but prefer other values, such as those of communism or nationalism. One of the most famous sayings in the literature of the western world is the line of poetry by the Roman poet Horace, published in 23 BC: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”iii Politicians usually prefer that sentiment to the anti-war views prominent in the great religious traditions. So what more specific part can Buddhism, which professes non-violence and love for all, play in public life? For me to make my main point, I need look no further than the first precept: not to take life. More than half the countries in the world have abolished capital punishment, which means that the state does not take life. Yet in the list of those which have no capital punishment figure only two Buddhist states, Bhutan and Cambodia. This despite the fact that there have been numerous studies of Prof.Richard F. Gombrich presented “Buddhism as a Resource for Peace and Progress : Who is Prepared to use it?” in Vesak Commemoration Lecture-2010 on May26,2010. หน้า 4

5 whether capital punishment lowers the crime rate by acting as a deterrent, all of which have concluded that it does not. So there is not even a pragmatic argument for retaining capital punishment: it is there only to satisfy the desire for revenge. What did Asoka do? Sometimes his language is difficult for us, and early European scholars believed that the fourth pillar edict showed that he retained the death penalty; but Prof K.R. Norman of Cambridge University showed, over thirty years ago, that this is a mistake, and the word which had been taken to refer to execution refers only to flogging.iv So Asoka is the first ruler in history recorded to have abolished the death penalty. Capital punishment usually follows a terrible crime such as murder, and such crimes are certainly detestable. That is why treating those criminals humanely really puts to the test whether we are sincere about out principles of love and non-violence. Of course, if someone murders a person dear to me, it is too much to expect me ever to love that murderer. That is why we have a judicial system, rather than allowing everyone to take the law into their own hands. But if I am a sincere Buddhist, how can I ask the state to kill on my behalf? And there is another point. Buddhism says that anyone who has done an evil deed will have to suffer for it: that is the law of karma and retribution. If we sincerely believe in that fundamental Buddhist tenet, how can we justify multiplying the violence by making judge and executioner too commit murders? This too is nauseating hypocrisy. Make no mistake: the state that uses the death penalty is to that extent corrupting its citizens and going against the Buddha’s teaching. I was present at a huge international Wesak conference, organised by the Thai Sangha, when at a panel session a Norwegian proposed from the floor that the death penalty was incompatible with Buddhist principles and should be abolished. I was shocked by the panel’s glib response: that this was a difficult question to resolve, because many people in Thailand favour the death penalty. So is it the duty of the Sangha to lead on moral issues, or to follow the crowd? Perhaps I should not have been surprised. This was in Thailand, where there is a law that anyone who is deemed to show disrespect to a member of the Royal Family, for instance by failing to stand when the national anthem is played, may be tried in camera and sent to prison. I am told that there is no such legal sanction on showing disrespect to the Buddha or Buddhism. I find it interesting to note that while in Christian countries Jesus receives more legal protection than the head of state, let alone the whole Royal Family, the Thais prefer it the other way round. Similarly, Thai schoolchildren daily promise to venerate the Thai nation, the Buddhist religion and the King, in that order.

Prof.Richard F. Gombrich presented “Buddhism as a Resource for Peace and Progress : Who is Prepared to use it?” in Vesak Commemoration Lecture-2010 on May26,2010. หน้า 5

6 But I do not intend to single out Thailand. After all, the Norwegian spoke against the death penalty in front of Sangha members from every Theravada country, and none of them spoke up to support him. Were the Lord Buddha with us today, there are many things besides the death penalty which – and I say this with the deepest respect – would make him weep with rage and despair. In the few minutes I have, I do not intend to try to catalogue them. I shall say a few words about just two of them: nationalism and sexism; and because sexism is rather a hackneyed theme I shall mainly talk of nationalism. It is perfectly national and unobjectionable for people to feel warmly towards their own family circle, and beyond that towards those for whom they feel an affinity because of shared language, customs and experiences. But there is not a word in the teachings of the Lord Buddha – or for that matter of either Jesus Christ or the Prophet Mohammed – which can justify mistreating anyone simply on the grounds that they differ from us or are in some way a stranger to us. Buddhism, Christianity and Islam are called the universal religions precisely because they are for everyone, equally. Look, then, at Buddhism today. The outside world thinks that Buddhists are Buddhists and so surely birds of a feather must flock together. How little the world knows, alas. It is undeniable that if there is one Buddhist whom the whole world admires and venerates, it is the Dalai Lama. Yet in the late 1950s, for example, the ostentatiously Buddhist government of Sri Lanka refused to join in any criticism of the mass murder of monks and destruction of monasteries in Tibet, and Sri Lankan Buddhist governments have continued to deny support to the Dalai Lama. They even suggest that he is the wrong kind of Buddhist, as if the lives and welfare of Mahayana Buddhists had no call on the concern or sympathy of Theravadins. This is both morally repugnant and breathtakingly ignorant. I doubt that one in a thousand of the Dalai Lamas Theravadin critics has read even one of his wonderful books, so full of the true Buddhism which transcends any sectarian difference. The case is similar with the ordination of nuns. There are plenty of fully ordained and respected Buddhist nuns in the Far East. Theravadins, particularly monks, are fighting a rearguard action against acknowledging their legitimacy, saying that they are just Mahayanists. They thus ignore the fact that the Chinese imported the nuns’ ordination succession from Sri Lanka in the 5th century AD. As a passionate admirer of Theravada, I declare that I regard the Sangha’s majority attitude as a kind of mass suicide. No religion which so absurdly discriminates against women can continue to flourish in today’s world. We have all had to witness on television, if we could bear to look at the Prof.Richard F. Gombrich presented “Buddhism as a Resource for Peace and Progress : Who is Prepared to use it?” in Vesak Commemoration Lecture-2010 on May26,2010. หน้า 6

7 screen, how the government of Myanmar, another country which claims to be Buddhist, has tortured and murdered Buddhist monks. Have the Sangha councils of Sri Lanka and Thailand protested or attempted any kind of intervention, even at the merely verbal level? I believe not. One may aptly say that they have been silent as the grave. Of course, many individuals, both monks and laity, have tried to do their best, a few heroically; and I know that one of them sits in my audience; but they have to operate without official approval from the authorities both clerical and lay. This moral cowardice reflects the fact that the Theravada Buddhist Sanghas of Sri Lanka and SE Asia regard with suspicion not merely Mahayana Buddhists but also Theravadins of different nationality. Petty differences in custom are magnified, perhaps even created, to show that the Sanghas of a foreign nationality are not quite the thing. This has a pernicious effect on Buddhism among national diasporas. While it is natural that a Sinhalese, Burmese or Thai Buddhist may wish to attend a temple where their own language is spoken, the degree to which viharas of different national origin ignore each other is deplorable and surely counter-productive. I am afraid that everywhere among Buddhists today nationality tends to trump religion. For example, the London Buddhist Vihara, the central institution of the Sinhala Buddhist tradition in Britain, is in perpetual difficulty because it cannot register as a charity and thus reap the great financial advantages of charitable status. And why is that? Because by law a British charity, not unreasonably, has to be controlled in Britain, but the descendants of the family of Anagarika Dharmapala in Sri Lanka refuse to relinquish administrative control and insist on running the Maha Bodhi Society as their fiefdom. The proprietary attitude of the Maha Bodhi Society towards Buddhism, which it also displays in India, is unedifying and un-Buddhist, but there are worse things. As a lover of Sinhalese Buddhism, what I have to read about parts of the Sinhalese Sangha these days grieves me deeply. Only this last Sunday, for instance, there was a long, prominent and generally quite well informed article about Sri Lanka in The Independent. It explained that “the views of some Sri Lankan monks diverge sharply from the pacific Buddhist norm.” It also quotes recent evidence for that. The monks who compose battle hymns or carry guns are indeed a minority, but are they ever reprimanded by their monastic superiors? They should be disgraced and disrobed; but I wonder whether there has been a single instance of that. For a generation Sri Lanka has suffered the agony of civil war and we are all glad that at least that is over. In the end the Tamil Tigers were totally defeated. They murdered and tortured, spreading havoc and unspeakable suffering. Their victims were all who opposed them and a great many who just wanted to remain neutral and uninvolved. In the final battle many Prof.Richard F. Gombrich presented “Buddhism as a Resource for Peace and Progress : Who is Prepared to use it?” in Vesak Commemoration Lecture-2010 on May26,2010. หน้า 7

8 were used as human shields, but demonic policies of that kind had been carried out for years. The territory the Tigers controlled was mainly inhabited by Tamils, and a moment’s reflection will show that they inflicted at least as much suffering on Tamils as on Sinhalese. Yet how many Buddhist monks are now working to help the Tamils? There have been pitifully few attempts since Independence even to bring Buddhism to Sri Lanka’s Tamils, because missions to the West seem more glamorous. In the same way the Buddha’s lessons on how to treat all humans with respect and generosity, so that they will never feel the need to take up arms in poverty and anger, need to be learnt and acted upon. “Never in this world is hostility appeased by hostility; it is appeased by lack of hostility.” We all know it makes sense. The resource is at hand. But will anyone decide to use it?

Prof.Richard F. Gombrich presented “Buddhism as a Resource for Peace and Progress : Who is Prepared to use it?” in Vesak Commemoration Lecture-2010 on May26,2010. หน้า 8

References to Pali texts are to the editions of the Pali Text Society. Verse 5. ii D¥gha Nikåya I, 135. iii Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. iv “Aßoka and Capital Punishment”, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 1975, 1, pp.16-24.
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