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Buddhism and Nonviolence
|It is truly a great honor to have
been invited to address you. I am going to speak about Buddhism and
nonviolence in public life.
We all know that the Buddha recommended that one should not say anyothing unless it is both true and pleasant, and that is surely an admirable principle for private life. Inpublic life, however, it is sometimes necessary to say things that may not be welcome. We should not and do not admire politicians or other leaders of public institutions who try to conceal unpleasant facts from the public. This is a public occasion, and I hope you will forgive me if not everything I say is pleasant and reassuring.
My first theme, therefore, has to be the relation between Buddhism and public life. I shall argue that Buddhism has a clear and cogent vision of the relation between religion and politics, and that the Sangha and politicians have quite different parts to play; but that to say simply that Buddhism must be kept out of politics is dangerous and absurd.
I shall then go on to argue that public life, all over the world, is in desperate need of the Buddha’s wisdom. I believe that while we who are 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 self congratulation: 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. I shall therefore explain how, in my view, Buddhist principles of peace and love have to be applied in a state’s internal affairs on the one hand and in foreign policy on the other.
So I begin with the relation between religion and politics. In ancient India, even before the time of the Buddha, a tradition became established concerning the relations between what we would now call church and state. A noble ruled, and wielded the real power; but he was not recognized as the legitimate ruler unless he had been consecrated by a brahmin. The brahmin priest then became the king’s chief adviser, his prime minister. Brahmins were the hereditary bearers and transmitters of wisdom and learning. In theory, atleast, brahmins did not become kings, and kings could not become brahmins, The brahmin and the king complemented each other: the brahmin knew, at least in principle, what should be done and the king carried it out. Although this theory did not, of course, always represent what actually happened, it has represented the publicly acknowledged ideal in Hindu kingdoms for perhaps three thousand years.
The Buddha criticized the brahmins and their theories in many ways. The religious practice of brahmins centered on ritual and they were society’s main ritual specialists. The Buddha substituted ethics for ritual. In fact, the commonest word for ritual in brahminism, karma, came in Buddhism to denote any action with an ethical value, good or bad, right or wrong. The path towards salvation, nibbana, began not with rituals but with ethical understanding and behavior. Those who cared most about their own spiritual progress were supposed to join the Sangha, to become monks or nuns. Buddhist monks and nuns are thus the religious specialists in Buddhist societies, and in those societies, they occupy a position closely analogous to that occupied by brahmins in Hindu societies. The ruler is supposed to turn to them for advice on matters of principle, since as bearers of the Buddhist tradition they have special expertise in ethics. It is up to the expertise of others then to put those ethical principles into practice. The ruler has the duty to support the Sangha, since that is the first practical step towards supporting Buddhism. On the other hand, if the king does his duty towards Buddhism, the Sangha should reciprocate by lending him their active support.
As we all know, the Buddha preached what is firstand foremost a way for each individual to make spiritual progress. The path to the goal of Nibbana consists of ethics, meditation and understanding. What counts towards this goal can only go on in the individual mind. Moreover, every adult is free to devote their life exclusively to this goal, which they should do by becoming a monk or nun. Joining the Sangha will give them the opportunity to devote all their time and effort to ethics, meditation, and realization of the highest truth.
But we also know that the Buddha never envisaged that everyone, or even the majority, would join the Sangha. Indeed, the Sangha could not survive physically without the material support of the laity. Every time the Buddha lays down a Vinaya rule, he says that this is done for reasons which prominently include enlisting the support of the laity. Buddhist laity in fact have the same duty as a Buddhist ruler, only on the more modest scale appropriate to their position. They are to support the Sangha; and they are to do their best to follow the Buddhist rules of morality, which are summarized not only in the five rules of selfrestraint which they are supposed to repeat every day, the panca sila [ed: five precepts], but also in the positive principles of generosity and kindness – dAna and metta. There is only one Buddhist path, but the laity and the Sangha have complementary roles, much like the brahmin and the Hindu king. It was not envisaged in traditional village society that a layperson would have the chance to do much meditation and thus to acquire the subtle understanding that meditation could bring. Ethics, however, apply to all: they are the very foundation of the Buddha’s teaching.
Certain wellknown texts in the Pali Canon illustrate the above points. How the Buddhist [layperson] is to apply ethics [into] daily life is spelt out in the most detail in the Singalovada Sutta. Most relevant for my theme today, however, is the advice that the Buddha gives to rulers. The general ethical principle is stated in the Dhammapada:  "Never in this world is hostility appeased by hostility; it is appeased by lack of hostility." In the Kutadanta Sutta this is memorably applied to politics. 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. This will require 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 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 organize 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 in their laps will live, I think, with open doors." 
Those who claim that Buddhism has no place in politics have apparently forgotten the great Indian emperor Asoka, who ruled almost the entire subcontinent for over thirty years in the middle of the third century BC, and whose edicts show that he drew all his principles from the Buddha’s teaching. I shall return to Asoka very soon. But first I want to answer anyone who says that Asoka is all very well, but that was long ago, and it is the conditions of the modern world which demand that religion keep out of politics. Let us glance, then, at the modern western world. In many European states one of the main parties calls itself Christian Democrat or Christian Socialist. In fact, as a great 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 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 favor 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 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 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.
Those who say that they want to keep religion out of politics often 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."  Politicians usually prefer that sentiment to the antiwar views held by some of the great religious traditions.
Let me make one other point about ethics. 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 itis directed to our enemies, or others whom it is hard to love.
So what part can Buddhism, which professes nonviolence 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 whether capital punishment lowers the crime rate by acting as a deterrent, all of which have concludedthat it does not. So there is not evenapragmatic argumentfor retaining capital punishment: it is there only to satisfy the desire for revenge.
Should that desire for revenge be satisfied? Capital punishment usually follows a terrible crime such as murder, and such crimesare certainly detestable. That is why treating those criminals humanely really puts to the test whether we are sincere about out principles of love and nonviolence. 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? Buddhism says that anyone who has done an evil deed will have to suffer for it: that is the law of karma and retribution. Why multiply the violence by making judge and executioner also commit murder? In the Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta the Buddha describes how a king has a thief executed, but this only begins a vicious circle of violence.  In the Temiya Jataka  the Buddha is born as a king’s heir apparent. He is taken to his father while the latter is on his judgment seat sentencing criminals to violent punishments, including death. There is no suggestion that these sentences are improper: the king is only doing what is expected of him. But the baby future Buddha remembers that in a former life he too was a king who sentenced people to death, and that as a consequence he had to undergo torment in hell for eighty thousand years. 
If we seek a model of nonviolent Buddhist rule, we have one to hand in the emperor Asoka. I would like every school system in every country to teach its pupils not only something about the Buddha’s teachings, but also about how Asoka put many of them into practice. The inscriptions he left recorded how much he curtailed the use of violence against both men and animals. Sometimes his language is difficultfor 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, some thirty years ago, this is a mistake, and the word which had been taken to refer to execution refers only to flogging.  So Asoka is the first [known] ruler in history recorded to have abolished the death penalty.
Make no mistake: the state that uses the death penalty is to that extent corrupting its citizens and going against the Buddha’s teaching.
If it is wrong, by Buddhist standards, to kill people who have been found guilty after a trial, what can one say of killing suspected criminals who have not been brought to trial? One context in which this happens, as we regularly read in the newspapers, is when a whole segment of the population is at odds with the government. Violence seems to be the way to deal with such an uprising. Yet the Buddha’s advice which I have already quoted from the Kutadanta Sutta teaches us that this meeting hostility with hostility is not only unethical but likely to make matters worse. If we feel that the rebels do not deserve our kindness, we may have to grit our teeth in order to show self restraint, but that is a small price to pay for saving so many lives and so much suffering in the longer run.
Note that I am not arguing for pacifism. This is where 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 elected 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. Countries need defense forces to deter attack, and potential aggressors need to know that those forces may be used. There is all the difference between aggression and defense, between initiating violence and responding to it. Here we return to the greatest Buddhist ruler, the emperor Asoka. In his thirteenth major rock edict he told the world how much he regretted having waged war on the people of Kalinga. He hoped never to have to do such a thing again. But he also warned his neighbors that while he would "tolerate what could be tolerated" (his words), they should not provoke him. That surely is the right way for a government to minimize violence.
Though the first responsibility of a ruler is towardshis own people, that cannot excuse callous disregard for the lives of others, let alone policies which needlessly bring death to foreigners. In these respects fearsome Buddhist governments have disgraced themselves. In the late 1950s, for example, the ostentatiously Buddhist government of Sri Lanka refused to join in any criticism of the killing of monks and destruction of monasteries in Tibet, and Sri Lankan Buddhist governments have continued to deny support to the Dalai Lama, even suggesting 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. Equally distressing things continue to happen even now. In Britain we have recently seen for ourselves on the BBC news how in Myanmar, not far from the Thai border, large numbers of men, women and children are being killed and their homes and property destroyed to clear land for hydroelectric power schemes in order to sell cheap electricity to Thailand. This murder of innocent Buddhist citizens may well be going on even as I am talking to you.
There is a story that Mahatma Gandhi was once asked what he thought of British civilization. He replied, "I think it would be a good idea." I venture to suggest that Buddhist nonviolence too would be a good idea. We cannot pretend that we do not know what is going on next door. If anyone in this assembly has any influence, let them use it.
References to Pali texts are to the editions of the Pali Text Society:
Source: tyuit yiyu yuioyui yuiyu yuiyui yuiyuyo iuoyoiu
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last updated: xx-xx-xxxx