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A Buddhist Perspective on Violence

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Buddhism is widely perceived as a religion of non-violence and people often quote from the Dhammapada: 'Hate does not appease hate' and 'Do good, refrain from wrong, purify the mind'. I thought as part of this exploration I would surf the internet for some resources and then was reminded by the search outcomes of some of the Buddhist countries and their use of violence, especially Burma. With the training that I have had as a Buddhist I am reminded to reflect (a non-thinking process) [1] or contemplate (a thinking process) on the subject.


As with all religions, the religions in themselves are empty unless they have people. It's not the religion that kills, it is people who kill other people. Abbot Ajahn Sumedho at Amaravati, the monastery where I live, says if people would just keep the First Buddhist Precept and did not kill humans for just one day, what an effect it would have on the world! You can apply the same precept of not killing to our thoughts and that would have a profound effect. I always like to explore the words – terrorism – the root of terrorism is terror or fear.


Buddhist scriptures do not say much about fear or stress. Indeed most Asian languages that have a Buddhist influence do not have direct translations for the words 'fear' and 'stress'. Most Asian monks coming to the West over the last few decades were completely baffled by Westerners talking about stress or fear: the Buddha only talked about suffering, although this is not a good translation of what the Buddha was describing. The word fear does not appear in the Buddhist Scriptures very much, it was just not something people focused their energy on. Things have changed in Asian countries, so these words have become more common and Asian monks now understand Western ways a bit more. The other part of terrorism is 'ism'. An 'ism' is a dogma or theory, so terrorism is a theory of fear. It's the way other people frighten us.


Is it all in the mind?


The Buddhist attitude is one of learning how to use the mind so that we are in control of it, and it is not in control of us. The control is not one of reins and restraints but understanding. Fear has a natural use, it's like when you're walking through the jungle and you see a big tiger your body says 'whoa' – the body is designed to take all the energy from non-essential resources and focus your mind. Your body gets wound up ready to fight or run. Are you excited right now? It's very exciting fear, it makes you feel alive. That's why so many people like funfairs or dangerous sports: it makes them feel alive or just makes them feel that they have a body. So, the idea is that after the tiger goes away, you calm down, let go of the fear and carry on. Unfortunately, most people are unable to do the last part, and so they hold the fear and continue feeding the fear. Their systems are always in a state of anxiety or stress: they want to fight you or run away from you. It's not a very peaceful place. When you learn how your mind/body works, then you can respond to a situation much more easily.


A terrorist, on the other hand, is in the same situation as the person or persons they are applying the violence to. An 'ist' is a person that adheres to a certain doctrine or custom. A terrorist believes the only way out is violence. The only response is violence. Again this is a person whose main mental state is fear: a person that is not in control of their mind. Here is an example that helps one understand this mental state as a monk. I was on the underground waiting for a train, when a very big muscular bloke started coming up to me. Now, as monks, we choose non-violence and yet the mind said this bloke is going to hit me and my heart was beating – I was a bit flustered. Anyway, I waited and he came up and I – to be honest – had my hand under my robe ready – just in case. As he came up to me he put his palms together and asked where he could get a certain Buddhist book from. I learnt a lot from that experience.


Is it anger?


Also we tend to confuse anger with violence and suppress people when they get angry, thus confusing it with violence. With babies, we tend not to respond in this way; we just say: 'Ah, the poor little thing needs something.' Actually, for myself, I think anger is the wrong word; it's more like passion. On a number of occasions we have had somebody come to the monastery and get rather upset and I'd just be with the person. For men, it is really important that we physically release the energy first and then see what is under that, because most of our energy is held in our muscles. Most people are unable to just be with the raw energy of passion, or even watch somebody expressing it in a safe way.


What's your intention?


There is a lot of talk about responsibility these days; the way I use that word is the ability to respond that does not imply a burden, or any 'shoulds' or 'should nots' – it's a flow, a knowing. This is a major problem with morality/ethics per se: religions tend to make morality a fixed set of rules. If you are in this situation, then do this – it's not very flexible. What goes along with morality in Buddhism is intention: what is your motivation for doing that act? Are you wanting to harm a person for the sake of a belief that you think is more important than another person's belief? Or are you wanting to protect that person? In Buddhism, if you are not clear with your intention, it's better not to act. The good/bad thing can get very complicated but a simple guideline is: would the same act done to yourself harm or hurt you? In Buddhist language, we watch our actions.


Action in the Buddhist scriptural language of Pali is kamma (karma in Sanskrit). Again put very simply it is that the result of your action will have some sort of effect. In scientific language it is cause and effect. Try and do something that you consider bad and then investigate how you feel. Try and do something good, notice how you feel. So, the point I'm making here with all this is that, unless you have met your own inner terrorist, the part of your make-up that wants to hurt somebody really badly, you are in no position to tell anybody else to stop doing that.


Two sides of the same coin


In Buddhism, we talk about the dualistic nature of the mind: when you have right you get wrong for free: when you have good, you get bad for free. It's like a coin – heads and tails – you don't just get tails. From the Buddhist Perspective, it is to know both and then observe both these states and, ultimately, free yourself from the whole thing by realising you are the whole thing anyway. As Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist, describes in his poem ‘Please Call Me by My True Names '

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.


In my opinion, the greatest tool to alleviate the cycle of terrorism is forgiveness. Forgiveness is a something that we do and we have to learn how to do.[2] Forgiveness has the word ‘give' in it - what can we give to that situation or person? We could simply remember that a person, however bad, must have done one good thing in their lives, even if it was to stroke a dog. From the Buddhist perspective of metta (loving kindness) we recognise the situation, it does not mean we agree or even like it, but we allow it to be what it is. We choose to use our energy in a way that leads firstly to our own inner harmony and then outward.

In February 2006 Carl Teichrib [3] wrote in an article on religion and war that in terms of statistics religions have not been the main perpetrators of wars. So the real jihad, a word that derives from Sanskrit, and as most Islamic people will tell you means striving/struggle. In Buddhist language the ‘right effort' to understand who we really are and how we can best serve one another and our communities. Here are a few more statistics [4]:

• You are more likely in America to die from a peanut allergy than a terrorist.
• Six times more people annually are killed by drunk drivers in America than were killed on 9/11.
• The number of deaths annually worldwide from terrorism since the State Department started recording them in 1960 is the same number of people who drown every year in a bathtub.

In conclusion I am suggesting the best effort is to know oneself thoroughly, to explore and investigate on all levels, in all areas, what is the truth. To know your own inner terrorists, and to turn that into one that serves you and the world. And a very helpful tool along the way is forgiveness. Please take what you like or none at all from all of this, the important thing is to notice how it affects you.


1 Reflecting is a non-thinking process - it’s one of opening to the way things are - it’s a recognition not an agreement. In order to be able to do this, an attitude of receiving is helpful - you need to have some space to do that. Space comes from stilling the mind; it’s a bit like adding watercolour to a pot of water - if you stir it up, it gets dirty; and if you stop stirring, the colour goes to the bottom and the water is clear. This receiving is like a mirror: a mirror does not judge you or give any viewpoint, it allows you to be the way you are. More information can be found at under teaching and e-articles (especially ‘Intuitive Awareness’ by Ajahn Sumedho).

2 A forgiving process I learnt from Binnie Dansby
3 Carl Teichrib wrote in an article on religion and war (February 2006) that can be accessed on the internet at
4 There was a fascinating article in the New York Review of Books, 30 November 2006, by Max Rodenbeck. In this article he reviews Harvard professor Louise Richardson’s book called What Terrorists want.

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