Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
Editor: I am introducing a new contributor to Engage! Brian Daizen Victoria presents his essay on the uses of Buddhist Dharma to justify violence. It’s a concise and important read because it identifies the ways that supposedly “non-violent”, “compassionate” Buddhism has been used to justify extreme levels of Buddhist violence towards others, even war and genocide.. —Shaun Bartone
by Brian Daizen Victoria
As Buddhism makes it home in the West, it faces many challenges, not the least of which is the relationship, both doctrinal and historical, to the question of violence. Many in the West, Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, believe that Buddhism is the one religion, perhaps the only one, that has not been connected to violence. On the surface, there appears to be ample support for this belief, for in the Dhammapada Śākyamuni Buddha taught: “All persons tremble at being harmed, all persons fear death; remembering that you are like unto them, neither strike nor slay.” Furthermore, regardless of sectarian affiliation, the very first precept that both Buddhist clerics and laity pledge to follow is: “Not to kill.” How then could someone claiming to be a Buddhist faith justify the use of violence?
Violence as a Product of Karma
The concluding chapter of what is probably the most famous Mahāyāna scripture in East Asia, the Lotus Sūtra, states that those who dare to criticize followers of the Lotus Sūtra will be afflicted with terrible physical deformities and ailments lasting over many lifetimes. For centuries, thousands upon thousands of persons with physical and mental disabilities, including their families, have had to endure discrimination, ridicule, isolation, harsh treatment, and worse as a result of their alleged past evil karma. In WW II Japan, Buddhist priests explained to the bereaved families of dead soldiers that the reason their loved ones had died on the battlefield was solely due to their past karma. In other words, they had it coming. This same understanding of karma was used to explain why the rich are rich, due to their good karma, and the poor are poor, due to their evil deeds in the past.
Violence as a Product of Rebirth
The popular understanding of rebirth among Buddhists has aided in reducing the significance of death on the battlefield to the point that it is regarded as but little more than one part of the broader cycle of life and death. During WW II, Japanese Buddhist priests used the doctrine of rebirth as one method of reducing the grief (and anger) of family members at the death of loved ones on the battlefield. For example, Sōtō Zen scholar-priest Yamada Reirin included the following in his book Zengaku Yawa (Evening Talks on Zen Studies): “The true form of the heroic spirits [of the dead] is the good karmic power that has resulted from their loyalty, bravery, and nobility of character. This cannot disappear . . . . The body and mind produced by this karmic power cannot be other than what has existed up to the present . . . . The loyal, brave, noble, and heroic spirits of those officers and men who have died shouting, ‘May the emperor live for ten thousand years!’ will be reborn right here in this country. It is only natural that this should occur.”
Violence as “Skillful Means” (Upāya)
The Upaya-kaushalya Sūtra (Skillful Means Sūtra) contains the doctrinal justification for the use of violence-affirming skillful means. While still a Bodhisattva and ship’s captain, Śākyamuni Buddha discovered a robber onboard his ship who was planning to rob and kill all of the passengers. Śākyamuni ultimately decided to kill the robber, not only for the sake of the passengers but also to save the robber from the karmic consequences of his murderous acts. The negative karma from killing the robber should have accrued to Śākyamuni but it did not, for, as he explained: “Good man, because I used ingenuity out of great compassion at that time, I was able to avoid the suffering of one hundred thousand kalpas of samsāra [the ordinary world of form and desire] and that wicked man was reborn in heaven, a good plane of existence, after death.” In 1930s Japan, Buddhist-trained terrorists used the related phrase, “Killing one to save many” to justify the domestic assassinations they carried out.
Violence as the Expression of Compassion
The Sanskrit Mahāparinirvāna Sūtra relates how Śākyamuni Buddha killed several high-caste Brahmins in a previous life to prevent them from slandering the Dharma. Śākyamuni’s compassion here is said to have originated out of his desire to save the Brahmins from the karmic consequences of their slander. During WWII, two Sōtō Zen scholars claimed that Japan was motivated by the highest ideals of Buddhism:
“Were the level of wisdom of the world’s people to increase, the causes of war would disappear and war cease. However, in an age when the situation is such that it is impossible for humanity to stop wars, there is no choice but to wage compassionate wars which give life to both oneself and one’s enemy. Through a compassionate war, the warring nations are able to improve themselves, and war is able to exterminate itself.”
Violence in Defense of the Dharma
In the Sanskrit Mahāparinirvāna Sūtra, followers are admonished to protect the Dharma at all costs, even if this means using weapons to do so and breaking the prohibition against taking life. Similarly, in the Gandavyuha Sūtra an Indian king named Anala is singled out for praise because he “made killing into a divine service in order to reform people through punishment.” In Sri Lanka the Mahavamsa, written in the 6th century CE, lauds the piety of Sinhalese Buddhist King Duttugamunu whose army, accompanied by monks, placed Buddhist relics on their spears as they drove Tamil rivals out of Sri Lanka and united the whole of the island under the king’s control. As modern Sinhala Buddhist scholar-priest Walpola Rahula noted: “From this time the patriotism and the religion of the Sinhalese became inseparably linked. The religio-patriotism at that time assumed such overpowering proportions that both bhikkhus [monks] and laymen considered that even killing people in order to liberate the religion and the country was not a heinous crime.”
Violence as Nonviolence Due to Selflessness
There are numerous examples throughout Asian history in which Buddhists have used the doctrine of “no-self” and its derivatives to discount the notion that the killing of a no-self amounts to killing at all. In the seventeenth century, the
famous Rinzai Zen Master Takuan wrote: “The uplifted sword has no will of its own, it is all of emptiness. It is like a flash of lightning. The man who is about to be struck down is also of emptiness, and so is the one who wields the sword. None of them are possessed of a mind that has any substantiality. As each of them is of emptiness and has no ‘mind,’ the striking man is not a man, the sword in his hands is not a sword, and the ‘I’ who is about to be struck down is like the splitting of the spring breeze in a flash of lightning.”
Violence as a Manifestation of Samādhi Power on the Battlefield
In Buddhism, samādhi refers to the concentrated state of mind, that is, the mental “one pointedness,” achieved through the practice of meditation. During WWII, Japanese Zen leaders, including D. T. Suzuki, emphasized the effectiveness of samādhi-power on the battlefield. They all agreed that Zen meditation was the fountainhead of this power, a power as available to wartime Japanese soldiers as it had once been to samurai warriors. Japanese Buddhist domestic terrorists also availed themselves of samādhi-power when carrying out assassinations.
In providing this sampling of Buddhism’s connection to violence, it is not the author’s intent to suggest that the preceding doctrinal evidence or religious practice accurately expresses the Buddha Dharma. Yet, the above material is part of the historical record. As painful as it may be, those attracted to Buddhism in the West need, first of all, to recognize the existence of this connection and then decide what to do about it. Denial is not a solution.