The Buddhist Beliefs in Pacifism

by Ocean Malandra

Pacifism, which means refusing to use violence to settle disputes or resist the actions of others, is one of the core teachings of the Buddha. It is the complementary and obvious counterpart of the essential goal of Buddhism: to cultivate limitless compassion and goodwill to all living beings. The rational for pacifism is based on the Buddhist concept of Karma, the idea that hurting others hurts oneself. This dynamic is common to most major religions and is known generally as the "Golden Rule".

The Dhammapada

In the Dhammapada, one of the oldest and most widely read collected sayings of the Budhha, the issue of violence is addressed directly in Chapter 10, which opens with the teaching "All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill". Later in the same chapter the Buddha states "...having set aside violence towards all beings — he, truly, is a holy man, a renunciate, a monk."

The Parable of the Saw

In the Parable of the Saw, which is recorded in the Kakacupama Sutta, the Buddha even goes a step further, telling monks not to react with hatred or ill will even when acted upon violently. He tells them to imagine a group of bandits severing them limb by limb with a saw blade and then instructs them to remain "full of concern and pity, with a mind of love" and in this way train to become enlightened.

The Life of Milarepa

One of the highest regarded saints in Tibetan Buddhism, Milarepa, offers a fascinating glimpse into the redeeming power of pacifism. As a young man Milarepa was born into a life of violence, a family feud, and ends up killing several of his relatives with black magic as a young man. Milarepa then suffers tremendously for his actions, experiencing all the bad karma he has caused. After years of studying with various teachers and meditating in caves he finally reaches full enlightenment, illustrating the Buddhist belief that all humans are redeemable, even the most violent ones, if they sincerely renounce their bad actions.

Buddhist Pacifism in Practice

Just like in all major religions, theory and history often diverge, and many Buddhist societies have engaged in war and other violent actions (Think WWII era Japan, when Zen Buddhists supported the country's violent imperialism). But Buddhism has also offered the world two unequaled shining examples of the power of pacifism, with Tibet's nonviolent resistance to China's invasion sparking worldwide solidarity and the selfless actions of Vietnamese monks during the Vietnam War inspiring millions with their "Third Way", which resolves conflict through cooperative discussion instead of violence.

About the Author

Based in San Francisco, Ocean Malandra is a travel writer, author and documentary filmmaker. He runs a major San Francisco travel website, is widely published in both online and print publications and has contributed to several travel guidebooks to South America.

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