Buddhism and Violence: Peaceful or Violent Religion?


For many in Western countries, violence and Buddhism would be a strange topic to talk about.

Most people have a preconception about pacifist monks who are afraid to even step on an ant!

But nowadays it’s a hot topic in part to violence in Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand.  The topic even made the cover of Time magazine titled “The Face of Buddhist Terror“.

So, are Buddhists truly violent or pacifist?  Evil or good?  If you are just beginning your path in Buddhism or contemplating it, this is most understandably an important topic for you.

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To Be Painfully Obvious

Buddhism isn’t violent, human nature is.  ~ Alan Peto

Let’s start by getting the facts in the way:  Buddhists are regular people.  There, I said it.  We are unable to levitate in the air and fly among the clouds, we feel pain, have emotions, bleed when cut, suffer like people of any other religion (or no religion), and have individual minds (there is no mystical worldwide mind collective here).

This means that as a Buddhist, you are free to think and feel as you’d like and take your own actions (and the consequences that come with that).  There is no mystical Buddha floating in the sky observing everyone’s behavior and inflicting justice.  You create the repercussions (karma) for yourself and others, not some mysterious cosmic force.

A Buddhist can become a Buddha but still must face the challenges of being a human.  Buddhism isn’t violent, human nature is.

A Westerners Fantasy

Novice Buddhist Monks (CC0 via Pixbay)

The preconceptions and fantasies Westerners have about Buddhists are self-inflicted, and part of what they see.

The book Buddhist Warfare presents essays about how “violent” Buddhism truly is, its “dark side”, and the “propaganda” of non-violent Buddhism (they even use a picture of a young child Buddhist monk with a toy gun on the cover).  One of the authors, Michael Jerryson, wrote about his book and how he essentially was disillusioned while he was in southern Thailand and spoke to Monks who had guns for protection (Monks were being brutally killed by the Islāmic insurgency in southern Thailand).

What he leaves out that is that in countries where “Buddhism” is the majority religion (mainly Theravada Buddhism), many go into the monastic lifestyle for short periods of time (much like going away to college, or because they are expected to be a monk for a short time because their family desires it), so their commitment to the path isn’t always that clear.  Compared this to monastics we see in western countries that are often committed to the lifestyle for a lifetime.  Therefore, many Buddhist ‘monks’ are actually just there for a very short amount of time (often with high expectations from their family and community to do this required ‘service’ as part of becoming an adult), and then they return to their normal (non-monk) life.  Because of this, they may not know all the Buddhist teachings, or even practice it, like what we may expect from a monk that is deeply committed to the religion and the Buddhas teachings.

Jerryson said:

Our intention is not to argue that Buddhists are angry, violent people—but rather that Buddhists are people, and thus share the same human spectrum of emotions, which includes the penchant for violence.

So, save yourself over 20 bucks if you already knew that Buddhists were regular people like you and me.  If you want some real insight, read the article Bodhipaksa wrote.  As he stated:

The Buddha was completely uncompromising on the question of violence. When people are violent they’re not following the Buddha’s teachings.

Are There Exceptions?

A Buddhist who follows the teachings should strive not to kill, but there may be circumstances where it becomes necessary when all other options don’t work.  For example, if a Nazi was to kill a Jewish family during World War II, and no other action could have prevented it, then they could act.  Or take an example of a Police Officer responding to the scene of a school shooting where the shooter is still ‘active’ and their main priority is to stop them from killing.  All these actions, even when protecting the innocent from true violence, have consequences for all involved.  But the consequence of not acting can be even more damaging.

The 14th Dali Lama gave some insight into this as well.  He said in 2011 after Osama Bin Laden’s death:

Forgiveness doesn’t mean forget what happened. … If something is serious and it is necessary to take counter-measures, you have to take counter-measures.

In 2001, the Dalai Lama talked about how to react during a shooting:

But if someone has a gun and is trying to kill you, he said, it would be reasonable to shoot back with your own gun. Not at the head, where a fatal wound might result. But at some other body part, such as a leg.

None of these would be acceptable, however, if they were done out of violence and anger.

For example, this does not mean that “Buddhists” cannot defend themselves, to include being a soldier in the military.  They can be soldiers and Buddhists at the same time (and that is not a conflict).  What a true Buddhist cannot do, however, is being violent, have hatred, or anger.  When anyone does that, they are not following the teachings and path of the Buddha and are not a Buddhist.

While that sounds like it would be in conflict with being a soldier or protecting your home, or nation, it is not (which is explained in detail in my article on the Buddhist Soldier) if the actions of the military are there to protect and help, and not kill out of violence, hatred, and greed.  In fact, the Buddha even gave instructions on how to have a military that protects a nation.

Burma, Sri Lanka, and Thailand

Rakhine Buddhist monks pray for peace at the Sule pagoda in central Yangon June 12, 2012. REUTERS/Minzayar

The reason we are talking about violence and Buddhism in the same sentence today is aimed directly at the countries of Burma, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.  All three of these countries have majority Buddhist (Theravada Buddhism) populations and have also had violence mainly against minority Muslim groups.  They also see Buddhism as part of their national cultural and national (country) identity, rather than being purely religious, and feel a need to protect it as a result.

Just like the Time cover story, showing “Buddhists” as violent (based on their religious affiliation, rather than individuals) gathers attention and money.  For example, if all you read was from the news and other things on the internet, you may believe that Buddhist monks everywhere in Burma were killing and attacking Muslims.  So, seeing a video like this (from Al Jazeera) gives a different perspective, yet you’ve probably never even heard or seen it.

According to Al Jazeera:

More than 1,000 Muslims in Myanmar have taken shelter at a Buddhist monastery after violence in the north targeted followers of the Islamic faith. Those offering a home have distanced themselves from what they see as a small but radical group of Buddhists who are inflaming a religious divide.

 Original article page:  http://www.aljazeera.com/video/asia-pacific/2013/05/2013531193133115210.html.  However, here is another copy of that video placed on YouTube:

According to the Imam in Lashio, Burma:

If the attacks were based on Buddhism then we would not have been allowed to shelter in a Buddhist monastery. These monks have provided shelter and food to Muslims.  That support was offered to us as soon as the violence started.  No religion teaches violence.  ~ Enaamol Hasan, Imam

Major Buddhist monk leaders in Burma have also called out for a stop to the violence:

“I felt sorry for both Muslims and Buddhists,” said Venerable Ashin Sandadika. “If people from different religious groups show loving kindness to each other, the country will get peace. True compassionate love isn’t based on religion and race – we all need to spread such kindness and compassion to all different faiths.”

This is not to say there is no violence in these countries, but that this has nothing to do with religion (by any religion in these countries)   Often politics, money, greed, land, cultural differences, desire, power, fear, and human emotions on both sides have created the violence…not religion.  The Samyukta Agama explains this perfectly:

Returning anger with anger is evil.  Don’t return anger with anger.  Not being angry is always better than being angry.

Taking the Path of Nonviolence

All beings fear death and they all fear the pain of a club.  Think: how do they make you feel?  Then do not kill and do not club; live peacefully with all beings and do not add to the violence of this world.  Harm no one here and you will pass your next life in peace. ~ Shakyamuni Buddha (from the Dharmapada)

While some may regress to using violence, most other Buddhists follow the path which does not harm others.  However, what happens when the extremes of war and conflict come into play?

The most dramatic illustration in the face of conflict has been self-immolation (a topic and debate in its own right).  This has happened in recent years in Tibet to protest China but was most famously seen for the first time by Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc during the Vietnam war.

Ven. Thích Quảng Đức. Colorized photo by Neil Mohr on Flickr (CC License)

To protest and gain attention to the South Vietnamese government’s brutal and heavy-handed oppression of Buddhists (the majority religion), he performed an act of self-immolation.  At the time, this was shocking and made headlines across the world and had a direct impact (and that was the goal).  Compared to forcing action through violence, Ven. Thich Quang Duc upheld Buddhist ethics and could not hurt anyone else, so he did this instead.  The following video shows the self-immolation and is graphic:

Buddhist leaders such as Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh (also known as “Thay”) also emerged during this violent conflict and showed the path of peace, rather than violence, to create change.  Most notably, Thay created the Order of Interbeing which included the Fourteen Precepts of Engaged Buddhism (with one that required not killing and preventing others from killing).

Ven. Master Hsing Yun said this about killing in his book Being Good (Buddhist Ethics for Everyday Life):

Whenever we kill anything, we violate that being at the deepest level possible.  Killing, thus, is an action that must be avoided by all Buddhists.

On a larger scale, we often see how Buddhism (as a religion) doesn’t resort to violence when Buddhism is attacked.  For example, when the 6th century Buddha statues carved into the mountains of Bamiyan was blown up in Afghanistan by the Taliban, there was outcry (of course) but there were no wars, bombings, or other violence committed by Buddhists “in the name of Buddhism”.

Parting Thoughts on Buddhist Ethics and Violence

As a Buddhist (or beginning Buddhist), you can rest assured that Buddhism is not violent and does not preach nor condone it.  While there may (unfortunately) always be a few cults and teachers promoting their own causes, this is not the true Buddhist way.

I believe this article by Stephen Jenkins in The Guardian sums up what a true Buddhist should practice during conflicts if they are really following the path:

The Buddhist world is racked with violence and it has never been more important to understand Buddhist ethics. These include never acting in anger; exhausting alternatives such as negotiation; striving to capture the enemy alive; avoiding destruction of infrastructure and the environment; and taking responsibility for how one’s actions and exploitation cause enemies to arise. They also emphasise the great psychic danger to those who act violently, something we see in the large number of suicides among youth sent to these wars. Above all, rather than “national self-interest”, the guiding motivation should be compassion.


Article Notes:

  • Featured Photo:  CC photo by andrewjudededo on Flickr

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