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Buddhism and Pacifism: The Buddha’s Path of Peace

Among world religions, Buddhism is unique in its embrace of peace in all its teachings and its condemnation of violence at every level. Not once will one find a scriptural passage in which the Buddha approves of violence of any form. Unlike many of his contemporaries who advocated animal sacrifice, and unlike the many religious teachers who came after him promoting violence against so-called “evil”-doers or heathens, never does the Buddha advocate punishment, torture, revenge, killing living beings, nor causing physical harm to humans, animals, or even plants.

In the Pakinnaka-Vagga of the Dhammapada, a collection of the teachings of the Buddha, it is stated:

“Those disciples of Gotama ever awaken happily whose minds by day and night delight in the practice of non-violence.”

(Dhp XXI 300)

Here, the Buddha (whose clan name was Gotama) is said to be a proponent of the practice of peace. In practicing non-violence, an actively pacifistic current emerges in the Buddha’s teachings. Not only does one refrain from violence, one also actively practices non-violence.

In a passage from the Sutta-Nipāta that dates to the earliest teachings of the Buddha, we find the Buddha denouncing killing not only directly but indirectly through influence upon others. Not killing, in the Buddha’s doctrine, naturally follows from not injuring:

“He should not kill a living being, nor cause it to be killed, nor should he incite another to kill. Do not injure any being, either strong or weak, in the world.”

Dhammika Sutta (Snp 2.14)

Thus is non-violence extended to all beings. In ancient and modern times alike, one often hears of battles waged across kingdoms or nations, cultures and civilizations in which women and children are to be spared, but the opposition, often male soldiers from the enemy clan, must be killed for the protection of one’s own religious or political values. Yet in the Buddha’s teaching, peace is to be practiced toward all beings, whether weak or strong, whether defenseless or capable of defense. This egalitarian approach to the extension of peace universally derives from the vision of equality with which the Buddha taught to regard the world.

In treating all beings with equal respect, one naturally loses the tendency to form strong preferences or unhealthy attachments to some while maintaining aversion to others. For instance, in another passage from the Sutta-Nipāta, the Buddha combines the doctrine of pacifism with that of renunciation of social attachments:

“Renouncing violence for all living beings, harming not even a one, you would not wish for offspring, so how a companion? Wander alone like a rhinoceros.”

Khaggavisana Sutta (Snp 1.3)

Many of these admonitions of non-violence stem from the Buddha’s teachings on anger. Often a motivating force for violence, anger is likened to fire by the Buddha. Its capacity to burn and do damage is enormous when uncontrolled.

“You make things worse when you flare up at someone who’s angry. Whoever doesn’t flare up at someone who’s angry wins a battle hard to win.”

Akkosa Sutta (SN 7.2)

“A man conquered by anger is in a mass of darkness. He takes pleasure in bad deeds as if they were good, but later, when his anger is gone, he suffers as if burned with fire. He is spoiled, blotted out, like fire enveloped in smoke.”

Kodhana Sutta (AN 7.60)

As a means of tempering anger with non-reactivity, the Buddha suggests exercising restraint of oneself.

“Though one may conquer a thousand times a thousand men in battle, yet he indeed is the noblest victor who conquers himself.”

Dhammapada 103

“Provoked with many words from contemplatives or ordinary people, he shouldn’t respond harshly, for those who retaliate aren’t calm.

Tuvataka Sutta (Snp 4.14)

“The fool thinks he has won a battle when he bullies with harsh speech, but knowing how to be forbearing alone makes one victorious.”

Samyutta Nikaya I, 163

One of the Buddha’s disciples, the bhikkhu Brahmadatta, reiterates this teaching in the Theragatha, a collection of verses by elder monks:

“You live for the good of both — your own, the other’s — when, knowing the other’s provoked, you mindfully grow calm.”

(Thag 6.12)

Thus are anger and violence abandoned, teaches the Buddha. Thus are non-violence and peace, both peace of mind and peace within the world, attained.

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