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Ajahn Jayasaro

Violence, Non-Violence and Education

A Buddhist Perspective


Na hi verena verani
Sammantidha kudacanam
Averana ca sammanti
Esa dhammo sanantano

At anytime in this world
Hatred never ceases by hatred
But through non-hatred it ceases.
This is an eternal law.

Dhammapada Verse 5

On Life and Death

Given the rarity of human birth and the advantages it confers for spiritual liberation, the sanctity of human life is stressed in the Buddhist teachings. Every single life, without exception, is sacred. 1 I would like to start by making a few remarks about the Buddhist attitude to the fundamental question of life and death. Despite the widespread dissemination of the Buddhist teachings in the West over the past fifty years or so, a number of misconceptions about them remain. One of the most unfortunate of these is the tendency to perceive in Buddhism a religion of indifference, one which gives scant importance to the sanctity of human life. In this presentation Buddhists are said to think that everything awful that happens to people is just their karma; in other words it is fated, it serves them right, it's their own fault. Buddhists believe, it is said, that the wise person should simply accept the workings of karma and remain calm and indifferent. This may sound somewhat familiar; it is however not at all what the Buddha taught. It is a view that misrepresents the nature of karma, and the wise relationship to it that the Buddha encouraged us to develop. Fatalism and passivity are not Buddhist teachings. How we respond to experiences is also karma.
2 On many occasions, the Buddha made it very clear that he considered birth in the human realm to be a wonderful thing. He said, »Monks, it is a great gain, it is great good fortune to be born as a human being.« Why? Well, firstly, due to the great difficulty of attaining such a birth and secondly, the unique advantages that it provides for the realization of enlightenment. In one of his most graphic similes, the Buddha described a small wooden hoop floating in the middle of a great ocean, from the surface of which every several hundred years a blind turtle emerges. The Buddha compared the chances of that blind turtle emerging in exactly the spot where that wooden hoop is floating, its head passing through the hoop, as exceeding those of a being wandering through various realms of existence being born as a human being. Given the rarity of human birth and the advantages it confers for spiritual liberation, the sanctity of human life is stressed in the Buddhist teachings. Every single life, without exception, is sacred.

Common Humanity

3 In Buddhism, we are encouraged to dwell on those truths which ennoble the mind. One of them is our common humanity. We learn to reflect on the things which bring us together rather than those things which separate us. Of course, the differences between each of us-even those born in the same country or in the same city or come from the same social background-are already considerable. But if we concentrate on those things that set us apart, then they will come to seem more and more real, and we will despair of finding true peace and harmony in our lives together in this world. The Buddha encouraged us to consider that all of us on this planet are companions: companions in birth, companions in old age, companions in sickness, companions in death.
4 We can see all around us the human desire to escape the pain of insecurity through identification with a group or belief system, to feel right or special or chosen. It is also clear how that desire encourages the exaggeration of ethnic, religious, or political differences, and engenders much needless conflict in the world. We grasp onto things so tenaciously even though they constantly let us down. So many people feel safe only by keeping their eyes tightly shut. And the remedy is simply to stop and look more closely – more devotedly and yet less dogmatically – at our human nature. Before we are Caucasians, Asians or Africans; before we are Buddhists, Christians or Muslims, we are vulnerable, mortal beings. It is an old truism that we are all just one big human family, but the familiar saying contains within it an invitation to transformation of the way we lead our lives. What I am advocating here is not so much a superficial acceptance of a cliché but for us to work hard for a more profound insight into the simple truth that lies behind the words. It would surely be impossible to get everyone in the world to see things the same way. Fortunately it is neither necessary nor indeed desirable. What is needed, I would like to suggest, is for us all to try to make the difficult journey of human life with a humble integrity and empathy based on wisdom.

Wisdom, Reflection and Education

enlarge Standing Buddha
5 Self-knowledge is praised by all religions. The problem is, of course, how to develop it. The Buddhist path is one of wisdom and reflection, and it is distinguished by its emphasis on the necessity for a comprehensive education of the way we live our lives. Unlike most animals, which after a few hours or a few days can fend for themselves, human beings are dependent for many years on their parents and teachers for survival and socialization. This long-term dependency is a defining characteristic of human beings; we become fully human through education rather than instinct. Seen in a positive light, this truth demonstrates our basic educatableness. That is an ungainly word that probably does not exist, but never mind. What I am trying to point to here is the wonderful innate capacity we have to learn and change in beneficial ways. Buddhism teaches uses to exercise this capacity to the fullest. It extends the concept of education to cover every aspect of our lives – the way we relate to the material world, the way we relate to the people around us and the society in which we live, the way we conduct our inner life; it encompasses the education of our moral, intellectual, emotional and spiritual life.
6 Buddhism considers the quest for a direct experiential understanding of the human condition as the heart of spiritual life. It employs a vast array of skillful means and ways of reflecting on life, from which people of other religious traditions, or indeed people of no religious tradition, might benefit. The more profound our understanding of our existence as human beings is, the more we are protected from blind identification with narrow categories, whether they be social, ethnic or religious. We all as human beings have the capacity to reflect on experience, to learn from it. Whatever religion we profess, we can, for instance, look at the effect on our mind of the strong attachment to ideas of us and them. Theists, atheists, polytheists are equally capable of observing how and what information we absorb from our surroundings, how we interpret that information, and how we express ourselves in our actions and words. We can begin to notice our tendency to believe in the labels we attach to things, and what strong negative emotions are conditioned by those beliefs.
7 As Buddhists, we devote ourselves to learning how to maintain clarity of mind, fundamental compassion and intelligence, as a constant inner refuge. It is not so difficult to be clear about issues which do not personally affect us, or those which provoke no strong feelings. The real challenge is to be awake even in the midst of a hurricane of emotions – when we are hurt, betrayed, angry and afraid. Clarity of mind means that when things get rough we can still receive the blessings of the principles we uphold. Inner clarity is thus the ground on which the dignity and meaning of life can grow. An inner refuge does not come easily. It can only be brought about by a thoroughgoing commitment to this life-education, a training of the way we live internally and externally. Buddhist teachings are seen then, in summary, not as dogmas to be believed in (or rejected), but tools to be made use of. We use the teachings to understand ourselves and our experiences in life, to understand other people and the world we live in. Then, basing ourselves on that understanding, we seek to create as much authentic happiness and benefit for ourselves and for others as we can.

No Fixed »Evil«

8 It is very easy to brand people who do terrible things as being evil, and perhaps almost as easy to assume that because we find evil acts repugnant, that therefore we are good. But when we look more closely, we see that our bogeyman, the so-called »evil people« sometimes act well and »good people« may, on occasion, act cruelly. There is no fixed entity, »the evil person«, who is evil 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year. Similarly – apart from fully enlightened beings – there is no unchangeably good person. That being the case, the most constructive response to the suffering that human beings inflict on each other is surely to seek to understand and affect the factors conditioning the arising and cessation of good and evil in the human mind. Armed with this knowledge, we may then look at ways of reducing the power of evil wherever it arises, no matter whether it be in the group of people that we consider as them, or within the group of people that we consider as us. At the same time, we must be constantly looking to develop and support those qualities – both within that group we consider them and that group we consider us – which are good, wise and compassionate. Our most pressing task though, because nobody else can do this for us, is look within our own hearts.
»The one, who takes wrong to be right and right to be wrong, and who thinks always of sensual pleasures, cannot be successful in finding the Truth.«

(Verse 11)
9 The approach being outlined here may seem idealistic, and certainly it is a long-term strategy. But even in the short-term, in dealing with traumatic events, it is the people who have made the effort to understand those inner qualities that purify the mind and those that sully it, that are most capable of mature, constructive responses. Of course, when a great wrong has been done on a national level, governments become involved. But in a society where people have been educated to look at the nature of fear, insecurity, rage, the desire for revenge and know them clearly for what they are, rather than believing in them blindly, it may be expected that, in every level, intelligence and compassion will be more likely to prevail. To a certain degree, Buddhism is optimistic about humanity. It is an optimism based on a strong belief in the innate human capacity to abandon evil, develop good qualities and purify our hearts.

Violence, Education and Morality

10 There are always going to be acts of violence and cruelty in human society. What we can do is to seek to minimize the causes and conditions for them to arise, and to maximize the causes and conditions for kindness and empathy to flourish. This is necessary on the individual psychological level, and also on the level of social and economic organization. All things occur as a function of causes and conditions. It is in our ability to investigate and discover the causes and conditions underlying existing phenomena and adapt our behavior wisely. Herein lies our hope for the future.
11 I would like to say a little more at this point about the Buddhist vision of wide-ranging education I mentioned earlier. It begins with moral conduct. In Buddhism, the teaching of morality differs somewhat from that of theistic religions. Moral standards are not considered to have been passed down from God through prophets to the human race; they are not to be known through the study of holy scripture. In Buddhism, we consider the morality or immorality of an act to depend on the volition of the actor. If the volition behind an act is accompanied by greed, hatred, delusion in any of its many forms, then the act is inevitably immoral. If, on the other hand, the volition is untainted by greed, hatred, delusion (i.e. is unselfish, kind, intelligent), then the act is moral. That being the case, we find here no justification whatsoever for acts of violence against other human beings. Whatever the provocation, Buddhists are proud of the fact that no war has ever been waged in the name of their religion. Certainly, Buddhists have conducted wars – and harsh ones too – but they have never been able to justify them on religious grounds. There have never been Buddhist jihads or crusades because the deliberate act of taking a life must, from a Buddhist perspective, always be wrong. The desire for revenge is considered both immoral and immature.
12 Linking morality to volition has certain implications. It means that to be consistently moral we need to educate ourselves about volition, not in the abstract as an intellectual exercise, but in the concrete present, as it manifests itself in our experience. The central role played by volition demands that we develop a power of introspection, of honesty and willingness, and an ability to look very clearly at our mind. We need to develop this form of education to the extent that we do not rationalize our cravings and fears so automatically, that we are unable to lie to our self as we used to do. In responding to a painful situation, for instance, we have to observe to what extent we are affected by the desire for justice, and to what extent for revenge. Is anger present, self-righteousness, fear? Are these wholesome or unwholesome qualities of mind to be trusted or not? Morality here then is not a matter of following a number of rules or commandments, but of using precepts as tools in which to be clearly aware of, and responsible for, the motives behind one's actions.

Threefold Training

An educated person, in the Buddhist view, is not only someone who can think rationally, analytically, but is also someone who can, on the necessary occasion, stop thinking altogether. 13 Although the moral training in Buddhism demands a certain amount of awareness, it is not the whole of the training. There are also specific practices for educating our emotions and discernment. Thus we refer to a threefold training, one which provides a framework within which to address the difficulties or dilemmas that we face in our lives. The training in morality is the foundation. It involves firstly the intelligent adoption of standards of conduct towards the external world and particularly other human beings, and then learning how to be mindful of them in daily life and bring them to bear on our behavior. It is at this level of the training that we see the central role of self-discipline.
14 But self-discipline is far from being a panacea for all our ills. We cannot decide not to get angry as an act of will, we cannot decide not to feel vengeful, we cannot decide not to have emotions. If we misapply self-discipline then we create the conditions for guilt and repression. Emotions are one natural part of our life. We have to understand them. Some emotions deserve to be cultivated, others do not. In our gardens we distinguish between weeds and flowers. Although we remove weeds we don't consider our garden evil for having them. So the first principle of training the emotions and mental states is that force doesn't work; intelligence, sincerity and patience do. The second can soon be clearly seen: the ability to abandon the unwholesome qualities in our minds and encourage the wholesome is conditioned to a great extent by our ability to focus and concentrate our mind. This aspect of mental culture has been neglected in the Western world for many centuries. An educated person, in the Buddhist view, is not only someone who can think rationally, analytically, but is also someone who can, on the necessary occasion, stop thinking altogether.
15 This absence of thought is by no means a blank dullness. There is a state which is neither sleep nor thought – and it is the fount of creativity. It is the state where in place of the usual hackneyed thoughts lurching along the same old beaten track, new insights can arise. The peaceful mind – the mind which is free of the mad gush of thought – has many choices; but the mind which is bound to a particular emotion, thought, to a particular way of looking at things, has few. The mind, which is bound to mental states, tends to see things as clear cut, black-and-white, and often over simplifies the complexities of situations; it reacts in habitual ways. The mind which can put down habitual thinking processes, stand back from the rush of thought and emotion, suddenly has access to far more choices and pathways.
16 A Buddhist teacher once said that the traditional western response to problems is »don't just sit there, do something,« whereas the eastern or Buddhist way is »don't just do something, sit there.« Of course this is a generalization, and there is a place for both stillness and motion. But the Buddhist insistence is merely that the most constructive action springs from stillness. The wisest reflection takes into consideration, not only our own immediate interest or the interest of our particular group or nation; it also bears in mind the interests of our children, our children's children and many generations in the future who are yet to be born. And this kind of thinking demands the ability to step back from one's immediate attachments. It is dependent on mental culture, mental development.
A Buddhist teacher once said that the traditional western response to problems is ›don't just sit there, do something,‹ whereas the eastern or Buddhist way is ›don't just do something, sit there.‹ 17 The third aspect of this training is the training of wisdom and understanding, teaching people how to really look at their actions and their consequences, seeking to understand situations more clearly. Initially it means regularly contemplating the very simple facts of life which we tend to overlook, in particular the nature of change. Changes may be slow, methodical, expected, welcome, but they may also quite often be sudden, unexpected and unwelcome. It is an inarguable fact that every one of us, sooner or later, will have to be separated from those whom we love. This is something we do not like to think about. But, sooner or later, we are going to be separated from our parents, from our loved ones, from our children. If we do not die before they do, they will die before we do. Putting it in these terms may sound blunt and callous but it is the truth. And the more we shy away or try to prevent ourselves from reflecting on such subjects, the weaker we become, and the more devastated we are when change occurs in the unexpected and shocking ways it sometimes does.
18 The Buddha encouraged us to be students of change and to understand its nature. We should be looking at change, looking at uncertainty, looking at insecurity face-to-face everyday. Life is insecure. There is no real security in a changing world and the frantic search for an unrealistic security is only going to lead to tension and pain. There has to be a certain point where we create the conditions for security as best as we can, but humbly acknowledge the fact that ultimately we have no defense against uncertainty and change. We have no rights. We can and should create conventions about human rights and it is important that such rights are vigorously upheld in human society. But ultimately, we have rights to nothing except the way we are: we are born, we get old, we get sick, and we die. We must be patient and willing to keep going against the grain of self-indulgence, looking again and again at the way things are; educating ourselves about those things which brighten and clarify our minds; those attitudes, those thoughts, those emotions which cloud and brutalize our minds. The more we do this work, the more we see that we have a choice which way we want to go, the way of darkness or the way of light.

Buddhist Education and Non-Violence

19 In summary Buddhism sees peace and non-violence as being possible wherever human beings are willing to make use of the capacity for learning and transformation that we carry within us. The implication is that the more clearly we understand the human condition the more our devotion to non-violence grows; and the more we train body, speech and mind the more we are able to sustain that devotion through the challenges of our daily lives.
20 In the Itipiso verse, chanted daily throughout the Buddhist world, the Buddha is revered for being vijjā-carana sampanno, »perfect in vision and conduct«. This beautiful phrase expresses one of the primary tenets of Theravada Buddhism: that spiritual purity is inevitably accompanied by purity of conduct. In our relations to the world we live in, it is in non-harming that we find proof of the authenticity of meditative insights. In the Ovada Pātimokkha, the Buddha says: »He is not a true monk who harms another, nor a true renunciate who oppresses others«. Why is it that non-harming is taken to be such a telling measure of spiritual maturity? Because the truly wise person, having seen through the fiction of separate independent owners of experience, feels limitless compassion for all life.
enlarge Teaching Buddha
21 But the Buddhist teachings are a »gradual training«. To begin with, we need to establish non-violence as an ideal and a goal to move towards. A person's intellectual acceptance of non-violence as a guiding principle must be accompanied by the heartfelt emotional assent we call faith. When we have a strong confidence that harmlessness is a suitable goal for our life, and one that we are capable of attaining, then we find the will towards it arising naturally within us. In the initial stage of this education the student trains him or herself to be mindful of volition and seeks to refrain from acting upon volitions that would lead to harm to self or others. The tendency to act violently, the habit of it, is thus gradually undermined; at the same time the tendency and habit of acting non-violently is strengthened and – particularly if combined with regular meditation on loving kindness (mettā) – becomes »second nature«.
22 But nevertheless, this non-violence cannot be taken for granted: it is still a conditioned phenomena. If a student becomes complacent and neglects the training old habits may suddenly reassert themselves without warning. Unexpectedly faced with, for example, the threat of separation from an object of strong attachment, an overwhelming desire to lash out blindly, believed by the student to be a thing of the past, may surface like a monster from the deep. This is, however, by no means considered a sign that the training is ultimately futile, or a proof of original sin; rather, and more simply, that work remains to be done. Here again, it is the faith in the goal and ones' ability to realize it that is one's principal refuge. The path to stabilizing non-violence in the heart is long and littered with setbacks. Nevertheless the diligent and persevering student starts to see violence as less and less a serious option for dealing with the pain of frustrated desire.
23 Although the goodness attained through a steady practice of mindfulness, patience and wise reflection is admirable, it is at »stream entry« (sotapatti), the first level of enlightenment, that a quantum leap in consciousness occurs. The »stream enterer«, through a breakthrough insight into the nature of the body and mind, not only becomes effortlessly non-violent but he or she is now indeed incapable of acting violently. And this profound incapacity is, moreover, a liberation from violence that is irreversible. Subtle traces of ill-will remain in the stream enterers mind but they are completely eliminated at the third level of enlightenment, the anagami stage. At the highest level it is impossible for even the mental impulse to violence to arise in the mind. This in the Buddhist view is true non-violence. Of course very few people, even in Buddhist monasteries, attain such an exalted state, but there are enough to be witnesses to the potential for it that we all bear within us.

The Role of the Sangha

24 The Buddha's approach to violence in society was firstly to educate people about it: the causes and conditions – inner and outer – that lead to violence; the social structures to be developed and the mental states to be cultivated to diminish it as far as possible. He encouraged people to reflect on the dismal consequences of violence individually and socially, and the beauty and nobility of non-violence and forgiveness. One of the functions of the monastic order that he established was to be an exemplary community distinguished by its reliance on mutual respect, contentment, kindness and compassion. To see large numbers of young men – usually the most belligerent group in a society – joining the Sangha from different backgrounds and castes, and yet living together in harmony was a powerful lesson to all those resigned to social conflict as natural and inevitable.
»As a fletcher makes straight his arrow, a wise man makes straight his trembling and unsteady thought, which is difficult to guard, difficult to hold back.«

(Verse 33)
25 The Sangha is able to act as a model community to the wider society through its members' voluntary adherence to the monastic discipline or Vinaya, one of the main guiding principles of which is non-violence. Training rules prohibiting various kinds of aggression against other humans, animals and plant life are wide-reaching. To deliberately create fear or anxiety in another monk is one of the more serious rules. The most serious offence is naturally that of murder. But a monk, if his words are acted upon, may also commit an expulsion offence by simply encouraging or speaking in praise of abortion or euthanasia. A monk may not touch any kind of weapon. He is not allowed to watch an army either in battle or on parade. Thus, given the elevated position afforded to the Sangha in a Buddhist society, non-violence becomes an ideal for all, including those lay Buddhists who don't feel able to uphold it in their own lives yet. In Thailand, the Buddhist country I am most conversant with, violence certainly occurs, and yet the absence of a culture of revenge and punishment is clearly apparent. Immorality is common, whereas amorality is still rare. Sexual or financial scandals involving monks still provoke strong feelings, because how they live their lives affects everyone.
26 In the case of Thailand, rapid economic growth has led to the usual detrimental effects on family life, social structures and cultural forms. Few urban dwellers have a relationship to a monastery similar to which their parents and ancestors enjoyed. Lay Buddhists are more and more alienated from the Sangha. But finally there is room for some optimism. Two years ago, as part of an ongoing programme of educational reform the government decided to require schools to specialize in a particular category. One category added, almost as an afterthought, was that of »Buddhist School«. Defying all expectations, some 14,000 of the 30,000 public schools in the country have now declared an interest in becoming a Buddhist school. What that might mean exactly is still not completely clear. One principle agreed upon so far, however, is that the template should be the three-fold training (tisikkhā) an integrated education of conduct, of the heart (including what is these days often referred to as emotional quotient) and of the wisdom faculty. The monastic order is to have more input than any period since the traditional education offered by the monasteries was supplanted by a Western model. Non-violence as an ideal and the affective and cognitive tools to make it a reality in people's lives seem about to receive a timely boost, in Thailand at least. There are obstacles ahead but this development constitutes, I feel, a bright light flickering in the darkness.
polylog: Forum for Intercultural Philosophy 5 (2004).
Online: http://them.polylog.org/5/fja-en.htm
ISSN 1616-2943
© 2004 Author & polylog e.V.


Ajahn Jayasaro (*1958 on the Isle of Wight, England) began his monastic training in Thailand in 1978 as a student of Venerable Ajahn Chah, one of the seminal figures in contemporary Theravada Buddhism. Ajahn Jayasaro was ordained as a monk in 1980 and has lived in Thailand ever since. In 2002, after a five-year period as abbot of Wat Pah Nanachat (International Forest Monastery), he took up residence in a hermitage at the foot of Kow Yai mountains in the province of Nakorn Rachasima.
Ajahn Jayasaro
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