SANTIKARO - April 15, 2017
Buddhadasa Bhikkhu on Non-Violence
by Santikaro *
(November 21, 2015)
In response to violence perpetrated in the name of religion, democracy, freedom, and other ideals, the basic principle is that religion, democracy, freedom, and the like can never be imposed by force without corrupting them. Real religion, democracy, and freedom require the willing participation of human beings in body, mind, and heart. Forcing them to do so with violence or threat of violence leads to pretend-religion, democracy that’s tarnished or based in fear, and never genuine freedom.
This perspective arises from basic Buddhist principles and so I would like to outline principles that Buddhadasa Bhikkhu has expressed over the years, especially when discussing religion in the world, healthy societies, and the like.
We believe that the Buddha’s aim was and is world peace, that is, peace in the world among human beings as well as with other beings and all of nature. Buddhism gives great importance to inner peace, which fundamentally is freedom from greed, hatred, and delusion. These three poisons include all the destructive emotions and unhealthy forms of egoism, including anger, fear, pride, confusion, and ignorance. In Buddhist understanding, this freedom from greed, hatred, delusion, and all forms of destructive egoism is not something created by us; rather, it is to be realized and discovered. Buddhism sees this freedom as our basic human nature, and our duty is to realize this nature. To do so, outer peace is vital. Perhaps a few spiritual superstars can realize this freedom all on their own; however, for large numbers of humans to approach such freedom and inner peace requires the support of external peace.
For Buddhists, this means that social structures – economic, government and political, educational, medical, cultural, entertainment, and religious – are in harmony with Dhamma, with nature, with natural law. A key characteristic of being in harmony with Dhamma, with nature, is mutual well-being, regard, respect, and cooperation among humans, and between humans and other forms of life, animal and plant, Fundamentally, this harmony is non-violence. In this perspective, working for peace in the world helps to create the conditions for inner peace and deeper spiritual realization; and the more we have inner peace, the more we contribute to outer and social peace. In fact, inner and outer, personal and social peace are inextricably, inseparably, interrelated.
In Buddhadasa Bhikkhu’s vision for world peace, he spoke of a parallel to the U.N. as being necessary. He thought of this as "United Religions.” In the ordinary functioning of world bodies like the UN, the WTO, and even the EU, as well as the numerous trade pacts, zones, and agreements, we see that political selfishness between nations – or by elites operating in the name of their particular countries – has often tarnished the good work done by international bodies such as the UN and the genuinely constructive achievements of communities like the EU, for example, the ending of large-scale warfare in Europe, one of the original reasons for the EU.
Because collective selfishness often operates in the political-economic realms of these international bodies, a mechanism is needed for ethical oversight. Yes, we have tools like human rights treaties and bodies that play an important constructive role. Buddhadasa Bhikkhu felt religions have a key role to play in representing and championing the ethics of humanity. For this to come about, religions must be true to their deepest aspirations. For Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, a devout Buddhist, the core of religion is the overcoming of selfishness – individual selfishness, collective selfishness, and even national selfishness. If not totally eradicating selfishness – which he understood to be a difficult endeavour – at least restraining it within necessary ethical boundaries.
Often religion in the West is understood in terms of God. For religious people following non-theistic teachings such as Buddhism, the overcoming of selfishness is more core to religion than specific beliefs such as in God. In this line, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu often spoke of Three Wishes or Aims. Originally these were personal aspirations for his work within Buddhism. Over the years, as he made friends and attracted followers from numerous religious and spiritual traditions, he broadened his vision to all religions. I’d like to share these Three Wishes. If our religions live up to them, religion can fulfil its vital role in helping to bring about world peace.
The first aspiration is to work for all religious people understanding the heart of their own religion. As Buddhists, we might phrase this in terms of restraining, diminishing, and overcoming selfishness, in the whatever forms, whether greed, fear, pride, envy, or vengeance. Other religions may speak of this in somewhat different terms. Nevertheless, it’s crucial that the followers of the world’s religions really understand the hearts of their own traditions. Consequently, all the religions of the world have important work to do in self-education. To the degree religious people have profound understandings of their own religions, from that basis they can approach and respectfully come to understand other religions.
If our understanding of our own tradition is superficial, how can we have anything but a superficial understanding of other traditions? Today, many people broadcast by the media comment and pass judgement on various religions without really having a deep understanding of their own. Here, we can also include people who believe themselves to be non-religious, yet believe in various ideologies such as democracy or science. These too must be understood deeply if they are to be a basis of approaching others, especially others with different beliefs.
If we seek mutual good understanding, which is an expression of unselfishness, to judge others is an arrogant and selfish enterprise. With respect we can come to understand other traditions, not as we wish to see them but as they see themselves. To the degree we have “mutual good understanding” as Buddhadasa Bhikkhu phrased it, we can then cooperate to drag the world out from under the power of materialism. For much of his life, the world was under threat of nuclear destruction in the competition between the democratic-capitalist West and the avowedly communist nations. These rival ideologies may not have been religions per se yet they often used religious imagery and methods to further themselves. When Buddhadasa Bhikkhu spoke of materialism, he referred to both of these ideologies. To a large extent, democracy has identified itself with capitalism and communism offered itself as a superior political-economic system. That both of these are fundamentally materialist means, from a Buddhist point of view, that they leave out what is most core and important to human beings.
In Buddhadasa Bhikkhu’s perspective, the adversaries of religions are not each other, rather the materialism that has a degraded vision of the human being, a vision that does not adequately respect our capacity for understanding and wisdom, for tolerance and respect, and especially for good-will, love, and compassion. If materialist systems, including the consumerism of today, are not kept in check by profound religious teachings and practices, human beings will never be fully human. In Buddhism, to be human requires ethics and in Buddhist tradition, as with much of Indian religion, the heart of ethics is harmlessness, non-violence, or non-oppression. If Buddhadasa Bhikkhu was alive today, under materialism he would also include – and in fact did while he was living – what we might call pseudo-religion, which is any religion when it behaves selfishly for its own narrow benefits rather than the genuine benefit of all living beings.
This materialism also would include ethically irresponsible science and technology. When science pursues knowledge and when technology grows without ethical perspective they too become dangerous materialism. The same is true of spiritually empty consumerism. Consumer culture is debased culture. It does not fulfil what human beings require most deeply, which is freedom from greed, hatred, and delusion and the capacity for respect, wisdom, and compassion.
When we consider violence in our world, whether it be the violence committed by groups like Daesh or the violence committed by nation states putting down rebellions or imposing their will on less powerful nations, Buddhism sees such violence as grounded in what are called the three roots of unwholesomeness, that is greed, hatred, and delusion. When we considered these three roots of unwholesomeness as they foster violence and oppression, we can observe them operating both in individuals and in collectives such as social systems. A common example is greed for land and resources whether by groups operating within each country or operating transnationally. Further, the greed to dominate and control markets is not only a source of violence, that domination is itself a form of violence, whether done at gunpoint or through means such as propaganda and modern advertising.
Similarly there are systems of hatred. For example, in societies like the US where there is systemic oppression of people of color, especially black people, it can be seen as a system of hatred. This also can be found in the subjection of certain groups within European societies due to their ethnic, racial, or religious affiliations. Closely similar things happen in the Middle East. Buddhist countries like Thailand are not immune. When we treat those who are different as inferior – no matter what the basis of difference – and this is done through collective or social means such as government and media, that is a system of hatred.
I have already alluded to systems of delusion. These include mechanisms like the propaganda of our modern economies and the use of media either to fuel consumerism or to incite dislike or hatred toward those who are different such as because of religious belief. Further mechanisms of collective delusion show up in our systems of entertainment and media. They can show up in so-called secular culture, they can show up in education systems, and they can show up in organized religion.
Once again, it’s incumbent on religions, including Buddhism, to be true to our highest values based in a genuine understanding of those values, so that religion is not a tool of the greed, hatred, fear, and delusion that feeds violence and oppression.
To speak more directly to recent events, not only in Paris, also in Bamako, Beirut, Ankara, and too many other places in Europe and especially the Middle-east, if we wish to oppose the violence of groups such as Daesh and Boko Harem, we must also oppose the greed, hatred, and delusion in ourselves. To focus only on the greed, hatred, and delusion of others, no matter how violent or demented, is simply more delusion. We must recognize and remove the logs in our own eyes, minds, and hearts if we are to, in any profound and lasting way, succeed in counteracting the violence of these misguided, angry, and probably frightened people who pursue their warped visions through terrorism. And yet they are not the only ones using violence to achieve their means. If we stoop to anything close to their behaviour, we thereby corrupt the very democracy, freedom, or peace that we claim to uphold. Genuine democracy, freedom, peace, and religion require the restraint and diminishing of greed, hatred, delusion, pride, and fear.
In traditional Buddhist understanding, this necessarily begins with our political leaders who in many of our societies are now elected. Yet often, the economic leaders and bankers have as much power and influence as elected leaders. In the perpetuation of greed, hatred, and fear, culture and education leaders also play important roles. Although the role of religion is lessened in many societies, that role is still significant enough that religious leaders are needed to model in genuine ways the restraint of greed, hatred, delusion, fear, and violence. Currently, the new Pope is a refreshing example of this.
Buddhadasa Bhikkhu’s vision tended to emphasize the leaders. Younger engaged Buddhists such as myself tend to put more hope in bottom-up approaches where the awakening people, through their own spiritual growth can both choose and monitor the leaders of society so that they are not dominated by greed, anger, ignorance, pride, and fear.
Since we are speaking in social terms, the systems of society must be reformed so that they serve genuine democracy, freedom, peace, and religion rather than systems of greed, anger, fear, pride, escapism, and sexism. This necessarily includes organs of state such as the police, civil servants, and our militaries.
We recognize that there are many who will label these perspectives as idealistic and they will cynically argue that none of what I have said is practical. Such an argument is simply a justification of the status quo. It shows an unwillingness to look deeply into our own hearts and an unwillingness to look compassionately into the hearts of others, especially the hearts of those who are confused and the hearts of those who suffer. For us “idealism” is not a dirty word. Religions have necessarily the highest aspirations, as democracies once did, and must strive to live up to those ideals, even if imperfectly. So too with democracy and humanism. Cynically arguing for a pragmatism by which little ultimately changes, even horrendous killing, debases all of us.
Buddhadasa Bhikkhu called on other Buddhists and all people of genuine good will to aim for the highest, most profound possibilities of human life and to work together to bring about genuine peace in our communities, societies, and world.
In light of recent events, as well as events going on for many decades and centuries, we cannot combat violence simply by being more successfully violent. It has never worked. The pretence that it would ever work is delusion. Hopefully wise religious leadership can help us weaken this delusion and aspire to the Buddhist vision for world peace in which human hearts can be at peace so that compassion flourishes.
I offer these reflections based in Buddhadasa Bhikkhu’s understanding of Buddhist teachings and practice. These are expressed as principles for intelligent people of good will to reflect and do their parts in the great work of awakening and liberating human beings from suffering. No-one can tell others what to do. To try to do so is a form of compulsion and psychological or spiritual violence even if physical violence is not used. We can only share our perspectives to the best of our understanding and ability, while transforming ourselves to embody them, and call on others to do their best as well.
Thank you for considering these reflections. May we all find the genuine peace that we long for.
* Santikaro was ordained as a Theravada monk in 1985, and subsequently trained at Suan Mokkh with Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, a leading Thai teacher, scholar, and reformer of Theravada Buddhism. He became Ajahn Buddhadasa's primary English translator. He led meditation retreats at Suan Mokkh for many years before returning to the USA in 2001. In 2004 he retired from formal monastic life. He is the founder of Liberation Park, a modern American expression of Buddhist practice, study, and social responsibility. There he continues to teach, study, practice, translate the work of his teacher, engage in social activism, and imagine the future of Buddha-Dhamma in the West