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Violence in Buddhism refers to acts of violence and aggression committed by Buddhists with religious, political, and socio-cultural motivations. Buddhism is generally seen as among the religious traditions least associated with violence,[1] but in the history of Buddhism there have been acts of violence, self-flagellation, suicide torture, and wars justified or linked to it. Within the monastic traditions there are over sixteen hundred years of recorded incidents of violence in Asia that had a justification in some form of Buddhism[2]

Teachings, interpretations, and practices

In Buddhism, to take refuge in the Dharma - one of the Three Jewels - one should not harm other sentient beings. The Nirvana Sutra states, "By taking refuge in the precious Dharma, One's minds should be free from hurting or harming others".[3] One of the Five Precepts of Buddhist ethics or śīla states, "I undertake the training rule to abstain from killing."[4][5][6][7][8] The Buddha is quoted in the Dhammapada as saying, "All are afraid of the stick, all hold their lives dear. Putting oneself in another's place, one should not beat or kill others"[9][10][11][12] and the Sutta Nipata says "'As I am, so are these. As are these, so am I.' Drawing the parallel to yourself, neither kill nor get others to kill."[13][14][15] The Buddha reportedly stated, "Victory breeds hatred. The defeated live in pain. Happily the peaceful live giving up victory and defeat."[16][17] These elements are used to indicate Buddhism is pacifistic and all violence done by Buddhists, even monks, is likely due to economic or political reasons.[18] The right action (samyak-karmānta / sammā-kammanta) is the fourth aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path which can also be translated as "right conduct" and it said that the practitioner should train oneself to be morally upright in one's activities, not acting in ways that would be corrupt or bring harm to oneself or to others. In the Chinese and Pali Canon, it is explained as:[19][20][21][22][23][8][24][25]

And what is right action? Abstaining from taking life, from stealing, and from illicit sex [or sexual misconduct]. This is called right action.

—Saccavibhanga Sutta

And what, monks, is right action? Abstaining from taking life, abstaining from stealing, abstaining from unchastity: This, monks, is called right action.

—Magga-vibhanga Sutta

For the lay follower, the Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta elaborates:[26][27][28]

And how is one made pure in three ways by bodily action? There is the case where a certain person, abandoning the taking of life, abstains from the taking of life. He dwells with his... knife laid down, scrupulous, merciful, compassionate for the welfare of all living beings. Abandoning the taking of what is not given, he abstains from taking what is not given. He does not take, in the manner of a thief, things in a village or a wilderness that belong to others and have not been given by them.

In various instances Buddhist extremists called for violence and demonized others which is against the teaching of right speech (samyag-vāc / sammā-vācā) in the Noble Eightfold Path. The Pali Canon explained:[19][20][22][23][24][25][29]

And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter: This is called right speech.

The Samaññaphala Sutta, Kevatta Sutta and Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta elaborate:[30][31][32][33]

Abandoning false speech... He speaks the truth, holds to the truth, is firm, reliable, no deceiver of the world...

Abandoning divisive speech... What he has heard here he does not tell there to break those people apart from these people here...Thus reconciling those who have broken apart or cementing those who are united, he loves concord, delights in concord, enjoys concord, speaks things that create concord...

Abandoning abusive speech... He speaks words that are soothing to the ear, that are affectionate, that go to the heart, that are polite, appealing and pleasing to people at large...

Abandoning idle chatter... He speaks in season, speaks what is factual, what is in accordance with the goal, the Dhamma, and the Vinaya. He speaks words worth treasuring, seasonable, reasonable, circumscribed, connected with the goal...

The Abhaya Sutta elaborates:[34][35][36][37]

In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, unendearing and disagreeable to others, he does not say them.

In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, yet unbeneficial, unendearing and disagreeable to others, he does not say them.

In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, yet unendearing and disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.

In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, yet endearing and agreeable to others, he does not say them.

In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, but unbeneficial, yet endearing and agreeable to others, he does not say them.

In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, and endearing and agreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them. Why is that? Because the Tathagata has sympathy for living beings.

In every case, if it is not true, beneficial nor timely, one is not to say it. The Buddha followed this, for example, when asked questions of a purely metaphysical nature, unrelated to the goal, path or discipline that he taught. When asked a question such as "Is the universe eternal?", the Buddha dismissed the topic with the response: "It does not further." (or: "The personal possibilities (goals) assigned you are not furthered by an answer to an ultimate question about the universe's fate.")

Michael Jerryson, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Ohio's Youngstown State University and co-editor of the book Buddhist Warfare, said that "Buddhism differs in that the act of killing is less the focus than the 'intention' behind the killing" and that all peoples have a "penchant for violence" and Buddhists are no different.[38]

Gananath Obeyesekere, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University, said that "in the Buddhist doctrinal tradition... there is little evidence of intolerance, no justification for violence, no conception even of 'just wars' or 'holy wars.' ... one can make an assertion that Buddhist doctrine is impossible to reconcile logically with an ideology of violence and intolerance"[11]

Regional examples

South-East Asia


In Southeast Asia, Thailand has had several prominent virulent Buddhist monastic calls for violence. In the 1970s, Buddhist monks like Phra Kittiwuttho argued that killing Communists did not violate any of the Buddhist precepts (Jerryson 2011, 110).[39] The militant side of Thai Buddhism became prominent again in 2004 when a Malay Muslim insurgency renewed in Thailand's deep south. Since January 2004, the Thai government has converted Buddhist monasteries into military outposts and commissioned Buddhist military monks and give support for Buddhist vigilante squads (Jerryson 2011, 114-141).[39]


In 1930s Rangoon, nationalist monks stabbed four Europeans.[40] In recent years the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the military regime of Burma from 1988 to 2011, had strongly encouraged the conversion of ethnic minorities, often by force, as part of its campaign of assimilation. The regimen promoted a vision of Burmese Buddhist nationalism as a cultural and a political ideology to legitimate it's contested rule, trying to bring a religious syncretism between Buddhism and its totalitarian ideology.[41]

The Saffron Revolution, a series of economic and political protests and demonstrations that took place during 2007, were led by students, political activists, including women, and Buddhist monks and took the form of a campaign of nonviolent resistance, sometimes also called civil resistance.[42]

In response to the protests dozens of protesters were arrested or detained. Starting in September 2007 the protests were led by thousands of Buddhist monks, and those protests were allowed to proceed until a renewed government crackdown in late September 2007.[43] At least 184 protesters were shot and killed and many were tortured. Under the SPDC, the Burmese army engaged in military offensives against ethnic minority populations, committing acts that violated international humanitarian law.[44]

Myanmar had become a strong hold of Buddhist aggression and such acts are spurred by hardline nationalistic monks.[45][46][47][48][49] The oldest militant organisation active in the region is Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), headed by a Buddhist monk U Thuzana, since 1992.[50] In the recent years the monks, and the terrorist acts, are associated with the nationalist 969 Movement particularly in Myanmar and neighboring nations.[51][52] The violence reached prominence in June 2012 when more than 200 people were killed and around 100,000 were displaced.[53][54] As of 2012, the "969" movement by monks (the prominent among whom is Wirathu) had helped create anti-Islamic nationalist movements in the region, and have urged Myanmar Buddhists to boycott Muslim services and trades, resulting in persecution of Muslims in Burma by Buddhist-led mobs. However, not all of the culprits were Buddhists and the motives were as much economic as religious.[51][55][56] According to the Human Rights Watch report, the Burmese government and local authorities played a key role in the forcible displacement of more than 125,000 Rohingya people and other Muslims in the region. The report further specifies the coordinated attacks of October 2012 that were carried out in different cities by Burmese officials, community leaders and Buddhist monks to terrorize and forcibly relocate the population.[57] The violence of Meiktila, Lashio (2013) and Mandalay (2014) are the latest Buddhist violence in Burma.[58][59][60][61]

Michael Jerryson, author of several books heavily critical of Buddhism's traditional peaceful perceptions, stated that, "The Burmese Buddhist monks may not have initiated the violence but they rode the wave and began to incite more. While the ideals of Buddhist canonical texts promote peace and pacifism, discrepancies between reality and precepts easily flourish in times of social, political and economic insecurity, such as Myanmar's current transition to democracy."[62]

However several Buddhist leaders including Thích Nhất Hạnh, Bhikkhu Bodhi, Shodo Harada and the Dalai Lama among others condemned the violence against Muslims in Myanmar and called for peace, supporting the practice of the fundamental Buddhist principles of non-harming, mutual respect and compassion. The Dalai Lama said "Buddha always teaches us about forgiveness, tolerance, compassion. If from one corner of your mind, some emotion makes you want to hit, or want to kill, then please remember Buddha's faith. We are followers of Buddha." He said that "All problems must be solved through dialogue, through talk. The use of violence is outdated, and never solves problems."[63][64]

Maung Zarni, a Burmese democracy advocate, human rights campaigner, and a research fellow at the London School of Economics who has written on the violence in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, states that there is no room for fundamentalism in Buddhism. "No Buddhist can be nationalistic," said Zarni, "There is no country for Buddhists. I mean, no such thing as ‘me,’ ‘my’ community, ‘my’ country, ‘my’ race or even ‘my’ faith."[65]

South Asia


Ashokavadana states that there was a mass killing of Jains for insulting buddha by King Ashoka in which around 18,000 followers of Jainism were killed .[66] However this incident is controversial.[67][68]

As a result of secterian conflict,[69] On February 4, 1997, the principal of the Buddhist School of Dialectics, Geshe Lobsang Gyatso was murdered in Dharmasala, along with two of his students.[70] Kay notes "The subsequent investigation by the Indian police linked the murders to the Dorje Shugden faction of the exiled Tibetan community."[71]

Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, there were modern monks involved in nationalist politics and during the Sri Lankan Civil War (1983-2009) they urged the government to take aggressive stances against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).[72][page needed][73] Dr. Tessa Bartholomeusz, professor at the Department of Religion, of Florida State University writes in her book In Defense of Dharma: Just-War Ideology in Buddhist Sri Lanka that Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka advocate a "just war ideology" against LTTE.[73] These Buddhist nationalists have been opposed by the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement, a self-governance movement led by the Buddhist Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne and based in Buddhist ideals, who condemn the use of violence and the denial of Human rights to Tamils and other non-Buddhists.[74] Ariyaratne calls for non-violent action and he has been actively working for peace in Sri Lanka for many decades, and has stated that the only way to peace is through “the dispelling of the view of ‘I and mine’ or the shedding of ‘self’ and the realization of the true doctrines of the interconnection between all animal species and the unity of all humanity,"[75] thus advocating social action in Buddhist terms. He stated in one of his lectures, “When we work towards the welfare of all the means we use have to be based on Truth, Non-violence and Selflessness in conformity with Awakening of All.".[76] What Ariyaratne advocates is losing the self in the service of others and attempting to bring others to awakening. Ariyaratne has stated, “I cannot awaken myself unless I help awaken others.”.[76]

Religious minorities have been subjected to increased persecution and attacks owing to the widespread mono-ethnic Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism in Sri Lanka.[77][78][79] A Buddhist group, Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), is alleged to have been behind attacks on Mosques and Muslims,[80][81][82][83] as well as having organized a moral unofficial police team to check the activities of Christian missionaries and Muslim influence in daily life.[52][84][85] The BBC reported that "Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority is being targeted by hardline Buddhists. [...] There have also been assaults on churches and Christian pastors but it is the Muslims who are the most concerned.[86]

This category is related to both proven or suspected cases of violence significantly motivated by beliefs attributed to Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism carried out by Buddhist in some form, as discussed in reliable sources.

  • 1915 Ceylonese riots
  • Mawanella Riots
  • 2014 anti-Muslim riots in Sri Lanka

Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism is opposed to Sarvodaya, although they share many of the same influences like Dharmapāla's teachings by example, by having a focus upon Sinhalese culture and ethnicity sanctioning the use of violence in defence of dhamma, while Sarvodaya has emphasized the application of Buddhist values in order to transform society and campaigning for peace.[87]

East Asia


Kasumigaseki Station in Japan, one of the many stations affected during the attack by Aum Shinrikyo cult.

The beginning of "Buddhist violence" in Japan relates to long history of feuds amongst Buddhists. The sōhei or "warrior monks" appeared during the Heian period, although the seeming contradiction in being a Buddhist "warrior monk" caused controversy even at the time.[88] More directly linked is that the Ikkō-shū movement was considered an inspiration to Buddhists in the Ikkō-ikki rebellion. In Osaka they defended their temple with the slogan "The mercy of Buddha should be recompensed even by pounding flesh to pieces. One's obligation to the Teacher should be recompensed even by smashing bones to bits!"[89]

During World War II,Japanese Buddhist literature from World War II, as part of its support of the Japanese war effort, stated In order to establish eternal peace in East Asia, arousing the great benevolence and compassion of Buddhism, we are sometimes accepting and sometimes forceful. We now have no choice but to exercise the benevolent forcefulness of “killing one in order that many may live” (issatsu tashō). This is something which Mahayana Buddhism approves of only with the greatest of seriousness....[90] almost all Japanese Buddhists temples strongly supported Japan's militarization.[91][92][93][94][95][96] These were heavily criticized by the Chinese Buddhists of the era who disputed the validity of the statements made by those Japanese Buddhists supporters of the war. In response the Japanese Pan-Buddhist Society (Myowa Kai) rejected the critizism and stated that "We now have no choice but to exercise the benevolent forcefulness of 'killing one in order that many may live' (issatsu tashō)" and that the war was absolutely necessary to implement the dharma in Asia. The society re-examine more than 70 text written by Nichiren and re-edited his writings making changes in 208 places, cutting all the statements that disagreed with the state Shinto.[97][98] In contrast, a few Japanese Buddhists such as Ichikawa Haku,[99] and Seno’o Girō opposed to this and were targeted. During the 1940s, "leaders of the Honmon Hokkeshu and Soka Kyoiku Gakkai were imprisoned for their defiance of wartime government religious policy, which mandated display of reverence for the state Shinto."[100][101][102]

In more modern times instances of Buddhist-inspired terrorism or militarism have occurred in Japan, such as the assassinations of the League of Blood Incident led by Nissho Inoue, a Nichirenist or fascist-nationalist who preached a self-styled Nichiren Buddhism.[103][104][105] Brian Daizen Victoria, a Buddhist priest in the Sōtō Zen sect, documented in his book Zen at War how Buddhist institutions justified Japanese militarism in official publications and cooperated with the Imperial Japanese Army in the Russo-Japanese War and World War II. In response to the book, several sects issued an apology for their wartime support of the government.[105][106]

Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese new religion and doomsday cult that was the cause of the Tokyo subway sarin attack that killed thirteen people and injured fifty, drew upon a syncretic between idiosyncratic interpretations of elements of early Indian Buddhism and Tibetan buddhism with Hinduism, taking Shiva as main image of worship, Christianity as millennialism ideas from the Book of Revelation, Yoga and the writings of Nostradamus.[107][108] Its founder, Chizuo Matsumoto, claimed that he sought to restore “original Buddhism”[109] and declared himself "Christ",[110] Japan's only fully enlightened master and identified with the "Lamb of God".[111] His purported mission was to take upon himself the sins of the world, and he claimed he could transfer to his followers spiritual power and ultimately take away their sins and bad deeds.[112] While many discount Aum Shinrikyo's Buddhist characteristics and affiliation to Buddhism, scholars often refer to it as an offshoot of Japanese Buddhism,[113] and this was how the movement generally defined and saw itself.[114]

See also

  • Ahimsa in Buddhism
  • Buddhist ethics
  • Fundamentalism
  • Religious nationalism
  • Ethnic cleansing


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