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B. Wimalaratana: Address to World Summit 2015

Address to World Summit 2015, Seoul, Korea, August 27 to 31, 2015

Perhaps we all can agree that no religion espouses the cause of war. There is no single religion, among the main religions of the world that urges its followers to embark upon a course of war, for whatever reason. On the contrary, all religions aim at bringing about peace and harmony, and safety and security for the life and property of all.

This is a feature that stands out very prominently in Buddhism. The idea of war is really anathema to Buddhism. Though it does not, in any way, go to the extreme that Jainism usually goes, Buddhism also upholds non-violence – Ahimsa. War is not at all compatible with a teaching that firmly upholds principles of Ahimsa.

Take, for example, the five precepts, especially the first two. These are a self-denunciation of violence against life and property. The real significance of these two precepts can be well appreciated when these are understood in the social context of 6th century B.C., India.

These precepts were specially promulgated at a time when northeastern India was severely affected by constant wars, taking a heavy toll on human life and personal property. The texts very graphically enunciate these precepts, making clear the great concern shown by the Buddha to dissuade the warring factions, to refrain from causing misery to the innocent people by depriving them of their basic right to life and property. How are these precepts worded?

Abandoning the taking of life, dwells refraining from taking life, with the stick or sword laid aside, being ashamed of such violent acts, compassionate, with a heart sensitized for the wellbeing of all beings.

Abandoning taking of what is not given, dwells refraining from taking what is not given, living purely, taking only what is given, awaiting what is given without stealing.

Not only the negative aspect but even the positive aspect of these precepts is very much emphasized in Buddhism. Cultivation of compassion, friendliness, feelings of brotherhood and sympathetic joy are all encouraged. So is the cultivation of charity and liberality. In such a context there is no room for any kind of ill-feeling, animosity or hatred.

Then what is there to be said about waging war? Buddhism boldly declares that no living being should be destroyed (sabbe pana avajja). It is remarkable to find that Buddhism correctly identifies certain basic drives that motivate man. It says that all desire to live, all are averse to death; similarly, all desire happiness and are averse to unhappiness.

Presuming these to be the fundamental motivating factors, Buddhism admonishes its followers to avoid all kinds of harmful activities and engage in activities that are beneficial to oneself and others.

So concerned is Buddhism regarding avoidance of any kind of harmful act that would threaten the safety of life and property etc., it urges the follower to consider himself as the standard and to decide on the dangers and benefits of such harmful acts.

The Veludvara Sutta of the Samyuttanikaya presents what the Buddha describes as a dhamma exposition applicable to oneself (attupanayika dhammapariyaya): “The gist of this exposition is that one should consider what is displeasing and disagreeable to the others, too.”

This is a very practical method of refraining from harmful acts. One should reflect thus:

I am one who wishes to live, who does not wish to die; desire to happiness and am averse to suffering; since I am one who wishes to live averse to suffering, if someone were to take my life, that would not be pleasing and agreeable to me. Now if I were to take the life of another – of one who wishes to live, who does not wish to die, who desires happiness and is averse to suffering, that would not be pleasing and agreeable to the other; either what is displeasing and disagreeable to me is displeasing and disagreeable to the other, too. How can I inflict upon another what is displeasing and disagreeable to me?

Having reflected thus, he himself should abstain from the destruction of life; he should speak in praise of abstinence from destruction of life. This is the attitude that Buddhism wishes to see its followers cultivating.

Is it possible to say that Buddhism, even in the most remote way, encourages war? Encourages inflicting any kind of harm on others? Is it reasonable even to suggest that Buddhism even indirectly pushes its followers to conflict?

This same sentiment found in the Veludvara Sutta is very lucidly expressed in the Dhammapada (stanza 129) when it says:

All tremble at the rod. All fear death. Comparing others with oneself, one should neither strike nor cause to strike.

Any kind of violence is completely denounced in Buddhism. Not only does Buddhism admonish its followers not to personally engage in violence, but also firmly urges them not to instigate others to violence. It does not stop here. Buddhism says, as shown above, that everyone should speak in praise of peace, harmony, compassion, co-existence; speaking in praise of whatever is conducive to peaceful, harmonious, anxiety- and fear-free living.

The Attadanda Sutta of the Suttanipata suggests that the Buddha, while leading the home life as a bodhisatwa, was himself much concerned and agitated by the misery brought upon people through war. Hence, he says that a man’s strike against man was indeed a fearful sight. Perhaps such a dreadful experience, too, may have contributed to his renunciation and subsequently to the promulgation of precepts dissuading people from such harmful acts.

His concern for peace and happiness of the people was such that the Buddha, as seen from the Rajja Sutta of the Samyuttanikaya, reflected even on the possibility of establishing a righteous rulership:

Is it possible to exercise rulership righteously; without killing, without instigating others to kill, without confiscating, without instigating others to confiscate, without sorrowing, without causing sorrow?

The Buddha, being the pragmatic teacher he was, very well understood that wars cannot be totally eradicated as long as human beings remain what they are. He accepted it as part and parcel of the power struggle for political supremacy, territorial expansion and economic dominance. In such a context he could not possibly admonish the kings to give up war and allow things to take their own turn.

The best he could do as a religious teacher was to bring out the ills of war, the evil consequences that are brought about by war, the suffering both the victor and the vanquished undergo, caution and warn the perpetrators of war, and restrain them as far as possible, make them be less ruthless in war. This he did very effectively through his moral teachings. He very effectively brought out the fact that in war there are only losers. In the ultimate sense even the victors are losers. The feeling of victory is just a hallucination brought about by egoism deeply rooted in the perpetrators of war.

Therefore, unlike modern political philosophers, the Buddha did not advocate eradication of war by waging war. On the contrary, he pointed out that one war leads to another, making it a vicious circle of wars, the ultimate outcome of which is total destruction. Thus, after being informed about a battle that took place between King Ajatasattu and Pasenadi Kossala in which the latter was defeated, the Buddha observed:

Victory breeds enmity The defeated one sleeps badly The peaceful one sleeps at ease Having abandoned victory and defeat.

This incident referred to in the Samyuttanikaya is quoted also in the Dhammapada (stanza 201).

The Buddha’s advice was to go beyond these fallacious concepts of victory and defeat. What he means is that war should not be narrowly viewed as merely producing a victor and a vanquished but as a force that brings about far more dreadful, destructive consequences.

Once again the Samyuttanikaya refers to a battle between the same two kings, this time Ajatasattu being the loser. When informed about this, the Buddha remarked:

A man will go as plundering So long as it serves his ends But when others plunder him The plunderer is plundered.

The killer begets a killer One who conquers, a conqueror The abuser begets abuse The reviler, one who reviles.

Considering these realities the Buddha concludes, as shown in the oft quoted stanza (No. 05) in the Dhammapada:

Hatreds never cease through hatred in this world; through love alone they cease. This is an eternal law.

All this goes to show how realistic the Buddha’s attitude to war was, how enlightening his analysis of the outcomes of war, and how correct his remedy to end war.

The Buddha, while highlighting the evils of war and the advantages that result from avoidance of war, goes still deeper into the subject. He does not stop at pointing out the evils of war, but analyses the possible sources and causes that beget war. Of course, as usual, with his psychological bent the Buddha traces the origins of war to man’s untrained, undisciplined mind, polluted with all sorts of selfish motives and urges. In keeping with this in-depth analysis of the psychological springs of war, the Buddha advocates the eradication of such causes that lead to war, and those that lead to all kinds of conflicts that could flare up to the level of a war.

As a remedy for this the Buddha says there is nothing but the attainment of inner appeasement (Ajjhatta santi). Numerous suttas could be cited as containing this sort of psychological analysis and appropriate remedial measures to appease the psychological causes leading to conflict and war. The Madhpiudika sutta (Majjhima nikaya), the Sakkapanha Sutta (of Dighanikaya) and numbers of suttas in the Atthakavagga of the Suttanipata, for example, Kalahavivada, Culavyuha and Mahavyuna.

This undoubtedly is an idealistic approach, which is rather difficult to be made totally successful in a society which is getting more and more complex with the rapid influx of all sorts of temptations and urgings that push man more towards competition, rivalry, conflict and war.

But while advocating this idealistic approach, the Buddha also recognizes the salient material conditions that provide a good breeding ground for war mentality. He identifies these material conditions as mainly falling into political, social and economic planes, and advises all concerned to take preventive as well as remedial measures to curb and stop them.

In the political sphere he directly identifies the ill-governance of the country by despotic, ruthless rulers, who pay no attention to the wellbeing and happiness of the people, as a major cause for the constant prevalence of war. These rulers, in their callous disregard for the wellbeing and happiness of their subjects, were ruthlessly pursuing a policy of territorial expansion. Because of the widely prevalent monarchical systems of government, the people had no voice in designing these state policies. Of course, the Buddha himself being a subject, though a very important, distinguished one, could hardly influence state policies. The best he could do was to enlighten these conceited, selfish, ruthless warriors, showing them the futility of their activities.

In fact the Buddha presented the ideal of the Cakkavatti, the universal king, to draw the attention of the rulers as well as the subjects to the possibility of having a far better form of governance, where there is guarantee of safety of life etc. Through this concept the Buddha highlighted the importance of righteousness in any system of good governance. Righteousness is presented as the hallmark of good governance, and even the rulers were expected to be subordinate to this righteousness, the dhamma, which could be the same as modern rule of law. By pointing out that even kings, or as a matter of fact, the state are subordinate to the rule of law (dhamma), the Buddha attempted to curb or minimize the despotic behavior of kings. The Kutadanta Sutta is a scathing satire on the pomposity of despotic rulers who rose to exercise power at the expense of hapless, innocent subjects. These are the words put into the mouth of king Mahavijita:

I have acquired extensive wealth in human terms. I occupy a wide extent of land which I have conquered. Suppose now I was to make a great sacrifice which would be to my benefit and happiness for a long time.

When the king’s intention was made known, the righteous, wise chaplain very politely reminded the king that he had acquired such glory and prosperity at the expense of his subjects who were now in dire poverty, struggling for their survival. The chaplain warned the king that if he were to further burden the already suffering masses in the region, that would make matters worse.

Similarly, the Buddha identified alleviation of poverty as a necessary condition for the establishment of peace. Both the Cakkavattisihanada sutta and Kutadanta sutta very clearly enunciate the steps that should not be taken, and should be taken, to establish lasting peace for the good of all. The Cakkavattisihanada sutta very clearly shows the futility of patchwork, remedial economic measures. The Kutadanta sutta lays down how these economic measures should be well planned, taking into account the total economic structure of the country and maintaining a sustainable economy, employing the country’s labor force to generate maximum results for the benefit of all.

Another area to which the Buddha draws attention in his overall plan to establish peace is social inequality and discrimination. It was not merely against the prevailing caste system that the Buddha argued. He was more particularly concerned about the social discrimination that came into operation because of this caste system. Therefore, he stressed the importance of accepting the oneness of mankind. Many suttas, for example Vasetta, Agganna, Kannakatthala, Ambattha, Assalayana, Madhura, very forcefully denounce the social discrimination that was in operation at the time.

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