Compassionate Violence in Buddhism

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


April 3, 2013

Compassionate Violence in Buddhism

Caution: 3,000 words ahead

Many writers have argued that we live in an era of unprecedented narcissism, particularly when we’re talking about Millenials—the most notable example is of course Jean Twenge. To me it’s self-evidently true, but many disagree and write aggrieved and slightly pathetic articles contesting these points and praising the angelic virtues of Millennials: idealism, civic-mindedness and the desire to make a difference1.

These debates trade dry facts and statistics, but when you move past the academics talking about the issue, talk of narcissism becomes increasingly stained with vitriol and the facts become more like accusations. We certainly get a more than a hint of that in commentators like Andrew Keen, and some seem to take offense at this. But what is it about the moral condemnation of narcissism that is so offensive? Isn’t it that the accuser wants us to feel shame? Shame clearly has no place in contemporary life, and if someone is shaming you, this is an unambiguously bad thing—perhaps the one thing that you should feel justifiably ashamed about.

Our world today is pervaded by the language of psychotherapy, and the variants of Buddhism that have become predominant in the West seem to be in complete agreement with our aspirations of self-love and self-acceptance. Some popular Buddhist authors contrast the teachings of loving-kindness, unconditional compassion and the doctrine of primordial goodness of human nature with the Christian conception of original sin to explain why low self-esteem and poor self-image are unique problems for us, and why adhering to Buddhist principles can liberate us from them.

It would be perfectly understandable if you came away from reading many of these introductory books with the impression that there’s no place for the concepts of shame, sin, evil, hell, etc. in Buddhism. But this turns out to not be true.

I discovered this several years ago reading No Time to Lose by the American nun Pema Chodron, a commentary on the 7th century Buddhist text Bodhisattva­caryavatara, the classic epic poem of Mahayana Buddhism—in English, often translated as The Way of the Bodhisattva.

The text recounts the author, Shantideva’s process of becoming a bodhisattva—a being who devotes their life to helping others attain enlightenment—and if you’re used to the gentleness and equanimity that’s characteristic of Western Buddhism, his style is quite surprising, making frequent reference to sin and evil in the most melodramatic terms. For example:

Thus behold the utter frailty of goodness!
Except for perfect bodhicitta
There is nothing able to withstand
The great and overwhelming strength of evil

On the fate of those who fail to respect Buddhist teachings:

And those who harbor evil in their minds
Against such lords of generosity, the Buddha’s heirs
Will stay in hell, the Mighty One has said,
For ages equal to the moments of their malice

In a prayer to buddhas and bodhisattvas, Shantideva confesses his sins:

“In this and all my other lifetimes,
Wandering in the round without beginning,
Blindly I have brought forth wickedness
Inciting others to commit the same.
I have taken pleasure in such evil,
Tricked and overmastered by my ignorance
Now I see the blame of it, and in my heart,
O great protectors, I declare it!
Whatever I have done against the Triple Gem
Against my parents, teachers and the rest
Through force of my defilements
By the faculties of body, speech and mind;
All the evil I, a sinner, have committed,
The sin that clings to me through many evil deeds
All frightful things that I have caused to be,
I openly declare to you, the teachers of the world.”

Later he imagines himself after death, thinking of the idle time where he failed to cultivate virtue:

And when my body burns so long
In fires of hell so unendurable,
My mind likewise will also be tormented—
Burned in flames of infinite regret.

And expresses his commitment to avoiding evil deeds:

Better if I perish in the fire,
Better that my head be severed from my body
Than ever I should serve or reverence
My mortal foes, defiled emotions

Other Buddhist texts speak highly of two qualities, hiri (shame) and ottappa (fear of negative consequences) that we should feel at the prospect of wrongdoing—Buddha praised these as the two bright guardians of the world. Buddhaghosa, one of the most important Theravadin commentators, uses the following vivid metaphor to help us understand these concepts: first imagine an iron ball smeared with excrement — this disgust is hiri; now imagine an iron ball glowing hot — this fear is ottappa. These strong expressions of moral conscience are an important in traditional Buddhist teachings, but almost entirely absent in the most popular American interpretations that stress self-esteem and and self-love.

Chodron’s commentary of Shantideva’s poem frequently devotes itself to explaining why we shouldn’t take all his dramatic pronouncements of sin and evil at face value. Buddhism doesn’t believe in the fixed identities implied by the concept of sin; Westerners carry a great deal of guilt and shame; some of these words don’t have perfect translations and have slightly different shades of meaning around them; the concept of hell is to be understood metaphorically; and so on.

The total effect is of an excitable fire-and-brimstone preacher expounding at length, with an interpreter by his side telling us not to worry, he didn’t really mean what you heard him say. But there’s something circular about her claims. We’re told that Buddhism does not preach damnation like the old puritans, but when we find teachings to the contrary, this must be a misunderstanding because Buddhism does not teach that. But in fact, many ancient Buddhist texts include quite graphic descriptions of horrifying torture and suffering at the lowest levels of Hell. In this respect, it is not so different from many other religions.

Buddhist doctrines about sin and evil are of course, not simply equivalent to Christian ones—there are differences in the underlying belief systems. Christianity elevates good and evil into essential metaphysical principles, which is a mistake for Pema Chodron. She stresses again and again that good and bad, worthy and unworthy, virtue and vice are merely dualistic concepts which the enlightenment mind is able to transcend, realizing their fundamental emptiness rather than clinging dogmatically to them. For her, fundamentalism is also the root of low self-esteem:

The root of these fundamentalist tendencies, these dogmatic tendencies, is a fixed identity—a fixed view we have of ourselves as good or bad, worthy or unworthy, this or that.

So yes, there are differences between Buddhism and Christianity, but many Western interpreters believe that this means Buddhism is a non-judgmental religion where sin is not subject to rebuke, which is clearly not true, at least not universally. These same authors emphasize that Buddhist compassion is a more ethical and psychologically healthy alternative to condemnation, but fail to inform their readers that in Buddhism, compassion is not always what it seems. Many are surprised to learn that some traditions advance the concept of compassionate violence, even murder.

The Upayakausalya Sutra tells the story of one of the Buddha’s former lives, where he is captaining a ship carrying five hundred merchants. One night, ocean deities come to him in a dream and identify one of the passengers as a bandit who is planning on killing the merchants. Buddha evaluates three possible actions: do nothing and allow the bandit to kill everyone; inform the merchants, who would kill the bandit and incur evil karma for murder; or kill the bandit himself.

The Buddha dwells on this ethical dilemma for seven days, trying to decide who should be murdered—apparently just locking up the bandit was not an option—and eventually decides to murder the bandit himself. In keeping with the principle of compassion, this is framed not as retribution for evil, but as compassionately sparing the bandit the horrible karmic consequences of mass murder, and allowing him to be subsequently reborn in paradise.

Even more troubling is the way this sutra distinguishes between allowing the merchants to kill the bandit in anger, and the Buddha’s murder with “great compassion” and “skillful means.” The explicit lesson here is that a truly enlightened bodhisattva is willing to do something evil in the name of a good that only he knows, but we shouldn’t be confused by this! The very fact that it is evil is a sign of his great compassion—the Buddha is generous enough to murder the bandit and endure the karmic consequences of an additional one hundred thousand aeons2 before he can become fully awakened, sparing the bandits and the merchants from evil karma.

This is not some dusty, long-forgotten sutra of little relevance to modern Buddhism. By now, many are familiar with the books Zen at War and Zen War Stories by the historian, Zen priest and former anti-war activist Brian Victoria who chronicles the Japanese Buddhist establishment’s complicity with the militaristic ambitions of imperial Japan from the mid-1800s to the end of WWII, providing religious support and justification for Japanese nationalism, war, domination of neighboring countries and total submission to the emperor.

Prominent Zen leaders claimed that Japan was fighting a war of compassion, its soldiers were bodhisattvas who were defeating the enemies of Buddha, and blind obedience to the emperor was a practice of selflessness. In the words of a renowned Soto Zen patriarch: “Whether one kills or does not kill, the precept forbidding killing [is preserved]. It is the precept forbidding killing that wields the sword. It is the precept that throws the bomb.”

To their credit, many American Zen priests have embraced these books, often by characterizing Zen’s involvement in militarism as a distortion or perversion of the authentic dharma teachings. This is undoubtably true, and the Zen community which resisted the Japanese war effort attests to it. But these distortions weren’t simply a local Japanese corruption of the original pure teachings. We can find the spiritual justification for compassionate killing already in the Upayakausalya Sutra, one of the early Mahayana sutras dating to the 1st century BCE.

When American Buddhists hear of the Japanese Zen establishment’s vigorous promotion of war, they often dismiss it as phony Buddhism. Of course it’s trivial to point to the first of the Buddhist precepts, which enjoins killing of any living creature including even insects much less human beings, to prove that advocating violence of any kind goes against the fundamental teachings. The problem is that many Buddhists are unaware that these precepts aren’t necessarily absolute. Major Mahayana and Tantric schools have taught that bodhisattvas may break precepts if they have compassionate intentions, including the precept against killing, and this is justified under the concept of upaya, a word that is translated as “expedience”.

In a paper published in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics entitled Compassionate Violence?: On the Ethical Implications of Tantric Buddhist Ritual, Buddhist scholar David Gray writes:

Tantric Buddhist thinkers advanced the proposal that Bodhisattvas, on account of their underlying compassionate orientation, are exempt from ordinary ethical norms. An extended defense of the seemingly unethical behavior of Bodhisattvas was undertaken in a work attributed to the eighth century Buddhist philosopher Śāntarakṣita, the Tattvasiddhi. In this work, he quotes from a number of sources to support the view that Bodhisattvas transcend conventional rules of morality. He claims that “As it is stated in all of the Yogatantras such as the Guhyendutilaka, ‘for the mind endowed with wisdom and expedience, there is nothing which should not be done’.”

What’s surprising is the way some Buddhists want to have their cake and eat it. When confronted with the evidence of a Zen holy war, they say that this must be a distortion of Buddhism because of the precept against killing. In other words, true Buddhist adheres dogmatically to this principle. At the same time, Buddhism is widely advertised in the West as non-dogmatic, non-judgmental and morally flexible. But the same principles that support the claim that Buddhism transcends dogmatic, dualistic concepts of good and evil also supports the principle of compassionate killing by bodhisattvas.

Pema Chodron writes that true happiness and self-esteem can only be achieved by going beyond fixed concepts:

No matter how much we long for joy, it will elude us if we continue buying into concepts of right and wrong, good and bad, acceptance and rejection. What ultimately frees us from these constricting patters is to stop reifying our experience, and to connect with the ineffable, groundless nature of all phenomena. This nature cannot be said to exist or not exist—or anything in between.

Maybe it is going too far to interpret these words as an implicit endorsement of compassionate killing of Zen in imperial Japan, but what about much more recent abuses by Pema Chodron’s controversial teacher, Chogyam Trungpa? A highly unconventional teacher, Trungpa was Tibetan Buddhist master who was one of the first to introduce the Vajrayana tradition in the West. He founded Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, several retreat centers and abbeys and hundreds of meditation centers throughout the world, and was hailed by students as a genius and a brilliant teacher. He is also infamous for his abuse of alcohol and drugs, sexual relationships with his students and unorthodox, arguably abusive teaching methods.

In his book Stripping the Gurus, Geoffrey Falk recounts events at one of Trungpa’s retreats in 1975. The poet William Merwin and his wife Dana were perceived as aloof and egotistical for not mixing with the other attendees at a party, and were violently dragged from their locked room and stripped naked at Trungpa’s behest:

“Guards dragged me off and pinned me to the floor,” [Dana] wrote in her account of the incident…. “I fought and called to friends, men and women whose faces I saw in the crowd, to call the police. No one did…. [One devotee] was stripping me while others held me down. Trungpa was punching [him] in the head, urging him to do it faster. The rest of my clothes were torn off.” “See?” said Trungpa. “It’s not so bad, is it?” Merwin and Dana stood naked, holding each other, Dana sobbing.

The next day, Trungpa distributed a letter to the attendees explaining that this was part of a teaching, and a former student confirmed that violent confrontations like this were typical.

He was clearly an ethically-compromised man, as was the successor he appointed, Ozel Tendzin, who slept with hundreds of students while concealing the fact that he was HIV positive—at least one student died of AIDS. But individual corruption doesn’t fully explain these scandals. To justify his actions, Trungpa relied on the centuries-old Buddhist doctrines discussed earlier:

[I]f a bodhisattva is completely selfless, a completely open person, then he will act according to openness, will not have to follow rules; he will simply fall into patterns. It is impossible for the bodhisattva to destroy or harm other people, because he embodies transcendental generosity. He has opened himself completely and so does not discriminate between this and that. He just acts in accordance with what is…. [H]is mind is so precise, so accurate that he never makes mistakes. He never runs into unexpected problems, never creates chaos in a destructive way.

And when asked by a student “What if you feel the necessity for a violent act in order to ultimately do good for a person?” Trungpa simply responds, “You just do it.”

In an interview with Tricycle Magazine, Pema Chodron is unwilling to criticize her former teacher:

My undying devotion to Trungpa Rinpoche comes from his teaching me in every way he could that you can never make things right or wrong. I consider it my good fortune that somehow I was thrown into a way of understanding Buddhism which in the Zen tradition is called “don’t know mind”: Don’t know. Don’t know right. Don’t know wrong. As far as I’m concerned, if you’re going to make things right and wrong you can never even talk about fulfilling your bodhisattva vows… My sense of what it means to be a bodhisattva on the path, a student-warrior-bodhisattva, is that you are constantly caught with “don’t know.” Can’t say yes, can’t say no. Can’t say right, can’t say wrong.

She’s asked about an open letter that was written and circulated by several prominent Western Buddhist teachers that attempted to set standards for ethical conduct, asking very reasonably that proven unethical behavior be made public, but she rejects this as “McCarthyism.” The interviewer follows up by asking “You can’t support the idea of ethical norms as suggested in the letter?” but she replies “My personal teacher did not keep ethical norms and my devotion to him is unshakable. So I’m left with a big koan.”

Maybe a better koan for our time: a touch of shame and moral fear might not be such a terrible thing.

  1. I appreciate how efficiently Twenge has dismantled these assumptions, since to me, the common refrain "I want to make a difference" while often geniune, sometimes also seems to reverberate with hidden self-importance. If you have the arrogance to believe that you're that special someone who can make the difference, at least have the decency to be openly arrogant instead of cloaking it in some great social purpose. Maybe what observers take to be enthusiasm for public service is nothing deeper than believing they're God's gift to the world.
  2. Buddhist scholar Steven Jenkins argues that compassionate violence was actually believed to be auspicious—it relieves rather than adds to the enlightened murderer's karma due to their willingness to sacrifice their spiritual progress. Quoting Shantideva: "the very action which sends others to hell sends a bodhisattva with skill inmeans to the Brahmaloka [heaven realms]."