Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Should a Buddhist ever Resort to Violence?

In my previous post here, concerning Michael Jackson, several people posted some very emotional and heartfelt comments, none less valid than the others. In these comments I could definitely feel the entire range of emotions, as one of this blogs own contributors so very eloquently pointed out in his comment. I think it is something that many humans who feel these types of emotions in real life, like anger, pride or hate, may find themselves involved in violent incidents and confrontations. One of the comments on the post asked what all this, being anger towards Jackson's alleged child molestations, had anything to do with Buddhism. I think violence, on a basic personal level, is a very important topic for all Buddhists (and non-Buddhists alike). I see from these two observations a question that asks; should a Buddhist ever resort to violent measures?

In this relative world, we will all encounter situations or people that will illicit from us emotions such as angry, hate and fear; all emotions that have the potential for a physical outburst or violent reaction. Fortunately, most of us are capable of preventing those emotions from extending that far, but sometimes, the people we face will push us to our limits of compassion and understanding. Growing up in an abusive household, I know the pain and scars left behind by violence, but after many years, through mindfulness of my thoughts and emotions I have been able to let go of a lot of the hate and anger and even find some compassion. Many of you too have also conquered hate towards another person and been able to forgive and show compassion. I think this gift of compassion is a gift we give ourselves, not the ones who hurt us.
"Forgiveness is primarily for our own sake, so that we no longer carry the burden of resentment. But to forgive does not mean we will allow injustice again."
~Jack Kornfield

However, does the understanding or expression of compassion always mean non-violence? Can a violent act be an expression of compassion? I think in some rare cases, based on the circumstances of the act, yes, violence can be an act of compassion. In this world, there will always be a few people incapable of compassion, empathy or understanding, whose only motivations are the obtainment of the objects of their desire. I believe in psychology they are commonly referred to as sociopaths. Just as we would help a person out of a burning house, so we should help a person being the victim of violence from another person, even if it takes violence itself to end it. When I talk about being the victim and helping by using violence, I am talking about seeing the actual act of aggression being perpetrated right then and right there, and not as in some form of reprisal. In my opinion, turning a blind eye and not helping, as so many people do these days, is sometimes the uncompassionate thing to do. I know I would not hesitate for one instant if I saw a woman being raped or a child being abused, that I wouldn't place myself in between the attacker and the victim, even if that meant using force. Sometimes the only words a man with a knife will listen to are the words from a man with a gun.

That said, I don't think violence should ever be taken lightly or used in a vigilantly sense. The Buddha said "In this world hate never yet dispelled hate, only love dispels hate. This is the law, ancient and inexhaustible." And I couldn't agree more with that statement. I detest violence, but in rare cases violence can sometimes be the only means to end a particular violent event. But in no way will the use of violence add to the understanding and compassion between humans, and this, I think should be our first priority. What do you think?

(ps These scientology ads here are a great example of a cult.)


  1. Scott Mitchell shares some great thoughts on this as well over at "the buddha is my dj" in a post titled, "Compassionate Violence".

    Check it out.

  2. Ya know I had thought about you Jamie when I wrote this because I know what ya do for a living and the fact this is something you have to deal with everyday. It has to be difficult sometimes, I'm sure.

    LOL Yea, I like Scott, though he isn't a big fan of me. :-)

  3. ideally, no. the medium being the message.

    in reality, *reality* is different to ideal situations, always. that's reality, for you. and you always have to decide in the moment what you can live with in that moment. cultivating mindfulness must help us make skilful decisions. if we do this we are acting in good faith, but even then will make unskilful decisions sometimes. i think of myself as being a pacifist, but live in a world where i am largely protected from violence by others who are prepared to deal with it. this privilige allows me the space to consider the finer points of non violence.

  4. Thought-provoking post, Kyle.. I belonged to a garrison church for some time, and always found its position peculiar - a place of peace for a deployer of war and violence. The best way the priest explained it, was that violence is a necessary evil on rare occasions. The fine line that is walked in such an act is one that treads carefully the line between justification of personal motives, or for the "greater good". Then again, who are we to judge anyway?

  5. I feel that your emotion is a good judge of whether it was right, or wrong. Violence in 'defense' of yourself, or someone else can be an act of love, which I think is very right. Yet murder is evil by its very nature because it is done with hate, anger, and fear.

  6. Elaine - You are right, we are lucky to have people that help protect us, like Jamie. We owe a lot to these folks that put on a uniform and protect us.

    Jody - Necessary evil for sure, it is a fine line.

    Angel - I agree 100%.

  7. Kyle,
    One of the finer points of my training when confronted by potentially lethal resistance is that I have been trained to use what ever reasonable (being the key word) means to stop the threat. In other words, police officers are NOT trained to shoot to kill, but to stop the threat even if lethal means becomes necessary. Though some Buddhists would disagree, I believe failing to act in a situation where, say, a child is being raped is a greater injustice and act of unskillful means than to step in and use lethal force if necessary. Though there may be karmic results, I believe Kornfield, among many other teachers, are correct in that it is the volitional formations behind the act itself that have karmic effect.

    I agree, and think most reasonable people are of like mind as you. However, sometimes that privilege causes some people to take irrational stances toward violence. One of the annoying things I find in law enforcement is all the Monday morning quarterbacking by people who sit in ivory towers toward those of us who deal with all the crap even in our home towns (and right next door to those ivory tower sitters) when having to use some form of violence becomes necessary, especially in high-stress situations. I make no excuse for those who abuse their commissions to commit acts of criminal violence against others, but I find that generally compassion towards the humans who work in law enforcement (and therefore have been known to make mistakes) usually is less than toward even the criminals who perpetuate heinous crimes. It can be very frustrating.

    If murder is defined ethically by the fact it is done when in fear, then every police officer would be guilty of murder. Though I agree no police officer should use violence out of anger or hatred, fear is one of the necessary legal standards when the use of lethal force becomes justified. The stock answer is that when an officer uses lethal force it was done so out of "fear of life and safety (great bodily injury)". I would also hope that in the Buddhist context, a tempered fear would be appropriate in gauging the justification for violence or lethal force. The difference is between what is an irrational fear versus a rational fear in the eyes of a reasonable person (at least in a legal context).

    To all,
    In the time I have been working in law enforcement I have seen that there are those who don't even know you and wish you harm, and would do so if law enforcement personnel didn't stand ready to act against such threats. Many believe they won't get caught and do it anyways, others have no regard for themselves and so don't fear the consequences. However, there must be vigilant effort by the non-commissioned majority to hold even we minority of citizens in law enforcement accountable, and so these kinds of discussions are very necessary and beneficial.

  8. Thank you for that Jamie, I think its excellent to get to hear the point of view from a police officer!

  9. This has been a very interesting read, all of you...I have fought back and forth with myself over what I believe, and I can never come to a firm decision.

    Being a Buddhist, I made the decision to get a concealed carry license, and I did so initially just to have a class to take, because it was a hobby. The more I thought about it, the more I found myself against having the option available.

    Then I realized that the option is only available if I deem it necessary, and I would rather that decision lie with me, someone whom is trying to embrace loving-kindness in every moment, rather than someone who is obviously off balanced and has ill intentions.

    Thanks for a very great topic, Kyle!