Violence and Non-Violence

Non-violence, ahimsa, was the starting point of the Buddha’s journey. As a bodhisatta, Siddhartha Gautama, craved a way to alleviate violence, both in his life and the lives of sentient beings. In autobiographical passages he said violence dismayed him. It was all around him like a disease gone wild.

Wanting a haven for myself,

I saw nothing that wasn’t laid claim to.

Seeing nothing in the end

but competition,

I felt discontent.                           

And then I saw

an arrow here,            

so very hard to see,            

embedded in the heart.

— Samyutta Nikaya 4.15 

In 2011 there were 31,940 deaths by firearm in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control. When combining the statistics for the 23 richest nations, he United States accounts for 83% of all gun deaths. Since September 11, 2001, American firearms have killed about 320,000 Americans. We have a “war on terror” but only a sigh for gun violence. Something seems strange about our priorities. Not much has changed since the Buddha’s day, except maybe, we’ve become much more efficient in the way we kill each other. Guns are loathsome things. Their only purpose is to kill living beings. Many, including myself, will not enter a house or establishment if a gun is present. Still, listening to the rhetoric, it is clear that gun “right” (?) is an amazingly emotional topic that splits the people of this country into two camps that peer suspiciously at one another. Too bad too, America has some amazingly nice things going for it. Maybe we aren’t nearly as civilized as we thought.


Not by harming life

does one become noble.

One is termed   noble            

for being  gentle

to all living things.

— Dhammapada verse 270

The Buddha did not try to create a religion. He wanted to create a culture. The culture he foresaw was one of peace and harmony. It is built into the teachings of magga, the Way, aka Eightfold Path, under the heading of Right (“harmonious” or “appropriate”) Resolve.  What is Right Resolve? “Being resolved on renunciation, on freedom from ill-will, on harmlessness: This is called right resolve.” (Samyutta Nikaya 45.8)

The resolve to be non-violent is difficult in our culture. We praise emotion over logic. We believe our opinions are reality. We rarely examine our experiences but take how we think about our experiences as the truth. It is hard to be unattached to our “feelings” when they are so highly prized.  The prizing of our thoughts and opinions leads to a needs to defend these thoughts and opinions. This leads to a process called papañca (prapañca Skt). It is why we believe our opinions are important and somehow representative of reality.

There is no English word for papañca. It is used in Buddhist doctrinal studies to describe expansion, differentiation or the kaleidoscopic way the world manifests itself. The term can also be applied to describe the phenomenal world as well. It also sometimes refers to the mental attitude of worldliness. Many teachers use the term to mean “proliferation of thought” and oddly enough, the State of California calls it the leading cause of traffic accidents. It is also the leading cause of violence in our society.

In Anguttara Nikaya 4:173, it is said: “As far as the field of six-fold sense-impression extends, so far reaches the world of diffuseness (or the phenomenal world; papañcassa gati); as far as the world of diffuseness extends, so far extends the field of six-fold sense-impression. Through the complete fading away and cessation of the field of six-fold sense-impression, there comes about the cessation and the coming-to-rest of the world of diffuseness (papañca-nirodho papañca-vupasamo).”  While we think of five senses, the ancients saw six senses because they included the mind as a sense.

The Buddha tells us that “This Dhamma is for one who delights in non-diffuseness (the unworldly, Nibbāna); it is not for him who delights in worldliness (papañca).” – For the psychological sense of ‘differentiation’, see Majjhima Nikaya 18 (called the Madhupindika Sutta, “the Ball of Honey” Teaching): “Whatever man conceives (vitakketi) that he differentiates (papañceti); and what he differentiates, by reason thereof ideas and considerations of differentiation (papañca-saññā-sankhā) arise in him.”

When considering violence this proliferation of thought causes fear to arise within our mind. Fear is what underlies anger. It is the fear of loss, either “real” or perceived, well, always perceived. The person who feels anger also feels that they will lose something, even if it is only the chance to have something. With fear and anger there is resentment. There is an object of that resentment. That object is another that is seen as the cause of the anger. The fear is supplanted by anger.

Fear, anger and resentment are the combination of factors that lead to violence. What is violence? Violence is that which abuses another.  We abuse each other in a thousand different ways everyday. It is easy to do. We have a basic problem that goes beyond sheer ignorance. If you think it is easy to avoid causing violence on another, consider the Five Precepts and the logical conclusion they lead to. We violent our loved ones and our not-so-loved-ones with ease.

In a striking piece of poetry (Samyutta Nikaya 4:15), the Buddha once described the sense of samvega, that is, terror or dismay, that inspired him to look for an end to suffering.

I will tell

of how

I experienced


Seeing people floundering

like fish in small puddles,

competing with one another-

as I saw this,

fear came into me.

The world was entirely

without substance.

All the directions

were knocked out of line.

Wanting a haven for myself,

I saw nothing

that wasn’t laid claim to.

Seeing nothing in the end

but competition,

I felt discontent.

Instead of making an effort to solve the problem by looking for a larger puddle for himself or his fellow fish, as one would logically have proceeded, the Buddha counter intuitively looked inside to see why people would want to be fish in the first place. What he found was an arrow embedded in his own heart.

And then I saw

an arrow here,

so very hard to see,

embedded in the heart.

Overcome by this arrow

you run in all directions.

But simply

on pulling it out

you don’t run,

you don’t sink.

The Buddha actually uses the word papañca in the Pali Canon. He doesn’t describe papañca as an impediment to progress; he discusses it instead as a source of conflict and pain (Majjhima Nikaya 18; Digha Nikaya 21). The problem with papañca is not so much the amount or abundance of the thinking, as the type of mental labels, categories and perceptions, it makes use of. This is a point that the Buddha makes over and over again. The categories and perceptions of papañca are what cause conflict. The answer to the problem lies in the Buddha’s explanation of what it means to be a being. The act of taking on the identity of a being is a mental act. It is because we have passion, desire, delight, or craving for something that we identify with it (Samyutta Nikaya 23:2). In identifying with it, we become tied to it. That is what makes us a being. Our choice of what to desire defines the type of being we are. This process happens both on the macro level, those events leading from death to rebirth, and also on the micro level, as one sense of identity is shed for another on a moment-to-moment basis in the mind. If we desire fear, anger and violence we will surely get it.

About Sensei Mui

Sensei Mui is a Buddhist monk who took formal refuge and bhikkhu ordination as a Theravada monk in Thailand during the early 1970s. Since those days he has both studied and was ordained in multiple Mahayana lineages. Today the main focus of his practice and teaching is from the Pure Land perspective. He currently acts as the Director and Administrator for Hongaku Jodo, an educational and practice oriented organization of Buddhist teachers of Dharma, pure and simple.
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