Monday November 7, 2005


Today I was teaching a class and we got into discussing ahimsa or non-violence in Buddhism. It is true, some of the students agreed, that non-violence is desirable. But what about Hitler? they asked. What about the many cruelties of Saddam Hussein? Surely, in both cases, something had to be done.

And I wondered: am I certain that I would – in all cases and at all times – resist the use of violence? I tremble at the idea of violence, I fear how violence begets violence, I draw back at the thought of how hatred spirals out of control. But surely, I had to admit, there are times and places when it is necessary to raise a hand against another, to avoid another still greater harm.

Reflecting upon this again, I am not sure that I know what to think; but one thing strikes me: frequently arguments against pacifism are aimed precisely at these points, the points of crisis. Hitler has invaded Poland. Saddam Hussein has invaded Kuwait. And it may just be possible that at some crisis points (not necessarily at these crisis points), the only solution is to favour a lesser potential violence over a greater potential one. Nevertheless, I would still hesitate to state this as a principle, to claim that there are situations where violence is the only solution: there is no way of rewinding the clock to see if another solution might have been better or worse and history is played out only once; and this theory of lesser violence to prevent a greater ignores how lesser forms of violence can themselves become greater, in a very short time.

The Skill in Means Sutra, an early Mahayana sutra, puts forward arguments for violence (and for sexual activity on the part of monks!) in extremis. On occasions, it argues, such actions are ‘skill in means’ or upaya; and there are several entertaining and colourful stories to illustrate the point. But the text is also supplemented by some instructions on the transmission of the sutra, some of which read as follows:

This explanation of the teaching of skill in means is to be kept secret. Do not speak of it, teach it, explain it or recite it in the presence of inferior sentient beings whose store of merit is small… (Translated by Mark Tatz. p. 87)

The other problem here – and the problem to which the warnings at the end of the Sutra may be pointing – is that there is a vast amount of room for self-delusion and for dubious self-justification. Nobody claims to be going to war for fun or as anything but a last resort. The language in which war – however necessary or unnecessary the war may be – is inevitably the language of necessity. And the protest that one wages war out of ‘skill in means’ (upaya), as the necessary destruction that accompanies the building of a better world, is one that would not have been alien to Hitler himself.

One possible response to the charge that non-violence does not work is this: the crisis-point argument is unreasonable because non-violence, to work, needs to be more thoroughgoing than just as a response to crises. It needs to also be a way of thought and action that has the wisdom to see where crises might occur, and to avert them well before they arise, and that has the compassion to respond to present sufferings to avert as much as possible future sufferings and resentments. For example, there is a direct connection between the obscene vigour with which the the arms trade flourishes, and the proliferation of global conflict. (See the Campaign Against the Arms Trade’s Website). A true pacifism would deal not only with crises, but also with the systems that lead to them, systems that are already a part of the logic and machinery of war. To say that non-violence doesn’t work as a response to a situation which has already been founded upon the logic of violence is not an argument against non-violence. If anything it is an argument that shows how, to tackle violence, we need to dismantle a whole logic of violence, out of the understanding that this logic of violence can only beget further violence.

Image: E Kirk / W Buckingham
The Skill in Means Sutra, trans. Mark Tatz. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. 1994

# · Miranda

This is something I struggle with constantly as I try to decide where I fit spiritually (I’ve just realized how often the language of conflict is used in these situations as well: We struggle, wrestle, fight with a problem.). I look at it on a smaller scale – still a crisis, but a personal one. Imagine walking into an alley and seeing a man threatening some children with a knife. The children are terrified, and the man is really threatening, stabbing at them, not just brandishing the knife. It’s a matter of time before, through carelessness or on purpose, he harms at least one of them. Trying to talk to him, to convince him to let the children go or drop the knife, fails.

Now what?

I can attack him, try to get the knife away or give the children time to run. In that way, I do a small violence to prevent a potential big one.

I can give up because I don’t want to do violence. But by making a decision to let him continue as he is, am I not complicit in the violence he’s doing to the children?

I can go get the police. But if they shoot him, don’t I have a hand in that as well? Passing the buck doesn’t work entirely in that situation.

In the end, I know I’d try to disarm or grapple him so the kids could get away. If it took throwing a few punches, so be it. I don’t know what that makes me morally or spiritually; I only know it’s what would happen.

And on the other hand, I’m in almost every condition anti-war. Go figure, hmm? :)
# · Tom


This post is cited in Blogmandu, Roundup for Nov 7 – 13, 2005. [ ]

# · Gareth

An excellent conclusion, Will. Also I’ve just noticed your other site’s based in Birmingham, I sahll have to take a look as it’s not all that far from me..

# · Will

I agree, Miranda, that it is a terrible and difficult situation – and perhaps I would do the same. But whilst philosophers like such ethical dilemmas, perhaps the real thing to do is to practice to develop an ever deeper sensitivity to others, so that when we find ourselves in these kind of situations we respond out of kindness. Because it is hard to say how we will respond in extremis.

Thanks for the citation, Tom. And Gareth – where are you based? I’m in Bearwood, west of Birmingham.

# · Gareth

Somewhere between Cradely Heath and Netherton…(Towards Dudley)

Not far away at all.

# · Will

Hey, we should have a cup of coffee some time!


# · Gareth

Sounds like a good idea – why don’t you email me, instead of hijacking this articles comments, and we can work out a time.


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