by Gil Fronsdal
Devotion to being harmless is a core principle of Buddhist religious life. One ancient text states that “non-harming is the distinguishing characteristic of the Dharma.” For unenlightened Buddhists the commitment to non-harming is carried in the ethical precepts; for enlightened Buddhists non-harming becomes integral to their nature and they are said to “delight in harmlessness.”
While the principle of non-harming is a noble one, its application in daily life raises many questions about when the principle is relevant, and in which circumstances it might be discarded. Is harmlessness an absolute precept for Buddhists? Does it prohibit any use of violence for the purposes of self-defense or when it can prevent a greater harm?
In the surviving teachings of the Buddha we find that in certain circumstances the principle of non-harming is absolute while in others it is not.
It is absolute in regard to killing. The first precept for lay Buddhists is to abstain from intentionally killing any animate life. In the recorded teachings of the Buddha no exception to this precept is given.
For Buddhist monastics the prohibition against killing people is one of the four most serious precepts for which, again, no exception is allowed. Explicitly included is a prohibition from encouraging others to commit either murder or suicide, or to have an abortion. To break any of these entails a permanent expulsion from the monastic order.
In the minor monastic rules the prohibition against killing is extended to include animals, living beings one knows are in one’s water, and even plants. This latter prohibition explains why some monks and nuns will not eat whole fruit unless a lay donor has ceremoniously “killed” it with a cut from a knife.
The principle of non-harming is not absolute when it comes to striking others. For example, among the five lay precepts there is no precept against hitting, perhaps because, even with the Buddhist emphasis on being harmless, there may be situations where this is appropriate.
Among the 227 monastic rules, a precept against hitting does exist. However, the rule is not absolute and so helps us understand the Buddhist attitude on this issue. The prohibition for monastics is against hitting when one is “angry or displeased,” meaning that when these states are absent, hitting is permitted. The monastic however, is limited to doing so with only their hands or fists since monks and nuns cannot possess weapons.
The canonical explanation of this rule explicitly allows a monastic to hit a person (or animal) in self-defense if they are not angry or displeased. More precisely, the commentary allows such self-defensive hits for the purposes of escaping danger. Monastics are thus not expected or encouraged to stand their ground when under attack. This would perhaps require a greater amount of violence than what is needed to escape danger.
The prohibition against hitting while being angry or displeased puts a fairly high standard for when violence may be allowed. The monastic must be careful that he or she has no intention to harm another since to have such intentions requires the presence of anger or displeasure.
From a Buddhist point of view, the reasons for this care may be more for the welfare of the monastic than it is for the welfare of those they may want to strike out at. One has not escaped danger if one has strengthened the habitual and karmic forces of one’s own anger in the process of escaping an external threat.
For the Buddha, even under the threat of death, a monastic must not succumb to hate. Using a dramatic example, the Buddha insists that “even if hoodlums were to cut off your limbs, if you become hateful toward them, you would not be carrying out my teachings. Rather you should … maintain compassion and loving kindness toward them.” While this does not preclude striking at someone in order to try to escape such dramatic harm, the Buddha is clearly more interested in the quality of one’s mind than he is in perpetuating one’s current life at the cost of sacrificing that quality of mind.
In fact, the importance of upholding one’s personal well being is so great that the Buddha emphasized “one must not give up one’s own welfare for the sake of other people’s welfare, however great.” In saying this, the Buddha clearly meant working toward one’s highest spiritual welfare, which for him meant Liberation or Awakening. In his view of life, this is not necessarily selfish since it is only when one has experienced Awakening that one can help others attain their highest welfare. To explain this, the Buddha used the analogy of the people stuck in quicksand. As long as they were all stuck they could not help each other. But if one person could get out on solid land, he or she could reach back to pull out the others.
So while the precept against hitting is not absolute, the precept against acting on anger or hate is. The nature of one’s intention and state of mind takes prominence over the act. Perhaps because of this, the Buddhist emphasis on being harmless has not led Buddhism to pioneer sophisticated strategies of non-violent action, as for example was done by Mahatma Gandhi. Rather, its strength has been in developing techniques of mindfulness and calm that helps us to clarify and improve our intentions and states of mind.
It is well known that Buddhist ethics is centered on intentions. In fact, the distinction between the Jain and Buddhist emphasis on harmlessness has to do with intentions. In Jainism any act of harming creates detrimental karma. In Buddhism, it is only those acts where one intends harm that are detrimental, not those that are accidental. For this reason the Jain ideal is a much more thorough dedication to harmless living than the Buddhist ideal. In fact, some of the saints of the Jain tradition took the ideal to such extremes that they slowly starved to death.
The Buddhist emphasis on harmlessness is explicitly directed toward both oneself and others. That is, one should “not intend harm to self, to others, or to both self and others.” Rather one should “intend benefit for self, for others, for both, and for the whole world.” So while the ideal of harmlessness literally refers to the absence of harm, it also implies a loving concern for both self and others. The motivation for being harmless can come from our love of others. As the Buddha said,
“One who neither kills or makes others kill,
Neither steals nor makes others steal,
Is one who has love for all living beings.”
In one Sutra a man claims that the supreme spiritual goal is attained simply by abstaining from evil actions, evil speech, and evil intentions. The Buddha counters this – perhaps with a sense of humor – by claiming that if this were so, a young baby would have attained the supreme goal. Abstention is not enough; one also needs the presence of right intention and the other elements of the Eightfold Path.
The Buddhist word for non-harming is ahimsa, the same word Mahatma Gandhi translated as “non-violence.”