The early teachings portray the Buddha as the ideal of peacefulness and pacifism. We’re told, “The Buddha gave up killing living creatures. He renounced the rod and the sword. He was scrupulous and kind, living full of compassion for all beings.” And, in his 45-year teaching career, there isn’t a hint that he ever wavered from teaching or living out his commitment to nonviolence.
The wise master themselves. ~The Buddha
Additionally, Buddhism is full of practical how-to instructions for developing a mind and heart that’s free to act nonviolently, even in extreme circumstances.
Of course, acting nonviolently takes more than simply believing in nonviolence. Growing the inner freedom to act nonviolently takes commitment and practice.
The mind is everything. What you think you become. ~The Buddha
One way to practice meeting aggression with peace is by studying and practicing the many examples of how the Buddha did it.
For example, On one occasion a man named Bharadvaja the Abusive visited the Buddha for the sole purpose of heaping scorn and abuse on him. When he’d finished with his harsh words, the Buddha calmly asked him, “When your relatives and friends come to visit, do you offer them something to eat?”
To this the Abusive One answered, “Yes, I offer my guests something to eat.” “But” asked the Buddha, “if they refuse what you’ve offered, to whom does the food belong?” To which Bharadvaja answered, “If they don’t accept the food, it remains my own.”
“So too,” the Buddha replied, “I do not abuse anyone, do not scold anyone, do not rail against anyone. I refuse to accept from you the abuse and scolding you have let loose at me. It still belongs to you,Bharadvaja. It still belongs to you.”
Pacific and Centered
Here the Buddha stayed centered in himself. He was not abusive or scolding. Not even against so seemingly deserving a soul as Bharadvaja. Here the Buddha practiced not receiving what his offender wanted to give him. And he did it through an act of creative imagination. Though the Abusive One tried to heap scorn upon him, the Buddha simply refused to accept it. And this is something you and I can imaginatively practice even today.
If you truly loved yourself, you could never hurt another. ~The Buddha
Another way to grow in the practice of nonviolence is again through the creative and courageous use of our imagination in contemplation. For example, even though we are safe and secure today, we can imagine ourselves practicing thoughts of loving-kindness even in outrageously difficult circumstances that could arise in the future. For example, in the teaching aptly called The Simile of the Saw Sutta, the Buddha taught his monks:
Even if low-down bandits were to sever you limb from limb, anyone who had a malevolent thought on that account would not be following my instructions.
If that happens, you should train like this:
‘Our minds will remain unaffected. We will blurt out no bad words and remain full of compassion, with a heart of love and no secret hate. We will meditate spreading a heart of love to that person. And with them as a basis, we will meditate spreading a heart full of love to everyone in the world—abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will.’
That’s how you should train.
If you frequently reflect on this advice—the simile of the saw— do you see any criticism, large or small, that you could not endure?” “No, sir.” “So, mendicants, you should frequently reflect on this advice, the simile of the saw. This will be for your lasting welfare and happiness.” ~Translation by Ajahn Sujato
Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love; this is the eternal rule. ~the Buddha
Here we have perhaps the most extreme example of nonviolence in the Pali Canon. It’s just one of many specific instruction from the Buddha on how to grow nonviolence in our hearts and minds. Most of the practices related to growing nonviolent action in the teachings focus on far less extreme events than the simile of the saw.
One reason the canon includes such an extreme example is, I think, purely historical. Some of the Buddha’s disciples in fact faced such harrowingly torturous events in their on life times. And, many Tibetan monks, nuns, and lay people have faced and still face similar circumstance today at the hands of Chinese soldiers and Chinese and Tibetan prison guards.
Violence does not lead to lasting welfare and happiness.
But another reason we are invited to imagine ourselves practicing loving-kindness meditation even in such daunting circumstances is because the answer to the question, “Under what circumstances does Buddhism see violence as an appropriate response to harm at the hands of another?” is “Under no circumstances.”
Consequently, the Buddha proposed this kind of reflection, contemplation, and practice as a way for his disciples to cultivate nonviolent hearts and gain lasting welfare and happiness even in dire circumstances. Violence does not lead to lasting welfare and happiness.
Therefore, growing in nonviolence, as difficult as it is, is inseparable from the Buddha Way. It’s an ever present theme and core component of the Buddha’s Dharma.
We will develop and cultivate the liberation of mind by lovingkindness, make it our vehicle, make it our basis, stabilize it, exercise ourselves in it, and fully perfect it. ~The Buddha
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