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Buddhist Response to Violence

Venerable Tenzin Gephel

Venerable Tenzin Gephel

Resident Namgyal Monastery Monk
Cornell University Buddhist Chaplain

Edited by Pat Connor

The essence of Buddhism is compassion. I believe that compassion is the root of all our world's religions. What is compassion? It is a desire within each and every individual to free others from suffering. When the Dalai Lama came to the US and Canada for the first time in 1979, his audiences raised the question, "What is your message to us?" He answered with one word: "Compassion." He knew well at that time that the world of the late 20th and 21st centuries would have great need for compassion. We all have the seed of compassion, or the seed of peace, within us. The thing we as individuals must do is take compassion seriously and nourish it for the sake of lasting world peace and happiness. Our world has plenty of seemingly wise and extremely well-educated, sharp-minded people, but unfortunately too few compassionate people. We have a saying in Tibet that goes like this: "it is not at all difficult to count five fingers. One, two, three, four and five, that's all." The point is to remind us that we can almost count on the fingers of just one hand the truly compassionate people from among the 6 billion citizens of our world. How can world peace flourish in such a situation?

Buddhists believe that the best way to help others is with the guidance of wisdom and compassion. Wisdom is like a pair of eyes and compassion, which is motivated from the heart, is like the hard drive of a computer. If we cannot help others or be good human beings ourselves, the Buddha said at least do no harm to others. The reason why Buddha said do no harm to others is that if we harm others, the harm or pain will backfire and have a negative effect upon us as well. This is a fact. In Buddhism we call this a natural law: that which is always true. If we kill one person we will gain ten or more new enemies. The more violence we engage in, the more our enemies and suffering will increase. Without compassion there will be almost no end to violence and suffering.

We can look back on our world history. I don't know that much about the history of the world, but let me say this. Think of a person like Hitler. I think he must have known that in order to achieve absolute power he first had to kill the people he disliked or those who opposed him, and the number of people he killed totaled some 11 or 12 million. However, many of the kinds of people he disliked increased anyway, and he died an early death. So when did he achieve happiness from his power? What was his point in creating that much violence? We have another saying in Tibet: "your bad reputation and bad influence will last far longer than your life." This is exactly what happens. It is therefore time to change the course of history rather than repeat the same misdeeds and ruthless acts again and again.

We can see in our day-to-day lives how meaningless and useless aggression and violence really are, whether they are overtly physical or not. They only bring suffering. In our daily lives we experience all degrees of violence and aggression from small to medium to large. If we notice at the moment such acts occur, we will see that we have no happiness, and then that we will continue to experience unhappiness and discomfort as time goes on. When we respond with our own small aggression to another's small act of violence or aggression against us, though getting even may gratify us for a short while, such retaliation will never truly solve our problems. All that the get-even response does is cause unending suffering. If we fail to notice what we are doing and do nothing to stop it, then we are making this the "normal" way for us to fulfill our wishes. From a Buddhist perspective, the way we live now affects our future life. Automatic, unthinking, or deliberate aggressive actions not only bring suffering in this life; such addictive habits will force us to repeat these actions in the next life. Hatred and anger, violence and aggression never ever solve problems. When we apply this logic to massive, legalized violence such as war, we cannot fail to see that tremendous suffering and mass destruction must be the result. As the Dalai Lama has said, the trouble-maker always manages to hide, and while he is safe and sound somewhere, innocent men, women, and children suffer and die. There is no magic bullet that will only stop the trouble-maker. War brings misery to everyone. If war is the worst way to solve problems, then the only logical alternative is through non-violence and effective dialog.

In order to enjoy long-term security, we must work hard to cultivate compassion, tolerance, patience and forgiveness in ourselves. These are virtuous qualities that bring inner peace. The light of this true inner peace will affect the peace of our families, friends, societies and all the nations of the world. This is the way to create world peace and happiness. Without fire there can be no smoke. Without inner peace within each individual citizen of the world, it will be impossible to achieve universal peace and happiness. In conclusion, I quote from the Dalai Lama: "Peace starts within each one of us."