by Elizabeth J. Harris
Part 3 – Non-Retaliation
In one sermon of the Majjhima Nikaya, one of the five sections within the collection of sermons in the Pali Canon, the Buddha says to his disciples:
Monks, as low-down thieves might carve you limb from limb with a double-handed saw, yet even then whoever sets his mind at enmity, he, for this reason, is not a doer of my teaching. This is how you must train yourselves: neither will my mind become perverted, nor will I utter an evil speech, but kindly and compassionate will I dwell, with a mind of friendliness and devoid of hatred.
The vividness of this picture has always moved me — a thief hacking off my arms and legs with a saw. And it isn’t that far-fetched. War involves such butchery. The denial of human rights under totalitarian regimes produces similar horror, and so does the obsessional urge of a multiple murderer. Fear, terror, or violent retaliation in self-protection would seem the natural reactions to such an attack, the reaction programmed into our bodies.
Yet the challenge of Buddhism here is: do not retaliate, do not hate; show compassion to all people even if they are about to kill you. It is a challenge which reaches out from other religions also. Jesus of Palestine, suffering the agony of being nailed through his flesh to rough wooden posts, forgave his killers and felt compassion for them in their blindness.
But does this imply that Buddhism advocates that we should never protect ourselves or others from violence, that we should submit to whatever exploitation we are subjected to, that in the face of evil forces we should remain passive? To answer “yes” is to misread Buddhism and all true religion. Buddhism does not support passivity in the face of violence and evil. Rather, it encourages a mental attitude which can face and oppose violence without fear or hatred.
Nowhere in the Buddhist texts is it suggested that we should remain inactive when others are suffering. Nowhere does it say we should refrain from action if someone is murdering our son, daughter, neighbour, or colleague in front of our eyes. In such situations, suffering must be relieved, violence must be denounced, self-sacrifice might even be demanded, though the Buddhist texts also warn that to meet violence with violence brings a spiral of further violence. What the Buddhist texts do say is that to hate, to feel anger towards the doer of violence, is self-defeating. It harms the hater more than the hated.
In the ancient Buddhist texts, we come across many stories of non-hatred deflecting violence and making it powerless. One woman, because she refuses to feel hatred, is unharmed when burning oil is poured over her by a jealous co-wife. And when a monk dies of snakebite, the Buddha says he would not have died if he had radiated loving kindness to the world of snakes. This might seem utopian in a world shot through with violence. The sceptic could point to the deaths of Gandhi in India, Oscar Romero in El Salvador, and Michael Rodrigo in Sri Lanka to show that the most compassionate of beings have been unable to escape violent deaths caused by the greed and hatred of others.
But the force of these religious teachings will remain. Violence is not overcome by violence. Hatred is not defeated by hatred. Our lives are not made more secure by wishing to protect them. To face death without hatred or fear, even towards our killers, is the path of sainthood. These are eternal truths.
Copyright 1994 Elizabeth J. Harris