Dealing with the demise of deranged despots

To follow the Buddha and his teaching means cultivating the four brahmaviharas towards oneself and others as well as abandoning ill will and harm towards other living beings. When we’re faced with the likes of Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, Lenin, and other dictators who invoke misery on millions, how do we hold those situations in our thoughts, speech and actions?

Having a wish that the deranged dictator die so that the victims will be released from tyranny doesn’t seem fitting.

I can abandon hatred towards powerful people who harm themselves and others and instead consider how much dukkha there must be to be that person, living with a mind of hatred, delusion and ill will and generating so much bad kamma. I can have a wish that that person could be free of dukkha, that they could find the path to liberation. Then there are the victims of that persons actions; I can also apply the same.

So when the demise of a deranged dictator is eminent and the balance between one person and perhaps millions of others hangs, how do I hold that in my thoughts, speech and actions? I can certainly generate metta by thinking “May this person stop creating bad kamma” and “May all people be free from dukkha” But how do I speak and act out of metta, karuna, pamoda and upekkha to move towards a change of the situation for the well-being of others? Where does speech and action come in to elicit change for the well being of all?

EDIT: I inadvertently mentioned Ho Chi Minh in my original post, so sorry for the confusion!


Ho Chi Minh, whom the Vietnamese regard as a celibate, is not in the same league as others mentioned:

"In 1987, UNESCO officially recommended that its member states “join in the commemoration of the centenary of the birth of President Hồ Chí Minh by organizing various events as a tribute to his memory”, considering “the important and many-sided contributions of President Hồ Chí Minh to the fields of culture, education and the arts” who “devoted his whole life to the national liberation of the Vietnamese people, contributing to the common struggle of peoples for peace, national independence, democracy and social progress”.—Wikipedia

Non-action is a positive dynamic in Buddhism because if properly directed it generates kamma which is profitable for one’s own practice. This is a difficult lesson for material-oriented (rather than mind) westerners to learn:

"But herein, Cunda, effacement should be practiced by you:[16]

  • (1) Others will be harmful; we shall not be harmful here — thus effacement can be done.[17]
  • (2) Others will kill living beings; we shall abstain from killing living beings here — thus effacement can be done."—MN 8

Also the function of the practice of the brahma viharas is to have the right social attitude towards other beings:

"Monks, the establishing of mindfulness is to be practiced with the thought, ‘I’ll watch after myself.’ The establishing of mindfulness is to be practiced with the thought, ‘I’ll watch after others.’ When watching after yourself, you watch after others. When watching after others, you watch after yourself.

"And how do you watch after others when watching after yourself? Through cultivating [the practice], through developing it, through pursuing it. This is how you watch after others when watching after yourself.

"And how do you watch after yourself when watching after others? Through endurance, through harmlessness, through a mind of goodwill, & through sympathy. This is how you watch after yourself when watching after others.

“The establishing of mindfulness is to be practiced with the thought, ‘I’ll watch after myself.’ The establishing of mindfulness is to be practiced with the thought, ‘I’ll watch after others.’ When watching after yourself, you watch after others. When watching after others, you watch after yourself.”—SN 47.19


In the greater picture that you have painted here, IMHO there is very little one can do to alleviate the suffering of all individuals. The Buddha himself could not do that and perhaps it is why the Buddha said that beings are heirs to their actions.
I do not think that passive observance of suffering associated with both the perpetrators and the sufferers too is acceptable either.
I would therefore think that I myself could have have been one of the sufferers of any specific perpetrator but it is just that I am somewhat fortunate to be exempt from such specific circumstance. But for how long?

As such I would use the suffering to my advantage for practising the path with a firmer resolve while extending the four Brahmaviharas to all living beings without any distinction and hoping others will follow the same path sooner or later.
With Metta


In this lifetime, in ways small but prolonged, I have tried despotism. I have tried to use internal despotism to control my own mind, I have tried to use external despotism to control others around me.

All of this brought great stress, a lack of ease.

I always find this resource valuable. To quote one paragraph:

In fact, on that day, even if I was only a penniless refugee and a sick man with a gangrenous leg, I was not the victim. The victims were my jailers. I had left prison, but what about them? They were locked up in a vicious spiral that would hound them during this life and for many lives yet to come!


The Buddha used strong language in referring to his personal defeat of the hindrances:

“I…wiped them out of existence.” MN 19

It’s not a coincidence that MN 19 is followed by MN 20, which describes the specific methods.
It is necessary to use force as a last resort in defeating the hindrances:

“If evil, unskillful thoughts — imbued with desire, aversion or delusion — still arise in the monk while he is attending to the relaxing of thought-fabrication with regard to those thoughts, then — with his teeth clenched and his tongue pressed against the roof of his mouth — he should beat down, constrain, and crush his mind with his awareness. As — with his teeth clenched and his tongue pressed against the roof of his mouth — he is beating down, constraining, and crushing his mind with his awareness, those evil, unskillful thoughts are abandoned and subside.”—MN 20

The practitioner is sometimes referred to as a warrior in regard to describing the approach to the practice: AN 5.75, 76, 181.

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That’s a really powerful and important question, one that gets to the heart of “universal” love. It’s easy to quote the simile of the saw, not so easy to practice it.


We need to hold an understanding of our commitment to unconditional love, yet keep that distinct from our understanding of the morality. We can wish evil people well without endorsing evil.

Clearly, we should support the removal of despots from power for the good of the people; but it is also for their own good. And, not incidentally, our own. Under an evil ruler, the whole nation becomes infected with hate and cruelty.

Yet the urge to seek revenge, to punish the evil-doer, to make them feel the same hurt that we feel; it is lurking inside there, and it carries with it a rather disturbing thought: that this is how we become like them.

My own understanding of this came, not from personal experience with despots, but from—and don’t laugh!—Pink Floyd’s The Wall. It was one of my favorite albums as a teenager. The basic story is of a man whose father was killed in WWII and who was never able to fully process this. Ultimately the PTSD and depression led to him becoming a fascist, the very thing his father died fighting.

In the early 80s, this narrative probably seemed lurid and excessive. Yet today, with the resurgence of nazism in the public sphere all over the world, it seems to me quite prescient. I really believe there is something to this; that today we are still dealing with the unprocessed trauma of WWII, passed down through generations.

The Greek mythic cycle dealt with this. Over several generations starting with Tantalus, atrocity after atrocity sparked war and death: the curse of the House of Atreus. It was only when, on the intervention of Athena, that forgiveness was found that true justice could prevail.

The profundity of this resolution lies not in simply personal forgiveness or in social justice, but in the understanding that these things cannot exist without one another. Unless we have a degree of genuine good will for each other, it is impossible for justice to prevail.


I can only refer MN 22

  1. “Bhikkhus, even if bandits were to sever you savagely limb by limb with a two-handled saw, he who gave rise to a mind of hate towards them would not be carrying out my teaching. Herein, bhikkhus, you should train thus: ‘Our minds will remain unaffected, and we shall utter no evil words; we shall abide compassionate for their welfare, with a mind of loving-kindness, without inner hate. We shall abide pervading them with a mind imbued with loving-kindness; and starting with them, we shall abide pervading the all-encompassing world with a mind imbued with loving-kindness, abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility and without ill will.’ That is how you should train, bhikkhus.

MN 22 The Simile of the Saw translated by Bhikku Bodhi

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I remember a Dhamma talk by Ajahn Brahm where he made a distinction between the action and the person. He taught that there are evil actions, but no evil people. I find this distinction very useful.

Usually, attention is paid to dictators and despots because they are at the forefront. The conditions that gave rise to bad rulers are rarely addressed, possibly, because its easier to blame evil on one person, or on a group of people who support him/her.

Also a part of the problem is that most people put large hopes on institutions, be it government, political party, army to defend them, police to protect them or even a family to have a sense of belonging. Being subject to sickness, old age and death, belonging to a group provides a sense of security, but at an expense. The hopes for security often turns into bitterness and aversion when these institutions do not deliver as expected. The inherent lack of security in institutions is never questioned. Instead, more faith and hope in change is needed, which begets more disappointment and more aversion.

Under this state of affairs, metta has very little function except feeling guilty about my own aversion and therefore substitute it with an ideal of universal love that excludes no one.

Thank you Bhante, you aptly expressed many of my thoughts. I also appreciated the Greek mythic aspect and I didn’t realize what The Wall was all about! :upside_down_face:

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It is an extraordinarily useful distinction, and one that doesn’t just apply to deranged despots. I remember being told in an early class at Teachers’ College that there are lots of naughty actions but no naughty children. :slight_smile:


Some human beings may not be “evil” per se, but they can certainly be broken and dangerous. There are mental disorders which are overt and some more subtle. For instance, persons with strong Schizophrenia, Borderline Personality Disorder or Antisocial Personality Disorder pose an obvious grave and present danger to others and need outside restraint. But a psychopath can hide behind charm and may not be easily detected before it’s too late.

Many of history’s most deranged despots could be categorized as psychopaths. The danger lies in lack of remorse or guilt, pathological lying, manipulation, impulsivity, inability to control behavior, etc. It’s estimated that 20% of corporate CEOs could be clinical psychopaths. My wife was an executive administrator and worked with one for a few months. He was baffled by any regard for anyone’s well being. Once, while my wife was helping a co-worker having an epileptic seizure, he wanted her to stop and get his FedEx package out.

For me, it’s easier to arouse the brahmaviharas for a person if I consider them sick or broken rather than evil.

Without hatred or revenge I can still advocate their restraint or an end to their power. What if one thinks we would all be better off if that despot was removed from power or even imprisoned, if that is what it takes? What if one thinks that we would all be better off if that despot died? Is there ill will lurking behind those thoughts? Dispassion? After all, their removal from power, imprisonment or death might just be forms of vipāka.


I find it important to apply the mind surgeon’s probe to find and remove any residual poison or arrow. I’ve always considered hope and fear to be two sides of the same coin: I hope things turn out this way / I fear that things will turn out that way. That coin is also greed and aversion: I want things to be this way / I don’t want them to be that way.

If I can purify my mind from those delusions, I have equipoise and what happens is what I deal with then. If I don’t concern myself with affairs of kings and kingdoms, I don’t enter that domain. Perhaps one’s concern about despots and activism is best avoided?

I must admit, I think this is an unhelpful take in this context. For normal people, sure; they make a mistake but should not be defined by it. But we’re not talking about normal people. We’re talking about a “deranged despot”.

Ajahn Brahm cracks jokes a lot. Does that make him a person who says funny things, or a funny person? It’s just language. Evil is just a word. The point of calling a person evil is to recognize that they have a persistent pattern of acting in the worst of ways.

It is a word that should be reserved for extreme circumstances, to be sure. But if someone, all their life, has a persistent pattern of rape, child abuse, criminality, racism, lies, cruelty, a flagrant disregard for the lives of others, and a list of other evil deeds that just goes on, and has never shown a hint of recognition or remorse, then I ask: what other word do we have to describe such a person?

As Adutiya says:

The problem is that we overwhelmingly tend to imagine that others are pretty much like us. So we assume that, just as we might make a mistake and do something bad, but feel guilty about it and change our ways, so too a “deranged despot” might choose to do good over evil. But they won’t. This is a delusion, one that the “deranged despot” relies on to keep power. It’s how they gaslight their people.

What we are dealing with is a deep level mental pathology, a void of empathy and morality, and an incapacity to even comprehend what good and evil are. There is zero chance that a despot like this will somehow “choose” to do good. We often forget that “good” and “evil” are learned concepts, that morality is a learned behavior, and we cannot comprehend that someone has simply failed to learn these things.

Compare it to maths. For us, we assume that even someone bad at maths will make mistakes. But they’ll learn and do better next time. And the attitude of forgiveness and encouragement is appropriate in 99% of cases. But what of an adult who, as a child, never learned to read numbers? Who has no concept of what “plus” means? How has no idea what a “number” is? If they say “2 plus 2 equals 5” there are no grounds by which they might understand that it is a mistake. And if they say by chance that “2 plus 2 equals 4”, it means nothing. It’s a stopped clock on the twelfth hour.

A “deranged despot” will do what they have always done—whatever they see is in their own interests—and as they do so they occasionally stumble upon something that some people regard as “good”. Those people will then praise the despot, praising their “pivot”, and dismissing those who point to a person’s character. Thus they grant more power to the “deranged despot”, allowing them space to recover, and setting the stage for the next calamity.

Each time they do that, their own moral compass—if they have one—is bent further out of shape. They do this only to curry favor with the despot; but the ultimate irony is, there is no-one a “deranged despot” loathes more then their own followers. When it becomes extreme, this loathing manifests in behavior that endangers the very lives that the despot depends on.

When a person has complex, deep-level developmental disorders, and has never learned what it means to do good, it is extremely hard for them to do so as an adult in the best of cases. And if they are put in a position of power, it is virtually impossible.

In such cases, we need to clearly recognize the dangerous pathology: this person will not be redeemed, and they will not learn and grow. We must remove them from power immediately, and ensure that they face the full legal consequences of their actions.

Using the same techniques of positive reinforcement that we use with children or with healthy adults is a recipe for disaster.

Because of our incapacity to understand the mind of a truly broken person, it is crucial that we rely on the advice of experts in the field. The same behaviors that are so publicly visible in the conduct of world leaders are routinely observed in the courtroom, and psychologists are specially trained to detect these pathologies and advise how to protect people from them. We ignore their advice at our peril.


Methinks at the bottom of it is another question: Suppose you have a knife and you are standing behind a known mass murderer. Killing him would save a million lives. What would the Buddha do?

Is there any sutta on such a problem? (I’m only aware of a story on suicide when unbearably terminally ill.) It is called the Trolley Problem: Trolley problem - Wikipedia

There are variants of the situation: E.g. you might have the opportunity to just press a remote control button to kill the mass murderer. – This can make a difference for “normal” people. Here is an article about it. The result is a bit disconcerting :slight_smile: Monks similar to psychopaths?!


(I think this is an interesting question, better served with it’s own thread.)


I agree. The Trolley Problem is fascinating. I’ve tried it on people before and it’s interesting how people switch when faced with the lever or the push.