The State as Violating Nonviolence

Wasn’t exactly sure if this would be a discussion or watercooler but because it’s sort of jumping from Buddhism but not necessarily answerable from the texts I figure this is the place.

Bhikkhu Bodhi in a 2014 article argued that enlistment in the military and indeed killing is permissible under certain circumstances with certain intentions. Ven. Thanissaro and others have argued against this.

In the article, Bodhi writes this:

But while the ethic of harmlessness may have served well as a guide to personal conduct, the governance of a state presented a moral quandary, with which the texts occasionally grapple. In a short sutta (SN 4:20) the Buddha ponders the intriguing question: Is it possible to rule a country righteously—without killing and instigating others to kill, without confiscating the property of others, without causing sorrow? No sooner does the question occur to him than Mara the Tempter appears and begs the Buddha to give up his monastic vocation in order to rule. The Buddha spurns Mara’s proposal with a statement on the misery of sensual pleasures: “Even a mountain of gold would not be enough for one.” Yet, strangely, the sutta does not answer the question with which it began. Perhaps the question was deliberately left hanging because the Buddha (or the compilers) did not think an unambiguous answer was possible.

What strikes me as interesting here is that in the political-economy philosophy of Anarchist Pacifism, it’s argued that:

  1. Violence is never justified
  2. The state necessarily perpetrates violence in order to exist and function
  3. Therefore, the state is never justified

Views like this have been held most famously by Leo Tolstoy, Dorothy Day and M.P.T Acharya, among many others. I’ve seen the idea of this being compatible with Buddhism before but haven’t really seen that articulated beyond Reddit posts.

In terms of the sutta and this question never being answered, if we’re taking the view of “what will increase the chances of Buddhism’s success as a religion?” then it would make sense to refuse to answer the question. Imagine if one of the ideas of Early Buddhism directly opposed King Ashoka? Buddhism as a whole could be in a very different, less popular, place.


I haven’t had enough coffee this morning to go down a “justifiable violence” rabbit hole yet, but in my own mind, we can start with the Vinaya, which allows a monastic to use reasonable and necessary violence to defend himself/herself from an attack. In the same way, I feel that this sensibility applies on a larger scale, where violence, as a last resort, might be employed in order to defend one’s people, and mitigate a larger slaughter of innocents. At the end of the day, I always come back to the idea that the Buddha’s fundamental approach of kamma and rebirth allows for fewer binary questions such as “is this never allowed; violence is never justified?” into questions of ethical pragmatism, such as "what is the least harm that can result from my ethically intended action here? " On a bigger scale, if defensive violence is ever justified to prevent for example, the wrongful domination of a country or region, and a genocide, then the answer might be “perhaps.” We must always err on the side of nonviolence and diplomacy. The ruler that makes a decision to use measured force is then the owner and heir of that kamma. That kamma may be both bright and dark, but the decision will need to be made in any case, hypothetically, to prevent a genocide.


AN7.62:2.3: Many hundreds of times I was a king, a wheel-turning monarch, a just and principled king. My dominion extended to all four sides, I achieved stability in the country, and I possessed the seven treasures.
AN7.62:2.4: These were my seven treasures:
AN7.62:2.5: the wheel, the elephant, the horse, the jewel, the woman, the treasurer, and the counselor as the seventh treasure.
AN7.62:2.6: I had over a thousand sons who were valiant and heroic, crushing the armies of my enemies.
AN7.62:2.7: After conquering this land girt by sea, I reigned by principle, without rod or sword.

It appears that one can smash enemies to reign in peace. Yet the Buddha eventually abandoned that approach to teach the Dhamma.

I suppose that if Buddhism disappears, then the cycle would repeat.

MN44:10.2: “The noble eightfold path is conditioned.”


Hi @UpasakaMichael, could you share the source or rationale for this understanding?

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Hi @Gabriel_L , I believe I found the citation:

74. Should any bhikkhu, angered and displeased, give a blow to (another) bhikkhu, it is to be confessed.

Non-offenses. According to the Vibhanga, there is no offense for a bhikkhu who, trapped in a difficult situation, gives a blow “desiring freedom.” The Commentary’s discussion of this point shows that it includes what we at present would call self-defense; and the K/Commentary’s analysis of the factors of the offense here shows that even if anger or displeasure arises in one’s mind in cases like this, there is no penalty.


A monk who in anger strikes another monk must confess the offense. Pahāra

kenaci viheṭhīyamāno mokkhādhippāyo pahāraṃ deti, ummattakassa, ādikammikassāti.

There is no offence if, being in some difficulty, he gives a blow desiring freedom; if he is mad, if he is the first wrong-doer.

A bit late to reply, eh!


As we can see in the above pacittiya rule, one can blow /push someone off when he or she is in danger. This is just to get rid of the person.

mokkhādhippāyoti tato attano mokkhaṃ patthayamāno. pahāraṃ detīti kāyakāyapaṭibaddhanissaggiyānaṃ aññatarena pahāraṃ deti, anāpatti. Sacepi antarāmagge coraṃ vā paccatthikaṃ vā viheṭhetukāmaṃ disvā “Upāsaka, ettheva tiṭṭha, mā āgamī”ti vatvā vacanaṃ anādiyitvā āgacchantaṃ “Gaccha re”ti muggarena vāsatthakena vā paharitvā yāti, so ce tena pahārena marati, anāpattiyeva (Pahārasikkhāpadavaṇṇanā).

mokkhādhippāyo wishing his own freedom
pahāraṃ detīti kāyakāyapaṭibaddhanissaggiyānaṃ aññatarena pahāraṃ deti
Hit with his body part (hand or foot) or with something else that can be trown at the person or animal. ex: a small stone or a wooden piece, shooting, a bomb etc.

If on the road he meets a thief or an enemy who wishes to harm you and says “stop right there do not come forward”. When the enemy is approaching you hit him with a stick or a knife (sward) saying “go away”. If he dies with that hit, there is no offence.

Commentary is always trying to justify the possibility of otherwise. Justifications does not apply for the sins; whatever the kamma we do, we will get the retribution (vipāka). No matter whether it is for defense if you hit someone you are doing a demerit. The Buddha adviced us not to hurt others, not even to a small living creature as all the beings are in a same game it is just their current situation is different in the samsāra.

If I am understanding this right, there might not be an offense according to pahāra pacittiya. But, There is a risk offence according to
Sañciccapāṇasikkhāpada if it is an animal who has been killed and in the worst case if it is a person it would be a defeat (parājika) and the monk is no longer a bhikkhu. There would not be an offence due to the absence of the intension (na voropetukāmā). Just think of a person who hits a mosquito, the reaction is that quick where he feels there is no intention to kill at all. So there is a higher chance of having killing intention at the defense incident if the person is used to killing or violence.

Kakacūpama Advice

A real pupil of the Buddha should try not to hurt anyone, even not to an enemy not even for his life. The advice can be found in Kakacūpamasutta.

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.
Ubhatodaṇḍakena cepi, bhikkhave, kakacena corā ocarakā aṅgamaṅgāni okanteyyuṃ, tatrāpi yo mano padūseyya, na me so tena sāsanakaro.
If that happens, you should train like this:
Tatrāpi vo, bhikkhave, evaṃ sikkhitabbaṃ:‘
Our minds will remain unaffected.
We will blurt out no bad words. We will remain full of compassion, with a heart of love and no secret hate.
‘na ceva no cittaṃ vipariṇataṃ bhavissati, na ca pāpikaṃ vācaṃ nicchāressāma, hitānukampī ca viharissāma mettacittā na dosantarā.
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.’
Tañca puggalaṃ mettāsahagatena cetasā pharitvā viharissāma tadārammaṇañca sabbāvantaṃ lokaṃ mettāsahagatena cetasā vipulena mahaggatena appamāṇena averena abyābajjhena pharitvā viharissāmā’ti (MN21.

When it comes to a war, the story is totally different. A war cannot be justified according to above vinaya rule, above is an instantaneous incident where a war should be planned well before the fight as well as during the fight. It is impossible to plan a war without a killing intention.
Mahāvaṃsa also trying to justify the war in the chapter about the king Dutugemunu, saying there were bhikkhus in the front line of the war and so on. The attitude towards the war has not changed yet. Even today Sri Lankan people believe soldiers would go to heaven because of their intention to protect the country. I am afraid this is not the case. When they are in the battles there is a higher chance of having heatred and ill-will which may result their birth in hell.


Thanks both @UpasakaMichael and @Amatabhani


@Amatabhani Bhante, I do feel your argument is absolutely correct in the Dhammic sense. It’s been years since I’ve read Ven. Bodhi’s article War and Peace: A Buddhist Perspective , so I reread it tonight. I do tend to agree with him, and appreciate that the issue of justifiable violence is a difficult one.

Keeping this brief, I can mention that for many years I have been connected somewhat with the Shan (Tai) people of Shan State, Myanmar (Burma). When I was a samanera, I enjoyed teaching small amounts of English phrases to Thai and Shan workers working in the resorts in northern Thailand. Later, I began to assist with food security issues for Koung Jor, one of the Shan refugee camps at the Thai-Burma border. I am still involved with refugee support, anti-trafficking, and with the Shan refugee community in northern Thailand.

You may have seen the recent news of Aung San Suu Kyi’s testimony before the International Court of Justice at the Hague, defending the Burmese military’s ethnic cleansing actions in Rakhine State. This past week, one of Shan State’s leaders (the gentleman standing with me in my profile photo ) made a formal statement regarding DASSK Shan Orgs Support Legal Action Against Burma at ICJ - Shan Herald Agency for News .

The Burmese military (Tatmadaw) has carried out a campaign in Shan State of genocide, routinely bombing and burning out villages, killing and torturing civilians, and uses torure and rape against women and girls in these villages (see ) . The Shan families that are burned out and bombed out of their villages have to flee to IDP camps in Myanmar, or cross into Thailand to seek refuge in one of the refugee camps.

The only thing that stands between the Tatmadaw completely burning and bombing out Shan State, and taking the land and forests for clearcutting of trees, mining and mineral extraction, and otherwise selling out the waterways to the Chinese for hydropower projects, is the Shan State Army. Many of the soldiers in the SSA want only to be farming their fields,; many state on record that they have no desire to shoot at Burmese soldiers. Yet, were the SSA not in place defending the Shan State territories, families would be tortured and killed and the villages, forests and farms overtaken.

The Shan (Tai) people are devout Buddhists. Few of them wish to be using arms and shooting back at the Tatmadaw, or trying to shoot down, with small arms, the Burmese Army’s jets and helicopters whose rockets strafe their villages.

Considering all of the options that the Shan people have, from nonresistance to active warfare, their policy of defense seems the most reasonable and ethical, even considering the Dhammic implications. I agree with the pragmatic and arguably ethical principles of limited self defense that Ven. Bodhi suggests, though I also respect that many others will not agree with this position, and enjoy the support of the purest interpretation of Dhamma ethics in doing so.


Couldn’t resist quoting Catch-22 …

This is from where Yossarian tries to resign from the Army on the grounds that his life is at risk…

“They’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly.

“No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried.

“Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked.

“They’re shooting at everyone ,” Clevinger answered. “They’re trying to kill everyone.”

“And what difference does that make?”

And more soberingly…

outside the hospital the war was still going on. Men went mad and were rewarded with medals. All over the world, boys on every side of the bomb line were laying down their lives for what they had been told was their country and no one seemed to mind, least of all the boys who were laying down their young lives.

Having been there, done that myself, I can say… It’s all nothing but Delusion and Suffering… For everyone involved, with or without their knowledge/ consent.
When will it ever end?
When the cosmos contracts, and all beings head for the plane of streaming radiance?


Thanks so much for this rather devastating reminder. The genocide of the Rohingya does not emerge in a vacuum.

In principle, I am an absolute pacifist. But in cases like this, it is hard to imagine any better moral choice than that taken by the Shan in defense of their people.

One aspect that I feel was overlooked in the referenced discussion on just war is the Buddha’s teaching on karma that is both black and white. Sometimes it is not possible to reduce a deed to either right or wrong. No matter what choices one faces, things are unpalatable. Yet a choice must be made.


When someone says:

We kill terrorists because they kill people

Sounds like United Nations Army.

I do not see any just in that view.
People fight wars kill thousands, for what exactly, for religion? nation? or just for pride?
There is one thing that they should know, no matter the reason they get what they give.

Tādisaṃ harate phalaṃ;
Kalyāṇakārī kalyāṇaṃ,
pāpakārī ca pāpakaṃ;
Pavuttaṃ tāta te bījaṃ,
phalaṃ paccanubhossasī

Whatever sort of seed is sown,
That is the sort of fruit one reaps:
The doer of good reaps good;
The doer of evil reaps evil.
By you, dear, has the seed been sown;
Thus you will experience the fruit SN11.10.

They cannot get rid of it because they are searching for elephants in the ocean. Everyone in the world is searching for extinguishment of their fire . But they do not know it is the Nibbāna that can end this suffering (because of avijja).
They do not know most important thing that they should know when they conduct bad deeds.

Yasmiṃ, bhikkhave, puggale āghāto jāyetha, kammassakatā tasmiṃ puggale adhiṭṭhātabbā: ‘kammassako ayamāyasmā kammadāyādo kammayoni kammabandhu kammapaṭisaraṇo, yaṃ kammaṃ karissati kalyāṇaṃ vā pāpakaṃ vā tassa dāyādo bhavissatī’ti; evaṃ tasmiṃ puggale āghāto paṭivinetabbo.

When one gives birth to hatred for an individual, one should direct one’s thoughts to the fact of his being the product of his actions: ‘This venerable one is the doer of his actions, heir to his actions, born of his actions, related by his actions, and has his actions as his arbitrator. Whatever action he does, for good or for evil, to that will he fall heir.’ Thus the hatred for that individual should be subdued (AN 5.161).


Thanks Bhante :anjal:

Which is, according to my limited understanding, why kamma (both white and black) is ultimately suffering, hence the following might be relevant:

Did the Buddha teach a moral system? or is the basic moral principles taught by the Buddha are a necessary condition for a concentrated mind fitting to investigate the Dhamma and transcend Kamma both white and black?

I am not sure if the discussion between Ven Bodhi and Ven Thanisaaro says more about the Buddha’s teachings, or issues facing monastics nowadays when faced with questions by lay followers who are trying to find guidance in relation to difficult moral questions relevant to our modern age.

In the exchange between the two venerables, it was obvious, at least to me, that Ven Bodhi was trying to give practical answers to lay followers (inspite of the lack of clear answers from the suttas) hence Ven Thanissaro’s last sentence in his very last reply was the following:

“For the sake of your long term well being - your own and that of those who take you as an example, you would be wise to let it go”

In our backyard garden I see war everyday. Every single organism out there is competing daily for shared resources. And I include myself going out with a sharp kitchen knife slicing kale leaves for breakfast. So the larger conflicts are mirrored in the small.

Yet I take my breakfast in the garden. It is peaceful and vibrant. There is no anger, ill-will or resentment here.

MN121:4.9: There is only this that is not emptiness, namely the oneness dependent on the perception of wilderness.’

I am not a wheel-turning monarch charged with maintaining the peace and health of a people. But I am a gardener.

Gardening is about choosing what lives and what dies. Because of this, our actions in the gardens that feed us are quite important and mirror perhaps what one might do in a larger context as a wheel-turning monarch. With that in mind, I have found the following quite helpful in the garden or when simply reading the news:

SN2.3:2.2: When what is incinerated is there no sorrow?
SN2.3:2.3: What is the one thing
SN2.3:2.4: whose killing you approve?”
SN2.3:3.1: “When anger’s incinerated you sleep at ease.
SN2.3:3.2: When anger’s incinerated there is no sorrow.
SN2.3:3.3: Vatrabhū, anger has a poisoned root,
SN2.3:3.4: and a honey tip.

And when the anger dies, one sees the most important part of this verse. One sees the last two words. Those last two words have taught me to not feed weeds or drug lords. Everything else is just killing.



I think the important thing is that it is solely going to be oneself who will bear the result of the action. You can think of morality either as some universal law or follow it because God said it or your mom said it or something like that or you can follow it because you see for yourself the relationship. Wicked thoughts lead to wicked actions lead to wickedness as much as the wicked is [actually] wicked.

And yet refugee children have been forcibly ripped from their parents’ arms, and caged, and died, with untreated illnesses, in the country in which I live.

This post has been edited, for verb tense, and for a more neutral adjective.

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Worldly Conditions

Yet isn’t the point of Right Speech is to open understanding?
Perhaps towards this SuttaCentral

Not easy maybe. :slight_smile: Or is it? But I don’t think it comes without thought or effort to any.

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I don’t understand what are you talking about now.

‘Right speech’ is for fulfillment of supernormal eightfold way.

I think it’s unfortunate if you don’t understand what I am talking about or my post.

Perhaps if we step back to a previous point in the thread? Do you, or How do you understand, my posting about refugees, whose lives are affected by many choices in many lives, in reference to an unequivocal statement that “the important thing is that it is solely going to be oneself who will bear the result of the action”?
I understand it in terms of context, including rebirth, and rising persisting falling conditions, in which efforts have effect. Efforts include thoughts, speech, and bodily behaviors. And the whole of the Holy Life, the Buddha said, is good friends.
Does that clarify?
I don’t think seclusion is isolation; it’s misleading imo to think that way.

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