Violence enabling in Buddhism

It is clear that the EBT overwhelmingly don’t allow any justification of violence or hatred. The clearest expression of it for me has been the ‘simile of the saw’ in MN 21. There are countless other instances, e.g. every time greed, hatred and ignorance being described as the primary unwholesome roots etc. etc.

So the ETB are not to blame when violence has been justified in the name of ‘Buddhism’. Yet, it challenges us to develop an explicit position towards the history (and present) of Buddhism & violence.

My personal position is that the Buddha’s teaching addresses the spiritual practitioner and has validity only in this field and neither claims nor exemplifies to be applied to society as a whole or politics - in fact quite the opposite when we think of right speech. So when I think or talk about politics and social justice I am careful not to do it as a Buddhist and not to mix those two contexts.

What I am encouraged to do as a Buddhist is to face the facts, i.e. that in the name of or with the acceptance of Buddhist institutions people were and still are violent, be it in Japan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka or Thailand. The article “Brian Daizen Victoria - Violence-enabling Mechanisms in Buddhism”, along with its bibliography is one step and reminder in that direction. Even though it focuses on the 20th century there are also older examples of institutional consent of violence. (Another source is Michael Jerryson, Mark Juergensmeyer: Buddhist Warfare).

One aspect that is present in the EBT is the “passive-aggressive karma-retribution belief” where in many instances we are told that because of certain acts people have to suffer in the after-life / next life. That is consistent with conditionality and that each kamma has its fruit, but I still squirm when I read MN 135: When a killer is reborn his life will be short, angry people will be ugly, who doesn’t give to monks will be poor etc. That teaching is in itself insulting to the complexity of kamma and also opens the door wide to think “Look at this ugly person, s/he must have been very angry in the past life”. MN 136 is already weakening this oversimplicity. But I remember reading a sutta (does anyone have the source?) where the Buddha says that we shouldn’t bother trying to figure out the workings of kamma, and that it’s too complex.


does this mean you’re a part-time Buddhist? or have a split personality, one for Dhamma and one for secular life or everything else?
if that’s the case the fruits of the path must too only manifest within a certain setting but not outside of it, a part-time arahant, how’s that sound?

if anything the Buddha didn’t approve debating politics, admittedly by monastics, but the benefits of such abstention aren’t confined to them

still if one can’t resists being sucked in to this cesspool i can’t imagine how the factor of Right speech may be ignored
if one can’t maintain Right speech while debating politics, it’s best to avoid such debates to begin with, yet it’s a good occasion for training Right speech

this was discussed some time earlier
one cannot justify disdain towards unfortunate or disabled people by appeal to their kamma without concurrently violating dhammic principles of non-ill-will, non-harmfulness, good-will, compassion, abandonment and non-development of unskillful mental qualities and so forth


Must MN 135 defined your Buddhism?

I must confess this sutta also makes me squirm: (i) it does not conform with my world-view about the causes of social-injustice; (ii) I find it exceptionally irresponsible; (iii) even if I read it in the language of metaphor, I would not expect a Buddha to speak in the language of metaphor in this situation to a Brahman student; & (iv) it appears to contradict AN 3.61 & other teachings.

Those who fall back on past deeds as the essential truth have no desire to do what should be done and to avoid doing what should not be done nor do they make an effort in this respect. Since they do not apprehend as true and valid anything that should be done or should not be done, they are muddle-minded, they do not guard themselves… This was my first legitimate refutation of those ascetics and brahmins who hold such a doctrine and view. AN 3.61

Whatever brahmans & contemplatives, teachers of kamma, who declare that pleasure & pain are self-made, even that is dependent on contact. Whatever brahmans & contemplatives, teachers of kamma, who declare that pleasure & pain are other-made, even that is dependent on contact. SN 12.25

And what is the cause by which kamma comes into play? Contact is the cause by which kamma comes into play. AN 6.63

Now, craving is dependent on feeling, seeking is dependent on craving, acquisition is dependent on seeking, ascertainment is dependent on acquisition, desire and passion is dependent on ascertainment, attachment is dependent on desire and passion, possessiveness is dependent on attachment, stinginess is dependent on possessiveness, defensiveness is dependent on stinginess, and because of defensiveness, dependent on defensiveness, various evil, unskillful phenomena come into play: the taking up of sticks and knives; conflicts, quarrels, and disputes; accusations, divisive speech, and lies DN 15

He who inflicts violence on those who are unarmed and offends those who are inoffensive will soon come upon one of these ten states: Sharp pain or disaster, bodily injury, serious illness or derangement of mind, trouble from the government or grave charges, loss of relatives or loss of wealth or houses destroyed by ravaging fire; upon dissolution of the body that ignorant man is born in hell… Dhp 137


I agree that in a world where most people don’t give a damn about kamma and rebirth, it’s pretty hard to compete with politicians who will say anything to get elected. Trying to change the system for the better from inside is most likely going to end up in the system changing us for the worse. But if we do happen to be in a position where people are listening to us, we probably should advocate non-violence and telling the truth etc. If we link it to “mumbo-jumbo” like kamma and rebirth, people might dismiss us right away as religous nuts, but there are also heaps of negative consequences for bad actions visible here and now that we could justify our positions with. So perhaps it’s not a totally lost cause.

Even if it does work the way it says in MN 135, I don’t remember a single case of the Buddha telling us to treat poor, sick or ugly people badly. This “he has it coming…I’m going to be an instrument of kamma and help punish him” or “he doesn’t deserve my kindness” reaction in buddhists is really weird to me. Perhaps he was an angry killer in the past but in one past life or another we probably were as well. Generosity, kindness and gentleness.


The suttas are replete with the language of metaphor:

Now, when a person is angry — overcome with anger, oppressed with anger — then regardless of the fact that he may be well-bathed, well-anointed, dressed in white clothes, his hair & beard neatly trimmed, he is ugly nevertheless, all because he is overcome with anger.

An angry person is ugly & sleeps poorly.
Gaining a profit, he turns it into a loss,
having done damage with word & deed.
A person overwhelmed with anger
destroys his wealth.
Maddened with anger,
he destroys his status.
Relatives, friends & colleagues avoid him. AN 7.60

… attaining the heart’s release called ‘beautiful’ he abides there. I declare that the heart’s release by loving-kindness has the beautiful for its excellence. SN 46.54

Faith is the wealth here best for man…SN 10.12

Gold & silver
don’t buy Awakening,
don’t buy peace.
This [gold] isn’t proper for contemplatives.
This isn’t noble wealth. Thig 13.5

Dhp 204. Health is the most precious gain and contentment the greatest wealth.

In giving a meal, the donor gives five things to the recipient. Which five? He/she gives life, beauty, happiness, strength & quick-wittedness. Having given life, he/she has a share in long life, either human or divine. Having given beauty, he/she has a share in beauty, either human or divine. Having given happiness, he/she has a share in happiness, either human or divine. Having given strength, he/she has a share in strength, either human or divine. Having given quick-wittedness, he/she has a share in quick-wittedness, either human or divine. In giving a meal, the donor gives these five things to the recipient.

The prudent person giving life, strength,
beauty, quick-wittedness —
the wise person, a giver of happiness —
attains happiness himself.
Having given life, strength, beauty,
happiness, & quick-wittedness,
he has long life & status
wherever he arises. AN 5.37

Dhp 21 Heedfulness is the path to the Deathless. Heedlessness is the path to death. The heedful die not. The heedless are as if dead already


AN 5.37 combines metaphor with plain statements affined to MN 135

Words such as ‘kaya’ (body; group; collection); ‘marana’ (‘death’); ‘hell’; ‘human (manussa) state’; ‘being’ (sattaṃ) ‘reborn (upapajjati)’; ’ life’ (‘ayu’) appear to be used in many ways in the suttas.

Kāye vā hānanda, sati kāya­sañ­ceta­nā­hetu uppajjati ajjhattaṃ sukhadukkhaṃ

Ānanda, when there is the body, because of bodily volition pleasure and pain arise internally SN 12.25

This is in the suttas:

‘I will not engage in talk that is base, vulgar, common, ignoble, unbeneficial, that does not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calm, direct knowledge, self-awakening, or Unbinding — i.e., talk about kings, robbers, & ministers of state; armies, alarms, & battles; food & drink; clothing, furniture, garlands, & scents; relatives; vehicles; villages, towns, cities, the countryside; women & heroes; the gossip of the street & the well; tales of the dead; tales of diversity, the creation of the world & of the sea; talk of whether things exist or not.’ MN 122

But this is also in the suttas about governance:

Licchavis. what are the seven things for non-decrease?

As long as the Vajjis constantly come together and meet many times, their growth not decrease should be expected.

As long as the Vajjis get together in unity for their activities and dismiss in unity, their growth not decrease should be expected.

As long as the Vajjis do not appoint new rules and do not break already appointed rules and as long as the ancient laws of the Vajjis are observed, their growth not decrease should be expected.

As long as the Vajjis honour, revere and esteem the elder Vajjis and consider to listen to them, their growth not decrease should be expected.

As long as the Vajjis do not use force and oppress women and girls of high clans to live with them, their growth not decrease should be expected.

As long as the Vajjis worship, esteem and honour the Vajji monuments internally and externally giving whatever offerings earlier given without disturbing them, their growth not decrease should be expected.

As long as the Vajjis arrange the rightful protection of the worthy ones so that those who have not come would come to the kingdom and those who have come would abide pleasantly, their growth not decrease should be expected. AN 7.21

And this:

But what, sire, is this Ariyan duty of a Wheel-turning Monarch?

This, dear son, that thou, leaning on the Norm [the Law of truth and righteousness] honouring, respecting and revering it, doing homage to it, hallowing it, being thyself a Norm-banner, a Norm-signal, having the Norm as thy master, shouldst provide the right watch, ward, and protection for thine own folk, for the army, for the nobles, for vassals, for brahmins, and householders, for town and country dwellers, for the religious world, and for beasts and birds. Throughout thy kingdom let no wrongdoing prevail. And whosoever in thy kingdom is poor, to him let wealth be given.

And when, dear son, in thy kingdom men of religious life, renouncing the carelessness arising from the intoxication of the senses, and devoted to forbearance and sympathy, each mastering self, each calming self, each perfecting self, shall come to thee from time to time, and question thee concerning what is good and what is bad, what is criminal and what is not, what is to be done and what left undone, what line of action will in the long run work for weal or for woe, thou shouldst hear what they have to say, and thou shouldst deter them from evil, and bid them take up what is good. This, dear son, is the Ariyan duty of a sovran of the world. DN 26

i don’t find the citations 1 & 2 to be contradictory

what’s more the Buddha discourages the Vajjis from appointment of new rulers, which amounts to discouragement from political activity

neither does the 3d citation show any advocacy for political activity or debates

maybe i missed your point?

Maybe :slight_smile: What I mean is that in conversations about politics and social/gender rights etc. I don’t reason with Buddhist arguments, I favour non-racist politics not because I’m a Buddhist. A decent materialist, atheist or whatever would have a similar attitude, also without a Buddhist background. [quote=“Deeele, post:5, topic:3354”]
The suttas are replete with the language of metaphor

Thanks for that collection of quotes.

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in an advanced society inoculated with humanistic ideas it’s common that a person’s worldview in certain aspects would coincide with the dhammic one, but that occurs incidentally, disregarding such coincidence isn’t a Buddhist supposed to bring their worldview in line with the Dhamma?

Maybe, I’m not sure about that. Yes, to have a coherent life is plausible. But it might be a slippery slope…

  • When in front of others I reason about society with dhamma, I automatically become ‘a representative’ of the dhamma. I don’t like that position, esp. because the Buddha discouraged conversations about society/politics.
  • I’m afraid of the proliferating ahamkara. I’m fine with changing my views on dhamma along with the insights of practice and investigation. But if I let my dhamma views shape my interaction as a citizen, I feel more cemented as a personality. Or I find myself defending ideas not only because of my reasoning, but also because I slip into defending ‘the Buddhist in me’. When I keep them separated I can more playfully juggle, disconnect, play devil’s advocate etc. I at least couldn’t keep that playfulness if I seriously combined dhamma and my society-view
  • right speech is difficult (for me). I’m afraid I’d end up saying stupid things about politics and combine it with dhamma-aspects. It would be for me a source of shame, and a possible misrepresentation of the dhamma.



Thanks! I think I read it somewhere else as I didn’t study the AN back then, but the content fits: "These are the four unconjecturables that are not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about them.”

also the following is reasonable…

SN 36.21 : Now when those ascetics and brahmins hold such a doctrine and view as this,‘Whatever a person experiences, […] all that is caused by what was done in the past,’ they overshoot what one knows by oneself and they overshoot what is considered to be true in the world.


For me, this sutta seems to be about community participation in politics or government according to just principles.

If I take the phrase: “on the break-up of the body, after death” and place it into the search function of, it brings up countless suttas. If I take the phrase: “comes to the human state” , the search brings one single result, namely, MN 135.

I have noticed this website ( devote efforts towards investigating the authenticity of suttas. Now some suttas many appear unauthentic, such as MN 111 or MN 117, yet the dhamma principles within these suttas, particularly MN 117, are extremely sound & beneficial.

What about MN 135, which can be viewed as exceptionally dangerous in its Hindu-caste-system-like determinism? Since when did Buddhism encourage blind faith in scriptures? Since when did Buddhism encourage acceptance of teachings without wise reflection?

The MN, in my sentiment, is abundant with potentially unauthentic suttas, such as MN 123, which contradicts MN 64, or MN 50 & MN 81, which contradict SN 22.79. For me, MN 135 is one of these potential unauthentic suttas because it contradicts the salient dhamma principle (regardless of the interpretation of ‘rebirth’) that an unwholesome action leads to a state beset by suffering and a wholesome action leads to a state that is pleasant (albeit however temporary).

The suttas (SN 56.48) teach the human state (manussattaṃ) is something very rare. Thus surely SN 56.48 cannot be referring to the physical form of homo-sapiens or puggala, of which there is currently 7 billion in existence, as been something “very rare”. This “rarity” is described in SN 56.48 together with the rarity of a “Tathagata, worthy & rightly self-awakened, arising in the world”.

Yet MN 135 seems to be purporting a person can do evil actions & be born into the human state (manussattaṃ) as a result. This surely violates the laws of kamma described in countless suttas.


MN 136 states bad actions lead to bad results but also states bad actions can lead to good results. I have no issue with this teaching since from a bad action (& from experiencing suffering for some duration after performing that bad action), a human (manussa) can gain insight, which results in the permanent shunning of evil. Here, via learning from bad karma, the person (puggala) finds the human state (manussattaṃ), which can be viewed as a synonym for enlightenment in the suttas.

Yet MN 135 states the evil-doer reborn as a human (manussattaṃ) is only short-lived in that human state (manussattaṃ). This does not make sense to me at all and contradicts MN 136 also. Thus, in my reading of it, MN 135 contradicts countless suttas & dhamma principles. :slight_smile:

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This is an important discussion, part of it is already going on, and our discussions here help us individually I hope to relate to specific teachings. There are many questions we will never solve (“Did the Buddha really say this?”), but conclusions can emerge as more or less plausible. Linguists and scholars can help us to identify older layers of text, parallels, variants and outside influences. On the matter of consistency and plausibility we can and should be active ourselves. Ok, that was abstract…

MN 135 is obviously a canonized sutta. Moreover it is the MN sutta with the most existing parallels, i.e. 6 Chinese, 2 Sanskrit, and 2 Tibetian as we learn from Bh. Analayo’s ‘Comparative Study’ of the MN. Several parallels actually begin with the Buddha telling someone that his dog was his father. Chinese versions go on without the possibility for a murderer to get reborn as a human, but def. ending in hell. The Sanskrit and Tibetan versions go with the Pali. Some versions say “that to look down on others who are ugly or even to deride them will also lead to becoming ugly oneself.” I recommend to read Ven. Analayo’s expositions for all the details.

Nonetheless, to me the whole sutta in all its variants is either bogus, or the Buddha was talking to baby-level minded lay people who could absorb only the simplest of messages. Even in that case I wonder, if it was really necessary to make a MN sutta out of it.

So scholarly work shows us: The sutta is old, maybe as old as it gets in the MN. And still I think that as responsible followers we have the possibility to decide if it makes sense to us as core Buddhist teaching. At the same time we have to accept that if a neutral non-follower wanted to make a case against the dhamma by isolating weird suttas, s/he could surely do that, e.g. based on MN 135.

To me, MN 135 basically says “we become what we do” or that our “outer form” will eventually sync up with our “inner form”.

And it does say bad actions lead to a bad place, it’s just that sometimes perhaps some other kamma might take precedent at rebirth:

In this discussion what we have to remember is that:

  • Buddha taught gradual training
  • The result of Kamma based on the weight. Killing an ant is not the same weight as killing and Arahant.
  • There are different training rules based as you progress up-words. Rules for lay people is not the same for monks.
  • Use your common sense.
    Buddha’s leaving his wife was a bas kamma. But the scheme of things it is a minor action.
    We still blame him for doing it.

I imagine MN 135 was quite popular among the political elite, similar to the Christian ‘divine right of kings’ in the Middle-Ages. Does it sound ironic how some fellow Buddhists censure other Buddhists for becoming ‘politicized’ yet MN 135 itself has significant political & social ramifications when believed & adhered to? For me, to accept MN 135 on face value is itself engaging in politics, namely, supporting the status quo that historically engage in wars, imperialism & genocides.

It reminds me of Buddhist teachers that make casual references to 9/11 as though they really know 1st hand Muslims really did 9/11. Individuals such as Sam Harris have actually raised the option that Western people may have to nuclear genocide all Muslim people. From such an unquestioned acceptance of 9/11, for example, indirect political support is given to the crimes that have been performed upon millions of innocent people in lands such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen & now Syria. Are we asserting the past karma of 1,000s of women in Iraq & Syria was the cause for their being raped & enslaved by Yama gods disguised as Jihadists? If we passively believe Muslims did 9/11 then we may passively accept the violence occurring in Muslim nations is simply the norm of Muslims (rather than possible imperialist interventions from governments we ourselves must vote for ).

So when exactly did MN 135 actually arrive in China & Tibet, soon after the Buddha’s passing or many hundreds of years later? I guess the Tibetans with their feudal system may have valued it. :neutral_face:

The nice thing is that we don’t have to agree on the personal value a sutta has for us, but we can make an informed decision based on research. We investigate it in our ethical and meditation practice too. And it might be that I don’t see anything in MN 135 now but it will speak to me in an yet unknown way in some years, ‘it’s just not sure’.

If I may bring up as an example the other sutta I mentioned MN 21, or more precisely the simile of the saw it contains. The sutta as such has only one parallel, but, as Ven. Analayo points out “a reference to this simile occurs, e.g., in MN 28 [… ] and its parallel MĀ 30 […], also SĀ 497 […] , and the *Mahāvibhāsā, […] instances indicating that it was a well-known simile in early Buddhist circles.”

So here we have the nice instance of an internal cross-reference (a longer list of internal references are in Ven. Sujato’s ‘The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts’, ch. 4.3.2), which in way speaks for the validity of its older age.

Why do I like it? For me it represents the uncompromising nature of the Buddha, showing that when something is deeply wrong (in this case hatred), then it so no matter what - “he who gave rise to a mind of hate towards them would not be carrying out my teaching”. And he contrasts it with boundless metta. Personally, sometimes when I’m upset about someone, at some point this sutta comes to my mind and has a cooling effect, puts things in perspective and makes the aversion subside. A sutta that helps me so in life is of great value to me, hence it is one of my favourites.

But it could also be misused politically, forcing Buddhists to stay silent when they should speak their conscience, making them accept oppressive rulers/systems “Hey, aren’t you supposed to be full of metta, no matter what?! Don’t get in the way, and turn the other cheek.”

I guess what I try to say is, if someone wants to twist the dhamma then they will find a way, with some suttas it’s easier than with others. A combination of Buddhism and politics is supposed to end up messy, especially when any violence is involved.