SuttaCentral

Was the Buddha ever cruel in order to be kind?

Do any of the suttas record instances of the Buddha saying or doing something cruel but acting from kind intention? In order to goad or help someone along the path?

Did he think that cruelty could ever be condoned?

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What would be cruel in your eyes? There are suttas for example where he calls followers fools for misrepresenting his teaching. Would that be cruelty for you? He could have corrected them in a kinder way but didn’t…

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That’s true … mild rebukes: or did he offend and upset any of them?

I was wondering if there are instances of him causing people to feel upset for their own good. The instances you refer to would be at the mild end of a possible continuum. A stronger end to such a continuum would exist if he ever taunted or belittled someone in order to trigger a step in their personal development. Such an action would appear unkind to onlookers but could be motivated by genuine concern and could kick them forward to let go of some defilement they’d not noticed yet, or into an awareness of anatta etc.

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…is of poor conduct, an evil-minded one, a filthy doer of complete wickedness who acts in an underhand manner, who pretends to be a recluse yet is not a recluse, who pretends to lead the holy life yet does not lead the holy life, an inwardly-putrid, impure-natured one…

Thus spoke the Blessed One. And while this explanation was being delivered, hot blood rose out of the mouths of sixty monks…
~ AN 7.68

An incident so famous, it comes up in the Questions of King Malinda:

Venerable Nāgasena, you Bhikkhus say that the Tathāgata averts harm from all beings, and does them good. And again you say that when he was preaching the discourse based on the simile of the burning fire hot blood was ejected from the mouths of about sixty Bhikkhus. By his delivery of that discourse he did those Bhikkhus harm and not good. So if the first statement is correct, the second is false; and if the second is correct, the first is false.
~ Mil 5.3.2

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In AN 4.111 Kesi the horse trainer asked the Buddha about how he trained people. The Buddha’s answer is he trained them with harshly way, gently way, and both harshly and gently way. But when asked how if the person cannot be trained in both harshly and gently way, the Buddha said:

“In that case, Kesi, I kill them.”

“Sir, it’s not appropriate for the Buddha to kill living creatures. And yet you say you kill them.”

“It’s true, Kesi, it’s not appropriate for a Realized One to kill living creatures. But when a person in training doesn’t follow any of these forms of training, the Realized One doesn’t think they’re worth advising or instructing, and neither do their sensible spiritual companions. For it is death in the training of the noble one when the Realized One doesn’t think they’re worth advising or instructing, and neither do their sensible spiritual companions.”

“Well, they’re definitely dead when the Realized One doesn’t think they’re worth advising or instructing, and neither do their sensible spiritual companions.

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The sutta is otherwise (SC,Bodhi) found as AN 7.72.

Interestingly we find the same expression at the end of MN 56 where Nātaputta died - most probably a later fake sutta/ending. So the literary argument could be: later insertion.

But generally, one only gets an issue here if one is apologetic in the form of “the Buddha was perfect, taught perfectly, everything he did was per definition impeccable, even if a Bhikkhu died as a consequence of teaching they were probably better off this way, somehow…”

So when does a cruel sutta instance ‘count’? What would be passage that we/people couldn’t somehow explain away?

More realistically, even a gifted teacher can only do so much, people disrobed back then, they disrobed with Ajahn Chah, many visitors saw in Ramana only a quiet comic book reading ‘normal’ ascetic and went away unimpressed, etc.

It wouldn’t surprise me if also the historical Buddha was at times too harsh or too lax, in comparison with the ideal result of supporting followers towards liberation.

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Such as admitting Devadatta to the order, only to have him condemned to a kalpa in Hell? Even that was an act of compassion…

Mil5.1.3
Nāgasena, the Buddha first wounds a man and then pours oil on the wound, first throws a man down a precipice and then reaches out to him an assisting hand, first kills him and then seeks to give him life, first gives pain and then a subsequent ease to the pain he has given.’

‘The Tathāgata, O king, wounds people but to their good, he casts people down but to their profit, he kills people but to their advantage. just as mothers and fathers, O king, hurt their children and even knock them down, thinking the while of their good; so by whatsoever method an increase in the virtue of living things can be brought about, by that method does he contribute to their good.

The Buddha himself freely admitted that he was occassionally harsh in his rebuke of the Bhikkhus, although with good intentions…

AN5.7
Still, it should be done by a nurse who wants what’s best for him, out of kindness and compassion…
…In the same way, I still need to look after a mendicant who hasn’t finished developing faith, conscience, prudence, energy, and wisdom regarding skillful qualities.

and the Buddha was quite frank that he couldn’t possibly do anything more than point out the path… doing the work was upto the mendicants.

MN107
…though extinguishment is present, the path leading to extinguishment is present, and I am present to encourage them, still some of my disciples, instructed and advised like this, achieve the ultimate goal, extinguishment, while some of them fail. What can I do about that, brahmin? The Realized One is the one who shows the way.

Throwing out Bad Monks? That was upto the Assembly and the sense of shame of the offender, with Ven Mahamoggallana playing the role of bouncer for wilful defaulters…

AN8.20
Then Venerable Mahāmoggallāna took that person by the arm, ejected him out the gate, and bolted the door.

Throughout all the hullabaloo and misrepresentation by those who were upset by his Teaching the Buddha remained serene, always open to reasonable discussion…

MN87
Eventually that topic of discussion reached the royal compound. Then King Pasenadi addressed Queen Mallikā, “Mallika, your ascetic Gotama said this…

The Teaching after all, is not something everyone will easily accept. Even pointing it out will often result in others being upset and offended.

SN6.1
This principle I have discovered is deep, hard to see, hard to understand, peaceful, sublime, beyond the scope of reason, subtle, comprehensible to the astute. But people like attachment, they love it and enjoy it. It’s hard for them to see this thing; that is, specific conditionality, dependent origination. It’s also hard for them to see this thing; that is, the stilling of all activities, the letting go of all attachments, the ending of craving, fading away, cessation, extinguishment. And if I were to teach this principle, others might not understand me, which would be wearying and troublesome for me.

But this…

Never, ever in all the suttas I have read. :slightly_smiling_face:

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There’s also the story of Venerable Channa who used to be the Buddha’s charioteer as a layperson. I can’t give you a quote of this, and it’s possible that most of the story is told in the commentaries.

Because of having been the Buddha’s charioteer, Channa was a bit arrogant. As one of his last acts before passing away the Buddha ordered the Sangha not to talk to him, not to associate with him, not to answer his questions, etc. There’s even a special name for this sort of punishment—it’s also possible that the story is told in the Vinaya, not sure.

And apparently in this case the cure was effective: Venerable Channa mended his ways and still became an arahant.

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There’s also a sort of punishment for laypeople explained in the Vinaya which is called something like “overturning the almsbowl”: If someone is disparaging the Buddha, the Dhamma or the Sangha, the monastics should not accept almsfood or other donations from them until they mend their ways. I remember this being applied even to an entire town or city, or a substantial part thereof, at least.

And there are punishments for monastics too: For certain offenses they lose their status in the Sangha hierarchy—which is the order in which they go for almsround, namely in order of ordination. For certain offenses the culprit has to go at the end of the line, so it is visible even for the laypeople that they have done something quite serious.

And if, during a period of probation, they are behaving properly, their former status is restored.

So this sort of “humiliation” is even institutionalized in the Vinaya rules.

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He was charged with building big buildings, being difficult to correct and having evasive speech.

And the Buddha, on his deathbed instructed the Order to enforce the higher penalty on Channa.

AFAIK, the shock of that was enough to put him on the right path and he finally comprehended the Teaching.

(I hope I have the right Channa when it comes to SN22.90!)

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Very good, you found it!

This does probably amount to “death penalty”, according to the Buddha’s definition in AN 4.111.

That very much sounds like the “happy end” of this story! Beautiful sutta, thank you so much for pointing to it!

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I also found it in DN 16, the Mahaparinibbana Sutta:

DN16:6.4.1: After my passing, give the prime punishment to the mendicant Channa.” “But sir, what is the prime punishment?” “Channa may say what he likes, but the mendicants should not advise or instruct him.”

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At one time, a Buddha sent someone to the Great Hell for an eon. Was that cruel?

MN50:21.3: Then the Buddha Kakusandha turned his whole body, the way that elephants do, to look back, saying,
MN50:21.4: ‘This Māra Dūsī knows no bounds.’
MN50:21.5: And with that look Māra Dūsī fell from that place and was reborn in the Great Hell.

After an eon, Dūsī was reborn as Moggallāna. Was that kind?

Cruelty requires identity, an assessment of personal gain while interacting with others. Cruelty is therefore unskillful. Sending a Māra to the Great Hell was a boon to all.

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I found it interesting that the “Prime Punishment” of the Buddha’s time was so similar to the “sending to Coventry” of English Public Schools- a punishment so severe and dreaded that it could shock the offender into mending their ways where all else had failed.

For today’s Gen X, the equivalent punishment would likely be the confiscation of their cellphone and the deletion of all Social Media accounts! :rofl: :joy:

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