An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics: Foundations, Values, and Issues

By Peter Harvey | Go to book overview
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War and peace

Enmities never cease by enmity in this world; only by non-enmity do they cease. This is an ancient law. Dhammapada 5

Buddhism is generally seen as associated with non-violence and peace. These are certainly both strongly represented in its value system. This does not mean, though, that Buddhists have always been peaceful: Buddhist countries have had their fair share of war and conflict, for most of the reasons that wars have occurred elsewhere. Yet it is difficult to find any plausible 'Buddhist' rationales for violence, and Buddhism has some particularly rich resources for use in dissolving conflict. Overall, it can be observed that Buddhism has had a general humanizing effect throughout much of Asia. It has tempered the excesses of rulers and martial people, helped large empires (for example China) to exist without much internal conflict, and rarely, if at all, incited wars against non-Buddhists. Moreover, in the midst of wars, Buddhist monasteries have often been havens of peace.


For Buddhism, the roots of all unwholesome actions - greed, hatred and delusion - are seen as at the root of human conflicts (Nyanaponika, 1978: 50). When gripped by any of them, a person may think 'I have power and I want power', so as to persecute others (A. I.201–2). Conflict often arises from attachment to material things: pleasures, property, territory, wealth, economic dominance, or political superiority. At M. I.86–7, the Buddha says that sense-pleasures lead on to desire for more sense-pleasures, which leads on to conflict between all kinds of people, including rulers, and thus quarrelling and war. As the Mahāyāna poet Śāntideva put it in his Śiks$$ā-samuccaya, citing the Anantamukha-nirhāra-dhāran$$ī, 'Wherever conflict arises among living creatures, the sense of possession is the cause' (Ss. 20). Apart from actual greed, material deprivation is seen as a key source of conflict, as seen in the last chapter (pp. 197–8).

The Buddha also often referred to the negative effect of attachment


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