Paul R. Fleischman, M.D
In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, I have found myself musing about nonviolence, its contributions, its limits, and its place in the Buddha’s teaching. I have also been surprised to hear many of my acquaintances confuse the Buddha’s teaching of nonviolence with pacifism (which I will here take to mean the objection to any kind of violence for any reason), so that, due to their confusion, they find themselves either rejecting nonviolence as hopelessly naive and inadvertently destructive, or embracing the politicized group allegiances of pacifism, which they imagine incorrectly to present what the Buddha taught.
The Buddha did not intend to form either a religious or political position, nor a philosophy of society. Historically, he lived before the era of organized, systematic theorizing about the human collective. He addressed himself as an individual to individuals. Even when he spoke to large groups, as he frequently did, he focused on individual responsibility. He understood every group—for example, the democratic states that existed in the India of his times—as resting upon the insight, conscience and actions of each of its participants. He had no theory of, nor belief in, supervening collective structures of society or government that could amend or replace the bedrock of individual choice.
Rather than a theologian or a systems thinker, the Buddha was a liberator, a spiritually attained practitioner and teacher of the path to nibbāna, freedom from hate, delusion and fear. His goal was to help as many beings as possible live in equanimity, harmony and loving kindness. He was against all embracing belief systems—a position that confounded many of his contemporaries, and that still puzzles people today who want to understand what “ism,” what philosophy, he propounded. Many people still yearn to find in his words some “Buddhist fundamentalism” by which they can anchor ideological convictions and security against the turmoil of life.
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