Buddhism on Peace and Violence

The Buddhist tradition is most clearly associated with non-violence and the principle of ahimsa (“no harm”). By eliminating their attachments to material things, Buddhists try to combat covetousness, which in itself has the potential to become a source of anger and violence against others. By tradition, the Buddha himself prevented a war between the Sakyas, his own clan, and the Koliyas. When the Buddha went to the battlefield and discovered the reason for the war was a dispute over water, he immediately engaged the opposing rulers in conversation. He questioned them about whether water was more worthy than the blood of fellow human beings. Another paradigmatic example is the Emperor Ashoka, who ruled the Indian subcontinent during the third century BCE and, after his conversion to Buddhism, felt remorse for the death and suffering caused by his military campaigns and embraced the dharma (Buddhist teaching). Some Buddhist texts do sanction taking human lives in exceptional cases to protect the sangha or defend the innocent. However, most Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists today reject even these exceptional justifications of killing. Influential proponents of an engaged Buddhism committed to non-violence include Thich Nhat Hanh (Vietnam) and Maha Ghosananda (Cambodia).