Reading some comments on this subsite I ended up a couple of days ago reading this secular article on the topic of self defence in Buddhism and this question on the site here. Now, based on this I seem to have deduced that there are three positions:

  • Egocentric pacifism: You may hurt and maybe even kill others if it is to defend yourself, provided it's not out of hatred or similar emotions. E.g. stopping an intruder forcefully is fine.
  • Radical pacifism: You may not hurt others, even if you're "being rendered limb from limb".
  • Utilitarianism: You may hurt and maybe even kill others if it's for the greater good and not out of hatred or similar emotions.

Now, historically I only know of a few groups that practiced radical pacifism, and one of the most famous groups (the anabaptists/Mennonites) concluded that it was impossible for a Christian to be a worldly ruler (ignoring the radical anabaptists and the mess in Münster).

This got me wondering:

  • In countries like Cambodia (97% Buddhists) and Thailand (93% Buddhists) does radical pacifism have any consequences at all at the government level?
  • Or is (radical) pacifism just an insignificant minority position in Buddhism?

In other words, what I am mostly just asking is how Buddhism approaches issues of the power of governments to wield a mighty sword (army, police) versus the pacifism that is often taught by Buddhists.

  • PS. Yeah, I am not a buddhist, but yes, I am fascinated in general with people who live as radical pacifists (and accept the consequences). I have tried to word my question in a sensible way, but if my lack of knowledge of Buddhism caused any faults in my question, I will greatly appreciate any and all edits and will try better next time. Aug 14, 2015 at 16:35
  • One phrase that could be slightly faulty in the question is the definition, "you may not hurt others even if etc." -- maybe consider instead, "you have no desire to hurt others".
    – ChrisW
    Aug 14, 2015 at 17:46
  • @ChrisW Just checking, but you do realize that that was quoted from Crab Bucket's linked answer? Or do you just in general mean the part of rules vs desires? Aug 14, 2015 at 17:55
  • I meant that "Because I am being hurt I want to hurt others, however there is a rule which says that 'I may not'" could be a naive way for an individual to be, and not imo a really good definition of pacifism or Buddhism. When I said that could be "faulty" that was a quote from your comment, but maybe it's like a fault in a diamond: i.e. if you hit the question there then it slightly falls to pieces. But that was FYI, I'm not saying that the question is unanswerable (answerable by someone else who might know more about Cambodia or Thailand or other modern countries than I do).
    – ChrisW
    Aug 14, 2015 at 18:18
  • @ChrisW Ah, I do see what you mean :) . Still though, isn't there a big difference between not having the desire to hurt others and the intention of actually not hurting others? After all, in the first case it's perfectly fine to carelessly chop someones head of when you aren't diligent before chopping wood. Or alternatively hurting someone because you feel you have to (which would not be okay in radical pacifism). As in, the reason I am asking that is purely because I was thinking how I could improve my wording and 'no desire to hurt others' was your suggestion. Aug 14, 2015 at 19:35

4 Answers 4


I think this would take a political scientist to answer but I'll try to give a few thoughts on this.

I listened to a podcast a while ago where Owen Flanagan was arguing that Buddhism was ill suited to form part of any political philosophy. Whereas a country may be Buddhist from a democratic perspective when it comes to the political sphere that country will operate with a different political philosophy such as monarchy, oligarchy etc... So whether a Buddhist does or doesn't subscribe to radical pacifism would be irrelevant in Buddhist countries as the political philosophy isn't actual based on Buddhism. I'm not agreeing or diagreeing with this - my knowledge of global political structures isn't strong enough to support that stance. However it was an interesting assertion and relevant here I think.

Also for many people the Dalai Lama is the Buddhist political leader that they are most familiar with and his attitude to political force is complex. For instance he has given messages of support to the armed forces - while that not directly advocating violence it isn't radical pacifism either.

In short although I do think that radical pacifism is a valid Buddhist position I don't believe it is a position that political figures hold whether in Buddhist countries or being Buddhist themselves. Very happy to be proved wrong on this of course.

  • To summarize, the question was, "In real/specific countries today, does radical pacifism have any consequences at all at the government level? Or is it an insignificant minority position in Buddhism?" -- I think you're answering that it doesn't have consequences at the governmental level.
    – ChrisW
    Aug 14, 2015 at 18:43
  • @ChrisW that's a fair summary of my position. Well the position I'm putting forward until someone that knows better posts. Aug 14, 2015 at 18:49
  • I am trying to comprehend this: Are you saying that people set aside their believes then when they vote? As in, that the political philosophy comes first during the vote and that private believes are contained as pertaining only to a persons private life? And oh wow@that article about the Dalai Lama. Aug 14, 2015 at 19:31

Nations with Buddhism as a major religion are seldom pacifist. Take for example: Sri Lanka, Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, Korea, Japan, Nepal, or China. None of these governments practice pacifism now, nor to my known have they ever in the past. Some of them are now run by military dictatorships and are characterised by authoritarian regimes which treat their people harshly.

Some smaller countries like Bhutan are quite peaceful in the sense of not being involved in wars, but Bhutan is currently persecuting Nepalese migrants, who themselves fled civil war in Nepal. The history of Buddhist Tibet is quite bloody at government level, despite the current pacifism of their leader in exile the Dalai lama.

I would say that if radical pacifism exists it is at the level of individuals and never at the level of governments. Where Buddhist monastics have engaged in politics, as they are in Tibet and Sri Lanka currently, it has tended to corrupt them.

In your comment above you question whether people vote against their conscience. Another feature of Buddhist countries is totalitarianism. Very few Buddhists have had the possibility of voting in the past. In the countries that are democratic no pacifist party has ever won power so far as I know. But if they did it is likely, until very recently, that a neighbouring country would simply invade and conquer them and replace the pacifist govt.

A nation state is an entity created and sustained by violence or at the very least the threat of it. So in a sense the idea of a pacifist nation state it a contradiction in terms. One of the few examples of this comes not from Buddhism, but from the state within a state that is the Amish community in the USA. Again, not a democracy but a religious oligarchy (a hierarchy in the true sense of the word). Ironically the right to freedom of religion that many of us enjoy was won, and is sustained, by the threat of violence against those would would deny the right. And again in history most Buddhist countries did not have freedom of religion.

It is a rather complex question, and history is full of counterexamples, but I think this broad overview covers the facts.

  • I agree that a (radical) pacifist nation can not exist, but it's... interesting to note that everybody agrees that the believes of the people are that strongly unreflected in the government. Then again, I am still not sure how strongly pacifistic believes are spread in those population. Aug 16, 2015 at 0:54

Since your question arose after reading the article, I guess it is essential to point out some misrepresentations in it.

First of all, the premise of this secular article is entirely false. Asaram Bapu is a Hindu self-styled Godman, who himself is jailed on charges of child molestation. The details of his case can be accessed here Asaram Child Abuse. Second, the idea that, and I am paraphrasing the author, Indians are joining similar violence prevention courses over the advice of religious opponents who echo Buddha, is entirely author's misconstrued imagination with no basis in reality. Buddha never figured in the contemporary discussion on sexual abuse in India post the December 2012 gangrape.

Third, the Buddhist society in general can be divided in 4 different categories:

a. Bhikkhu (Male Monks)

b. Bhikkhuni (Female Monks)

c. Upasak (Lay Male Follower)

d. Upasika (Lay Female Follower)

The 'Kakacupama Sutta' mentioned in the article is addressed to the monks who have renounced lay life and are determined and dedicated to the path of enlightenment. Its quotation is out of context.

It is important to note that Buddha never discouraged Kings (Govts in the modern context) from keeping a standing army. In fact, he even gave advice to the Licchavis on how to well defend their republic.

A detailed explanation of the role of King and the Soldier in the society and their importance is given here: Role of the Soldier with proper references of the relevant Suttas.

From the above link, it is quite clear that the idea of Radical Pacifism as 'You may not hurt others, even if you're "being rendered limb from limb".' is not what Buddha taught in the context of Kings and Soldiers. This was a teaching given to monks.

This might be a little off-topic but it is important to understand that in Buddhism, a lot of emphasis is put on meditation. The Dhamma says 'Ehipassiko' - i.e. come and see for yourself. So, on a personal level, if a soldier comes to realize the effects of his livelihood on the experiential level, he is welcome to become a monk. But while being a soldier, if he is practicing the teachings of monks, then he is harming himself and he will harm the nation. Buddha gave the Noble Eightfold Path to come out of suffering.

Now coming to:

'•In countries like Cambodia (97% Buddhists) and Thailand (93% Buddhists) does radical pacifism have any consequences at all at the government level?

•Or is (radical) pacifism just an insignificant minority position in Buddhism? '

Now, since, Buddha never taught Radical Pacifism to Kings and Soldiers, I think the question is a non-issue. Also, even if the majority of population is Buddhist doesn't mean the state is Buddhist. In Cambodia, during the Cambodian Genocide, religion was banned and there was repression of even the Buddhists. Even during the rule of Mao in China, religion was heavily repressed. Japan had a pacifist constitution for a while before Abe but that was inspired by the second world war. I think a better question would be impact of Buddhism on general governance in different countries.

  • I deleted a previous answer of mine after the OP commended on it that, "Either way, I was asking what consequences the believe in radical pacifism does have on the national level, whilst your answer just discusses what consequences it doesn't have."
    – ChrisW
    Aug 16, 2015 at 17:06
  • the OP asked 'how Buddhism approaches issues of the power of governments to wield a mighty sword (army, police) versus the pacifism that is often taught by Buddhists'. It is important to know as to what the OP means by Buddhists...The Buddha's teachings did not apply equally to the monks and the lay people...I tried to bring forth that aspect...Besides the article in the end goes at length to explain the role of govt and the soldier, according to the Buddha. The point being Radical Pacifism as defined by the OP is not taught by the Buddha in the context of govt and soldier Aug 16, 2015 at 17:49
  • @TheDarkKnightRules. The OP asks the following questions: "In countries like Cambodia (97% Buddhists) and Thailand (93% Buddhists) does radical pacifism have any consequences at all at the government level?" and "Or is (radical) pacifism just an insignificant minority position in Buddhism?". Could you clarify how your post answers the questions? Thank you.
    – user2424
    Aug 16, 2015 at 19:05
  • @Lanka tried to add some points...Thanks for pointing out. Aug 17, 2015 at 4:05

I think you said you wanted an example of an instance when pacifism prevailed (and that you're less interested in answers which cite other examples of pacifism not prevailing).

Perhaps the following might count as one example.

Bhumibol Adulyadej -- Crisis of 1992

In 1992, Bhumibol played a key role in Thailand's transition to a democratic system. A coup on 23 February 1991 returned Thailand back under military dictatorship. After a general election in 1992, the majority parties invited General Suchinda Kraprayoon, a leader of the coup group, to be the Prime Minister. This caused much dissent, which escalated into demonstrations that led to a large number of deaths when the military was brought in to control the protesters. The situation became increasingly critical as police and military forces clashed with the protesters. Violence and riots spread out in many areas of the capital with rumours of a rift among the armed forces.

Amidst the fear of civil war, Bhumibol intervened. He summoned Suchinda and the leader of the pro-democracy movement, retired Major General Chamlong Srimuang, to a televised audience, and urged them to find a peaceful resolution. At the height of the crisis, the sight of both men appearing together on their knees (in accordance with royal protocol) made a strong impression on the nation, and led to Suchinda's resignation soon afterwards.

It was one of the few occasions in which Bhumibol directly and publicly intervened in a political conflict. A general election was held shortly afterward, leading to a civilian government.

Black May (1992) -- Royal intervention

Early on the morning of 20 May, the very popular Princess Sirindhorn addressed the country on television, calling for a stop to the violence. Her appeal was rebroadcast throughout the day. That evening, her brother, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, broadcast a similar appeal.

Finally, at 9:30 pm, a television broadcast of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Suchinda, and Chamlong was shown, in which the King demanded that the two men put an end to their confrontation and work together through parliamentary procedures. During the broadcast, the King addressed the two generals:

"The Nation belongs to everyone, not one or two specific people. The problems exist because we don't talk to each other and resolve them together. The problems arise from 'bloodthirstiness'. People can lose their minds when they resort to violence. Eventually, they don't know why they fight each other and what the problems they need to resolve are. They merely know that they must overcome each other and they must be the only winner. This no way leads to victory, but only danger. There will only be losers, only the losers. Those who confront each other will all be the losers. And the loser of the losers will be the Nation. ... For what purpose are you telling yourself that you're the winner when you're standing upon the ruins and debris?".

Suchinda then released Chamlong and announced an amnesty for protesters. He also agreed to support an amendment requiring the prime minister to be elected. Chamlong asked the demonstrators to disperse, which they did. On 24 May 1992, Suchinda resigned as Prime Minister of Thailand.

The king's speech might be fairly explicitly Buddhist: warning people against the risk of "losing their minds" isn't something I'd expect to hear from a non-Buddhist leader, even during a speech against violence.

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