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How do bodhisattvas, and those who would emulate them, respond to a tyrant or despot, e.g. a Hitler or Stalin?

Are Buddhists / Bodhisattvas suggesting a "non-resistance to evil by violence" (Tolstoy) and some strange notion of absolute forgiveness, practically or otherwise?

To have someone preach that we all forgive tyrants, as they may go for our throat, seems like a peculiar and sadistic form of madness.

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  • A bodhisattva is one who has trained for lifetimes to perfect a sense of compassion for any and all sentient beings in an unbiased and equal way. With this in mind, how about you take a stab at answering your own question? Try to imagine having an overwhelmingly perfect sense of compassion and ask yourself: what would you do when confronted with Hitler? Would be interested to hear your answer… Aug 4 at 0:03
  • Imagine working for eons solely for the benefit of others. Being faced with unimaginable situations and horrors, but always working to relieve the misery and suffering of others. How would such a being react when confronted with Hitler and his intentions to harm countless others? Aug 4 at 0:06
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    Is a good thought experiment to try and develop a sense of intuition for what a perfect sense of compassion might be like! :) Aug 4 at 0:07
  • I can't answer your question except facetiously @YesheTenley suggest he try harder at painting etc..
    – user23997
    Aug 4 at 20:43
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    Very well, I've added an answer that is directly related to your question. See what you think. Aug 5 at 15:51

3 Answers 3

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Here is a Sutra that directly applies to your question. It is recognized in both the Tibetan and Chinese Mahayana canon.

From the The Skill in Means (Upayakausalya) Sutra as translated by Mark Tatz. The Tibetan Buddhist canon project has a new translation in progress.

Murder with Skill in Means: the Story of the Compassionate Ship’s Captain

132 .

Then the Lord again addressed the Bodhisattva Jñanottara: “Son of the family: Once upon a time, long before the Thus-Come-One, the Worthy, the fully perfected Buddha Dīpaṁkara, there were five hundred merchants who set sail on the high seas in search of wealth. Among the company was a doer of dark deeds, a doer of evil deeds, a robber well-trained in the art of weaponry, who had come on board that very ship. He thought, ‘I will kill all these merchants when they have completed their business and done what they set out to do, take all their possessions and go to Jambu Continent.’

“Son of the family: Then the merchants completed their business and set about to depart. No sooner had they done so, than that deceitful person thought: ‘Now I will kill all these merchants, take all their possessions and go to Jambu Continent. The time has come.’

133 .

“At the same time, among the company on board was a captain named Great Compassionate ( sārthavāha mahākāruṇika ). While Captain Great Compassionate slept on one occasion, the deities who dwelt in that ocean showed him this in a dream:

“‘Among this ship’s company is a person named so and so, of such and such sort of physique, of such and such garb, complexion and shape—a robber, mischievous, a thief of others’ property. He is thinking, “I will kill all these merchants, take all their possessions and go to Jambu Continent.” To kill these merchants would create formidable evil karma for that person. Why so? These five hundred merchants are all progressing toward supreme, right and full awakening. If he should kill these Bodhisattvas, the fault—the obstacle caused by the deed—would cause him to burn in the great hells for as long as it takes each one of these Bodhisattvas to achieve supreme, right and full awakening, consecutively. Therefore, Captain, think of some skill in means to prevent this person from killing the five hundred merchants and going to the great hells because of the deed.’

134 .

“Son of the family: Then the captain Great Compassionate awoke. He considered what means there might be to prevent that person from killing the five hundred merchants and going to the great hells. Seven days passed with a wind averse to sailing to Jambu Continent. During those seven days he plunged deep into thought, not speaking to anyone.

“He thought, ‘There is no means to prevent this man from slaying the merchants and going to the great hells, but to kill him.’

“And he thought, ‘If I were to report this to the merchants, they would kill and slay him with angry thoughts and all go to the great hells themselves.’

“And he thought, ‘If I were to kill this person, I would likewise burn in the great hells for one hundred-thousand eons because of it. Yet I can bear to experience the pain of the great hells, that this person not slay these five hundred merchants and develop so much evil karma . I will kill this person myself.

135 .

Son of the family: Accordingly, the captain Great Compassionate protected those five hundred merchants and protected that person from going to the great hells by deliberately stabbing and slaying that person who was a robber with a spear, with great compassion and skill in means. And all among the company completed their business and each went to his own city.

136 .

“Son of the family. At that time, in that life I was none other than the captain Great Compassionate. Have no second thoughts or doubt on this point. The five hundred merchants on board are the five hundred Bodhisattvas who are to awaken to the supreme, right and full awakening in this Auspicious Eon.

“Son of the family: For me, saṁsāra was curtailed for one hundred-thousand eons because of that skill in means and great compassion. And the robber died to be reborn in a world of paradise.

137 .

“Son of the family, what do you think of this? Can curtailing birth and death for one hundred-thousand eons with that skill in means and that great compassion be regarded as the Bodhisattva’s obstacle caused by past deeds? Do not view it in that way. It should be regarded as his very skill in means."

A couple points I think are interesting and relevant here:

  • The Great Captain killed the robber out of immense compassion for the robber himself and the suffering he foresaw would follow the robber if he achieved his evil aims.
  • The Great Captain did this while completely understanding and accepting the personal consequence of burning in the hells for one hundred-thousand eons.
  • The Great Captain had sure foreknowledge of the outcome of the robber's intended actions and after a great deal of introspection and objective analysis that there was no other way to prevent the robber from accomplishing his evil deeds.
  • The Great Captain was a highly advanced Arya being. The Great Captain was no ordinary samsaric being acting out of regular egotistical thoughts or anger. The Great Captain had trained for immense numbers of eons to perfect great compassion and wisdom.
  • It was only by virtue of the Great Captain's incredibly advanced training and pure intention resolving to personally suffer the consequences as well as sure wisdom correctly analyzing the situation that allowed the Great Captain to accomplish this skillful means without actually suffering the resultant terrible consequence of burning in the hells for one hundred thousand eons.
  • Most of us are nowhere near capable of this level of compassion and pure intent combined with wisdom. We'd best keep training.
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    deep, thanks. I appreciate it.
    – user23997
    Aug 5 at 16:28
  • I am more used to stories about aryas praying (I think?) for assistance and a miraculous escape.
    – user23997
    Aug 5 at 16:29
  • What really peeves me off is when I first heard this story, I was told it by Buddhist monk/nuns and they said that it was Buddha who killed the person. Essentially this is a Fable, not an actual event from history.
    – Remyla
    Aug 6 at 7:03
  • The account of this captain was told by Buddha Shakyamuni recounting a past life. At least that is what the Sutra says. So in this sense the Monks/Nuns were speaking the truth. Whether this is a fable or an actual event from history is a belief that can neither be confirmed nor denied by any evidence that I know of. Believe as you will or however seems most prudent to you. Aug 7 at 0:57
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Monks, who are professional practitioners of the Dhamma are expected to be completely pacifist.

"Well then, Punna. Now that I have instructed you with a brief instruction, in which country are you going to live?"

"Lord, there is a country called Sunaparanta. I am going to live there."

"Punna, the Sunaparanta people are fierce. They are rough. If they insult and ridicule you, what will you think?"

"If they insult and ridicule me, I will think, 'These Sunaparanta people are civilized, very civilized, in that they don't hit me with their hands.' That is what I will think, O Blessed One. That is what I will think, O One Well-gone."

"But if they hit you with their hands, what will you think?"

"...I will think, 'These Sunaparanta people are civilized, very civilized, in that they don't hit me with a clod.'..."

"But if they hit you with a clod...?"

"...I will think, 'These Sunaparanta people are civilized, very civilized, in that they don't hit me with a stick.'..."

"But if they hit you with a stick...?"

"...I will think, 'These Sunaparanta people are civilized, very civilized, in that they don't hit me with a knife.'..."

"But if they hit you with a knife...?"

"...I will think, 'These Sunaparanta people are civilized, very civilized, in that they don't take my life with a sharp knife.'..."

"But if they take your life with a sharp knife...?"

"If they take my life with a sharp knife, I will think, 'There are disciples of the Blessed One who — horrified, humiliated, and disgusted by the body and by life — have sought for an assassin, but here I have met my assassin without searching for him.' 1 That is what I will think, O Blessed One. That is what I will think, O One Well-gone."

"Good, Punna, very good. Possessing such calm and self-control you are fit to dwell among the Sunaparantans. Now it is time to do as you see fit."

Then Ven. Punna, delighting and rejoicing in the Blessed One's words, rising from his seat, bowed down to the Blessed One and left, keeping him on his right side. Setting his dwelling in order and taking his robe and bowl, he set out for the Sunaparanta country and, after wandering stage by stage, he arrived there. There he lived. During that Rains retreat he established 500 male and 500 female lay followers in the practice, while he realized the three knowledges and then attained total (final) Unbinding.

Then a large number of monks went to the Blessed One and on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As they were sitting there, they said to him, "Lord, the clansman named Punna, whom the Blessed One instructed with a brief instruction, has died. What is his destination? What is his future state?"

"Monks, the clansman Punna was wise. He practiced the Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma and did not pester me with issues related to the Dhamma. The clansman Punna is totally unbound."
SN 35.88


The Buddha when faced with the bandit and murderer Angulimala, employed psychic powers apparently, in addition to his wisdom in the method of teaching.

Carrying his robes & bowl, he went along the road to where Angulimala was staying. Cowherds, shepherds, & farmers saw him going along the road to where Angulimala was staying, and on seeing him said to him, "Don't go along that road, contemplative, for on that road is Angulimala: brutal, bloody-handed, devoted to killing & slaying, showing no mercy to living beings. He has turned villages into non-villages, towns into non-towns, settled countryside into unsettled countryside. Having repeatedly killed human beings, he wears a garland made of fingers. Groups of ten, twenty, thirty, & forty men have gone along that road, and even they have fallen into Angulimala's hands." When this was said, the Blessed One kept going in silence. ....

Then Angulimala saw the Blessed One coming from afar and on seeing him, this thought occurred to him: "Isn't it amazing! Isn't it astounding! Groups of ten, twenty, thirty, & forty men have gone along this road, and even they have fallen into my hands, and yet now this contemplative comes attacking, as it were, alone and without a companion. Why don't I kill him?" So Angulimala, taking up his sword & shield, buckling on his bow & quiver, followed right behind the Blessed One.

Then the Blessed One willed a feat of psychic power such that Angulimala, though running with all his might, could not catch up with the Blessed One walking at normal pace. Then the thought occurred to Angulimala: "Isn't it amazing! Isn't it astounding! In the past I've chased & seized even a swift-running elephant, a swift-running horse, a swift-running chariot, a swift-running deer. But now, even though I'm running with all my might, I can't catch up with this contemplative walking at normal pace." So he stopped and called out to the Blessed One, "Stop, contemplative! Stop!"

"I have stopped, Angulimala. You stop."

Then the thought occurred to Angulimala, "These Sakyan contemplatives are speakers of the truth, asserters of the truths, and yet this contemplative, even while walking, says, 'I have stopped, Angulimala. You stop.' Why don't I question him?"
MN 86


While violence and destruction is strongly discouraged in Buddhism, it is ok for a bonafide ruler or government ("wheel-turning monarch") to establish police and armed forces to:

  • protect and guard the people
  • ensure peace
  • ensure that justice prevails

This generally applies to lay persons and not monks.

‘But sire, what are the noble duties of a wheel-turning monarch?’

‘Well then, my dear, relying only on principle—honoring, respecting, and venerating principle, having principle as your flag, banner, and authority — provide just protection and security for your court, troops, aristocrats, vassals, brahmins and householders, people of town and country, ascetics and brahmins, beasts and birds. Do not let injustice prevail in the realm. Pay money to the penniless in the realm.
DN 26

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Since you're asking Buddhists, taking our point of view into account is important. According to the Buddha, we've all suffered brutal, grisly fates beyond count.

'Long have you thus experienced stress, experienced pain, experienced loss, swelling the cemeteries — enough to become disenchanted with all fabricated things, enough to become dispassionate, enough to be released."' https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn15/sn15.003.than.html

The Buddha also describes the amount of time we've been suffering these horrendous fates.

'“Suppose there was a huge stone mountain, a league long, a league wide, and a league high, with no cracks or holes, one solid mass. And as each century passed someone would stroke it with a fine cloth from Kāsī. By this means the huge stone mountain would be worn away before the eon comes to an end. That’s how long an eon is. And we’ve transmigrated through many such eons, many hundreds, many thousands, many hundreds of thousands."'

https://suttacentral.net/sn15.5/en/sujato?layout=plain&reference=none&notes=asterisk&highlight=false&script=latin

What I take away from that is that no matter how horrendous an experience we or someone we know have/has in this life, similar things have been happening to us for a truly indescribable amount of time.

Another aspect of this is the Buddha's simile about being dismembered and how you should feel toward your attackers.

'"Monks, even if bandits were to savagely sever you, limb by limb, with a double-handled saw, even then, whoever of you harbors ill will at heart would not be upholding my Teaching."'

https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.021x.budd.html

The main thing to take away from this in my opinion is that Buddhist thought is a reaction to experiencing suffering over a duration that's not something we can truly comprehend. When we hear about someone being murdered horribly, part of the offensiveness of that is the idea that they had their "one chance" at life taken away horribly. The Buddha's word does not agree with that and describes a world where we've all experienced that countless times.

The Buddha prescribes loving kindness to LITERALLY everyone, no exceptions. That sounds like saying you should accept people doing horrible things to each other, but you can oppose them while still having empathy for any aggressors. You can oppose people non violently and still not harbor hatred or animosity toward them.

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  • I'm reminded of the story of I think one of the aryadevas finding some maggots and letting them eat his body to stay alive. one may ask whether we could compassionately allow someone to commit genocide etc., for them
    – user23997
    Aug 4 at 20:41
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    I see what you're saying and think it comes down to how much you've achieved in your practice. As a layperson I can honestly tell you I would commit violence to spare my loved ones from a genocidal person, but I do believe that that's not skillful or helpful for me OR them in the long run. If we're all "doomed" to suffer countless horrors, and the Buddha specifically says that generating bad kamma to avoid that is not in accordance with his teaching, that's a bad course of action to take. One of the "fetters" you need to unburden yourself from is aversion, and I think that applies here.
    – Brandon
    Aug 4 at 20:49
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    By the way I don't think your question should be downvoted the way it is. I think it's a very important question with subtle implications and it's something most people exposed to Buddhism will come to at some point. "Should you accept people committing evil?"
    – Brandon
    Aug 4 at 20:54

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