In Dhammapada, verse 129, Buddha states:

All tremble at violence; all fear death.
Putting oneself in the place of another,
one should not kill nor cause another to kill.

Taking this at face value, obviously however, not everyone fears death. People who had their amygdala removed or atrophied due to a disease do not have fear of death. Likewise, psychopaths seem to have no such fear. Many people do not tremble at violence at all, like psychopaths and military personnel. Then Buddha says that to not kill or cause another to kill, one should put themselves into another's shoes. But many people are incapable of this, like people with autism spectrum disorder.

Taking all this into account and given that what Buddha says here seems to be wrong, how are we to understand this? (I believe this question would only apply to the Theravada Buddhists since AFAIK Mahayana does not acknowledge the Pali Cannon and therefore the Dhammapada, though of course, everyone is free to answer).

6 Answers 6


If I say "everybody hates being stuck in traffic jams", you might find an example of one person who likes being stuck in traffic jams, and prove me wrong.

However, my statement would be generally true about most people.

Similarly, the Buddha's statement in the Dhammapada applies to most people, even if it says "all".

It's simply a generalization.

The meaning is more important than the literal phrasing.

The venerable ones agree about the meaning but differ about the phrasing. The venerable ones should know that it is for this reason that there is agreement about the meaning but difference about the phrasing. But the phrasing is a mere trifle. Let the venerable ones not fall into a dispute over a mere trifle.’
MN 103



In maths there are things you assume to be true, called "axioms", and "theorems" which you can prove from or given those axioms. If you choose a different set of axioms then it's like a different universe. See for example Euclidean geometry which we're taught in school -- "right-angle triangles" and so on -- then conversely non-Euclidean.

The situation in Physics is similar IMO. You get Newton defining a set of "Laws". Then Einstein comes along and says, "that's not true near the speed of light" and so on, which is so. I wouldn't say that Newton is "wrong" though -- e.g. it remains true that a thing will fall when you drop it, that planets have their orbits and so on.

Perhaps there are other "exceptions" to the verse you quoted. I'm not sure that the Buddha himself was "afraid of death". Or, if you kill someone, perhaps their loved wouldn't be "afraid", but instead feel "rage".

I think it remains a useful axiom, an assumption or a rule to live by.

Maybe it's not a "reason" for non-violence -- and you shouldn't say, "because (or when) it's not true, therefore (or then) there's no reason for non-violence".

Instead I read it as advice about what I should assume about other people -- elementary social advice, that you might learn from your parents and in pre-school. For example, if you killed somebody before they knew what was happening, then they might have no opportunity to be afraid -- but the doctrine says to assume they would afraid, and in your own mind to "model" (imagine, categorize) them as sentient beings, and to not kill.

In summary I treat it as an axiom, without questioning whether it's always literally true -- an axiom and a "model".

Read this essay for example:

  • The Four Sublime States

    These four attitudes are said to be excellent or sublime because they are the right or ideal way of conduct towards living beings (sattesu samma patipatti).

    So it's "right" or "ideal" -- and not "wrong" as you were asking.

    They are called abodes (vihara) because they should become the mind's constant dwelling-places where we feel "at home"; they should not remain merely places of rare and short visits, soon forgotten. In other words, our minds should become thoroughly saturated by them.

    This seems like advice. Perhaps it isn't "true" that the mind is incompatible with hate -- but it "should" be true, maybe "taken as" true.

  • 1
    Another way to look at it is, that it's normally safe to assume.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Apr 20 at 11:29

Taking this at face value, obviously however, not everyone fears death.

But all the normal people (except Arahant, ect) fear death deep inside. Specially people who do bad. Because they know deep inside, that what they are doing is wrong.

Not fearing death is bad. Because then those people do horrible things in the life.

Like, if someone gide a person from childhood with bad instructions (like there's no afterlife, killing is the best thing you can do,dieing is the liberation, ect), he/she wouldn't afraid to die or kill. Does that mean it's okay to kill or suicide? No. Right?


First point- "Taking this at face value" since you are taking at face value (and doing so knowingly) the argument therefore falls into error already. It is not to be taken at face value. The reason for not taking it at face value is this- Dhammapada is a collection of 'quotes'/'sayings' that Buddha uttered throughout his life, to different people in different situations depending on their intellectual capacity, so on and so forth. It is not meant to act as a philosophical assertion- therefore the 'all' here is not meant as a universal/general 'all'. It is a contextual uttering. As an example, the statement "All people who look up at the night sky can see stars" would common sensically be understood as implying that anyone who looks up at the night sky on a night when there are no clouds and the person has no eye defect, can see stars.

Most of the Buddha's utterings that are quoted in Dhammapada are given to average humans- by which I mean not to people with atrophy, psychopaths, this or that disease or ailment, mental or physical. When in fact, there is one of these (or something similar) it is mentioned there- as for example the story of Angulimal and what Buddha said to him.

Analogously, consider- someone who was about to walk into rain and was told that "All people should take an umbrella" now carries an umbrella everywhere with him, even if it's not raining. This would be non-sense or a lack of common sense. Some person may also come up and ask "How can all people take an umbrella? Some people can't walk (for this or that reason). Again, this would be against common sense. 'Take an umbrella' was said to a person who was about to step out in rain without one. That was the scope of the uttering. To take it outside the scope and then find contradictions is similar to breaking rules of a game and then saying- this game is broken.

Second point- Mahayanists hold sutras to a very high value and standard (all suttas which are the words of Buddha, including Dhammapada). To hold that they do not acknowledge is plain misinformation.


It's almost always instructive to look more deeply into the suttas for answers to such questions. In AN 4.184 the Buddha goes into detail about who is and isn't fearful of death. Needless to say, those who are an elite minority:

  1. Those who have abandoned sensual passion.

  2. Those who have abandoned passion for the body.

  3. Those who have done what is good, skillful and kind, not what's evil, unskilful and cruel.

  4. Those who have arrived at certainty regarding the true Dhamma.

Then again, each of these people seem only to be free from specific fears, respectively: of losing one's beloved sensual pleasures; of losing the body; of going to hell; and of dying without having seen the noble truths.

The only individuals who would seem to be free from all of these fears would be anāgāmīs and arahants. That's an extremely small percentage of the cosmic population, making the generalisation "all" seem quite a reasonable one. It could even be possible that a non-returner has an infinitesimal amount of concern about the body - given their remaining passion for form as well as the fact that passion for the body and sensual passion are differentiated - meaning that only the arahant would be totally free from any kind of fear.

Since "all" here is likely shorthand for "all beings" and when we recall that arahants don't fit the Buddha's given definition of a being in SN 23.2, then it becomes quite possible that the Buddha's statement here is in fact entirely accurate.


Actually, psychopaths on death row in prisons have often shown they do everything in their power to avoid execution.

Military personel obviously fear death (otherwise they would not be defending themselves in a war) but they have an overriding ideal causing them to risk or even end their life.

The above said, the Dhammapada appears to be making a generalization. I trust there may be exceptions to this rule.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .