Buddhist Ahimsā and its Existential Aporias

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 16, 2009

Violence and (Non-)resistance: Buddhist Ahiṃsā and its Existential Aporias

Martin Kovan
University of Queensland

This essay considers a paradigmatic example in Buddhist ethics of the injunction (in the five precepts and five heinous crimes) against killing. It also considers Western ethical concerns in the post-phenomenological thinking of Derrida and Levinas, particularly the latter’s “ethics of responsibility.” It goes on to analyze in-depth an episode drawn from Alan Clements’s experience in 1990 as a Buddhist non-violent, non-combatant in war-torn Burma. It explores Clements’s ethical predicament as he faced an imminent need to act, perhaps even kill and thereby repudiate his Buddhist inculcation. It finds a wealth of common (yet divergent) ground in Levinasian and Mahāyāna ethics, a site pregnant for Buddhist ethical self-interrogation.

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8 thoughts on “Buddhist Ahimsā and its Existential Aporias”

  1. “Buddhist ahimsa”? Isnt the use of this term rather off the mark? One might just as easily refer to the kosher food of Islam or the Ummah of Sikhs. Buddhism GCE examination papers in the UK have a history of being riddled with questions on ahimsa, whereas the term (or its Pāli cognate avihiṃsā) is certainly not found in ancient Buddhist works but is instead at home in Jain and Vedic literature. Those academics who use the term without pointing out this fact of fundamental import run the risk of polluting both Dhamma and academia. It is not hard to imagine someone pointing to this article’s title, appearing as it does in the JBE, as (incorrect) “evidence” of the existence of such a concept in Buddhism. JBE is a generally and overwhelmingly a bastion of academic integrity. Here, in publishing an essay under such a title, it has failed to maintain its usual standards.

  2. The previous comment makes a number of claims that are unjustified. Firstly, the use of “Buddhist” as a qualifier implies that the generally-used and conventionally understood shorthand of “ahimsa” is being applied to its (most commonly applicable) Buddhist context–which context makes its use here clearly more semantically established and historically accurate than the outright contradictions of “Islamic kosher food” etc. The essay does not make any claims for a strictly Buddhist textual justification for the term in any case, and clearly uses it as per generally accepted convention. Finally, a claim that warrants perhaps (humbly) a rethink? “Vedic literature” in one of its central functions of justifying centuries of Brahmanic ritual animal sacrifice is almost certainly not the origin, nor even the vital locus, for an understanding and discussion of ahimsa, and at least one scholar makes this explicit: http://www.mcpr-bhu.org/Dinesh.htm.

  3. The use of the term “reincarnation'” is a generally accepted convention in the West when speaking of Buddhism. However, the term is incorrect, since no “thing” reincarnates. Therefore, although “generally accepted,” it is incorrect. The one justifying essay you point to, while again referring to the macaronic Buddhist ahimsa, contains three scriptural citations–and none of them use the term.. Again I state my point–ahimsa is not a Buddhist term. For the one (flawed) reference to which you point, there are innumerable statements to the contrary (even wikipedia, in may ways the most unreliable of sources, makes this clear) notes the inappropriateness of the term in a Buddhist context. Professor Harvey’s seminal work also points to the fact that the use of the term in a Buddhist context is mistaken.

  4. “The first precept corresponds to the Hindu and Jain concept of Ahimsa” (An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics by Harvey, P., Cambridge University Press, p. 69).

    My aim in stating that the term ahimsa is not Buddhist is not an assertion that non-harming is not a fundamental tenet of the Buddha’s teaching, but rather a warning against the mixing the terminology of different traditions to the point that we lose sight of an individual tradition itself.

    The scholar D.S. Ruegg also wrote on “Ahimsa and vegetarianism in Buddhism” in 1980, so the paper above is not without precedent. However, the decision to blend the languages of different traditions together is a slippery slope, the thin end of the wedge. In the long run, we may well wind up with ridiculous phrases such as “The sutra on the mount,” “the gospel according to Buddha” or even the “Theravadin doctrine of the Trikaya.”

    This is not just sloppy phraseology. It hints at an underlying sentiment of the unity of all faiths, a sentiment which fails to recognize the unique beauty and efficacy of each of the religious traditions. While, at the highest level, discrimination and discernment may be of little or no value, at the worldly level, such discrimination is of great importance. If we do not agree to abide by such standards, it opens the door to all sorts of abberations, akin perhaps to the mishmash which is oft referred to as New Age spirituality. What next? Buddhist crystal therapy? Give it time and I have little doubt that it will arise–we already have “Tibetan Reiki.”

  5. As to the assertion “‘Vedic literature’ in one of its central functions of justifying centuries of Brahmanic ritual animal sacrifice is almost certainly not the origin, nor even the vital locus, for an understanding and discussion of ahimsa,”, the term ahimsa occurs in the Taittiriya Samhita of the Yajurveda (TS, where it refers to non-injury to the sacrificer himself. The earliest reference to the idea of non-violence to animals (pashu-ahimsa), is in the Kapisthala Katha Samhita of the Yajurveda (KapS 31.11), written in about the 8th century BCE.

  6. The Chandogya Upanishad, dated 8th or 7th century BCE, one of the oldest Upanishads, has the earliest evidence for the use of the word ahimsa in the sense familiar in Hinduism (as a code of conduct). It bars violence against “all creatures” (sarva-bhuta) and the practitioner of ahimsa is said to escape from the cycle of reincarnation (CU 8.15.1)

  7. Von Glassenapp estimates that Jainism originated in the eighth century BCE. It is therefore plausible to suggest that eighth century BCE vedic scripture is as valid a starting point for developing an understanding of ahimsa as is the Jain faith (Helmuth von Glasenapp, Shridhar B. Shrotri. Jainism: an Indian religion of salvation,1999, p.24).

    The statement “Brahmanic ritual animal sacrifice is almost certainly not the origin, nor even the vital locus, for an understanding and discussion of ahimsa,” is therefore open to question.

  8. (in reply to Gary Beesley): The fact that the term ahiṃsā was widely spread in Indian scriptures far before Buddhism does not exclude its role in Buddhism itself. Your claim that “ahiṁsā is not a Buddhist term” should be changed into “ahiṁsā is not an ‘original’ Buddhist term.” In Pāli Buddhist texts, for instance, there are several occurrences of ahiṃsā and ahiṃsaka (D iii.147, S i.165, A i.151, Th 879, Dhp 225, 261, 270, etc.). Also, the Nikāyas largely use synonyms like asāhasa or locutions as nidhāya daṅḍaṃ, and there is a well-known stanza in the Dhammapada that says “sukhakāmāni bhūtāni yo daṅḍena na hiṃsati / attano sukhaṃ esāno pecca so labhate sukhaṃ” (Dhp 132). In another verse of Dhammapada, it is stated that the mind of a disciple of the Buddha delights in ahiṃsā (ahiṃsāya rato mano). Therefore, in this case I wouldn’t speak of “mixing terminology” because the terminology used in the article seems to be extremely appropriate. Again, the argument that the term had been used before does not mean anything: after all, every Buddhist term had been used before.

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