What About Violence?

There is a famous story in Buddhism about two monks, a young one and an old one, walking along a path, when they encountered a river. The river was shallow enough to wade, but it was rocky and treacherous to cross. On the bank of the river sat an old, frail woman, who asked the monks if they could help her across.

Now, in the tradition of theses monks, they are never allowed to touch women. Even when they talk to each other, they stay pretty far apart. But the old monk told the woman to climb upon his back, and he piggy-backed her across the river. Once she was deposited on the far bank, the monks went on their way in silence.

But after awhile, the young monk was about to burst with indignation. “I can’t believe you did that!” the young monk scolded the older one. “You’ve been a monk for fifty years, and you have never broken a precept. And back at the river, you threw it all away!”

The old monk replied: “I sat that woman down after we crossed the river. But it is you who are still carrying her.”



The Buddhist Precepts are the rules, and the very first one admonishes us to kill or harm no living being. But even as explicit as “harm no other living creature” seems to be expressed, just how far does one take it? Don’t drain the swamp because it will kill the mosquitoes that make your children sick with malaria? Don’t molest the rabid dog that is about to bite your daughter?

But it is permissible to defend yourself, and if you’ve got the gumption for it, to defend others from harm. Buddhists invented the martial arts so monks could defend themselves and others from thuggery, murder and mayhem. If someone ever came at me with a club, I will do anything in my power to stop him from cracking my skull, and so would the holiest man on the mountaintop.

One has to do what one has to do, and if the logical, kind, compassionate thing to do flies in the face of the rules, then, you are Buddhist and your job is to alleviate the suffering of others.

I know many Buddhists who take their roles as “protectors” seriously, mostly former or current military who are trained to run toward the source of mayhem, and to deal with it. They keep their skills up. In the military these men learned that the lives of others are more important than their own, and that is not a lesson that’s easy to forget.

Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan was invoked by Gen. Colin Powell in his endorsement of Sen. Barack Obama on Sunday+=s "Meet the Press." Khan, 20, is one of four Muslim soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Powell said a photo of Khan+=s tombstone, with a crescent and star, was a reminder that Muslims shouldn't be considered any less American than others, as has often happened in this campaign.  (Photo by Chuck Kennedy/MCT/MCT via Getty Images)

Most people are meek and nonviolent. Confrontation upsets them. Confrontation upsets me, and I’m basically a brainless thug. But there are many good Buddhist men who would rise to the occasion to confront violence, to protect themselves, and more importantly, others, from those who would do them harm. They are the Buddhist tough guys, the Ogichida, dedicated to peace, but not afraid to help keep the peace if they are called upon to do so.

Scaring thugs away is an effective way to deal with them non-violently. I broke up an assault once with a little kitchen broom. Even the conceal-carry Buddhists know that bad guys run away from the sound of gunfire just like good guys do. They’re not totin shootin irons to shoot anybody with, they carry them because the “BOOM BOOM BOOM” of a few nine millimeter rounds in a safe direction – if that doesn’t scare away an assailant, then that guy is crazy, so, I wouldn’t recommend anybody to empty the whole clip into the ceiling in a tense situation.

Violence is real, and there is no rule in Buddhism about turning the other cheek. Defending yourself against violence is a rational thing to do. Defending others against violence is a noble thing to do. Being trained and inclined to assume that role, well, the reason you can sleep peacefully in your beds at night is because there are rough men willing to do violence on your behalf. We are not the Buddha. We can’t outrun Angulimala.

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And then there is ISIS.


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