The Buddha was clearly a pacifist, under any modern definition of the term. The most fundamental ethical precept is not to take life. One story has him trying to stop a war against his homeland by sitting in meditation under the blazing sun right in the path of the invading army. When the aggressor, the neighboring king, asks him why he was sitting in this uncomfortable place when there was a good shady tree just across the border, the Buddha replies “the shade of my kinfolk keeps me cool.”
That story isn’t in the Pāli canon, so may have been invented later as a teaching parable. But other examples are more historically verifiable. In the last year of the Buddha’s life, he acted to prevent a war, this time through indirect diplomacy. When a minister from an aggressive king (Ajātasattu of Māgadha, the Buddha’s own country) announced to the Buddha his plans to invade a neighboring kingdom (the Vajjian republic), the Buddha replied by teaching the “principles of non-decline,” practices for good governance that if maintained by the Vajjians would guarantee their survival. He taught basically that a well-governed, non-corrupt nation is hard to defeat. (DN 16)
In terms of the personal practice of pacifism, one of the most famous and startling teachings the Buddha gives is called the “Simile of the Saw”:
Even if low-down bandits were to sever you limb from limb, anyone who had a malevolent thought on that account would not be following my instructions. If that happens, you should train like this: ‘Our minds will remain unaffected. We will blurt out no bad words. We will remain full of compassion, with a heart of love and no secret hate. We will meditate spreading a heart of love to that person. And with them as a basis, we will meditate spreading a heart full of love to everyone in the world—abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will.’ That’s how you should train.MN 21
I know that sounds harsh and maybe even unwise: as if we should deny our own self protective instincts. But I don’t think that’s what he saying (and remember that it’s a simile). The image is the capstone of a long series of similes given to a monk who had been behaving inappropriately and getting defensive when he was called in. This is really about how to receive appropriate criticism. It’s about how to be accountable to your community and your vows even when doing so feels like you’re being killed. It’s not a general teaching about when to protect yourself or those you love.
On another level, it certainly can be read as a teaching on how to practice when unavoidable terrible harm is coming to pass, and in that way maybe it is useful to us. It’s constantly the truth of this world that things are happening that are horrendous, painful, and for whatever reason in the unfolding conditions, weren’t stopped before they got this bad. What should we do in a moment of receiving tremendous, unavoidable harm? The teaching is to clear the heart of hatred in that moment. You’re about to die, the simile says, and the only thing you have left to do is direct your heart. Direct it to love—there’s no better way to die.
I think the most central principle in Buddhist pacifism is the injunction to be real with the world as it presents itself in this moment. That means that the past can’t be changed or fixed, and that we must practice being in relation to what’s happening now without getting lost in blame, shame, regret, or endless analysis of the past. Mindfulness is loving and real. It knows, “this is where we’re at.” There’s a new horrific war. The new IPCC report on the progress of the climate emergency confirms that the situation is really quite dire. Everywhere we turn, both toward the beautiful and the terrible, we can know that conditions have led to this moment.
The teaching that this moment is the result of conditions is just as simple and direct about the future. The future will come about based on two forms of conditions at play: past conditions that can’t be changed now, and conditions from the present that are still malleable. All we have, insists the Buddha, is our actions in the very next moment. In this moment, there is perception and intention, and in the next moment, action. This microscopic process spins ceaselessly. That’s one way to think about the endless wheel of becoming, called saṁsāra, “the wandering on.”
At the heart of pacifism is the tending of one’s own heart in the moment. It suggests that the intentional taking of life is the most dangerous thing one can do to one’s own heart-mind-lifestream-future, and of course this means the heart of the individual, but also the heart of the family, the community, the nation, the culture, the species. It’s paradoxical, because killing is inevitable in an interdependent world, whether we intend it or not. The Buddha asks us to reckon with the truth that we are a killing species. We have formed ourselves into killing nations, killing communities, killing families, and we ourselves kill. There’s no escape. No refuge in purity, other than the final refuge of the liberated heart—the heart that loves no matter what.
So here we are, in the first days of a new, terrible war. And many people on our planet have access to the kind of military force that could change the course of the invasion. Should they use it? The ideal is always that nonviolent resistance—massive protests, targeted sanctions, global democratic resistance—is enough to stop the war. But sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. That story of the Buddha stopping an invasion by sitting in the path of an invading army? The story goes on, in mythic form, with the Buddha doing so three times, as the neighboring king returned with his army. Eventually, the Buddha saw that he would be unable to prevent the king from going through with the invasion, and sure enough the king came again, and this time destroyed the country, massacring the people.
Pacifism only works if we take a long view of history, and hold the liberation of the heart as the most important goal. In the short term—meaning at least decades, or in Buddhist thought, centuries—conditions are too complex to really assess results. The Dalai Lama’s pacifism in response to the Chinese invasion has not led to the restoration of Tibetan independence. But he has the moral high ground. The hearts of many Tibetans are clear, even though not all support his tactic. How do you measure purity of heart against human suffering? Currently, Ukraine has the moral high ground, and stories of purity of heart are pouring forth, exemplified in the generosity, compassion, and perseverance of both the Ukrainian people and many of their neighbors. Will Russia persist in a brutal occupation for decades against the will of a resisting people and the censure of most of the rest of the world? That’s the Chinese playbook on Tibet. Whether that strategy can work in a world so much more interconnected and communicative than the world of the mid-20th century seems unlikely, but what or who would stop them is as yet unknown.
From the perspective of a Buddhist analysis of unfolding conditions, the question is never “what should we have done,” but “what can we do now?” It’s on each of us, whatever our position in the world, to tend our intentions and actions as best we can. Buddhist pacifism understands that killing intentionally is sometimes the least deadly of the many deadly options we face in a complex and violent moment. But it also understands that we never have as clear a picture of all the options as we think we do, and so maintains faith in the power of diplomacy, protest, censure, and the long victory of moral clarity.