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Violent Compassion

Can violence ever constitute an appropriate Buddhist response to the events of September 11? Your panel discussion (“War or Peace?”) was perhaps swayed by the visceral nature of U.S. popular feeling. Its searching examination of the issue mirrored the uncertainly we all feel. But it is worth considering that violence, like all composite phenomena, is empty of essential nature. To maintain that it is never justified risks a fall into the error of essentialism. Reference was made to the story of how the Buddha, in a previous life, killed a bandit who intended to murder five hundred merchants. Omitted was the detail that the Buddha’s preemptive violence was in part motivated by a desire to save the bandit from the karmic consequences of what he intended to do. Reference might also have been made to King Songsten Gampo, who gave Tibet its first penal code. His residence was surrounded by racks from which dangled the severed limbs of criminals, but he is nevertheless considered an emanation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara because he acted out of compassion rather than malice.

It seems inadequate and inflexible to maintain that the first precept of Buddhism (nonviolence) is absolute and therefore not subject to conditionality or dependent arising. Such a stance limits the scope of compassionate action. If uncompromising pacifism seems likely to generate more suffering than violence, is such pacifism then compassionate?

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