August 14, 2014

Moving from a Culture of Death to a Culture of Life

A mere change in technologies will not suffice to avert climate change.

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

On September 21, concerned citizens from all across the United States, and from many other lands, will be converging on New York City for the People's Climate March, billed to be the biggest climate march in history. The immediate occasion for the march is the gathering of world leaders at the United Nations for a summit being convened by the UN Secretary General on the climate crisis. The march's purpose is to tell global leaders that the time for denial and delay is over, that we have to act now if we're going to secure the world against the ravages of climate change. The annual conference of the parties (COP) climate meetings have repeatedly turned out to be cop-outs, carnivals of deception launched with grand rhetoric, but ending in stalemates or hollow promises. People are ready to march in order to show that this won't do. We must recognize that climate disruption is real, that the consequences of inaction will be catastrophic, and that the need for swift and effective action is overwhelming. Preserving the crucial life-support systems of planet Earth simply won't be possible with the tiny baby steps that have so far been taken. If we're going to emerge intact, what we need at minimum are binding and enforceable commitments to steep cuts in carbon emissions coupled with a mass-scale transition to renewable sources of energy.

However, while greater efficiency and clean energy policies are clearly essential in combating climate disruption, a long-term solution must go deeper than the implementation of new technologies and the adoption of such pragmatic measures as cap-and-trade or a carbon tax. The climate instability we are facing today is symptomatic of a deeper malady, a cancer spreading through the inner organs of global civilization. The extreme weather events we have experienced come to us as a wake-up call demanding that we treat the underlying causes. For any treatment to succeed, we must closely examine the paradigm that underlies our industrial-commercial-financial economy, for it is this model that lies at the root of the crisis. Since this paradigm—this particular constellation of views and values—has acquired a global reach that now extends from New York and London to Delhi, Seoul, and Beijing, the transformations needed must be equally global.

The dominant political and economic elites claim that this system is beyond doubt or questioning, that it is as immutable as the laws of physics. They confront us with the maxim, "There is no alternative." Yet when it is carefully scrutinized, this system reveals itself to be sustained by a matrix of ideas and values that have been shaped and imposed by powerful vested interests. Examination shows, moreover, that these ideas and values are the hidden forces behind the climate crisis. They are the drivers behind more frequent and severe floods, droughts, and heat waves, behind more acidic oceans, collapsing ice sheets, and vanishing glaciers. Day by day this model is dragging human civilization down a treacherous slope threatening planetary suicide.

The distinctive mark of this paradigm—which is none other than the paradigm of corporate capitalism—is the locating of all value in monetary wealth. Human value, labor value, natural value all translate into financial value, and the last is the only value to which the paradigm ascribes ultimacy. All other values must submit to the reign of monetary wealth in the form of increased profits and greater returns on investments. The model posits the goal of the economy to be continuous growth, based on the madcap premise of infinite growth on a finite planet.

The cogency of this way of thinking depends on a process of objectification, which means that it treats everything—people, animals, and trees, rivers, land, and mountains—as objects to be utilized to generate financial gain for corporations, their executives, and their shareholders. This logic of objectification and its accompanying scheme of values entail policies aimed at the unrestrained domination and subjugation of nature. The system depends on the ruthless extraction of natural resources to generate energy and produce commodities for sale in the market. It thereby turns nature's bounty into a plurality of goods, often inessential and frivolous goods, leaving behind mountains of waste and pollution. Yet those in the seats of power refuse to take responsibility for the wreckage they leave behind. Instead, they push the clean-up job on to governments by a process shrewdly called externalization, with the bill to be met by public funding.

The corporate paradigm treats people just as callously as it treats stones, trees, and soil. It pushes indigenous peoples off their lands and treats labor as an abstract variable, reducing real human beings to figures in a database. Mega-transnationals squeeze workers for the economic value they can generate while refusing to provide them with adequate rights and benefits—considerations that would cut into their profit margins and thus make the firms less "competitive" in the global marketplace. Then, when the labor of the workers is no longer needed, the company casts them aside to fend for themselves with the same unconcern as we might cast aside an empty plastic bottle.

This system flourishes by inciting in people insatiable desires for the consumption of material commodities. Its blueprint is the simple "throughput" sequence by which resources and labor are converted into goods that are converted into monetary wealth and material waste. Rapid model replacement, by which last year's glittering iPad or car or clothing quickly becomes obsolete, is used to increase sales and thereby bolster economic growth. To keep the economy spinning, the system pushes credit programs that turn people into debt-slaves beholden to ravenous financial institutions. Even those pursuing a higher education now court the risk of becoming hapless debtors for life.

All these factors functioning in unison churn out the devastation we see around us, signs of a planet in peril. We're living in a world weighed down by the culture of death, both literally and figuratively. Amid unimaginable luxury, almost 900 million people must endure chronic hunger and malnutrition; easily cured diseases turn fatal; the gap between a super-rich elite and everyone else grows wider and climate disruption claims tens of millions of lives each year. Unless we change direction fast, the final outcome could well be the collapse of human civilization as we know it. Yet we are not without guides, for thinkers from Lewis Mumford to David Korten, James Speth and Gar Alperovitz, have long been pointing the way to a better future. Perhaps it's time to lend them an ear.

To avoid civilizational collapse, we not only need new technologies to reduce carbon emissions but even more fundamentally, a new paradigm, a model for a culture of life that can replace the pernicious culture of death. We need, in brief, an alternative way of understanding the world and an alternative set of values conducive to a more integral relationship of people with each other, with nature, and with the cosmos. This paradigm should be rooted in what I call the "affirmation of subjectivity" to replace the heartless objectifying processes of corporate capitalism. We need a vision that recognizes other people and other life forms as subjects of experience possessing intrinsic value. The model should also recognize nature, indeed the cosmos itself, as endowed with a profound subjective dimension, even an inherent intelligence by which it can transform stardust into planets that bring forth a profusion of life forms and mold moist clay into conscious beings with feelings and thoughts and ideals and hopes and the innate capacity to reflect the cosmos back upon itself.

This change in worldview must lead to reverence and respect for the natural world, recognized as our irreplaceable home and nurturing mother. It must acknowledge the finitude of nature, and treat it accordingly, bearing in mind our responsibility to future generations. It should promote solidarity between peoples everywhere based on empathy, respect, and a shared humanity. It must lead to the development of benign "appropriate technologies," the selective utilization of natural resources, and the deployment of renewable sources of energy. It should further endorse an ethic of simplicity, contentment, and restraint to replace the voracious appetite of consumerism. And most deeply of all, it should awaken in us an aspiration toward communion with the cosmos and all living beings, a harmonization between human ideals and the creative capacities of the universe.

We now stand at a crossroads where we must choose between competing worldviews. Depending on our choice, we can move in either of two directions: we can move toward continued devastation and eventual global collapse or we can instead turn toward inner renewal and healthier relationships with each other, with the earth, and with the cosmos. As climate change accelerates, the choice before us is being thrown into sharper relief, and thus the need to choose wisely grows ever more urgent.

The obstacles that confront us are formidable. We must face down powerful corporations committed to endless profit, who are ready to pump from the ground billions of barrels of oil per day for years on end, with no concern for the long-term consequences. Instead, they cast up clouds of confusion and depict their opponents as whacky "tree huggers" or dangerous "eco-terrorists." We must push servile politicians to act boldly to protect people, not corporations, though we know that many of them owe their secure positions to the generosity of the carbon industries. And we must see through the blather of the mainstream media that refuse to tackle crucial issues with the seriousness they deserve. Instead we must take up the discipline of educating ourselves and helping others remove the blinders that obstruct their vision.

To prevail against these obstacles, we will need exceptional determination and will power. We must be uncompromising in our insistence on the need to change paradigms—to make the transition to a higher stage in our technological development and in our cultural and spiritual evolution. For our own sakes and for generations to come, we must bluntly repudiate the culture of death and embrace a new vision, a new economy, a new culture committed to the real enhancement of life.

Much damage has already been done. We've delayed too long—much too long—and terrible consequences lie ahead for populations all around the world. The global South and the small island nations will be hit hardest, but no country is exempt from the furies to be unleashed by a destabilized climate. It may not be too late, however, to change course, if we have the faith that we still can avoid the worst. But to succeed we must push hard, holding fast to the conviction "Together we can do it." The People's Climate March will be one powerful demonstration of the strength that comes through unity.

Join Tricycle and Buddhist communities in New York and beyond as we march to demand climate justice on September 21. Register to get updates, including the meeting location for Buddhist groups, here

The Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi is a Theravada Buddhist monk and the former editor of the Buddhist Publication Society in Kandy, Sri Lanka. His latest publication is a full translation of the Anguttara Nikaya (Wisdom Publications, 2012). He founded Buddhist Global Relief in 2008.

A version of this article first appeared in TruthoutIt is adapted here with permission.

Image: Chrystal Clarity. Courtesy People's Climate March.

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kammie's picture

Personally, I don't want to start storming for "climate justice," because that would be emotional violence. Having come of age in the 60s, I've been there, seen that, and it doesn't even slow things down. In this phrase from the article, "The system depends on the ruthless extraction of natural resources to generate energy and produce commodities for sale in the market. It thereby turns nature's bounty into a plurality of goods, often inessential and frivolous goods, leaving behind mountains of waste and pollution. Yet those in the seats of power refuse to take responsibility for the wreckage they leave behind. Instead, they push the clean-up job on to governments by a process shrewdly called externalization, with the bill to be met by public funding," I would change the words: "those in the seats of power" to "those passing the money across the store counter to purchase these inessential and frivolous goods." The rest of that paragraph would remain as true as it is. The place to focus is on the suffering and concomitant unskillfulness of the purchasers. It's the desperation and misplaced hope of the ordinary masses that is driving us to extinction.

buddhasoup's picture

Once again, One Voice, you, who is such a voice for the Dhamma, ignores the mandates of Right Speech and continues your attacks on Ven. Bodhi's very subtle, nuanced argument regarding the ethics of mindful resistance in the face of genocide or mass killing of innocents. You, who has translated nothing from the Pali texts, who have done nothing to save the life of a starving child, feels free to "call out" one of the most learned, accomplished, and compassionate Bhikkhus of our time. I suppose your campaign has given you a self-imposed sense of power or influence, but your posts to me suggest more of the "peanut gallery" mentality. You made your points many days ago...why the incessant trumpeting of the same material? Have you nothing better to do with your time?

For folks interested in a sober, non-ad hom discussion of this interesting subject, you can find some thoughtful exchanges here at:

Grasshopper's picture

A note for One Voice:

I have been a Theravada Buddhist all my life, and I must say in your defense that I have never heard any serious Buddhist hold to the opinion that the first precept doesn’t apply in all circumstances. Every monastic teacher with whom I’ve studied, both in America and in Asia, has stressed the point that the five precepts are to be followed even during famine and war.
I was surprised to learn of the monks who used the Cakkavati Sihanada Sutta to justify killing by the state. I always thought that the main message of that sutta was that the Dhamma king follows policies so wise that he never needs to use his army. It’s bad enough to see that message twisted to justify killing. It’s even worse to see someone claim that that twisted message is endorsed by the majority of Theravadin Buddhists.
So, contrary to Ven. Bodhi’s comment, you are not a lone voice in the fight to hold to the first precept in all circumstances. And even if you were the lone voice, it wouldn’t be a sign that you were wrong. Issues of right and wrong, blameworthy and blameless, are not decided by popular vote.

Jayson's picture

I know Thanissaro Bhikkhu has been quite adamant about the point that any form of intentional killing is unskillful at some level.

Jayson's picture
candor's picture


As a vegan, I encounter the "plants are 'living beings' (meaning : sentient beings) argument" on a regular basis, which of course, I consider absurd (laughably so if it weren't for the ignorant and self-interested motive generating the argument). I consider "living beings" to be, at a minimum, what the American philosopher Tom Regan calls "subjects-a-life" (search it). Living beings such as insects, I see as borderline cases, and while I try to avoid harming them, I'm not nearly as strict about it as with beings who clearly have higher level functioning such as emotions and preferences (eg chickens, pigs, dogs, cows).

With the exception, as I've mentioned before in this thread, of self-defense (including self defense against starvation or malnutrition), or defense against blatant tyranny, and only when such defense is likely to be successful, I agree with the prohibition against killing "any living being at all."

buddhasoup's picture

Your argument is a strawman. You are creating vendetta genies, unleashing them, and claiming them to be part of Ven. Bodhi's nuanced argument. Where in Ven. Bodhi's essays did he suggest that vengeance is a factor in an ethical use of necessary force to repel a lethal wrongdoer? Are you suggesting that reasonable and ethical people cannot make rational, ethical, and appropriate decisions re: necessary defensive force in the face of a lethal harm? Nowhere in the Suttas will you find a Buddha that is a fool, or a martyr, or someone that sits by silently and watches violence consume a community. Nowhere does the Buddha, in his exchanges with kings, demand that they lay down their arms and forsake their defenses. If the Buddha had intended that his disciples be self righteous martyrs in the face of a lethal aggressor, wouldn't he have taught this? Just as the Buddha refused to answer certain questions presented to him, he is silent on the issue of ethical use of defensive force. Therefore, the training rule against taking of life is not an absolute injunction, but a critical factor one must apply in the cultivation of one's own kamma and eventual rebirth.

Jayson's picture

Yes, it seems true that the Buddha allowed for kings to have standing armies for defense, according to the Chakkavatti- sihanada Sutta. The 'Seeha Senapathi Sutta' from Anguttara Nikaya-5 is interesting to read too. I think this is wise and can be seen as the Buddha's gradual teaching.

Monks cannot intentionally kill (or ask others to kill) or they will be expelled from the sangha:

Non-lethal intentional self-defense seems to be a lesser offense:

There's also the simile of the saw to reflect on:

Jayson's picture

I'm not sure I can add much more to this debate that has seemed to drift away from the original topic of this article on climate change.

However, I must say that I very much appreciate Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi for taking the time to clarify his thoughts, address issues and response to questions.

From my reading of the Pali canon, intentional killing is seen as unskillful. There's also not much support for a Judeo-Christian view of "just" war. I also understand the orthodox Theravadan view and the dangers of the "slippery slope." Is it best to seek a non-violent solution to violent provocation? Yes. Do the vinaya rules call for a monk to not recommend killing, suicide or help arrange a murder? Yes, that is true as well. Looking at specific passages that I can recall, there is the story of when the Buddha stops a war and the Buddha tells a solider of the dangers of being reborn in a hell realm if he kills with hatred.


Is killing sometimes necessary as is being suggested? Perhaps. For a lay person, on exceedingly rare occasions, when all other possibilities have been exhausted, it is unfortunate but may be necessary to use potentially lethal force to maintain the four requisites needed to survive in this world.

That is your choice as a lay person. You will have to deal with the consequences of that decision, but it doesn't mean you cannot recover from whatever karmic effect comes from the act.

We must remember the Jataka story of the Buddha as a ship captain in a previous life as a bodhisattva who killed a pirate who planned to kill everyone in order to steal cargo.

We also must call to mind the complexity of karma, and the fact that Angulimala eventually become an arhat.

I'm not going to go into details on the degree of killing either, but obviously the taking of human life is considered worse than the taking of animals. Yet, you shouldn't go out and slay animals either. The Buddha cautions against the slaughter of animals in his words about right livelihood for lay followers to reduce their karmic burden. Proceeding down the hierarchy of forms of violence and killing, we can further examine the karmic consequences of taking the lives of other sentient beings. All these count in the karmic bank account.

We must understand the first precept in the context of karma and not view the precepts as commandments, as has been noted before.

At the same time, we must also come to an understanding that peace cannot come from violence and that there is still a level of unsatisfactoriness that comes with having the practical need to kill in this world. From there, we can turn to a greater peace. The Buddhist path is a gradual path.

Those are my thoughts from what I know in the canon. Please correct me if I'm wrong about these canonical passages.

Full disclosure, I have had the good fortune of walking with Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi at one of his Buddhist Global Relief walks -- an initiative that is an act of great compassion on his part. Yet, I also have learned from with certain forest tradition monastics who dedicated themselves to a certain lifestyle and karmic trajectory with less interest in certain societal affairs. So, I have respect for all members of the noble sangha and can see different perspective on applying the Dhamma in particular circumstances.

Thank you.

Jayson's picture

Thanks for your response and expansion of a few of my points.

The Jataka tale is very interesting. I don't see the story as an example of killing as admirable or skillful. More than anything, it points out the dangers of lay life and how it will present you with different challenges than monastic life. In lay life, you may be put in a unique situation where you must determine which is a lesser evil.

That raises the issue of whether it's possible to clearly determine a lesser evil. How do we know a lesser evil won't lead to a greater evil in the future? This starts to travel down the road of utilitarianism.

Also, do we know how many previous lifetimes that we've lived where we've already made that choice of a lesser evil and ended up being reborn again to confront a greater evil?

Again, it all comes down to choice. You can't run from your karma.

However, I don't think you're quite as far apart from Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi as you may think. From what I've read, it doesn't seem like he's suggesting that intentionally killing is completely skillful or without fault. Where there might be disagreement is how much ability a person has in determining the extent of evil. If you believe that you can accurately calculate degrees of negative karma, then you can make a choice of a lesser evil. If not, it's a risky proposition.

buddhasoup's picture

Why not let Ven. Bodhi explain where he is coming from on these issues of concern for the 21st century?:

This is what distinguishes wisdom from dogmatism or fundamentalism. I trust that men and women of the caliber of Bhikkhu Bodhi can act as wise kalyana mitta for the rest of us, who take the Dhamma seriously and to heart. Wisdom defined: wis·dom ˈwizdəm/ noun. "the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment; the quality of being wise. The soundness of an action or decision with regard to the application of experience, knowledge, and good judgment. The body of knowledge and principles that develops within a specified society or period."

I will take wisdom over dogmatic application any day.

buddhasoup's picture

"I challenge you to answer them as I have answered yours."

OneVoice, I want to see you respond to my earlier challenge first. I challenged you to really put your regard for life and nonviolence into practice, and make a donation to Buddhist Global Relief. As I had mentioned earlier, Ven. Bodhi has done more to improve the lives of malnourished children, to support education for women in disadvantaged countries, and bring global awareness to food insecurity than any Buddhist monastic on the planet. Here's the link:

Be as forceful with your dana as you are with your debate.

Bhikkhu Bodhi's picture

There is some intelligent discussion of Theravada Buddhism and just war theory in Tessa Bartholomeusz, In Defense of Dharma, pp. 47-48. The whole book may be worth a reading (though I just discovered it online). Here is an excerpt:
"According to Childress, if an “obligation is viewed as absolute, it cannot be over-ridden under any circumstances; it has priority over all other obligations with which it might come into conflict.” Read in this light, the CSS’s [Cakkavatti-Sihanada Sutta's] depiction of the just king who maintains his army – even after disavowing violence – suggests that non-violence can be over-ridden, that violence can be justified, if only as a “last resort.” The canon’s representation of the just king can be translated into the language of just-war scholarship in the following way: as Childress reminds
us in his exposition of Christian just-war tradition, the obligation to be non-violent is “intrinsically binding, but it does not determine one’s actual obligation.” With
this in mind, some of the views on the CSS reviewed here, which focus on its just king and army, seem reasonable: the king’s prima facie duty to practice nonviolence is binding, but violence remains possible and even justifiable in some
contexts. But (as is the case with prima facie duties in general) owing to the fact that in Theravada Buddhism it is, prima facie, wrong to be violent, any violent act demands good reason....
"In the Buddhist context, as my informants suggested, the image of the warlike but pacifist king of the CSS points to a justification for war that can over-ride the prima facie duty of non-violence. However, as in Christian just-war thinking as
interpreted by Childress, in the military metaphor of the CSS, the prima facie obligation to be non-violent is not completely canceled even when it is overruled. Rather, the prima facie duty of non-violence, suggested by the present but
inactive army of the warrior king, is possibly intended to guide and limit justifiable violent acts. If it is over-ruled by another prima facie responsibility, such as Childress reminds us, the protection “of the innocent from unjust attack, [or] to restore rights wrongfully denied, or to reestablish a just order,” it is not deemed inoperative."

Bartholomeusz interviewed a number of prominent monks at different points along the spectrum, from ultra-nationalist to somewhat detached scholar-monks, and the ones she cites in the passages I have read so far all seem to recognize the limits to the application of non-violence. For example, Ven. Piyadassi of Vajirarama Monastery (1914-1998) who was one of my own kalyanamittas in Sri Lanka), said in his interview:
"Here the king might have to use the army and use force. Well, the Buddha never interfered in these matters [of the state] and surely he would have known that even righteous kings would have to defend themselves if attacked. You have to defend yourself. These are difficult questions. If someone goes to kill my mother, I’m going to stop him. So this could be
a condition in which I am forced to kill. But still killing is killing and saving is saving. Killing cannot be justified in Buddhism, but a king defending the country and Buddhism can [be justified]; the Buddha never got involved in these matters."

So Bhikkhu Bodhi is not in the unique position of dragging all the other Theravada monks and nuns throughout Asia into a hell hole contrary to their beliefs. In fact, in his insistence on the absolutely unconditional force of the precept to abstain from taking life--as admitting of no exonerating circumstances--our friend "One Voice" is, among Theravadins in Asian countries, almost--if not quite--lliterally "one voice."

Grasshopper's picture

A note for One Voice:

I have been a Theravada Buddhist all my life, and I must say in your defense that I have never heard any serious Buddhist hold to the opinion the first precept doesn’t apply in all circumstances. Every monastic teacher with whom I’ve studied, both in America and in Asia, has stressed the point that the five precepts are to be followed even during famine and war.
I was surprised to learn of the monks who used the Cakkavati Sihanada Sutta to justify killing by the state. I always thought that the main message of that sutta was that the Dhamma king follows policies so wise that he never needs to use his army. It’s bad enough to see that message twisted to justify killing. It’s even worse to see someone claim that that twisted message is endorsed by the majority of Theravadin Buddhists.
So, contrary to Ven. Bodhi’s comment, you are not a lone voice in the fight to hold to the first precept in all circumstances. And even if you were the lone voice, it wouldn’t be a sign that you were wrong. Issues of right and wrong, blameworthy and blameless, are not decided by popular vote.

buddhasoup's picture

There is no contradiction in what Ven. Bodhi posited in his most recent discussion of appropriate interventions to prevent mass killing of innocents. Everything that he stated in the excerpts of August 23, 2014, 6:30 pm are correct, and equally correct is the very limited exception that he is carving out to avoid the pitfalls of ethical absolutist positions. Ven. Bodhi was also careful to note that his exception is one that he individually posits, and he does not state it to be founded in the EBTs specifically. The Buddha never countenanced such an issue directly, and we have no guidance from the EBTs as to how he would rule on this specific issue.

You've attempted to portray Ven. Bodhi in a contradiction, but it seems to me that all you have done is reveal that you do not understand the careful point that he is making. Blinded by, and clinging to, absolutist views, you are in a sense creating your own sets of conflicts. I didn't respond to your earlier set of questions in large part as I found them to be more flogging of horses. OneVoice, you just don't get the essential point. It's a subtle point, but it's there to be seen.

In my work, I rely on statutes, laws. One law is that a vehicle approaching a stop sign must come to a full and complete stop. This is the law. It is a more than a precept, as it is a requirement imposed under penalty of incarceration or other sanction. However, this law has an exception. An emergency vehicle may, in the course of attending an emergency, drive through the signed intersection without stopping. We recognize that as important as it is that vehicles always stop at stop signs, there are limited exceptions to this rule. This is a simple example of how limited exceptions, grounded in reason and ethics, apply to a given fact pattern. I really feel that is all that Ven. Bodhi was trying to illustrate.

The internet has created some awkward interactions. On this forum, we have a Pali scholar and Dhamma expert who is also a compassionate and dedicated Bhikkhu and modern Bodhisattva, having to suffer darts thrown at him from an internet peanut gallery. Before the internet, OneVoice, you would have had to attend a lecture in a large hall, and test your mettle in an assembly of your peers. You, who are bogged down in the pages of the Pali Suttas so deeply, ignore one of the most important teachings, samma vaca:

"Monks, a statement endowed with five factors is well-spoken.... Which five?
"It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will."

— AN 5.198

A mind of affection and a mind of goodwill wouldn't have taken the spitball shots from the peanut gallery as you have done, aimed at a giant among Buddhist scholarship. Perhaps you'll exercise enough bravery to reveal your true name, and I'll be happy to give you mine. Then, we can continue the discussion openly and honestly, and not have the anonymity of the peanut gallery to protect us.

peacenik's picture

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, I read your articles with interest and appreciation. Thank you for this (and your other) article(s) [I had forgotten that I had this account and that I could post comments].

I'm very inspired by the coupling of Dharma based insight with social concern.

buddhasoup's picture

I'd like to add my two baht, if I could. I'm a card carrying Theravadin, and even wore robes for a time as a Samanera in Thailand. One trait that I have noticed among Theravada forums is the itinerant Pali competent Sutta specialist, with an unpleasant and condescending tone. I would sometimes drift over to friendly and unserious Mahayana forums, simply because the internecine conflicts among lay Theravadins was so toxic. OneVoice, your approach in this discussion reminds me of the bitter tone of some Theravada aficionados that dispense with respect, equanimity, and kindness in order to prove a point.

You have suggested that Ven. Bodhi's position in this discussion is a "pernicious" violation of the Pali Canon's teachings on the precepts. Ven. Bodhi has already carefully described the precepts as the Canon has defined their definition and application. The precepts that I took were couched as "Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami;" "I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking life." The injunction applies to the skillful kamma that is cultivated by adherence to the training rules. These precepts are part of the practice that establishes one on the Path to liberation from samsara. However, these injunctions are not, as has been pointed out, absolutes, as some would see them.

On the issue of a moral use of force in limited exigent circumstances, it seems clear that, while the Canon does not directly discuss exceptions or situations that permit deviation from the training rules, I would argue that the Buddha was not a rigid absolutist, nor did he suffer foolish or self-destructive behavior. He was, in my view, an enlightened pragmatist. When the absolute of asceticism left him near death, a middle ground was found that allowed him to continue his life and path. When he came across a common monk with dysentery, he and Ananda stopped and compassionately bathed the filthy monk; the Buddha saw no impediment to doing what was right at the right time. The Buddha could have gathered the monks, given a talk admonishing them to do better, and assigned others to do the dirty work. But that approach would have elevated form and theory over practicality and morality. In other words, if we look at the Buddha of the EBTs, he is a man not limited by rigid rules, but one exhibiting boundless reason.

OneVoice, you have positioned the First Precept in absolutist terms, but my sense from the Suttas is that the Buddha has never asked us to leave our ethics, wisdom, and reason at the door, but only to undertake the training rules in good faith, apply them to our developing kamma as best we can, and have faith in the fruits of that path. I am grateful that we have wise and compassionate men like Ven. Bodhi to help light the way on that path.

buddhasoup's picture

OneVoice, as it is getting late, and you've (we've) exhausted many minutes of effort and energy flogging this issue, I will make a suggestion: here's the Buddhist Global Relief donation site:
Instead of continuing to flog this precept horse, why not do something truly Dhammic and constructive? Support Buddhist Global Relief.

Ven. Bodhi is the monk that has literally taken Theravada off the cushion and engaged it actively with the needs of a suffering world. All the of sharp words and all of the keen debate won't do a thing to feed a hungry or malnourished child. So, instead of doing what we Theravadins seem so capable of doing, which is flogging dhammic horses, why not do something that truly makes merit? Want to support the First Precept with vigor? Save a life...I am sure that Ven. Bodhi's BGR has saved many.

I support BGR..I challenge you to do the same. That's real absolutist Dhamma.

workbc9's picture

Climate change ( once known as Global Warming) is a hoax. Further, any action by government to "fix " the problem which comes in the form of tax or policies, as proposed by the author, which equates to the use of force seems counter to Buddha nature.

mmhalliday's picture

Just wanted to thank Bhikkhu Bodhi for this article. It's a brave man to write so eloquently and clearly on this topic in a US based magazine, given the sad state of affairs in USA when it comes to climate change denial and disinformation. Not that climate change denial is limited to the US, but the US does still carry a lot of political weight in the world and could be leading the way out of this crisis rather than burying its head in the sand.

Certainly effort needs to be made in combatting the deliberate misinformation re climate change that is spread by people and companies with vested interests in maintaining non-sustainable energy sources, destroying the environment, creating obstacles to green development. Daniel Kahnemann has written some very good things about how, as a species, we are not good at making decisions about problems which aren't yet fully visible in the present and which need a long-term perspective to solve them.

Bhikkhu Bodhi's picture

Firstly, torture is prohibited by the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment and Punishment. Moreover Article 2.2 of the Convention states: "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture."

Thus, simply on legal grounds (which are in turn based on moral grounds) I could not approve of torture, nor would I ever argue that the Buddha Dhamma can justify torture.

Secondly, it is a well established fact, based on statements from experienced interrogators, that torture is not only ineffective as a means of acquiring reliable information, but it is actually counterproductive. One example going back to 2009:
"Over the weekend, Ali Soufan, the FBI interrogator who is credited with helping acquire most of the useful intelligence from Abu Zubayda prior to his being waterboarded, responded to torture apologists who argue that torture was necessary to save American lives. Soufan points out that torture as policy locked out those interrogators who had the most expertise about Al Qaeda as an organization (the CIA didn't have an interrogation program until after 9/11), and as a result of torture, we may have failed to get as much useful information as we could have."
From "Torture's Failure," American Prospect

candor's picture

Torture doesn't work that way. An "informant" will say just about anything to appease the torturer. In fact, most experts on torture (including those who have been tortured) agree that it backfires, sometimes causing the "informant" to give information that the torturer wants to hear, but is false and misleading.

Anyone who supports torture does so out of ignorance.

It would be a *possible* moral dilemma only if it were uncontroversially effective in its purported goals. As it is, torture is clearly wrong in all cases.

wsking's picture

Perhaps that is a question better answered by someone skilled in issues of national security than by an ordained monk, OneView. Many Buddhist monks and nuns have been tortured to death in the last century, so it would be hard for us to answer you without personal bias.

Do you have any good ideas for creating a life affirming culture? Where would you start? I don't think torture is quite what we had in mind.

wsking's picture

I would like to add a thought: While we may know original doctrine and practice it as a personal choice, there is no force that precludes moderation in any practice.

As the fastest growing religious group in America, we have great political responsibility to uphold and improve upon the safety and integrity of American values and American family values.

Should we opt to follow a fundamentalist perspective on issues of defense, such as has been promoted by some in this discussion, Buddhism and Buddhists could eventually be seen as a threat to national security. What would happen to the army, navy, and air force if everyone refused to kill? Who would defend our country, which has been so dearly protected up to now? Who will defend other nations and other peoples in trouble, which we have repeatedly done up to now and I feel should continue to do. It is important to realize that the karma of the world in the future has been made by the decisions of our ancestors in the past, and will be made by us, also.

Therefore, it is essential that we remain practical and open-minded, remembering that all doctrines are intended to help us live with virtue, integrity and happiness, not to bind us into mindless servitude, unable to adapt to changing situations and times.

I believe that the community of nations makes it clear that they hold mutual respect and help as their primary focus. That they agree they do not want to kill, and that they do want to avoid war. But that when all other avenues of settling differences have failed, it is the right of nations to protect their sovereignty and the right of individuals to protect their lives. This clearly shows the basic goodness of people everywhere. The fact that they could all agree on this is wonderful.

This is a practical view we can uphold as Buddhists in a political world. And we, at least, can be sincere about it. It is important that in both our personal and professional lives, we work for harmony between people, engaging with and supporting those whose difficult responsibilities can benefit from our input and mediation.

If we hold inflexible fundamentalist views on social and political issues, particularly on matters of security and defense, we will be immediately discounted. No one will listen to anything constructive we may say, nor will we be able to help or mitigate difficult situations, or obtain any standing or position in which we could do so.

Therefore, while personally we may keep a fundamentalist practice, publically it is more beneficial for us to protect and help, by keeping a more moderate purpose and view.
Here, I am making a distinction between private practice and social engagement, showing how both may be practised for the benefit of a society.

eror's picture

Beyond my novice questions i also wanted to thank to Bhikku Bodi for his honest, passionate and well reasoned arguments for the necessity of a new life affirming and life sustaining paradigm change in modern global culture. The thread it engendered reminded me of the discussions in philosophy on this and similar topics. How wonderful to know that this and similar conversations about the need for change in modern society are going on in different social milieus, different cultures and from different perspectives. Maybe there is hope for mankind after all.

eror's picture

Even if killing does harm one's karma should an individuals first concern their own personal karma or should the concern first be to help life flourish, something that can and sometimes does seem to necessitate the killing of life. and if that is so, if there is a necessity to kill but harm to one's karma for doing it, is there any difference, karma wise, between killing humans and other animals? My apologies i am new to Buddhism and these questions came up reading the article and consequent thread and i'm a little confused - obviously thank you

eror's picture

i really don't understand - if your are killing something certainly you are sad to have to do this but as a gardener i have to kill plants, insects and animals all the time and i don't like doing it. is it good for the many things i kill? No, but it is for the other plants i'm cultivating, and it's good for me and for other people and even for other insects and creatures. But also some people are not agonized and conflicted about killing anything - we see this with true psychopaths - and to be honest, for myself i don't think i would feel more conflicted about killing a person than i am about having to kill an animal when necessary. For instance a crazed or violent bear for no appreciable reason is often a sick bear and one would probably be doing it a great favour to kill it, what then, what about when we kill out of compassion? there are so many questions - i apoligize for jumping all over the place but i feel more confused than ever about this issue

eror's picture

you avoid killing but are allowed to kill animals if they are an obstacle to your or others survival? - if we are capable of understanding this then - why, if we are indeed being honest with ourselves would anything change if the animal turns out to be a human being? It seems to me that violence and war have a lot to do with greed and fear, not compassion. You are right that everything possible should be tried first to avoid killing but that just isn't always possible - So to end the question, in theoretical and in practical terms - honest action, with no ulterior motives, even if it leads to killing will not then lead to bad karma. Am i understanding you correctly. Sorry to be such a bother but no one else answered my question - i ask these questions because the more literature i read the more confused i get, like with this question and you can't follow a precept if you don't understand how it should go. so again thanks for trying to alleviate the confusion.

eror's picture

Sorry for the delay in answering your reply - and thank you for clarifying what i had mistaken. but in a way now i'm stuck back on my original question and honestly feel the need continue but please do not feel bound to answer if you are busy - i have lots of time and maybe you don't - so i won't feel hurt or anything like that and i get the thing about my own life - that is kind of how i've always felt anyway. several times in my life a physical fight broke out and every time i crossed my arms and refused to fight (no, i couldn't run and yes, i got beat up every time). don't know why except the question, "does it really matter who wins and who dies?" always crosses my mind at such times - go figure and if a grizzly catches me, well, i figure we're pretty equal on that question too though i wouldn't guarantee that i wouldn't shoot - particularly since the body is such an imprecise instrument for most of us and fear so easily overcomes reason (i am ashamed to say that i have killed spiders and other insects out of fear). But the deal is way different for me when it's others - when i weigh a hand full of deaths against the immense harm created by that hand full in certain situations - i'm not so sure - and if evil is a karmic occurrence, whats to say that my attempt to Kill someone isn't equally ordained by karma (in fact must it not be?). (and i'm not trying to be a jerk, i'm really asking) To make a dramatic point and illustrate my origional question - Would the demise of people like Hitler and Pol Pot not be worth the karma one would pay to kill them? And if no one can be saved from their suffering, from their karma (that's your contention? not sure) regardless of what i or anyone does then what's the point of doing anything at all ever about anything? Just seems to me that if you can take a threat away from a people, even if that means killing as the last resort then it might be worth the cost on one's karma. This is at the heart of what i am trying to ask - regardless of the difficulties of staying free of 'ulterior motives' - and i agree this is a serious difficulty, maybe impossible to overcome - Anyway thank you so very much for your replies and your patience.

eror's picture

Thank you for redirecting me back to the thread. It was indeed helpful. In fact your exchange with Jason between Aug 24, 10:42 pm and Aug.27, 1:05 pm is exactly what i was trying to get at. I can only be grateful to Jason for being far more eloquent in asking the questions than i could ever hope to be. The issue of weighing options and harms in order to attain the best answer in a situation where no answer could be called 'good' was exactly what i was trying to get at. The comment in your last message, that we are allowed to fight or try to disable someone when absolutely necessary gave me the last clue to what you are trying to get at ( i think ): Under no circumstances should we go into a situation intending to kill because this is a slippery slope and us humans have never been known to maintain our footing under such conditions, mainly because temptation and greed and all the stuff of Mara can so easily blind us and lead us on farther down that slope, creating maybe even more suffering than the intentional killing was meant to stop. And by the creating of this suffering through the original intentional killing (almost like a domino effect, as one of the sutras seemed to describe it) one's karma is immeasurably harmed. On the other hand, if the intention is to preserve life at all cost and if we are truly not in thrall to some ulterior motive, then if death comes to the one we are trying to stop through our actions then this unintentional killing will not create this domino effect of harm, or at least will not create harm to the same degree to either one's karma or to other living beings. Could i ask if this understanding of your position is correct? Can only hope my understanding has some merit after all your attempts to explain.

eror's picture

Your explanation was greatly appreciated and definitely helped to clarify my understanding of how karma works -not that i'm ready to go off and teach, or anything! - But truly, thank you for all your efforts and all your posts.

bhb21's picture

I cannot believe this got printed! are all Buddhists as uninformed as you are and yet so willing to espouse unadulterated crap? you do not understand capitalism nor economic principles, you ignore other scientific views on global warming and we are not at a crossroads. it is people like you that use sensationalism instead of truth and logic to try to stampede people to your view. the best that can be said is you are a pontificating "holier than thou" know it all socialist that wants to dictate the lives of others. did you not learn anything from your years of practice and meditation? the comments show that most Buddhists appear to be sheep just trying to be more righteous than the rest? or maybe the smart ones just ignored this article for its lack of anything substantive. my bad

wsking's picture

It is your bad, well said.
Would you care to share with us your good?

Lavender's picture

There are a couple of points I'd like to contribute. The first is that I often hear people saying that we need to find or develop or spread a new paradigm; this might be true for settlers in colonial countries, but not for indigenous peoples who already have had and still recognize cosmologies of interrelation, interdependence, and respect for all life. It may seem like an obvious point to make, and I'm sure that the author is not saying otherwise, but what we should really be doing in my opinion is connecting to our roots - all of us - those that extend back to a time when the commons were seen as a means of subsistence and labour was not appropriated for private accumulation and control. There was a time when all peoples understood that stewardship of all life was the only practical and ethical way to live. So I'm suggesting that we reach into the past as well as look to the future. Secondly, I think we need to go even further than naming capitalism as the culprit here. More important than the type of system we adopt is who is designing it and implementing it, and how. Capitalism is not actually an economic system first and foremost. It's the modus operandi of the colonial machine, which seeks to enclose, alienate, privatize, and exploit resources for the benefit of the privileged and powerful. That's why changing the economic system isn't a panacea. It won't end patriarchy or racism. What will is the process of decolonization. It's time for those of privilege to step aside and make space for those who have been marginalized for so long. First, we heal the wounds and renew respect among peoples, and together we find a way forward, by listening and sharing. My fear is that the dominant society, though well-meaning, will build another revolution on top of injustices and inequities and pretend that the slate is wiped clean, just as it has before. Let's do it right this time.

philboyd's picture

I find it interesting that people who have taken personal responsibility for their own spiritual wellness look for a government to solve social ills. A non virtuous and ill informed culture will inevitably succumb to tyrannic rule. We do not live in an enlightened age, our near future is bleak. We have surrendered our sovereign power to those who fan the flames of social unrest and fuel that fire through ignorance.

lshaw's picture


philboyd's picture

I have read Adam Smith, and from that perspective kindly ask: where do you believe capitalism to exist today?

Dominic Gomez's picture

The roots of this paradigm are the 3 poisons of greed, belligerence and ignorance innate in human life. Buddhist practice empowers each individual to expand beyond such a restrictive life-condition.

Tharpa Pema's picture

I continue to appreciate the inclusion of Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi 's perspective in Tricycle's coverage of the Buddhist movement. I find it underrepresented in most media markets. The language of blame is stronger than I myself would choose. My experience has been that such specifically targeted blame can obstruct desired change instead of furthering it. Nevertheless, I like his vision of a better way of being human together very much. Thank you!

lshaw's picture


Bhikkhu Bodhi's picture

One Voice,

You write: “What is appalling about Bhikkhu Bodhi's argument is that, as a senior teacher in the Therevada (sic) tradition, he is trying to inject these pernicious views into the Pali Canon, where there is absolutely no support for it.”

Now compare your assertion with what I actually say in the essay:

“The suttas, it must be clearly stated, do not admit any moral justification for war. Thus, if we take the texts as issuing moral absolutes, one would have to conclude that war can never be morally justified.”
“The early Buddhist texts are not unaware of the potential clash between the need to prevent the triumph of evil and the duty to observe nonviolence. The solution they propose, however, always endorses nonviolence even in the face of evil…. The Jataka stories, too, endorse strict adherence to the law of nonviolence, even for a ruler threatened by a foe.”
“When the motive [for going to war] is genuine national defense or preventing a rogue nation from disrupting global peace, moral valuation would have to reflect these very different circumstances. Nevertheless, if one relies solely on canonical statements, the volition of harming others would always be considered "wrong intention" and all acts of destroying life classed as unwholesome.”
“Wouldn’t we maintain that in this situation [when the Nazis are pursuing their quest for global domination] military action to stop the aggressor is laudable, even obligatory, and that a soldier’s actions can be viewed as morally commendable? Hesitantly, I would have to adopt this latter position, even though I cannot justify it by appeal to Buddhist texts, whether canonical or commentarial.”

Thus I did not try “to inject” any views of my own into the Pali Canon, but to explore a problem that arises from reflection on the canon. The problem is that the suttas lay down moral prescriptions as general rules and do not address situations where following a moral rule—in this case, not to kill—would clash with what appears to be another moral obligation, namely, to avoid the brutal slaughter of many people after all attempts to do so by peaceful means have failed. In addressing this problem I concluded: “Nevertheless, the complexity of the human condition inevitably confronts us with circumstances where moral obligations run at cross-currents. In such cases, *I believe*, we must simply do our best to navigate between them, using as our criterion the reduction of harm and suffering for the greatest number of those at risk.”

I thus made it quite clear that this was my own opinion, not a position adopted in the Pali Canon. You may disagree with me about this and hold that the precepts are universal absolutes that admit of no exceptions under any circumstances. But please do not misrepresent me in a public forum, since that is not beneficial for either of us. Thank you.

Bhikkhu Bodhi's picture

Although I recognize your sincerity and your concern to uphold the ethical principles of the Dhamma, I want to bring some additional points up for your consideration. First, I should point out that your understanding of Buddhist ethics is fundamentally wrong. The Buddhist precepts are not inviolable commandments issued by the Buddha on some kind of divine authority, nor are they set forth as prescriptions for social policy to be implemented on the macro-scale. They are set forth as training principles that a person freely adopts in order to cultivate a wholesome way of life. They function as guides to conduct that are in line with the workings of karma, conducive to a favorable rebirth and the attainment of final liberation. However, due to personal circumstances, not everyone who follows the Buddha Dhamma, even with sincere faith, can observe every precept with impeccable purity, and the consequences of adopting them on a collective scale can be deleterious, as a little reflection would bring to light.

It is one of the bitter truths of mundane life that the maintenance of social order, the curbing of destructive violence, and the establishment of a reasonable degree of safety and security for the citizens of a country requires that some persons take on the responsibility for using forceful, even lethal, methods of curbing miscreants who have no respect for the lives of others. And except perhaps in some aboriginal societies, every modern society is prone to bringing forth malicious or psychopathic miscreants, and in international relations, countries desiring to live in peace are subject to aggression by other countries intent on gaining territory, natural resources, or avenging past grievances. Those in positions of social responsibility—whether police or military—have to use effective ways of curbing this destructive behavior, and inflexible adherence to the first precept, except in the “miracle stories” of the Jatakas, is not going to work in practice. Even Aung San Su Kyi admitted that if she became president of Burma, she would likely have to give orders for lethal means to be used to maintain social stability. She spoke of this as an "occupational hazard."

The irony is that if your prescriptions (as well as those of Geshe Dargyey, with all due respect to him) were adopted as public policy, given our current social structures and values, society would likely degenerate in a short time into mayhem and a chaos of mutual murder. As a Buddhist, I always sustain the hope that some day our society can be transformed from our present "culture of death" into a true "culture of life," but this will require fundamental changes in many dimensions of our communal life, more than can reasonably be expected in the near future.

I never thought others would consider my essay on War and Peace controversial, let alone verging on heresy, as you do. I believed I was simply stating common sense, especially because I used as my paradigm the Allied campaign against the Nazis in World War II. Though you seem to say that the Allies were no better morally than the Nazis in their conduct of the war, I think there is too much evidence to the contrary (though for sure I don’t approve of all aspects of the Allied campaigns, especially the bombing of German cities and the use of the atom bombs in Japan). I also don’t agree with Geshe Dargyey, who is transposing the observance of precepts in the style of an ordained monastic or dedicated lay follower to the conduct of national and global affairs. He is not alone in this. I have known of several Theravadin monks, even highly intelligent ones, commit the same mistake.

I really wonder whether the Buddha, if he were alive in 1939-41, would have recommended capitulating to the Nazis rather than opposing them militarily. It is intriguing (as I pointed out in the essay) that we never find in the texts any cases where a conflict of obligations--or a situation with conflicting moral aspects--is brought to the Buddha's attention for advice. Perhaps it was because he realized that worldly affairs are just too complex for any simple formulas to work that he did not address situations of moral conflict, not because he regarded the precepts as unconditional absolutes, Thus, contrary to yourself and other radical fundamentalists, I tend to take the moral directives of the texts as general rules, intrinsically valid but not unconditional absolutes. The real world is just too complex and messy for moral absolutes to bear desirable fruit.

I wonder, by the way, whether you are aware of the *tone* of your comments (as contrasted with the contents). Though you advocate strongly for non-violence, several of us have noted a distinct vehemence--even virulence--in the tone of your remarks. Since one's verbal expression is a manifestation of one's state of mind, I hope you will keep careful watch over your mental states and make an earnest effort to transform anger and belligerence into calm, gentleness, and kindness. We would all delight in being able to carry on a more cordial and polite conversation on such important issues.

candor's picture

OneVoice wrote "What a waste of time. Shall we carry on?"

I agree, OneVoice, that this has become a waste of time. I could rebut your first five points one by one (the sixth one is asking Bhikkha Bodhi to elaborate); however, it would only add fuel to what has become a fool's fire.

Shall we carry on? No. Our differences cannot be reconciled.

wsking's picture

Dear One View:
I didn't say you were a Hefalump! I said I fell into your Hefalump trap! That means I am the Hefalump. Didn't you ever read Winnie the Pooh?
A Hefalump is a kind of imaginary elephant. A Hefalump trap catches Hefalumps. I fall into your Hefalump trap because I don't see it coming, and because your reasoning is too quick for my plodding approach. You should be laughing about this! It was a compliment!

As was the remark that you play the necessary Devil's Advocate and function like Shariputra and Subhuti in the sutras. All compliments to your oppositional tacks in all your responses. They bring about good discussions and cause us to think more deeply. Well done! However, a word of correction on your tone from a friend is more precious than gold. You are insulting....its hard to engage with you because of that. Can you present in a different way, or wait until the urge to do it passes?

wsking's picture

Dear Bhikkhu Bodhi and One View,

Venerable Geshe Ngawang Dargey was the first Tibetan lama to teach westerners in Dharamsala in a class we had at the Tibetan Library of Works and Archives. He was a Gelukpa geshe of the highest rank assigned to us by His Holiness. We were the first class of westerners they ever taught. We were very, very fortunate. Geshe-la passed away a long time ago in New Zealand, around 1985, I think.

Ven. Bhikkhu, Geshe-la never mentioned national or international politics. When Geshe-la taught the precepts, he was talking about personal practice.

He was wonderful. I miss him, I love him, I hope to see him again someday. We were like a pile of puppies, and he saved all of us. He made us into decent people. Tears....when I think of the kindness of the guru. He literally gave his life for us. I hope so much that we are all worth it. Practice! Don't be lazy! That's what he always said, Practice!

candor's picture


Below are excepts from the Buddha in the Pali Canon. The Canon suggests that the Buddha told the Kālāmas not to go . . . by a collection of texts . . . The Canon suggests that the Buddha told the Kālāmas, essentially, to go by the knowledge attained by their own experience instead of any canon, or indeed, even his own or any other teacher’s word (the Pali Canon had not been written at the time the Buddha lived, by the way). The Buddha would not have recommended a dogmatic adherence to any “canon,” even the Pali Canon.

My experience agrees with Bhikkhu Bodhi’s experience in the matter you refer to here.

Incidentally, my experience also verifies that I should avoid killing or exploiting, or contributing to the killing or exploiting of, nonhuman animals as much as is reasonably possible in one's circumstances. "Reasonably possible," the way I take it, is strict and questions "convenient" rationalizations, but takes on the same non-dogmatism and non-absolutism that the Buddha taught and that Bhikkhu Bodhi assumes in his commentary.

Excepts attributed to the Buddha in the Pali Canon:

"Come, Kālāmas. Do not go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of texts, by logic, by inferential reasoning, by reasoned cogitation, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, by the seeming competence of a speaker, or because you think, ‘The ascetic is our teacher.’4 But when you know for yourselves, ‘These things are unwholesome; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; these things, if undertaken and practiced, lead to harm and suffering,’ then you should abandon them."

Bodhi, Bhikkhu (2005-08-10). In the Buddha's Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon (Teachings of the Buddha) (Kindle Locations 1696-1700). Wisdom Publications. Kindle Edition.

“Come, Kālāmas. Do not go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of texts, by logic, by inferential reasoning, by reasoned cogitation, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, by the seeming competence of a speaker, or because you think, ‘The ascetic is our teacher.’ But when you know for yourselves, ‘These things are wholesome; these things are blameless; these things are praised by the wise; these things, if undertaken and practiced, lead to welfare and happiness,’ then you should engage in them."

Bodhi, Bhikkhu (2005-08-10). In the Buddha's Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon (Teachings of the Buddha) (pp. 89-90). Wisdom Publications. Kindle Edition.

candor's picture

I had considered those lines. Absolute pacifism -- the kind of pacifism that would rather let thousands or millions of innocents be unnecessarily murdered than to sully their absolute personal adherence to a precept or rule -- is censured by the wise. Reasonable pacifism -- the kind of pacifism that takes nonviolence as far as is reasonably possible under given circumstances, but sees the folly in letting dangerous tyrants and sociopaths murder and severely oppress the innocent majority -- is praised by the wise.

The wise also consider that we do not live in a peaceful anarchic utopia. We live in a world of police and military forces, without which we would likely be ruled by a local, intolerant thug. The wise do not forget that their peace advocacy -- even while they censure the military and police who protect their legal right to protest -- is protected by the violence, or threat of violence, of the military and police against tyrannical others who would condemn them to a choice of silence and oppression, or torture and death.

candor's picture

OneVoice wrote: "You justify the intentional killing of others based on what is reasonable in the context of your world view."

And you, OneVoice, justify the killing of others based on the context of your world view. The Buddha of the Pali Canon makes no allowances for this. If you think his teaching on this basic point is unwise you, OneVoice, have every right to disregard it.

You see, OneVoice, we disagree about what the Buddha taught and how the Buddha would apply it today. We also disagree about the morality of letting mass murder happen without intervention (having good reasons that intervention will succeed in reducing murder and suffering). You think it's fine; I think it's wrong. You say the Buddha would be fine with allowing extreme violence against innocents (especially against thousands or millions) to go unchecked without necessary intervention, prevention, or mitigation (including violence necessary to do so). I disagree. Our differences appear to be irreconcilable.

Bhikkhu Bodhi's picture

Very good points, Candor. In this respect we can consider as "the wise" the moral philosophers and experts in international jurisprudence who have long agonized over the criteria of a just war and just police action, and who have incorporated these criteria into the UN Charter and other international agreements. Though Buddhist fundamentalists tend to dismiss them as "mere secular humanists," this, firstly, is not true because many of them are people of religious faith; and second because these thinkers institute such protocols, not to advance any self-interested agenda, but to lay down the most stringent criteria possible for the instigation and conduct of war while not utterly ruling this out as a final resort for preventing, as you put it, "dangerous tyrants and sociopaths from murdering and severely oppressing the innocent majority." Naturally, there are many shades of opinion about the exact conditions that can justify war, but serious ethical thinkers without preset agendas recognize that the advocacy of uncompromising pacificism is morally pernicious. See in this respect Elizabeth Anscombe's essay, "War and Murder."

candor's picture

Agreed, Bhikkhu Bodhi, and thank you for the link. Moral philosophy has been of great interest to me over the past decade.

I’ll also take this opportunity to thank you for your indispensable work in the compilation and translation (through several volumes) of the Discourses of the Buddha. Living in a rural area, they are my primary and most essential resource for practice. Your work is deeply appreciated!