The Dhammapada exploration – part 10: Violence/punishment

This is a series of articles I’m doing on one of the basic Buddhist texts, the Dhammapada. Read the rest of the articles in this series.

Ah, punishment! We talked about evil in the last episode, surely Buddhism prescribes a lot of punishment for evil deeds! Those monks, do they self-flagellate in silence? If you steal, should you cut off a finger or two? Let’s find out!

129. All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.

130. All tremble at violence; life is dear to all. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.

The wisdom here is nothing new, this particular sentence is more than 2500 years old. You’d prefer not to be killed, so don’t kill and don’t make others kill in your name.

Now the fools among you will cry “but Psy-Q, you idiot, you can’t have peace without armies!! You need violence lol!!!!” To that I would suggest reading up on the history of  emperor Ashoka. He led a sizeable empire in what is today India, and of course he had armies, and he also annexed a piece of land or two. He was responsible for many thousands of deaths.

But learning of the Buddha’s path and overtaken by its wisdom, he took a vow of non-violence and he dismantled his armies. He swore to never again conquer lands using violence. Instead he focused his actions on the well-being of his citizens and his empire. And surprisingly, his empire wasn’t immediately overrun by armies of neighboring countries. Everyone respected the peaceful leader.

131. One who, while himself seeking happiness, oppresses with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will not attain happiness hereafter.

132. One who, while himself seeking happiness, does not oppress with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will find happiness hereafter.

But note that if the violence is agreed-upon, none of this matters. If you and your partner(s) like kinky sexual practices and stick pineapples into orifices they weren’t meant for, this is fine. If you’re an MMA fighter and enjoy smashing someone’s teeth in, and that person is also ready for having their teeth smashed in, this is fine. That is mutually agreed-upon. It can still be not-so-wise; if you become addicted to S&M, that hunger is its own problem. But then it’s not the violence that is the problem, it’s your addiction.

The original text used the word “danda”, which can also mean rod or staff, as used for punishment. Let’s have an alternative translation. Thanissaro Bhikku, take over:

Whoever takes a rod to harm living beings desiring ease, when he himself is looking for ease, will meet with no ease after death.


If you’re interested in the context of this verse, it is given by Dr. Mahinda Deegalle and published in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, from a talk given at the Conference onf Buddhism and Conflict in Sri Lanka.

133. Speak not harshly to anyone, for those thus spoken to might retort. Indeed, angry speech hurts, and retaliation may overtake you.

134. If, like a broken gong, you silence yourself, you have approached Nibbana, for vindictiveness is no longer in you.

This is also about facing violence with non-violence. Violence breeds violence. Only non-violence can eradicate violence. This is a principle and a universal truth. Of course it gets more complicated when Chinese soldiers are shooting to death peacefully sitting monks. Should you let your friends be shot like that? Should you try to overwhelm the soldiers? Can’t write to the Chinese central government because they don’t give a fuck.

So these issues are not easy. But the truths are universal. The Chinese in this picture are the fools, not the Tibetans.

135. Just as a cowherd drives the cattle to pasture with a staff, so do old age and death drive the life force of beings (from existence to existence).

This one’s powerful stuff. You will face death. You are going to die. You will get sick, you will lose some of your sight, your hearing. Your bones will hurt inside your very body, people you love will become ill and die as well. Your pets, they will die. Everyone you love will be mercilessly driven by nature to a state of death.

This needs not be that scary. It is a process you can observe, so you can prepare yourself. Some foolishly try to stave off thinking about such things, but it just hurts more when finally it hits you all at once: Death is part of life, death is inevitable.

Some people claim that Buddhism has a dark outlook and is pessimistic and obsessed with death. But this is not so. It may seem so because laypeople in their normal life try to ignore death and illness and force knowledge about it out of their lives. They buy skin creams and get their wrinkles straightened, they buy expensive sports cars to feel alive, they take cocaine to get further away from death.

But death will find you. Get used to it.

136. When the fool commits evil deeds, he does not realize (their evil nature). The witless man is tormented by his own deeds, like one burnt by fire.

The inverse is also true. If you strive to practice right action, you already know that a non-right, an evil or foolish action is possible. And you try to refrain from doing that. Even if you don’t know the right way, recognizing those that are definitely wrong is already a step.

137. He who inflicts violence on those who are unarmed, and offends those who are inoffensive, will soon come upon one of these ten states:

138-140 Sharp pain, or disaster, bodily injury, serious illness, or derangement of mind, trouble from the government, or grave charges, loss of relatives, or loss of wealth, or houses destroyed by ravaging fire; upon dissolution of the body that ignorant man is born in hell.

I find “trouble from the government” a particularly fun thing to read in something more than 2500 years old.

141. Neither going about naked, nor matted locks, nor filth, nor fasting, nor lying on the ground, nor smearing oneself with ashes and dust, nor sitting on the heels (in penance) can purify a mortal who has not overcome doubt.

This refers to the practices of various (self-declared or otherwise) holy people of the time, some of which carry through even today. In India you can still find sadhus who smear their body with ash, grow wicked dreadlocks or submit to wild and sometimes dangerous forms of asceticism. This verse should illustrate that all these practices are empty. No matter how naked you run around the town square, it won’t help you if your mind is not sharpened, if you do not also cultivate wisdom. And once you have cultivated wisdom, you see the emptiness of those actions and you stop doing them.

Buddhism is about a middle path, not about extremes.

142. Even though he be well-attired, yet if he is poised, calm, controlled and established in the holy life, having set aside violence towards all beings — he, truly, is a holy man, a renunciate, a monk.

So you get to wear pretty robes and won’t have to run around naked and dreadlocked, but you can still be a monk. How cool!

143. Only rarely is there a man in this world who, restrained by modesty, avoids reproach, as a thoroughbred horse avoids the whip.

144. Like a thoroughbred horse touched by the whip, be strenuous, be filled with spiritual yearning. By faith and moral purity, by effort and meditation, by investigation of the truth, by being rich in knowledge and virtue, and by being mindful, destroy this unlimited suffering.

145. Irrigators regulate the waters, fletchers straighten arrow shafts, carpenters shape wood, and the good control themselves.

This, an ode to self-control, a celebration of the cultivation of wisdom. I sure as hell don’t have the talent to add anything meaningful to that, so see you next time for part 11!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *