Buddhism and Self-Defense

Rusty Nail

I have become more and more worried about the relationship between Martial Arts and Buddhism. Buddhism is vehemently against killing and violence. Martial Arts is the practice of how best to do violence against our fellow-man. These two things seem to be polar opposites. This contradiction has worried me enormously, I love the Arts, but I also love Buddhism and the teachings of the Buddha, can I practice both or do I have to give up one or the other?

How did the Shaolin Monks ever marry the two?

As a result of this worry, I have been engaged in some investigation into exactly what the Buddha said.

The first thing that struck me was the first of the five precepts:

“I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking life.”

This verse from the Dhammapada reinforces the first rule:
“All men tremble at punishment, all men fear death; remember that you are like unto them, and do not kill, nor cause slaughter.”
Various (2012-05-12). Dhammapada (Kindle Locations 185-186), verse 129

This verse shows the Buddha’s stance on verbal abuse:
“Silently shall I endure abuse as the elephant in battle endures the arrow sent from the bow: for the world is ill-natured.”
Various (2012-05-12). Dhammapada (Kindle Locations 403-404), verse 320.
Note: in the above quote abuse, in my opinion relates to verbal abuse, this is based on this explanation of verse 320. The context of the Buddha’s words are clearly in relation to the verbal abuse the Queen’s servants are shouting at him.

These quotes highlight that killing is absolutely verboten and that one should not even defend one’s self against verbal abuses. It’s looking fairly stark at the moment. No killing and no defending against [verbal] abuse.

However defending one’s own life -without- using deadly force, or in self-defense does not seem to be explicitly forbidden by the Buddha’s words.
The Theravada monastic code #74 quite clearly outlines the following (the rule is quite long and wordy, so I have edited a bit):
“Should any bhikkhu, angered and displeased, give a blow to (another) bhikkhu, it is to be confessed.”
“Non-offenses. According to the Vibhaṅga, there is no offense for a bhikkhu who, trapped in a difficult situation, gives a blow “desiring freedom.” The Commentary’s discussion of this point shows that it includes what we at present would call self-defense; and the K/Commentary’s analysis of the factors of the offense here shows that even if anger or displeasure arises in one’s mind in cases like this, there is no penalty.
Summary: Giving a blow to another bhikkhu when impelled by anger — except in self-defense — is a pācittiya offense.”
(Pratimoksa, Vinaya Pitaka), Rule 74. Sourced here or here.

The Vinaya Pitaka was first composed after the death of the Buddha by the First Council. So the above was not said by the Buddha himself, but it is followed by all modern Theravadin Monks.

The kicker for me however is the following quote from the Satipatthana, quoted from an Access to Insight article:

“Protecting oneself, one protects others.” (Attanam rakkhanto param rakkhati.)
“Protecting others, one protects oneself.” (Param rakkhanto attanam rakkhati.)
“I shall protect myself” — thus should we establish our mindfulness, and guided by it devote ourselves to the practice of meditation, for the sake of our own liberation.
“I shall protect others” — thus should we establish our mindfulness, and guided by it regulate our conduct by patience, harmlessness, loving-kindness and compassion, for the welfare and happiness of many.
The same article goes on to say:
“Protecting others one protects oneself. And how? By patience and forbearance, by a non-violent and harmless life, by loving-kindness and compassion (khantiya avihimsaya mettataya anuddayataya).” [Emphasis added by myself]
“Protection Through Satipatthana”, by Nyanaponika Thera. Access to Insight, 3 September 2012, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/nyanaponika/bl034.html . Retrieved on 3 April 2013.

This is quite clear, one cannot use violence to protect others, but violence to protect one’s self, if one does not strike in anger to escape a difficult situation is permitted.

I’m afraid that I cannot accept this element of Buddhism, it seems horribly ego-centric to me to allow the defence of one’s self but not the defence of others. As a trained fighter I cannot accept that I may not use my skills to protect others.

If I read over the words of the Buddha, nowhere is there to be found any quotes or sayings that allow for Rule #74. My considered belief is that this rule is not found before the death of the Buddha because he would never have allowed it. As the following quote outlines:
“Even if bandits were to carve you up savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw, he among you who let his heart get angered even at that would not be doing my bidding. Even then you should train yourselves: ‘Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading these people with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with them, we will keep pervading the all-encompassing world with an awareness imbued with good will — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.’ That’s how you should train yourselves.”— MN 21

These two quotes very ambiguously illustrate that striking is also verboten, showing that

“The Awakened call patience the highest penance, long-suffering the highest Nirvana; for he is not an anchorite (pravragita) who strikes others, he is not an ascetic (sramana) who insults others. “
Various (2012-05-12). Dhammapada (Kindle Locations 248-251), verse 184 [Emphasis added by myself]

“Not to blame, not to strike, to live restrained under the law, to be moderate in eating, to sleep and sit alone, and to dwell on the highest thoughts,—this is the teaching of the Awakened.”
Various (2012-05-12). Dhammapada (Kindle Locations 248-251), verse 185 [Emphasis added by myself]

This leads me to the logical conclusion that the First Council were not following the Buddha’s teaching when they allowed the use of violence, and that Rule #74 cannot be used to allow violence in self-defense because nowhere is the use of violence permitted by the Buddha, and never in any quote does he allow its use for any reason, MN 21 above is fairly graphically clear.

My next step logically is then to ask; why would the First Council allow something that the Buddha would not?

If I look into my own heart it is obvious that to disallow the basic right to life is counter intuitive. All beings have a right to life and a right to defend that life from those who would take it.
To allow a Murderer to take one’s life without defending it is tantamount to suicide. To allow a Murderer to take the life of another is tantamount to murder by inaction.
I propose that in this case, the First Council were actually correct, and the Buddha was incorrect. The First Council however, only went half way, they allow self-defense in the form of Pratimoksa, Vinaya Pitaka, Rule 74 but do not take the step to allow the defense of innocent’s from similar attack. Rule 74 only allows one to try to free one’s self. It does not allow another to attempt to free you, which is where I feel there was an omission.

These tenets force all Police into a very tricky situation; Human existence cannot abide without a group of people willing to stand to protect the weak. The Buddha said the following about Kingship:

“A king should never fall into the power of anger. Rather, let him control his anger, for neither a person’s interests or duty thrive when one is angry… When a dispute arises, he should pay equal attention to both parties, hear the arguments of each and then decide according to what is right. He should not act out of favouritism, hatred, fear or foolishness, but should hear the arguments of both sides and then decide according to what is right… While keeping an eye on state affairs, a king should dispense happiness to all. He should prevent all from committing violence and show that it is righteousness which brings reward. As in the days of former kings, large numbers of immigrants came together to be admitted into the realm, so should you admit them. Always show favour to the poor but also protect the rich who are your subjects…Do not foster hostility towards neighbouring kings. Whoever hates, will be repaid with hatred by his enemies. Cultivate ties of friendship with your neighbours, for others honour those who are steadfast in friendship. Do not talk at great length on all sorts of subjects, but give your judgement at the appropriate time and keep it to the point…Always protect those who live justly. For the wheel of power turns in dependence on the wheel of justice…Do not appoint as headmen of villages or provinces even your own sons or brothers if they are unscrupulous, violent or base…A foolish or greedy minister is of no value to either ruler or realm. Therefore, appoint as your ministers men who are not greedy but prudent and devoted in counsel and who can guide the realm. Your eyes are not as good as those of an informer, nor is your policy. Therefore, you should employ an informer in all your affairs.”
Tesakuṇa Jātaka from the Jātaka (Ja.V.109)

So when talking about kingship it’s alright to protect those who live justly? Even if that protection requires the use of necessary force? This feels almost contradictory to the Buddha’s teachings on non-violence. The Buddha has disallowed the protection Police offer on the one hand, but then goes on to allow it, albeit a bit obscurely, on the other and I can’t help but feel that this particular moral chasm was one the Buddha did not know how to cross.

As a South African, who lives under a cloud of an ever-present and daily threat of physical violence and death, I cannot accept that I may not use my Martial Arts training in self-defense or the defense of others. If I allowed a child to die under the hand of a murder and did not act to stop it, I would not be able to live with myself.

It saddens me, but I must reject this teaching of the Buddha. I cannot live in a world where I must allow myself or others to die at the hands of Murderers. To do so would increase my suffering immeasurably, and to take action would be to prevent a death and would not cause me suffering.

I’ll leave you with these last three quotes from the Dhammapada which sum up how I feel about defending one’s self and defending others:

“If a man would hasten towards the good, he should keep his thought away from evil; if a man does what is good slothfully, his mind delights in evil.”
Various (2012-05-12). Dhammapada (Kindle Locations 170-171), verse 116

If anything is to be done, let a man do it, let him attack it vigorously! A careless pilgrim only scatters the dust of his passions more widely.”
Various (2012-05-12). Dhammapada (Kindle Locations 394-395), verse 313

“An evil deed is better left undone, for a man repents of it afterwards; a good deed is better done, for having done it, one does not repent.
Various (2012-05-12). Dhammapada (Kindle Locations 395-396), verse 314

After walking this muddy track of logic, I can’t help but feel that the spirit of what the Buddha taught was not to allow one to kill by inaction or to allow suicide by inaction.
[Edit: 06-04-2013]
The above conclusion was drawn from sometimes contradictory words from the Buddha and to be fair I challenge anyone whose life is recorded like the Buddha’s was, never to utter a single contradictory word.
It strikes me that he could not allow any exception to his precept of non-violence, even the smallest crack would allow the weeds of violence to sprout, not even the exception of self-defense. However reading his words to kings it seems that he did cherish the importance of protecting life, he just couldn’t say it outright.
Despite the danger of trying to know the mind of the Buddha through inference, his vague position on self defense leaves no other path open to me:

Buddhism is able to live side by side with martial arts only because the use of deadly force is NEVER permitted. The use of violence is only allowed in the minimum, so the use of violence may only be applied at the minimum to refuse the violence that is being offered. This minimalist approach to violence and violent confrontation increases the risk to the martial artist, but the reason for training is to enable the least damage or hurt to one`s opponent as is possible, as well as enabling the martial artist to defend themselves from violent attack.

Considered another way, if one is untrained and one is attacked, it is almost impossible to survive and to offer the least violence to ones attacker in return. If one is trained then one can resist a violent attack with, not only a chance to survive, but to also keep the harm to the attacker to a minimum. Looked at in this light it appears to me that it is almost obligatory for a Buddhist to know martial arts to ensure they minimise the harm they do to an attacker if ever defending themselves from a determined violent attack.

[Edit: 20-05-2013]
A reader (Styagi68) pointed out a very important verse from the Dhammapada which quite plainly outlines that one’s mental perspective on violence and the defense of one’s self or of others is the key to harmony between the use of violence and Buddhism.
Verse 124 from the Dhammapada reads:
“He who has no wound on his hand, may touch poison with his hand; poison does not affect one who has no wound; nor is there evil for one who does not commit evil.”
Various (2012-05-12). Dhammapada, (Kindle Locations 179-180), verse 124.

If one’s intent is not to hurt but to protect, either one’s self or others, then one’s actions are not “evil”. This quote, which I have read before but never interpreted in this way has brought me great Solace.



12 thoughts on “Buddhism and Self-Defense

  1. From the Kalama Sutta:

    “Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’ — then you should enter
    & remain in them.”

    That quote is often translated (some would say mistranslated) as:

    “Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”

    Either way, Buddhism was never intended to be dogmatic, but followers of Buddha were given the freedom to use their life experience and reason to find which practices were best, and pursue those. Buddhism was intended as a practical philosophy more than anything. One of the things I love about being a Buddhist is the intellectual freedom it affords relative to some other religions. It could be argued that it is a great act of compassion to defend another from physical harm, especially knowing that you would be taking on physical harm yourself in order to do so,and the Buddha thought compassion was one of our most important virtues. Certainly, self defense, and the defense of others, would be very different from acting out of frustration, or anger, or going on the offensive in some way.

    There’s a great book out there about Buddhism as practical philosophy called “What Makes You Not a Buddhist” by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse that I have really enjoyed and found worth reading.

    • Thank you ZenAndJuniorHigh; my perspective on the practical philosophical Buddhism follows what you say. One of the main reasons I don’t call myself a Buddhist is because I only try to follow what the Buddha said, not what anyone thereafter wrote or said. However because Buddhism is a philosophy, there are opportunities for what the Buddha said to be…wrong, I suppose. The Buddha did say on many occasions that he is only a man. Meaning that later writings may have attempted to correct them, that’s a slippery slope though. Changing the doctrine after the Buddha’s time to correct a perceived wrong, leads very easily to corrupting his philosophy?

      I have sifted through as much of the Buddha’s words as I can lay my hands on and I can’t help but feel he didn’t want to put an exception in his doctrine of non-violence. As soon as the exclusion “except for self-defense” raises its head, it becomes very difficult to avoid other exceptions and so I strongly suspect that, as he was famous for, avoided the whole self-defense pitfall entirely. He simply never mentions self-defense anywhere that I can find.

      I thank you for your suggestion about compassion and pragmatism, which is the approach I have elected to take.

      One of my sneaky reasons for writing this post was to try to stimulate some better thinkers than I to help me prove my own words wrong.

      Thank you again.

      • There’s definitely a contradiction in there. The Buddha certainly has a big push for non-violence, but the Dhammapada also criticizes those who would use force unlawfully — which implies a way to use force lawfully.

        You have this in couplet 129: All tremble before the rod of punishment; all fear death; likening others to oneself, one should neither slay nor cause to slay.

        Then you have these four couplets:

        137. He who inflicts punishment upon those who do not deserve it, and hurts those who are harmless, such a person will soon come to face one of these ten states:

        138,139,140. He may soon come to terrible pain, great deprivations, physical injury, deep-rooted ailment or mental disorder, the wrath of the monarch or a dreadful accusation, loss of relatives, the complete destruction of wealth, or a sudden fire may break out and burn his houses. After the dissolution of his physical body, he will surely be born in hell.

        According to tradition, the Dhammapada is supposed to have been written shortly after the Buddha’s assent to Nirvana, by monks who knew him, so it’s as close as we can get, I think, to the words of a man who lived 2500 years ago.

        My advice: trust your gut and don’t worry about it. Since the Lotus Sutra guarantees all of us nirvana eventually, in the cosmic sense of attaining enlightenment, it may not matter.

    • Yeah buddha himself has said that you have to think and don’t blindly follow the rules,so it is for a person to decide what is good or what is bad,moreover buddha never taught his followers to blindly surrender to evil forces.Buddha was clearly appreciative of the role of king and his soldiers in protecting his people.

  2. Pingback: The truth is stronger then lies: A readers response | Jesse Talks Back

  3. I enjoyed reading your detailed analysis of the topic. Please read the verse 124 in Dhammapada. It states that “if there is no wound on the hand, one may handle poison; poison does not affect one who has not wound, there can be no evil for one who has no evil intention.” This answers your question about using force in self or even in defense of others. If you intent was not t ohurt anyone but to protect your self or others then there is no evil. Actually it is your duty to do such things (right action in the eigthfold path).

    • Thank you. This topic worried me enormously and it took uncovering for myself that my Martial Training was not in direct opposition to my Buddhist beliefs for me to regain my peace of mind.

      I have never looked at verse 124 from that perspective, thank you, I will update the post accordingly.

  4. I have often wondered about this, myself (though I am far from being a martial arts expert), and this is the first such treatment I’ve had the pleasure (however disturbing) of reading. As I recall, the Japanese monk, Nichiren Shonin, went so far as to congratulate warriors on successful battles. As such, I was not aware that self-defense was problematic so long as it was just that: self-defense in the face of an attack.

    In a similar vein, as someone who has always been quite active in the “social” sense, and who was raised in an activist tradition (civil rights, lgbt rights, etc.), I have always been troubled by people who are critical of my tendency to ‘speak out’ in the face of social injustice. If a whole lot of people, of every race, didn’t march, argue, shout, and even die, people who look like me would still be living on plantations, picking cotton, and being bred like cattle. Yet, Buddhists, as well as Christians have told me that silence in the face of injustice is “THE way of faith.” I, personally, have quite a problem with silence in the face of injustice because even though ripening vipaka is part and parcel here, we, as Buddhists, are not released from extending compassion.

    You have inspired me to look into this subject, on my less physical level, more deeply. Thank you for sharing your struggle. May you find your path.


    • Thanks Vivien. I consider myself to be a follower of the Buddha and his teachings, but I don’t follow the modern Theravada or Mahayana doctrines. I’m sure you can imagine how disheartened I was after researching the answer to this question. It was splitting my life in two and the journey of both researching this post and receiving so much insightful feedback helped me overcome the dilemma.

      I came to the Buddha’s teachings in an attempt to overcome my Rage at the world, my Righteous Fury was harming virtually every aspect of my life, what he taught allowed me a Serenity I cannot describe in words. As a result I can understand why Formal Buddhists would steer clear of the “Injustice” question. This will sound pretty nuts, crazy even, but after a great deal of introspection and a growing awareness of the internals of my body, I can say with certainty (for myself, all bets are off for someone else) that a component of what I call my “self” is actually Energy. I am able to directly sense and control it (to a limited extent). To me this means my thoughts and feelings can and do “stain” or “influence” my Energy which means any negative thoughts, emotions, actions etc can have a powerful effect on my ongoing thoughts and emotions (steering them ever more to the negative) as well as having an effect physically on my body. Righteous Fury hurts me as much (probably a lot more) than it hurts the person/people I am Furious with. This was the kicker for me; If I want to stand-up against my perceived wrongs in the world, I have to do it with Loving Kindness in my heart for the other party. If I don’t then I will immeasurably harm myself.

      But 🙂

      I feel very strongly that standing up against Evil men and women is a vital element of “Right Action” and to allow Evil to win through inaction is as Evil as committing the act ourselves. We simply must do it with Loving Kindness in our hearts (hard but not impossible) and with the aim in a physically violent (as a fighter/martial artist) encounter of minimizing the harm to the aggressor. This second part is almost impossible for someone is hasn’t trained to a very high level. My guidance to untrained or beginner/intermediate martial artists is always “Run away!” as soon as the opportunity presents itself to safely do so. Better yet, avoid the situation completely and call the cops.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I hope you find your way through your “Injustice” challenge as I did through my “Righteous Fury” one.

  5. Hi,

    The practical aspect of Buddha’s teachings for lay people are in the Jatakas. Lord Buddha is a refuge in this life and the next. The Dipi Jataka, Taccha Sukara Jataka and Kosiya Jataka all teach that one has a right to defend oneself from blood thirsty attackers and Kings have a right to defend their territory.

    The pacifist passages are for those training in patience. There is a Jataka whose name I don’t recall, where a sage is slowly chopped up, yet his heart has only loving kindness and mercy for this evil king.

    This basically teaches that we should train so that our hearts are never full of hate, revenge…but always full of love. The merciless king of course enters hell.

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