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Buddhism as a Resource for Peace.

I am grateful for the honour that the High Commissioner has done me by
inviting me to speak to you today. As you know, it is the anniversary (by
the lunar calendar) of one of the greatest events in human history, the
attainment of Enlightenment by the person who thereby became know as
the Lord Buddha, the Awakened One. His Excellency suggested that I
speak on a theme connected with international relations. More specifically
it was suggested that I might talk on how Buddhism has connected Sri
Lanka and the United Kingdom. I hope that I may be forgiven if I have felt
that on an occasion of global significance I should tackle a more
significant topic which everyone present will feel to be of immediate and
pressing relevance. I can only hope that what I have to say may justify my

There is a Sanskrit proverb that one should not speak unless what one
says is both true and pleasant. This sounds like folk wisdom, and I dare
say many cultures have such a proverb. The Buddha, however, changed
this principle. Questioned by a prince called Abhaya, he said that he
would only speak what he knew to be true and beneficial, and that he
knew when to say it even if it was disagreeable. It would be absurd of me
to lay claim to the Buddha’s practical wisdom. But Wesak does seem to
me to be an appropriate time to speak up for peace and non-violence, and
I am going to do so even if it may offend some who will always nod
approvingly at conventional rhetoric in favour of peace, but become
evasive or aggressive if it is suggested that these generalities should
apply to them. In public life it is sometimes necessary to say things that
may not be welcome. We should not and do not admire politicians or
other public leaders who try to conceal unpleasant facts. The public are
not grateful for such dishonesty – as I think the recent British General
Election results have shown.

I am here therefore to ask what we are doing to meet the challenge that
the Buddha laid down in his ethical and political principles.

Let me go straight to the heart of the matter. In the earliest corpus of

Buddhist texts, the Pali Canon, the Buddha does not have a great deal to
say directly about politics; but what he does say deserves to be read and
taken to heart by every citizen the world over. The most important
principle is stated in the Dhammapada:i “Never in this world is hostility
appeased by hostility; it is appeased by lack of hostility.” In the
Kˆadanta Sutta this is memorably applied to government. A great king of
former times tells his brahmin priest and prime minister (who is later
revealed to have been the future Buddha in a former life) that he wants to
perform a great sacrifice. The cost of this will oblige him to raise taxes.
His wise prime minister warns him that the country is full of crime. He
says: “Your Majesty may think that he can root out all crime by killing the

Prof.Richard F. Gombrich presented “Buddhism as a Resource for Peace

and Progress : Who is Prepared to use it?” in Vesak Commemoration
Lecture-2010 on May26,2010. หน้า 1

criminals, imprisonment, fines, censure or exile. But this will never

succeed completely: there will always be survivors, who will go on
harassing your kingdom. Here is the only system which will eradicate
crime. Your Majesty should supply seed and fodder to those who work in
agriculture or animal husbandry; he should supply capital to those who
work in commerce; he should organise food and wages for those who
work in his service. Then those people will concentrate on their work and
not harass the countryside. Your Majesty will acquire a great pile. The
countryside will be secure, free from public enemies. People will be happy,
and dandling their children on their laps will live, I think, with open

In another text in the same collection, the Cakkavatti-s¥hanåda Sutta, a

mythical emperor of the world retires and instructs his son in the
principles of good rule. These are mainly to protect and respect everyone
according to the Dhamma, and periodically to seek the advice of self-
controlled holy men. But in the midst of this piety comes the sentence,
“You should provide wealth, my son, to anyone in your kingdom who is

We have already heard this in the Kˆadanta Sutta. But this text takes the
story and the argument further. After a while, the son neglects his father’s
evidence. Admonished, he restores the protection of the righteous, but
fails to give wealth to the poor. This omission proves crucial. Theft
appears for the first time when poverty forces a man to steal. Brought
before the king, he explains his predicament, and the king gives him
money. When other people hear of this they decide that theft is lucrative
and follow the thief’s example. To remedy this, the king has thieves
executed instead; but this only starts a vicious circle of violence and from
then on things spiral downwards and society descends into chaos.

I summarise: the text states that stealing and violence originate in

poverty, and that poverty is the king’s responsibility; punishment
becomes necessary only because of the king’s earlier failure to prevent
poverty. This humane theory, which ascribes the origin of crime to
economic conditions, is not typical of Indian thinking on such matters. I
think it is so bold and original that it must come from the Buddha himself.
But whether that is so or not hardly matters: it is there in early Buddhist
texts and available for all to be guided by.

I could say much more about Buddhism as a resource for peace but my
time is limited, and I think this is already enough to prove my point. So let
me move to deal with potential objections.

One often hears people say that Buddhism needs to be kept out of
politics. On the contrary, I believe that public life, all over the world, is in
desperate need of the Buddha’s wisdom. I believe that while some of us

Prof.Richard F. Gombrich presented “Buddhism as a Resource for Peace

and Progress : Who is Prepared to use it?” in Vesak Commemoration
Lecture-2010 on May26,2010. หน้า 2

here today must be individually grateful that we have had the good
fortune to learn about the Buddha’s teaching, there is no room for self-
congratulation: the impact of Buddhism on public life in the world as a
whole is close to zero, and this is a scandal and a tragedy which we must
set out to remedy. Whatever our individual political allegiances, I wonder
whether anyone in this room who has just heard what the Buddha has to
say about poverty, civil unrest and the cycle of violence has been able to
keep the current crisis in Thailand out of their minds.

I agree that the Sangha and politicians have quite different parts to play.
From the very beginning it has been essential to Buddhism that the
Sangha and the laity have roles that are complementary. Those who take
the Buddha’s message seriously are to renounce the world, giving up both
the burdens and the pleasures of lay life, and devote themselves to
Buddhist principles. It is the role of the Sangha to keep the Buddha’s
message alive, and that means to preserve Buddhist values and ethical
principles. The Sangha are moral leaders, or they are nothing. Many
things, from economics to sexology, they are to leave to the laity. Monks
and nuns are no more expected to get into the rough and tumble of
political detail than they are expected to carry arms and fight; but it is
their duty to advise political leaders on the moral principles which must
guide how they govern, and even how they make war, if that cannot be
avoided. Why should Buddhist principles, under that name, be kept out of
government and politics? Buddhism is not some kind of frivolous game or
pastime: it is there to be applied to the whole of life.
Some who know little history may ask, “How can this be done? In the 3rd
century BC the Emperor Asoka proved for all time that it can. He ruled
almost the whole of the Indian subcontinent for thirty years. In the many
edicts which survive to this day he showed how a ruler can follow
Buddhist principles – in many ways, but above all in limiting the use of

Let us be clear: Buddhism is not pacifist. Here the difference between the
public and the private sphere becomes crucial. If someone attacks me, I
may decide not to respond, even – in the words of Jesus Christ – to turn
the other cheek. But if a population has chosen me to look after their
interests, and they are attacked or threatened with attack, the situation is
different: I have a responsibility to protect them, just as parents must do
whatever they can to protect the lives of their children. Countries need
defense forces to deter attack, and potential aggressors need to know
that those forces may be used. So there is all the difference between
aggression and defense, between initiating violence and responding to it.
In his thirteenth major rock edict, Asoka told the world how much he
regretted having waged war on the people of Kalinga (modern Orissa). He
hoped never to have to do such a thing again. But he also warned his
neighbours that while he would “tolerate what could be tolerated” (his
words), they should not provoke him. That surely is the right way for a

Prof.Richard F. Gombrich presented “Buddhism as a Resource for Peace

and Progress : Who is Prepared to use it?” in Vesak Commemoration
Lecture-2010 on May26,2010. หน้า 3

government to minimise violence.

In my view a political leader who claims to respect Buddhism but refuses

to apply Buddhism to politics is a despicable hypocrite. Since sometimes
they do so because they are claiming to be “modern”, let me draw a
parallel with the modern western world. In many European states one of
the main parties calls itself Christian Democrat or Christian Socialist. In
fact, as a reaction to Fascism at the end of the Second World War both
Germany and Italy elected Christian Democrat governments; in Italy the
Christian Democrats held power (with various coalitions) for 44
consecutive years, and in Germany the present government is again
headed by a Christian Democrat. But perhaps the most interesting case is
the United States, which so rigidly separates Church and State that its
constitution forbids the state to favour any religion at all. This has many
radical effects, such as making religious worship and religious instruction
illegal in state schools. And yet there are few if any countries in the world
where Christian values and even doctrines, some of them extremely
specific, play such a large part in politics, because those are things many
people feel deeply about, and a true democracy cannot keep people from
expressing their opinions by campaigning and voting on what they
consider important. In America abortion is a good example of an ethical
issue which plays a huge part in politics. And why not?

The great religious traditions all teach that people should love each other,
be kind and compassionate. By this, they mean that one should love
everybody, not just those whom it is easy to love. Loving someone who is
always kind to you is no more than most animals do by instinct. Love
becomes an ethical accomplishment when it is directed to our enemies, or
others whom it is hard to love.

Those who say that they want to keep religion out of politics usually mean
that they do not want to accept the moral values proposed by a religion,
but prefer other values, such as those of communism or nationalism. One
of the most famous sayings in the literature of the western world is the
line of poetry by the Roman poet Horace, published in 23 BC: “It is sweet
and fitting to die for one’s country.”iii Politicians usually prefer that
sentiment to the anti-war views prominent in the great religious

So what more specific part can Buddhism, which professes non-violence

and love for all, play in public life? For me to make my main point, I need
look no further than the first precept: not to take life. More than half the
countries in the world have abolished capital punishment, which means
that the state does not take life. Yet in the list of those which have no
capital punishment figure only two Buddhist states, Bhutan and
Cambodia. This despite the fact that there have been numerous studies of

Prof.Richard F. Gombrich presented “Buddhism as a Resource for Peace

and Progress : Who is Prepared to use it?” in Vesak Commemoration
Lecture-2010 on May26,2010. หน้า 4

whether capital punishment lowers the crime rate by acting as a

deterrent, all of which have concluded that it does not. So there is not
even a pragmatic argument for retaining capital punishment: it is there
only to satisfy the desire for revenge.

What did Asoka do? Sometimes his language is difficult for us, and early
European scholars believed that the fourth pillar edict showed that he
retained the death penalty; but Prof K.R. Norman of Cambridge University
showed, over thirty years ago, that this is a mistake, and the word which
had been taken to refer to execution refers only to flogging.iv So Asoka is
the first ruler in history recorded to have abolished the death penalty.

Capital punishment usually follows a terrible crime such as murder, and

such crimes are certainly detestable. That is why treating those criminals
humanely really puts to the test whether we are sincere about out
principles of love and non-violence. Of course, if someone murders a
person dear to me, it is too much to expect me ever to love that
murderer. That is why we have a judicial system, rather than allowing
everyone to take the law into their own hands. But if I am a sincere
Buddhist, how can I ask the state to kill on my behalf? And there is
another point. Buddhism says that anyone who has done an evil deed will
have to suffer for it: that is the law of karma and retribution. If we
sincerely believe in that fundamental Buddhist tenet, how can we justify
multiplying the violence by making judge and executioner too commit
murders? This too is nauseating hypocrisy.

Make no mistake: the state that uses the death penalty is to that extent
corrupting its citizens and going against the Buddha’s teaching. I was
present at a huge international Wesak conference, organised by the Thai
Sangha, when at a panel session a Norwegian proposed from the floor
that the death penalty was incompatible with Buddhist principles and
should be abolished. I was shocked by the panel’s glib response: that this
was a difficult question to resolve, because many people in Thailand
favour the death penalty. So is it the duty of the Sangha to lead on moral
issues, or to follow the crowd?

Perhaps I should not have been surprised. This was in Thailand, where
there is a law that anyone who is deemed to show disrespect to a member
of the Royal Family, for instance by failing to stand when the national
anthem is played, may be tried in camera and sent to prison. I am told
that there is no such legal sanction on showing disrespect to the Buddha
or Buddhism. I find it interesting to note that while in Christian countries
Jesus receives more legal protection than the head of state, let alone the
whole Royal Family, the Thais prefer it the other way round. Similarly,
Thai schoolchildren daily promise to venerate the Thai nation, the
Buddhist religion and the King, in that order.

Prof.Richard F. Gombrich presented “Buddhism as a Resource for Peace

and Progress : Who is Prepared to use it?” in Vesak Commemoration
Lecture-2010 on May26,2010. หน้า 5

But I do not intend to single out Thailand. After all, the Norwegian spoke
against the death penalty in front of Sangha members from every
Theravada country, and none of them spoke up to support him.

Were the Lord Buddha with us today, there are many things besides the
death penalty which – and I say this with the deepest respect – would
make him weep with rage and despair. In the few minutes I have, I do not
intend to try to catalogue them. I shall say a few words about just two of
them: nationalism and sexism; and because sexism is rather a hackneyed
theme I shall mainly talk of nationalism.

It is perfectly national and unobjectionable for people to feel warmly

towards their own family circle, and beyond that towards those for whom
they feel an affinity because of shared language, customs and
experiences. But there is not a word in the teachings of the Lord Buddha –
or for that matter of either Jesus Christ or the Prophet Mohammed – which
can justify mistreating anyone simply on the grounds that they differ from
us or are in some way a stranger to us. Buddhism, Christianity and Islam
are called the universal religions precisely because they are for everyone,

Look, then, at Buddhism today. The outside world thinks that Buddhists
are Buddhists and so surely birds of a feather must flock together. How
little the world knows, alas. It is undeniable that if there is one Buddhist
whom the whole world admires and venerates, it is the Dalai Lama. Yet in
the late 1950s, for example, the ostentatiously Buddhist government of
Sri Lanka refused to join in any criticism of the mass murder of monks and
destruction of monasteries in Tibet, and Sri Lankan Buddhist governments
have continued to deny support to the Dalai Lama. They even suggest
that he is the wrong kind of Buddhist, as if the lives and welfare of
Mahayana Buddhists had no call on the concern or sympathy of
Theravadins. This is both morally repugnant and breathtakingly ignorant. I
doubt that one in a thousand of the Dalai Lamas Theravadin critics has
read even one of his wonderful books, so full of the true Buddhism which
transcends any sectarian difference.

The case is similar with the ordination of nuns. There are plenty of fully
ordained and respected Buddhist nuns in the Far East. Theravadins,
particularly monks, are fighting a rearguard action against acknowledging
their legitimacy, saying that they are just Mahayanists. They thus ignore
the fact that the Chinese imported the nuns’ ordination succession from
Sri Lanka in the 5th century AD. As a passionate admirer of Theravada, I
declare that I regard the Sangha’s majority attitude as a kind of mass
suicide. No religion which so absurdly discriminates against women can
continue to flourish in today’s world.

We have all had to witness on television, if we could bear to look at the

Prof.Richard F. Gombrich presented “Buddhism as a Resource for Peace

and Progress : Who is Prepared to use it?” in Vesak Commemoration
Lecture-2010 on May26,2010. หน้า 6

screen, how the government of Myanmar, another country which claims to

be Buddhist, has tortured and murdered Buddhist monks. Have the
Sangha councils of Sri Lanka and Thailand protested or attempted any
kind of intervention, even at the merely verbal level? I believe not. One
may aptly say that they have been silent as the grave. Of course, many
individuals, both monks and laity, have tried to do their best, a few
heroically; and I know that one of them sits in my audience; but they have
to operate without official approval from the authorities both clerical and

This moral cowardice reflects the fact that the Theravada Buddhist
Sanghas of Sri Lanka and SE Asia regard with suspicion not merely
Mahayana Buddhists but also Theravadins of different nationality. Petty
differences in custom are magnified, perhaps even created, to show that
the Sanghas of a foreign nationality are not quite the thing. This has a
pernicious effect on Buddhism among national diasporas. While it is
natural that a Sinhalese, Burmese or Thai Buddhist may wish to attend a
temple where their own language is spoken, the degree to which viharas
of different national origin ignore each other is deplorable and surely
counter-productive. I am afraid that everywhere among Buddhists today
nationality tends to trump religion. For example, the London Buddhist
Vihara, the central institution of the Sinhala Buddhist tradition in Britain, is
in perpetual difficulty because it cannot register as a charity and thus
reap the great financial advantages of charitable status. And why is that?
Because by law a British charity, not unreasonably, has to be controlled in
Britain, but the descendants of the family of Anagarika Dharmapala in Sri
Lanka refuse to relinquish administrative control and insist on running the
Maha Bodhi Society as their fiefdom.

The proprietary attitude of the Maha Bodhi Society towards Buddhism,

which it also displays in India, is unedifying and un-Buddhist, but there are
worse things. As a lover of Sinhalese Buddhism, what I have to read about
parts of the Sinhalese Sangha these days grieves me deeply. Only this
last Sunday, for instance, there was a long, prominent and generally quite
well informed article about Sri Lanka in The Independent. It explained that
“the views of some Sri Lankan monks diverge sharply from the pacific
Buddhist norm.” It also quotes recent evidence for that. The monks who
compose battle hymns or carry guns are indeed a
minority, but are they ever reprimanded by their monastic superiors?
They should be disgraced and disrobed; but I wonder whether there has
been a single instance of that.

For a generation Sri Lanka has suffered the agony of civil war and we are
all glad that at least that is over. In the end the Tamil Tigers were totally
defeated. They murdered and tortured, spreading havoc and unspeakable
suffering. Their victims were all who opposed them and a great many who
just wanted to remain neutral and uninvolved. In the final battle many

Prof.Richard F. Gombrich presented “Buddhism as a Resource for Peace

and Progress : Who is Prepared to use it?” in Vesak Commemoration
Lecture-2010 on May26,2010. หน้า 7

were used as human shields, but demonic policies of that kind had been
carried out for years. The territory the Tigers controlled was mainly
inhabited by Tamils, and a moment’s reflection will show that they
inflicted at least as much suffering on Tamils as on Sinhalese. Yet how
many Buddhist monks are now working to help the Tamils? There have
been pitifully few attempts since Independence even to bring Buddhism to
Sri Lanka’s Tamils, because missions to the West seem more glamorous.
In the same way the Buddha’s lessons on how to treat all humans with
respect and generosity, so that they will never feel the need to take up
arms in poverty and anger, need to be learnt and acted upon.

“Never in this world is hostility appeased by hostility; it is appeased by

lack of hostility.” We all know it makes sense. The resource is at hand. But
will anyone decide to use it?

Prof.Richard F. Gombrich presented “Buddhism as a Resource for Peace

and Progress : Who is Prepared to use it?” in Vesak Commemoration
Lecture-2010 on May26,2010. หน้า 8
References to Pali texts are to the editions of the Pali Text Society.
Verse 5.
D¥gha Nikåya I, 135.
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.
“Aßoka and Capital Punishment”, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 1975, 1,