These days, it is rare that we spend a day without hearing a violent act happened somewhere in the country or the world. This is partly due to the fact that media allows us know things happening very far from us and media highlights violence than other good acts of people. However, it is quite evident that violence is happening. When we hear some gruesome violent acts, we begin to question how on earth people can commit such acts of terror. For sure, being subject to violence are horrifying. At the same time committing violence is also precarious and wearisome. What the vast majority of people in the world wants is to live in harmony and peace. Irrespective of our aspirations, conflicts and battles keep happening. Why this is the case? Apparently, this has been a question not only for us but also for the Sakka, the lord of gods. As it is recorded in the Sakkapanha Sutta (DN), one day, the lord Sakka put the following question to the Buddha.
Devas, Nagas, Asuaras, Gandabbas, humans and whatever other different types of communities are there, it occurs to them that they ought to live without mutual hatred, violence, enmity and malice, yet for all they live with hostility, violence, enmity and malice. What is the reason for this? How do conflicts arise? (D ii 276)
This is a fascinating question that reflects the irony of living beings. The Buddha gave an insightful answer explaining that conflicts arise through a causal process. Not only here, the Buddha have explained the origin of violence in many other occasions too. One such occasion was when the Buddha delivered the Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta. There the Buddha explained social factors that contribute to the origin of conflicts and violence. The Buddha reveals how the unfair distribution of wealth can lead to social unrest.
From the not giving of wealth to the needy, poverty became rife, from the growth of poverty, theft increased, from the increase of theft, the use of weapons increased, from the increased use of weapons, the taking of life increased…lying increased… slandering increased… adultery increased…false opinions increased…incest and deviant practices increased…lack of respects for parents, leaders and religious teachers increased…(D iii 67)
The downfall of the society does not stop there. The Buddha further explains that this degeneration eventually results in complete breakdown of morality and people killing each other. These unwholesome practices also gradually decrease the life-span of people. Thus the Buddha suggests in this sutta that unrighteous governance and unjust economy can bring violence, chaos and downfall to a society. This explanation shows that how the political and economic conditions can influence people to act in a violent manner.
What the Buddha has explained in this sutta is the external conditions that bring about violence. In the answer given to the above question raised by Sakka, the Buddha provides a psychological answer revealing inner conditions for the origin of violence. Here the Buddha first explains the immediate cause of conflicts and then presents how other psychological conditions gradually contribute to conflicts.
It is envy and possessiveness (issāmacchariya) that bind beings to live with hostility, violence, enmity and malice… It is categorizing what is dear-&-not-dear (piyappiya) that gives rise to envy and possessiveness… It is desire (chanda) that gives rise to the categorization of what is dear-&-not-dear… It is obsessive thinking (vitakka) that gives rise to desire… It is concepts and categories of objectification (papañca saññā saṅkhā) gives rise to such thinking. (D ii 278)
In this analysis, we learn that violence has deeper roots than we normally think. The Buddha reveals that our deep rooted concepts and ideologies are at the heart of our violent behavior. They are the stereotypes and schemas we have developed over the years in our lives. These cognitive categories instigate certain ways of thinking. These thinking patterns give rise to emotional reactions in one’s mind which result in various kinds of discriminations and violent behavior. Our deep rooted concepts about countries, nationalities, gender and other classifications of people and things are the primary cause of conflicts and violent responses.
In the Mahānidāna Sutta, the Buddha provides a similar analysis of the causal origin of conflicts. There the Buddha introduces an important factor. That is “defensiveness” (ārakkhādhikaraṇaṃ).
The Buddha asks,
If there were no defensiveness at all, in any way, of anything anywhere, in the utter absence of defensiveness, from the cessation of defensiveness, would various evil, unskillful phenomena — the taking up of sticks and knives; conflicts, quarrels, and disputes; accusations, divisive speech, and lies — come into play?”
Ananda Thero answers,
“No, lord.” (D ii 60)
In most cases, people start to act violently as a way of defending something they like. It could be a material property, a country, a place or reputation that a person identifies oneself with. Defensiveness comes from having something that one claims an ownership or relationship and an identification of a threat. This identification could be simply a perception of a threat or a false interpretation of a threat. In either case, a defend-attack pattern of interaction can arise and then escalates. The sutta gives a long causal explanation of conflicts.
…craving > seeking > acquisition > ascertainment > desire and passion> attachment > possessiveness > defensiveness > taking up of weapons; conflicts, quarrels, and disputes; accusations, divisive speech, and lies
The Buddha’s comprehensive analysis of the origin of conflicts and violence recognizes both social and psychological factors. Changing political and social environment into a fair and righteous one is necessary to prevent violence from arising. However, fixing external environment is not sufficient. We need to address our deep rooted and fixed concepts and ideologies. It is through recognizing our own stereotypes and fixed concepts and then questioning their validity that people can begin to be free from conflicts and violence.
Pittsburgh Buddhist Center