Buddhism Buddhist Ethics of Violence
Stephen Jenkins
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 September 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0124


Perhaps no topic in Buddhist studies has been more subject to projection and romanticizing than the Buddhist ethics of violence. Euro-American cultures horrified by their own violence looked to Buddhism for an alternate ideal of pacifism, and colonial and postcolonial cultures have emphasized this perception as an emblem of cultural superiority. The subject is also complicated by its political implications for the Tibetan freedom movement and the civil war in Sri Lanka. The subject is also a significant issue for India, as the idealization of King Aśoka has been central to the development and symbolization of Indian nationalism. The uncritical construction of Buddhist pacifism has been ripe for deflation, and a burst of recent studies have emphasized the darker side of Buddhist history. However, it is important to discern whether and to what degree the realities of Buddhist history are dissonant with their own higher ideals, as are all religious traditions, or are instead dissonant with Euro-American fantasies. Buddhist ethical traditions are generally rooted in Indian Buddhist texts, and those sources are emphasized here. The reader should also note that this accords with the author’s research abilities as well and should judge the work here accordingly. The subject is potentially as broad as the vast cultural, geographical, and temporal expanse of Buddhist tradition itself: students should use this bibliography as a guide to further research in the sources noted here. Those interested in applying Western ethical approaches and categories should take care to note that Buddhist studies is still in its infancy, and a vast body of literature has not been translated. Buddhist ethical thought also tends to embrace ambiguity by expressing its ethical instincts in narrative, rather than systematically distilling clarifying principles from narrative as a Western theologian might. Understanding Buddhist ethics therefore requires a high tolerance for ambiguity, which tends to be foreign to Western philosophical and academic practice.

General Overviews

The following are general introductions, surveys, and collections of essays. Where appropriate, individual essays and articles are listed in the relevant sections in this bibliography. Among the collections, only Juergensmeyer and Jerryson 2010 and Zimmermann 2006 focus exclusively on Buddhist violence. Readers are advised to read sources in Jainism and Hinduism in Robinson 2003 and Houben and van Kooij 1999, as the development of Buddhist values regarding violence cannot be understood without reference to those traditions. Harvey 2000 is an ambitious general work on Buddhist ethics, and Keown 1992 is cited everywhere as an important attempt to analyze Buddhist ethics through the categories of Western philosophical ethics. Florida 2005 is an excellent general work framed by the concept of human rights that also offers important reflections on violence.

  • Florida, Robert. Human Rights and the World’s Major Religions. Vol. 5, The Buddhist Tradition. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005.

    Problematizes the interpretation of Buddhist ethics as pacifist nonviolence.

  • Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    An expansive historical interpretive treatment of all Buddhist contexts and many central issues. Such a scope naturally creates opportunities for productive criticism. This is the only work of its kind and is a good place to begin for bibliographical resources and summaries of research.

  • Houben, Jan E. M., and Karel R. van Kooij, eds. Violence Denied: Violence, Non-Violence, and the Rationalization of Violence in South Asian Cultural History. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1999.

    Covers Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist violence in South Asia. Individual articles are noted throughout this bibliography.

  • Juergensmeyer, Mark, and Michael Jerryson, eds. Buddhist Warfare. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    Describes historical and theoretical validations and manifestations of Buddhist violence in a broad range of contexts. Individual articles are noted throughout this bibliography.

  • Keown, Damien. The Nature of Buddhist Ethics. London: Macmillan, 1992.

    Keown’s work is a touchstone for those who study Buddhist ethics in the mode of Western meta-ethics.

  • Keown, Damien, ed. Contemporary Buddhist Ethics. Richmond, UK: Curzon, 2000.

    Contains relevant articles on euthanasia, abortion, and animal rights as contemporary issues. Individual articles are noted throughout this bibliography.

  • Robinson, Paul, ed. Just War in Comparative Perspective. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003.

    Contains excellent articles on Hindu and Theravada Buddhist perspectives on just warfare. Individual articles are noted throughout this bibliography.

  • Zimmermann, Michael, ed. Buddhism and Violence. Kathmandu, Nepal: Lumbini International Research Institute, 2006.

    One of the few edited works devoted to Buddhist violence in particular. Zimmermann is a leading figure in this field. Individual articles are noted throughout this bibliography.

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