Buddhism teaches that individuals must overcome suffering in order to attain nirvana and end the cycle of death and rebirth. As violence is a major source of human suffering, Buddhists struggle to overcome and avoid it whenever possible. This is a principle shared by almost all Buddhists regardless of denomination, and it forms the basis for Buddhist ethics.
Most Buddhists believe that compassion is a prime virtue of Buddhism. Several passages in Buddhist scripture tell Buddhists to resist the urge to fight at times of war and instead try to feel compassion for others. Buddhists should retain the feeling of compassion even if they are hurt by others. This is because Buddhists believe that violence always causes more violence and only compassion and love can end the cycle. This is true in all situations, and even in self-defense, a Buddhist must never kill another individual.
In Buddhism, the Three Practices -- Sila, Samadhi and Prajna -- are three ways of living one's life that will help the individual overcome suffering and achieve nirvana. Sila deals exclusively with Buddhist morality and conduct. According to Sila, individuals must follow the principle of reciprocity and treat others the same way they want others to treat them. This is similar to the Golden Rule in Christianity, and provides a moral foundation that rejects violence towards others. Buddhists also extend this principle to all living beings, which according to Buddhist precepts are equal.
The avoidance of suffering, both in oneself and others, is the chief goal of Buddhism, and following a path of nonviolence is an important part in achieving this goal. Following a path of nonviolence towards all life, especially killing, will help the individual avoid feelings of remorse or guilt. Similarly, war creates victors and losers, and the loser will live in a state of unhappiness after defeat, so it is best to avoid war altogether. The desire to avoid violence is also seen in the teaching of martial arts. Martial artists are taught to use their skills only in self-defense and to use the smallest amount of force necessary to repel the attacker.
Although Buddhist beliefs do not support violence, some Buddhists have historically challenged this belief. Some Japanese Zen masters supported Japanese war aggression by claiming violence was acceptable when directed towards people who disrupt public order. There are also historical examples of Buddhist adherents engaging in violence or war, such as the war in Sri Lanka between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. However, the vast majority of Buddhists challenge these exceptions and do not believe they are compatible with Buddhist philosophy.
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