This thesis looks at three case studies from Vietnamese, Tibetan, and Japanese Buddhism to examine the practice and ideology of nonviolence in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. It discusses how these groups harness Buddhist teachings in struggling for their vision of society, why they have chosen the path of nonviolence, and how their convictions manifest in action. Importantly, this thesis is also about how these Buddhist actors arrive at their ‘truth’ and conceive of their opponent or the ‘other’ through an understanding based in their faith. While the Vietnamese and Tibetan movements encompass elements of Buddhist traditions other than Mahayana, such as Theravada and Vajrayana, the dominant ideological influence upon the development of nonviolent ideology in the case studies is Mahayana Buddhism.

The concerted action of the Buddhists in South Vietnam in calling for democracy and opposing the Vietnam War during the 1960s presents an instructive case study on the dynamics of a nonviolent movement shaped by Buddhist discourse. The religious imperative of the Buddhist movement not only led to the avoidance of violent resistance against the United States and the Government of South Vietnam but also to novel uses of religious symbols in their political protest, such as family alters and self-immolation. It also led to efforts to cultivate the emotions of love and forgiveness towards their opponents and to bridge the social divide with the Catholics. All these aspects of the Buddhist movement reveal a distinct religious ethos, one that intertwined with nationalism to characterise the Vietnamese Buddhists’ active social engagement.

Self-immolation poses a sticky question for nonviolence theorists and practitioners, for much of the literature on nonviolence is not only illustrative and analytical but also imbued with a prescriptive, normative project to encourage such action. Self-immolation, however, is a symbolic act to which an ethical designation cannot easily be ascribed. This act of extreme self-sacrifice, which also features in the case study on the Tibetan Buddhists, raises a variety of questions such as whether self-immolation should be distinguished from ‘suicide’ and whether it should be described as ‘violent’ or ‘nonviolent’. A further complexity is added by the fact that, from a Buddhist perspective, the moral status of an act takes account of the intentionality of the actor.

‘Nonviolence’ in the Tibetan exile community has been interpreted in various ways by different actors. The Dalai Lama, motivated by Buddhist doctrines of compassion, interdependence, and emptiness, has channelled his efforts into seeking a diplomatic solution on the issue of Tibet and in undertaking a ‘constructive programme’ to develop the political, cultural, and religious institutions in exile. In so doing, he has sought to provide a positive alternative to the system of governance in Tibet by building a democratic government-in-exile and developing a politico-religious policy based on the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of rimé. On the other hand, Samdhong Rinpoche, a high-ranking monk who became the first elected prime minister in exile, displays a much more Gandhian orientation in his understanding of nonviolence. His conception of a Tibetan satyagraha indicates a very different mode of nonviolent action to the one pursued by the Dalai Lama. The exile government, which has been closely aligned to the vision of the Dalai Lama over the decades, has today a legal basis and a political mandate for its nonviolent commitment. With the Dalai Lama’s retirement from politics in 2011, it is likely that the exile government will continue to develop a more ‘secular’ conception of nonviolence.

Perspectives from the Tibetan civil society in exile indicate that the goal and method of the Tibetan national struggle are highly contested issues. Many Tibetans support the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way Approach, by which the Tibetans demand ‘genuine autonomy’ within the political framework of the People’s Republic of China. Yet, vehement voices are also heard from civil society which call for independence. There has even been some interest within Tibetan civil society in considering violent resistance as a method of struggle, which challenges outright the official nonviolent stance of the exile establishment. What qualifies as ‘nonviolent’ within the Tibetan struggle is a matter of some debate. While for many ordinary Tibetans the concept extends to acts of extreme self-sacrifice like indefinite hunger strikes and self-immolations, determining whether these acts are ‘nonviolent’ or ‘violent’ from a Buddhist perspective involves a range of other considerations. Unlike the Vietnamese Buddhist leaders who usually explain self-immolation as a ‘nonviolent’ act, the Tibetan religious leadership has tended to characterise protests involving extreme self-sacrifice as ‘violent’, though they usually add a caveat that the actor’s motivation and mental state are of overriding importance.

Compared with the plural conceptions of ‘nonviolence’ in the Tibetan exile society, Nipponzan Myōhōji (日本山妙法寺), a small group of Japanese Nichiren Buddhist monks, demonstrates much more ‘singularity’ in their interpretation of nonviolence, which revolves around the ideology of their founder, Nichidatsu Fujii (藤井日達). The monks of Nipponzan are urged to maintain absolute faith in Fujii, and thus the latter’s life and writings serve as a key point of reference for understanding Nipponzan’s nonviolence. Fujii’s life spanned the dramatic historical periods of Japan from the Meiji Era to World War Two to post-war reconstruction and development. Before and during World War Two, Fujii showed an ambivalence towards war and violence, and his expansive religious nationalism at times seemed to coalesce with the exigencies of Japanese imperialism. This meant that the mission to spread Nichiren Buddhism in Asia tended to conflate with the military conquests of the Japanese empire. Nipponzan’s war responsibility is a subject that will be discussed in this thesis.

Despite Nipponzan’s early ambivalence towards violence, in the post-war period this group demonstrates a staunch commitment to non-killing and demilitarization. In the pre-war years, Fujii had met Mahatma Gandhi in India who had a significant influence over him; however, Fujii’s commitment to nonviolence only emerged with Japan’s experience of the atom bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the post-war years, he evolves a nonviolent ideology grounded in Nichiren Buddhism, drawing on the inspiration provided by the example of Bodhisattva Never Despising, the first precept of Buddhism on non-killing, and Nichiren’s teachings on risshō ankoku (立正安国). However, Fujii also makes his own ideological innovations in conceiving his mission of peace, such as his view on national and civilizational identity, emphasis on the role of faith in practising nonviolence, and initiation of a Peace Pagoda movement, where stupas to enshrine the Buddha’s ashes are constructed to symbolise human unity transcending the divisions of religion, ideology, creed, race and political affiliation. The renunciation of family life and the practice of austerities are other features of Nipponzan monks which indirectly relate to their nonviolence.

While the Vietnamese, Tibetan, and Japanese Buddhist movements broadly fall within the Mahayana tradition, each emphasises different teachings and symbols for inspiration. All three movements upheld the principle of compassion and the precept of non-killing but while the Buddhists in South Vietnam in the 1960s laid great emphasis on the notion of sacrifice or ‘offering’ born of love in their understanding of nonviolence, the Tibetan Buddhists, following the spiritual leadership of the Dalai Lama, have tended to highlight the doctrines of ‘emptiness’ and ‘interdependence’. Nipponzan Myōhōji, on the other hand, base their nonviolence on the teachings of the Lotus Sutra and Nichiren, such as the example of Bodhisattva Never-Despising and risshō ankoku.

My three case studies are examined through a theoretical framework provided by nonviolence theory and the literature on the ‘two truths’. Much of the preoccupation of nonviolence theory to date has been on ascertaining or explaining the effectiveness of nonviolent action and how to enhance its impact. This thesis, however, is not so much interested in demonstrating the success of nonviolent action, as it is in establishing the ideological elements within religious traditions that lead movements to embrace nonviolence in the first place. Although the central concern of this study is different from much of the other works on nonviolent action and civil resistance studies, my research hopes to contribute to nonviolence scholarship in several respects. First, the Buddhist movements chosen as case studies all adopt nonviolence as a creed, and therefore, a close examination of these movements helps to understand the operation of principled nonviolence, whereby the espousal of nonviolence is seen as ethically best and often as a way of life, as opposed to pragmatic nonviolence, whereby nonviolence is adopted as a ‘policy’ deemed as the most effective means at a given time and context. Second, by focusing the analytical lens on the Buddhist movements’ ideology, the present study aims to elucidate the influence of a powerful discursive structure (religion) that constrains and enables social action. Third, since some of the movements examined involve acts of extreme sacrifice, such as self-immolation, this study serves to further an understanding of the operation of ‘political jiu-jitsu (j. jū jutsu 柔術)’—a process identified by nonviolence scholars whereby the violence of the opponents is used against themselves through the nonviolent actor’s self-suffering.

Extreme self-sacrifice (such as self-immolation) raises challenging questions for nonviolence theory, the consideration of which helps to clarify the operational dynamics and internal structure of nonviolent action—what I call the constitutive operation of nonviolence. I argue that operationally nonviolence needs violence to take expression. This dynamic is suggested by the way in which nonviolence is most visibly and sincerely demonstrated when the nonviolent actor meets the violence of the repressor and undergoes self-suffering. That such an actor should willingly takes upon him- or herself the violence of the other points to the understanding that, by its very constitution, nonviolence contains violence within itself. The nonviolent actionist in this process does not deflect violence outward but interiorises it. From this perspective, extreme self-sacrifice does not amount to a contradiction of nonviolence—rather, it is part of its contingent structure. Recognising this goes a long way in answering the dilemmas that nonviolence theorists face with respect to extreme self-sacrifice and problematises the very attempt to locate a clear demarcating line between nonviolence and violence. 

The other part of my conceptual schema relates to the theory of ‘two truths’ and its influence upon the nonviolent actor’s perception of the ‘other’. The application of this theory can be found in the works of Gandhi, religious pluralists, and the Madhyamaka school of Mahayana Buddhism. It distinguishes between conventional and ultimate truths, where conventional truth pertains to the truth of the phenomenological world as perceived through human concepts and language, and ultimate truth represents a truth that transcends the limitations of the human mind. Ultimate truth has been described variously as divine consciousness (Gandhi), the Real (John Hick), and emptiness (Madhyamaka). Whilst a review of violent Buddhist movements also reveals reference to the doctrine of two truths by actors seeking to justify war and violence, the way in which the two truths interact with one another in a nonviolent Buddhist worldview assumes particular form.

In a nonviolent Buddhist movement, the exclusion of the opponent takes place at the level of conventional truth, whereby the opponent’s unjust or oppressive actions are rejected. However, an awareness of ultimate truth impels religious actors to embrace and accept the opponent in a deep sense. This coexistence of the exclusive and embracive strains of nonviolence can be seen in each of my case studies. The very mode of nonviolent action enables the Buddhists to be true to both their responsibility to society and their commitment to spiritual practice. Indeed, it is probably no coincidence that all three case studies refer to the Mahayana Buddhist ideal of the bodhisattva. The bodhisattva, who, instead of merging in a state of nirvana chooses to return to the world to help the suffering masses, provides a potent inspiration for nonviolent Buddhist actors; for this saintly being strides both worldly and spiritual spheres, has reference to both conventional and ultimate truths, to reflect an enlightened view of reality in engaging with the world.