Nonviolence and Spiritual Values

Today I’ve been asked to speak about nonviolence and spiritual values in the modern world. These are topics which are especially relevant for students like yourself who are planning, as far as I understand, to go into the medical profession and teaching profession because, as part of your work of helping others, certainly it’s very important on your own sides to help in a nonviolent manner. Helping obviously is the opposite of violence, and having some spiritual values yourself will help you to make your work more meaningful; it’s not just to make money. It can help you to appreciate the opportunity that you have in your work to actually help people in a meaningful way.

Buddhism has a lot to say about nonviolence, as all religions do, and different systems, of course, will define what nonviolence means in different ways. Often we think of violence in terms of a certain type of action, a violent action, and nonviolence means to refrain from that type of behavior. However, Buddhism approaches it more from the side of the mind, our state of mind that is involved. This is because, whether or not we actually enact some sort of violent type of behavior, it all stems from a violent state of mind, doesn’t it? So just refraining from hurting somebody, while in our mind having very violent thoughts to harm them – this certainly will not do. It’s important to recognize that violent state of mind and learn methods for overcoming it.

Three Types of Violence and Nonviolence 

We divide violence, a violent state of mind, into three different types in the Buddhist teachings. Another way, perhaps, of translating the word “violence” here is “cruelty.” We’re not just talking about being forceful and strong when we talk about being violent, because sometimes we need to use forceful methods in order to stop someone from causing harm to themselves or to others. If our child is running out into the road and could easily be killed by being hit by a car, we don’t just say, “Oh dear, don’t run into the road.” We might have to grab the child quite forcefully. That’s not what we mean by violence. Violence is wanting to cause harm, and we can cause harm in many different ways. We have these three types that are mentioned in Buddhism, although I’m sure we can think of more.

Nonviolence toward Others

The first type of violence is thinking in a violent way toward others. It’s defined as a cruel lack of compassion with which we wish to cause mischief or harm to others. Compassion is the wish for others to be free from suffering and problems and from the causes of them. Here, instead of wanting others to be free of suffering, we want them to have suffering, we want them to have problems – whether we cause them ourselves, or others cause them to them, or they just happen as part of nature. To help us to overcome that state of mind, we need to think about how everybody is equal, in the sense that everybody wants to be happy, and nobody wants to be unhappy.

When somebody causes harm to us, or let’s say we are teaching in class and a student causes harm or is disruptive to others, then rather than just thinking in terms of punishing that person – which usually involves anger and impatience and other unsettling, uncomfortable states of mind – it is much more helpful to think that this child is, in a sense, sick. The child wants to be happy but doesn’t really have any clear or correct idea of how to become happy, and it’s just acting in a very disruptive type of way, in a confused state of mind, thinking that this somehow is going to make them happier. With that point of view toward the child, we don’t think of the child in terms of being bad and that we have to punish the child. We develop compassion instead, the wish that this child gets over their confusion and problems that are causing them to be so disruptive and naughty in class.

Now that doesn’t mean that we just do nothing, that we are passive. Nonviolence doesn’t mean to be passive and do nothing, but rather, it means not getting angry, not wishing harm to this disruptive child. We obviously have to do something to get the child to stop acting disruptively, whatever methods there are that are acceptable in your school system. However, the motivation behind it, the state of mind behind it, is very different from one of wanting to punish this child because the child is bad.

This word “motivation” is very important to understand. It has two aspects. One is our aim or intention, and the other is the emotion that drives us to achieve that aim. The aim is to help the child. That’s why we’re becoming a teacher, for example. It’s the same thing if we’re going into the medical profession, our aim is to help the patient. Now, what is the state of mind that is driving us toward achieving that goal? If it is just to make money or to have the other person really thank us and be grateful to us, that really is a very selfish motive, isn’t it? It’s self-centered. And because the focus of our thought is mostly on ourselves, we’re not really paying the best attention to what is good for the other person – like the doctor prescribing that somebody needs surgery when they really don’t need it, but they’re prescribing surgery simply because they will make more money from performing an operation. Rather, what we need to be moved by in order to achieve this aim of helping the other person is compassion – thinking of the other person, thinking of their welfare and what will be best for them.

Now sometimes in the medical profession, in order to help somebody, we have to use a treatment that might be quite painful: injections, surgery entailing a painful recovery, and so on. However, that’s not a violent method because the intention here is not to cause pain to the person; the intention is to help them recover from their suffering, from their problem, from their sickness.

It’s the same thing when we need to discipline a naughty schoolchild. The motivation is also not to hurt the student. We want to help the student because we realize that this is a human being just like us – they want to be happy, they don’t want to be unhappy – and perhaps, we can teach them and show them a way to be happier in life. Regardless of what profession this child may go into in the future, what will be of benefit is if they have discipline, if they know how to cooperate with others. These are things that will help anybody and everybody in the future.

Discipline means self-control. When the child wants to be naughty, teach the child that they have to control themselves. In disciplining the child ourselves, the intention, the aim, is to help them to develop discipline themselves. If we have that state of mind when we are disciplining the child, then that, in a sense, communicates to the child very much. It’s like, when a parent is disciplining a child, the parent doesn’t generate feelings of hatred for the child, do they?

This is what I think is important to learn and train in if we’re going into helping professions, like medicine or teaching – on the inside, having a loving attitude, a compassionate attitude, that we want to help the patients or students lead happier, better lives, to be free of problems. On the outside, of course, we need to be professional, which means being serious and sometimes having to be quite strict. Then, we can follow our profession in a nonviolent way in terms of this first meaning of nonviolence.

Thus, instead of a lack of compassion toward others with which we want to cause them harm, we have compassion, the wish for them to be free of harm, free of suffering. Of course, it’s very difficult to know really what are the best methods for helping someone, and each child, each patient, is an individual. That means that what might work for one person might not necessarily work for another person. So, it’s very important to also respect the individuality of each of the patients as a doctor and each of the students as a teacher. 

Now, that might not be so easy when we have so many patients that we have to see every day, and the classrooms are so overcrowded, but even if it’s not possible to really get to know each person individually, what’s important is again the state of mind, to have the interest to know them. Taking interest in them is based on respecting them. Try to view them with the same type of interest and respect as we would have for a close friend or relative – or our child, our parent, our brother or sister, or whatever, depending on their age and our age.

I think one of the guidelines that is always very, very helpful to remember is that this person is a human being and has feelings just as we have. They want to be happy, just as we want to be happy, and they want to be liked, just as we want to be liked. If we have cruel thoughts toward them and act in a cruel way and are very cold toward them, they are going to feel hurt, just as we would feel hurt if somebody acted that way toward us. This mind of respecting others is very, very important. 

Nonviolence toward Ourselves

The second type of nonviolence is a little bit connected to the one we’ve just been explaining, because here we’re talking about nonviolence directed toward ourselves – the first type is directed toward others. We’re talking about not being self-destructive. When we are self-destructive, this is a lack of self-love with which we wish to cause harm to ourselves. This could be either intentionally or unintentionally causing harm to ourselves – for instance, with thoughts like, “I’m bad,” “I’m no good,” “I’m not good enough.”

This is particularly relevant if we are a doctor and one of our patients dies, which inevitably is going to happen. It’s thinking, “I’m such a terrible doctor. I’m so bad,” and then feeling guilty and emotionally punishing ourselves in one way or another because we couldn’t help somebody, they died. These are things that we really need to be prepared for if we’re going to become a doctor or a teacher. 

We’re not a Buddha; we can’t help everybody. Even Buddha couldn’t help everybody. Naturally, sometimes we will fail. Either we won’t be able to cure a patient, or we really won’t be able to teach a child, but that’s just the nature of reality. In order for somebody to be helped, they have to be receptive from their side. There are some sicknesses we just can’t cure, and even if it might be possible, sometimes we make mistakes; we’re human after all. And some students have serious emotional problems, or social problems, or family problems, and it’s beyond our capacity to be able to really help them.

We have to watch out for ways in which we could be self-destructive – in other words, being cruel to ourselves. Ways of being self-destructive, for instance, include pushing ourselves too hard, thinking, “I have to be absolutely perfect,” when that’s really impossible. Of course, we try to be as good as possible in what we’re doing, but nobody is perfect. And, of course, if we are unsuccessful in something or another, sure we regret that – we want to be able to do better in the future. But we really need to work hard not to get into a terrible depression because of that. Being depressed will just harm our effectiveness in our job.

We might say, “It’s difficult not to get depressed or to feel very hurt when, for instance. I have a student who was doing well, but then they dropped out of school for some reason.” Naturally, it’s sad, but the point is not to get depressed. So then the question is: How can we help ourselves not to get depressed? This comes back to what we were saying in terms of dealing with others. In order to help others and not harm them, one of the most important things is to have respect for them. So, similarly, we need to have respect for ourselves. It’s important to always reaffirm: “I have abilities; otherwise, I couldn’t have become a teacher or a doctor.” We reaffirm our motivation: “In doing the work that I’m doing, I have good intentions. As a human being, I’m not perfect; nevertheless, I respect myself for trying my best.” That helps us not to get all depressed.

What happens when we examine ourselves honestly, and we discover that we weren’t really trying our best? We could have done better. Well, in that situation, sure we feel regret, and it’s important to reaffirm: “In the future, I’m going to try harder.” However, in order to prevent, or try to prevent, this failure of not trying our best from recurring, we need to examine what the causes for this were. It could have been because we were just too tired. For that, again, we need to be kind to ourselves, not self-destructive. We need to know what our needs are in terms of rest – what our limits are – and again respect them. 

We shouldn’t feel bad about it. Everybody has their limits. Of course, in an emergency, we can always do more, but not everything is an emergency. Sometimes we just have to say, “I need a rest,” and then try to take that rest, if it’s possible. Sometimes it might not be possible, but if it is possible, take that rest without feeling guilty.

Now, of course, that’s not always easy, especially if we’re trying to balance a profession together with raising a family. Children have great needs, especially our own children. But whether or not we’re raising a family, we need to make it a priority of how we can arrange our schedule so that we’re not overworked and overtired because then we won’t be able to do a good job with anything – children or work. We really have to not just let it go on and on and on till it reaches a point where we have a breakdown. Because ignoring our needs is really being violent to ourselves, so nonviolence toward ourselves is very, very important.

Not Taking Pleasure in the Misfortune of Others

The third type of nonviolence is not taking pleasure in others’ misfortune. In other words, if we think of violence in terms of a cruel state of mind, it’s a cruel state of mind to rejoice in others’ difficulties – for instance, when somebody fails. Now we might think, “Well, this is not something that I really do,” but if we think of the example of politics, then if there are two candidates and the one that we don’t like loses their office – loses the election or gets kicked out – we’re very happy about that. We rejoice in their misfortune, don’t we? In such a situation, although we might be happy that the one we think is best has gotten into office, so we rejoice in their happiness, but there’s no reason to rejoice in the other person’s loss. They undoubtedly have a family, they have others who are dependent on them, and they’re experiencing unhappiness; they’re human beings too. So, we’re happy that they’re not in office, but we also wish them happiness in life. We don’t wish them ill or wish them bad things.

In summary, these three types of nonviolence counter three types of cruel thinking:

  • Lack of compassion – wanting others to have misery and suffering
  • Having no self-love – wanting to cause harm to ourselves, either consciously or unconsciously
  • Joy in other’s misfortune – rejoicing when somebody else fails, or something terrible happens to them.

As for the practice of nonviolence, as I mentioned, sometimes nonviolent actions may need to be very forceful, while sometimes gentle actions can be very violent. All depends on the situation. There’s a classic example in one of the Buddhist sutras. There were two meditators sitting by the side of a river, and a man came to the river – and this was a river which had a very, very strong current – and the man wanted to jump in and try to swim across. This is a type of river that nobody could really swim across; anybody who tried would surely drown. One meditator just sat there with a very peaceful look on his face and was quite willing to do nothing and let this person jump into the river and surely drown. The other meditator got up and. After being unable to convince the person to not go into the river, he punched the person unconscious to stop him from trying to cross. Buddha saw all of this and said that the meditator that sat there peacefully with a smile on his face, that was the one that committed the violent act. Punching this person to prevent them from hurting themselves, that was the nonviolent act. Why? Because of the motivation, the state of mind, wanting to help this person avoid inevitably getting drowned.

Spiritual Values 

All of this connects with the second part of our topic for this morning, which is spiritual values in the modern world. This word “spiritual” is a difficult word to actually define, and undoubtedly it has a different connotation in English and Russian. But let’s look at what would be the equivalent word in a Buddhist context. In Buddhism, we speak of the Dharma. “Dharma” means a preventive measure; it’s something that we do in order to avoid suffering and problems. This is not just thinking in terms of immediate situations, like we’re driving a car or riding a bicycle and, in order to avoid hitting something, we swerve to the side. That wouldn’t be Dharma. And we’re not talking about just the immediate day-to-day things that we do. We wouldn’t call that spiritual. Rather, it is thinking in terms of wanting to prevent something in the future. 

In most religions, Buddhism included, this is thinking in terms of future lives, and in some other religions, it’s thinking of the afterlife, which means not having our main concern just being with material success in this lifetime. That’s because at the time of death, all of that is left behind, and this lifetime is very short compared to the enormous amount of time in the future.

Now, this is very fine if we believe in future rebirths or an afterlife, but many of us might not believe in those. So, can we still be spiritual people? I think that we definitely can if we think not just in terms of our material welfare in this lifetime, for us personally and perhaps for our family, but if we think in a much longer range of time – for instance, future generations. In other words, I think it’s a spiritual endeavor to try to make the world a better place with whatever type of contribution we might be able to make, even if it’s very small. 

Again, an example used by Buddha: a big bag of rice is filled by every individual grain of rice. Some of us might be able to contribute to that bag a whole handful of rice, and some might only be able to contribute one grain of rice, but each of those two people are contributing. That’s the point. Even if we find that we can’t really contribute too much, at least we try to contribute something.

So with you training to become teachers or medical workers, then obviously, this is a great opportunity to think in terms of making a contribution to making this a better world. As teachers, we’re training people who will go on into the future and hopefully make their own contributions. As doctors, we’re helping to cure sick people so that they can continue to make their contribution to the future. That ties in very well with wanting them to be happy and not to be unhappy, so not having any violent or cruel thoughts toward them and also respecting them. We respect ourselves in terms of “I can make a contribution to the future,” and we respect our patients, our students, in terms of “They can also make a contribution.” 

What does a contribution mean? What does it mean to make the world a better place? It means basically to promote some sort of means for people to be happier. Being happier doesn’t mean simply on the material level, although that’s important, but also to have peace of mind, to be able to use not only technical skills but also emotional skills to deal with whatever comes up in life.

These are what I would consider spiritual values in terms of what we consider important in our lives and what we’re doing with our lives. In short, I think it’s very important, especially as young persons like yourselves, to really think very seriously about your motivation. “Why am I studying what I’m studying? What do I want to accomplish in life? What do I want to accomplish for my family in the future? What do I want to eventually leave behind for the future, for future generations? And why do I want this?” 

This might take quite a lot of inner searching, but this is a very worthwhile investigation to make. We might find that our answers to these questions are not very satisfactory. I think that the criterion that we need to use for deciding whether or not we want to try to correct our motivation is to see whether or not what we’re doing will bring happiness to ourselves and others, or will it just create problems? In terms of evaluating this, long-term effects are far more important than just short-term immediate effects. But if we are clear about what we are doing in life, and we see that we are going in a good direction in our life, this gives us a very wonderful sense of well-being and satisfaction.

I think one of the factors that sometimes makes people depressed is that they find that their life has no meaning, no direction. We’re pursuing a profession, but our heart is not in it. We feel that the problems of the world, the problems of our country, the problems of our district, the problems of our family, of ourselves, all of these are just too terrible, too much. And so what meaning does it all have to lead a life with that state of mind? It’s really very sad; it’s not a very happy life. 

Again it requires respect for ourselves in order to try to overcome this feeling of despair. We need to reaffirm, “Regardless of the external situations, I do have the ability to improve myself and become a better human being.” This is very important not only for making ourselves a happier person – acknowledging this – but also our whole state of mind will affect everybody around us. Working to help others medically or pedagogically… this is a meaningful thing to do. We don’t know what the future will be, but we know that if people are in good health, if people are educated, then there’s hope, hope that things will get better. Maybe that’s hard to imagine, but even if there are more difficulties in the future, we can help people to be better prepared to deal with them.

These, then, are my thoughts about nonviolence and spiritual values in the modern world. 


In our modern world, of course we understand that among Buddhist values, there is compassion. But in real life, the situation is really difficult, and sometimes children grow up without parents and then they are quite wild. And for us, if we’re teachers, it is very difficult to somehow prove to them the necessity of compassion, that they need to learn how to protect people who are weaker and not to harm and be wild with people who are weaker. And so we, as teachers, how do we bring this message to students, especially to students who are rather violent, who are being brought up in very difficult economic and social situations?

I think one of the methods that can help such wild children is to allow them to give, to be generous. In other words, if somebody – a child, for example – is allowed to have the opportunity to give to the other children – in other words, they pass out the paper or some assignment, or they do something that is generous – that’s doing something to help others. That gives that child a sense of self-worth. 

When a child comes from a very difficult background and feels unloved, then they usually act out this feeling of rejection in very wild behavior. “If I’m considered no good by life in general because I don’t come from a good background, then I’ll show everybody how no good I am,” in a sense. In other words, they enact being antisocial, being not part of society, going into crime and so on. This is quite typical. However, if they are given an opportunity to show that they are a good person, that they have something to give, even if they don’t give in a very big way; nevertheless, it gives them the sense that they do have something positive to offer, not just negative things to offer.

From a Buddhist point of view, this is building up some sort of positive force or merit by giving, but we don’t have to give this a Buddhist explanation. I think that just in a psychological sense, what I explained can sometimes be helpful. But one thing to keep in mind. In giving them something positive and constructive to do, it’s very important to not give them the idea that this is a punishment.

In our life, we often deal with disciplining somebody, but also there is a process of re-disciplining when we are trying to discipline somebody again. And in this process, what is the most beneficial punishment, or maybe some sort of work, like social work for the person who is being disciplined? Or some sort of moral education for this person? Let’s say, people who are in jail, criminals, people who we want to discipline when they’re not children.

This is difficult to answer in general because, again, everybody is an individual. I’ve not been personally involved in teaching in prisons, but many of my Buddhist colleagues have been. One of the things that they find is that many people in prison, not everybody, of course, have a lot of time to examine their lives – what they’ve been doing with their life and what they want in life. There are a number of prisoners who are quite interested in learning to handle their anger, to handle their violent impulses, and so they’re very receptive to very basic types of Buddhist meditation to calm down, for instance, by focusing on the breath. Such persons are, of course, receptive to this type of help. 

Not everybody is receptive to receiving help, and if they’re not receptive, there’s very little we can do. Just punishing them physically when they don’t have any wish to change their lives or improve, just produces more hostility and anger in them.

There are certain types of training that are used in psychology that might not be terribly applicable here, but just to give you an idea, let me explain one. When there’s a child, usually a teenager, who’s completely uncooperative and very wild, they go on a journey with a group of people and a leader, and they have a mule with them. The mule, of course, is a very stubborn animal and difficult to get it to do what we want it to do. They’re responsible for this mule, so they have to deal with it, and to do that, they have to learn to overcome their anger and impatience and somehow work with this mule. Again this means giving them some responsibility to do something that is constructive, in a sense, working with this mule.

Sometimes giving a child the responsibility to take care of an animal helps them. The animal doesn’t criticize them; people criticize them. A dog… no matter how much we discipline it, the dog still likes us. Again letting them deal with another being, in this case, a dog, sometimes can have the effect of taming somebody, helping them to calm down, take some sort of responsibility. But, of course, there are some people who are very violent and who, if we give them a dog, they’ll just torture it, so we have to be quite careful.

I have a friend who is a psychiatrist, and she deals primarily with violent teenagers, usually homeless ones living on the street, and with all the difficulties that come with that. One of the guidelines she told me that she used was, again, coming back to what we were saying, treating these kids, who could be quite violent, with interest and respect as human beings. Take them seriously. Take the time to actually listen to them and learn what their problems are. But one of the things that we have to really avoid is if we are listening to them, don’t say, “Your hour is up. You have to go now.” They usually react very violently to that, because it’s a rejection.

The lesson to learn from that is if we are going to try to deal with an unruly student, give that student our time. Really listen to them. Try to understand what their problems are. Even if we don’t come up with a solution, just the fact that we’ve listened sympathetically is helpful. Don’t put a time limit on it and have respect for this student as a human being.

Actually, what to do to discipline them and so on, this is very hard to say. I don’t know what is actually acceptable in your society, what is unacceptable. However, just punishment, especially out of anger, is not going to help.

How can we overcome being annoyed in our everyday relationships with people?

If we analyze any situation that we find unpleasant, that we find annoying, we find that it arises because of many different causes and circumstances and conditions – social conditions, economic conditions, what’s going on in the home of the people that are involved, their background, etc. When we become annoyed and angry with some situation, then what we’re doing in our minds taking that incident, or whatever it might be that we find annoying, and making it into some big solid horrible monster, some monstrous thing. We lose sight of all the causes and conditions that it depends on, and we project onto it qualities that are much more negative than what is actually there. Because we don’t want it to be like that, then we get angry, which is a very strong emotional rejection of it.

Now, if we think about it, the mechanism behind rejection is, “I wish for this suffering, for this difficulty, to go away and not to be there.” That’s compassion, so the opponent for anger and annoyance is always love. Love is the wish for the other person to have happiness and have the causes for happiness. They’re acting in a horrible way because of all these conditions and because they’re unhappy. We want them to be happy so that they will stop acting in an annoying, horrible way. In order for them to be happy, we have to learn what are all the conditions that are causing them to be unhappy and to act in an unruly way and then see what is it that we can change. 

Those are some of the methods that we use. It’s basically analyzing, this is arising from this and that cause, and we want them to stop acting in this way that is being brought about by these causes, and so what can we do to change what’s affecting their behavior?

As teachers, we are going to deal with children from different backgrounds – different cultural, social, religious backgrounds. Is it enough just to have patience for all these children, different kinds of children, in order to discipline them and educate them?

I think one of the most important factors is interest in the children. That means to become familiar with what the social and religious backgrounds of these children are. The more that we understand the children that we are trying to educate, the more we will understand what they actually need. The point of education, hopefully, is not just to get them to be able to pass an examination, but to help them to become better persons; so learn about them. We can have them write little essays about themselves or about their family or their background. Get them to say something about themselves, then we get to know them a little bit better.

I often meet people who hesitate when they need to say their opinion or something about themselves, because they are afraid to be rejected. My question is about how to help these people overcome their close-mindedness and their fear?

I think this is a particularly strong problem with teenagers, who are very much concerned with the approval of their peers. How to get them to overcome shyness? Well, one of the methods that’s used in the Buddhist monastic education is that after a lesson, all the students have to break into pairs, two by two, and then discuss and debate with each other about what was just said, to see if they both understood. 

As for the practice of nonviolence They’re not actually talking in front of the whole class, in which maybe some of the students will be not very kind and laugh at them. But when it’s two by two, everyone has to say something. The teacher can walk around and listen for a minute or two to each group to make sure that they are actually talking about the topic and not talking about something else. 

This is a very good pedagogic method because it doesn’t allow for a student to just sit there passively and listen or not pay attention and get nothing. They have to say something; they have to show to the other person that they are discussing with that they actually paid attention and listened, and they can’t be shy. However, we have to make sure that they don’t choose the same discussion partner every time; they have to change. That’s one method that’s used in the monastic education system. Maybe it could be helpful.

Original Audio from the Seminar