The Buddha Did Not Teach Buddhism

This presentation was made at the BCBS Forum “Buddhist Responses to Violence, ” on September 11th, 2005.

The verbal component of the Buddha’s teaching is preserved in an ancient Indian vernacular known as Pali, which was the colloquial, street Sanskrit of the era around 600 BCE. Although particular components of the Pali texts can be questionable as to whether they truly represent the teaching of the Buddha, the Pali Canon as a whole presents a unique implosion into the human condition of a coherent, well articulated, original, specific, generally self-consistent realization, which constitutes the Dhamma, or the Teaching of the Buddha. The word Buddhism (or any equivalent) is not found in this exposition. The Buddha explicitly rejected phrasings like “Buddhism” which imply an “ism,” or a philosophical stance or position or viewpoint. The Buddha emphasized that he was not expounding an opinion but a Path, that is, a way of life, based on values and actions that lead to a holistic apperception, an experience, a realization.

The Dhamma, as taught by the Buddha, is a path that leads to the cessation of suffering through a lifetime effort to gain insight into essential truths about the human condition. These truths are uniquely codified in the Dhamma as the fourfold truth, the eightfold path and the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination. The goal and culmination of the efforts and discoveries which are made by people who put the path into action is release from suffering, which derives from a relinquishment of clinging, which happens when there is a dissolution of the idea of a permanent, unchanging, eternal self within either the individual or within the universe. All the steps that lead to the end of suffering derive from a meditation-based realization of atomic and molecular change at the nexus of one’s own body, the material world, and its constituents. The Dhamma in practice catalyzes a personal experience of the ultimate scientific reality that everything we are, see, think and feel is changing, impermanent and impersonal. Nibbāna, which is not part of any self, god, or material universe, and which transcends any hate, fear, delusion, “ism” or viewpoint, is realized and entered via this path of Dhamma. Nibbāna means freedom from ignorance and its attendant rebirth and suffering.

Those who wish to recast the Buddha as a Gandhian pacifist or as a liberal Democrat will be sorely disappointed.

This teaching has embedded itself in the human community across time and cultures because it appeals to our common hope of freedom from suffering and because, when practiced with ample commitment, time and discipline, it is seen to be logical, workable and appealing to people of diverse communities and eras.

Do what helps others. 
Refrain from harming others.
Transcend your own ignorance, clinging, hate, fear and delusion.
This and only this is the dispensation of all the Buddhas.

An important feature of the Dhamma, as the Buddha unveils it, is its empirical nature. The Dhamma is not the Buddha’s belief or viewpoint or religion or philosophy. The Dhamma is discovered by the Buddha in the same way that gravity was discovered by Newton or natural selection was discovered by Darwin. The Dhamma exists, and those who discover or rediscover and expound it, within the human community, are known as Buddha.

The focus of the path on the eradication of ignorant belief in an eternal self, on the realization of ubiquitous change in all material things, and on attaining Nibbāna, gives the path a decontextualized and abiding relevance. There is no god, holy land, black book, or ritual to bind Dhamma to any one time, place or group. If you prefer the phrasing, you could say that the Buddha made certain to abstract his teaching from his own historical and cultural context. He wanted his listeners to understand that, like other factual discoveries about nature, the Dhamma is valid across race, gender, class and context.

But when the Buddha’s words were spoken and then committed to memory by devoted listeners—for this is the way the Pali Canon was created, in an era before written texts, through memorization, then validation by consensus—these events happened in a particular time, place and context. Therefore, a salient feature of the Pali Canon is the manner in which the Buddha tried to prepare his listeners to avoid aligning his universal teaching with one side or another of a particular viewpoint or issue.

The Pali Canon is a vast body of language, many volumes in length, full of lectures, sermons, poems, anecdotes, repetitions, expositions, gushes of joy, and ruthless confrontation with the direst aspects of the human condition. Throughout all of this we can read about the Buddha in many circumstances. He addresses kings but never condemns warfare. He implicitly condones capital punishment. He seems to take slavery and prostitution for granted and does not condemn them. He teaches generals and warrior kings. He meets merchants and assumes capitalism, never commenting on it, or in a few cases, seemingly endorsing it, as when he discussed the responsibility that kings have to insure a free flow of capital for investment. He appears to have a soft spot for democracy and designed his order of monks and nuns to in some ways follow the assembly-based democracies that briefly existed in the India of his day; but he never criticizes any established authority. He places himself in an eternal context outside of political and social critique. He accepts and even capitalizes on his social status as a member of the royalty who can casually circulate in the circles of monarchs.


Those people of the twenty-first century, who wish to recast the Buddha as a Gandhian pacifist or as a liberal Democrat will be sorely disappointed and rudely awakened if they take the time to dwell in the numinous, revolutionary psychology of the Pali Canon that is so searingly focused on its ultimate realization and so diligently constructed to avoid being enlisted in the cause of particular movements or beliefs.

But what about the Buddha’s legendary role as the spokesperson of nonviolence, his injunction “not to kill” as one of the five moral precepts that are pillars of his path?

Fall05_PF1Why does the Buddha go out of his way to tell little kids not to hurt a poisonous snake but to empathize with the plight of the poor serpent rather than to stone it while at the same time he refrains from telling kings not to go to war?

The greatest obstacle for twenty-first century readers in understanding the verbal component of the Buddha’s teaching is the attempt to re-cast him as a European philosopher or as a Middle-Eastern prophet. The Buddha was not a synthesizing social philosopher. He preceded—did not follow in the footsteps of—Plato’s Republic and he did not attempt to outline an embracing critique of society as did Rousseau or Marx. Nor did he attempt to establish a religion with cosmology, ontology, theology, liturgy and ritual. He was not, as he is often misunderstood to be, an Indian analogy to Moses or Jesus or Mohammed.

In radical opposition to imposed, sanctified governments and religion, the Buddha taught a path which some individuals may embrace, the more the merrier. But the path is walked by each individual based upon his or her own volition, his or her own Kamma, his or her own collections of motives, strengths, weaknesses, wishes and fears. The path is chosen, and this activation of the sense of personal choice and intention is essential to its function as a guiding practice through the vicissitudes of life. If the path is imposed or passively accepted out of conformity or social convention, then it is not the Dhamma at all, for the Dhamma by definition contains effort, commitment, relinquishment and realization. The further you walk, the more you will see, but you must power your own journey which is more than the scenery.

The Buddha was not a social philosopher… nor did he attempt to establish a religion.

The Buddha never alludes to a Biblical or Eurocentric Messiah, or Apocalypse, or Elysium, or a Proletariat of the People. He does not promise any mass exit to safety that you can get merely by your presence in a historical era or by your personal beliefs or religious affiliations. He describes no magical ruptures in the world of causality and connection. Instead the Buddha stands smack in the middle of what we call today the scientific worldview, in which events derive from antecedent causes and provoke subsequent events, in an ongoing chain of which we can see no origin or end. Discerning the pathways of cause and effect is the essence of liberation from ignorance. Unlike religious thinkers, the Buddha avoids ontology. The universe has no known origins, no first cause. There are universes in incomprehensible infinity, a world of innumerable suffering beings…but also a path of insight, wisdom, and liberation that is available through meditation on cosmic truths, and their psychological correlates, that we can live out towards its apogee in Nibbāna. The Buddha unveils a world that is continuous, causal, fluid and secular.

Discerning the pathways of cause and effect is the essence of liberation from ignorance.

The Buddha teaches different people differently because each person will hear, understand and act differently as the Dhamma is presented. Even in the Sāsana, the era, of the Buddha, there is no whipped-up guarantee that all or even most of humankind will walk the path. Such historical fantasies would only be delusions, or at best drops in the bucket, of infinite planets, infinite galaxies, universes and time that the Buddha apprehends as reality. Let the Dhamma be spread as widely as is possible; let as many beings as possible walk the path as far as is possible: this is his transcending, a-historical, compassionate imperative.


Returning to our question of nonviolence, the Buddha teaches the precept not-to-kill to those who eagerly and willingly embrace it. He never imposes it upon an uncomprehending or unprepared audience. He teaches nonviolence to those who are appropriately positioned by their Kamma to understand, to implement and to abide by its consequences. There is no point at which the Buddha ran for public office, solicited money for the circulating plate or led a political movement by standing on a soapbox and pounding a generalized social imperative into the multitudes. Instead, he encouraged personal development on the path of Dhamma according to each person’s ability. If the village boys could learn compassion for a snake, he taught it. But when a king expressed weariness with war, the Buddha told him to step down from the throne, if he so desired. But the Buddha explicitly refrained from telling a king, who must administer law and protect his people, to become a pacifist.

When the small democracies of the Gangetic plain were militarily threatened by encroaching monarchies and sought the Buddha’s advice, he said nothing about war nor did he preach nonviolence. Instead, he praised strengthening society through assembly, discourse, attitudes of reverence and social conservatism that treasures the wisdom of elders (the equivalent of a constitution). We don’t know whether these democracies took his non-committal advice. All of them were exterminated.

In answer to the question, “What is a Buddhist response to violence?” I have refocused you on the fact that the Buddha did not teach Buddhism, and that he had no pat, generalized, text-based, religious fundamentalism to guide us in the quandaries of our plight.

Instead, he encouraged us to embrace non-killing if, when, and to the degree, that is proper for us, for the role we have chosen, and for our other commitments and developments in path-factors; and to facilitate nonviolence in others to the degree that we can raise it naturally from within them. To the extent that one is a Bhikkhu, that is a person (not necessarily a monk) who is systematically committed to the discipline of the Dhamma-life of purity and compassion, one will naturally be non­harmful to one’s fullest ability. But in the complex welter of human affairs, specific action which constitutes nonviolence remains a vital discernment from which even the Buddha cannot extract us.

For example, in the long debates before the American Civil War, was nonviolence dictating dialogue and compromise to avoid the outbreak of war? In fact, this happened, decade after decade, prolonging the whipping, beating, rape, torture and execution of African Americans and, through compromise legislation, extending slavery’s reach into the North via the Fugitive Slave act, which made slaves federally protected “property” even in states that had outlawed slavery. Was nonviolence dictating a war to liberate the slaves, a war that would claim 500,000 to 600,000 lives, more than 10 times the American death toll in Vietnam? Or was nonviolence dictating pacifism, the refusal to kill for any cause, no matter how just? According to Abraham Lincoln, the greatest danger America faced was the passive complicity of pacifism, which would subvert the will to finally eradicate slavery and its bestial implications. Much of Lincoln’s struggle as president was to undercut the pacifist backlash that wanted to pull out all troops, end the war, save white American lives and, well, just go on allowing slavery.

There may in fact be many roles for many types and degrees of nonviolence. Soldiers, pacifists, pragmatists, compromisers and hermits may, in their particular time and place, each be contributing to or detracting from a nonviolent solution.

Dhamma encourages wakeful, thoughtful, personal choices.

If there were a clear and simple directive in the Buddha’s dispensation that would guide us to world peace, then Buddhist countries today would not be, as some of them in fact are, nations of detention, torture, execution and civil wars that target civilians by the ten-thousands. Recently, Nobel Peace Prize winners banded together to bring attention to a country that proclaims Buddhism as its state religion, yet has among the world’s most violent record towards its own citizens.


There is no Buddhism to save us from reality. We cannot hide behind Buddhism to exempt us as citizens from political, economic, social, legal or environmental conundrums and responsibilities; nor is there any Buddhism to dictate an infallible set of mundane choices to improve the welter of the world. These choices remain our personal straits, through which we must pass to forge our future. Kings must do the work of kings, engineers have taken up work of engineering, gadflies feel called to the work of prophecy and warning, liberators face the anguished, ambiguous trial of ending the slavery that remains with us in the twenty-first century; Bhikkhus meditate and teach Dhamma…and cobras do the work of snakes.

Dhamma encourages wakeful, thoughtful, personal choices out of which we build our own and our society’s future. We can use Dhamma as our global positioning system, our self-reflecting mirror and guide on our somber and creative human trek. I hope that all who are inspired by the Buddha’s teaching will make it a lifelong, self-applied, provocation, to a deeply individuated set of choices and responsibilities, in discerning compassion and nonviolence, as is appropriate for their own age, condition and abilities, free from cliche, free from religion, free from peer pressure, constantly revising and re-orienting as we go.

The Pali texts, the preserved word of the Buddha, are only the surface, the spoken level of the Dhamma. At the applied level, the Vipassanā Meditation that the Buddha taught leads to direct contact with the vibrations at the subatomic matrix of the changing world—the vibrations of love and compassion, the vibrations of ignorance, hate and fear. To fully walk the path, we must jettison our clinging to views, our textual search for soothing answers, and plunge into meditation that kindles direct awareness of reality beneath transient forms. The Buddha taught not only the fourfold truth, and the eightfold path including the precept not-to-kill, but he also taught that Dhamma eventually becomes known to its practitioners by its taste, its flavor, its unique absence of mundane vibration.

He said, “Just as all the water in all the oceans have only one taste, the taste of salt, Dhamma has only one flavor.” When we will learn perfect attunement to it, we will walk the path as the Buddha did, vigorously nonviolent, relentlessly compassionate, palpably relevant to our times and to all times, and aware that we will still leave behind us the ongoing sorrows of the world.

Paul R. Fleischman, M.D., has practiced psychiatry for more than 30 years. He is the author of The Healing Spirit: Religious Issues in Psychotherapy, Cultivating Inner Peace, and Karma and Chaos. His most recent book is a work of poetry: You Can Never Speak Up Too Often For the Love of All Things. A student of S.N. Goenka since 1974, he was appointed as a full teacher by Goenka in 1998 with the assignment to explain Dhamma to professionals in the West.

Share on: