The Budhha Taught Nonviolence, Not Pacifism
Here are two key differences between nonviolence as taught by the Buddha, and pacifism. First, the Buddha ... recognized different levels of personality development, different social roles and obligations, different responsibilities and necessities incumbent on different individuals according to their history and choices. The Buddha taught people according to their “karma.”
In a brief discourse, the Buddha is challenged by a General who claims that Dhamma is mere passivity. The Buddha replies that he teaches inactivity in regard to unwholesome things and “activity by way of good conduct in deeds, words, and thoughts.” There is no further blanket position taken towards government, warfare or the karma of Generals. What constitutes good conduct is left to the General’s discernment. The Buddha gave the principle, not the details of the infinite varieties of interpretation and application.
None of this, however, justifies hatred, or violence in service of personal goals or gains. For the government servant who, for example, as a soldier must kill, the Buddha implicitly asks of him two questions. The first is: “Can you do this task as an upholder of safety and justice, focused on love of those you protect rather than on hate for those you must kill? If you are acting with vengeance or delight in destruction, then you are not at all a student of Dhamma. But if your hard job can be done with a base of pure mind, while you are clearly not living the life of an enlightened person, you are still able to begin walking the path towards harmony and compassion.” The Buddha’s ethics clearly allows differentiation between situations like American soldiers fighting to liberate the concentration camps at the end of World War II, versus death camp guards and mass murderers. If the soldier is acting in a protective, pure hearted way of life, he may be an agent of justice who simply is the vehicle by which the karma of the murderers ends in their own death.
It is to serious, committed meditators, who are lifelong practitioners of moral precepts, daily meditation, and a purified mind, that the Buddha gave his often quoted, stunning guidance on non-violence, “Even if bandits brutally severed him limb from limb with a two handled saw, he who entertained hate in his heart on that account would not be one who followed my teaching.” [Majjhima 21] Please note that this famous passage does not preclude skillful and vigorous self defense that is free of hate.