The Tao Te Ching On Violence

Last night I read the thirtieth verse of the Tao Te Ching, which discusses warfare, oppression and violence. As a martial artist, these issues are close to my heart- after all, I have spent perhaps over a thousand hours learning how to protect myself from someone who wishes to hurt me, and how to hurt them in return. The thirtieth verse made me question the necessity of violence in the world and brought up some challenging and confronting questions for me, but first let me share the chapter in question.

Verse 30

One who would guide a leader of men in the uses of life
will warn him against the use of arms for conquest.
Weapons often turn upon the wielder.

Where armies settle,
nature offers nothing but briars and thorns.
After a great battle has been fought,
the land is cursed, the crops fail,
the earth lies stripped of its Motherhood.

After you have attained your purpose,
you must not parade your success,
you must not boast of your ability,
you must not feel proud;
you must rather regret that you had not been
able to prevent the war.

You must never think of conquering others by force.
Whatever strains with force
will soon decay.
It is not attuned to the Way.
Not being attuned to the Way,
its end comes all too soon.


Since I was little, I have always cherished the belief that war is unnecessary and stupid. It is not in the slightest a “sweet and noble thing to die for one’s country”; it is an appalling waste of life for something as petty as resources or wealth. I can think of fewer more stupid acts than the sacrifice of millions of lives (not to mention the collateral damage to the ecosystems and other life forms that are harmed in the process) in order for one military leader to say to another “I was right and you were wrong”. As Lao Tzu puts it, one should never think of conquering others by force. Fighting violence with violence will inevitably lead to more violence, and I would never wish to contribute to a cycle of more pain and hatred.

Then I thought of a hypothetical situation: I am a member of a group of a dozen survivors on a desert island, in a situation like “The Lord of the Flies”. One man has naturally risen to the role of group leader (Alpha), and I have naturally assumed the role of Omega in the pack, choosing to follow at the end rather than walk at the front so that I can take care of everyone before me. Alpha becomes a cruel man over time, making decisions that are more and more ruthless, raiding other surviving tribes for resources and dominating any who would oppose him. His leadership is hurting people unnecessarily through his greed and ignorance, and even the people of our own tribe are being punished by his reign. What would a Taoist do in this situation?

The only way I could think of to protect that pack from Alpha’s ignorance and cruelty was to challenge him for dominance. To win leadership of the tribe would almost certainly require force, yet that would provoke a cycle of violence and cause pain to another living being (not to mention myself if Alpha put up a fight). Would a Taoist really seek a fight? It is not an easy question to answer. At first I thought “No. There must be another solution. Gandhi freed his people without violence, surely I can find a way to conquer hatred with love.” But such solutions take time and are not guaranteed to work- if the world had tried to win Hitler over with love, how many millions more would have died before it worked? Sometimes, when people are being hurt, force must be met with force. Some violence and suffering is necessary in life, and if it is to protect others, if it is for the greater good, then perhaps the solution does lie with the fist. Kenshin certainly believed so- he was the most notorious killer of the revolution, yet when his side was victorious, he put aside his killing blade and struggled to solve every conflict without further death.

I think the important thing is to know when it is time to be peaceful, and to know when it is time to be violent, but never to take pleasure from hurting another creature. Instead, if one’s circumstances has forced one to cause injury or to take a life, one should feel remorse that there was no alternative.

I then asked myself, “If a wise Taoist knew how to spread peace, should he make it his mission to resolve conflicts everywhere? Should he seek out fights so that he can end them for the greater good?” I do not think it is very Taoist to go around challenging all the Alpha’s so that one might impose one’s own beliefs on them, even if one did believe it would be for their own good. To answer this question, I look to one of my inspirations, the Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahm.  Although he is a bit of a celebrity and travels around the world promoting Buddhism, helping people  and contributing to the resolution of conflicts, his main role is as a teacher. Almost every Friday night of the year, he will return from wherever he is abroad (unless he’s on a spiritual retreat) in order to give a talk on the dhamma (the teachings of the Buddha) at his monastery. But more importantly, he teaches by example, sharing his own life experiences and the practical ways he has employed Buddhist-wisdom. In one of the verses of the Tao Te Ching, I think I read that “Being in touch with the Tao [i.e. being a good human being] is the greatest thing you can do for humanity [in order to lead by example]”.

Thus I think that practicing the martial arts is a good thing, so long as one does so with the hope that one will never need to use them. In many ways, this is closely aligned with the philosophy of “wu-wei“, or “the way of nothingness/least resistance“. Shihan Dan, who has drawn much influence from the Way and its Virtue, is indeed a wise man.


2 thoughts on “The Tao Te Ching On Violence

  1. Bethwyn says:

    I love reading your posts. They are so thoughtful and, in addition, thought-provoking. I don’t spend much time thinking of war myself, but I do spend time thinking of the war within ourselves. I think your words have as much application within as without.

  2. […] while ago, I wrote a blog about the necessity of violence in the world. I queried whether it would be the best thing to do to […]

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