harmlessness, nonviolence, inoffensiveness.
There is no direct definition of the term in the suttas. It seems to have been a well-known concept at the time that did not require much explanation. It can be seen as a principle underlying sammā·vācā, sammā·kammanta and sammā·ājīva.
Avihiṃsā appears most prominently in avihiṃsā·saṅkappa, one of the three constituents of sammā·saṅkappa, which are also termed kusalā saṅkappā at MN 78. Alternatively, it also appears in the compound avihiṃsā·vitakka, which seems to be a synonym for avihiṃsā·saṅkappa. See also this blog article, arguing that, since avihiṃsā is set apart from a·byāpāda in those two lists, the word probably refers more specifically to instances where one harms others without ill-will or malevolence.
In several suttas (e.g. MN 114, AN 5.200) two of the three dhammas listed in sammā·saṅkappa appear in the same order, and avihiṃsā is replaced as the third by avihesā (non-harming). Another synonym is ahimsā (inoffensiveness):
sabbhi dānaṃ upaññattaṃ, ahiṃsā saṃyamo damo.
The virtuous prescribe giving, inoffensiveness, self-control, and self-taming.
“yassa sabbamahorattaṃ, ahiṃsāya rato mano mettaṃ so sabbabhūtesu, veraṃ tassa na kenacī”ti.
One whose mind takes delight in inoffensiveness all day and night, who has loving-kindness for all beings, has enmity towards none.
Inoffensiveness (ahiṃsā) is also nobility:
na tena ariyo hoti, yena pāṇāni hiṃsati. ahiṃsā sabbapāṇānaṃ, “ariyo”ti pavuccati.
One who injures living beings is ignoble. One who is inoffensive towards all living beings is said to be a noble one.
In the Dhātu·vibhaṅga of the Abhidhamma, karuṇa is said to be inherent to avihiṃsā·dhātu: 'yā sattesu karuṇā karuṇāyanā karuṇāyitattaṃ karuṇācetovimutti, ayaṃ vuccati “avihiṃsādhātu”'. This statement finds an echo in various parts of the Sutta Piṭaka, as for example in the Dhammapada:
129. sabbe tasanti daṇḍassa, sabbe bhāyanti maccuno.
attānaṃ upamaṃ katvā, na haneyya na ghātaye.
129. All tremble at the rod, all are fearful of death.
Drawing the parallel to yourself, neither kill nor get others to kill.
130. sabbe tasanti daṇḍassa, sabbesaṃ jīvitaṃ piyaṃ.
attānaṃ upamaṃ katvā, na haneyya na ghātaye.
130. All tremble at the rod, all hold their life dear.
Drawing the parallel to yourself, neither kill nor get others to kill.
At AN 2.168, avihiṃsā is juxtaposed with soceyya (purity/purification). At Sn 294, the word is juxtaposed with maddava (mildness), soracca (gentleness) and khanti (forbearance). The first two find echo in expressions such as that defining pharusa·vāca veramaṇī (abstinence from harsh speech):
yā sā vācā nelā kaṇṇasukhā pemanīyā hadayaṅgamā porī bahujanakantā bahujanamanāpā, tathārūpiṃ vācaṃ bhāsitā hoti.
He speaks words that are soothing to the ear, that are affectionate, that go to the heart, that are polite, appealing & pleasing to people at large.
Khanti (forbearance) is the word that is most often juxtaposed to avihiṃsā, a connection that is exemplified in many places, such as in the simile of the saw:
“ubhatodaṇḍakena cepi, bhikkhave, kakacena corā ocarakā aṅgamaṅgāni okanteyyuṃ, tatrāpi yo mano padūseyya, na me so tena sāsanakaro. tatrāpi vo, bhikkhave, evaṃ sikkhitabbaṃ: ‘na ceva no cittaṃ vipariṇataṃ bhavissati, na ca pāpikaṃ vācaṃ nicchāressāma, hitānukampī ca viharissāma mettacittā na dosantarā. tañca puggalaṃ mettāsahagatena cetasā pharitvā viharissāma tadārammaṇañca sabbāvantaṃ lokaṃ mettāsahagatena cetasā vipulena mahaggatena appamāṇena averena abyābajjhena pharitvā viharissāmā’ti. evañhi vo, bhikkhave, sikkhitabbaṃ.
"Monks, even if bandits were to carve you up savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw, he among you who let his heart get angered even at that would not be doing my bidding. Even then you should train yourselves: 'Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading these people with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with them, we will keep pervading the entire world with an awareness imbued with good will — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.' That's how you should train yourselves.
“imañca tumhe, bhikkhave, kakacūpamaṃ ovādaṃ abhikkhaṇaṃ manasi kareyyātha. passatha no tumhe, bhikkhave, taṃ vacanapathaṃ, aṇuṃ vā thūlaṃ vā, yaṃ tumhe nādhivāseyyāthā”ti?
"Monks, if you attend constantly to this admonition on the simile of the saw, do you see any aspects of speech, slight or gross, that you could not endure?"
— “no hetaṃ, bhante”.
— "No, lord."
Another striking example is given at SN 35.88:
— “sace pana puṇṇa, sunāparantakā manussā daṇḍena pahāraṃ dassanti, tatra pana te, puṇṇa, kinti bhavissatī”ti?
— "But if they hit you with a stick...?"
— “sace me, bhante, sunāparantakā manussā daṇḍena pahāraṃ dassanti, tatra me evaṃ bhavissati: ‘bhaddakā vatime sunāparantakā manussā, subhaddakā vatime sunāparantakā manussā, yaṃ me nayime satthena pahāraṃ dentī’ti. evamettha, bhagavā, bhavissati; evamettha, sugata, bhavissatī”ti.
— "...I will think, 'These Sunaparanta people are civilized, very civilized, in that they don't hit me with a knife'..."
— “sace pana te, puṇṇa, sunāparantakā manussā satthena pahāraṃ dassanti, tatra pana te, puṇṇa, kinti bhavissatī”ti?
— "But if they hit you with a knife...?"
— “sace me, bhante, sunāparantakā manussā satthena pahāraṃ dassanti, tatra me evaṃ bhavissati: ‘bhaddakā vatime sunāparantakā manussā, subhaddakā vatime sunāparantakā manussā, yaṃ maṃ nayime tiṇhena satthena jīvitā voropentī’ti. evamettha, bhagavā, bhavissati; evamettha, sugata, bhavissatī”ti.
— "...I will think, 'These Sunaparanta people are civilized, very civilized, in that they don't take my life with a sharp knife'..."
— “sace pana taṃ, puṇṇa, sunāparantakā manussā tiṇhena satthena jīvitā voropessanti, tatra pana te, puṇṇa, kinti bhavissatī”ti?
— "But if they take your life with a sharp knife...?"
— “sace maṃ, bhante, sunāparantakā manussā tiṇhena satthena jīvitā voropessanti, tatra me evaṃ bhavissati: ‘santi kho tassa bhagavato sāvakā kāyena ca jīvitena ca aṭṭīyamānā harāyamānā jigucchamānā satthahārakaṃ pariyesanti, taṃ me idaṃ apariyiṭṭhaññeva satthahārakaṃ laddhan’ti. evamettha, bhagavā, bhavissati; evamettha, sugata, bhavissatī”ti.
— "If they take my life with a sharp knife, I will think, 'There are disciples of the Blessed One who — horrified, humiliated, and disgusted by the body and by life — have sought for an assassin, but here I have met my assassin without searching for him.' That is what I will think, O Blessed One. That is what I will think, O One Well-gone."
— “sādhu sādhu, puṇṇa! sakkhissasi kho tvaṃ, puṇṇa, iminā damūpasamena samannāgato sunāparantasmiṃ janapade vatthuṃ. yassa dāni tvaṃ, puṇṇa, kālaṃ maññasī”ti.
— "Good, Punna, very good. Possessing such calm and self-control you are fit to dwell among the Sunaparantans. Now it is time to do as you see fit."
SN 47.19 also juxtaposes metta·cittatā (having a mind of good will) and anudayatā (sympathy) to avihiṃsā:
kathañca, bhikkhave, paraṃ rakkhanto attānaṃ rakkhati? khantiyā, avihiṃsāya, mettacittatāya, anudayatāya. evaṃ kho, bhikkhave, paraṃ rakkhanto attānaṃ rakkhati.
"And how do you watch after yourself when watching after others? Through endurance, through harmlessness, through a mind of goodwill, & through sympathy. This is how you watch after yourself when watching after others.
SN 14.12 explains how avihiṃsā originates and leads to wholesome action:
“avihiṃsādhātuṃ, bhikkhave, paṭicca uppajjati avihiṃsāsaññā, avihiṃsāsaññaṃ paṭicca uppajjati avihiṃsāsaṅkappo, avihiṃsāsaṅkappaṃ paṭicca uppajjati avihiṃsāchando, avihiṃsāchandaṃ paṭicca uppajjati avihiṃsāpariḷāho, avihiṃsāpariḷāhaṃ paṭicca uppajjati avihiṃsāpariyesanā; avihiṃsāpariyesanaṃ, bhikkhave, pariyesamāno sutavā ariyasāvako tīhi ṭhānehi sammā paṭipajjati kāyena, vācāya, manasā.
On account of the harmlessness element there arises the perception of harmlessness; on account of the perception of harmlessness there arises an aspiration to harmlessness; on account of the aspiration to harmlessness there arises a desire for harmlessness; on account of the desire for harmlessness there arises a passion for harmlessness; on account of the passion for harmlessness there arises a quest for harmlessness. Engaged in the quest for harmlessness, an instructed noble disciple acts rightly in three ways: by body, speech, and mind.
Practicing harmlessness is behaving like a bee in a flower:
Lacking avihiṃsā is extensively described as bringing unpleasant results:Dhp 49
yathāpi bhamaro pupphaṃ, vaṇṇagandhamaheṭhayaṃ, paleti rasamādāya, evaṃ gāme munī care.
As a bee gathers honey from the flower without injuring its color or fragrance, even so the sage goes on his alms-round in the village.
māvoca pharusaṃ kañci, vuttā paṭivadeyyu taṃ dukkhā hi sārambhakathā, paṭidaṇḍā phuseyyu taṃ.
Speak harshly to no one, or the words will be thrown right back at you. Contentious talk is painful, for you get struck by rods in return.
yo daṇḍena adaṇḍesu, appaduṭṭhesu dussati dasannamaññataraṃ ṭhānaṃ, khippameva nigacchati: vedanaṃ pharusaṃ jāniṃ, sarīrassa ca bhedanaṃ. garukaṃ vāpi ābādhaṃ, cittakkhepañca pāpuṇe. rājato vā upasaggaṃ, abbhakkhānañca dāruṇaṃ. parikkhayañca ñātīnaṃ, bhogānañca pabhaṅguraṃ. atha vāssa agārāni, aggi ḍahati pāvako. kāyassa bhedā duppañño, nirayaṃ sopapajjati.
Whoever, with a rod harasses an innocent man, unarmed, quickly falls into any of ten things: harsh pains, devastation, a broken body, grave illness, mental derangement, trouble with the government, violent slander, relatives lost, property dissolved, houses burned down. At the break-up of the body this one with no discernment, reappears in hell.
Abandoning non-harmlessness and taking up avihiṃsā prevents bad experiences from arising and causes pleasant ones to arise in the future:SN 3.15
“vilumpateva puriso, yāvassa upakappati. yadā caññe vilumpanti, so vilutto viluppati.
A man may plunder as long as it serves his ends, but when others are plundered, he who has plundered gets plundered in turn.
“ṭhānañhi maññati bālo, yāva pāpaṃ na paccati. yadā ca paccati pāpaṃ, atha dukkhaṃ nigacchati.
A fool thinks, 'Now's my chance,' as long as his evil has yet to ripen. But when it ripens, the fool falls into pain.
“hantā labhati hantāraṃ, jetāraṃ labhate jayaṃ. akkosako ca akkosaṃ, rosetārañca rosako. atha kammavivaṭṭena, so vilutto viluppatī”ti.
Killing, you gain your killer. Conquering, you gain one who will conquer you; insulting, insult; harassing, harassment. And so, through the cycle of action, he who has plundered gets plundered in turn.
sukhakāmāni bhūtāni, yo daṇḍena vihiṃsati. attano sukhamesāno, pecca so na labhate sukhaṃ.
Whoever takes a rod to harm living beings desiring ease, when he himself is looking for ease, will meet with no ease after death.
sukhakāmāni bhūtāni, yo daṇḍena na hiṃsati. attano sukhamesāno, pecca so labhate sukhaṃ.
Whoever doesn't take a rod to harm living beings desiring ease, when he himself is looking for ease, will meet with ease after death.
“idha, māṇava, ekacco itthī vā puriso vā sattānaṃ viheṭhakajātiko hoti, pāṇinā vā leḍḍunā vā daṇḍena vā satthena vā. so tena kammena evaṃ samattena evaṃ samādinnena kāyassa bhedā paraṃ maraṇā apāyaṃ duggatiṃ vinipātaṃ nirayaṃ upapajjati. no ce kāyassa bhedā paraṃ maraṇā apāyaṃ duggatiṃ vinipātaṃ nirayaṃ upapajjati, sace manussattaṃ āgacchati yattha yattha paccājāyati bavhābādho hoti. bavhābādhasaṃvattanikā esā, māṇava, paṭipadā yadidaṃ sattānaṃ viheṭhakajātiko hoti pāṇinā vā leḍḍunā vā daṇḍena vā satthena vā.
Furthermore, there is the case where a certain woman or man has a tendency to injure living beings with the hand, with a clod, with a stick, or with a knife. From adopting & carrying out such actions, then on the break-up of the body, after death, this person re-appears in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, in hell. Or, if he/she does not reappear in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, in hell, but instead returns to the human state, then he/she is sickly wherever reborn. This is the way leading to being sickly, namely being one who has a tendency to injure living beings with the hand, with a clod, with a stick, or with a knife.
“idha pana, māṇava, ekacco itthī vā puriso vā sattānaṃ aviheṭhakajātiko hoti pāṇinā vā leḍḍunā vā daṇḍena vā satthena vā. so tena kammena evaṃ samattena evaṃ samādinnena kāyassa bhedā paraṃ maraṇā sugatiṃ saggaṃ lokaṃ upapajjati. no ce kāyassa bhedā paraṃ maraṇā sugatiṃ saggaṃ lokaṃ upapajjati, sace manussattaṃ āgacchati yattha yattha paccājāyati appābādho hoti. appābādhasaṃvattanikā esā, māṇava, paṭipadā yadidaṃ sattānaṃ aviheṭhakajātiko hoti pāṇinā vā leḍḍunā vā daṇḍena vā satthena vā.
But there is the case where a certain woman or man does not have a tendency to injure living beings with the hand, with a clod, with a stick, or with a knife. Or, if he/she does not reappear in the good destinations, in the heavenly world, but instead returns to the human state, then he/she is healthy wherever reborn. This is the way leading to being healthy, namely being one who, abandoning the taking of life, abstains from taking life does not have a tendency to injure living beings with the hand, with a clod, with a stick, or with a knife.
Dharmacāri Nāgapriya writes:Dhp 300
suppabuddhaṃ pabujjhanti, sadā gotamasāvakā. yesaṃ divā ca ratto ca, ahiṃsāya rato mano.
Those disciples of Gotama ever awaken happily whose minds by day and night delight in the practice of non-violence.
"The early Buddhist vocabulary includes an important class of words that, while denoting highly positive qualities, take a grammatically negative form. Avihiṃsa is a leading example of this. To translate the term as ‘non-violence’ doesn’t reflect the positive nuance of the quality to which it refers. Notwithstanding, it is worth looking at the quality in question from both a negative and a positive point of view in order to bring its nature more clearly to light. First of all – and in negative terms – avihiṃsa can be understood as an application of the general principle of renunciation: the saint renounces all violence whether physical, verbal, or emotional: Whoever in this world harms a living creature, whether once-born or twice- born, whoever has nocompassion for a living creature, him one should know to be an outcaste. (Sn.117) He gives up coercion of any kind and thus abandons the ‘power mode’, the style of relating to others purely as objects and means of his own gratification, adopting instead the ‘love mode’, the appreciation of others as individual, feelingful subjects meriting sensitive consideration and respect. This entails abandoning a host of negative mental states such as kodha or fury (Sn.1), kopa or ill-temper and grudge (Sn.6), upanāha orrancour/enmity (Sn.116), paccuṭṭapannā or hostility (Sn.245), usuyyā or envy (Sn.245), atipāti or violent destructiveness (Sn.248), paṭigha (Sn.148) or malicious rage, and dosa or hatred (Sn.328). One of the distinguishing features of the Sutta-Nipāta is the plethora of different nasty mental states that it identifies. This laid some of the foundations for the later work of the Abhidhamma. Again the terms used are fluid and non-technical. By considering the terms as a whole we can get a feeling for the flavour of what the saint is enjoined to abandon. At the same time, it is important to appreciate the positive counterpart of this renunciation of violent negativity. This is expressed most sublimely in the Mettā Sutta: Just as a mother would protect with her own life her own son, her only son, so one should cultivate an unbounded mind towards all beings, and loving-kindness towards all the world. One should cultivate an unbounded mind, above and below and across, without obstruction, without enmity, without rivalry. (Sn.149-50)"