Despite Buddhist Beliefs: The world is becoming more peaceful

A graph of  major wars over the last 500 years (percentage of years in 25-year chunks).

Buddhism has always held that all phenomena are transitory, including both the teaching of Buddhism as we know it and the world itself. While the Dharma -speaking of the Truth he came to understand – is universal, eternal, and uninfluenced by particular human circumstances, the sāsana, or lineage of teachings handed down for the last 2400+ years, will come to an end.

Likewise, Buddhism inherited the cosmology of Proto-Hinduism (Brahmanism), which held that humans today are living in an age of decline. Part of this sense of decline is the belief in growing immorality and warfare. Conversely, the level of emphasis this belief has taken on in Buddhist cultures often reflects a world around them engulfed in war or simply persecution. The belief exists in all schools of Buddhism, though it took on heightened urgency in China. There the idea that the decline would have a phase of “final dharma” (mofa), starting in 552 C.E. was established, and in Japan the same belief, termed mappō was transmitted with the updated start-date of 1052 C.E. *

However, as Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker writes in his new book “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined“, this hasn’t been the case. In fact, things are getting better. His work is largely a tour de force of collected statistics. Take the middle ages for instance. While good records weren’t kept everywhere, from what we do have, it is clear that a lot of people were murdered. Just looking at homicides, Pinker determined that you were 35 times more likely to be murdered in the middle ages than today. 35 times!

Stats for warfare follow as similar trajectory. While warfare, homicide, and other forms of violence obviously do continue, the fact is that, proportional to population, they are declining. It is that “proportional” part that might cause difficulty for many people. Millions of people died violently in the 20th century, more than in any before: doesn’t that make it the most violent century ever? In just raw numbers, yes. But in terms of any individual’s likelihood of dying violently, no.

As Colbert quips in the clip below: if you kill 1 million people in nation that has 2 million, that’s pretty bad, but if you kill 1 million people in a nation that has 40 million, that’s progress?


Here’s an excellent recent discussion of the idea by Pinker and Robert D. Kaplan via the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs:

 Video streaming by Ustream

Kaplan, author of The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate points to East Asia as a model of modernization, but notes that part of the result is a massive arms race and increasing nationalism – note the recent standoffs between Japanese and Chinese ships regarding two tiny islands.

While there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of continued antagonisms around the world, this doesn’t refute the statistics, which – as a bit of a math nerd – I feel are both incredibly important and widely overlooked by most people. One unfortunate, but common, side effect of citing anecdotes is the tit-for-tat kind of arguments that Kaplan has at one point with a gentleman who lived in Singapore in the 1960s and 70s. The power, and for me, beauty of these wide-scale statistical views is the fact that you can swallow up anecdotes: sure, there is war, but look at how much less there is now vs the past.

But people like stories, now as much as before. The interesting thing about stories is that they can compel people to do things in a way that statistics never could. The Buddhist stories of decline were probably meant as moral exhortations, saying: “look at yourselves. The world could be so much better and, in fact, it once was. Let me tell you about it…” When we look at these stories we cannot lose sight of this moral lesson. Today people just read the stories as if they were fanciful fairy-tales conceived in a pre-scientific age. As if people 2500 years ago (and this goes for Biblical stories as well) couldn’t count up to 100, so they believed some people could live to 200, 1000, or older. Of course this is often a reaction to meeting people (we tend to call them fundamentalists in the West and traditionalists in the East) who do actually believe the stories on face value. What we need is a middle ground. Something solid. Statistics. (And graphs.)

More about Pinker:

  • Doug

    Yes, Pinker’s book is quite good and his statistics compelling. But one hesitates to point out that a single calamitous war or plague could end up making his case premature. (To be fair, Pinker is aware of this problem, at least most of the time).

  • Justin Whitaker

    Doug, first, thanks for the comment. A war, yes, but a plague? I was under the impression that plagues were counted as natural deaths and thus fall outside his dicussion of violence.

    • Doug

      Of course, you are right. Slip of the brain.

  • Justin Whitaker

    Oh, and another link I thought about including: McKibben on Bill Maher’s show vs some ‘conservatives’:

  • jacob

    Buddhist cosmology extends far beyond a few thousand years. Each big bang cycles between human type contentment and decline for billions of years. This present age will bottom out in about 2500 years with ups and downs in between. Everything changes, there is no constant trend.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Jacob – I believe it is the Tibetan timeline that makes it 5000 years, cut in half due to the ordination of nuns to 2500 years. According to our dating of the Buddha as living 2400 years ago, does that mean we are in the last 100 years of our present age?

      • Barbara Hoetsu O’Brien

        You are assuming that linear time is not just another illusion. Why would you assume that?

        • Justin Whitaker

          You are assuming assumptions that aren’t being assumed. Why? All of this is based on experience and the words of the wise. If your experience discounts the linear nature of time as we experience it, then this might be something worth teaching (or getting treatment for, either way…).

  • Dion Peoples


    I think when the reference was made to the middle ages… and the plague… sure violence was higher then, but also the Black-Death, etc… effected much of Europe as well. The plague is not violence in the measurable type by the sociologist, but could be violence in the sense that it is one species against another. The Plague led Christians to believe that the Jews were responsible for the deaths, and that led to their demise in Europe… at that time.

    Nice article, thank you for your energy….

    • Justin Whitaker

      Dion – that reminds me of McNeill’s book “Plagues and Peoples” which I’m overdue to re-read. It has some great stuff on early Buddhism (or at least Brahmanism), as well as on the middle ages in Europe. And indeed, the Plague led to horrible anti-semitism – I think Jews were scapegoated enough times to fill several volumes of books in the medieval, modern, and even contemporary ages… – Many thanks.

    • Meggie

      Interesting point, Dion. Another sign of progress: Today we’d blame pathogens rather than the Jews, and we would (I hope) be able to treat another plague and vaccinate people against it. Well, I suppose AIDS is something of a plague and is still without a good cure, but there are medications that help manage the disease.

  • Kenneth Elder

    During the better conditions in the Roman Empire under better leadership in the 2nd Century AD I’m sure many people also thought that society was headed toward long term improvement. People with intuitive vision see global warming being worse than the scientists predict. There will be problems with other humanoid species as we expand out into the galaxy in future centuries. Since the Renaissance many people in Western Societies have associated scientific and technological progress with inevitable societal progress. But science has increasingly been corrupted by oligarchic monopolistic bankster billionaire families.

  • Douglas Gildow

    Ah, but doesn’t True Buddhism teach that things will get better for five-six billion years or so, until roughly the time Maitreya comes? Then people’s bodies will be huge and they will have long life expectancies. Statistics also prove that people are getting bigger and living longer now, so it seems to be coming true. Then, and only then, will things IN GENERAL start to decline, until after billions of more years, life expectancy will go down to 10 years or so. Here are some references to this matter, referenced to canonical Chinese scriptures in the Taisho collection, if you read Chinese:
    * Principle Maitreya sutras: T 452, T 453, T 456
    * Chang ahan (agama): T 1: 1.39a-42b
    * Zhong ahan: T 26: 1.508c-511c
    * Zengyi ahan: T 125: 2.787c-789c
    * (also cf _Complete Chronicle of the Buddha and Patriarchs: T 2035: 49.301a)

    • Justin Whitaker

      Many thanks for the comment, Doug. But what the heck is True Buddhism? I’ll take that and the ‘if you read Chinese’ as a bit tongue in cheek. I can read the first 3 numerals, wu, and the character for ‘heart’ in Chinese. I don’t suppose that will get me too far. But I think it’s safe to say that there are differing cosmologies in Buddhism, depending on when and where, etc. I’ve just picked up Jan Nattier’s “Once Upon a Future Time” and I’m finding it absolutely amazing. She covers the early Pali and subsequent developments in cosmologies and Buddhologies (the coming and going of Buddhas in lists of 7, 25, 5, 1000, 500, etc), even something at T 425, if you read Chinese. She concludes that all of them place us at a point of decline (not the bottom point though, when human lifespans are roughly 10 years), which will be followed by ascent and eventually Maitreya/Metteyya.

      Here is her lovely chart on p.25:

      (Nattier, Once upon a Future Time, p.25)

  • joe

    Muslims are prohibited to utter the word Buddha. Also their countries never accept anything to do with Buddhism. Budd ahist concepts such as anitta dukka anatta do not proliferate into these countries

  • elisa freschi

    This is a little bit OT, if one just reads the comments, but I am very much in favour of the point you make in your last paragraph: the so-called fundamentalists are wrong in *accepting* stories as if they were description of the world, but this has led other people to just *dismiss* them as wrong descriptions. By contrast, I think that most of them have a *prescriptive* value, of the sort: “Do your duty, or you will accellerate the decay” (for instance). (For a theistic perspective on the same problem:

    • Justin Whitaker

      Yes yes yes Elisa. I agree fully. Rupert Gethin has a couple excellent articles out on this; essentially arguing that the ‘fantatic’ cosmology is meant to draw in and transform the listener in meditation, and indeed the moral of the story is… moral. I suppose the middle ground is re-appropriating these stories as the teaching and meditation tools that they (most likely) originally were meant to be.

      Ah yes, good old Kant (at your blog). :) I’ve always thought of him as an ethicist who found that he *needs* God to ensure his moral system, likely in the same way that the Buddha *needs* karma (although the latter claimed to have known karma through experience).

  • mary

    all i know is that my world is becoming a more peace full place

  • Pingback: Buddhism and Social Justice News: 8 – 14 October 2012 | Joshua Eaton

  • Pingback: Violence, Optimism, and Dialogue