Ethics and Contexts, or Is Killing Permissible in Some Way?

One of the interesting topics discussed during the plenary panel last Saturday at the IABU Conference in Wang Noi was on the question whether it is all right in Buddhism to do something that looks really bad but with the right intention, so that the action is not totally bad after all. This came up among the discussion by Jose Cabezon, who holds the Mahayana posiiton, and Asanga Tilakaratne and Somparn Promta, who are Theravadins.The other panelist, Damien Keown, seemed a bit neutral to me.

A question was posed to the panelists about the foundation of Buddhist ethics — whether there exists in Buddhist ethics something invariable that provides a foundation for objectivity in ethical judgment. Before the panel discussion, Asanga Tilakaratne had given a keynote talk where he said that there was a distinction between behaving according to the social convention and according to the nature of reality. For him the former is changeable, while the latter is not. Killing, for example, is always bad and will always incurs negative karmic results. This is because it runs against the nature of reality. On the other hand, not taking off your shoes when entering a temple is a matter of social convention and can be all right in some contexts and not in others. However, Cabezon raised this typical Mahayana point that it is the intention that governs everything here, so if the intention is a good and wholesome one then the action becomes good and wholesome, and this includes killing.

This kind of raised the temperature during the discussion to at least several degrees. What I particularly don’t want to hear is another Theravada-Mahayana debate; this has gone on for centuries and the content of the debate is utterly predictable. Nonetheless this was what happened during the panel discussion on Saturday. Fortunately the moderator changed to another topic after a while.

What Cabezon said was quite well known. Any act that is performed out of good intention is a good one, and an act is a good one if it is totally devoid of any trace of egoistic trace. That is, you do the act totally out of the wish for the happiness of all sentient beings, and not at all for yourself. Suppose there is a madman who is running to press down a button that wil detonate a nuclear bomb, and the only way to stop him is to shoot him, would it be morally permissible to do that? Suppose he is really mad and does not listen to any warnings. So it is possible that, out of the altruistic intention to save thousands of lives, it is necessary to shoot this mad person to stop him from pushing the button. This will not only save the lives, but more poignantly this will also save the mad persom himself from doing a very seriously negative karma. (But Cabezon did not talk about the possibility of shooting just to stop the guy from moving and not to kill him, but then harming and injuring someone typically incurs bad karmas too.)

Usually a harmful act, such as killing and shooting someone, is done out of dosa, or anger in Pali and Sanskrit. One has dosa when one is attached to one’s self and when one feels that one’s own self is threatened then one acts out in anger, or dosa. But the point is that it is possible for such an act to be performed without any trace of anger, but out of compassion! This idea can be found more in the Mahayana tradition but I would like to say that this is common to all Buddhism as a whole. It is the quality of mind that is of paramount importance, not the very nature of an act itself.

There is a story of Tilopa, an Indian master some centuries ago, who was eventually the teacher of the great scholar Naropa. At first when Naropa saw Tilopa for the first time, he was shocked. Tilopa did not look like a great Buddhist master, but an unkempt fisherman who cared nothing about convention or the world. Tilopa was fishing and killing a lot of fish. And you must know that in medieval India killing and eating flesh was not only a bad thing to do, it was also looked down upon very much socially, and only the lower castes resorted to doing something like that, and never a scholar or a brahmin. However, what Naropa later realized was that Tilopa was not actually doing the same thing as any fishermen did, but he was performing th Phowa or transference of consciousness to the fish so that they are born again in higher states. This was a pure act of compassion which those whose eyes were defiled by attachments did not see.

I am not saying this to sanction killing. This would be an anathema. And I am not saying that Buddhism endorses killing. This is totally wrong. However, the point is that when we talk about ethics and contexts, the Buddhist perspective is that everything is contextual, since everything is interdependent. You incur bad karmas if you kill. That is for sure. But if you are a realized being who have already attained nirvana or enlightenment, then you always act out of compassion and not out of egoistic desires, then if it is necessary for you to kill or harm in order to perform the compassionate act, then you do it. A bodhisattva is one who is willing to go even to hell if that is necessary for saving sentient beings from sufferings.

In the end, one has to realize, I think, that in Buddhism every saying, every statement, is ultimately an upaya, or a skillful means. The Buddha never said anything categorically, but always for the purpose of leading his listener to realize the Truth. Thus he may appear to say one thing to one kind of person, and another thing another kind of person. This may seem contradictory on the surface, but in fact they always lead to the same result. So for someone he may say that killing is wrong (and that is for all of us unenlightened beings), but the non-categorical nature of his sayings means that for some, i.e., those already enlightened, killing out of compassion is all right. But that is NOT to be performed at home by any of us 🙂


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