One of the most controversial topics in Mahayana Buddhism touched upon in Kunga Sangbo Rinpoche’s teaching at the Bodhgaya Hall last Thursday is about the act of killing by a bodhisattva. Those who have even a very basic understanding of Buddhism knows that killing is prohibited in the precepts. The first precept says specifically that one should not kill, since the act of killing would lead to bad karma that will result in the one who kills move further away from liberation from suffering. But there is a troubling and difficult story where it might be all right for a bodhisattva to kill. Understanding this story correctly would certainly lead to a fuller understanding of the Buddhist message as a whole.
Let us look at the story. Suppose there is a crazy and evil man who is about to push a nuclear bomb button which will result in the death of millions of people. Suppose further that the only way to stop this guy is to shoot and kill him (suppose further that shooting to main him is not enough). Then the bodhisattva, realizing that this guy is about to commit grievous sin which will lead to countless lives in the lower realms, kills the guy in order to save him from committing the crime and also to save the millions of lives. In that case, is the bodhisattva justified in doing so?
Let us remember that in Buddhism it is the intention or motivation in doing an act that is the key, and not the actual nature of the act itself. Thus if the nature of an act is such that it is one of killing, then it is ultimately the motivation behind the act that counts. Hence the bodhisattva is justified in killing the mad man because his intention is a pure one.
This is difficult to understand. Usually we are taught that when an act is prohibited, it is the act itself that is prohibited. But that is not the case in Buddhism. The reason why the first precept recommends us to refrain from killing is that, in an overwhelming number of cases and situations, killing incurs bad karma because in these cases our motivation is not a pure one. It does not happen every day that there is a mad man rushing to push a nuclear button. In most cases when we kill we do so because of either our hatred or desire — in either cases the act becomes unwholesome and will contribute significantly to lives in the lower realms. But when the intention is to stop the person who is about to commit grievous sin from doing so, and to help save other lives, then it might be probably all right.
Even so, however, the bodhisattva himself does incur a significant amount of bad karma; it is possible that the bodhisattva himself might have to be reborn in hell for a number of lives as a result. But being a bodhisattva that is the risk that he is willing to take. It is better for him to go to hell alone rather than millions going there. This is purely the mindset of a bodhisattva.
What is very dangerous in this teaching is that this is absolutely not intended to give everyone licence to kill. If you are not a realized bodhisattva, chances are that you are still inflicted with the kleshas or defilements that cloud your mind. In that case it is always best to refrain from any form of killing.