Can a Bodhisattva Kill?

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.

7 thoughts on “Can a Bodhisattva Kill?

  1. Dr. Will March 7, 2010 / 1:50 pm

    Isn’t this the same as basic utilitarianism, where the overall good must be calculated, and if it outweighs the bad (the death of thousands vs. the death of one), the act is ethical? I see that in Buddhism the focus is on doing good for the actor, saving him/her from doing bad, rather than considering the outcome. But the effect of the justifications are the same.

  2. soraj March 7, 2010 / 4:55 pm

    Hi Will, glad to hear from you again. Many commentators have regarded Buddhist ethics as consequentialist or utilitarian, and there is some grain of truth in it, though not all of Buddhism can’t be interpreted as consequentialist. You are perhaps right in that doing good for somebody weighs more than simple calculation of outcome. But the main thing in Buddhism is the quality of mind of the actor. Sometimes killing can be a compassionate act — this also has some interesting implications (and of course difficult ones) for end of life and euthanasia issues too.

  3. Thomas Richmond March 9, 2011 / 1:08 am

    Quite interesting to see this interpretation that when it comes to killing in Buddhism, it may be justified if intention is “pure”. However, it sort of eerily reminds me of that monk Kittiwuttho (กิตติวุโฒ) from the 1970s who claimed that it is not evil for patriots to kill Communists (meaning leftist students of that time) since the intention is righteous and outweighs the sins, hence the famous allegory of killing a fish to offer to monk as food. So does Kittiwuttho actually have a point in making such claim, for it is sometimes appropriate to kill in Buddhism?

  4. soraj March 9, 2011 / 9:04 am

    I’ve just read the news piece in Thairath that you mentioned. My take is this: If you *force* somebody to pray for somebody else in order to create merit for him, the merit won’t be much because these things can’t be forced. So I don’t know what the government is up to here. Completely baffling.

  5. soraj March 9, 2011 / 9:10 am

    Kittivuddho does not have any point. And if someone killed communists in the name of “protecting Buddhism” they can go straight to hell as a result. This is because those who kill, including those who exhort others to kill, are not Bodhisattvas. They act not out of pure altruism, but out of their own selfish motives. Killing fish for the monks is also bad karma.

  6. Linda March 11, 2011 / 4:48 pm

    Hi,

    In reply to the issue of killing fish and offer to the monk:

    Although there are some monks who consume non-vegetarian food and cannot choose whatever food is offered to them, as far as I am concerned, they have to reject food from their disciples if they knows or is suspicious that the food is purposely killed for him.

    As per dhammapada first verse:
    Mind is chief, mind is foremost..

    And I agree what matters is our mind and intention. If nothing is to be done, do nothing.

    With metta,
    Linda

  7. Taeri sunim May 17, 2011 / 2:37 am

    I find the position of Kunga Sangbo Rinpoche ( and of Mahayana Buddhism) very balanced and reasonable. The principle of the Middle Way is the dialectical relationship between the two poles of Compassion and Wisdom. Wisdom is also reason and rationality. If buddhist ethics were based solely on compassion, there would be no balanced actions, rather actions prone to sentimentality and doing good. But this dialectical nature of ethics avoids dogmatism and rigidity, typical of a widespread common sense in the West, and demonstrates its adaptability to the his context of reference.

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