Killing in Self Defense

“For this cause I am prepared to die. But there is no cause for which I am prepared to kill.” – Mahatma Gandhi

A friend of mine who teaches meditation had a student ask her this past week what the Buddha had to say about killing in self defense. It is great question. It is simple and direct, and those are always the best kinds of questions. And it raises all kinds of issues in the Buddha’s teaching.

One way to look at what the Buddha taught is that he described a universe of causes and conditions. His teachings on ethics and morality lack the punitive, judgmental quality of theism. It is more like the law of gravity. Our karma is determined by a) the intention behind our actions and b) the skillfulness of our actions. The first part of that equation is important in that if, for example, you are walking in the grass and you unknowingly step on and kill an ant, there is no karmic effect because there was no intention. If, on the other hand, you are walking on a sidewalk and you see an ant and step on it, then there is a karmic effect because there was an unskillful intention.

Even if we find a way to rationalize something harmful that we have done, the unskillful act leaves a negative impression on our consciousness. Deep down we know that what we have done is harmful. These actions sometimes come up in our meditation. In the still mind, we suddenly see clearly something that we did that caused pain and suffering. The stillness of the mind cuts through the rationalizations, and we see the karmic effect. But even this can be used in a positive way. It is an incentive to be more careful in how we act in the future. It is a healthy, useful way to look at our past, unskillful actions. We can’t change what we have done, but we can use it as an incentive not to do it again.

There is another aspect to karma that is important to mention, and that is that karma is not deterministic. This is a common misunderstanding. Aṇgulimāla was a serial killer, but he became an Arahat. That was possible because what is most important is the decisions that we make now, in the present moment. When that tsumani occurred in the Pacific, some Buddhists said that all those people died because of their karma. This is a complete misunderstanding of karma. The tsunami happened because tectonic plates moved.

Of course, we are always looking for loopholes. That seems quite human to me. But the Buddha never described any loopholes when it comes to killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, or lying. Despite that, many schools of Buddhism – maybe even most of them – try all sorts of end runs around them. This is especially true of the precept on sexual misconduct. It is disturbingly bazaar how many prominent teachers have used their positions and power to take advantage of their female students. (I am not aware of any cases where a female teacher has done this to a male student.)

Likewise, even some of the most famous Buddhist teachers in the world, some of them even Buddhist monks, have written treatises on when violence is justified. You see this in the politics of Asia where – currently – the Burmese are trying to justify their atrocious treatment of their Muslim minority, and in Sri Lanka where the Tamil/Hindu minority is treated just as badly.

But the Buddha was quite clear that killing is never justified. He gave some pretty extreme examples. There is this famous passage from the Majjhima Nikāya:

“Bhikkhus, even if bandits were to sever you savagely limb by limb with a two-handled saw, he who gave rise to a mind of hate towards them would not be carrying out my teaching. Herein, bhikkhus, you should train thus: ‘Our minds will remain unaffected, and we shall utter no evil words; we shall abide compassionate for their welfare, with a mind of loving-kindness, without inner hate. We shall abide pervading them with a mind imbued with loving-kindness; and starting with them, we shall abide pervading the all-encompassing world with a mind imbued with loving-kindness, abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility and without ill will.’ That is how you should train, bhikkhus.”

– “Kakacūpama Sutta: The Simile of the Saw” [MN 21.20]

There is also a wonderful passage in the Saṃyutta Nikāya about a conversation between a deva and the Buddha. The deva asked the Buddha who can you kill and still sleep soundly? Then she asked who can you kill and not feel sorrow. Finally she asked the Buddha who the Buddha would approve of killing:

“Having slain what does one sleep soundly?

Having slain what does one not sorrow?

What is the one thing, O Gotama,

Whose killing you approve?”

In his usual clever turn of phrase, the Buddha replied that the only thing that he approves killing is anger:

“Having slain anger, one sleeps soundly;

Having slain anger, one does not sorrow;

The killing of anger, O Vatrabhū,

With its poisoned root and honeyed tip:

This is the killing the noble ones praise,

For having slain that, one does not sorrow.”

– “Māgha Sutta” [SN 2.3]

I love that phrase “With its poisoned root and honeyed tip.” The Buddha often described the deadly sweetness of anger. There is something energizing about anger. It is very enticing in that way. It makes us feel powerful in a destructive, malicious sort of way, thus the “poisoned root and honeyed tip.”

But there is another aspect to the notion of “self defense.” It has at its core a basic misunderstanding, and that is that the body is the same as the “self.” It is “me.” The question about “self defense” actually means defending the body, not the “self.” The Buddha was quite clear that the body – being one of the five aggregates – is not “me” at all. It is just, as the famous phrase goes, “the body, in and of itself.” The body dies, but the process that we call “me” continues into the next life.

In fact, I would argue that if we want to practice true “self defense,” we would never consider killing because of the harmful, negative effect it has on our continuing consciousness and our karma. Who cares about this body? It is really only useful in how we can use it to advance in our practice. We care for it, as the analogy goes, in the same way that a cavalryman looks after his horse. The cavalryman depends on his horse for his very life, so he cares for it, trains it, and keeps it healthy. But he never thinks of his horse as being “me.”

Personally, I would give this body up in a heartbeat rather than suffer the misery that would come from killing. That includes animals as well as people. It means any living being. I also think that as our practice deepens, our compassion for others – even someone who kills us – gets so deep, that killing another being simply to keep this body alive a little longer becomes instinctive.

I was at a retreat many years ago where there was a big colony of ants on one of the sidewalks. Someone put up a sign warning people to be careful of the ants. I didn’t think much of it at the time. But then some years ago I realized how carefully I walk so I do not accidentally kill any insects. I think that is just how the practice works. It gets into your bones after a while. This is, after all, what the Buddha’s path is about: abandoning unwholesome conduct and cultivating wholesome conduct.

All living beings want to live, from the ants on the sidewalk to the person trying to kill us. However, we also try to stop another person from killing from compassion, so they do not have to suffer the karmic consequences of their actions. That would not mean killing them, but it would mean trying to stop them.

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