Part of Nobumi Iyanaga's website. Last updated Sun Mar 9, 2003, at 14:00:54.

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Buddhism and War

by Paul Demiéville

Summary by Nobumi Iyanaga


Recently, I had an opportunity to read again the article entitled “Le bouddhisme et la guerre” by Paul Demiéville (I had read it many years ago). I found it so interesting that I thought I might try to write a presentation of this article in English, including in it some personal notes, and some of the quoted Chinese texts (I used the texts of Cbeta and of SAT; and I used also some Mojikyo numbers). Even though my English is very poor, I think this presentation will allow to a wider public to have access to the very rich information of this article (I really think that it should be translated into English. — By the way, I presented in the first version of this page a wish that this article should be translated into Japanese also. Ishii Kōsei 石井公成-san who read it pointed out to me that it is already translated in this language. The reference is: Hanazono-daigaku kokusai-zengaku kenkyūjo kenkyū-hōkoku「花園大学国際禅学研究所 研究報告」I (1988 [published in 1989]): issue entitled “Chan/Zen Studies by Paul Demiéville ポール・ドミエヴィル禅学論集”; its Chapter II, entitled “Sesshō-kai no mondai 殺生戒の問題” is the Japanese translation of this article. — Ishii-san taught me also that there is at least another interesting article dealing with the problem of killing in Buddhism, by Prof. Lambert Schmithausen. The reference is: Lambert Schmithausen, “Buddhism and the Ethics of Nature — Some Remarks”, Eastern Buddhist, NS XXXII-2, 2000, p. 26-78; this is translated into Japanese in ランベルト・シュミットハウゼン, 岩田孝・瀧川郁久訳「〔講演〕佛教と自然倫理 — 若干の所見(1)—」東洋の思想と宗教, XVIII (March 2001). — Ishii-san emended also some typos in my first version. Thank you very much!).

Here is the basic reference of this article:
It was published at first as:

Paul Demiéville, “Le bouddhisme et la guerre. Post-scriptum a l’«Histoire des moines guerriers du Japon» de Gaston Renondeau”, Mélanges publiés par l’Institut des Hautes Etudes chinoises, Tome I, Paris, 1957, p. 347-385
then incorporated in:
Paul Demiéville, Choix d’Etudes bouddhiques (1929-1970), Leiden, E. J. Brill, 1973, p. 261-299.
The article deals mainly with two kinds of issues: one is a historical overview on the commitments of the Buddhist clergy to different kinds of warfare in Eastern Asia (especially China, and also Japan), and the other is a doctrinal study on the problem of “killing” in Buddhism (and not so specifically on the problem of “war”). Here, I will omit the historical part (although it is in itself very interesting and instructive), and concentrate my presentation on the doctrinal and ethical problem of “killing”.

Demiéville’s own position in this regard seems very clear and simple: for him, Buddhism forbids any kind of murder, of killing any living being, and all statements that do not go in this sense are deviations from this fundamental doctrine. By the way, Demiéville was a pure historian, not at all a Buddhist himself, although he had certainly a very liking attitude toward Buddhism (or at least, what he thought to be the “fundamental Buddhism”). This is why he seems not particularly troubled even if he finds in Buddhism doctrines and statements which seem contradictory or in conflict with his own feeling.


The article begins with a review of the canonical tradition of the commandment of “not killing” (p. 347-349): it is the first of Five Prohibitions (pañca-śīla); killing is one of the Ten Major Sins (Jap. jūaku 十惡). It is said in the Mahā-prajñāpāramitā-śāstra that killing is the most grave of the sins (T. XXV 1509 xiii 155b21-22 [translation by Lamotte, II, p. 790]: “復次殺爲罪中之重”). If a monk or a nun kills a person, he/she is expelled from the saṅgha definitively. The Abhidharma-kośa says that even if one is compelled to join the army by force, one is guilty, even if one does not kill himself — except the one who swears to not kill even if it is to save his own life: translation by La Vallée Poussin, tome III, p. 152; Xuanzang’s translation: Taisho XXIX 1558 xvi 86b23-25; Demiéville quotes a different opinion from the Mahā-vibhāṣā: Taisho XXVII 1545 cxviii 617c14-18.
Then Demiéville opens an interesting parenthesis on the problem of the suicide in Buddhism (p. 349-351). While Etienne Lamotte thinks that Buddhism has never condemned the suicide for itself, Demiéville thinks that it was (at least originally) considered as a sin, less serious than the murder, but nevertheless a sin. However, there are some suicides which are not condemned. In the Hīnayāna texts, some saints (arhats) who “have done what was to be done” and ready to enter in the nirvāṇa could kill themselves with the Buddha’s approbation (case of Vakkali: Saṃyutta-Nikāya, III, p. 119-124; Taisho II 99 xlvii 346b7-347b13, etc.); and in the Mahāyāna literature, we find stories of the Bodhisattva sacrificing his own life by charity. The Mahā-prajñā-pāramitā-śāstra (Upadeśa, or Daichido-ron) says that “the suicide is not a sin of murder, because by suicide one does not kill other people” (Taisho XXV 1509 xii 149a5-9; translation Lamotte, II, p. 740-741).

But according to the Buddhist doctrine, there is no permanent entity, no “self”, nothing that can be said “I” or “other people”; then, what means “kill other people”? The Abhidharma-mahāvibhāṣā says that it is a question of “notion” (xiang 想, Sk. saṃjñā): we say that there is murder when there are the notions of a self, of a sattva, of the life, of an individual... Question: What do we call “kill a sentient being”? Does one kill the past skandhas, the present skandhas or the future skandhas? The past skandhas do no longer exist, the present skandhas are without duration, the future skandhas do not yet exist. Answer: We say that to kill a sentient being means to kill the future skandhas; it prevents the future skandhas to be regrouped... Page 352, n. 5, translating Taisho XXVII 1545 cxviii 617a12-b8; see also Kośa, Taisho XXIX 1558 xvi 86b29-c17 = La Vallée Poussin, III, p. 153-154:

In the Mahāyāna, it is simply said that “since there is no real being, there is no sin of murder, and since there is no murder, there is no prohibition of murder“ (Daichido-ron, Taisho XXV 1509 xiv 164a19-2 = Lamotte, II, p. 864)... Demiéville writes (p. 353): “The Hīnayāna, which tends to condemn the life, remains strict in its prohibition of killing; the Mahāyāna praises the life, and it is it which ends in finding excuses for murder, and even in glorifying it.”


After these pages, Demiéville goes to his historical account of “Buddhism and war” in Eastern Asia (p. 353-375).
Pages 353-354: generalities (in India, and in Indianized South-East Asia, Buddhism seems to have worked always as a pacifist element in the society, but not in China and other countries under Chinese influence [i.e. mainly Korea and Japan]); p. 355-357: generalities in China (one of the most important motivations for which Buddhism has been received was the ritual power of defeating enemies, with such sūtras as the well-known apocryphal sūtra Renwang-jing/Ninnō-kyō 仁王經, etc.; economical and social effects of the development of Buddhist clergy in China [that may have been one of the causes of the decline of the Tang state]; Chinese Buddhist clergy was exempt from military service).
Pages 357 sq.: historical overview of different popular revolts of Buddhist inspiration at different periods of Chinese history. Pages 357-359: revolt of Faqing 法慶 in 515, in the Northern Wei dynasty, with its Maitreyan inspiration. Faqing took the title of Mahāyāna (Dacheng 大乗); he was proclaiming the parousia of a new Buddha 新佛. He had more than 50000 monks under his orders; if one had killed a man, he had the title of Bodhisattva of the First Residence 一住; the more one killed, the more he was advanced in the saintliness; if one had killed ten persons, he had the title of Bodhisattva of the Tenth Residence 十住. It was a war to put down Māra 平魔. Other Buddhist rebellions of the same period; there were Maitreyan apocryphal sūtras like a sūtra entitled “The bodhi of Maitreya and the surrender of Māra 彌勒成佛伏魔經” of the Sui 隋 [see for example 衆經目録 Taisho LV 2146 ii 126c11]... This sūtra seems to have been lost — but see my Personal note 1
Pages 359-363: political disorders at the beginning of the Tang dynasty; an example: a monk named Gao Tancheng 高曇晟 revolted at the North-West of the present Beijing; he proclaims himself to be the Emperor Mahāyāna 大乗皇帝, his spouse is a nun named Empress Yaśodharā 耶&M038438;皇后; he decrees a new era named “Wheel of the Dharma 法輪” — but he is soon murdered by an acolyte who turned traitor (p. 360-361).
Inscription of Shaolin-si 少林寺 of 621 by the first emperor of Tang, Taizong 太宗: monks of Shaolin-si helped the future emperor Taizong to defeat an enemy (p. 362-363).
Pages 363-365: disorder of the end of the Tang dynasty, and some monks who participated in military actions (especially Yuanjing 圓靜). Pages 365-369: different monks of different periods who helped the government in military actions: monks of Lushan 廬山 at the end of the Southern Tang (975); Huizhen 恵臻 at the end of the Northern Wei (6th century) (p. 365); Daoping 道平 at the moment of the insurrection of An Lushan 安禄山 (755); Zongyin 宗印 and Zhenbao 眞寶 when Kaifong 開封 was fallen under the Jurchens 女眞 (1126) (p. 366); Yiduan 義端 against the Jurchens around 1155; Mo Qienzhi 莫謙之 in 1275 against the army of Khubilai (p. 367); monks of Shaolin-si 少林寺 against Japanese pirates (倭寇) under the Ming (around the 15th and 16th centuries); their evocation by an officer of the army of Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek 蒋介石) in 1936 in a lecture before monks of Nankin, to fight against the Japanese invasion (p. 367-368).

After a little parenthesis on Korea, Demiéville passes to the history of Japanese warrior monks (sōhei 僧兵) (but these are only personal notes on this history; the article of Renondeau, of which this article of Demiéville is said to be a “post-scriptum”, deals more fully with this history) (p. 369-373). He notices that the institution of sōhei was active between two periods (Nara and Edo) during which the state was stable under a strong centralized government; it corresponds roughly to the “feudal period” of the history; great temples became private lands, kind of seigniories. The religion became feudal just like the society itself (p. 370-371). Another particularity of Japanese sōhei history: variety of clerical staff (there are scholar monks, but there are many more monks of second order, often pure secular people, workers in many fields, who became warriors at occasions...) (p. 371-372). Pages 372-373: new sects of Kamakura periods, Jōdo, and Jōdo-shin, and Nichiren, which were at the center of peasant uprisings of the 14th-16th centuries. Pages 374-375: another sect which played a major role in Japanese military history: Zen sects, with their training methods, could easily become near to some form of military arts (archery, fencing [example: Takuan’s work on fencing, entitled Fdō-chi jinmyō-roku 不動智神妙録 — Takuan 沢庵 (1573-1645), counsellor of Tokugawa Iemitsu 徳川家光, was a friend of Miyamoto Musashi 宮本武蔵 as well...]).


From page 375 to page 385, Demiéville exposes different doctrinal justifications of war or murder that he could find in the history of Buddhist doctrines. He notes “en passant”: most of these justifications go back to India, but they have not lost their “actualité”, since he could find most of them in political propaganda press of war time in 1930s and 40s... (p. 375, n. 2, where is quoted an article by Takakusu Junjirō 高楠順次郎 in 1938, Young East, VIII-1, in which the “world of embryo of lotus”, padma-garbha-dhātu 蓮華藏世界, is identified to the totalitarianism and to the general mobilization; he refers also to a “quite thin” book on “Buddhist conception of war” by Hayashiya Tomojirō [林屋友次郎、島影盟共著『佛教の戰爭觀』東京、大東出版社, 1937]...).

The principle argument, the simplest one, was that the True Dharma must be protected against its enemies. We can find many protecting deities of Buddhism, such as Śakra devendra, the Four Deva-kings, or the main of them, Vaiśravaṇa, depicted as veritable war gods in Central Asia and China... There were tantric rituals of Vaiśravaṇa for victory in war [in Taisho volume 21, there are eight sūtras or rituals of Vaiśravaṇa, all related to war (Taisho XXI 1244-1251); and in the Tang period, there was a famous legend according to which the tantric master Amoghavajra performed a Vaiśravaṇa ritual, which saved a Tang army against a barbarian invasion. See my Daikokuten hensō 大黒天變相, Kyoto, Hōzō-kan 法藏館, 2002, p. 362-363, p. 406-409]; and this deity became the protecting god of many Japanese warriors (even in 1938, when Japanese army invaded China, many Japanese solders went to worship icons of the Four Deva-kings in Chinese temples, before going to a battle). It is said in the Nihon shoki Nihon shoki 日本書紀 that when the Prince Shōtoku 聖徳太子 went to war to establish Buddhism in Japan in 587, he had a little figurine of Vaiśravaṇa in his knot of hair. And the first temple in Japan was a temple of the Four Deva-kings, in Osaka (Shitennō-ji 四天王寺)... (p. 375-376).
By the way, all these deities are “defensive deities”, and this fits well to the concept of war in Eastern Asia, where the war is generally considered as a “repression to re-establish the peace”; but “from the defensive to the offensive, by the bias of the preventive war, the passage is easy” (p. 376: this recalls so well our own current situation [end of February 2003], with regard to Bush and Iraq...!). Pages 377-378: arguments attributed to Ryōgen 良源 (912-985), superior of Mt. Hiei in the 10th century, who would have allowed the formation of monk warriors (“because we are in the last period of the Dharma, we have to protect the Dharma with arm”; “Mañjuśrī has a Sanskrit book in one of his hands, and a sword in the other; we must be like Mañjuśrī...”).

Pages 378-379: Demiéville quotes then Nichiren 日蓮’s works (he refers to G. Renondeau’s translations: Risshō ankoku-ron 立正安國論, Renondeau’s translation in T’oung Pao, XL (1950), p. 165-170 [very probably Taisho LXXXIV 2688 206b13-c14]; Kaimoku-shō 開目鈔 Taisho LXXXIV 2689 ii 231c4 sq., one of the letters to Shijō Kingo 四條金吾 [I don’t have this text at hand; the reference is to its translation by Renondeau, La Doctrine de Nichiren, Paris, 1953, p. 287-289]) which refer to the Mahāyānist Mahāparinirvāṇa-sūtra, Taisho XII 374 xiv 459a-460b, where it is said that the Buddha, in one of his previous lives, killed heretical brahmans who were slandering the True Dharma; he did so, because of his compassion for them (if they continued to slander the Dharma, they would have received more punishments), and because he had to protect the Buddhist Dharma; and anyway, these brahmans were icchantika, so there was no sin to kill them (see Personal note 2). In another passage, the same sūtra says that those who protect the True Dharma are those who do not receive the Five Prohibitions and do not practice the good behavior; they must take sword, bow and arrows, etc. and protect the pure bhikṣus who observe the Five Prohibitions...(“護持正法者。不受五戒不修威儀。應持刀劍弓箭鉾槊。守護持戒清淨比丘”); those who observe the Five Prohibitions are not named men of the Mahāyāna, but those who do not receive them and protect the True Dharma are said men of the Mahāyāna (“若有受持五戒之者。不得名爲大乘人也。不受五戒爲護正法乃名大乘”: Taisho XII 374 iii 383b22-384b11) [see Personal note 3] ; there is the story of the king named Youde 有徳 who waged war to protect a monk named Juede 覺徳 (Taisho XII 374 iii 383c19-384a18; see the text in the text just quoted), and another story of the king Xianyu 仙預〔Var. 仙豫〕 who killed a brahman who slandered the Buddhist teaching (Taisho XII 374 xii 434c9-21).


Now, Demiéville passes to other doctrinal justifications of murder. Page 379: the first argument is a “statistical” one: it is better to kill one person than to have many people killed (“issetsu tashou 一殺多生”). There is a famous story in a sūtra called “Da-fangbian Fo baoen-jing 大方便佛報恩經” (Sūtra of the great upāya of the requited favors by the Buddha): once, the Bodhisattva was born as a brahman converted to Buddhism; he went to a voyage with 500 companions. They came to a gorge, where a gang of 500 bandits were waiting for passengers. One of them was sent to go scouting, and he happened to be an old acquaintance of the Bodhisattva. He went to meet him, and told him of the project of the attack by the bandits. The Bodhisattva thinks: if I warn my companions of the danger of the bandits, they will certainly kill the informer (this bandit who came scouting), and all of them will bring terrible karmic retributions upon themselves; but if I don’t say anything, the 500 bandits will massacre the caravan and they will receive terrible retributions also. Then he decides to kill the bandit who came to inform: he will have to bear the karmic retributions, but he will save both his companions and the bandits from bad karmic retributions. After the murder, informed of the situation by the Bodhisattva, his companions and the bandits arouse the mind of intention to achieve enlightenment... (Taisho III 156 vii 161b13-162a6).
I will open a parenthesis here, to mention that there are other versions of the same story in another classical Mahāyāna text: it is named Upāya-kauśalya-sūtra, and is incorporated in the Ratnakūṭa-sūtra: Taisho XII 345 ii 163c19-164a13 = XII 346 iv 175c6-176a15 = XI 310 cviii 604b24-605a6; it is incorporated also in the Śikṣā-samuccaya of Śāntideva (chapter 8), and is translated into English (A treasury of Mahāyāna sūtras : selections from the Mahāratnakūta sūtra / translated from the Chinese by the Buddhist Association of the United States; C.C. Chang, general editor. University Park, Pa., Pennsylvania State University Press, c1983. xv, 496 p.). I know this, because this text has been discussed at full length 7 years ago in Buddha-L, by John Donne. I think Demiéville was not aware of this story; it is interesting to note its connection with the story of the “Da-fangbian Fo baoen-jing“, and also (I guess) with the doctrine that we find in the Yogācārabhūmi-śāstra that Demiéville discusses in the next paragraph (see below). Anyway, here is how John Donne summarized the story in a message of March 21, 1996... (subject: “Re: Killing Hitler”) [I will edit hereafter the messages in putting diacritical characters and italics]:
Richard remarked, “I get the impression (some jātaka stories notwithstanding) that few Buddhist ethical theories fall neatly into an instrumentalist or utilitarian model.”

Well, Śāntideva would disagree with you. In the eighth chapter of his Śikṣāsamuccaya, he discusses several ethical dilemmas, and in each case he offers a solution that could easily be interpreted as instrumentalist. Many of his examples come from the Upāyakauśalyasūtra, which is particularly relevant here since it is the source of the Tibetan oral tradition to which John P referred. As John P indicated, many Tibetan teachers note that it is acceptable for a bodhisattva to kill another person under certain circumstances. The part of the sūtra used to illustrate those circumstances concerns an incident in one of the Buddha’s former lives. In this particular life he led a group of five hundred merchants on an ocean voyage. A nasty criminal managed to join the voyage, and he formulated a plan to kill all of the merchants and take their wealth. As it so happens, these 500 merchants were fairly advanced bodhisattvas, so when some ocean-spirit informed the future buddha of the situation, the future buddha decided to kill the criminal. The ethical ruminations that lead him to that decision or [are] worth reading, and the episode has been translated into English in A Treasury of Mahāyānasūtras, pp. 456-7. Although the future buddha did kill the criminal in the end, most Tibetan oral renderings insist that the future buddha was still obliged to spend some time in hell as a result of his deed. This is also suggested by the sūtra.

The story itself is much longer, but the principle arguments in the “ethical ruminations” of the Bodhisattva is roughly the same as those of the story in the “Da-fangbian Fo baoen-jing”. I will quote another long message by John Donne (Fri, 22 Mar 1996, Buddha-L, Subject “Re: Killing, Consequentialism, etc.”):
I certainly appreciate Damien Keown’s lengthy reply, but I find myself in considerable disagreement with much of what he says.

For instance, Damien remarks:

> I would agree with John that there is evidence for this view in certain
> Mahayana literature. However, I think we need to be very cautious before
> drawing normative conclusions from it. In the first place, this strand is
> clearly a minority one: texts like the Upāya-kauśalya-sūtra stand out
> because they are so EXCEPTIONAL. Second, it, and sources like it, tend to be
> muddled, far-fetched, and often contradict themselves. The U-K sūtra, for
> example, which seems to suggest in one place that it may be legitimate to
> kill people, earlier insists that bodhisattvas should keep the precepts ...

Fortunately, I can begin with a point of agreement: I certainly would not wish to use these source as normative, since I think it highly problematic to form any normative judgements about Indian Buddhism. Not only is our information insufficient to support adequately any such inductions, but the notion of “normative” views presumes a homogeneity among Buddhists that is both impossible to prove and useless to explore.

I would agree, however, that one might be able to point to views that are repeated in a number of the sources now available to us and thereby claim that the majority of the authors of those texts held such and such a view, while the minority held some other view. This procedure, however, would be informative only about the authors of those texts, and it would not necessarily give us information about other Indian Buddhist authors, much less Indian Buddhism in general.

With this view of what is meant by a “minority” view or “strand” (as Damien calls it), anything more than a cursory review of Mahāyāna literature will reveal that the type of ethics presented in the Upāyakauśalya and in Śāntideva’s works is not a “minority strand.” Certainly, this type of ethical view is found frequently in the tantras, and as Śāntideva’s numerous quotations illustrate, such views can be found in a large number of Mahāyāna sūtras. Furthermore, if we wish to move beyond Indian Mahāyāna to consider a contemporary tradition, there is absolutely not question that the view found in the Upāyakauśalya and in Śāntideva’s works is the view expressed by the vast majority of Tibetan texts that I have examined and Tibetan scholars with whom I have discussed ethics. Certainly, on the Tibetan understanding, an ethics which takes account of consequences is essential to the practice of the Bodhisattva path. In short, I must strongly disagree with Damien’s claim that this type of ethics is a “minority strand,” if we understand “minority” and “majority” to be determined through some well formed inductions (and not just personal preference).

As for the claim that Śāntideva and the author(s) of the U-K andŚāntideva contradice themselves, it takes no account of the notion of apavāda that is so typical in Indian moral codes. In short, any moral code has its expceptions, and those exceptions have to do with the meta-ethics that are informing the code. Hence, such “exceptions” are actually an attempt to avoid contradiction. Of course, this is the case only where we have evidence for some systematic meta-ethics; in other cases, exceptions are related to a host of other issues, including historical development. A glance at the Prajñākaramati’s pañjikā will provide ample evidence for the point that I am making here.

Discussing the conflict between the precepts and excpetions to the precepts, Damien says:

> As I’ve suggested elsewhere, I think this confusion arises from conflicting
> imperatives within the Mahāyāna itself as the bodhisattva is pulled in two
> directions, between keeping the precepts and mitigating suffering. The
> general Mahāyāna view, however, like that of the Pāli canon, is that the
> precepts take priority.

What is the source for the “general Mahāyāna view”? I have been reading Mahāyāna literature for enough time to make me occasionally deplore it, and I still have not found anything like a “general Mahāyāna view” on any but the most limited and/or trivial questions. I say that I have never found anything “like” a mahāyāna view because I am not entirely certain how I would recognize it. How would one go about determining a “general Mahāyāna view”? Sounds like an inductive nightmare to me.

Next, Damien discusses the former-life account in which the Buddha kills a man to save 500 merchants. Damien says:

> I think we can read this passage in a way which does not involve
> instrumentalism at all. All that has happened here is that someone acted to
> neutralize an aggressor and save innocent lives. ...
> The person who acts, should, of course, aim to use the minimum degree of
> force necessary, since his primary intention should not be to kill the
> aggressor (he should not desire the DEATH of the aggressor as the object of
> his action), but to protect innocent lives. As always in Buddhism, intention
> is a key factor. What was the bodhisattva’s intention in this case? The text
> makes this clear: >
> “Thinking to himself, '’ will kill this wicked man because I want to protect
> these 500 people,’ he killed the wicked man with a spear.” >
> Thus the bodhisattva’s intention is cleary to protect life. [Note that the
> rationale here is not “one life against 500,” or any other form of absurd
> consequentialist weighing]. Even in a situation of this kind, however,
> lethal force should only be used when there is no alternative. Again, the
> narrative confirms that this was the case: >
> “There is no way to save the lives of these five hundred persons except to
> put this wicked man to death.” >
> It seems clear from this that the intention is to save lives and that the
> death of the wicked person is a regrettable side-effect.

Putting aside the blatant circularity of the last comment, what Damien has failed to account for here is the choice involved: either the Bodhisattva lets the 500 die, or he kills the “wicked man.” This is clearly the point of the passage, and it is the issue that the bodhisattva agonizes over. Now, what guides his decision? Why should the "wicked man" die instead of the 500? Why not let the 500 die instead? Is it just a “toss-up”? The sūtra itself provides an explanation: the possible outcomes involved. The sea-god who advises the bodhisattva about the situation says:

“Among your people, there is a wicked man with a certain appearance who is a robber and often steals from others. Now he has the evil intention to kill these five hundred men and return alone to Jambudvīpa wit the precious treasures. If this wicked man carries out his intention to kill these five hundred men, he will perform an extremely evil karma. Why? Because all these five hundred men are Bodhisattvas who do not regress from their advance toward supreme enlightenment. If this wicked man kills the Bodhisattvas, for this grave offense he will remain in hell for as long as the period of time from the moment these Bodhisattvas brought fourth bodhicitta to the moment they will attain supreme enlightenment. You are their leader. You may devise a skillful means to prevent this wicked man from falling to the hells, and also to save the lives of these five hundred Bodhisattvas.” [From the eng. trans. in Treasury ...]
The outcome of the evil man’s intended deed is obviously the issue here. I must confess that I find it absurd to claim that consequences are not a clear and significant aspect of the ethical decision to be made here. The author(s) of the sūtra certainly saw it that way. After the bodhisattva realizes that the only way to restrain the man is to kill him, he reflects further:
“If I tell these five hundred people about him, they will hate this wicked man and kill him themselves, and then they will fall to the miserable planes of existence.”
Clearly, the bodhisattva is considering the consequences: if he does ‘x’, then ‘y’ occurs. Next he thinks:
“I should kill him myself. Though I may fall to the miserable plane of hell and undergo sufferings for hundreds of thousands of kalpas because of killing him, I am willing to bear those sufferings, but I will not let this wicked man kill these five hundred Bodhisattvas and suffer in hell for that evil karma.”
Again, he is obviously considering consequences; he understands that he may be born in hell, but he considers that outcome preferable to all other outcomes. Clearly, he decides that a particular outcome is best (or least undesirable), and his actions are tailored to that outcome. This is the point made by Prajñākaramati when (commenting on Bodhicāryāvatāra 4:47), he says that a bodhisattva commits a down fall if he does not give rise to a lesser suffering that would serve to counteract some greater suffering or does not commit some slight harm in order to accomplish some great purpose:

[yo bodhisattvaḥ ...] alpaduḥkhadaurmanasyaṃ bahuduḥkhadaurmanasyapratīkārabhūtaṃ notpādayati, mahārthasiddhyarthaṃ vā aplahāniṃ na karoti, kṣaṇam apy upekṣate, sāpattiko bhavati.

This is indisputably an instance not only of consequentialism, but even of a kind of moral calculus where activities are ranked according to the utility of their outcomes. I cannot see how anyone could deny that consequences are a significant part of the ethics portrayed both in the U-K and in the works of Śāntideva and Prajñākaramati....

Another posting by Dan Lusthaus in the Buddha-L (Tue, 26 Mar 1996, subject: “Re: Killing Hitler”), which deals with the same story, is worth quoting:
...Damien wrote:

>In terms of the distinction Peter mentions above (motive v intent), as far
>as the U-K-S story is concerned, we could say that the bodhisattva’s motive
>is to save the lives of his companions, and his intent is to resort to the
>minimal level of force necessary to resist the threat

The absolutely incredible point — which to me indicates we are in the realm of sacred moralism rather than legitimate ethics — is that this story does not indicate “minimal necessary force” nor for that matter very good judgement on the part of the bodhisattva-cum-Buddha-to-be. The minimum necessary force: if 500 dudes can’t overcome and restrain on slimy, murderous thief, than “minimum” has no meaning. The Buddha-to-be is afraid that his companions (all future bodhisattvas) would lose their cool and rip the scoundrel apart themselves. How does he know he can’t “persuade” them to tie the guy up instead? He can read 500 minds and predict their future thoughts? If so, he should be able to reason/persuade them to act reasonably.

To me, this story has nothing to do with minimal force or ethical action, but becomes another example of the Buddha sacrificing himself for the sake of others (a common Jātaka theme, including stories with virtually opposite outcomes, such as the bodhisattva cutting off pieces of his own flesh and feeding them to a starving tigress so that she can gain the strength to him and thereby produce milk to feed her cubs). He sacrifices his karma to keep everyone else’s clean and on track. The disturbing aspect is that he lights on murder as a viable ethical solution (when even in the artificially constructed confines of the story, it is not the only solution or last resort). If there is one license to murder, than there are others....

John Donne noticed that this story was referred to in the Tibetan traditions which say that “it is acceptable for a bodhisattva to kill another person under certain circumstances”. I think that this is also the (ultimate) source of the doctrine (??) of the Aum shinri-kyō according to which one can kill people in such or such circumstances (they called it by the Tibetan term “poa” [I don’t know the original Tibetan spelling...]).
In the next paragraph (p. 379-380), Demiéville mentions a passage of the Yogācārabhūmi-śāstra (Taisho XXX 1579 xli 517b6-17 = Sanskrit text in Bodhisattvabhūmi, ed. Wogihara, 1930, p. 165-166), where it is said that if a bodhisattva meet an evil person who is going to kill many people or to commit a crime liable of the immediate damnation (anantarya), he will think in himself: If killing this bandit, I fall in hell, what does it matter? I must not let him go to hell! Then the bodhisattva will examine the situation a good thought or a thought of neutral value in moral terms, and will kill him, full of both the horror of the crime and of the compassion for that person. In doing so, he will not commit any transgression; rather, he will acquire much blessing [see Personal note 4]. — We find roughly the same argument in the Mahåyåna-saµgraha of Asa∫ga: Taisho XXXI 1594 iii 146b28-c1 = Taisho 1593 iii 127a9-11 => Taisho 1595 xi 233c8-2 = Taisho T. XXXI 1596 viii 305b7-17; translation Lamotte, II, p. 215-216. In connection with this, Demiéville refers to the Obermiller’s translation of the History of Buddhism of Bu-ston: it is reported there that the murderer of the king Glan Dhar-ma (who had persecuted Buddhism) was full of commiseration with the king when he went to kill him — and on this point, Obermiller quotes in a note a tantric text which reproduces the same argument as the one found in the Yogācārabhūmi-śāstra and the Mahāyāna-saṃgraha (Demiéville, p. 380 and n. 2; the page of the translation of Obermiller referred to by Demiéville is “Bu-ston, History of Buddhism, trad. E. Obermiller (Heidelberg, 1932), p. 216 et n. 1”; but in the reprint of that book by Suzuki gakujutsu-zaidan 鈴木学術財団, Tokyo, 1964, I don’t find the passage at this page; I could find it though at p. 198 and note 1372...). So, this kind of argument is not specific to Tantrism, but can be found in the most classical Mahāyānic works. Demiéville quotes however a passage of the tantric Prajñā-pāramitā text, the Ardhyardhaśatikā prajñā-pāramitā (or Rishu-kyō 理趣經 in Japanese) (p. 380, n. 3: Taisho VIII 243 784c12-15) which says: “O Vajrapāṇi, anybody, having heard this naya (method), holds it and recites it, even if he harms (or kills, according to a variant) all the beings in the Triple Plan, will not fall in the evil destinies; because it is for subjugate them, [on the contrary,] he will attest rapidly the peerless correct perfect enlightenment.”
I would like to open here another (short) parenthesis about the subjugation theory in Tantrism. I studied the problem of the subjugation of Maheśvara in Sarva-tathāgata-tattva-saṃgraha texts in some extent in my old article “Recits de la soumission de Maheśvara par Trailokyavijaya”, M. Strickmann ed., Tantric and Taoist Studies in honour of R. A. Stein, III, [Melanges Chinois et Bouddhiques, XXII] Bruxelles, 1985, p. 633-745; there, you will find some references related to this issue. The myth of the subjugation of Maheśvara (i.e. Hindu Śiva) by Vajrasattva (or one of his emanations, e.g. Trailokyavijaya or Acala, etc.) can be considered as the prototype of tantric subjugation myths in general. One may wonder if, in the process of the subjugation, Maheśvara is “really” killed, or simply loses consciousness (see my article just quoted, especially p. 699-700, n. 125). In Amoghavajra’s summaries of the narrative, it is clearly said that Maheśvara is “dead” (Taisho XVIII 869 285a20-26: “以種種方便調伏。乃至命終。摩醯首羅死” [285a22-23]; Taisho XX 1134A 576a27-b2: “降三世菩薩種種苦治乃至於死” [576b1-2]); in the Sarva-tathāgata-tattva-saṃgraha itself, this is not clear. The text says that when the Bodhisattva Vajrapāṇi treads on Maheśvara, the gods cry out, saying that Maheśvara is “subjugated” (jiangfu 降伏, Sk. samāviṣṭa); the Buddha utters then the hṛdaya called “the Kindness of all the buddhas”, by which Maheśvara enters in a samādhi in which all his pain is calmed down... (Taisho XVIII 882 ix 372b13-2). But after that, it is said that the Buddha utters a hṛdaya that “resuscitates the life” (de huo ming 得活命), or that “draws the vijñāna of a dead person” (Sk. mṛta-vijñāna'ākarṣaṇa) to do so that Maheśvara returns to life... (Taisho XVIII 882 xiv 389a21-23).
Now, in the version of the Commentary on the Mahāvairocana-sūtra by Śubhakarasiṃha and Yixing 一行, Taisho XXXIX 1796 ix 678c8-679b4, we find many expressions meaning clearly the death. For example: “[that will] calm it [= the Obstacle] down and let it die”, chuxi qusi 除息去死 [678c10]; “if he [= the Obstacle] does not obey and will not quit, he will certainly cut off his Organ of Life by himself, so that the mantrin must produce a thought of kindness and not let him cut his life off” bi zi duan ji minggen 必自斷其命根..., wu ling bi duan ming 勿令彼斷命 [678c19-21]; the thought of Enlightenment of Acala is very powerful, and can harm forever all the evil inclinations, etc. to cut them all forever. That is to say to let them die...” neng yong hai 能永害, yong duan 永斷, ji shi si yi ye 即是死義也 [67824-25]; “the Buddha said [to Acala] that he should cut him [= Maheśvara]” fo yan ji dang duan bi 佛言即當斷彼 [679a9-10]; “then the King of Wisdom Acala trod with his left foot on the crescent of moon on the top of the head [of Maheśvara] and with his right foot on the crescent of moon on the top of the head of his consort. The life of Maheśvara ended at once” Dazizai-tian xunbian ming zhong 大自在天尋便命終 [679a10-12]. But just after this statement, the text uses the compound “menjue 悶絶”, “being unconscious in agony”: “Unconscious in agony, he [= Maheśvara] attested innumerable dharmas and obtained the prediction of the attainment of Buddhahood in the future” [679a12-13]. And after these somehow confusing uses of different expressions, the text reveals the “hidden meanings” of each word; as to the expression “the life ended” (ming zhong 命終), it says: “this means the cutting off of all the dharmas of his [= Maheśvara’s, or sentient being’s] mind forever (xinfa yong duan 心法永斷) [which let him] enter in the Nature of dharma without production (wushengfa-xing 無生法性, Sk. anutpāda-dharmatā ?) [where he can] obtain the prediction of the attainment of Buddhahood in the future of all the Buddhas. So, this does not mean to kill him (fei shi sha ye 非是殺也)” [679a15-17]. This moralizing exegesis is repeated further, where it is said that “cutting off his [= Maheśvara’s, or sentient being’s] life, [this means] to make attestation in the Plan of quiescence” [679b2].
Of course, we must not forget that all this is a myth, so that the very question of knowing if Maheśvara was “really” killed or not may be a non-sense; on the other hand, we must probably take account of the fact that in the Indian theory of transmigration, there is no concept of “definitive death” like the ours. Even if one is “really” killed, one is reborn immediately... Moreover, in the context of Buddhist vijñāna-vādin like thought, all the physical reality has very little “consistency”; all the life, as well as all the world, are “like a dream, like a phantasmagoria” — with the result that killing a person in the physical sense can mean simply “cutting off” his vijñāna (see also my Kannon hen’yō-tan, p. 209).

As to the surprising text of the Ardhyardhaśatikā prajñā-pāramitā according to which “anybody, having heard this naya (method), holds it and recites it, even if he harms (or kills) all the beings in the Triple Plan, will not fall in the evil destinies; because it is for subjugate them, [on the contrary,] he will attest rapidly the peerless correct perfect enlightenment”, we can find similar statements in other texts, for example in the exegesis on the mantra of the king Yama, in the Commentary on the Mahāvairocana-sūtra (Taisho XXXIX 1796 x 684b8-14). There, it is said that the mantra of Yama is MṚTYAVE; “this means the death, and the death means to kill. «Killing» is the name of the fact of cutting off the roots. By his vow, [king Yama promised to] cut off the Organ of Life of all the sentient beings. The Organ of Life is Ignorance without beginning, all the defilements. [King Yama] cuts off [the Organ of Life] of all the sentient beings, without any rest. This means to kill them. By this vidyā, one gets the sovereignty in the Rubric of dharma of the death. [This king Yama is also] a manifestation of the Buddha. [Although we say «to kill all the sentient beings, this] does not mean to kill really all the sentient beings.” — Thus, we see again the “moralizing exegesis” (this tendency may be proper to this Commentary); but the idea is the same.


After these Vijñāna-vādin arguments, another paragraph deals with “śūnya-vādin” arguments (p. 380-381). Demiéville quotes a passage of the Ajātaśatru-kaukṛtya-vinodana (Taisho XV 627 iii 424a22-425a25) where a son who has killed his mother is saved by the Buddha. The son is despaired because of his sin. The Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī sees him; he transforms himself into a son who quarrels with his parents, and kills them. Seeing this, the matricidal son thinks in himself that after all, he has killed only one of his parents, and recovers little by little his serenity. The metamorphosed son leads him to the place where the Buddha is preaching. He confesses his sin; the Buddha teaches him the Dharma and he becomes bhikṣu. Seeing this, the matricidal son takes his courage, and confesses in his tour his sin before the Buddha. The Buddha teaches him that the thought is empty like the empty space (“with what thought did you kill your mother? with the thought of the past? — then, it is non-existent; with the thought of the present? — then, it does not last; with the thought of the future? — then, it is not yet existent”, etc.); the matricidal son is finally saved, and attain the nirvāṇa... (see also p. 384, n. 2).
Demiéville quotes then a passage of the Susthimati-devaputra-paripṛcchā (incorporated in the Ratnakūṭa) (Taisho XI 310 cv 590b4-c27 = Taisho XII 341 iii 131c27-132b17 = Taisho XII 342 ii 150c4-151b24): 500 bodhisattvas are repenting of their sins of the past, and cannot attain the Patience of the dharma (dharma-kṣānti 法忍); the Buddha, having known that, orders Mañjuśrī to do the following thing: the latter raises up and taking his sword, rushes upon the Buddha and seems to be on the point of killing him. The Buddha says: ”Stop, stop, Mañjuśrī, you cannot kill the Buddha, because there is no self, no man, no sentient being, no father, no mother, no Arhat, no Buddha, etc...” The bodhisattvas realize that all is like an illusion, all is empty; there is no crime, no criminal... the Buddha himself, is he anything other than just a name, without substance, without reality...? Between the Buddha and the sword, there is no duality... At page 381, Demiéville says that this movement of thought is quite old in India, and in the note 2, he quotes Kauṣītaki Upaniṣad, III, 1; Bhagavad-gītā, ii, 18-19 (“The bodies end; the soul which is enveloped in it is eternal, indestructible, infinite... Go ahead and fight, o Bhārata! To believe that one kills, to think that the other is killed, both are errors; neither one kills, nor the other is killed”); ibid., xviii, 17 (“The person who does not create a self, whose intelligence is therefore not confused, even if he had killed all the creatures, he is without any chain...”).

Demiéville writes that this kind of (Indian) thought coincides with the old ethics of Daoism, based on the dialectics of opposites, and can be found often in writings of Chinese and Japanese school of Dhyāna [Chan/Zen], and even earlier, in authors like Huiyuan (334-416), and summarizes (p. 381-382) one of his works, the “Treatise which Clarifies the Retribution of Acts” (Mingbaoying-lun 明報應論, Taisho LII 2102 v 33b9-34b2, translated passages are: 33b10-15, 33c2-5). A layman asks Huiyuan why Buddhist sūtra say that murder is a grave sin that deserves a punishment in hell, since the body is only made of the Four Elements (solid, liquid, igneous and pneumatic), and the soul’s principle is an absolute... Huiyuan answers: If one admits that the other and myself are identical, and that there is no opposition between our two spirits, then, from the absolute point of view which is only one, the swords which intersect one another will be neutralized, and there will be no conflict between the weapons which collide each other. Not only the one who harms will do no harm at all to the soul, but also there is indeed no sentient being to be killed. It is in this sense that, Mañjuśrī, who took the sword, could have the appearance of going against the morals, but was in fact conforming to them. One can flourish the halberd in vain: there will be no place where one can put the blade... [The Chinese text is very difficult; I am not really sure if the translation of Demiéville is very correct; and of course, I am not sure at all if my translation of Demiéville’s French translation is correct...!]

Then (p. 382 and n. 2; p. 365 and n. 3) Demiéville recalls the famous words of the Chan master Yixuan 義玄 (died 867), the founder of the Linji 臨済 who said: “Everything you encounter inside or outside, kill it! If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha, kill the patriarchs, kill the arhats, kill your father, kill your mother, kill your close! This is the means for your deliverance and for you to escape from things; this is to attain the liberty!” (Taisho XLVII 1985 500b22-25). This call to murder was nothing but spiritual, but there were cases in which masters of the Chan school killed really living beings: it is reported that the master Nanquan 南泉 cut a cat in two, and the master Guizong 歸宗 cut a snake in two, to show visually the mortal danger of the duality (p. 382 and n. 3, quoting D. T. Suzuki, Essays on Zen Buddhism, I, London, 1927, p. 262 and p. 270). At the note 3, Demiéville quotes passages from a Chan work of the 8th century (?) named “Jueguan-lun 絶觀論” (Treatise on the Contemplation-Extinguished, on which see: <>; the text can be downloaded from: <>: the quoted passages are at Jueguan-lun 94a1-5 and Jueguan-lun 99b14-100a2; see also Jueguan-lun 91a4-14): “Question: In certain conditions, isn’t one allowed to kill living being?” -- Answer: The fire in the bush burns the mountain; the hurricane breaks trees; the collapsing cliff crushes wild animals to death; the running mountain stream drowns the insects. If a man can make his mind similar [to these natural forces], then, meeting a man, he may kill him all the same. But if he has the slightest hesitation, if he “sees” a living being [in the object of his act] and if he “sees” the killing [in his act], if there is the slightest mind in him, then, even if he kills only an ant, he will be bound [by this act (karman) in which his] own life [is involved]“ (94a1-5). ”Question: If all the beings are nothing but a phantasmagoria or a dream, is there any sin to kill them? -- Answer: If seeing living beings, you [see in them] living beings, then there is sin to kill them. If you don’t see any living being in them, then there is any living being that can be killed. It is like a dream in which one kills a man; on waking, there is nothing at all!“ (99b14-100a2). — Demiéville insists on the Daoist inspiration of this kind of doctrines (wuxin 無心, ”no mind" is a Buddhist adaptation of Daoist wuwei 無爲...); but they are at the same time consistent with the most orthodox Buddhist thought (see above, the quotation of the Abhidharma-mahāvibhāṣā).

In Japan, in the Zen school, the prohibition of killing was related to the Nature of Buddha existing in all beings [famous doctrine of the Mahāyānist Mahā-parinirvāṇa-sūtra]. By the vision of this Nature, one cut off all the passions which are the cause of delusion (p. 382 and n. 4, quoting the Enzan wadei gassui-shū 鹽山和泥合水集, a Zen work of the 14th century). But as soon as this Nature is “seen”, then, what does it matter the prohibitions and morals? At that moment, every prohibition is “automatically” observed; there is no longer any opposition between killing and not killing, between existence and non-existence, between life and death. As the Zenkai-shoo 禪戒鈔 (“Notes on the Zen Prohibitions”) by Dōtan 道坦 (1668-1773) writes, “to take account of difference between killing and not killing, that is to violate the prohibitions; in this sense, what is observance of prohibitions for śrāvakas is violation of prohibitions for bodhisattvas" (p. 383 and n. 1).

Finally, Demiéville mentions a passage of the Ratnamegha-sūtra, Taisho XVI 660 iii 293b13-c4 = 658 ii 217b24-c5 = 659 251a10-25 = Taisho XIV 489 v 715b11-26 (p. 383-385): here, it is said that bodhisattvas, with their skillful means, can do the following thing: if they meet a criminal guilty of Five sins of immediate damnation or other grave sins, who is so full of remorse that he is completely desperate, they will be able to create by magic (the form of) their parents, and kill them in front of his eyes; then, they will show him that even having committed such a sin, one is not to be totally desperate... (this is obviously related to the story of the Ajātaśatru-kaukṛtya-vinodana referred to above) (Demiéville, p. 383, n. 3, cites the Śikṣā-samuccaya, ed. Bendall, p. 168, where it is said that, according to the Ratnamegha, “the murder of a man who has the intention to commit a sin of immediate damnation is permitted” [see Personal note 5]).
According to Demiéville (p. 384-385), this text was famous in China, because one of its versions (Taisho 660) was translated under the reign of the so (in)famous empress Wu [Wu Zhao 武照] (in 693), by a group of translators who worked under the direction of the (also infamous) monk Xie Huaiyi 薛懐義, reputed as her lover. There is a long note, just at the beginning of the passage summarized above, by the editors of the Ming edition of the Chinese Canon, which presents suspicions about the authenticity of this passage. As it is well-known, Chinese historiographical tradition looked always the empress Wu as a very bad sovereign, having killed many of her relatives (not her own parents, though) to attain to the power; according to the note of the Ming edition, this passage of the Ratnamegha-sūtra would have been interpolated here to justify her deeds (assassinations). -- This accusation turns out to be a false one, since the same passage can be found in other versions as well (Demiéville adds the argument that it was referred to by the Śikṣā-samuccaya [p. 385, n. 2]).

By the way, the Ratnamegha-sūtra has been studied by Antonino Forte, who identified at its beginning a “genuine interpolation” made by the translators of 693, a prophecy in favor of the empress Wu (Taisho XVI 660 i 284b13-c14; see Antonino Forte, Political Propaganda and Ideology in China at the End of the Seventh Century, p. 130-132, and ff.). About the passage referred to above, Forte writes (p. 126-127):
...From the very beginning, however, enquiries [about the possible falsification of the Ratnamegha-sūtra] deviated in a rather dangerous manner for those who have been interested in the role of Buddhism at the time of Wu Zhao. This deviation, among other things, is very likely the result of a distorted picture of Wu Zhao which has been handed down to us by traditional historiography. The Buddhists of the Ming period, convinced as they were that Wu Zhao was a great assassin, were the first to speak of an interpolation in the Baoyu-jing [= Ratnamegha-sūtra], the scope of which would be to morally justify the numerous and horrible crimes of Wu Zhao. This interpolation, they thought existed in the fourth type of “ability in the means” (upāya-kauśalya) consisting in ”removing remorse", chuqian ezuo 除遣惡作 (kaukṛtya-vinodana), of which the third juan of the 693 version speaks. Yabuki realized how inconsistent this accusation was...
Now, I quote the final sentences of Demiéville (p. 385):
[The passage of the Ratnamegha-sūtra referred to above was not an interpolation. It surely was already in its original Sanskrit text... The argument of this passage was] only one of these deviations to which any casuistry may sometimes commit itself. We have done much better in this manner in Occident.

Here is the end of the article of Demiéville.

I would like to put stress on the importance of the idea of upāya in all these doctrines and parables: we find the word “upāya” (or “fangbian”) in the titles of several texts quoted (“Da-fangbian Fo baoen-jing 大方便佛報恩經” [Sūtra of the great upāya of the requited favors by the Buddha], “Upāya-kauśalya-sūtra“); the same notion can be found at the base of several other stories or doctrines (doctrines of the Yogācārabhūmi-śāstra and the Mahāyāna-saṃgraha; tantric doctrine of the subjugation; story of the Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī having converted the desperate matricidal son in the Ajātaśatru-kaukṛtya-vinodana; that of the Ratnamegha-sūtra, and that of the same Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī who rushes upon the Buddha flourishing his sword...).

As Demiéville says himself (p. 368: “documentation sans doute incomplète qui reste bien anecdotique...”), this article is not a systematic study of the problem of “Buddhism and war” or “Buddhism and murder”. There are certainly other learned studies on these issues.

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