Former teacher at Boulder's Shambhala accused of sexually as

The impulse to believe the absurd when presented with the unknowable is called religion. Whether this is wise or unwise is the domain of doctrine. Once you understand someone's doctrine, you understand their rationale for believing the absurd. At that point, it may no longer seem absurd. You can get to both sides of this conondrum from here.

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Part 1 of 2

On the auspiciousness of compassionate violence
by Stephen Jenkins
Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies Volume 33, Number 1–2, 2010 (2011) pp. 299–331
© Copyright 2011 by the International Association of Buddhist Studies, Inc.



In the Brahmajala Sutta we are told how the Buddha “refrains from killing living creatures, discards sticks and swords, and is considerate and full of concern, remaining sympathetic and well disposed towards all creatures and beings.” And a verse from the Suttanipata (394) states, “Laying aside violence in respect of all living beings in the world, both those which are still and those which move, he should not kill a living creature, not cause to kill, nor allow others to kill.” In the Cula-Kammavibhanga Sutta we are told of the results of killing living beings:

Some man or woman kills living beings and is murderous, has blood on his hands, is given to blows and violence, is without pity for living beings. Because of performing and carrying out such action, at the breaking up of the body, after death he reappears in a state of misfortune, an unhappy destiny, a state of affliction, hell.

The well known Metta Sutta or “discourse on friendliness,” a text frequently chanted in Buddhist ritual and considered one that brings protection or safety (paritta), sums up the positive corollary of not killing living beings as follows:

One should not wish another pain out of anger or thoughts of enmity. Just as a mother would protect with her life her own son, her only son, so one should cultivate the immeasurable mind towards all living beings and friendliness towards the whole world.

So, prima facie, the picture is clear: killing living beings — any living being — is a bad thing that leads to an unpleasant rebirth....

The Abhidhamma appears quite uncompromising here: it is a psychological impossibility, a psychological contradiction in terms that one should, when motivated by nonattachment, friendliness (and wisdom), intentionally kill another living being. The Abhidhamma and Theravadin exegetical tradition just do not seem to countenance the possibility....

Having considered the Abhidhamma and commentarial analysis of the act of killing a living being, it is perhaps worth briefly turning to a well known story where the bodhisattva is represented as killing a living being apparently out of compassionate motives. The Upayakausalya Sutra tells the story of how the bodhisattva in a life when he is indeed called “Great Compassion” kills a man in order to prevent him from killing 500 others — also bodhisattvas....

I think the evidence of the Abhidharmakosa is sufficient for us to conclude that it represents the mainstream approach of Indian Buddhist thought to the act of killing. The Upayakausalya Sutra thus perhaps represents a deliberate challenge to mainstream Buddhist ethics.

-- Can Killing a Living Being Ever Be an Act of Compassion? The analysis of the act of killing in the Abhidhamma and Pali Commentaries, by Rupert Gethin

In light of the overwhelming emphasis on compassion in Buddhist thought, Buddhist sources that allow for compassionate violence have been referred to as “rogue sources” and equivocations. A recent article states that, “Needless to say, this stance [that one may commit grave transgressions with compassion] is particularly favored by the Consciousness-Only school and in esoteric Buddhism.”1 However, the same stance is presented in the Mādhyamika tradition by Bhāviveka, Candrakīrti, and Śāntideva, as well as in a variety of sūtras.2 Allowances for compassionate violence, even killing, are found among major Buddhist thinkers across philosophical traditions and in major scriptures. It is also remarkable how broadly influential a singular source like the Upāyakauśalya-sūtra can be.

This paper reflects on the question of whether killing can be auspicious in Mahāyāna Buddhism with secondary reflections on the problems that arise in attempting to apply Western metaethical categories and modes of analysis.3 Studies so far have been reluctant to accept that compassionate killing may even be a source of making merit, choosing instead to argue that even compassionate killing has negative karmic consequences.4 If it is true that the compassionate bodhisattva killer takes on hellish karmic consequences, then it would seem that this is an ethic of self-abnegating altruism. Buddhist kings would seem to be in an untenable ideological situation in which even the compassionate use of violence and deadly force to maintain order and security will damn them to hell. Buddhist military and punitive violence, which has historically been a consistent feature of its polities, often including monastic communities, appears to be radically and inexplicably inconsistent with the values expressed by its scriptures and inspirational figures.

If there are negative karmic consequences to compassionate killing, then these acts must be read at best as necessary or “lesser evils.” However, altruism and negative karmic consequences rarely go together in Buddhist thought. A review of the remarkable spectrum of great Buddhist thinkers who have discussed this issue, many of them with reference to the Upāyakauśalya-sūtra, shows general agreement that compassionate violence can be an auspicious merit-making opportunity without negative karmic consequences.

Since I started working on this issue, which was integral to my doctoral dissertation, others have written on compassionate violence basing their thoughts primarily on Asangaʼs Bodhisattvabhūmi and Mahāyānasamgraha, and the Śiksāsamuccaya and Bodhicaryā vatāra attributed to Śāntideva. Building on the pioneering work of Mark Tatz, I am going to add examples from Candrakīrtiʼs commentary on Āryadevaʼs Catuhśatakam, and examine the views of Bhāviveka brought to light by David Eckel’s recent work.5 I also highlight some overlooked details of the Upāyakauśalya-sūtra, which has been misread on this issue, and take a fresh look at Asanga’s foundational work in the Bodhisattvabhūmi.6

Auspicious killing

Without question the writing of Asanga has been one of the principal sources on the ethics of compassionate killing both within Mahāyāna traditions and the academic study of religion. He describes a hypothetical situation in which a bodhisattva observes a thief about to commit a mass murder of persons of the highest moral status for the sake of a pittance. Although he does not directly cite the sūtra, Asanga is almost certainly referring to the Ship Captain Jātaka of the Upāyakauśalya-sūtra, the focus for most of the discussion of compassionate killing.7 Killing people such as arhats, bodhisattvas and pratyekabuddhas is the worst kind of murder, which results after death in immediate rebirth in a hell realm. There are no intermediate rebirths in which to moderate the effects of such terrible crimes. They are known in Buddhist traditions simply as the “immediates.” The bodhisattva, seeing this imminent tragedy, realizes that if he kills the thief then he himself may go to hell. But he decides that it is better that he go to hell than allow this person to suffer such a fate.8

With this attitude, the bodhisattva, having discerned either a neutral or auspicious mind; regretting and employing a mind of empathy alone, then takes that living being’s life. [That bodhisattva] becomes blameless and produces abundant merit.9

In the discussion of a variety of cases of compassionate ethical transgression, Asanga drives his point home by repeatedly closing with the final phrase expressing the bodhisattva’s faultlessness and generation of abundant merit, anāpattiko bhavati bahu ca punyam prasūyate, a total of nine times.

One aspect of his description is not entirely clear. He describes the bodhisattva, before the act of killing, as observing a mind that is either auspicious, kuśala, or neutral, avyākrta [often translated as “indeterminate”].10 This refers to a common abhidharmic classification that distinguishes between auspicious, neutral and inauspicious states of mind. Only the last are affected by the kleśas, attraction, revulsion, and delusion, and so have negative karmic outcomes.11 There is disagreement in both modern and classical scholarship about whether this represents a concern for the killer’s state of mind or the victim’s.12 Both interpretations have some merit. Regarding the thief, the concern would be to assure that the victim die in at least a morally neutral moment. Rebirth has a strong relationship to a person’s dying thought, maranacitta. Out of compassionate concern for the victim, one would attempt to take their life in a positive or neutral state, rather than in an inauspicious one. Killing a murderer while they are in a moment of homicidal rage would defeat the purpose, because death in that state of mind would lead to a bad rebirth.

On the other hand, if the compassionate killer did not maintain at least a neutral state of mind, they themselves would go to hell. By affirming that they generate abundant merit, Asanga makes clear that the bodhisattva acts with an auspicious intention.
One would not expect a neutral intention to result in great merit or for Asanga to advocate killing with a neutral, rather than auspicious, intention. The Upāsakaśīla-sūtra, though not cited by our sources, puts this in striking terms.

Someone may say that one commits an offense of killing whether one’s mind is good, bad, or neutral, just as anyone who is burnt by fire or takes poisons will die even if the mind is good, bad, or neutral. Such an argument is not true. And why is it not? Just as some people in the world do not die even if they are burnt by fire or drink poison, so one who kills without a vicious mind does not commit the crime.13

Jinaputra’s commentary on the Bodhisattvabhūmi, from several centuries after Asanga, indicates that the bodhisattva is concerned with his own state of mind.14 This suggests a concern for the compassionate killer’s own karmic well-being. This may seem inconsistent with the bodhisattva ideal, but all the treatments of compassionate killing show a strong concern for the protection and benefit of the killer. This is a crucial point for understanding what often appear to be acts of self-abnegating altruism. The benefit of both self and other is one of the strongest themes in Buddhist thought. In the “Benefit of Self and Other Chapter,” Svaparārthapatala, of the same text, Asanga explicitly rejects an intention that is strictly interested in benefiting others as inferior to one that benefits both self and others.15 Using an old model from the Nikāyas, he divides the possibilities into four: interest in benefiting nobody, only oneself, only others, and both oneself and others.16 Being interested only in others is superior to being interested in only oneself or being interested in nobody’s well being. But being interested in the benefit of both self and other is best, since developing oneself is necessary in order to have the ability to benefit others. This is simply expressed in the bodhisattva’s vow to attain the pinnacle of self-empowerment, buddhahood, for the sake of benefiting others. A circularity between the benefit of self and others is evident in the fact that it is only through helping others that a bodhisattva can accumulate the vast merit required to attain buddhahood. This relationship can become highly ironic, as the benefit of self and other are profoundly interrelated. As Śāntideva famously put it:

… upon afflicting oneself for the sake of others, one has success in everything. The desire for self-aggrandizement leads to a miserable state of existence, low status, and stupidity. By transferring that same desire to someone else, one attains a fortunate state of existence, respect, and wisdom. …All those who are unhappy in the world are so as a result of their desire for their own happiness. All those who are happy in the world are so as a result of their desire for the happiness of others.17

As I have discussed at length elsewhere, although compassion should be disinterested, it is also regarded throughout Buddhist traditions as highly beneficial to the agent, providing karmic and even physical self-protection.18

The passage above is naturally and correctly read as encouraging suffering for the sake of others. On the other hand, it presents this as a key to happiness, status, respect, good rebirth and wisdom for the agent. Self-benefit is based on benefiting others. This can easily lead to misreading, since the most dramatic examples of self-sacrifice, feeding oneself to a starving tigress or offering one’s head, are also incredibly beneficial to the apparent martyr. So when the bodhisattva-killer takes care to have only empathy, anukampā, as he performs the action, he is concerned to protect both himself and his victim from falling into the hell realms.19

The concern for states of mind also bears on another difficult point that bears on the attitude toward this action. I translate Asanga above as saying that the bodhisattva is “regretting” as he kills. The Sanskrit term here is rtīyamānah, and it has been previously understood either as “full of horror”20 or “feeling constrained.”21 The object of negative emotion is unclear, and surely the intention is to express that the situation is regrettable. Demiéville loosely, but elegantly, renders this as “full of both horror for sin and mercy for the sinner.22 But, in English at least, “horror” is too strong here and an equivalent for “sin” does not occur in the text. If the bodhisattva were experiencing horrific revulsion, then this could not be a merit-making, and therefore auspicious, action. Tatz apparently takes rtīyamānah/ʼdzem bzhin du” as “feeling constrained,” with the sense of moral constraint, or lacking options.23 There is no question that in all accounts the Ship Captain Jātaka is framed in a way that makes killing a last resort. So this does no violence to the meaning.24 However, I use “regret” with the purpose of relating a more literal meaning of the Sanskrit to the English idiomatic sense of regretting what one must do or that something is one’s painful duty.

All this emphasis on intention and states of mind sometimes leads to an exaggeration of its importance in Buddhist ethics to the point of claiming that killing is the mental intention to kill. In fact, all sources seem to agree that for there to be killing, there must be an actual living being, and the intention to kill must result in death. Unintentional killing is not murder, but the intention to kill alone does not entail the karma for murder.25

The moral status of the murder victim also has a crucial effect on the karmic repercussions. This is generally true in Indian thought. In the Manusmrti, for instance, killing an untouchable may have no more karmic cost than killing an animal.26 So Asanga presents this as an extremely dangerous situation for the bandit by describing the people he is about to murder as bodhisattvas, pratyekabuddhas, etc., i.e. persons of the highest moral quality.

The Buddha was also troubled by the caste system, which denied many the possibility of salvation, as well as by the exclusivity and abuses of the brahman priestly caste who controlled religious practices at that time.

-- Introduction to Buddhism, by Khan Academy

He notes that to kill such persons is one of the grave sins called “immediates.” [The moral calculus becomes even more complex when we consider that the killer’s relationship to the victim matters too. Killing one’s own mother is an “immediate,” but not killing someone else’s.] By the same logic, the situation is entirely reversed for the bodhisattva who is about to kill the depraved bandit. The karmic liability for killing such a person is the lowest possible. This is extremely important for understanding Buddhist penal codes, which have almost always included capital punishment, and Buddhist warfare.27 To give an extreme example cited by Harvey, the Mahāparinirvāna-sūtra describes killing the morally hopeless, icchāntika, as less than killing an ant.28 In any case, the more morally depraved or potentially harmful a person is, the less karmic demerit there is in killing them.

So military enemies or slanderers of the dharma are in a dangerous moral category. Even those who merely hold wrong views are destined to be reborn as animals or in hell. This should be taken into account in interpreting the famous case of the Sri Lankan King Dutthagāmani.29 According to the Mahāvansa, he marched to battle against the Tamils with a relic in his spear and a great company of monks, not for the sake of conquest, but to establish the dharma of the Sambuddha. Seeing that he took no joy in the bloody victory, eight arahants flew through the air to comfort him. They reassure him that having killed millions will be no obstruction to his entry into heaven, because his non-Buddhist war victims were accounted as being no more than animals.30 These people were active enemies of the Buddhadharma. The Buddhists he killed count for only one and a half persons. One who had taken refuge counted as half a person, while the other, who had taken precepts, counted as a full person. The story closes with a commitment by Dutthagāmani to never take a meal without offering to the sangha. The spear with the relic became the axis of a great stūpa. This emphasizes that the king also has an ability to make massive merit through his support of the sangha that helps compensate for his negative acts. There is no question that this is an exceptional text that seems shocking, but these are basic Buddhist arguments that particularly support the violence of kings.31

Bhāviveka, the great sixth century Mādhyamika, brought out another aspect of karmic causality, which ameliorates the karmic vulnerability of the compassionate killer and harkens back to the Nikākyas.32 A person of high moral quality may be affected far less by a grave sin than a degenerate may be affected by a minor one. As heavily salted water may be rendered undrinkable by just a little more salt, while pure water may take much more and still be drinkable, so a small crime could lead to bad rebirth for a degenerate, while a large one might not for a saint.33 This would also be important for kings, who are generally considered to have large stores of merit.

The points drawn out above only begin to explicate the complexity of the factors that condition the act of killing.34 The vulnerability of the compassionate killer is ameliorated by the fact that he has empathy, auspiciousness, and a reservoir of positive merit. Furthermore, his target is the worst sort of person, and the intention is to benefit both himself and his potential victims.35 The vulnerability of the villain, on the other hand, is enhanced by the fact that he is pitiless, has defiled inauspicious intentions, and has no reservoir of counterbalancing merit. Furthermore his targets are the best sorts of persons, and he seeks petty personal gain for himself alone.

A last point we should note from the Bodhisattvabhūmi is that it is also a moral downfall to refrain from engaging in various harsh actions, when they are called for to benefit others.
36 Candragomin, a seventh century Yogācāra remembered as a competitor of Candrakīrti, included this point when he famously and influentially summarized Asanga’s “Śīlapatala” in only twenty verses.37 Actions performed out of compassion or love with an auspicious intention are without fault. Indeed, even to refrain from harsh or threatening action when it is necessary to benefit others is a moral failure.38

Amputation with kindness

Āryadeva, who is considered the next great figure after Nāgārjuna in the Mādhyamika lineage, wrote in the third to fourth century C. E., “Because of their intention both bad, aśubham, and good, śubham, [actions] become auspicious for a bodhisattva.”39 Many cases of similar statements can be cited from both the sūtras and śāstras and all the figures considered here, Asanga, Vasubandhu, Śāntideva, Āryadeva, Bhāviveka, and Candrakīrti agree on the basic point that a bodhisattva may do what is normally forbidden or inauspicious, akuśala.40

Candrakīrti, in the early seventh century, first comments on Āryadevaʼs verse by defining the inauspicious as that which leads to lower forms of rebirth and the auspicious, kuśala, as that which reverses the process of samsāra. Auspicious actions result in good births and happiness, while inauspicious actions result in the suffering of birth, old age, and death etc.41 This is a general principle, but it is one which raises the level of ambiguity. Since, for Candrakīrti, any act that reverses the cycle of rebirth becomes auspicious, the possibility is opened that any action may be auspicious depending on a variety of factors. If an act of killing may make merit, then it is neither a necessary evil, nor merely value free, but is clearly auspicious.

In typical Buddhist fashion, he then proceeds to offer a catalogue of narrative case studies, rather than an abstract analysis. The first example is of a physician, certainly one of the most important and pervasive metaphors for a bodhisattva, amputating a finger that has been bitten by a poisonous snake, thus preventing the spread of greater suffering. Jinabhadra, a sixth century Jain, used the same example:

A doctor has to cause pain, but is still non-injuring and innocent because his intention is pure … There can be nonviolence even when an external act of violence has been committed.42

The awkwardness of this translation, in which there is no violence even when there is violence, is eased somewhat if we substitute “non-harm” for “nonviolence,” which is a misleading translation of ahimsā in Buddhist, Hindu, or Jain thought. Henk Bodewitz points out that the term “non-violence,” which was never taken before modern Indian times to forbid war or capital punishment, is absent in older English dictionaries and is strongly associated with Gandhi.43 With the use of this term, the Gandhian conception, inspired by Tolstoy, is projected onto the past. In many examples below, it is important to recognize that being harmless may actually require violent action and that restraint from violent action may be harmful.

Dictionary definitions of “violence” often include not only harmful physical force, but also the sense of being morally unwarranted or unjust. We would not normally describe surgery as violence, because it is neither harmful nor unwarranted. For this reason, Tibetan scholars I have worked with have sometimes objected that the compassionate killing of bodhisattvas is not violence. However, the interpretive problem in Indian thought in general is that warfare, torture, animal sacrifice, the horrific punishments of the dharmaśāstras etc. all may fall within the definition of ahimsā, since they are both warranted and beneficial.44 The same text from which one may pluck apparently unqualified statements of support for ahimsā may also advocate torture. This is not usually a failure of internal inconsistency. Therefore the word “violence” is being used in the context of this paper without any moral connotation, since the question is whether violent action, such as killing, may be moral. This also avoids a use of the term that would require one to call morally warranted killing, such as a bodhisattva stabbing to death a thief, nonviolent. A morally justified war would even have to be called nonviolent. My use of the term “violence” indicates injurious physical force, including killing, warfare, punishment and torture regardless of its moral character.

An authoritative Buddhist precedent for Candrakīrti is found in Nāgārjuna’s Ratnāvalī, an epistle by the foundational Mahāyāna figure to a Buddhist king. Citing the word of the Buddha from an unknown text,45 Nāgārjuna writes:

It is called beneficial to cut off a finger when it has been bitten by a [poisonous] snake. So the Buddha says to even cause extreme pain, if it will help another.46

Chopping off a finger is a painful and violent act that brings to mind the famous Buddhist criminal Angulimāla, “Finger-garland,” who decorated his neck with fingers cut from his victims. The simple act of cutting off a finger might be very similar, but, because of the differing intentions and outcomes, the moral implications are completely different. The action itself is morally neutral, even though we might assume that a compassionate doctor would perform such an amputation with a sense of regret and as a last resort, as described by Asanga. Candrakīrti emphatically states that the physician certainly does not accrue demerit for preventing the spread of even greater harm.

In the Majjhima-Nikāya, the Abhayarājakumārasutta uses a very similar analogy of saving a choking child to explain that the Buddha may sometimes use harsh speech. It was well known that the Buddha had spoken harshly to Devadatta and angered him by saying that he was incorrigible and destined for hell. Speech is a form of karmic action capable of causing harm. Most discussions of compassionate transgression include harsh speech and often begin with it. Here the Nigantha Nātaputta prompted Prince Abhaya to ask Gotama whether he would speak unwelcome and offensive words to others, a question which he predicted would be like an iron spike stuck in the Buddha’s throat. The Buddha explains his use of harsh speech as follows:

Now on that occasion, a young tender infant was lying on Prince Abhayaʼs lap. Then the Blessed One said to Prince Abhaya: “What do you think, prince? If, while you or your nurse were not attending to him, this child, were to put a stick or a pebble in his mouth, what would you do to him?” “Venerable sir, I would take it out. If I could not take it out at once, I would take his head in my left hand, and crooking a finger of my right hand, I would take it out, even if it meant drawing blood. Why is that? Because I have compassion for the child.” So too prince…Such speech as the Tathāgata knows to be true, correct, and beneficial, but which is unwelcome and disagreeable to others: The Tathāgata knows the time to use such speech. … Why is that? Because the Tathāgata has compassion for beings.47

This should not be taken as a general endorsement of compassionate transgression, but, for Mahāyānists, for whom harsh speech is a basic example, this would be very recognizable in terms of their own ideas. Compassion leads a person, who skillfully knows when it is appropriate, to cause pain in another when it has practical benefit. The Buddha makes use of the prince’s ordinary common sense ethics, rather than a supererogatory model, to illustrate his point. The sutta makes clear that, even if he is correct, the Buddha does not use harsh speech if it will not benefit others. To the degree that we can regard this as an earlier stratum of Buddhist thought, this appears to be a precedent for the basic type of thinking employed by the Mahāyāna.

Candrakīrti offers another example of a hunter who kills one of his sons to prevent both from dying. The two sons are arguing at the edge of a precipice and one of them grabs the other with the intention of hurling them both over. Since he cannot reach them, and so has no other option, the hunter shoots one son with an arrow to prevent them both from dying. This case shows a concern for reducing the proportional extent of harm, as in the example of amputation.

The Buddha is also often compared to a caravan leader, and in another example we find one whose fellow travelers are cornered by a lion. The caravan leader shoots the lion in the head to protect his company. Demiéville cites another caravan story, from the Mahā-Upāyakauśalya-sūtra, to be distinguished from the Upāyakauśalya-sūtra, which appeared very early in China and has had enduring influence.48 In this account a Brahmin is traveling with a caravan, which comes into proximity with a horde of five hundred bandits. The Brahmin kills the scout of the bandits, who was apparently his own personal friend, to prevent him from alerting the murderous band of thieves about his caravan’s location. Part of his consideration is that, if he tells his companions about the scout, they will kill the scout and become murderers themselves. In this way he prevents 999 people from becoming murderers, i.e. the 500 bandits and the 500 merchants minus himself, by taking on the karma of murder himself.49

Candrakīrti also relates the story of a bodhisattva born among lions who saves a large group of people caught in the coils of a huge snake. The bodhisattva frightens the snake by mounting the head of an elephant and releasing a great roar. In terror, the snake relaxes its grip and its captives are freed. This is an example of harsh speech as a violent act.

In another example, a father accidentally kills his own beloved son. His only son had returned from a long period abroad in a very fragile state of health. The father brings about his son’s death by strongly embracing him. This clever example illustrates the fundamental importance of intention by making deep affection result in killing. Most of these stories are told in just a few lines, as if he takes for granted that his readers know the tales.

The ship captain

Candrakīrti also uses one of the most famous and influential, yet often misread, passages in Buddhist thought from the Upāyakauśalya-sūtra of the ship captain who kills a bandit. This jātaka is cited by both Madhyamaka and Yogācāra sources and has continued to be important in modern times.50 It seems to be a combination of two older stories, one in which the Buddha under the same name, “Greatly Compassionate,” saved five hundred passengers at sea and another in which, as a king, he stabbed a man to death with a spear.51 In this example, Captain Compassionate is faced with the knowledge that a thief intends to kill the five hundred merchant bodhisattvas riding in his ship. He gives this long reflection. If he tells the merchants, they will kill the thief and so suffer the bad karmic results.52 So, forming the compassionate intention to take the negative results upon himself, the ship captain stabs the thief to death with a short spear. In this way, he skillfully benefits the potential mass murderer by saving him from eons in the hell realms. In fact, the thief is reborn in a heaven. [Perhaps this is an early source for the idea seen later in tantric contexts that a compassionate killer can direct the continuum of their victim to a heavenly rebirth.]

In the case of someone about to commit a heinous crime, not only is there less sense of negative consequence for the killer, there is even the sense that one is benefiting them by executing them before they can accrue more time in the richly described Buddhist hell realms. This raises the issue of what other crimes also have such bad karma that it would be better to kill the person rather than allow them to be performed. For instance, the “immediates” often include splitting the sangha and sometimes slandering the dharma. That would imply that enemies from both within and without Buddhism could merit the same violence as someone about to kill a parent or saint. The Mahāparinirvāna-sūtra, for instance, says that if oneʼs motivation is pure, it is possible to kill someone who is persecuting Buddhists or deriding the Mahāyāna without incurring karmic retribution.53

The captain also saves the bodhisattva-merchants either from being murdered or becoming murderers themselves by attacking the thief.54 This is highly double edged; the very motivation for killing is based on the devastating negative consequences of murder. One would be better off to be murdered, than to kill without compassion. All these sources agree that killing may be used to prevent others from taking on the karma of murder.

The entire story, like many in the Upāyakauśalya-sūtra, is framed as an explanation of a problematic event in the Buddha’s hagiography. Here the issue is that his foot was punctured by a thorn, which seems to suggest that the Buddha could be affected by karma. The thorn is homologous with the spear with which he stabbed the thief in a past life. As part of a general effort to show that compassionate killing remains an evil, albeit a necessary one, Harvey argues that the thorn shows that “the act had various bad karmic consequences, though not as bad as if it had been done without a compassionate motivation.”55 But the final word of the sūtra’s account explicitly rejects this interpretation. The Buddha merely shows himself to be punctured by the thorn as a skillful technique to teach the law of karma.56 In the process, he prevents another murder by demonstrating the law of karma to some potential killers. “For those reasons the Thus-Come-One has a thorn of Acacia stuck in his foot. That also is the skill in means of the Thus-Come-One; it is not an obstacle caused by past deeds.”57

In another episode from the Upāyakauśalya-sūtra, not long after the story of Captain Compassionate, the Buddha knowingly allows a non-Buddhist female ascetic to be murdered.58 Part of the explanation for this is based on the common idea that our days are numbered. The Buddha saw that her lifetime was exhausted in any case. But what about her murderers, who will certainly go to one of the fantastically horrific hells so elaborately described in Buddhist texts? Killing just anyone is not an “immediate,” but surely the killers of this ascetic will suffer a horrible fate in the hell realms. Shouldn’t they be protected by the Buddha’s compassion? The murderous death of the ascetic will also have a negative karmic effect, if she dies in terror. The sūtra argues that, in this case, bringing dishonor to the opponents of the dharma is a compensating benefit.59 It turns out that the killers were religious competitors of Buddhism. They are referred to as tīrthika, a name often erroneously translated as “heretic,” which probably refers to the antecedents of traditions we call Hindu today. The sūtra explains that the Buddha allowed the woman to be murdered, so that the discredit would fall on her tīrthika killers. Perhaps this should be read in the light of the fact that, since early times, holding wrong views is in itself sufficient to result in rebirth as an animal or in hell. The opponents of Buddhism, or a misguided Buddhist, would be understood to be leading others to such misfortune.

So, both allowing and preventing murder is validated. No specific outcomes or actions are essentially evil. Killing, preventing murder, and allowing a murder are all auspicious within one narrative context.

Making merit with murder and mercy sex

Like Asanga, Candrakīrti also says that the Ship Captain benefits himself as well by reversing samsāra by myriad ages.60 On this point, I suspect an old mistranslation has been influential. In his Śiksāsamuccaya, Śāntideva directly cites the Ratnamegha-sūtra on the allowance to kill someone who intends to commit an “immediate” [and also points out that the Śrāvaka Vinaya allows for the euthanasia of animals.] However a large part of his discussion of permitted transgressions is focused on the Upāyakauśalya-sūtra. He cites the jātaka of Jyotis, a Brāhmana youth who broke his vow of abstinence in order to save the life of a woman who threatened to kill herself, if he would not engage in sex with her. In his translation of the Śiksāsamuccaya, Bendall rendered a key phrase from the Upāyakauśalya-sūtra, cited by Śāntideva as “And so I myself young sir, by an impulse of pity, though vile, and full of desire, was set back for ten thousand ages.”61 He thus reversed the meaning and presented compassionate transgression as an enormous karmic setback. In his translation of the sūtra itself, Tatz rendered this instead, “Because I generated a thought that was endowed with great compassion but conjoined with transitory passion, birth and death was curtailed for ten thousand years.”62

Asaṅga says in the Mahāyānasamgraha that: “Even if a bodhisattva in his superior wisdom and skillful means should commit the ten sinful acts of murder etc., he would nevertheless remain unsullied and guiltless, gaining instead immeasurable merits.”63 Śāntideva, again quoting the Upāyakauśalya-sūtra, similarly says in the Śiksāsamuccaya, “Behold, son of good family, the very action which sends others to hell sends a bodhisattva with skill in means to the Brahmaloka” heaven realms, [a traditional result of generating compassion].64 There is no question of the compassionate bodhisattva killer going to hell in these sources. This is consistent with a general pattern in Mahāyāna thought wherein the more pure a bodhisattvaʼs intention is to go to hell, the less likely she is to do it. The bodhisattva dramatically shortens the path to buddhahood, precisely because of being willing to sacrifice hiser own spiritual progress. The motivational conception and its actual results can be completely different. In fact the motivation can produce the opposite of what is intended; those who intend to endure hell realms do not, precisely because they are willing to do so.

I have not yet located an example where a compassionate killer suffers negative karmic consequences. Bhāviveka may offer a highly qualified exception. In arguing that even great evil, pāpa, can be overcome, he points to the famous cases of the mass murderer, Angulimāla, the patricidal King Ajātaśatru, and the wicked King Aśoka who turned their lives around by subsequently forming positive intentions.65 As with the thorn in the Buddha’s foot, Bhāviveka argues that it is only taught that they were reborn in hell to generate confidence in the law of karma, in fact their negative karma had been completely eliminated. They were born there, he then says, “like a silk ball that falls down and rises up. They were not touched by the flames of hell. In this way evil can be uprooted without denying the laws of karma.”66 The objection is then raised that even the Buddha suffered negative karmic consequences, such as his foot being pierced by a thorn. Bhāviveka specifically rejects this, referring directly to the Upāyakauśalya-sūtra. He then follows with a discussion of killing with compassion.

Others see someone on the verge of committing a heinous crime (ānantarya), know that this action will cause suffering for a long time, and kill that person out of compassion. They certainly know that they will be born in hell, but they adopt a wholesome or indeterminate (avyākrta) motivation (citta) and kill in order to protect [others]. They accept their own rebirth in hell, but their wholesome [motivation] is sustained by wholesome thoughts like: “This is great suffering, but it will not last long.” This [motivation] is wholesome, because it is like a thought that is free from desire and so forth.67 … A bodhisattva who commits murder out of compassion, cannot be reproached for this action, because it is not generated by hatred, …68

Bhāviveka’s exposition, including the reference to wholesome [auspicious] or neutral motivation, is very close to that of the Bodhisattvabhūmi, with which he was familiar. He does not say whether the killer actually goes to hell. Nothing would prevent this more than the intention to do so. However, his description of how the compassionate killer considers that the hell experience will not last long may be related to the description of bouncing in and out of hell without being touched by the flames. We can be certain that, if Angulimāla is untouched by the flames of hell, that a bodhisattva would have at least as positive an outcome. It would seem incongruous to even correlate the karmic outcomes for a reformed mass murderer and a compassionate bodhisattva killer. But if we take these two together and assume that Bhāviveka is indicating that even such a bodhisattva bounces in and out of hell, it would explain the broadly held view of contemporary Tibetan scholars that compassionate killers have an extremely brief experience of hell.69 The great Tsong-kha-pa cites Bhāviveka here with approval.70 However Bhāviveka does not emphasize the production of great merit as do Asanga, Śāntideva and the Upāyakauśalya-sūtra itself, instead focusing on overcoming karmic negativity.71

Some qualifications

Candrakīrti clearly realizes the possibilities for exploitation in this idea. Later in the same commentary he launches into a jeremiad against a king who seeks to justify violence for the sake of maintaining moral order.72 For Candrakīrti, the reason bodhisattvas are not destroyed by such violence, while others are, is that they possess a controlled mind with compassionate intent.73 The opposite is also obviously true. Those who do these things without these qualities face fantastically negative consequences. The tension between these two is perfectly expressed in the Upāyakauśalya-sūtra itself, where the express purpose of the story is to actually discourage others from murder, rather than to validate compassionate violence. The Buddha demonstrates the power of karma to a group of potential murderers by showing himself to be pierced by a thorn as an outcome of spearing the thief in his earlier life as Mahākārunika the Ship Captain.74 So, even the portrayal of compassionate murder is used to discourage murder by malicious people. However, the sūtra has already shown, consistent with the later interpretations of Asanga, Śāntideva and Candrakīrti, that the ship-captain in fact made enough merit through this murder to reverse samsāra by one hundred thousand kalpas and the thorn is merely an upāya of the Buddha, not an actual karmic outcome.

Compassionate violence as common sense

In general, compassionate killing is a supererogatory ethic, not one of imitation. It is double edged in opening the possibility for murder precisely to prevent its horrific karmic outcome. Yet Candrakīrtiʼs earthy examples also suggest that there is something commonsensical about compassionate violence. Part of the power of Candrakīrti’s hypothetical cases is that they appeal to natural human responses to protect children and companions. They draw on issues and choices that doctors, leaders, parents or pilots may face in everyday life and derive their force from the fact that they make intuitive sense to people. If bodhisattvas are like ordinary folk, then ordinary folk may be like bodhisattvas. The possibility that this discourse merely elaborates a supererogatory ethic without general significance seems dubious. All the sources view compassionate killing as dangerous. But one would expect Buddhists to attempt, as far as they were able, to behave like bodhisattvas when faced with difficult moral choices. If a bodhisattva is like a physician cutting off a poisoned finger, then a physician is also like a bodhisattva. As in the teachings for bodhisattvas, a good doctor must know what she is doing, have a compassionate intention, and would regret the pain that she causes. Surely, as in the Jain understanding, a doctor performing an amputation need not be a great bodhisattva to avoid terrible karma. When Nāgārjuna uses the finger amputation analogy to advise a king that he may have to inflict great pain, he is not speaking to a bodhisattva, but to a very dangerous person. Kings routinely used amputation as a punishment in ancient India.

In the broadly cited Bodhisattvagocara-upāyavisaya-vikurvanana-deśa-sūtra, the same thinking is applied to penal codes and warfare.75 A king is encouraged to compassionately punish and even torture the unruly in order to discipline them and protect society, but he is not to kill or permanently damage them. He may go to war to protect his family and his people. He should try to avoid war in the first place and carefully consider how his policies are responsible for the creation of enemies. But even if he kills the enemy, as long as he avoids the destruction of life, infrastructure, and nature, he will be blameless and produce great merit. This is stated with almost the same phrasing as Asanga’s. There is no sense that the king, his warriors, or law enforcement officials must be bodhisattvas.

As we consider these sources, all of them framed within or focused on narrative, we should remember that even the early mainstream narrative traditions of Buddhism are full of stories of Buddhist warfare that feature the Buddha in past lives as a weapons master, king, warhorse, execution elephant, elephant mahout engaged in a siege etc.76 In Āryaśūra’s Jātakamālā, a Mahāyānist collection of birth-stories, the Buddha is described as being born as Śakra, i.e. Indra, in a past life. Indra is king of the devas and a model of the ideal king. The demonic daityas, another class of lesser deities, challenge him to battle. The battle is described in vivid dramatic detail.

Despite his scruples, everything inclined the bodhisattva to engage in the frenzy of battle: the enemies’ presumption; the fear people felt, which put an unpleasant curb on their amusements; his own dignity; and the course of action that prudence dictated. … There then took place a battle that shattered the nerve of the cowardly and in which armor splintered at the clash of weapon on weapon. … “Watch out!” “Now how are you going to escape me?” “Attack!” “That’s the end of you!” – such were the cries as the combatants killed one another.77

The devas broke ranks and fled under a shower of arrows, and finally Indra himself turned his chariot in retreat. But as he turned his huge chariot to flee the field, he saw that he was about to overrun some nests full of baby birds. “I would rather that the demon chiefs battered me to death with their terrible clubs than that I live on with my reputation ruined, under the reproach of having slaughtered these creatures who are distraught with terror.”78 In order to avoid crushing them and at the risk of his life, he turned directly back at the pursuing daityas. Shocked by this turn of events, the demonic forces broke rank in turn and were routed by the devas. Victory turned on the compassionate response to baby birds and once again karunā proved to be protective. The story is typically ironic in simultaneously validating both deadly warfare and that “all decent men should cultivate sympathy for living things.” The bodhisattva-king of the devas surely provides a model for the good Buddhist king here.

Closing reflections on metaethics

This paper has been an effort to begin to understand what Indian Buddhist texts say about compassionate killing. I think we are going to keep discovering a Buddhism very different than the one we think we know. Important sūtras and large bodies of narrative literature are in many cases untranslated. Even major figures such as Candrakīrti, Asanga, and Bhāviveka have only been partially translated, not to speak of the commentaries. I was fortunate to have the very recent work of David Eckel on Bhāviveka. Paul Harrison has recently shown that in many cases we do not even know when Śāntideva, who has been at the absolute center of the study of Buddhist ethics, is composing or quoting.79 It seems critical for the inherently comparative application of metaethical analysis to Buddhist thought to have a clear object of analysis or pole of comparison, but we have not yet clarified what we intend to analyze even in regard to individual thinkers.

The ethics of compassionate violence are a complex matrix of multiple interrelated and competing concerns, including proportionality, intention, virtue, situation, and consequences conceived from a multiple-life perspective. The basic principle that the auspicious is defined by that which leads to positive karmic outcomes only increases the level of ambiguity by removing the possibility that any action is essentially inauspicious. Although there are many warnings of hell and promises of heaven for specific acts in Buddhist ethical rhetoric, there are as many reminders that the workings of karma are ultimately inconceivable. If karma is inconceivably complex, then the auspicious is equally inconceivable, and so follows Buddhist ethics. I do not mean by “ambiguity” to say that Buddhists are befuddled or that they do not have clear moral principles. I mean this in the positive sense that lack of moral certainty, appreciation for narrative complexity, rejection of oversimplification, and a high toleration for the almost unfathomable complexity of moral situations can be positive things.

I suspect that Buddhist ethics constantly resort to narrative, because it is capable of maintaining tensions and ambiguities and representing diverse voices and multiple levels of concern.80 In Buddhist thought, narrative is as likely to be the commentary itself as it is to be the object of analysis.81
This makes the application of Western metaethics especially challenging, since it tends to function in the opposite way, that is, by clarifying narrative through systematic analysis.

The jātakas, avadānas, hagiographies etc. are at least as important for the understanding of Buddhist ethics as any subtle psychological or philosophical analysis, but these are the most neglected texts in modern studies. Legends of Śāntideva and Asanga may tell us more about how Buddhists understood their ethics than the Bodhicaryāvatāra or Bodhisattvabhūmi, at least in regard to the contexts that held those legends dear. Certainly, in my experience, relatively few Buddhists know the commentarial literature to which most of this paper is devoted, while the story of the ship captain is known throughout the Buddhist world. It is remarkable that Asanga, Vasubandhu, Bhāviveka, Candrakīrti, and Śāntideva all resorted to the same brilliant little story of Captain Compassionate, which holds the possibility of auspiciously killing with compassion in dynamic tension with the horror of killing without it. One gets the feeling that Buddhist thinkers are deliberately enhancing the ambiguity, as if only an ambiguous ethic could do justice to lived reality.
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1 Kleine 2006: 80.
2 Nāgārjuna and Āryadeva do not explicitly allow for deadly violence,  but do allow for inflicting pain or performing normally inauspicious action  based on intention.
3 This is a preliminary report on one dimension of a long-term research  project, on compassionate violence. Other dimensions of this study of  Buddhist ethics of violence will include a reappraisal of Aśoka’s edicts, comparison  with the Dharmaśāstras, “mainstream” and abhidharmic traditions,  tantric ethics, and the violence of warfare. See also Jenkins 2010.
4 See Harvey 2000: 135–138.
5 Special thanks to David Eckel for directing me to Bhāviveka’s treatment  in his then unpublished translation.
6 Any merit of this work is largely due to Dr. Sangye Tandar Naga, of  the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala, and the scholars  of the Central College of Higher Tibetan Studies, particularly Venerable  Lobsang Dorjee Rabling and Professor K. N. Mishra. Geshe Ngawang  Samten kindly granted me free housing during an extended research period  at what was then called the Central Institute for Higher Tibetan Studies. I am also indebted to Professor Premasiri Pahalawattage for guiding my reading  of many of the Pāli sources.
7 The commentator, Jinaputra, merely says that the argument is the same  as in the sūtra (Tatz 1986: 323).
8 My use of the masculine pronoun is based on the fact that Asaṅga speaks  in ways that assume the bodhisattva is male, for instance in discussing sexual  transgression.
9 BoBh 113.24–114.2. evam āśayo bodhisattvas taṃ prāṇinaṃ kuśalacitto  ’vyākṛtacitto vā viditvā ṛtīyamānaḥ anukampācittam evāyatyām upādāya  jīvitād vyaparopayati / anāpattiko bhavati bahu ca puṇyaṃ prasūyate /;  cf. BoBh–Wogihara 166; Peking Bstan-ḥgyur, Sems-tsam, Shi, 100b3; Tatz  1986: 70–71; note that upādāya has a strong idiomatic relationship with  anukampācittam.
10 In a highly recommended article, Rupert Gethin elaborates the  Theravādin view that killing can never be based on auspicious, kuśala, or  neutral, avyākṛta, states of mind. Therefore killing can never be based on  compassion, nor can it be auspicious. The key example is of a king who  seems to take pleasure in ordering the execution of a criminal. On a subtle  level, the commentaries say his mind is still qualified by aversion. However,  all killing is not equally inauspicious; he also shows the broad range of conditions  that qualify an act of killing, including the moral status of the victim  (Gethin 2004).
11 See Rahula 2001: 149, n. 169, avyākṛta defined; see 49 on a mind neither  bad nor pure; Holt 1981: 80. Referring to this threefold division, he discusses  how actions which are not affected by the kleśas do not have karmic  outcomes; see Samyuktābhidharmahṛdaya i.153–154, on three types  of citta-samprayukta, i.e. avyākṛta, kuśala and akuśala. He says that “neutral  awarenesses [citta] are weak and only strong awarenesses can produce  bodily and verbal action.” The context is unclear and there is disagreement  on this theme, but if this point were generally agreed, then the concern for  avyākṛtacittasamprayukta could not be related to the compassionate killer,  since killing would not be possible from a neutral perspective.
12 Bhāviveka, discussed below, identifies the concern with the bodhisattva’s  state of mind (Eckel 2008: 188); Tsong-kha-pa notes disagreement, but  without identifying the sources, and states that it makes no sense to attribute  it to the bandit (Tatz 1986: 215); Paul Demiéville reads it as a concern for the  bandit’s sake, perhaps based on the Chinese (1973: 379); in an expansive article  that should be the starting point for all interested in these issues, Lambert Schmithausen also identified the concern with the bandit’s state of mind. He gives preference to manuscripts that support this, but without explanation (1999: 59 and n. 67); Tatz also notes differences in Sanskrit manuscripts, but follows the commentary of Jinaputra which appears to identify the concern with the bodhisattva’s state (Tatz 1986: 326 and n. 403).

13 Shih Heng-ching 1994: 171. For an extended discussion of killing see Chapter XXIV. The text was translated into Chinese in the early fifth century. Its origins are unclear, but Paul Groner takes it as an “authentic Indian source.” See Groner 1990: 244; for a similar discussion using the same metaphors in an abhidharmic source see Samyuktābhidharmahṛdaya i.188–189.
14 See Tatz 1986: 326.
15 BoBh 21–22; Jenkins 2003: 57–62.
16 AN ii.95; tr. Woodward 1933: 104. This is a common theme. For crossreferencing  and commentary see Jenkins 2003: 56–64.
17 Bca Chapter VIII, verses 126–9; Wallace and Wallace 1997: 105–106.
18 See Jenkins 2003, 2010. The Mahāvaṃsa gives an amusing example  from the Sri Lankan myth of origin. Sihabahu drew his bow to murder his  father the lion, progenitor of the Sinhalas. But, because the sight of his son  aroused affection in the lion, his arrows only bounced off. It is only after  he realized what was happening that: “Anger weakened his compassion and  made him vulnerable. The third arrow pierced his body and killed him” (tr.  Geiger 1986: 53).
19 Anukampā is a common substitute for both maitrī and karuṇā. When  specifically defined, it signifies emotional sensitivity to the suffering of others.
20 For extensive notes on this obscure and difficult term, see artiyati in  Edgerton 1985. It can be understood as meaning ‘grieved,’ ‘pained,’ ‘perturbed,’  ‘disgusted,’ ‘off ended,’ also, when used as a noun, as meaning  ‘shame,’ ‘humility,’ ‘distress’ etc., often in regard to morality.
21 Tatz 1986: 70.
22 “plein à la fois d’horreur pour le péché et de pitié pour le pécheur”  (Demiéville 1973: 379).
23 In this passage, Tatz translates “feeling constrained.” The same Tibetan  verb occurs twice more in the root text and in the commentary. There Tatz  first translates it as “embarrassed” and the second time as “feeling constrained.”  Tatz 1986: 72, cf. BoBh 115.22 and Tatz 1986: 75, 222, cf. BoBh  117.16. In both cases the meaning associated with the Sanskrit is more fitting.  The same Tibetan term is, however, used to render lajjā, shame, in Asaṅga’s  Mahāyānasaṃgraha. See Nagao 1994.
24 Jinaputra comments that this is because the bodhisattva has no other  means (Tatz 1986: 326).
25 For abhidharmic cross-referencing see Samyuktābhidharmahṛdaya  ii.171, n. 502; for Theravāda sources see Gethin 2004: n. 19.
26 tr. Olivelle 2004: 199–200.
27 Florida 2005: 57.
28 Harvey (2000: 138) cites Taishō 12.562b. He thanks Victor He.
29 Mhv 170–178.
30 The term used for “animals” here, pasu/Sanskrit paśu, is also the technical  term for a sacrificial animal. In the Hindu homologization of warfare  with sacrifice, this term is often used for victims killed in battle.
31 I do not see this story as being as inconsistent with normative Buddhist  values as it is often perceived to be. For a different perspective and a variety  of contrasting views, see Gethin 2007.
32 Eckel 2008: 186.
33 This seems to be a generally held idea. Loṇaphala Sutta, AN i.249, offers  the same analogy, except that the large body of water is the Gaṅga. Eckel  (2008: n. 327) directs us here to a rich note by La Vallée Poussin on the various  contingencies on karmic outcomes (La Vallée Poussin 1990: 730, n. 217).
34 For a detailed technical discussion in abhidharmic style see La Vallée  Poussin 1990: 642–666.
35 In Asaṅga’s case, we can say the ideal intention would also include benefiting himself.
36 bodhisattvo yena kaṭukaprayogena tīkṣṇaprayogena sattvānām arthaṃ  paśyati taṃ prayogaṃ daurmanasyārakṣayā na samudācarati / sāpattiko  bhavati[…] BoBh 116; Tatz 1986: 74, 221; following Tatz’s translation of  Tsong-kha-pa’s commentary, Harvey claims that such an assertion does  not occur in the Bodhisattvabhūmi (Harvey 2000: 140); however, both  Tatz’s translation of the root text and Tsong-kha-pa’s commentary contain  this statement. Yet, Tatz also reads Tsong-kha-pa a bit earlier, in commenting  on “With mercy there is no [deed] without virtue,” as saying, “[…] the  two commentaries on the Chapter on Ethics teach that there are occasions  when the seven of body and speech – murder and the rest – are permitted.  Aside from this, they do not state that to not engage in them for the sake of  others is a fault.” Tatz observes here that three Chinese translations of the  Bodhisattvabhūmi omit “this passage,” while that of Hsüan Tsang includes  it. The extent of the omission is not clear (Tatz 1986: n. 396).
37 For rich textual cross-references and commentary see Tatz 1985: 36–38;  for cross-referencing on compassionate transgression see Tatz 1982: 38, 64.
38 Tatz 1985: 28, v. 12, “not to give treatment even comprising affliction.”  See also 29, v. 20.
39 CŚ Chapter V, v. 105, pp. 249–250 (tr. Sonam 1994: 136): bsam pas byang  chub sems dpaʼ la // dgeʼam gal te mi dgeʼang rung // thams cad dge legs nyid ʼgyur te // gang phyir yid deʼi dbang ʼgyur phyir // Karen Lang has been  very generous in sharing her forthcoming translation (see Lang tr. 2011) of  this section of Candrakīrti’s commentary and has supported my work on this  text for years.
40 To cite some examples that do not otherwise occur in the text: “As long  as a Bodhisattva does not give up bodhicitta he has not broken the precepts”  (Upāliparipṛcchā-sūtra, tr. Chang 1983: 269); “Even that which is proscribed  is permitted for a compassionate person who sees it will be of benefit.” (Bca  Chapter V, v. 84; Crosby and Skilton 1996: 41)
41 dge ba yang bde ba dang bde ʼgroʼi rnam par smin paʼi ʼbras bu can yin  du zin kyang skye ba dang / rga ba dang ʼchi ba la sogs paʼi sdug bsngal sgrub  par byed pa nyid kyi phyir na dge legs ma yin no/ / (CŚ 250).
42 Dundas 1992: 140.
43 Bodewitz 1999: 17. He also notes that many scholars have misinterpreted  ahiṃsā as the desiderative of the verb root han, to kill. He suggests “noninjury”  as a translation, but this would not work with examples like killing.
44 See Jenkins 2010 on compassionate warfare and torture.
45 Bodhisattvagocaropāyaviṣayavikurvananirdeśa 111.a.1, cited in the  Sūtrasamuccaya attributed to Nāgārjuna, also uses the example of a doctor  inflicting pain in advising a king to discipline the unruly, but not in relation  to snakebite.
46 Ratnāvalī 181–182. Hopkins translates “mi bde ba yang bya bar” as  “One should even bring discomfort.” This accords with the literal Tibetan,  but seems mild for the example of cutting off a finger. For mi bde ba, Lokesh  Chandra’s Tibetan-Sanskrit Dictionary gives śūla or simply duḥkha, which  both seem stronger than discomfort; see Hopkins 1998: v. 264, 128; cf. the  Mahāyānasaṃgraha on bodhisattvas assuming the role of a king “even inflicting torment on sentient beings to establish them in the code of discipline”  (Keenan 1992: 88). It is also worth noting, in light of the fact that Nāgārjuna  is addressing a king, that amputation was a common form of punishment in  ancient and more recent Buddhist polities.
47 MN i.392, Abhayarājakumārasutta (tr. Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 1995: 499).
48 He cites Taishō 156, vii, 161b–162a. Demiéville 1973: 379. According  to Lewis Lancaster, the Mahā-Upāyakauśalya-sūtra was fi rst translated into  Chinese in the third century (Lancaster 1979: 140).
49 It is not clear if the killer actually goes to hell. One would expect this  tale to be a jātaka or avadāna, but the Brahmin is not identified as a bodhisattva.  Demiéville does not give the karmic outcome of the story, except  to say that the bandits and travelers are all converted. If he does go to hell, it  would be a strong exception to my argument, and the first case I have found  of compassionate transgression resulting in karmic penalty. This would also  make it an irrational choice for motivating Chinese Buddhists to kill in war,  since the assumption would be that they go to hell as a result.
50 For examples, see Williams 2009: 152 and 340, n. 12; Welch 1972: 272–  288. Thanks to Chris Queen.
51 See n. 56 below.
52 The early sūtras have many examples of stupid and backsliding bodhisattvas,  even bodhisattvas who have forgotten they were bodhisattvas.  The fact that the text sees bodhisattvas as capable of killing in anger shows  that it does not just indicate near deities with this term. Texts on bodhisattva  ethics show a general concern for the fact that bodhisattvas make regular  mistakes that require confession and contrition.
53 Taishō No. 375, 12.676b5–6). Thanks to Jan Nattier. For more examples  see Schmithausen 1999: 57–58 and n. 60.
54 This is a very potent example in the age of terrorism. On August 11,  2000, the Associated Press reported that Jonathan Burton, a teenage passenger  who became combative on a Southwest Airlines flight, was killed by the  passengers.
55 Harvey 2000: 136.
56 Ap verses 21–22, gives another story in which the Buddha’s foot is hurt  as the result of a past life as a king in which he killed a man with a spear. “I  became a king and killed a person with a spear. By the ripening of that karma,  I was boiled vigorously in hell.” In the present life, the Buddha is shown  to still experience pain in his foot for that past killing and the karmic effects  are not yet exhausted. This Apadāna is a catalogue of past-life misdeeds of  the Buddha, including several murders. There is no sense that these were  compassionate or dharmic acts. A central purpose of the Upāyakauśalyasūtra  is to reread such tales, which seem to indicate that the Buddha could  continue to suffer karmic consequences, in terms of Mahāyāna buddhology  (Ap i.300).
57 tr. Tatz 1994: 77.
58 Ibid., 460.
59 In the Bodhisattvabhūmi, Asaṅga often makes allowances for more negative  behavior in the case of tīrthikas, for instance in terms of harsh speech  or returning abuse. See Tatz 1986: 221–223.
60 dge baʼi rtsa ba des kyang bskal pa stong phrag brgyar ʼkhor ba la rgyab  kyis phyogs par byas so // (CŚ 253.1).
61 Bendall and Rouse 1971: 163; So ’haṃ kulaputra mahākāruṇya cit totpādena-itvareṇa kāmopasaṃhitena daśakalpasahasrāṇi saṃsāram akārsaṃ;  Tatz 1994: 35, n. 49; Sikṣ 167.
62 Tatz 1994: 34; for a similar phrase, see Suvarṇaprabhāsottama-sūtra,  tr. Emmerick 1970: 31. Thanks to Mark Tatz for supplying me with the unpublished  manuscripts of his Tibetan editions of the Upāyakauśalya-sūtra.  Note that this also accords with Chang’s translation from the Chinese (Chang  1983: 456–457). Another translation of this episode from the Chinese can be  found in Welch 1972: 284–286.
63 Keenan 1992: 88.
64 paśya kulaputra yad anyeṣāṃ nirayasaṃvartanīyaṃ karma, tad upāyakauśalyasya  bodhisattvasya brahmalokopapattisaṃvartanīyam // (Śikṣ 167).
65 The fact that a thematic study of Angulimāla and Ajātaśatru could easily  comprise a book length study shows how important the issue of avoiding  the fruition of past inauspicious action was to Indian Buddhists. There are  entire sūtras and sections of others focused on them. The Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra  has an extensive discussion. The study of the theme of overcoming  the karma of murder will have strong implications for the understanding of  Buddhist ethics. This is particularly true for tantric texts, which, with their  claim to achieve liberation in the present lifetime, can even avoid the fruition  of the “immediates” which lead directly to hell on rebirth.
66 Eckel 2008: 185. The reference to either neutral or auspicious states of  mind still seems unclear to me, since he immediately follows by indicating  that the killer’s intention is auspicious.
67 According to Eckel, Vasubandhu presents the identical paragraph in his  Vyākhyāyukti. This seems remarkable, since this is not a citation of the sūtra  (Eckel 2008: 187, n. 333). Demiéville notes that the ship captain story is recited  in the commentary to Asaṅga’s Mahāyānasaṃgraha as an example of  gāṁbhīriya śīla (Demiéville 1973: 380). He cites Lamotte 1939: 215–216.
68 Eckel 2008: 188. The term “wholesome” is commonly used as a translation  alternative for “auspicious.”
69 As Eckel acknowledges, the comparison to the bounce of a silk ball,  which suggests a momentary contact, remains a difficult translation problem.  In a rich footnote, Eckel observes that Sthiramati uses a similar metaphor in  commenting on verse 3.8 of Asaṅga’s Mahāyānasūtrālaṃkāra (Eckel 2008:  185, n. 324); in any case, the passage commented on by Sthiramati asserts  that anyone possessing the bodhisattva-gotra, who takes rebirth in the lower  realms, has a brief stay and minimal suffering. The intention of the metaphor  is clearly to minimize either the extent or duration of suffering. For the purpose  here, the fact that they do not experience the flames of hell is sufficient.  Xuanzang offers a similar idiom of the time it takes for a ball of thread to  fall to the ground after being tossed up (tr. Li Rongxi 1996: 105). The repeated  closeness of Bhāviveka’s treatment to that of Asaṅga, Vasubandhu,  and Sthiramati, is remarkable. See also Mahāyānasūtrālaṃkāra, tr. Jamspal, L. et als. 2004: 27.
70 tr. Lamrim Chenmo Translation Committee 2000: 256.
71 The apparent contrast between Bhāviveka and his Prāsaṅgika opponents  raises the interesting question of the relationship between ethics  and ontology. Śūnyavāda traditions seem to be more ethically liberal than  abhidharmic ones. We would expect Bhāviveka, with his concern for firmly  establishing conventional norms, to perhaps be more conservative than  Candrakīrti. There is a striking correlation between tathāgatgarbha traditions  and vegetarianism that is based perhaps on their strong sense of a base  consciousness. Sources that validate killing on the basis of emptiness are  another further area of exploration.
72 See Lang 1992: 232–43.
73 gzhan dag la yang de ltar ciʼi phyir mi ʼgyur zhe na / sems la dbang thob  pa med paʼi phyir dang / sems kyi rgyud nyon mongs pa mkhrang zhing nye  bar sad pas bzung ba nyid kyi phyir ro // (CŚ 251.3).
74 Tatz 1994: 34–9; 73–4. cf. Chang 1983: 431–440, 456–457.
75 See Jenkins 2010.
76 Ibid.
77 trans. Khoroche 1989: 81–82. Pāli texts also refer to this battle. See for  instance SN i.221. Here Indra’s conduct toward the defeated and bound enemy  king is lauded.
78 trans. Khoroche 1989: 83.
79 Harrison 2007: 215–248.
80 I am indebted here to conversations with John Strong.
81 I acknowledge the influence of my dissertation advisor, Charles Hallisey,  on this point.


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Bca: Bodhicaryāvatāra of Śāntideva with the Commentary Pañjikā of Prajñākaramati. Buddhist Sanskrit Texts no. 12. Edited by Sridhar Tripathi. Darbhanga: Mithila, 1988.

BoBh: Asanga. Bodhisattvabhūmi. Edited by Nalinaksha Dutt. Patna: Jayasawal Research Institute, 1978.

BoBh–Wogihara – Asaṅga. Bodhisattvabhūmi. Edited by Unrai Wogihara. Tokyo: Seigo Kenyukai, 1930–1936.

Bodhisattvagocaropāyaviṣayavikurvananirdeśa – [Better known and cited as, but not catalogued as, the Āryasatyakaparivarta-sūtra.] Byangs chub sems ba’i spyod yul gyi thabs kyi yul la rnam par ’phrul pa bstan pa. Derge, mDo-sde, Text 146, bKa’ ’gyur, Volume Pa 203. 82a–141b.

CŚ: Catusśatakam: Candrakīrtipranītatīkayā Sahitam. Sanskrit and Tibetan. Edited with Hindi translation by Gurucharan Singh Negi, PhD Dissertation. Sarnath: Central Institute Higher Tibetan Studies, 2005.

MN: Majjhima-Nikāya. Edited by V. Trenckner, R. Chalmers. 3 vols. London: Pali Text Society, 1888–1899.

Ratnāvalī: Nāgārjuna. Ratnāvalī of Ācārya Nāgārjuna with the Commentary of Ajitamitra. Edited by Ācārya Ngawang Samten. Sarnath: Central Institute Higher Tibetan Studies, 1990.

Samyuktābhidharmahrdaya – see Dessein (tr.) 1999.

Śiks: Śiksāsamuccaya: A Compendium of Buddhistic Teaching Compiled by Śāntideva Chiefly from Earlier Mahāyāna Sūtras. Edited by Cecil Bendall. The Hague: Moutons, 1957.

SN: Samyutta-Nikāya. Edited by L. Feer. 5 vols. London: Pali Text Society, 1884–1898.

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Bendall, Cecil and Rouse, W.H.D. tr. 1971. Śiksāsamuccaya: A Compendium of Buddhist Doctrine Compiled by Śāntideva Chiefly from Earlier Mahāyāna Sūtras. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1971.

Bodewitz, Henk. 1999. “Hindu Ahimsā and Its Roots,” in Violence Denied: Violence, Non-Violence and the Rationalization of Violence in South Asian Cultural History. Edited by Jan E. M. Houben and Karel R. Van Kooij. Leiden: Brill, 17–42.

Chandra, Lokesh. 1959–1961. Tibetan-Sanskrit Dictionary. New Delhi: International Academy of Indian Culture. Reprinted 1990, Kyoto: Rinsen Book Company.

Chang, Garma C.C. ed. 1983. A Treasury of Mahāyāna Sūtras. London: Penn State.

Crosby, Kate and Skilton, Andrew. tr. 1996. Śāntideva. The Bodhicaryāvatāra. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Demiéville, Paul. 1973. “Le Bouddhisme et la Guerre,” in Choix d’études bouddhiques 1929–1970. Edited by Paul Demiéville. Leiden: Brill, 347– 385.

Dessein, Bart. tr. 1999. Samyuktābhidharmahṛdaya. Heart of Scholasticism with Miscellaneous Additions. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Dundas, Paul. 1992. The Jains. London: Routledge.

Eckel, Malcom David. 2008. Bhāviveka and His Buddhist Opponents. Cambridge: Harvard University.

Edgerton, Franklin. 1985. Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Grammar and Dictionary. Vol. 2. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Emmerick, R.E. tr. 1970. The Sūtra of Golden Light: Being a Translation of the Suvarnaprabhāsottamasūtra. Translated by R. E. Emmerick. London: Luzac and Co. Ltd.

Florida, Robert. 2005. Human Rights and the World’s Major Religions: Vol. 5, The Buddhist Tradition. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers.

Geiger, Wilhelm. tr. 1986. Mahāvamsa or the Great Chronicle of Ceylon. Translated by Wilhelm Geiger into German. Translated from German into English by Mabel Haynes Bode. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 1986.

Gethin, Rupert. 2007. “Buddhist monks, Buddhist kings, Buddhist violence: on the early Buddhist approaches and attitudes to violence,” in Religion and Violence in South Asia: Theory and Practice. Edited by John Hinnells and Richard King. New York: Routledge.

_____ 2004. “Can Killing a Living Being Ever Be an Act of Compassion? The analysis of the act of killing in the Abhidhamma and Pali Commentaries,” in Journal of Buddhist Ethics. Volume 11, 166–202.

Groner, Paul. 1990. “The Fan-wang ching and Monastic Discipline in Japanese Tendai: A Study of Annen’s Futsū jubosatsukai kōshaku.” in Chinese Buddhist Apocrypha. Edited by Robert Buswell. Honolulu: University Hawaii, 251–290.

Harrison, Paul. 2007. “The case of the vanishing poet: new light on Śāntideva and the Śiksā-samuccaya,” in Indica et Tibetica. Edited by Konrad Klaus and Jens-Uwe Hartmann. Vienna: Arbeitskreis für Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien, 215–248.

Harvey, Peter. 2000. An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Holt, John. 1981. Discipline: The Canonical Buddhism of the Vinaya. Varanasi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Hopkins, Jeffrey. 1998. Buddhist Advice for Living and Liberation: Nāgārjuna’s Precious Garland. Ithaca: Snow Lion.

Jamspal, L. et als. tr. 2004. The Universal Vehicle Discourse Literature (Mahāyānasūtrālamkāra) by Maitreyanātha/Āryāsanga together with its Commentary (Bhāsya) by Vasubandhu. Translated by L. Jamspal, R. Clark, J. Wilson, L. Zwilling, M. Sweet, and R. Thurman. Edited by R. Thurman, New York: American Institute of Buddhist Studies, 2004.

Jenkins, Stephen. 2010. “Making Merit through Warfare and Torture According to the Ārya-Bodhisattva-gocara-upāyavisaya-vikurvananirdeśa Sūtra,” in Buddhist Warfare. Edited by Mark Juergensmeyer and Michael Jerryson. New York: Oxford University Press, 59–75.

_____ 2003. The Circle of Compassion: An Interpretive Study of Karunā in Indian Buddhist Literature. Cambridge Buddhist Institute Series, series ed. R. C. Jamieson. Ayrshire, Scotland: Hardinge Simpole Publishing. Currently out of print, but available under the same title as Harvard University Doctoral Dissertation, Ann Arbor: University Microfi lms International, 1991.

Keenan, John. tr. 1992. The Summary of the Great Vehicle. Translated by John Keenan. Berkeley: Numata Center.

Khoroche, Peter. tr. 1989. Once The Buddha was a Monkey, Ārya Śūra’s Jātakamālā Chicago: University Chicago Press.

Kleine, Christoph. 2006. “Evil Monks with Good Intentions,” in Buddhism and Violence. Edited by Michael Zimmermann. Kathmandu: Lumbini International Research Institute, 65–98.

Lamotte, Étienne. tr. 1939. La somme du grand véhicule d’Asanga (Mahāyānasamgraha). Vol. 2, 1939; repr. Louvain-la-Neuve: Institut Orientaliste, 1973.

Lamrim Chenmo Translation Committee. tr. 2000. Tsong-kha-pa, The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment: Lam Rim Chen Mo. Vol. 1. Translated by the Lamrim Chenmo Translation Committee. Edited by Joshua Cutler and Guy Newland. Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications.

Lancaster, Lewis. 1979. The Korean Buddhist Canon: A Descriptive Catalogue. Berkeley: University California.

Lang, Karen. tr. 2011. Catuhśatakam. Unpublished manuscript.

_____ 1992. “Āryadeva and Candrakīrti on the Dharma of Kings,” in Asiatische Studien: Zeitschrift der Schweizerischen Gesellschaft für Asienkunde Études Asiatiques: Revue de la Société Suisse d’Études Asiatiques. 46.1, 232–243.

de La Vallée Poussin, Louis. tr. 1990. Vasubandhu, Abhidharmakośabhāsyam. Translated by Louis De La Vallée Poussin. Translated into English by Leo Pruden. Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, 1990.

Li Rongxi. tr. 1996. The Great Tang Dynasty Record of the Western Regions: Translated by the Tripitaka-Master Xuanzang under Imperial Order, Composed by Śramana Bianji of the Great Zonchi Monastery. Taishō, Volume 51, Number 2087. Translated into English by Li Rongxi. Berkeley: Numata Center, 1996.

Nagao, Gadjin. 1994. An Index to the Mahāyānasamgraha. Studia Philologica Buddhica IX, Part 1: Tibetan-Sanskrit-Chinese, Tokyo: International Institute for Buddhist Studies.

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Olivelle, Patrick. tr. 2004. The Law Code of Manu. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Part 1 of 2

Mindfulness Meditation Research: Issues of Participant Screening, Safety Procedures, and Researcher Training
by M. Kathleen B. Lustyk, PhD; Neharika Chawla, MS; Roger S. Nolan, MA; G. Alan Marlatt, PhD
ADVANCES JOURNAL, Spring 2009, VOL. 24, NO. 1



M. Kathleen B. Lustyk, PhD, is a professor of psychology, in the School of Psychology, Seattle Pacific University, Washington, and an affiliate associate professor, in Biobehavioral Nursing and Health Systems, University of Washington School of Nursing, Seattle. Neharika Chawla, MS, is a pre-doctoral fellow at the Addictive Behaviors Research Center in the Department of Psychology, University of Washington, Seattle. Roger S. Nolan, MA, is a psychotherapist in Burbank, California. G. Alan Marlatt, PhD, is a professor of psychology and the director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center, University of Washington


Increasing interest in mindfulness meditation (MM) warrants discussion of research safety. Side effects of meditation with possible adverse reactions are reported in the literature. Yet participant screening procedures, research safety guidelines, and standards for researcher training have not been developed and disseminated in the MM field of study. The goal of this paper is to summarize safety concerns of MM practice and offer scholars some practical tools to use in their research. For example, we offer screener schematics aimed at determining the contraindication status of potential research participants. Moreover, we provide information on numerous MM training options. Ours is the first presentation of this type aimed at helping researchers think through the safety and training issues presented herein.

Support for our recommendations comes from consulting 17 primary publications and 5 secondary reports/literature reviews of meditation side effects. Mental health consequences were the most frequently reported side effects, followed by physical health then spiritual health consequences. For each of these categories of potential adverse effects, we offer MM researchers methods to assess the relative risks of each as it pertains to their particular research programs.

The list of benefits associated with mindfulness meditation (MM) is growing. Interest in this ancient practice rooted in Buddhist philosophy seems to know no cultural or religious boundaries. Walsh and Shapiro write, “Meditation is now one of the most enduring, widespread, and researched of all psychotherapeutic methods.”1 Yet, while safety guidelines, participant screening procedures, and standardized researcher training exist for some behavioral medicine practices (eg, exercise per the American College of Sports Medicine [ACSM] guidelines2), these have yet to be developed and disseminated in the MM field of study.

To assist those planning studies of MM, our goals in this paper are to (1) define categories of side effects of meditation with possible adverse reactions raised in the literature and by clinicians with extensive experience in the therapeutic delivery of MM, (2) propose a procedure for screening potential research participants and suggest safety procedures within each category, and (3) reduce the risk of potential iatrogenic harm to research participants by offering suggestions for researcher training in MM. Together, the authors contributing to this paper cover a broad range of expertise, including clinicians who regularly employ MM in their practices, specialists in MM facilitation from the Theravada tradition, and senior research scholars skilled in intervention, laboratory, and behavioral neuroscience methods.


Mindfulness meditation (MM) involves completely attending to experiences on a moment-to-moment basis in an effort to cultivate a nonjudgmental, nonreactive state of awareness.3 MM is rooted in the traditional Buddhist practice of Vipassana, which translates literally as “seeing things as they really are.”4 MM practice begins with sustained observation of the breath and expands to include awareness of physical sensations, thoughts, and emotional states as they arise in the present moment. This focus on present moment experiences trains attitudinal, relational, and cognitive capacities in practitioners with supporting changes in neurobiological substrates.5-7 According to Shapiro,8 this shift in focus from the breath to a variety of phenomena is what distinguishes MM from purely concentrative forms of meditation such as Transcendental Meditation (TM), which uses a mantra to centralize cognitive focus. Still, both MM and TM do involve concentrating on a specific object (eg, the breath); however, with MM this unified focus is then directed toward the entire field of awareness. Although meditation practices vary in the specific techniques employed, all involve a form of mental/attentional training.8,9

This overlap in meditation techniques has recently been addressed by Lutz et al,9 who offer the description of 2 meditation styles, namely focused attention and open monitoring, noting that with MM, practitioners may include both styles in their practices, whereas techniques such as TM primarily involve focused attention. We have considered this overlap in MM styles in our presentation of potential adverse effects by drawing upon MM studies as well as those reporting on related meditation techniques. We posit that when designing a study in an area of research where empirically tested safety procedures and standardized protocols are lacking, it is particularly important to consult the literature for reports of potential adverse effects attributed to the technique under investigation as well as any related techniques to maximize participant safety and facilitator awareness. As this is the case with MM, reports from small-n studies, secondary analyses, and the like involving MM-related forms of mediation warrant consideration. Beyond this, anecdotal evidence from clinicians who have observed negative consequences from MM with their patients is worth considering as well.

Please note: it was not our intent to evaluate the validity of the stated side effects reported in each of the articles cited herein. Such evaluations would require assessing how predictive each potential adverse outcome was from the meditation performed, how accurate the reporting author’s analyses were, and determination of mitigating circumstances. Our intent was simply to report the possibility of these outcomes so future study designers may be aware of them and plan accordingly.


MM has been incorporated into various therapeutic interventions. These interventions are associated with beneficial therapeutic effects in cases of chronic pain,10,11 substance use disorders,12-19 depression,20-23 anxiety,24,25 and binge eating disorder. 26,27 Therapeutic interventions that involve formal training in mindfulness skills include Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR),28 Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP),29,30 Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT),31,32 and Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training (MB-Eat).33 Other approaches that incorporate components of mindfulness into their therapeutic tenants include Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)34 and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).35

The developers of each of these therapeutic interventions are well-established scholars and skilled healthcare providers. As such, these developers and/or members of their research teams have specific training in patient/participant intake procedures and methods of responding to mental health–related adverse effects. Yet, with the favorable findings being reported with MM interventions, research interest is growing rapidly and, consequently, MM effects are being investigated by members of various guilds including neuroscience, cognitive, social and physiological psychology, medicine, and nursing under the supposition that MM is by-and-large a safe behavioral medicine practice. However, systematic evaluations of its safety have not been reported in the literature. One possibility is that the absence of reported adverse effects is taken as support for MM safety. We posit the following: (1) The absence of reported procedural cautions/warnings, side effects, or adverse events in well-controlled MM clinical trials does not necessarily mean that none exist. (2) Such reporting absence may simply represent the lack of a standard for reporting these issues/events within a new and rapidly growing field of study. (3) Moreover, consent and safety procedures do not routinely get reported in clinical trials, leaving open the possibility that new MM researchers who seek to replicate published procedures may not go into the study fully prepared for what may occur nor include adequate protection for participants. It is this third effect that is our major concern and, hence, the focus of this paper.


As demonstrated in Table 1, side effects of meditation with possible adverse reactions do occur. In light of research reports cited in Table 1 and recent reviews that discuss potential negative consequences of meditation, we thought it important to categorize potential adverse effects into (1) mental, (2) physical, and (3) spiritual health considerations. Within each category, we offer examples of specific side effects, cite cautionary reports for potential adverse effects, and label each effect as an absolute contraindication, a relative contraindication, or an issue worthy of consideration. Similar to the rationale applied to assessing safety in exercise research,2 we define an absolute contraindication as a condition or circumstance under which it is inadvisable to include a participant in a research study or carry out the research altogether. With a relative contraindication, participation may be inadvisable under some circumstances but not others. Matters worthy of concern are so named due to the theoretical/anecdotal nature of support for their consideration. To assist researchers in determining contraindication status of potential research participants, we offer step-by-step sample screener schematics to guide researchers as they develop their own research screening protocols.

Category 1: Mental Health Considerations

As can be seen in Table 1, adverse effects on mental health are the most frequently reported negative consequences from meditation. Of those mental health consequences listed in Table 1, the reports of severe affective and anxiety disorders as well as temporary dissociative states and psychosis give primary cause for concern.36-38 One example of a severe anxiety disorder is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a diagnosis characterized by the aftermath of a traumatic event (eg, combat, sexual assault), during which a person experiences feelings of intense fear, helplessness, and horror. Symptoms include intrusive recollections and re-experiencing in the form of distressing memories and flashbacks; avoidance of thoughts, feelings and situations associated with the traumatic event; emotional numbing; and hyperarousal.39 Because the practice of MM is contrary to the avoidance that is characteristic of PTSD,40 when individuals initially engage in MM they may, thus, encounter avoided affect and experiences in a form that is extremely distressing (eg, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts and memories) and may put them at risk for potential retraumatization. In order to address contraindication status (eg, absolute, relative, matter worthy of consideration) for participants with a history of trauma or a diagnosis of PTSD, we must first identify the specific research purpose.41 To illustrate, we provide a sample screener schematic for PTSD in Figure 1.


Table 1. Side Effects of Meditation With Possible Adverse Reactions

Source and Study Design / Adverse Effects / Category of Side Effects* / Meditation Type / Meditation Duration/Intensity Description

Castillo43: multiple case study / • In all cases there were reports of Depersonalization, Derealization. Note: 3 of the 6 cases experienced symptoms after extended residential courses / MH / TM / Individual practices (daily frequency/duration not reported) and extended residential courses.

Chan-Ob and Bonnyanarunthee 36: multiple case studya / • Case 1: Reports of psychotic symptoms, including Hallucinations, Fear of persecution, Disorientation, Poor insight and judgment, Reduced food intake (note: patient’s prior history of hypophagia not reported), Insomnia reported as complete sleep loss (note: patient’s prior history of insomnia not reported); • Case 2: Reports of psychotic symptoms, including Hallucinations, Delusions of grandeur, Thought disorder, Loss of appetite (note: patient’s prior history of hypophagia not reported), Inability to sleep (note: patient’s prior history of insomnia not reported) / MH, PH/MH, PH/MH, MH, PH/MH, PH/MH / specific type not reported / Case 1: symptoms reported after a 7-day intensive meditation retreat where it was suggested that one “…meditate all the time” (p 926); Case 2: symptoms reported after 3 consecutive nights of walking meditation throughout the night.

French et al79: single case study / • Feelings of anxiety, Feelings of intense dysphoria, Feelings of mania, including!euphoria/grandiosity, Reports of psychosis-like behavior / MH, MH, MH, MH / TM / Individual practice (daily frequency/ duration not reported)

Jaseja51: review / • Increased epileptogenisis susceptibility / PH / Various methods / This is a theory paper reporting EEG and neurochemical meditation effects.

Kennedy80: multiple case study / • Case 1: Reports of depersonalization and derealization, including Autoscopy, Double vision, Grandiosity/elation; Case 2: Reports of depersonalization and derealization, Feelings of anxiety / MH, MH / MM / Two cases with individual practices. Case 1: meditation described as awareness training and yoga (daily frequency/ duration not reported); Case 2: regular Arica practiceb (reports practice on most days of the week for an unspecified duration)

Lazarus81: multiple case summary / • Feelings of depression, including Attempted suicide following a weekend training course in TM (note: details of the attempt and patient’s history of prior suicide attempts not reported), Feelings of anxiety, including Tension, Restlessness/extreme agitation, Reports of severe depersonalization / MH, MH, MH, PH / TM / The author summarizes a collection of clinical observations precipitated by individual TM practice (daily frequency/duration not reported).

Persinger49: single case study / EEG revealed focal, temporal lobe, epileptic-like electrical changes recorded after 19 minutes of TM. / PH / TM / 10-year TM veteran observed during a 30-minute session

Persinger82: survey study / Significantly more complex partial epileptic-like signs (ascertained from an author generated inventoryc) observed in meditators compared to nonmeditators./ PH / TM / 1081 university students were surveyed; 221 of those surveyed were experienced meditators

Sethi and Bhargava 83: multiple case study / • Case 1: Reports of psychosis, including Delusions of persecutions/reference, Auditory hallucinations; • Case 2: Reports of religious delusions / MH, MH/SH / Type not specified / Case 1 participated in 4 days of intensive meditation in isolation; Case 2 participated in a 6-day residential retreat

Shapiro38: secondary analysis on a convenience sample / • Feelings of depression, including Decreased life motivation/boredom, Increased negativity/self-judgment, Feelings of anxiety, including Panic and/or tension, Feelings of dissociation, including Disorientation/confusion, Feelings of meditation “addiction”, Reports of pain / MH, MH, MH, MH, PH / Vipassana / Residential retreat; 2-week or 3-month duration with formal practice occurring a minimum of 10 hours/day.

VanderKooi84: multiple case study / • Case 1: Report of psychotic break with Hallucinations, Religious delusions; • Case 2: Report of psychosis, including Hallucinations, Intense fear and loneliness; • Case 3: Report of psychosis, including Hallucinations, Religious delusions / MH/SH, MH, MH/SH / Zen, TM, MM / Three cases of psychosis following residential retreats. Case 1: 7-day Zen retreat, Case 2: 10-day Theravada retreat, Case 3: weekend MM retreat.

Yorston85: single case study / • Feelings of mania, including Increased talkativeness, Overactivity/restlessness, Distractible, Sexual disinhibition, Reports of psychotic symptoms, including Thought disorder with flight of ideas, Grandiose delusions, Insomnia involving 5-days of reported sleeplessness (note: prior history of insomnia not reported). / MH, MH / Yoga and Zen (Sesshin) meditation / Yoga was described as a weekend class. Sesshin was described as an intensive weekend event. The patient also participated in a 2-month Zen Buddhist retreat (frequency/duration of daily practice not reported).

*MH=Mental Health, MM=Mindfulness Meditation, PH=Physical Health, SH=Spiritual Health, TM=Transcendental Meditation

aSymptoms for the third case are not reported due to the presence of a known psychotic illness prior to the meditation course. bArica is a multifaceted practice involving kath-channel breathing, mantrams, and yantras (see: for more information). cThe Personal Philosophy Inventory47,80 assesses 13 clusters of complex partial epileptic items, which identify temporal lobe phenomenology. In addition to the specific references listed, this table was compiled from the review articles of Arias et al68; Perez-De-Albeniz and Holmes36; Melbourne Academic Mindfulness Interest Group44; Lansky & St. Louis.48

As depicted in Figure 1, if the purpose of the study is to improve symptoms for a clinically diagnosed condition such as PTSD, then the study is classified as a clinical intervention. We posit that it is highly unlikely that such studies would receive Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval or extramural funding without the necessary safety precaution of including a clinician trained to treat PTSD on the research team; this is due to the fact that PTSD is an absolute contraindication under such circumstances. This is not to say that MM interventions for PTSD should not be performed. Support for the contrary comes from reports of beneficial findings from empirically validated treatments for trauma and PTSD that include a MM component.42 We address further positive MM outcomes in our discussion.

If, however, the purpose of the study is to investigate the effects of MM on a subclinical outcome (ie, not a diagnosable condition/illness) or to test an explanatory model (eg, a test of MM mechanisms of action), then including someone with PTSD in this example becomes a relative contraindication and screening at the outset of the study would assess inclusion: Basically, if conditions are met to provide adequate participant safety, such as inclusion of a trained clinician on the research team and obtaining informed consent, then inviting that participant to join the study may be appropriate if he or she meets all other inclusion criteria. For the researcher interested in exploring MM effects who is not clinically trained and does not have a member of their research team who is, we offer another option in our screening protocol (Figure 1) that will provide increased safety for potential participants. The option is to omit participants with mental health concerns such as PTSD in this example.

Figure 1. Sample Screener Schematic for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder as an Example of a Mental Health Consideration for Studies of Mindfulness Meditation Effects

Finally, including a clinically trained person on the research team or having such a person available for consultation and referral throughout the duration of the study may achieve maximum safety in MM research. For each of the mental health consequences listed in Table 1, a screener schematic similar to Figure 1 could easily be generated by replacing PTSD with each condition of concern.

For example, another primary mental health concern associated with meditation as reported in the literature is temporary depersonalization, or feelings of being detached from one’s mental processes or body. Certain types of meditation (eg, concentration practices like TM) have been found to induce depersonalization, possibly due to the related sensory deprivation. 43 Shapiro38 reports on 2 incidences (i.e., 7% of the sample studied) in which attendees at Vipassana retreats experienced severe enough symptoms that they stopped meditating. One had practiced 2 years or less prior to attending a 10-day retreat, which left him “totally disoriented. . .confused, spaced out”38. The other had 7 years or more of practice experience prior to attending a 3-month retreat. In a narrative he provided to the researcher he wrote “the mind set values that the retreat cultivated felt out of sync with the world. [Symptoms included]. . .lots of depression, confusion…severe shaking and energy releasing”38. Still, a recent study by Michal et al44 found an inverse relationship between mindfulness, which was operationally defined by self-reports using the Mindful Attention and Awareness Scale and depersonalization. It is unclear whether this association would generalize to interventions that involve MM practice. Until such time as empirical evidence is available, we offer our screener schematic to guide researchers in assessing contraindication status associated with depersonalization.

Another primary adverse effect within this mental health category is psychosis, which represents a loss of contact with reality and is characterized by the presence of symptoms including delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech, and/or disorganized behavior.38 The sensory deprivation and lack of sleep that are sometimes associated with intensive meditation practice may serve as triggers for psychotic episodes among those who are predisposed to such a condition. As can be seen in Table 1, several case reports of psychotic episodes precipitated by meditation exist in the literature. While this may be attributed to meditation intensity, such as participation in residential retreats, the limited and preliminary nature of this evidence warrants a cautious approach to using meditation with individuals predisposed to psychosis. Cautions seem particularly important for individuals with acute psychosis, mania, or suicidality and those noncompliant with prescribed antipsychotic medications. For example, as detailed in Table 1, most reported instances of postmeditation psychosis followed very intensive meditation practices. 36, 83,85 The one report of attempted suicide following an intensive TM training course81 presented in Table 1 is hard to interpret given that the details of the attempt and the patient’s history of prior suicidal attempts are not reported. Thus, the conservative approach to protecting research participants would be to adjust the screener schematic we provide in Figure 1 to assess acute psychosis, mania, or suicidality so that the contraindication status of such individuals can easily be determined.

If proposed study outcomes do not include assessment of mental health, the general consensus among MM investigators is to still screen for mental health concerns as precautions.45 However, we must underscore that no standard exists for this practice nor do all empirical reports published provide details on this screening, leaving open the possibility that an investigator new to this field of research may fail to exercise such precautions. In addition, the means by which researchers determine the current and/or past mental health status of potential research participants is with structured psychiatric interviews. There are a few types of structured interviews available for research purposes such as the Composite International Diagnostic Inventory.46 Interviewer training is a prerequisite to use, in part, because the administration of these interviews is potentially harmful to respondents in and of themselves. For example, to screen for clinical levels of anxiety, participants are asked to recall stressful or potentially traumatic events, and these recollections may produce negative emotional reactions symptomatic of the anxiety condition. As we propose in our screener schematic, adding appropriately trained clinical professionals to the research team would improve participant safety.

Category 2: Physical Health Considerations

As reported in Table 1, adverse effects on physical health are the next most frequently reported negative consequence of meditation; these involve neurological and somatic problems. Based on the extant literature, the neurological concern surrounding meditation is increased epileptogenesis (ie, risk of seizures). Seizures are sudden disruptions in the brain’s electrical activity that give rise to altered consciousness and/or behaviors. Epilepsy is the clinical diagnosis for a condition characterized by recurrent seizures. According to the Epilepsy Foundation of America, more than 3 million Americans suffer from seizure disorders, and it is estimated that 6% of the US population will experience a seizure in their lifetime.47 While often scary to observers, most seizures are not life threatening. Conversely, status epilepticus, or longlasting/ continuous seizure, causes unconsciousness and respiratory distress.48 Moreover, the burden associated with a seizure occurrence extends beyond the actual event in terms of lifestyle limitations (eg, loss of driving privileges).

As reported in Table 1, occurrences of seizures during meditation exist.49,50 An emergent body of literature evinces electroencephalographic (EEG) alterations from meditation including MM. According to Jaseja, meditation-induced neuronal hypersynchrony and neurochemical increases in glutamate and serotonin may decrease the seizure threshold.51 Given that increased cortical gamma wave synchrony has recently been observed during MM in both experienced practitioners52 and meditation novices,5 screening for seizure history in potential MM research participants is warranted to maximize participant safety. Furthermore, the work of Jha et al53 reveals that subsystems of attention including focusing components are implicated in MM. This is noteworthy given that focused attention is epileptogenic54- 56 and is listed by the Epilepsy Foundation of America as a seizure trigger.57

Therefore in Figure 2, we provide a screener schematic for this neurological concern in adults as an example for the physical health considerations category. In instances where the research question involves the use of MM therapeutically for epilepsy, we label this as a neurology study, which would be performed under the care of a physician.

Based on the evidence referenced in Table 1, another physical health consideration with meditation is somatic discomfort or pain. In the manualized mindfulness-based therapies previously mentioned (eg, MBSR), consideration of discomfort is addressed by providing postural options for MM practitioners (eg, the use of a chair rather than sitting on the floor). Furthermore, some forms of MM involve physical activity (eg, walking meditation) that prevents the muscle/joint strain of maintaining a single posture during a MM session. Yet some scholars have begun to consider the need to deconstruct mindfulness- based therapy options in order to systematically investigate efficacy-effectiveness and explanatory models of the meditation components.41 With this movement, new considerations for participant safety are warranted. If, for example, a researcher wishes to systematically investigate the effects of a body-scan form of MM compared to Hatha yoga (a movement form of MM) on an outcome, kinesthetic concerns arise warranting participant screening for neuromuscular/joint-related illnesses negatively affected by maintaining a particular posture through the duration of a MM session.

Figure 2. Sample Screener Schematic for Seizure Disorder/Epilepsy as an Example of a Physical Health Consideration for Studies of Mindfulness Meditation Effects in an Adult Sample

One such neuromuscular/joint-related illness is arthritis, a collective term used to label painful joint diseases. Common forms include rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease causing chronic pain, inflammation, and stiffness in several joints: and osteoarthritis, which is due to a loss of cartilage between joint bones typically affecting fewer joints more intermittently than the rheumatoid form. Immobility exacerbates both forms of arthritis, while moderate-intensity exercise is associated with symptom improvements.58,59

Sedentary MM results in joints being held in a certain position for up to 30 minutes or more. This may result in uncomfortable kinesthetic sensations (Table 1) from inactivity or fatigue of postural muscles if a certain posture is held for the duration of the practice. This type of discomfort is exacerbated in persons with arthritis,60 so to provide maximum safety for arthritic research participants active forms of MM (eg, walking) are advised. However, if the research goal is to test sedentary MM effects on some other outcome than arthritis symptoms, arthritis should be treated as a relative contraindication and would follow that pathway for screening in our Figure 2 schematic.

As also pointed out in Table 1, physical health concerns included loss of appetite, reduced food intake, and difficulty sleeping. These findings must be interpreted with caution as the reporting authors cited in Table 1 do not provide information on participants’ prior history with hypophagia or insomnia. Moreover, such side effects may not be adverse events. For example, hypophagia may be health promoting if it is the result of reduced anxiety leading to reductions in stress-induced eating.

Category 3: Spiritual Health Considerations

In Table 1, we also reference studies in which negative consequences to spiritual health, specifically cases of religious delusions, have been reported. Spirituality can be defined as the subjective dimension of religious experience.61,62 As a measurable construct, spirituality is multifaceted with components, including a search for truth and meaning in life with some level of transcendence and personal transformation.63 Spiritual wellbeing has been operationally defined as one’s overall sense of life purpose and satisfaction and one’s sense of well-being in relationship to God or other deity.64 This interconnection between religious and existential well-being encompassing one’s spiritual health may serve as a point of concern in MM research given the references to religious delusions we include in Table 1.

Protection from harm in this category is not a matter of screening per se; rather, it involves obtaining informed consent. For example, to adequately inform participants of their involvement in a study where they will engage in MM, the meditative components would be disclosed and questions regarding meditation are likely. Therefore, initially, it may be necessary to discuss with participants any negative associations of MM borne out of misunderstandings from history in an effort to abate any fears participants may have of violating their own foundational religious tenants by engaging in meditation. Briefly, MM practices are deeply rooted in the Buddhist tradition and are practiced in Buddhist monasteries throughout Southeast Asia. It was to these monasteries that Westerners began to travel to in the 1960s and 1970s specifically to learn to meditate. Some of these Western practitioners returned to the United States and pursued careers in psychology and medicine, and out of this fusion of Eastern and Western practices, the mindfulness tradition was acculturated.65,66 What may still linger in laymen’s thinking are the associations of MM with the 1960s and the monastic lifestyle, which in Western culture may carry certain stereotypes and expectations. While researchers could point out that traditions other than Buddhism, such as Hinduism and Christianity, recommend meditation to their followers or incorporate meditation as a form of worship (ie, TM or centering prayer, respectively), further elaboration will require education on the part of the researcher. Therefore, there is no clear-cut schematic we can offer researchers to address these spiritual concerns. Instead, to maximally protect participants by facilitating the acquisition of informed consent, MM specific education would be helpful.

It may also be necessary on occasion to address unrealistically positive associations or expectations associated with meditation, such as the attainment of blissful states or an escape from one’s day-to-day experience. Although MM practices may lead to states of peacefulness and deep relaxation, these expectations are secondary to the goals of the MM, which are to encourage nonjudgmental openness and awareness of all phenomena, including those that are challenging or unpleasant. Thus, an understanding of these goals is extremely helpful in clarifying misconceptions. In Table 2, we provide the type, source, and contact information for numerous educational opportunities in MM. Even a trained clinician or other healthcare provider may lack the ability to address participants’ questions regarding the spiritual nature of MM if their training did not include such study. We are not suggesting that knowledge of the dogma of all religious practices is necessary, rather the simple understanding of how MM differs from or compliments other techniques and practices would allow one to address concerns that may preclude garnering informed consent.
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Part 2 of 2

Another issue related to research safety, and one that is actively being debated among MM experts, is MM training for researchers. Although the general consensus is that training is needed, no standard exists.45 In Table 2, we provide researchers with numerous training options. Formal training exists for the few mindfulness-based interventions developed thus far. For example, clinically-oriented researchers interested in investigating the effects of a mindfulness-based approach to preventing relapse related to depression or substance use have available to them course options for in-depth training in these therapeutic approaches (MBCT31,32 and MBRP,29,30 respectively). For researchers investigating MM effects using methods other than the formal mindfulness-based interventions, we list online courses and resources for informal training (Table 2).

Table 2. Sources for Mindfulness Training

Type / Source / Web Address

Formal Training* / -- / --

MBSR / --Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society, University of Massachusetts Medical School (Jon Kabat-Zinn and Saki Santorelli) /

MBCT / University of Toronto, Department of Psychiatry; University of Oxford, Department of Psychiatry (Zindel Segal, Mark Williams and John Teasdale) /

MBRP / Addictive Behavior Research Center, University of Washington, Department of Psychology (G. Alan Marlatt) / abrc/MBRP.htm

MB-EAT / The Center for Mindful Eating, Indiana State University, Center for the Study of Health, Religion and Spirituality (Jean Kristellar) /

MB-CP / The Professional Development and Teacher Training Program at The University of California San Francisco Osher Center for Integrative Medicine /

Informal Training Available Online / -- / -- / -- /

Mindful Healing Series / -- /

Dharmaweb / -- /

Other Organizations That Offer Seminars/Educational Opportunities

Insight Mediation Society / -- /

Mind and Life Institute / -- /

Dharma Ocean Foundation / -- /

Mindful Awareness Research Center / UCLA Semel Institute /

Omega / Institute for Holistic Studies /

Mindsight Institute / Dan Siegel /

Other Organizations That Offer Residential Retreats

Plum Village Practice Center / Thich Nhat Hanh /

Spirit Rock / Founded by Dharma Foundation /

Shambhala Mountain Center / Founded by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche /

Common Ground Meditation Center / Mark Nunburg /

ART / Awareness and Relaxation Training /

Hollyhock / -- /

Dharma Ocean Retreat Center / Reggie Ray /

Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies / B. Alan Wallace /

Other Resources

The Meditation Spot / Contains numerous resource links /

The Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy / -- /

*MBSR=Mindfulness-based stress reduction, MBCT=Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, MBRP=Mindfulness-based relapse prevention,M B-EAT=Mindfulness-based eating awareness training, MB-CP=Mindfulness-based Childbirth and Parenting, ART=awareness and relaxation training, UCLA=University of California, Los Angeles.

We stress again, that currently no prerequisite training standard for researchers exists. As such, MM interventions may be taught and investigated by well-intentioned but inadequately trained researchers creating another safety issue: iatrogenic harm. Another option for researchers interested in investigating the effects of MM but lacking the personal skills and expertise required to conduct these interventions is to hire an MM expert who can both deliver the intervention and guide the researcher in development and execution of the research protocol.

And finally, related to the subject of training is the issue of self-practice. While the popular opinion is that maintaining a MM practice is a necessary first step towards credible and safe MM instruction,45 again, no standard for this exists. We suggest that just as it would be unrealistic to expect someone who had never exercised before to have the cardiorespiratory endurance, physical strength, and simple know-how to instruct a group exercise class, it is also unrealistic for someone with no meditation experience to have the mental endurance, flexibility, and ability to model MM for research participants. In the Buddhist tradition, MM teachers were seen as experienced guides escorting individuals on a deep inward journey.67(p74) Keeping with this tradition then, if a MM researcher plans to conduct a research study without the guidance and support of an MM expert and has not visited this territory before, his or her ability to safely guide a research participant will be limited. The mindfulness- based interventions listed in Table 2 all consider modeling an attitude of openness and nonjudgement to be a foundational skill to teaching MM; these are skills that come from personal practice. Further, MM essentially involves private experience, and it is therefore quite difficult, if not impossible, to understand unless one has done it oneself. Therefore, an inexperienced researcher may be unable to answer participant questions, again preventing the acquisition of informed consent. Therefore in Table 2, we offer numerous resources to assist researchers in developing their own self-practice.

Furthermore, we suggest that those new to MM consult with a more experienced practitioner. Interestingly, this is how the practice of MM was shared historically within the Theravada tradition. Theravada means “way of the elders.” This tradition stresses the importance of passing foundational teachings along generational lines. The elders shared the guidelines regarding the training of teachers and students and the standards of safety built into this type of training. More advanced practitioners have years of personal experience from their own practice and instruction to draw upon in teaching novices. This leadership can help novices deal with their own insecurities or perceived barriers to MM such as feelings of skepticism, embarrassment, and self-judgment while offering tools to guide them on their paths.68 While it appears that rich training from spiritual teachers has informed a few of the developers of mindfulness-based methods (eg, in Coming to Our Senses, Jon Kabat-Zinn writes of his studies with Zen master Seung Sahn,69 and Alan Marlatt writes of numerous spiritual teachers including Pema Chödron in his Personal Journey68), this practice does not appear customary among MM researchers, which is curious given how common consulting and interdisciplinary collaboration has become in scholarly activities.


Our purpose was to address issues of participant screening, research safety, and researcher training in the MM field of study; it was not to evaluate the validity of reported adverse events in the studies cited. Rather, the studies cited herein were used for the purposes of creating guidelines and assessing potential areas of difficulty. We summarize research that supports 3 categories of health-related concerns that may be negatively affected by MM, namely, physical, mental, and spiritual health considerations. Drawing upon the extant literature, we provide examples of risks within each of these categories, and we provide step-by-step participant screening schematics or offer research safety procedures applicable to MM research. Given that no standard for prerequisite training or self-practice exists for MM researchers we provide many resources for MM training and education in an effort to reduce iatrogenic harm.

We recognize that limitations to safety assertions exist at this time. For example, the majority of the reports cited in Table 1 are case studies or secondary analyses reporting adverse effects in a post-hoc fashion. For example, the cited case reports of psychotic episodes precipitated by meditation occurred in participants attending intensive meditation retreats rather than brief mindfulness interventions.70 These retreats are not only rigorous in the intensity and duration of meditation practiced, but any adverse effects of MM are confounded by factors such as sensory deprivation, loss of sleep, and fasting, all of which may serve as precipitants for a psychotic episode. Thus, it is difficult to interpret the direct nature of the relationship between meditation and adverse outcomes based on these and similar reports.

The greatest limitation lies in the simple impracticability of directly and systematically investigating meditation-induced harm. Thus, as we posited earlier, a cautious approach to using meditation in research is warranted in the face of the limited and preliminary nature of current evidence in order to maximize participant safety.

It is important to note that MM practice is different from interventions such as MBSR that includes MM practices along with a discussion of the effects of stress or MBCT that is an integration of MM with cognitive-behavioral exercises and activities. However, the practices included in these interventions are traditional MM practices (eg, body scan, sitting meditation). Further, these practices are at the core of these programs and designate these programs as being “mindfulness-based.” Thus, it is our opinion that the considerations that exist for these interventions should be the same as those that exist for other MM practices.

As a show of our strong support for clinical investigations of MM therapeutic effects, we point out that an emergent body of research suggests therapeutic benefits for some of the risks we have listed here. To date, research evinces benefits from mindfulness- based interventions for several mental illnesses, including mood,71 psychotic,72 and anxiety disorders24 as well as prenatal stress and depression.73 Similarly, therapeutic benefits from mindfulness-based interventions exist for physical ailments including neuromuscular disorders,74,75 chronic pain10,76 and neurological conditions.77,78 Again we underscore that these clinical interventions are being carried out by those with specific training aimed at protecting the patients they serve. Furthermore, administrators of some mindfulness-based interventions (eg, MBSR), require that patients receive a complete medical examination prior to participating in the program.28 Yet it is because of our support for and our active involvement in MM research that we recognize a lack of reporting of safeguards. In this paper, we summarize research safety concerns, offer participant screening guidelines, and provide information on MM training and education, in an effort to reach the scientific community- at-large. For it remains of utmost importance that scholars protect research participants, especially those who belong to high-risk/special populations, by appropriately assessing risk and determining contraindication status until such time as empirical evidence proves the safe inclusion of all persons in general MM research.



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60. American Geriatrics Society Panel on Exercise and Osteoarthritis.. Exercise prescription for older adults with osteoarthritis pain: consensus practice recommendations. A supplement to the AGS Clinical Practice Guidelines on the management of chronic pain in older adults. J Am Geriatr Society. 2001;49(6):808-823.

61. Hill PC, Pargament KI. Advances in the conceptualization and measurement of religion and spirituality. Implications for physical and mental health research. Am Psychol. 2003;58(1):64-74.

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65. Goldstein J. One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism. New York, NY: HarperCollins; 2002.

66. Kornfield J. A Path With Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life. New York, NY: Bantam Books; 1993.

67. Nolan R. Vipassana Meditation and Counseling Psychology: A Pathway to the Unconscious [master’s thesis]. Carpinteria, CA: Pacifica Graduate Institute; 2006.

68. Marlatt GA. Mindfulness meditation: Reflections from a personal journey. Curr Psychol. 2006;25(3):155-172.

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71. Williams JM, Alatiq Y, Crane C, et al. Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) in bipolar disorder: preliminary evaluation of immediate effects on between-episode functioning. J Affect Disord. 2008;107(1-3):275-279.

72. Chadwick P. Mindfulness groups for people with psychosis. Behav Cognitive Psychother. 2005;33(3):351-359.

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Part 1 of 2

Can Killing a Living Being Ever Be an Act of Compassion? The analysis of the act of killing in the Abhidhamma and Pali Commentaries
by Rupert Gethin
Centre for Buddhist Studies
Department of Theology and Religious Studies
University of Bristol



Abstract: In the Theravadin exegetical tradition, the notion that intentionally killing a living being is wrong involves a claim that when certain mental states (such as compassion) are present in the mind, it is simply impossible that one could act in certain ways (such as to intentionally kill). Contrary to what Keown has claimed, the only criterion for judging whether an act is “moral” (kusala) or “immoral” (akusala) in Indian systematic Buddhist thought is the quality of the intention that motivates it. The idea that killing a living being might be a solution to the problem of suffering runs counter to the Buddhist emphasis on dukkha as a reality that must be understood. The cultivation of friendliness in the face of suffering is seen as something that can bring beneficial effects for self and others in a situation where it might seem that compassion should lead one to kill.1

Killing and Buddhist Ethics

In a number of contexts, the discourses of the Buddha that have come down to us in the four Pali Nikayas present the act of killing a living being as an unwholesome (akusala) act and, as such, to be avoided. The first of the ten courses of unwholesome action (akusala-kammapatha) is “to kill living beings.” The third of the eight elements that make up the Buddha’s eightfold path is “right action”; one of the three forms that right action takes is “refraining from killing living beings.” The first of the five precepts or “rules of training” (sikkhapada) that are undertaken by all lay Buddhists takes the form, “I undertake the rule of training to refrain from harming living beings.” The ten courses of unwholesome action, the eightfold path, and the five precepts are all standard elements in the teaching of the Buddha as presented in the Pali Nikayas. But we also find the injunction not to kill or harm living beings spelled out in other ways and in specific contexts. Let me cite just two of the many possible examples. In the Brahmajala Sutta we are told how the Buddha “refrains from killing living creatures, discards sticks and swords, and is considerate and full of concern, remaining sympathetic and well disposed towards all creatures and beings.”2 And a verse from the Suttanipata (394) states, “Laying aside violence in respect of all living beings in the world, both those which are still and those which move, he should not kill a living creature, not cause to kill, nor allow others to kill.”3 In the Cula-Kammavibhanga Sutta we are told of the results of killing living beings:

Some man or woman kills living beings and is murderous, has blood on his hands, is given to blows and violence, is without pity for living beings. Because of performing and carrying out such action, at the breaking up of the body, after death he reappears in a state of misfortune, an unhappy destiny, a state of affliction, hell.4

The well known Metta Sutta or “discourse on friendliness,” a text frequently chanted in Buddhist ritual and considered one that brings protection or safety (paritta), sums up the positive corollary of not killing living beings as follows:

One should not wish another pain out of anger or thoughts of enmity. Just as a mother would protect with her life her own son, her only son, so one should cultivate the immeasurable mind towards all living beings and friendliness towards the whole world.5

So, prima facie, the picture is clear: killing living beings — any living being — is a bad thing that leads to an unpleasant rebirth; following the Buddha’s path involves refraining from killing living beings, laying aside weapons, and cultivating the compassion of the Buddha — end of story. But, one might ask, are all kinds of killing the same? Is there not a difference between killing a human being and squashing a mosquito? And what of our motivations in killing? Is “putting down” an ailing cat or dog not rather different from, say, hunting animals for sport? What of acts of “mercy-killing” or euthanasia in the case of the sick and dying? What of abortion? What of war? While not all these questions are directly and explicitly addressed in traditional Buddhist writings, a number of statements and discussions in the Pali texts touch on these issues in various ways.

In recent years a number of scholars have drawn on some of these discussions in order to try to begin to map out something of the traditional Buddhist approach to some of the ethical issues surrounding the act of killing, and also to introduce a Buddhist perspective into the contemporary discussion of such issues as abortion, euthanasia, and general bioethics.6 While this work has certainly succeeded in clarifying Buddhist thinking on ethical issues, I also think that by too readily transposing Buddhist discourse into the framework of contemporary ethical discourse it has sometimes inadvertently distorted what I see as the distinctively Buddhist psychological take on ethical issues.

I do not mean to suggest here that the scholars working in this area have got their Buddhist ethics wrong, but rather that they tend at crucial points to force Buddhist texts to conform to the idiom of contemporary ethical discourse, rather than allowing them their own distinctive voice. One reason for this, I think, is because existing discussions do not pay sufficient attention to the Pali commentaries and Abhidhamma framework in which their discussions of the finer points of Buddhist thought are set. The basic relevance of the Abhidhamma to what in the Western intellectual tradition is called “ethics” was in fact recognized a century ago by Mrs. Rhys Davids when she translated the first book of the Abhidhamma Pitaka under the title of Buddhist Psychological Ethics.7 The present paper is in part an attempt to follow her lead and consider more fully some details of the treatment found in the Theravada Abhidhamma and Pali commentaries of one particular unwholesome course of action and the related training rules in the Vinaya.

The Vinaya Rules

The monastic code for Buddhist monks includes 227 rules; these are divided into groups according to the seriousness of the offence that follows from breaking the rule. The first four, the parajikas, are the most serious: breaking any one of them involves the monk in “defeat” (expulsion from the order).8 The third of the parajika offences is a rule against intentionally killing another human being:

Whatever bhikkhu should intentionally deprive a human being of life, or seek a weapon for him for taking [life], or should utter praise of death, or should urge him towards death saying, “Good man, what use to you is this miserable life? Death is better than life.” Or, having such thoughts and intentions in mind, should in several ways utter praise of death, or should urge him towards death, he too becomes defeated, is not in communion.9

Killing a living being other than a human being is distinguished as a lesser offence (pacittiya sixty-one): “If any bhikkhu should intentionally deprive a living being of life, there is an offence entailing expiation.”10

Two things are clear in the formulation of these rules: (1) that whether or not we do things intentionally and with full consciousness is a crucial determinant of responsibility in the Buddhist view of things; (2) killing a human being is to be distinguished from killing other living beings.

Of course, we must tread carefully here. The canonical and commentarial Vinaya texts are not simply concerned with ethical issues and matters of morality; they are also concerned with legal questions — with how to determine whether or not a monk or nun has broken one of a set of 227 or 311 rules. As the texts are well aware, breaking a rule of law may or may not be the same thing as doing a moral wrong. The ancient Buddhist texts make a clear distinction between that which is loka-vajja and that which is pannatti-vajja — deeds that offend against a universally accepted moral principle and those that offend against a conventionally designated rule. I shall return to this distinction presently.

If we examine the Vinaya texts and the “case histories” (vinita-vatthu) that accompany the various rules, the question of a monk’s intentions and of his state of mind is raised again and again in determining whether or not a rule has been broken: accidentally killing someone or killing someone when one is in a confused state of mind is quite a different matter from deliberately and consciously killing someone. Of course, the importance of intention in the Buddhist understanding of what constitutes moral or immoral action is brought out in an often quoted statement of the Buddha’s: “It is intention that I call action (kamma); having formed an intention one acts.”11 In other words, actions that carry moral responsibility — which will lead to pleasant or unpleasant results — are those which one does with clear intention.12 As in a modern court of law, intentions and state of mind are important considerations.

The old Vinaya exposition (vibhanga) of the third parajika offence also gives us some other details and clues: encouraging someone to commit suicide who then does so, carrying out an abortion or intentionally being instrumental in an abortion are both considered as constituting intentional killing of a human being and hence an offence involving “defeat” or “expulsion” (parajika).13

The Commentarial Discussion

There are two main contexts in which the Pali atthakathas provide an analysis of the act of killing a being: (1) in commenting on the list of ten akusala-kammapatha;14 (2) in commenting on the third parajika rule and pacittiya sixty-one.

Let us turn first to the commentarial analysis of the “courses of action.” In their treatment of the courses of action, the commentaries imply a distinction between kamma in general — any good or bad action that carries some degree of moral responsibility and which will have a desirable or undesirable result — and kamma-patha — a complete course of action. This last expression characterizes a completed and fully intentional morally good or bad action. The distinction at work here is perhaps comparable to the distinction made between venial and mortal sin in medieval Christian theology. So what do the commentaries have to say about what is involved in the course of action of killing a living being? The following passage occurs in at least five places in the atthakathas, which no doubt indicates that it has been drawn from the earlier Sinhala commentaries as an authoritative statement of the relevant issues. In part it seems in turn to have drawn on and developed discussions found in the canonical Vinaya analysis of the third parajika.15

The word “living creature” means, in conventional discourse, a being; in the ultimate sense it is the faculty of life. Killing a living creature is the intention to kill in one who perceives a living creature as such, when this occurs through the door of either the body or of speech and produces the exertion that cuts off the life-faculty [of that living being].]

In the case of living creatures without [moral] virtues, such as animals, [the act of killing] is less blameworthy when the creature has a small body, and more blameworthy when the being has a large body. Why? Because of the greater effort [required] in killing a being with a large body; and even when the effort is the same, [the act of killing a large-bodied creature is still more blameworthy] because of its greater physical substance. In the case of beings that possess [moral] virtues, such as human beings, the act of killing is less blameworthy when the being is of little virtue and more blameworthy when the being is of great virtue. But when the body and virtue [of creatures] are equal, [the act of killing] is less blameworthy when the defilements and force of the effort are mild, more blameworthy when they are powerful.

The act of killing has five components: a living being, the perception of the living being as such, the thought of killing, the action, and the death [of the being] as a result. There are six means:16 one’s own person, giving orders, missiles, stationary devices, magical spells, and psychic power.17

So for the killing of a living being to be classified as a kamma-patha, five conditions need to be fulfilled. If any one of the five conditions is not fulfilled, then it is not a completed course of action, although it may still be an unwholesome or immoral act of some sort and degree. From this idea it would seem to follow that any intentional killing of any living being whatsoever should be regarded as an unwholesome course of kamma, and as morally blameworthy. I will return to the question of intention presently. First I wish to consider briefly the three factors the commentary singles out as affecting the degree of seriousness or moral blameworthiness of the deed:

• Size: in the case of animals, the bigger the animal, the more serious the act of killing.

• Virtue: in the case of humans, the more virtuous the human, the more serious the act of killing.

• The intensity of the desire to kill coupled with the effort involved in the actual act of killing.

These criteria have been briefly discussed by Damien Keown.18 His discussion seems to assume that these factors are offered as a more or less exact way of calculating the relative blame that accrues to unwholesome deeds. But to read them in this way may land us in unnecessary difficulties. I would prefer to take them as articulating what is in many ways a “common sense” attitude towards the relative blameworthiness of different unwholesome acts — an attitude that has much in common with the attitudes of a contemporary court of law.

The first criterion is something that I would argue is taken for granted in contemporary society. Most of us would regard the swatting of a fly or a mosquito as different and qualitatively distinct from the killing of a mouse or rat; most would regard the killing of a mouse or a rat as different and qualitatively distinct from the killing of a horse, gorilla, or elephant. As long as we take the question of size as a general rule of thumb, and not as a strict and exact method of calculating moral blame, it would seem to work. Of course, some might want to argue that although we certainly do regard the killing of mosquitoes in a different light from that in which we regard the killing of, say, horses or humans, this difference is really just a measure of our moral confusion: in truth we really should not, since all life is of equal moral worth.

At first sight the second is more difficult and, some might feel, a more morally dangerous if not positively morally repugnant idea because it might be taken as allowing us to conclude that those whom we consider as morally degenerate are somehow morally less valuable, and so can be disposed of with impunity. I would suggest that this is the wrong conclusion. The view expressed here is that killing living beings is always wrong, and never right.

What the commentary is trying to get at, I think, is the psychological attitude, the quality of intention that might be involved in killing different human beings: that is, we tend to feel differently about and find it harder to understand — and perhaps regard as more blameworthy — the killing of innocents than we do the killing of some serial murderer, for example. Think for a moment of the murder of “a sweet old lady” who had never done anyone any harm and of the murder (or execution) of some notorious criminal; imagine for a moment the assassination of Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin alongside that of Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King.

The third criterion seems to have to do with the interplay between the viciousness and depravity of the act of killing; compare killings that are acts of uncharacteristic and sudden anger with those that are premeditated, sadistic acts. The relationship between effort and the intensity of the defilements is no doubt of some complexity: a casual act of killing without any thought for the victim might involve little effort and thought, yet that very fact might be taken as an indicator of deep-rooted and strong defilements.

Of course, in matters of morals we like to think that we can find universals, and the preceding discussion raises all sorts of questions about the extent to which we have to do here with socially and culturally conditioned values as opposed to universal human and moral values. Different cultures, different societies, have quite different attitudes towards certain animals. But whatever we precisely think of the moral suitability of the criteria suggested, we at least can see that the commentaries are attempting to articulate an attitude which views killing living beings as in all circumstances an unwholesome kamma, an action leading to unpleasant results in future births, but nevertheless allows that some acts of killing are worse than others.

The Intention to Kill: The Abhidhamma Perspective

The particular detail of the commentarial analyses that I wish to focus on in the present context is the way that “killing a being” is defined not as the actual act of killing itself but as the mental intention or will (cetana) that prompts the act of killing:

Killing a living being is the intention to kill in one who is aware of a living being as a living being when this occurs through either the door of the body or of speech and produces the exertion that cuts off the life-faculty.

Or, as the Samantapasadika puts it, “The intention to kill as a result of which one produces the activity that cuts off [a being’s] life-faculty is called ‘killing a living being’; ‘the one who kills a living being’ should be understood as the person possessing that intention.”19

In both these commentarial passages, in line with the general tendency in Buddhist thought, the emphasis is on an unwholesome action (kamma) as consisting at least in part in the underlying mental intention (cetana). While the commentaries do not state the intention to kill as a sufficient condition for the course of action that is killing a living being, they do clearly state it as one of the five necessary conditions (sambhara): a living being, awareness of the living being, a mind that intends to kill, the exertion, and death as a result.

In the present context, what I wish to establish is the Theravada analysis of the nature of the mind that might produce in someone the intention or will to kill: what kinds of motivation might characterize the mind at the time of killing? In fact, within the general framework of Abhidhamma psychology, the commentarial analysis of the nature of the intention to kill (vadhakacitta/ vadhaka-cetana) seems clear and unambiguous.

After the initial analysis of the ten akusala kammapathas, the commentarial analysis sets out five ways for defining (vinicchaya) their nature: by way of intrinsic nature (dhamma/sabhava), grouping (kotthasa), object (arammana), feeling (vedana), and root (mula). For present purposes, it is the definition by way of feeling and root that is particularly relevant. The definition by way of intrinsic nature reaffirms the point already made, namely that the act of killing is essentially the intention to kill.20 When it comes to the definition of killing a being by way of feeling, it is stated that it “has painful feeling, for even though kings presented with a thief say with a smile, “Go and execute him,” nevertheless the decisive intention (sannitthapaka-cetana) is only associated with painful feeling.”21 As to root, killing a living being has two roots, namely hate and delusion.

This set of definitions keys the kamma-pathas quite precisely into the Abhidhamma system of classes of consciousness. The fact that intention to kill is accompanied by only painful feeling and has as its roots hate and delusion means that it can only be constituted by two of the standard list of eighty-nine classes of consciousness: the two classes of sense-sphere consciousness rooted in hate and accompanied by unhappiness.22 The possibility that the intention to kill might ever be constituted by one or other of the eight classes of sense-sphere consciousness rooted in lack of greed, lack of hate, and lack of ignorance is apparently simply excluded. In other words the intention to kill is understood as exclusively unwholesome, and the possibility that it might ever be something wholesome prompted by thoughts of compassion is not countenanced.

Of course, one might try to argue that wholesome minds are not included here by definition: what is under discussion here are the ten courses of unwholesome action, and if one kills a living being out of compassion it is by definition not an unwholesome course of action and hence not “killing a living being” (panatipata). But, as we shall see, the way in which the Vinaya does allow for the fact that some rules can be broken with wholesome (kusala) and undetermined (avyakata) consciousness seems to exclude this interpretation. In the Sutta context, the point is that there simply is no wholesome course of action that is killing a living being.

The two older extant commentaries to the Vinaya, the Samantapasadika and the Kankhavitarani, give a set of eight categories by which to analyze each rule of the Patimokkha.23 These categories concern (1) the nature of the “arising” or “origin” of an offence (samutthana); (2) whether it arises from activity (kiriya) or inactivity; (3) whether there needs to be full awareness (sanna) of what one is doing (or not doing) for something to constitute an offence;24 (4) whether the mind (citta) is involved in the offence’s arising or origin; (5) whether an offence constitutes something that is universally a fault (loka-vajja) or whether it is something that is merely a fault by designation (pannatti-vajja) as such in the Vinaya;25 (6) whether an offence concerns an act (kamma) of body, speech, or mind; (7) whether at the time of committing an offence one’s mind is constituted by unwholesome consciousness, or by either wholesome or undetermined consciousness;26 and (8) whether the mind at the time of committing an offence will be associated with unpleasant feeling, pleasant feeling, or neutral feeling.27

The seventh and eighth categories in this list once again key into the Abhidhamma classification of consciousness. The Samantapasadika makes this quite explicit:

There are wholesome rules, unwholesome rules and undetermined rules. For just thirty-two classes of consciousness can produce an offence: the eight wholesome sense-sphere consciousnesses, the twelve unwholesome and ten kiriya sense-sphere consciousnesses, 28 and the two wholesome and kiriya higher knowledge consciousnesses. A rule which one breaks with wholesome consciousness is [classified as] wholesome, [those which one breaks] with the other kinds are classified accordingly.29

What this makes clear is that for the Samantapasadika, while in many circumstances Vinaya rules will be broken, as one might expect, when the mind is constituted by unwholesome consciousness and motivated by some combination of greed, hatred, and delusion, at least certain rules in certain circumstances may be broken when the mind is constituted by wholesome consciousness and motivated by nonattachment, friendliness, and wisdom. Moreover, this being the case, it is explicitly stated that again at least certain rules in certain circumstances may be broken when the mind is constituted by various classes of undetermined or kiriya consciousness. In other words, the Vinaya commentary recognizes that in certain circumstances a purely wholesome (kusala) intention will lead someone to break a Vinaya rule; even arahats in certain circumstance will — quite rightly and properly in that they are acting from the motivations of nonattachment (alobha), friendliness (adosa), and wisdom (amoha) — break Vinaya rules. In the course of commenting on the 227 rules of the Patimokkha the Samantapasadika and Kankhavitarani spell out which rules can be broken when the mind is constituted by these different types of consciousness. Commenting on the third parajika, the Samantapasadika states:

As for arising, etc., this rule has three arisings (it arises from body and mind, from speech and mind, and from body, speech and mind); it concerns activity, it is rendered void by [the absence of] full awareness, it is associated with the mind, it concerns a universal fault, it is an act of the body, or an act of speech, it is connected with unwholesome consciousness, and painful feeling. For even when a king seated on his throne enjoying the pleasure of political power responds to the news that a thief has been arrested with a smile, saying, “Go and execute him!,” it should be understood that he does so only with a mind associated with unhappiness. But because this unhappiness is mixed with pleasure and is also not sustained, it is difficult for ordinary people to notice.30

In the case of Pacittiya sixty-one, Samantapasadika makes the following comment:

In the context of this rule, “living creature” refers only to animals; whether one kills a small or large creature, there is no variation in the offence, but in the case of a large animal there is more unwholesomeness because of the greater effort [involved]. Perceiving a living creature as such means that even when in the course of cleaning one’s mattress one perceives just a bedbug egg as a living creature and without compassion removes it by crushing it, there is an offence entailing expiation. Therefore by establishing compassion in such circumstances, one who is heedful will fulfil his obligations. The rest should be understood in exactly the same way — with the [same] arisings, etc. — as has been stated in the case of killing a human being.31

The fact that the Vinaya commentary does not allow for the possibility that one might break these two Vinaya rules when the mind is constituted by anything other than unwholesome consciousness and associated with anything other than painful feeling makes it clear that it considers only two of the eighty-nine classes of consciousness as relevant to the breaking of these rules: the two sense-sphere consciousnesses rooted in aversion/hate (dosa) and accompanied by unhappiness.32 As we are here dealing with the motivations for breaking a legal rule rather than for an ethical rule, the possibility that wholesome consciousness is not considered as a motivation by definition, as in the case of the unwholesome courses of kamma, seems to be excluded.

The case of the laughing king cited here was also cited in the commentarial analysis of the kamma-patha. Its significance might be interpreted in two slightly different ways: (1) even a king who takes pleasure in ordering the execution of criminals, at the moment he orders the execution does so with unwholesome consciousness motivated by aversion; (2) even a king merely carrying out the duties of government, at the moment he orders the execution of a criminal does so with unwholesome consciousness motivated by aversion.

According to Abhidhamma theory, beings may smile or laugh with any of the thirteen sense-sphere consciousnesses accompanied by happy feeling: four unwholesome, four wholesome, and five kiriya.33 The four unwholesome are rooted in greed (happy feeling never accompanies consciousness rooted in aversion); the four wholesome are rooted in nonattachment and friendliness or nonattachment, friendliness and wisdom, likewise four of the five kiriya; arahats and Buddhas may in addition smile with the unmotivated consciousness that produces smiles. The point the commentary seems to want to make here — and, as we saw above, in the context of the unwholesome course of kamma that constitutes killing a living being — is that while unwholesome consciousness rooted in greed and accompanied with happy feeling may arise close to the time of the intention to kill and thus superficially appear to be directly and immediately associated with an act of killing, this is not strictly the case: the actual intention that directly leads to the act of killing is always motivated by some kind of aversion and hence accompanied by unhappy feeling. What is revealed here then is what, in the Abhidhamma view of things, is a fundamental principle of the way in which the mind and intention operate.

The Abhidhamma appears quite uncompromising here: it is a psychological impossibility, a psychological contradiction in terms that one should, when motivated by nonattachment, friendliness (and wisdom), intentionally kill another living being.34 The Abhidhamma and Theravadin exegetical tradition just do not seem to countenance the possibility.35

Compassion as a Motive for Killing

Given that in contemporary discussions of euthanasia (both in the case of sick animals and dying human beings) and abortion, a motivation of compassion is at least partly appealed to by those seeking an ethical justification,36 it seems worth trying to pursue the question of just why the Abhidhamma traditions puts forward what might appear a somewhat uncompromising view. How does this view fit within the broader framework of the values that underpin Buddhist thought and practice?

The case histories that the canonical Vinaya appends to each of the rules of the Patimokkha outline several situations that are potentially relevant to the issue of euthanasia. These have been discussed by Damien Keown and others.37 In the present context I would like to focus on the one instance where the motivation associated with the breaking of the third parajika offence is explicitly stated to be compassion (karunna):

At that time a certain monk was ill. Out of compassion monks spoke in praise of death to him, and the monk died. Those monks were full of regret, thinking, “The Blessed One has laid down a precept. What if we have committed an offence involving defeat?” They informed the Blessed One of the situation. [He said,] “Monks, you have committed an offence involving defeat.38

In his analysis of this case,39 Damien Keown argues that since the Buddha rules that the monks are guilty of a parajika offence despite their having acted out of compassion, it shows that the motivation of an act — here the good motivation of compassion — is an insufficient condition for determining whether an act is moral or immoral in Buddhist thought. Since the monks’ motivation is good, their wrongdoing must lie in something else.40 Keown suggests that the solution to the puzzle is to be found by employing a legal distinction between motivation and intention: the monks’ motive (compassion) is good, but what they intend (the death of the sick monk) is bad. Intending the death of the sick monk is bad because “it involves intentionally turning against a basic good,” the basic good in question being “karmic life.” So,

While motive is of great importance in Buddhist ethics it does not by itself guarantee moral rightness. If it did, it would be impossible to do wrong from a good motive. We see here that the Buddha felt this was only too possible.41

It seems to me that Keown’s analysis of this case is a prime example of the problem I referred to at the beginning of this article: distorting Buddhist ethical discourse by slipping into a contemporary idiom in which the categories are derived from a quite different and specific tradition of ethical discussion. A concept such as “basic good” is not found in the Pali Buddhist texts; by using it and driving a wedge between “moral rightness” and “motive,” Keown begins to talk in terms and categories that lack a firm foundation in Buddhist thought, at least as expounded in the Pali canon and its oldest extant commentaries. For these texts, the concepts of moral right and moral wrong can only meaningfully be discussed in terms of what is kusala and akusala, what is wholesome and unwholesome.42 And the terms kusala and akusala are not applied with reference to “basic goods” such as “karmic life” in Buddhist thought; they are applied to the particular mentalities (cetasika) that motivate the mind and thus lead to acts of body and speech. In order to determine an act as “moral” or “immoral” in the framework of Buddhist thought assumed by the Pali commentarial tradition, we have to ask whether it is kusala or akusala, and this is a question about the nature of the motivations (hetu) that function as the roots (mula) of and so underlie the intention or will (cetana) to act, nothing else. The Theravadin Abhidhamma defines these motivations or roots as essentially six in number: greed (lobha), hatred (dosa), and delusion (moha) on the unwholesome or akusala side; and lack of greed (alobha), lack of hatred (adosa), and lack of delusion (amoha) on the wholesome or kusala side.43 The latter three are understood as positive virtues equivalent to generosity (dana), friendliness (metta) and wisdom (panna).44 What I wish to argue is that, contrary to Keown, for Theravada Buddhist thought it is indeed impossible to do wrong (such as perform an act that is akusala) from an immediate motive that is good (kusala).

In his discussion of the Vinaya case referred to above, Keown cites the Samantapasadika’s comments, although he does not quote these in full, and, in part as a consequence, his understanding of these is, I think, flawed. The following is a full translation:

Out of compassion: seeing that he was in great pain as a result of his illness, those monks felt compassion and, wanting his death yet not realizing that his death is what they wanted, spoke in praise of death, saying, “You are virtuous and have done wholesome deeds. Why should you be afraid of dying? For someone who is virtuous certainly the only thing that can follow from death is heaven.” And as a result of their praising death, that monk stopped taking his food and died prematurely. Therefore they committed the offence. But that they spoke in praise of death out of compassion is said by way of the common way of speaking. So even now a wise monk should not speak in praise of death like this to a sick monk. For if after hearing him praise [death] the sick monk makes the effort to stop taking food and as a result dies prematurely, even if all that remains to him of life is one process of impulsion, then it is he who has brought about the sick monk’s death. However, a sick monk should be given the following sort of instruction, “For one who is virtuous the path and fruit can arise unexpectedly, so forget your attachment to such things as the monastery, and establish mindfulness of the Buddha, Dhamma, Samgha and the body, and pay attention to [the manner of] bringing [things] to mind.” But even when death is praised, if the person makes no effort [to die] as a result of the praise and dies according to his own nature in accordance with his own life-span and the natural course of events, then for this reason the person who speaks in praise of death is not to be accused of an offence.45

The term antara, which I have translated as “prematurely,” Keown renders as “shortly after.” But as A Critical Pali Dictionary points out, antara can have the connotation of “untimely,”46 and the specific background to the Samantapasadika’s comments here is surely the technical notion of timely (kala-) and untimely death (akala-marana). As the Visuddhimagga states, one of the factors in determining death as timely or untimely is the exhaustion or otherwise of a being’s natural lifespan (ayus).47 Only if one understands antara as “prematurely” does the sense of the statement about one course of impulsion being all that remains of life (eka-javana-varavasese pi ayusmim) become clear — and also the point made subsequently  which Keown omits) about the monk dying in accordance with his lifespan (yathayuna).

Having cited the Samantapasadika’s comments on this Vinaya case, Keown himself goes on to comment that the monks’ motivation in speaking in praise of death in the present context “is not in question since we are explicitly told that they acted out of compassion.” However, the Samantapasadika precisely does question the motivation of compassion here, in the first place with the following significant clause: maranatthika va hutva maranatthika-bhavam ajananta. Keown renders this “they made death their aim. . . although ignorant of the state of being one who makes death his aim,” explaining in a note that “this is because no case of this kind had arisen hitherto, and the implication of their actions occurred to them after the death of the patient.”48 I think this rendering represents a misunderstanding. Above, I have rendered this clause “wanting his death yet not realizing that his death is what they wanted.” The subcommentaries explain the clause as meaning that the monks in question did not know their own state of mind of intending death, and were thus not aware of the nature of the consciousness that had arisen in their own minds.49 In other words, they wanted the sick monk’s death, but lacked the self-awareness to see that this is what they wanted. This view of the matter is consonant with the observation regarding the king who superficially appears to be ordering the execution of a criminal with a mind accompanied by pleasant feeling, when in fact according to the psychological analysis of Abhidhamma, the decisive state of mind must be accompanied by unpleasant feeling. In precisely the same way the commentary and subcommentaries want to suggest that although the monks in the present case think they are acting out of compassion and only have the dying monk’s welfare at heart, if they were able to see their motivations more clearly they would see that in fact this was not so.

Thus the commentary goes on to state quite explicitly that when it is said the monks spoke in praise of death out of compassion, this is said “by way of the common way of speaking” (vohara-vasena). Significantly, Keown omits this sentence from his quotation. But, in the light of our earlier discussion, it is quite clear why the Samantapasadika says this. For the Samantapasadika, it simply cannot be that the mind that directly intends the death of a living being is other than one of the two classes of unwholesome consciousness rooted in aversion; and the mental factors (cetasika) of friendliness (adosa, metta) and compassion (karuna, karunna) cannot be associated with such a consciousness. As the subcommentaries explain, that these monks acted out of compassion is said with reference to their earlier motivation, because compassion is absent at the moment of the decisive intention in one who intends death; so the present case is precisely not like the setting free out of compassion of a boar caught in a trap.50

While it is impossible to demonstrate conclusively that the Samantapasadika’s and subcommentaries’ understanding of the situation conforms to the spirit of the original Vinaya case, it is clear that Keown’s suggestion that this case shows that for Buddhism “a good motive is thus a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a moral act”51 does not hold good for the Theravadin Abhidhamma and exegetical tradition. Indeed, I think his attempt to employ a legal distinction between motive and intention (“if I kill you from the motive of compassion . . . I nevertheless intend to kill you”)52 in the present context is misconceived. I am not suggesting that the distinction is necessarily an invalid one in a Buddhist Abhidhamma framework, merely that in that framework it is considered psychologically impossible to intend to kill someone when motivated by compassion. Thus I am not convinced that there is a concept of “karmic life” as a “basic good” in mainstream Indian Buddhist thought as he maintains.53

The manner in which the commentary understands the present case as an instance of parajika is clear: it fulfils the conditions for being classified as an unwholesome course of action. There is a living being, the monks are fully aware that he is a living being, they intend that the sick monk should die, they carry out the necessary action in speaking in praise of death to the sick monk, and the sick monk dies as result of their action. Moreover the commentary simply does not allow that the decisive (sanitthapaka) intention or motivation is one of compassion (karunna). The decisive intention in this case — as in all cases of intentionally killing a living being — is to be understood in terms of one of the two classes of consciousness rooted in aversion and accompanied by unpleasant feeling.

It is important to note, however, that this does not mean that in the Abhidhamma view of things the motive of compassion is necessarily completely divorced from each and every act of killing. The example adduced by the commentaries of a laughing king ordering the execution of a criminal reveals an understanding that allows for the rapid change from pleasant feeling to unpleasant feeling, and hence from greed to aversion in the motivations of the mind.54 Such a model of the way consciousness processes work suggests the possibility of situations where there is a similarly rapid change from wholesome consciousness to unwholesome consciousness, and if that is so the Abhidhamma model can accommodate the possibility of wholesome consciousnesses rooted in nonattachment and friendliness (with or without in addition wisdom) being relatively closely associated in time with an act of killing — indeed, as we have seen, this appears to be how the subcommentaries understand the Vinaya case we have just been considering. Thus it can appear — when the rapid flow of different consciousnesses is not closely examined — that in certain circumstances a being is killed simply out of compassion. Nevertheless, the possibility of the decisive (sanitthapaka) intention being motivated by these wholesome roots is simply ruled out. So while it is possible, on this view of the matter, that an act of killing a living being may in part be associated with compassion, the Abhidhamma wants to exclude the possibility that such an act could ever be wholly so: the arising of consciousness rooted in aversion at the decisive moment is a necessary condition of all intentional acts of killing. Hence that an awakened being — whether sammasambuddha or arahat — might intentionally kill a living being is not countenanced.

So why is it that the Theravada exegetical tradition wants to exclude compassion as the simple motivation for killing a living being? What is wrong with compassion as a motive for killing a living being? An initial answer to this question is apparent in the advice about what kind of instruction should be given to a sick monk. What the commentary suggests is that it is quite proper to recommend death to the dying as an occasion when there is a special opportunity for making crucial advances on the path: it is a time when the paths and fruits of stream-entry, once-return, never-return or even arahatship might be attained.55 But this opportunity is grasped not by actively hastening death, by willing the advent of death, but rather by renewing one’s commitment to one’s practice and cultivating mindfulness.

In taking up Keown’s discussion of the case of the sick monk, Peter Harvey gives only a partial rendering of the commentary’s advice;56 nonetheless, the conclusion he draws from it seems basically sound:

This suggests that a person should use the process of dying as an opportunity for reflection, so as to see clearly the error of attachment to anything which is impermanent, be it the body, other people, possessions, or worldly achievements. Dying presents the reality of the components of body and mind as impermanent, dukkha, and not-Self in stark form; it is thus an opportunity for gaining insight into these.57

As Harvey’s observations suggest, the answer to why mainstream Indian Buddhist thought does not allow compassion as a motive for killing seems in part to lie with very fundamental Buddhist principles. As the first of the four truths or realities (sacca), suffering or dukkha is something that must be fully comprehended (parinneyya). And indeed the Nikayas’ shorthand definition of dukkha is the five upadanakkhandhas.58 Death, the breaking up of the khandhas, is an opportunity par excellence to understand the nature of dukkha, its arising, its ceasing, and the way leading to its ceasing. If in the case of deliberately hastening a sick being’s death, compassion and wisdom are excluded by the Abhidhamma from being considered the decisive motivations, then what we are left with as motivations are aversion and delusion. Aversion to what? The answer must surely be aversion towards the being’s suffering, which amounts to a refusal to face the reality of suffering with true compassion and wisdom. Killing the being is certainly a solution to the problem of suffering in this situation: by getting rid of the being who is suffering, it gets rid of the suffering. But in the Abhidhamma view of things it can hardly be a wise solution: it is rather a quick fix that precisely avoids confronting the problem of suffering, that precisely avoids looking at its true nature.59 So while on the Abhidhamma psychological model it is possible to envisage situations where at least some of the consciousnesses associated with an act of killing might be wholesome and genuinely motivated by the two or three wholesome roots, it would seem that the decisive motivation in such a case would be regarded as some form of refusal to face the reality of suffering — a reality that real wisdom and compassion faces up to.

The understanding that I have been trying to articulate on the basis of the ancient texts has been recently quite precisely stated in an essay on Thai Buddhist perspectives on euthanasia:

In Buddhist psychology, “mercy killing” or active euthanasia cannot be carried out without ill-will or feeling of repugnance (dosa) of the perpetrator toward the fact of the patient’s suffering. Even though the motivation behind this action may have been good, namely to prevent further suffering for the patient, as soon as it becomes action to terminate life it becomes an act of aversion. So when a doctor performs what, he believes is “mercy-killing,” actually it is due to his repugnance of the patient’s pain and suffering which disturb his mind. . . . If he understood this psychological process he would recognize the hidden hatred that arises in his mind at the time of performing the lethal deed and would not deceive himself with the belief that this deed was motivated by benevolence alone.60
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Part 2 of 2

The Significance of Metta

In the context of contemporary ethical discourse (and contemporary attitudes), the Abhidhamma analysis might seem rather bleak — almost heartless. If Abhidhamma Buddhist thought denies that euthanasia is ever a truly wholesome solution, does it offer an alternative approach — other than simply to sit and witness the death throes of some poor creature? I think in fact that an alternative approach is indeed taken for granted by the texts — but this approach, I would guess, is likely to appear at best somewhat idealistic and at worst hopelessly naive to modern sensibilities. For this alternative highlights what I think amounts to a crucial difference in perspective between the worldview of ancient Buddhist texts and contemporary ethical and philosophical discourse. Put simply, in Buddhist discourse metta and karuna are regarded as potentially rather more powerful and effective responses to suffering than contemporary ethical discourse would normally allow.

At the beginning of this article I quoted the Metta Sutta:

One should not wish another pain out of anger or a notion of enmity. Just as a mother would protect with her life her own son, her only son, so one should cultivate the immeasurable mind towards all living beings and friendliness towards the whole world.

What I want to suggest is that in the Buddhist (and to some extent general Indian religious) framework, cultivating friendliness and compassion in the face of suffering is seen not simply as a question of the religious contemplative turning inward and refusing to act or intervene, but also in a certain sense as a very practical response to the problem of suffering brought about by sickness and old age.

A recent essay by Lambert Schmithausen focuses on the Buddhist attitude towards the dangerous and fearful in nature, and considers how the cultivation of friendliness (maitri/metta) is presented as offering some kind of protection.61 Schmithausen’s study is primarily concerned with friendliness as a means of giving oneself protection from dangers rather than as a means of helping others. Having reviewed the “snake charm” of the Upasena Sutra and Khandha Paritta, followed by the Vedic background, he concludes that in its “typically Buddhist form” the cultivation of friendliness as a means of protection against potentially dangerous creatures “is the cultivation of a friendly mind with regard to them, which is supposed to engender a similar attitude in the addressee(s)” (p. 49). It seems to me that this entails a further dimension to the protective power of friendliness envisaged by traditional Buddhist texts. As Schmithausen notes, the cultivation of friendliness is seen as not only having the power to protect oneself, but as also having the power to engender friendliness in others. And if this is so it has the potential to engender its beneficial effects in others — such beneficial effects as those listed as the eleven benefits that come to someone who develops the liberation of the heart through friendliness (mettaya cetovimutti): he sleeps happily; he wakes happily; he dreams no bad dreams; he is dear to human beings; he is dear to nonhuman beings; the gods protect him; fire, poison and weapons do not harm him; his mind easily attains concentration; the expression on his face is serene; he dies unconfused; and if he reaches no higher he is born in the world of Brahma.62 Of course, this old list of the benefits of friendliness is understood as presenting the benefits that come to one who cultivates metta as a subject of meditation practice (kammatthana), but the list assuredly points to an attitude that assumes friendliness to be generally beneficial to all concerned. But there are in the canonical and commentarial texts incidents recounted where the power of friendliness and compassion is in effect employed to the benefit of those who are suffering and in pain. There is a story repeated in at least three places in the atthakatha literature that tells of what happened when a young boy’s mother fell seriously ill:

It is told that when he was still a boy Cakkana’s mother fell ill, and the doctor said that she needed fresh hare’s meat. So Cakkana’s brother sent him off to wander through the fields. Off he went and at that time a hare had come there to eat the tender young crop. When the hare saw him, it ran off fast and got caught in a creeper and cried out. Following the sound Cakkana grabbed the hare thinking that he could make the medicine for his mother. Then he thought, “It is not right that I should take the life of another for the sake of my mother’s life.” So he let the hare go, saying, “Go and enjoy the grass and water in the woods with the other hares.” When his brother asked him if he had caught a hare, Cakkana told him what had happened. His brother scolded him. Cakkana went to his mother and stood [by her] affirming a truth, “Since I was born I am not aware that I have intentionally taken the life of a living creature.” Immediately his mother recovered from her illness.63

Here then the boy’s firm, unwavering commitment to not harming a living creature provides the basis for an affirmation of truth (sacca-kiriya) that has the effect of curing his mother. It is worth noting that Cakkana’s unwavering commitment to avoiding killing is precisely not presented by the commentaries as a blind, uncompromising adherence to the first precept. In the commentarial understanding there are three ways in which one can refrain from unwholesome action through the arising of wholesome consciousness: (1) one can naturally refrain from wrong action, etc., when the opportunity for wrong action, etc. has arisen; (2) one can refrain because one has previously undertaken the precepts; or (3) one can refrain by cutting off all desire for wrong action, etc. by reaching the noble path. The story of Cakkana is told as an illustration of the first kind of circumstance.

Interestingly Cakkana’s words here echo almost precisely another famous affirmation of truth, that of the serial murderer “reborn” as an arahat, Angulimala. Wandering in Savatthi for alms, Angulimala comes across a woman struggling with the pains of birth. He is moved, saying to himself, “How beings suffer! How beings suffer!” A little later he tells the Buddha who instructs him to return to Savatthi and utter the words: “Lady, since I was born into the noble birth I am not aware that I have intentionally taken the life of a living creature. By this truth may you be safe, may your child be safe.” And indeed the woman was safe, the child was safe.64 These two stories show the power of what is in effect metta — a commitment to not harming living creatures — being employed by means of an affirmation of truth to help someone who is sick and in pain by in one case an arahat and in the other just a boy.65

Beyond the Theravada: The Sarvastivada and the Upayakausalya Sutra

While it goes beyond the scope of the present paper (and of my competence) to attempt to explore in depth the issue under discussion in the Sarvastvadin-Vaibhasika Abhidharma, it is perhaps worth pointing out that its understanding of the principles involved seems to be for the most part consonant with the Theravada. Thus the Abhidharmakosa distinguishes two types of “origin” for acts: the general cause (hetu-samutthana) and the immediate cause (tatksana-samutthana); the latter seems to correspond more or less to the Theravada notion of the decisive intention (sanitthapaka-cetana). The Kosa also distinguishes between the courses of action (karma-patha) proper and preliminary (samantaka) or preparatory (prayoga) acts.66 On this basis the Kosa goes on to point out that the acts that form the preliminary to each of the ten akusala-karma-patha may be motivated by any of the three basic unwholesome causes: greed (lobha), hatred (dvesa), or wrong-view (mithya-drstti), and gives examples of this in the case of killing a living being.67 However, the karma-patha proper of killing a living being is exclusively accomplished by hatred.68 An understanding that corresponds more or less to the Theravada account of the five necessary conditions (sambhara) for the course of action is also found.69

Having considered the Abhidhamma and commentarial analysis of the act of killing a living being, it is perhaps worth briefly turning to a well known story where the bodhisattva is represented as killing a living being apparently out of compassionate motives. The Upayakausalya Sutra tells the story of how the bodhisattva in a life when he is indeed called “Great Compassion” kills a man in order to prevent him from killing 500 others — also bodhisattvas.70 The motivation for this act is thus compassionate on two accounts: by killing the man he prevents him from killing others and thus prevents him from committing an unwholesome act that would result in his being reborn and suffering in hell; the bodhisattva also by his act saves the lives of the 500 others. Interestingly the way in which the bodhisattva’s act of killing is presented seems to accept the basic outlook that I have presented above: acts of killing are instances of unwholesome karma. Thus in deciding to kill the man the bodhisattva is presented as accepting that this is an unwholesome act, the unpleasant consequences of which he will have to suffer in hell. Thus the Sutra does not, initially at least, try to justify the act as one that is kusala. However, the Sutra goes on to relate how the bodhisattva in fact avoided the sufferings of rebirth in hell; much later, as a Buddha, he lets his foot be pierced by a thorn in apparent retribution for this act of killing. There are perhaps two ways of reading this: (1) the bodhisattva’s compassion was such that it was able to transform the unwholesome nature of the act and render it an entirely wholesome act such that it had no unpleasant results whatsoever; (2) alternatively the compassionate component of the act was strong enough to override its unwholesome elements such that their ripening was indefinitely delayed allowing the bodhisattva to avoid the karmic fruit despite the fact that certain aspects of the act were in actual fact akusala.71

Whichever way we read it though, it seems to me that the story should be understood in the context of the kind of Abhidhamma and commentarial analysis of the act of killing that I have tried to set out above. For while I have been presenting the details of the specifically Theravada viewpoint, I think the evidence of the Abhidharmakosa is sufficient for us to conclude that it represents the mainstream approach of Indian Buddhist thought to the act of killing. The Upayakausalya Sutra thus perhaps represents a deliberate challenge to mainstream Buddhist ethics.


In the course of this paper I have tried to show, taking the act of killing a living being as an example, how an appreciation of the Abhidhamma framework is crucial in assessing the Pali commentarial approach to ethical questions. I have argued, contrary to Keown’s claim, that for Theravada Buddhist thought the motivation underlying the intention or will to act is sufficient to determine an act as “moral” (kusala) or “immoral” (akusala).

In the particular case of killing a living being, I have argued that for Theravada Buddhist thought — and probably mainstream Indian Buddhist thought—intentionally killing a living being can never be considered wholly an act of compassion. Although the Abhidhamma model of the way in which the mind works can accommodate a set of circumstances where genuine compassion might play some part in an act of killing a living being, it does not allow that the decisive intention leading to the killing of a living can ever be other than unwholesome and associated with some form of aversion (dosa).

I have suggested two reasons why such an outlook should be characteristic of the Buddhist perspective on ”mercy killing.” The first is that the very idea that killing a living being might be the solution to the problem of suffering runs counter to the Buddhist emphasis on dukkha as the first of the four truths. As the first truth, its reality must be fully understood (parinneyya). The second is that the cultivation of friendliness and compassion in the face of suffering is seen as an appropriate and even practical alternative that can bring beneficial effects for self and others in a situation where it might seem that compassion should lead one to kill.

I would like to finish with a general comment about the nature of Buddhist ethics. Abhidhamma — and hence I think mainstream Buddhist ethics — is not ultimately concerned to lay down ethical rules, or even ethical principles. It seeks instead to articulate a spiritual psychology focusing on the root causes that motivate us to act: greed, hatred, and delusion, or nonattachment, friendliness, and wisdom. Thus that intentionally killing a living being is wrong is not in fact presented in Buddhist thought as an ethical principle at all; it is a claim about how the mind works, about the nature of certain mental states and the kinds of action they give rise to. It is a claim that when certain mental states (compassion) are in the mind it is simply impossible that one could act in certain ways (intentionally kill). For the Theravada Buddhist tradition there is in the end only one question one has to ask to determine whether an act is wholesome (kusala) or unwholesome (akusala): is it motivated by greed, hatred, and delusion, or is it motivated by nonattachment, friendliness, and wisdom. So if one were to respond to the Abhidhamma claim that an act of intentional killing motivated by compassion is a psychological impossibility, that it simply runs counter to actual experience, then what the Abhidhamma analysis offers is a kind of psychoethical puzzle or riddle. If you can intentionally kill out of compassion, then fine, go ahead. But are you sure? Are you sure that what you think are friendliness and compassion are really friendliness and compassion? Are you sure that some subtle aversion and delusion have not surfaced in the mind? In the end ethical principles cannot solve the problem of how to act in the world. If we want to know how to act in accordance with Dhamma, we must know our own minds. In the words of the Dhammapada, “ceasing to do all that is bad, accomplishing what is wholesome, and purifying the mind — this is the teaching of the buddhas.”72


Unless otherwise stated editions of Pali texts are those of the Pali Text Society, Oxford.

Anguttara Nikaya
Abhidharmakosa-bhas.ya: edited by P. Pradhan (Patna: Kashi Prasad Jayaswal Research Institute, 1967). Abhidh-s
Abhidhammatthasangaha-mahatika (= Abhidhammatthavibhavini-tika).
Atthasalini (= Dhammasangani-atthakatha)
edition in Burmese script
V. Trenckner et al., A Critical Pali Dictionary (Copenhagen: Royal Danish Academy, 1924-).
Chattha Sangayana CD-ROM, Version 3.0 (Igatpuri: Vipassana Research Institute, 1999).
Digha Nikaya
Dhammasangani-atthakatha (= As)
G. P. Malalasekera, Dictionary of Pali Proper Names (London: PTS, 1974).
Vinayatthamanjusa (Be CSCD)
Majjhima Nikaya
Palimuttakavinayavinicchayasangaha (Be CSCD)
Samyutta Nikaya
Saratthadipani (Be CSCD)


* Centre for Buddhist Studies, Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University  of Bristol, E-mail:
1 This article is a revised version of a paper presented at the Fourth Chung-Hwa International Conference on Buddhism held in Taipei in January 2002. I am grateful to the organizers of this conference for their invitation and for permission to publish the revised version. I am also grateful to Peter Harvey, Rita Langer and Mudugamuwe Maithrimurthi for their comments on and criticisms of the earlier version.

2 D i 3-4: panatipatam pahaya panatipata pativirato [. . . ] nihita-dando nihita-sattho lajjidayapanno sabba-pana-bhuta-hitanukampi viharati. This passage is repeated throughout the Silakkhandha-vagga of the Digha Nikaya, and in the extended accounts of the path in the Majjhima Nikaya, e.g. M i 345.

3 Sn 394: panam na hane na ca ghatayeyya na canujanna hanatam paresam / sabbesu bhutesu nidhaya dandam. ye thavara ye ca tasanti loke. Translation adapted from K. R. Norman (trans.), The Group of Discourses, 2nd edition (Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1992).

4 M iii 203: ekacco itthi va puriso va panatipati hoti luddo lohitapani hatapahate nivittho adayapanno pana-bhutesu so tena kammena evam samattena evam samadinnena kayassa bheda param marana apayam duggatim vinipatam nirayam upapajjati.

5 Sn 148-150: vyarosana patigha-sanna nannam annassa dukkham iccheyya // mata yatha niyam puttam ayusa ekaputtam anurakkhe / evam pi sabba-bhutesu manasam bhavaye aparimanam // mettan ca sabba-lokasmim manasam bhavaye aparimanam (Translation adapted from Norman, Group of Discourses.)

6 See, for example: Tessa Bartholomeusz, “In Defence of Dharma: Just- War Ideology in Buddhist Sri Lanka,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics 6 (1999), p. 1-11; Peter Harvey, “Vinaya Principles for Assigning Degrees of Culpability,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics 6 (1999), p. 271-91, An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Damien Keown, The Nature of Buddhist Ethics (London: Macmillan, 1992), Buddhism and Bioethics (London: Macmillan, 1995), (ed.), Buddhism and Abortion (London: Macmillan, 1998), “Attitudes to Euthanasia in the Vinaya and Commentary,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics 6 (1999), p. 260-70 ,(ed.), Contemporary Buddhist Ethics (Richmond: Curzon, 2000); Lambert Schmithausen, The Problem of the Sentience of Plants in Earliest Buddhism (Tokyo: International Institute for Buddhist Studies, 1991), Maitrii and Magic: Aspects of the Buddhist Attitude Toward the Dangerous in Nature (Vienna: Oseterreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1997), “Aspects of the Buddhist Attitude to War” in Violence Denied: Violence, Non-Violence and the Rationalization of Violence in South Asian Cultural History, edited by J. E. M. Houben and K. R. van Kooij (Leiden: Brill, 1999), p. 45-67.

7 C. A. F. Rhys Davids (trans.), Buddhist Psychological Ethics (London: PaliText Society, 1900).

8 On the etymology and original meaning of parajika, see Oskar von Hin¨uber, A Handbook of Pali Literature (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1996), p. 10; Juo-Hs¨ueh Shih, Controversies over Buddhist Nuns (Oxford: Pali Text Society, 2000), p. 126-128.

9 Vin iii 73: yo pana bhikkhu sancicca manussa-viggaham jivita voropeyya sattha-harakam va’ssa pariyeseyya marana-vannam va samvanneyya maranaya va samadapeyya, ambho purisa, kim tuyh’ imina papakena dujjivitena, matam te jivita seyyo ti, iti citta-mano citta-sam kappo aneka-pariyayena sam vann eyya, maranaya va samadapeyya, ayam pi parajiko hoti asamvaso. Translation adapted from William Pruitt (ed.) and K. R. Norman (trans.), The Patimokkha (Oxford: Pali Text Society, 2001), p. 9.

10 Vin iv 124: yo pana bhikkhu sancicca panam jivita voropeyya, pacittiyam. Translation from Pruitt Norman, Patimokkha, p. 69.

11 A iii 415: cetanaham bhikkhave kammam. vadami. cetayitva kammam karoti.

12 cf. Peter Harvey, “Vinaya Principles for Assigning Degrees of Culpability,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics 6 (1999), p. 271-291.

13 Vin iii 73-74; a human being is defined as existing from the first arising of consciousness in the mother’s womb (yam matukucchismim pathamam cittam uppannam pathamam vinnanam patubhutam, yava maranakala etthantare eso manussaviggaho nama); cf. Vin i 97, Peter Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 313.

14 The commentarial analysis of the five precepts (Vibh-a 381ff; Moh (Be) 254ff) covers some of the same ground.

15 Vin iii 68-86; cf. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, The Buddhist Monastic Code (Metta Forest Monastery: Valley Center, Calif., 1994), p. 66-78.

16 These six means are discussed in full at Sp 439-441.

17 Sv 69-70 = Ps i 198 = Spk ii 144 = Nidd-a 115 = As 97: pano ti c’ ettha voharato satto, paramatthato jivitindriyam. tasmim pana pane panasannino jivitindriyupacchedaka-upakkama-samutthapika kaya-vaci-dvaranam annatara-dvara-ppavatta vadhaka-cetana panatipato. so guna-virahitesu tiracch ana-gatadisu panesu khuddake pane appa-savajjo mahasarire maha-savajjo. kasma. payoga-mahantataya. payoga-samattepi vatthu-mahantataya. gunavantesu manussadisu appa-gune pane appa-savajjo maha-gune maha-savajjo. sarira-gunanam pana samabhave sati kilesanam upakkamanan ca mudutaya appa-savajjo tibbataya maha-savajjo ti veditabbo. tassa panca sambhara honti pano pana-sannita vadhaka-cittam upakkamo tena maranan ti. cha payoga sahatthiko anattiko nissaggiyo thavaro vijjamayo iddhimayo ti.

18 Damien Keown, Buddhism and Bioethics (London: Macmillan, 1995), p. 96-100.

19 Sp 439: yaya cetanaya jivitindriyupacchedakam payogam samutthapeti sa vadhaka-cetana panatipato ti vuccati. panatipatiti vutta-cetana-samangi puggalo datthabbo.

20 Sv 1049 = Ps i 202 = Spk ii 148 = Patis-a I 223 = As 101: “By way of essential nature, the first seven are simply intention, the other three beginning with longing are associated with intention (dhammato [It-a ii 54: sabhavato] ti etesu hi patipatiya satta cetana-dhamma va honti abhijjhadayo tayo cetana-sampayutta).” The point here is that abhijjha, vyapada and miccha-ditthi are from the point of view of their essential natures (dhammato/ sabhavato) the cetasikas “greed” (lobha), “hate” (dosa) and “view” (ditthi) respectively and hence not themselves types of the cetasika “intention” (cetana) but rather associated with particular types of that cetasika.

21 Sv 1050 = Ps i 202 = Spk ii 148 = I 223 = As 102: vedanato ti panatipato dukkha-vedano hoti. kincapi hi rajano coram disva hasamanapi gacchatha nam ghatetha ti vadanti, sannitthapaka-cetana pana dukkha-sampayutta va hoti.)(cf. It-a ii 54.)

22 Dhs 83 (§413), 85 (§421); Vism 454 (xiv 92); Abhidh-s 1.

23 These have been partially discussed by Oskar von Hin¨uber, “The Arising of an Offence: apattisamutthana,” Journal of the Pali Text Society 16 (1992), p. 55-69, and Juo-Hs¨ueh, Controversies over Buddhist Nuns, p. 60- 64. These categories appear in part at least to be derived from the Parivara, cf. Vin v 120, 206-207.

24 Kkh 24: “An offence which is void in the absence of full awareness of committing the transgression is one that is void by [absence of] full awareness, others are not void by [absence of] full awareness (yato vitikkamasannaya abhavena muccati ayam sannavimokkha, itara no sannavimokkha.).” This means not that one must be aware that a given act is an infringement of the Patimokkha but that one must be fully aware of what it is one is doing for certain acts to constitute offences.

25 Kkh 24: “In the category of offences that involve mind, those where the mind is exclusively unwholesome are universal faults, the rest are faults by designation (tattha yassa sacittaka-pakkhe cittam akusalam eva hoti, ayam loka-vajja, sesa pannatti-vajja).” Effectively the same distinction is found in the North Indian Buddhist sources, cf. Lambert Schmithausen, The Problem of the Sentience of Plants in Earliest Buddhism (Tokyo: International Institute for Buddhist Studies, 1991), p. 16. O. von Hinuber (“The Arising of an Offence,” p. 66-69) discusses a discrepancy between the Milindapanha and the Vinaya commentaries over the classification of udake hasadhammam. pacittiyam (Vin iv 22); the former (Mil 266) speaks of this offence as “not blameworthy in the world” (lokassa anavajjam), while the latter (Sp 861, Kkh 119) regards it as exclusively “blameworthy in the world” (lokavajja). In fact this disagreement would appear to hinge on the Abhidhamma understanding of which classes of consciousness one laughs with (see note 33): the Vinaya commentaries appear to be suggesting that in the context of playing in water one must inevitably be laughing and smiling with greed consciousness, though curiously the rule is classified as having three feelings, though perhaps the fact that the commentary glosses hasa in this context as kilika means that the commentary is not thinking exclusively in terms of laughing here: perhaps playing in water might occasion anger and unpleasant feeling too.

26 Kkh 24: apattim apajjamano hi akusala-citto va apajjati kusalavyakatacitto va.

27 Kkh 24: tatha dukkha-vedana-samangi va itara-vedana-dvaya-samangi va.

28 Sp-t. (Be) ii 98 (CSCD): hasituppada-votthabbanehi saddhim attha mahakiriya- cittani. The inclusion of the kiriya mind-door adverting consciousness here should probably be seen as relating to the sense-door process with a “slight” (paritta) object that ends in two or three occurrences of mind-door adverting; cf. Abhidh-s 18 (iv 13); Abhidh-s-mht. 112.

29 Sp 271: atthi pana sikkha-padam kusalam atthi akusalam.atthi avyakatam. dvattims’ eva hi apatti-samautthapaka-cittani: attha kamavacara-kusalani dvadasa akusalani dasa kamavacara-kiriya-cittani kusalato ca kiriyato ca dve abhinna-cittani ti. tesu yam kusala-cittena apajjati, tam kusalam, itarehi itaram.

30 Sp 463-464 (re parajika 3): samutthanadisu idam sikkhapadam ti-samutthanam kaya-cittato ca vaca-cittato ca kaya-vaca-cittato ca samutthati, kiriyam, sanna-vimokkham, sacittakam, loka-vajjam, kaya-kammam, vaci-kammam, akusala-cittam, dukkha-vedanam. sace pi hi sirisayanam arulho rajja-sampattisukham anubhavanto raja coro deva anito ti vutte gacchatha nam maretha ti hasamano va bhanati, domanassa-citten’ eva bhanati ti veditabbo. sukhavokinnatta pana anuppabandhabhava ca dujjanam etam puthujjanehi ti. This passage is quoted at Kkh-t. (Be) 218 (CSCD); cf. Abhidh-s-mht. 134, 21: hasamana pi rajano dosa-citten’ eva pana-vadham anapenti.

31 Sp 864-865: imasmin ca sikkha-pade tiracchanagato yeva pano ti veditabbo. tam khuddakam pi mahantam pi marentassa apatti-nanakaranam natthi. mahante pana upakkama-mahantatta akusala-mahattam hoti. pane panasanni ti antamaso manca-pit.ham sodhento mangula-bijake pi pana-sanni nikkarunikataya tam bhindanto apaneti pacittiyam. tasma evarupesu thanesu karunnam upatthapetva appamattena vattam katabbam. sesam manussaviggahe vutta-nayen’ eva veditabbam saddhim samutthanadihi ti.

32 See note 22.

33 As 295.

34 Of course, it is possible to counter the Abhidhamma claim that it is simply wrong about this. But, lest there be misunderstanding, I am not concerned here with whether the Abhidhamma is right or wrong to make the claim it does, I am merely concerned to articulate a clearer understanding of the nature of the claim.

35 Their treatment of the issue is, perhaps, in part just to be seen as a working out and restatement of the old Nikaya tradition that it is straightforwardly impossible for an arahat to intentionally take the life of a living being: abhabbo khinasavo bhikkhu sancicca panam jivita voropetum. (D iii 235).

36 cf. Harvey, Introduction to Buddhist Ethics, p. 295.

37 Keown, Buddhism and Bioethics, p. 60-64, 168-173; “Attitudes to Euthanasia in the Vinaya and Commentary,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics 6 (1999), p. 260-270; Harvey,Introduction to Buddhist Ethics, p. 292-305.

38 Vin iii 79: tena kho pana samayena annataro bhikkhu gilano hoti. tassa bhikkhu karunnena marana-vannam. samvannesum. so bhikkhu kalam akasi. tesam kukkuccam ahosi bhagavata sikkhapadam pannattam, kacci nu kho mayam parajikam apattim apanna ti. bhagavato etam attham arocesum. apattim tumhe, bhikkhave, apanna parajikan ti.

39 Keown, Buddhism and Bioethics, p. 62-64; cf. Keown, Journal of Buddhist Ethics 6 (1999), p. 265-266.

40 Keown does not consider the possible relevance here of the fact that deciding whether a Vinaya rule has been broken is essentially a legal judgement rather than necessarily a moral judgement. But as we have seen, in this instance the commentaries agree, to break the third parajika is necessarily a “universal wrong” (loka-vajja).

41 Id., p. 63

42 I do not mean to suggest by this that kusala and akusala straightforwardly mean “morally right” and “morally wrong” respectively, but rather that they are the two technical terms that best represent the Abhidhamma and Theravada exegetical tradition’s specific understanding of what it means for something to be a moral or an immoral act. On the problem of the meaning of kusala, see L. S. Cousins, “Good or skilful? Kusala in Canon and Commentary,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics 3 (1996), p. 136-164.

43 Dhs 188-192; As 46; Abhidh-s 12-13 (hetusangaha); Abhidh-s-mht. 95-96 (hetusangaha-vannana).

44 When these three “good” roots operate in the mind of an arahat or buddha they are strictly speaking not to be classified as kusala, but as “undetermined” (avyakata); see Dhs 190-191.

45 Sp 464: karunnena ti te bhikkhu tassa mahantam gelanna-dukkham disva karunnam uppadetva silava tvam kata-kusalo, kasma miyamano bhayasi, nanu silavato saggo nama marana-matta-pat.ibaddho yeva ti evam maran. atthika va hutva maranatthika-bhavam ajananta marana-vannam. samvannesum. so pi bhikkhu tesam samvannanaya aharupacchedam katva antara va kalam akasi. tasma apattim apanna. vohara-vasena pana vuttam karunnena maranavannam. samvannesun ti. tasma idani pi panditena bhikkhuna gilanassa bhikkhuno evam marana-vanno na samvannetabbo. sace hi tassa samvannanam sutva aharupacchedadina upakkamena eka-javana-varavasese pi ayusmim antara kalamkaroti, imina va marito hoti. imina pana nayena anusitthi databba: silavato nama anacchariya magga-phaluppatti, tasma viharadisu asattim akatva buddha-gatam dhamma-gatam sangha-gatam kaya-gatan ca satim upatthapetva manasikare appamado katabbo ti. marana-vanne ca samvannite pi yo taya samvannanaya kan ci upakkamam akatva attano dhammataya yathayuna yathanusandhina va marati, tappaccaya samvannako apattiya na karetabbo ti. (Cf. Palim (Be) 428-429 (CSCD).)

46 CPD, s.v. antara, (d): “beforehand,” untimely.” Several examples of the usage of antara in this sense with verbs meaning “to die” are cited; at Ja iv 54 antara is juxtaposed with akala-marana.

47 Vism 229 (viii 2): yam pi c’ etam adhippetam, tam kala-maranam akala-maranan ti duvidham hoti. tattha kala-maranam punna-kkhayena va ayukkhayena va ubhaya-kkhayena va hoti. akala-maranam kammupacchedakakamma- vasena.

48 Keown, Buddhism and Bioethics, p. 61, 191 (n. 102). cf. Keown, Journal of Buddhist Ethics 6 (1999), p. 266.

49 Sp-t. (Be) ii 272 and Palim-nt. (Be) ii 323: maranatthika-bhavam ajananta ti evam adhippayino maranatthika nama honti ti attano maranatthika-bhavam ajananta. na hi te attano citta-ppavattim na jananti.

50 Sp-t. (Be) ii 272: vohara-vasena ti pubbabhaga-vohara-vasena, maranadhippayassa sannitthapaka-cetana-kkhane karunaya abhavato karunnena pase baddhas ukara-mocanam viya na hoti ti adhippayo.

51 Keown, Buddhism and Bioethics, p. 63.

52 Ibid.; quoted from Lord Robert Goff, “The mental element in the crime of murder,” Law Quarterly Review 104 (1988), 41-42.

53 Keown, Buddhism and Bioethics, p. 63: “The implication of this case for our present concerns could be summed up in the following principle: Karmic life must never be destroyed intentionally regardless of the quality of motivation behind the act or the good consequences which may be thought to flow from it.” I understand “mainstream” Buddhism in the manner of Paul Harrison and Paul Williams who both use it to refer to those elements of Buddhist thought and practice held in common by the schools of non- Mahayana Buddhism and in large part by Mahayana Buddhism itself.

54 I take it that this is what the commentary probably understands, rather than the change from wholesome consciousness with happy feeling to unwholesome with unhappy feeling, which is theoretically possible.

55 There are possible parallels with the attitude to death as a particular opportunity for spiritual progress presented in the Bar-do-thos-grol.

56 He translates (Introduction to Buddhist Ethics, p. 296), “as the paths and fruits have arisen, it is not surprising you are virtuous: therefore do not be attached to residence etc., setting up mindfulness in respect of the Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha and the body, develop heedfulness in attention,” giving also a reference to the Chinese rendering of Samanatapasadika, see P. V. Bapat and A. Hirakawa, Shan-Chien-P’i-P’o-Sha: A Chinese Version by Sanghabhadra of Samantapasadika (Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Institute, 1970), p. 326.

57 Harvey, Introduction to Buddhist Ethics, p. 296. Cf. the attitude to his own death of the Thai monk Buddhadasa as recounted in Pinit Ratanakul, “To Save or Let Go: Thai Buddhist Perspectives on Euthanasia” in Damien Keown (ed.), Contemporary Buddhist Ethics (Richmond: Curzon, 2000), p. 169-182.

58 D ii 305.

59 As examples of Buddhist narratives concerned with facing the reality of suffering one thinks of the story of the bodhisatta’s encounter with the first three sights (D ii 21-27) or that of Kisa Gotami (Dhp-a ii 270-275).

60 Ratanakul, “To Save or Let Go,” p. 175-176.

61 Lambert Schmithausen, Maitri and Magic: Aspects of the Buddhist Attitude Toward the Dangerous in Nature (Vienna: Oseterreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1997).

62 A v 342: mettaya kho bhikkhave ceto-vimuttiya asevitaya bhavitaya bahulikat aya yanikataya vatthukataya anutthitaya paricitaya susamaraddhaya ekadas anisam sa patikankha. katame ekadasa. sukham supati sukham patibujjhati na papakam supinam passati manussanam piyo hoti amanussanam piyo hoti devata rakkhanti nassa aggi va visam va sattham va kamati tuvatam cittam samadhiyati mukhavanno vippasidati asammulho kalankaroti uttarimappativijjhanto brahmalokupago hoti. These eleven benefits of the liberation of friendliness are explained in full at Vism 299 (ix 37), 311-314 (ix 60-76).

63 Ps i 203-204 = Spk ii 149-150 = As 103: tattha asamadinna-sikkhapadanam attano jati-vaya-bahusaccadini paccavekkhitva ayuttam amhakam evarupam papam katun ti sampattam vatthum avitikkamantanam uppajjamana virati sampatta-virati ti veditabba sihala-dipe cakkana-upasakassa viya. tassa kira dahara-kale yeva matuya rogo uppajji. vejjena ca alla-sasa-mamsam laddhum vattati ti vuttam. tato cakkanassa bhata gaccha tata khettam ahindahi ti cakkanam pesesi. so tattha gato. tasmin ca samaye eko saso tarunasassam khaditum agato hoti. so tam disva va vegena dhavanto valliya baddho kiri kiri ti saddam akasi. cakkano tena saddena gantva tam gahetva cintesi matu bhesajjam karomi ti. puna cintesi na metam patirepam yvaham matu jivita-karana param jivita voropeyyan ti. atha nam gaccha, aranne sasehi saddhim. tinodakam paribhunja ti munci. bhatara ca kim tata saso laddho ti pucchito tam pavattim acikkhi. tato nam bhata paribhasi. so matu-santikam gantva yato aham jato nabhijanami sancicca panam jivita voropeta ti saccam. vatva atthasi. tavad ev’ assa mata aroga ahosi. DPPN, s.v. Cakkana, mistakenly cites Ps I 165 for this story and comments that the Majjhima commentary’s version differs slightly, but in fact all three versions agree.

64 M ii 103: yato ’ham bhagini ariyaya jatiya jato nabhijanami sancicca panam jivita voropeta, tena saccena sotthi te hotu sotthi gabbhassa ti. atha khvassa itthiya sotthi ahosi sotthi gabbhassa.

65 According to DPPN, s.v. Cakkana, this story is all we know of Cakkana from the Pali texts.

66 Abhidh-k-bh iv 10, 68.

67 Abhidh-k-bh iv 68 d.

68 Abhidh-k-bh iv 70 a-b.

69 Abhidh-k-bh iv 73 a-b. Lamotte, Traite ii 784 cites sources from the northern tradition that give precisely the same five conditions.

70 See Paul Williams, Mahayana Buddhism (London: Routledge, 1989), p. 144-145; Garma C. C. Chang, A Treasury of Mahayana Sutras (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1983), p. 456-457. The incident is said to have taken place during the era of Dipamkara, so is placed close to the bodhisattva’s vow. The notion that killing a being might be for the sake of yet another being is relevant to abortion: the argument is that the foetus is aborted for the sake of or in order to alleviate the mother’s suffering. The Upayakausalya Sutra story also contains a story of the bodhisattva having sex out of compassion (id. p. 433).

71 Harvey, Introduction to Buddhist Ethics, p. 135-137 discusses some of the problems associated with this story.

72 Dhp 183: sabba-papassa akaranam kusalassa upasampada / sacitta-pariyodapanam etam buddhana sasanam.
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Into nothingness: In the 1940s, Japan’s search for a national philosophy became a battle for existence. Did Zen ideas create the kamikaze?
by Christopher Harding



Dusk, that most beautiful moment
With no pattern.
Millions of images appear and disappear.
Beloved people.
How unbearable to die in the sky.

Hours after writing these lines, the 24-year-old Tadao Hayashi fuelled a battered Mitsubishi A6M Zero and flew it towards an American aircraft carrier – and into nothingness. It was late July 1945. A few days later, the United States would drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A war sold to the Japanese public as a struggle for national survival would be over.

In contemporary Western memory, still stocked for the most part by wartime propaganda imagery of mad, rodent-like Japanese, those final weeks are a swirl of brainwashed fanaticism, reaching its apotheosis as hundreds of kamikaze planes slammed into the US ships closing in around Japan’s home islands. Three thousand raids and innumerable scouting missions were launched during the climax of the conflict, designed to show the US the terrible cost it would pay for an all-out invasion of Japan.

Yet the vast majority of planes never made it to their attack or reconnaissance targets; they were lost instead at sea. And war’s end failed to yield the apocalyptic romance for which Japan’s leaders so fervently hoped. By late 1944 and early ’45, the only ‘life or death struggle’ was the routine misery to which the empire itself had reduced its soldiers and civilians. Conscripts were trained and goaded to fire their rifles into their own heads, to gather around an activated grenade, to charge into Allied machine-gun fire. Civilians jumped off cliffs, as Saipan and later Okinawa were taken by the Allies. Citizens of great cities such as Tokyo and Osaka had their buildings torn town and turned into ammunition.

Nor do clichés of unthinking ultranationalism fit the experiences of many kamikaze pilots. For each one willing to crash-dive the bridge of a US ship mouthing militarist one-liners, others lived and died less gloriously: cursing their leaders, rioting in their barracks or forcing their planes into the sea. A few took their senninbari – thousand-stitch sashes, each stitch sewn by a different well-wisher – and burned them in disgust. At least one pilot turned back on his final flight and strafed his commanding officers.

And then there were the university students. Hundreds of thousands of young men such as Tadao Hayashi were pulled from lives of Goethe and Flaubert, classical music concerts and debates about Marxism, and forced to enlist. Around 1,000 of them ended up on kamikaze missions, alongside boys of a similar age who had never got further than elementary school. Earlier in the war, university students had been able to put off conscription while they studied. By the autumn of 1943, only those majoring in science or education retained that privilege, so desperate were Japan’s leaders for recruits.

By day these student pilots were beaten – often unconscious – by superiors and non-student conscripts who resented their privilege. By night, they wrote: letters, diaries, poetry, struggling to imagine being here today and not tomorrow, to justify their own deaths in the way they had been taught by their leaders. Wasn’t Japan a nation under threat of extinction, hemmed in spiritually and strategically by the US and Britain? Weren’t they obliged to defend their people and values against the nihilistic hyper-individualism of two once-great nations?

Most of these students were a good deal more sophisticated than the ideologues who ranted to them about the evils of Western materialism. But wartime caricature had its roots in peacetime critique. Ever since the 1890s, Japanese scholars had warned that Western metaphysics, epistemology and morality were so profoundly hard-wired into the technological culture of the US and Europe that, by importing this culture, Japan had let in all the rest and stood now on the verge of forgetting itself.

How did Japanese intellectuals let an anxiety become a call to arms? It is hard enough to analyse the process in retrospect, the dust of conflict having long ago settled. For many student soldiers living through the drama of 1944 and ’45, this sort of discernment was simply beyond them. In search of meaning, they fled the vacuous slogans of the military, only to end up in the embrace of pioneering thinkers whose distinctly ‘Japanese’ philosophy increasingly pointed in just one direction: the battlefield.

One of the most ambitious schemes for a Japanese philosophy – where nothing by that name had existed before – was emerging at Hayashi’s own institution in 1943, just when he was forcibly removed from it. The great project of Kitarō Nishida, a seasoned Zen practitioner and the founder of what became the ‘Kyoto School’ of philosophy at Kyoto Imperial University, was to do what many Zen Buddhists insisted was impossible: to describe the picture of reality revealed in meditation.

Nishida sought to reverse the key premise of Western philosophy, writing not about ‘being’ or ‘what is’, but instead about ‘nothingness’. His was not the relative nothingness of non-being – the world of the gone-away, the not-yet or the might-be. He meant absolute nothingness: an unfathomable ‘place’ or horizon upon which both being and non-being arise.

To help students make sense of this idea, Nishida liked to draw a cluster of small circles on the lecture-hall board. This is how people usually see the world, he would say: a collection of objects, and judgments about those objects. Take a simple sentence: ‘The flower is yellow.’ We tend to focus on the flower, reinforcing in the process the idea that objects are somehow primary. But what if we turn it around, focusing instead on the quality of yellowness? What if we say to ourselves ‘the flower is yellow’, and allow ourselves to become perceptually engrossed in that yellowness? Something interesting happens: our concern with the ‘is-ness’ of the flower, and also the is-ness of ourselves, begins to recede. By making ‘yellowness’ the subject of our investigation – trying to complete the sentence ‘Yellowness is…’ – we end up thinking not in terms of substance, but in terms of place. The question isn’t so much ‘What is yellowness?’ as ‘Where is yellowness?’ Against what broader backdrop does ‘yellowness’ emerge?

For Nishida, the answer was a special sort of consciousness: not first-person reflection, where consciousness is the possession of an individual, but rather a consciousness that possesses people. It becomes less true to say that ‘an individual has experiences’ than that ‘experience has individuals’.

‘Absolute nothingness’, after all, is not an idea to be grasped: it is a provocation, a literal insult to the intelligence

But if consciousness is the horizon beyond ‘yellow’, what is the further horizon? Where is consciousness? Nishida drew a dotted, all-encompassing line on the board. This, he said, is ‘absolute nothingness’, producing and interpenetrating every other plane of reality. Absolute nothingness is God. And God is absolute nothingness.

One wonders how many students filed out of Nishida’s lecture hall thinking: ‘A-ha! Now I get it!’ They could surely be forgiven for trying to understand absolute nothingness the same way we understand most things: by making it into an object of thought, placing ourselves outside it and perusing it from all angles. Yet a nothingness to which you could do this would not be absolute: it would just be one among that cluster of small circles on the board.

Nishida probably wouldn’t have minded such doomed attempts at understanding. ‘Absolute nothingness’, after all, is not an idea to be grasped: it is a provocation, a literal insult to the intelligence. It was already de rigueur in the Zen circles of Nishida’s day to scoff at the limited reach of conceptual knowing, treasuring instead the koan, the meditation cushion and the knowing look. But Nishida and his colleagues in the Kyoto School preferred not to write it off until it had been tested to the limits – tested, one might say, to destruction. ‘Absolute nothingness’ had the potential to perform that function. It promised to bring about the realisation that the idea of knowledge ‘from the outside’ must largely be a fiction.

The trouble was, as an idea, it had other sorts of potential too. The war was dragging on. Japan’s chances of winning – or even achieving a respectable peace – were fading. There is a fine line between understanding an idea such as ‘absolute nothingness’ and deploying it as a rationalisation, and it appears that Nishida and his colleagues crossed it – and encouraged their readers to do so, too. A relatively abstract set of ideas were allowed to take on potent political form.

Neither Nishida nor his great friend and rival Hajime Tanabe – who trained with Martin Heidegger before joining Nishida at Kyoto – ever put their talents unreservedly at the service of Japan’s political leaders. Tanabe was in fact an early and vocal critic of Heidegger’s involvement with Nazism. But caught up in Japan’s crisis, and fearful of following fellow academics who equivocated in their support for the regime out of their university posts and into the jail cells of the ‘Special Higher Police’, they began to explore how metaphysics, politics, and war might fit together.

Nishida, a one-time devotee of Hegel and Heidegger, returned to his Zen Buddhist roots to ask whether mistaken subject-object dualisms in human thinking – that cluster of circles on the lecture-hall board – might be to blame for Western nations’ ‘imperialist squabbling’. A case of politics rooted in culture, rooted in turn in an error of perception.

Tanabe went much further. By what means, he asked, does absolute nothingness manifest itself in the world of being? Not directly, in an individual’s inner life. No, between absolute nothingness and the individual there must be some kind of mediating power. Looking around, Tanabe saw only one obvious candidate. ‘God does not act directly on the individual,’ he wrote. ‘The salvation of the individual is accomplished through the mediation of nation and society.’

Talk of ‘the’ nation turned to talk of ‘our’ nation, its ultimate symbolisation in the emperor, and even the possible necessity of death in the service of both

This was still a fairly innocuous observation about how Japan was being held back by what Tanabe regarded as a clan mentality: people brought up in a closed society were struggling to open themselves to the wider world. The trouble, in a sense, was that they were poor internationalists. And Tanabe owed as much here to Hegel as to Buddhism – he understood individual lives to be shaped entirely by the ebb and flow of historical time, itself part of a great metaphysical unfolding.

Things changed, however, when Tanabe started to insist on the nation as the fundamental context in which individuals and society mediate one another, the realm in which individuals work out their salvation. Perhaps the nation was what made philosophy possible at all. Then talk of ‘the’ nation turned to talk of ‘our’ nation, its ultimate symbolisation in the emperor, and even the possible necessity of death in the service of both. ‘Our nation is the supreme archetype of existence,’ Tanabe concluded. (His one-time mentor, Nishida, is rumoured to have whispered to a friend: ‘This Tanabe stuff is completely fascist!’)

The same dark times that rendered two of Japan’s best-known philosophers unusually susceptible to political and public pressure softened up students for their grand ideas and bold claims. In the spring of 1943, Tadao Hayashi went to see Tanabe lecture. ‘The only salvation for us, according to Professor T, is to realise that one must die,’ he wrote with enthusiasm in his diary. ‘We should live our lives prepared to plunge into death at any moment… Professor T [said] … that humans and God do not come into direct contact. Instead, a nation mediates between the two’.

Months later, when Hayashi was drafted to serve that nation, Tanabe had this message for him and his fellow student conscripts:

You are to learn the spirit of the Imperial Army… which is none other than the quintessential flowering of the spirit of the nation… Take the lead in breaking through the pass between life and death… By serving the honourable callings of the Sovereign as the one whose person brings together God and country, you will share in the creation of the eternal life of the state. Is this not truly the highest glory?

Tanabe’s words were now not far off the surreal language of a kamikaze training manual, aimed at the sort of people who liked to beat up the Hayashis of this world for being too smart:

Do your best. Every deity and the spirits of your dead comrades are watching you intently. It is essential that you do not shut your eyes for a moment so as not to miss the target. Many have crashed into the targets with wide-open eyes. They will tell you what fun they had.

No wonder that the last letters and diary entries of young men such as Hayashi were full of confusions and contradictions. They were summoning all the resources of an elite education to try to cast their tragic situations in a meaningful light. For the most part, they failed. At their most convincing, they set politics and philosophy aside and invested themselves instead in letters to their families – and particularly to their mothers. ‘I am happy to go,’ wrote one pilot to his mother, ‘but I begin to cry when I think of you. I want to be held in your arms and sleep… I have a great deal more to say, but I will stop here. [Tomorrow is] the final sortie. Goodbye.’

As his students piloted their Zeros out towards the sea in 1944, Tanabe sat at home, trying to decide whether the time had at last come to speak out against the conflict, influential figure that he was. Could he help to achieve a surrender? Or would an intervention merely place Japan in even greater peril? The more Tanabe tried to find a rational answer, the more frustrated he became with himself and with the pursuit of philosophy altogether. What was the point of it, if it offered no answers at precisely the moment they were most needed?

In the end, the strain caused something to break inside him, and he found himself flooded with what he later called zange: repentance. It was a shattering encounter with the power of absolute nothingness, not as the ‘place’ talked about by Nishida but as the dynamic ‘Other-power’ in which many Japanese shinshū Buddhists placed their faith. The result was a new and totally foreign sense of self – one that was ‘given’ and raw, rather than owned and honed. Tanabe was moved to adapt the words of St Paul: ‘It seems no longer I who pursue philosophy, but zange that thinks through me’.

Finally now renouncing his old assertions about the Japanese nation, and working behind the scenes to try to end the war, Tanabe felt that nothing less than human reason itself had been ‘shattered’ inside him. Human will, too: his new ‘absolute critique’ of reason implied a total admission of defeat, on all fronts. Everything had to go.

For Tanabe’s critics, these dramatic events came too late, and in Japan’s bitter post-war accounting he was numbered amongst those – lawyers, philosophers, novelists, cultural critics – who could have spoken out against the war but chose not to. Worse, he had actively peddled what one critic called a ‘philosophy of death’.

Were Tanabe’s simply a darkness-into-light conversion story, one would certainly find the convenience of its timing suspect, and its dismissal of reason a little humdrum. But this picture of surrender and insight, reason and rationalisation, was at once less hopeful and more compelling.

The search for a truly ‘Japanese’ philosophy ended instead with a picture of the human condition as caught between death and rebirth

For a start, humans don’t turn their backs on reason, Tanabe insisted. It has its obvious merits, and to imagine that we’re not stuck with it as a fundamental part of who we are is to become lost in mystical fantasy. Rather than give up on it, we have to reason at full-throttle – until it gives up on us. Until the plane breaks apart or careers into the sea. Only at that point might we find ourselves so completely humiliated, so bereft of slogans and comforting stories to tell ourselves, that we dissolve into ‘absolute nothingness’, and absolute nothingness works unimpeded through what is left.

Even then, the journey is not over. Tanabe discovered something in himself that sought always to possess any new experience or idea, no matter how profound or engrossing. A desire to manage life from the margins soon reasserted itself, deploying insights rather than sacrificing oneself to them. Tanabe’s was not, then, a philosophy of death, nor even of death and rebirth. The search for a truly ‘Japanese’ philosophy ended instead, for him, with a picture of the human condition as caught between an unsought shattering in zange and an unwanted re-formation of the pieces – back and forth between death and rebirth.

It is hard to fathom Tanabe’s reasons for never apologising clearly over the ultranationalist turn that his wartime thought briefly took. But part of the story might have been this: after August 1945, he saw people all around him making apologies, hurriedly drawing lines under the past – trying to turn darkness into light. And all the while Tanabe’s best guess, hard won, was that such shifts simply don’t last. Sooner or later the darkness will be back.
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Part 1 of 2

Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D.T. Suzuki
by Brian Victoria
August 2, 2013
The Asia-Pacific Journal, Volume 11 | Issue 30 | Number 4




The publication of Zen at War in 1997 and, to a lesser extent, Zen War Stories in 2003 sent shock waves through Zen Buddhist circles not only in Japan, but also in the U.S. and Europe.

These books revealed that many leading Zen masters and scholars, some of whom became well known in the West in the postwar era, had been vehement if not fanatical supporters of Japanese militarism. In the aftermath of these revelations, a number of branches of the Zen school, including the Myōshinji branch of the Rinzai Zen sect, acknowledged their war responsibility. A proclamation issued on 27 September 2001 by the Myōshinji General Assembly included the following passage:

As we reflect on the recent events [of 11 September 2001] in the U.S. we recognize that in the past our country engaged in hostilities, calling it a “holy war,” and inflicting great pain and damage in various countries. Even though it was national policy at the time, it is truly regrettable that our sect, in the midst of wartime passions, was unable to maintain a resolute anti-war stance and ended up cooperating with the war effort. In light of this we wish to confess our past transgressions and critically reflect on our conduct.1

On 19 October 2001 the sect’s branch administrators issued a follow-up statement:

It was the publication of the book Zen to Sensō [i.e., the Japanese edition of Zen at War], etc. that provided the opportunity for us to address the issue of our war responsibility. It is truly a matter of regret that our sect has for so long been unable to seriously grapple with this issue. Still, due to the General Assembly’s adoption of its recent “Proclamation” we have been able to take the first step in addressing this issue. This is a very significant development.2

In the same year, the smaller Tenryūji branch of the Rinzai Zen sect issued a similar statement, again citing the Japanese edition of Zen at War as a catalyst leading to their belated recognition of war responsibility.

In reading these apologies, one is reminded of the “Stuttgart Confession of Religious Guilt,” issued by Protestant church leaders in postwar Germany, in which they repented their support of Hitler and the Nazis. The Confession’s second paragraph read in part: “With great anguish we state: Through us has endless suffering been brought upon many peoples and countries. . . . We accuse ourselves for not witnessing more courageously, for not praying more faithfully, for not believing more joyously, and for not loving more ardently.”3 Nevertheless, there is one significant difference between religious leaders in Japan and Germany, i.e., while the Stuttgart Confession was also issued on 19 October, it was 19 October 1945 not 2001.

It is also true that a relatively small number of German Christians resisted the Nazis, Father Maximillian Kolbe, Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer being among the best known. Similarly a small number of Buddhist priests, both within the Zen school and other sects, also opposed Japanese imperialism. The common denominator between the two groups, however, was their overall ineffectiveness.4 This is no doubt because no matter what the faith or country involved, institutional religion, with but few exceptions, staunchly supports its own nation in wartime.

The Background to D.T. Suzuki’s Wartime Role

There is now near universal recognition, including in Japan, that the Zen school, both Rinzai and Sōtō, strongly supported Japanese imperialism. Nevertheless, there is one Zen figure whose relationship to wartime Japan remains a subject of ongoing, sometimes deeply emotional, controversy: Daisetz Teitarō Suzuki, better known as D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966).5

Given Suzuki’s position as the most important figure in the introduction of Zen to the West, it is hardly surprising that the nature of his relationship to Japanese imperialism should prove controversial, for if he, too, were an imperialist supporter, what would this imply about the nature of the Zen he introduced to the West?

If the following discussion of Suzuki’s wartime record appears to lack balance, or shades of gray, it is not done out of ignorance, let alone denial, of exculpatory evidence concerning this period in his life. However, evidence of Suzuki’s alleged anti-war stance is well known and, indeed, readily accessible on the Internet.6 Hence, there is no need to repeat it here. That said, interested readers are encouraged to review all relevant materials related to Suzuki’s wartime record before reaching their own conclusions.

As important as Suzuki may be, the debate goes far beyond either the record or reputation of a single man. As recent scholarship suggests, Suzuki was in fact no more than one part, albeit a significant part, of a much larger movement. Oleg Benesch described Suzuki’s role as follows:

[Suzuki’s] writings on bushidō and Zen during the period immediately after the Russo-Japanese War [1904-05] are not extensive, but are significant in light of his role in spreading the concept of the connection of Zen and bushidō, especially during the last four decades of his life. Suzuki can be seen as the most significant figure in this context, especially with regard to the dissemination of a Zen-based bushidō outside of Japan.7 (Italics mine)

While these comments may not seem particularly controversial, Benesch also provided a detailed history of the manner in which Suzuki and other early twentieth century Japanese intellectuals, including such luminaries as Nitobe Inazō (1862-1933) and Inoue Tetsujirō (1855-1944), essentially invented a unified bushidō tradition for nationalist use both at home and abroad. Benesch writes:

The development and dissemination of bushidō from the 1880s onward was an organic process initiated by a diverse group of thinkers who were more strongly influenced by the dominant Zeitgeist and Japan’s changing geopolitical position than by any traditional moral code. These individuals were concerned less with Japan’s past than the nation’s future, and their interest in bushidō was prompted primarily by their considerable exposure to the West, pronounced shifts in the popular perception of China, and an apprehensiveness regarding Japan’s relative strength among nations.8

Benesch later added:

The bushidō that developed in Meiji [1868-1912] was not a continuation of any earlier ethic, but it contained factual elements that were carefully selected and reinterpreted by its promoters. . . .concepts such as loyalty, self-sacrifice, duty, and honor, all of which existed in considerably different forms and contexts to those in which they were incorporated into modern bushidō theories. . . .The most important factor in the relatively rapid dissemination of bushidō was the growth of nationalistic sentiments around the time of the Sino-Japanese [1894-95] and Russo-Japanese wars.9

As this article reveals, Suzuki’s writings on the newly created bushidō ‘code’ were very much a part of this larger nationalist discourse. His personal contribution to this discourse was the presentation of bushidō, primarily to a Western audience, as the very embodiment of Zen, including the modern Japanese soldier’s alleged “joyfulness of heart at the time of death.” In 1906, the year following Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War, Suzuki wrote:

The Lebensanschauung of Bushidō is no more nor less than that of Zen. The calmness and even joyfulness of heart at the moment of death which is conspicuously observable in the Japanese, the intrepidity which is generally shown by the Japanese soldiers in the face of an overwhelming enemy; and the fairness of play to an opponent, so strongly taught by Bushidō – all of these come from the spirit of the Zen training, and not from any such blind, fatalistic conception as is sometimes thought to be a trait peculiar to Orientals.10

Suzuki’s praise for, and defense of, Japan’s soldiers as “Orientals” is particularly noteworthy in light of the fact that only two years earlier, i.e., in 1904, Suzuki had himself invoked Buddhism in attempting to convince Japanese youth to die willingly for their country: “Let us then shuffle off this mortal coil whenever it becomes necessary, and not raise a grunting voice against the fates. . . . Resting in this conviction, Buddhists carry the banner of Dharma over the dead and dying until they gain final victory.”11

While comments like these may be interpreted as Suzuki’s ad hoc responses to national events beyond his control, in fact they accurately represent his underlying belief in the appropriate role of religion in a Japan at war. This is clearly demonstrated by the following comments in the very first book Suzuki published in November 1896, entitled A Treatise on the New Meaning of Religion (Shin Shūkyō-ron):

At the time of the commencement of hostilities with a foreign country, marines fight on the sea and soldiers fight in the fields, swords flashing and cannon smoke belching, moving this way and that. In so doing, our soldiers regard their own lives as being as light as goose feathers while their devotion to duty is as heavy as Mount Tai [in China]. Should they fall on the battlefield they have no regrets. This is what is called “religion during a [national] emergency.”12

The year 1896 is significant for two reasons, the first of which is that Suzuki’s book appeared in the immediate aftermath of Japan’s victory in the Sino-Japanese War. This was not only Japan’s first major war abroad but, with the resultant acquisition of Taiwan, marked a major milestone in the growth of Japanese imperialism. Thus, Suzuki’s call for Japan’s religionists to resolutely support the state whenever it went to war could not have been more timely. At a personal level, it was also in December of that year, i.e., just one month after his book appeared, that Suzuki had his initial enlightenment experience (kenshō). This occurred at the time of his participation as a layman in an intensive meditation retreat (sesshin) at Engakuji in Kamakura, and shortly before his departure for more than a decade-long period of study and writing in the U.S. (1897-1908).

As Suzuki’s subsequent statements make clear, his kenshō experience did not alter his view of “religion during a [national] emergency.” Again, this is hardly surprising in light of the fact that Suzuki’s own Rinzai Zen master, Shaku Sōen [1860-1919], Engakuji’s abbot, was also a strong supporter of Japan’s war efforts.

In fact, Shaku’s support of Japan was so strong that during the Russo-Japanese War he volunteered to go to the battlefields in Manchuria as a military chaplain. Shaku explained: “. . . I also wished to inspire, if I could, our valiant soldiers with the ennobling thoughts of the Buddha, so as to enable them to die on the battlefield with the confidence that the task in which they are engaged is great and noble.”13

Once Japan had defeated Russia, its imperial rival, it immediately forced Korea to become a Japanese protectorate in November 1905. This was followed by Japan’s complete annexation of Korea in August 1910, thereby cementing the expansion of the Japanese empire onto the Asian continent. For his part, Suzuki avidly supported Japan’s takeover of Korea as revealed by comments he made in 1912 about that “poor country,” i.e., Korea, as he traversed it on his way to Europe via the Trans-Siberian railroad:

They [Koreans] don’t know how fortunate they are to have been returned to the hands of the Japanese government. It’s all well and good to talk independence and the like, but it’s useless for them to call for independence when they lack the capability and vitality to stand on their own. Looked at from the point of view of someone like myself who is just passing through, I think Korea ought to count the day that it was annexed to Japan as the day of its revival.14

Suzuki’s comments reveal not only his support for Japanese colonialism but also his dismissal of the Korean people’s deep desire for independence. For Suzuki, the future of a poverty-stricken Korea depended on Japanese colonial beneficence.

While no doubt many if not most of Suzuki’s countrymen would have agreed with his position at the time, readers of Zen at War will recognize in both Suzuki and Shaku’s comments early examples of the jingoism that characterized Zen leaders’ war-related pronouncements through the end of the Asia-Pacific War in 1945. Not only did Suzuki admonish Buddhist soldiers to “carry the banner of Dharma over the dead and dying,” they were also directed “not to raise a grunting voice against the fates” as they “shuffle off this mortal coil.” In point of fact, approximately 47,000 young Japanese laid down their lives in the Russo-Japanese War exactly as Suzuki, Shaku and many other Buddhist leaders urged them to do.

The Background to Suzuki’s Article

While the preceding material introduces Suzuki’s attitude to the Russo-Japanese War and his country’s early colonial efforts, it fails to clarify his attitude toward Japan’s subsequent military activities, especially Japan’s aggression against China initiated by the Manchurian Incident of 1931. This aggression would continue and expand for a full fifteen years thereafter, i.e., until Japan’s defeat in August 1945. Suzuki did, however, write an article, “Bushidō to Zen” (Bushidō and Zen), that was included in a 1941 government-endorsed anthology entitled Bushidō no Shinzui (Essence of Bushidō). With additional articles contributed by leading army and navy figures, this book clearly sought to mobilize support for the war effort, both military and civilian. While not originally written for the book, the fact that Suzuki allowed his article to be included indicated at least a sympathetic attitude to this endeavor though it only indirectly referenced the war with China.15

There is, however, yet another lengthy article that appeared in June 1941 in the Imperial Army’s premier journal for its officer corps. The journal, taking its name in part from its parent organization, was entitled: Kaikō-sha Kiji (Kaikō Association Report). Although not formally a government organization, the parent Kaikō-sha (lit. “let’s join the military together”) had been created in 1877 for the purpose of creating Imperial Army officers who were to be of “one mind and body.”16

The Kaikō Association Report was a monthly professional journal dating from July 1888. The journal contained articles on such topics as the latest developments in weaponry, mechanization and aviation but also featured yearly special editions devoted to such military events as the Russo-Japanese War and the Manchurian Incident of 1931. In addition, it regularly devoted substantial space to articles on “thought warfare” (shisō-sen), Japanese spirit (Yamato-damashii), national polity of Japan (kokutai), and “spiritual education” (seishin kyōiku), all key components of wartime ideology.

The journal’s ideological orientation can be seen in the articles that both preceded and followed Suzuki’s own contribution. The article preceding his was entitled “The Philosophical Basis of Spiritual Culture,” and included such statements as: “By comparison with Western laws based on rights, our laws are based on duties. By comparison with a [Western] world that operates according to individualism (kobetsusei), we have created a Japan that operates according to the principles of totality (zentaisei).”17 The article following his, entitled “Concerning the Indispensable Spiritual Elements of Military Aviators,” consisted of a speech by officer candidate Yamaguchi Bunji delivered at the graduation ceremony for the fifty-first class of the Japan Army Aviation Officer Candidate School on March 28, 1941.

As will be seen, Suzuki’s article fit in perfectly with the strong emphasis on “spirit” in this military journal. “Spiritual education” was one of the most important duties for Imperial Army officers. Officers were required to hold regular sessions with the troops under their command in order to introduce examples from Japanese history of the utterly loyal, fearless, and self-sacrificial warrior spirit. That the historical figures Suzuki introduced had acquired their fearlessness in the face of death through Zen practice was clearly welcomed by the journal’s editors, as it was by the leadership of the Imperial Army.18

The article was published in June 1941, i.e., less than six months before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. By then Japan had been fighting in China for four years, and while Japanese forces held most major Chinese cities, they were unable, to their great frustration, to either pacify the countryside or defeat the Nationalist and Communist forces deployed against them. The war was effectively stalemated, yet the death tolls, both Japanese and Chinese, continued to rise relentlessly as Japanese forces took the offensive in a bid to force surrender.

Suzuki Addresses Imperial Army Officers

Suzuki’s contribution took as its title the well-known Zen phrase: “Makujiki Kōzen,” i.e., Rush Forward Without Hesitation!19 Note that the complete English translation of Suzuki’s article is included in Appendix I. Some readers may wish to read the translation prior to reading the following commentary though this is not necessary. In addition, Appendix II contains the entire text of the original article in Japanese.

In the article’s opening paragraphs we find that Suzuki, like his Zen contemporaries, faced an awkward problem. That is to say, on the one hand he could not help but acknowledge that the Zen (Ch., Chan) school had come to fruition, if not created, in China, a country with which Japan had been at war for some four years. Given the massive death and destruction Japan’s invasion of China had caused, including its priceless Buddhist heritage, how could Japanese Zen leaders justify the ongoing destruction of the very country that had contributed so much to their school of Buddhism?

Suzuki addresses this issue by positing Japanese Zen’s superiority to Chinese Zen (Chan) Buddhism. That is to say, Suzuki notes that Zen’s “real efficacy” had only been realized after its arrival in Japan. One proof of this is that in Chinese monasteries meditation monitors use only one hand to hold a short ‘waking stick,’ while their Japanese counterparts hold long waking sticks with both hands just as warriors of old held their long single sword with both hands.

“The meaning of the fact that the waking stick is employed with two hands is that one is able to pour one’s entire strength into its use,” Suzuki claims.

Pouring one’s entire strength into the effort, whether it be waking a dozing meditator or cutting down an opponent, was, for Suzuki, the critical element that Zen and the warrior shared in common. There was no hint of an ethical distinction between the two. Nor did Suzuki acknowledge that in the Sōtō Zen sect, masters continue to employ the short, ‘Chinese-style’ waking stick (tansaku). This last omission is not surprising in that Suzuki typically either ignored, or dismissed, the practice and teachings of this sect.

Suzuki was, furthermore, not content with simply identifying the deficiencies in Chinese Zen, but went on to identify related deficiencies in the “world at large,” including Europe with its single-handed rapiers. That is to say, when non-Japanese fighters wield the sword they do so holding a sword in only one hand in order to hold a shield in the other hand. In so doing, they seek not only to slay their enemy but also to protect themselves, hoping to emerge both victorious and alive from the contest. By contrast, a Japanese warrior holds his sword with two hands because: “There is no attempt to defend oneself. There is only striking down the other.”

Was Suzuki accurate in his implied criticism of non-Japanese fighters for attempting to defend themselves in the midst of combat? While Suzuki didn’t name the “countries other than Japan” he was referring to, when discussing this question with undergraduates in my Japanese culture class, a student well versed in the history of European knighthood replied, “As far as Europe is concerned, there is a long history of employing duel-edged “long swords” with both hands just as in Japan. Further, if Japanese warriors were so unconcerned about their own lives, why did they develop what was at the time some of the strongest armor in the world to protect themselves?”

I had to agree with this student inasmuch as I had observed the same two-handed long swords when visiting the European sword exhibit housed in Edinburgh Castle in the spring of 2012. In any event, by elevating the alleged fearlessness of Japan’s warriors above that of their non-Japanese counterparts, Suzuki clearly demonstrates his nationalistic stance. A nationalism, it must be noted, that was deeply seeped in blood, both in the past and the war then underway.

It should also be noted that the Japanese military had long believed, dating from their victory in the Russo-Japanese War, that they could emerge victorious over a militarily superior (in terms of industrial capacity and weaponry) opponent. In this view, victory over a superior Western opponent, let alone China, was possible exactly because of the willingness of Japanese soldiers to die selflessly and unhesitatingly in battle. By contrast, the soldiers of other countries were seen as desiring nothing so much as to return home alive, thereby weakening their fighting spirit. Suzuki’s words could not have but lent credence to the Japanese military’s (over)confidence.

The themes introduced in his article, especially concerning the relationship of Zen to bushidō and samurai, are all topics that Suzuki had previously written about in both Japanese and English. For example, readers familiar with Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture (published in 1938 and reprinted in the postwar period as Zen and Japanese Culture) will recall that at the beginning of Chapter IV, “Zen and the Samurai,” Suzuki wrote:

In Japan, Zen was intimately related from the beginning of its history to the life of the samurai. Although it has never actively incited them to carry on their violent profession, it has passively sustained them when they have for whatever reason once entered into it. Zen has sustained them in two ways, morally and philosophically. Morally, because Zen is a religion which teaches us not to look backward once the course is decided upon; philosophically because it treats life and death indifferently. . . . Therefore, morally and philosophically, there is in Zen a great deal of attraction for the military classes. The military mind, being – and this is one of the essential qualities of the fighter – comparatively simple and not at all addicted to philosophizing finds a congenial spirit in Zen. This is probably one of the main reasons for the close relationship between Zen and the samurai.20 (Italics mine)

While Suzuki’s officer readers probably would not have welcomed his reference to their “comparatively simple” military minds, the preceding quote nevertheless accurately summarizes the article under discussion here. And to his credit, unlike most other wartime Japanese Zen leaders, Suzuki did not actively incite his officer readers to carry on their violent profession. By contrast, for example, in 1943 Sōtō Zen master Yasutani Haku’un [1885–1973] wrote:

Of course one should kill, killing as many as possible. One should, fighting hard, kill every one in the enemy army. The reason for this is that in order to carry [Buddhist] compassion and filial obedience through to perfection it is necessary to assist good and punish evil. . . . Failing to kill an evil man who ought to be killed, or destroying an enemy army that ought to be destroyed, would be to betray compassion and filial obedience, to break the precept forbidding the taking of life. This is a special characteristic of the Mahāyāna precepts.21

While these kinds of bellicose statements are notably absent from Suzuki’s writings, the current article, when read in its entirety, makes it clear that Suzuki did in fact seek to passively sustain Japan’s officers and men through his repeated advocacy of such things as “not look[ing] backward once the course is decided upon” and “treat[ing] life and death indifferently.” This leads to the question of just how different Suzuki was from someone like Yasutani given that Suzuki’s officer readers were also encouraged to “pour their entire body and mind into the attack” in the midst of an unprovoked invasion of China that resulted in the deaths of many millions of its citizens?

Even readers who haven’t served in the military can readily appreciate the fact that there are two fundamental questions that engulf a soldier’s mind prior to going into battle. First and foremost is the question of self-preservation, i.e., will I return alive? And a close second is - am I prepared to die if necessary? It is in answering the second question, i.e., in providing the mental preparation necessary for possible death, that a soldier’s religious faith is typically of paramount importance. Suzuki was well aware of this, for in promoting Zen training for warriors he wrote elsewhere: “Death now loses its sting altogether, and this is where the samurai training joins hands with Zen.”22

In short, read in its entirety Suzuki seeks in this article to prepare his officer readers, and through them ordinary soldiers, for death by weaponizing Zen, i.e., turning Zen into nothing less than a cult of death. The word ‘cult’ is used here to refer to one of its many meanings, i.e., a religious system devoted to only one thing -- death in this instance. On no less that six occasions throughout his article Suzuki stresses just how important being “prepared to die” (shineru) is, noting that Zen is “the best shortcut to acquire this frame of mind.”

Even if it could be demonstrated that this article was not written specifically for Japan’s Imperial Army officers, little would change, for there cannot be the slightest doubt that Suzuki’s words were intended for a wartime Japanese audience. This is made clear by Suzuki’s statement later in the article that “I think the extent of the crisis experienced then cannot be compared with the ordeal we are undergoing today.” As revealed in Zen at War, by 1941, if not before, all Japanese, young and old, civilian and military, were subject to a massive propaganda campaign, promulgated by government, Buddhist and educational leaders, to accept the death-embracing values of bushidō as their own. Or as expressed by Suzuki in this article: “. . . in undertaking any work one should be prepared to die.” (Italics mine)

Here, the question must be asked as to where this Zen shortcut to being prepared to die came from? Did it come from India, Buddhism’s birthplace, or China, Zen (Chan)’s sectarian home? It most definitely did not, for, as already noted, Suzuki tells us that Zen’s “real efficacy was supplied to a great extent after coming to Japan.” And as he further notes, it was only after arrival in Japan “that Zen became united with the sword.” Unlike the studied ambiguity that typically characterized his war and warrior-related writings in English, and oft-times in Japanese as well, Suzuki was clearly not speaking in this article of some metaphysical sword cutting through mental illusion.

Instead, Suzuki was referring to real swords wielded by some of Japan’s greatest Zen-trained warlords as, over the centuries, they and their subordinates cut through the flesh and bones of many thousands of their opponents on the battlefield, fully prepared to die in the process, using Zen as “the best shortcut to acquire this frame of mind.”

Interestingly, Suzuki admits in this article that some of the famous Zen-related anecdotes associated with Kamakura Regent Hōjō Tokimune (1251-84) may not have taken place.

He writes: “The following story has been handed down to us though I don’t know how much of this legend is actually true.” Compare this admission with Suzuki’s presentation of the same material in Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture. Addressing his English readers, Suzuki wrote that while the exchange between Tokimune and National Master Bukkō (1226-86) is “not quite authenticated,” it nevertheless “gives support to our imaginative reconstruction of his [Tokimune’s] attitude towards Zen.”23

One is left to speculate what Suzuki’s officer readers knew about these allegedly Zen-related anecdotes that his Western readers didn’t know (or perhaps more accurately, weren’t supposed to know).

In any event, when reading Suzuki’s repeated claims about the similarities between Zen and the Japanese, one is left to wonder whether it was Zen that shaped “the characteristics of the Japanese people” or, on the contrary, was it “the characteristics of the Japanese people” that shaped Zen? Or perhaps there was some mystical karmic connection that led both of them down the same path – a path in which to “rush forward without hesitation” and “cease discriminating thought” came to mean “one should abandon life and rush ahead”?

Furthermore, Suzuki is quite willing to privilege his fellow Japanese with a national character that almost inherently disposes them to Zen. For example, Suzuki claims “there are things about the Japanese character that are amazingly consistent with Zen.” That is to say, the Japanese people “rush forward to the heart of things without meandering about” and “go directly forward to that goal without looking either to the right or to the left.” In so doing they “forget where they are.”

If only in hindsight, in reading words like these, it is difficult not be reminded of the infamous and tactically futile “banzai charges” of the wartime Imperial Army let alone the tactics of kamikaze pilots and the manned torpedoes (kaiten) of the Imperial Navy.

Yet, is it fair to interpret Suzuki’s words as expressions of support for such suicidal acts?

One of Suzuki’s defenders who strongly opposes such an interpretation is Kemmyō Taira Satō, a Shin (True Pure Land) Buddhist priest who identifies himself as one of Suzuki’s postwar disciples. Satō writes: “Apart from his silence on Bushido after the early 1940s, Suzuki was active as an author during all of the war years, submitting to Buddhist journals numerous articles that conspicuously avoided mention of the ongoing conflict.” (Italics mine)

As further proof, Sato cites an article written by the noted Suzuki scholar Kirita Kiyohide:

During this [war] period one of the journals Suzuki contributed to frequently, Daijōzen [Mahayana Zen], fairly bristled with pro-militarist articles. In issues filled with essays proclaiming “Victory in the Holy War!” and bearing such titles as “Death Is the Last Battle,” “Certain Victory for Kamikaze and Torpedoes,” and “The Noble Sacrifice of a Hundred Million,” Suzuki continued with contributions on subjects like “Zen and Culture.”24

On the one hand, these statements inevitably raise the question of Suzuki’s attitude to Japan’s attack on the U.S. in December 1941. That is to say, what was it that caused Suzuki to stop writing about such war-related topics as bushidō in the early 1940s? Could it have been his opposition to war with the U.S. versus his earlier support for Japan’s full-scale invasion of China from 1937 onwards? Setting this topic aside for further exploration below, the question remains, inasmuch as Suzuki, at least in June 1941, affirmed such things as the acceptability of a dog’s, i.e., meaningless, death, and noted that “in undertaking any work one should be prepared to die” what basis would he have had for opposing such suicidal attacks?

Yet another of Chan’s deficiencies is that in China, Chan had been almost entirely bereft of a military connection. By contrast, it was only after Chan became Zen in Japan that it was linked to Zen-practicing warriors. In fact, Suzuki claims that from the Kamakura period onwards, all Japanese warriors practiced Zen. Suzuki makes this claim despite the fact that the greatest of all Japan’s medieval warriors, i.e., Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), was an adherent of the Pure Land sect (J. Jōdo-shū) Buddhism, not Zen. Suzuki also urges his readers to pay special attention to the fact that “Zen became united with the sword” only after its arrival in Japan.

For Suzuki it was such great medieval warlords as Hōjō Tokimune, Uesugi Kenshin (1530-78), and Takeda Shingen (1521-73) who demonstrated the impact the unity of Zen and the sword had on the subsequent development of Japan. It was their Zen training that allowed these men to “rush forward without hesitation” and “cease discriminating thought.” If, in the case of Hōjō Tokimune, it can be said that at least his was a defensive war against invading Mongols, the same cannot be said for such warlords as Uesugi and Takeda. They were responsible for the deaths of thousands of their enemies and their own forces, each one of them attempting to conquer Japan. Suzuki lumps these warlords together as exemplars of what can be accomplished with the proper mental attitude acquired through Zen training. Suzuki does not even hint at the possibility that in the massive carnage these warlords collectively reaped, the Buddhist precept against the taking of life might have been violated.

It is instructive here to compare Suzuki’s words with those of Japan’s most celebrated, Zen-trained “god of war” (gunshin) of the Asia-Pacific War. I refer to Lt. Col. Sugimoto Gorō, whose posthumous book, Taigi (Great Duty), first published in 1938, sold over a million copies, a far greater number than I first realized when writing Zen at War.

Sugimoto provided the following rationale for Zen’s importance to the Imperial military: “Through my practice of Zen I am able to get rid of my ego. In facilitating the accomplishment of this, Zen becomes, as it is, the true spirit of the Imperial military.”25 Suzuki was clearly in basic agreement with Sugimoto’s claim.

Suzuki argues that it isn’t sufficient to simply discard life and death. Instead, one should “live on the basis of something larger than life and death. That is to say, one must live on the basis of great affirmation.” But what did this “great affirmation” consist of? Suzuki fails to elaborate beyond stating that it is “faith that is great affirmation.” Yet, what should the object of one’s faith be?

Once again Suzuki remains silent on this critical question apart from stating that the way to encounter this great affirmation is to dig ever deeper to the bottom of one’s mind, digging until there is nothing left to dig. It was only then, he claims, that “one can, for the first time, encounter great affirmation.”
Suzuki admits, however, that this great affirmation is not a single entity but “takes on various forms for the peoples of every country.” Yet, what form does or should it take in a Japan that had invaded and was fighting a long and bitter war with China?

As in many other instances of his wartime writings, and as alluded to above, Suzuki maintains a studied ambiguity that makes it impossible to state with certainty what he was referring to. That said, it is clear that nothing in his article would have served to dissuade his readers from fulfilling, let alone questioning, their duties as Imperial Army officers or soldiers in China or elsewhere. Had there been the slightest question that anything Suzuki wrote might have negatively impacted Imperial Army officers who were to be of “one mind and body,” it is inconceivable that the editors of the Kaikō Association Report would have published it.

In asserting this, let me express my appreciation to Sueki Fumihiko, one of Japan’s leading historians of modern Japanese Buddhism. In an article entitled “Daisetsu hihan saikō” (Rethinking Criticisms of Daisetsu [Suzuki]), Sueki first presented the arguments made by some of Suzuki’s most prominent defenders, namely, that when some of Suzuki’s wartime writings are closely parsed it is possible to interpret them as containing criticisms of the Imperial Army’s recklessness as well as its abuse of the alleged magnanimity and compassion of the true bushidō spirit. Further, Sueki acknowledges, as do I, that in the days leading up to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor Suzuki opposed war with the U.S. Nevertheless, Sueki came to the following conclusion: “When we frankly accept Suzuki’s words at face value, we must also consider how, in the midst of the [war] situation as it was then, his words would have been understood.”26

As for Suzuki’s opposition to war with the U.S., it is significant that his one and only public warning did not come until September 1941, i.e., only three months before Pearl Harbor. The unlikely occasion was a guest lecture Suzuki delivered at Kyoto University entitled “Zen and Japanese Culture.” Upon finishing his lecture, Suzuki initially stepped down from the podium but then returned to add:

Japan must evaluate more calmly and accurately the awesome reality of America’s industrial productivity. Present-day wars will no longer be determined as in the past by military strategy and tactics, courage and fearlessness alone. This is because of the large role now played by production capacity and mechanical power. 27

As his words clearly reveal, Suzuki’s opposition to the approaching war with the U.S. had nothing to do with his Buddhist faith or a commitment to peace. Rather, having lived in America for more than a decade, Suzuki knew only too well that Japan was no match for such a large and powerful industrial nation. In short, Suzuki’s words might best be described as a statement of “common sense” though by 1941 this was clearly a commodity in short supply in Japan.

Be that as it may, when we ask how Suzuki’s Imperial Army officer readers would have interpreted the “great affirmation” he referred to, there can be no doubt they would have understood this to be an affirmation, if not an exhortation, for total loyalty unto death to an emperor who was held to be the divine embodiment of the state. The following calligraphic statement, displayed prominently in every Imperial Army barracks, testified to this: “We are the arms and legs of the emperor.” Due to its ubiquitous nature, Suzuki could not help but have been aware of this “affirmation.” Thus, whatever Suzuki’s personal opinion may have been, he would have been well aware that his officer readers would understand his words to mean absolute loyalty to the emperor.

Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that in one important aspect Suzuki did part way with other wartime Zen enthusiasts, for not withstanding his emphasis on “great affirmation,” Suzuki does not explicitly link Zen to the emperor. Compare this absence to the previously introduced Lt. Col. Sugimoto who wrote: “The reason that Zen is important for soldiers is that all Japanese, especially soldiers, must live in the spirit of the unity of sovereign and subjects, eliminating their ego and getting rid of their self. It is exactly the awakening to the nothingness (mu) of Zen that is the fundamental spirit of the unity of sovereign and subjects.”28

By not engaging in emperor adulation in his wartime writings, Suzuki was unique among his Zen contemporaries. Yet this does not mean that he either opposed the emperor system per se or lacked respect for the emperor. This is revealed by the following statement Suzuki made to Gerhard Rosenkrantz, a German missionary visiting Japan in 1939, in the library of Otani University:

We Buddhists bow in front of the emperor’s image, but for us this is not a religious act. The emperor is not a god because for Buddhists a [Shinto] god can be something very low. We see the emperor in an area high above all religions. Trying to make him a god today means a reduction in the status of the emperor. This brings confusion to Buddhism, Shinto and Christianity.29

Thus, even while denying the emperor’s divinity, Suzuki nevertheless justified bowing to the emperor’s image inasmuch he was a personage “in an area high above all religions.”

Nor should it be forgotten that Suzuki’s article was not written exclusively on behalf of Imperial Army officers alone. As previously noted, a key responsibility of the officer corps was to provide “spiritual education” for their soldiers. Thus, they were in constant need of additional historical examples of the attitude that all Imperial subjects, starting with Imperial soldiers, were expected to possess, i.e., an unquestioning, unhesitant and unthinking willingness to die in the war effort. Suzuki’s writings clearly contributed to this effort though it is, of course, impossible to quantify the impact his writings had.


Let me begin this section in something of an unusual manner, i.e., by offering a “defense” of what Suzuki has written in this and similar articles dealing with warriors, bushidō, and the alleged unity of Zen and the sword. That said, while a genuine defense is offered, it is one that nevertheless has a “hook in the tail.”

My contention is that Suzuki should not be blamed for having distorted or mischaracterized Zen history or practice, especially in Japan, to make it a useful tool in the hands of Japanese militarists. That is to say, on the one hand Suzuki can and should be held responsible for the purely nationalistic elements in his writings, including collaboration in the modern fabrication of an ancient and unified bushidō tradition with Zen as its core. Yet, on the other hand, the seven hundred year long history of the close relationship between Zen and the warrior class, hence Zen and the sword, was most definitely not a Suzuki fabrication. There are simply too many historical records of this close relationship to claim that Suzuki simply invented the relationship out of whole cloth.

Thus, Suzuki might best be described as a skilled, modern day, nationalistic proponent of that close relationship in the deadly context of Japan’s invasion of China. Further, in his English writings, Suzuki did his best to convince gullible Westerners that the so-called “unity of Zen and the sword” he described was an authentic expression of Buddhist teachings. In this effort, it must be said, Suzuki has been, at least until recently, eminently successful.

Some Suzuki scholars attempt to defend the most egregious aspects of Suzuki’s nationalist and wartime writings by pointing out that he may have been coerced into writing them by the then totalitarian state. Certainly, there can be no doubt that Suzuki wrote in an era of intense governmental censorship, with authorities ever vigilant against the slightest ideological deviancy. Nevertheless, the most striking features of Suzuki’s substantive wartime writings are, first of all, that they were never censored, and, secondly, their consistency with his earlier writings, dating back to 1896. That is to say, over a span of forty-five years Suzuki repeatedly yoked religion, Buddhism and Zen to the Japanese soldiers’ willingness to die. Certainly no one would claim that Suzuki was writing under fear of government censorship or imprisonment in 1896.

Where Suzuki did break with the past close relationship of Zen to the warrior class was in transmuting this feudal relationship into one encompassing Zen and the modern Japanese state albeit not specifically with the personage of the emperor. It is in having done this that he can rightly be identified as a “Zen nationalist.”30 Needless to say, he was only one of many such Zen leaders, and when compared with the likes of Yasutani Haku’un, Suzuki was clearly less extreme.31

When we inquire as to the cause or reason for the close relationship between Zen, violence, and the modern state that Suzuki promoted, the answer is not hard to find. In his book, Buddhism without Beliefs, Stephan Bachelor [Stephen Batchelor] provides the following explanation regarding not just Zen but all faiths, i.e., "the power of organized religion to provide sovereign states with a bulwark of moral legitimacy. . .”32 To which I would add in this instance, the power of Zen training to mentally prepare warriors/soldiers to both kill and be killed. Or as Suzuki would have it, to “passively sustain” them on the battlefield.

Having said this, I would ask readers to reflect on the historical relationship of their own faith, should they have one, to the state, and state-initiated violence. Was Batchelor correct in his observation with regard to the reader’s faith? That is to say, have not all of the world’s major religions, like Buddhism, provided moral legitimacy for the state’s use of violence? Is Buddhism unique in having done this or only one further example of Chicago University Martin Marty’s insightful comment that “one must note the feature of religion that keeps it on the front page and on prime time -- it kills”?33

To answer yes to any of these questions is not to excuse, let alone justify, Zen or any other school of Buddhism’s moral lapses in this or any instance. Yet, it does suggest the enormity of the problem facing all faiths if they are to remain true to their tenets, all of which number love and compassion among their highest ideals. At the end of his life Buddha Shakyamuni is recorded as having urged his followers to “work out your salvation with diligence.” In the face of continuing, if not increasing, religious violence in today’s world, is his advice any less relevant to all who, if only in terms of their own faith, seek to create a religion truly dedicated to world peace and our shared humanity?

Brian Daizen Victoria is a Visiting Research Fellow, International Research Center for Japanese Studies (Nichibunken) in Kyoto, Japan.
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Part 2 of 2

Appendix I (Complete English Translation of Article)

“Makujiki Kōzen” (Rush Forward Without Hesitation).34

I think that most scholars and informed persons will agree that Zen thought is one of the most important factors forming the basis of Japanese culture. Although Zen originally came from India, in reality it was brought to fruition in China while its real efficacy was achieved to a great extent after coming to Japan.

The reason for this is that there are things about the Japanese character that are amazingly consistent with Zen. I think the most visible of these is rushing forward to the heart of things without meandering about. Once the goal has been determined, one goes directly forward to that goal without looking either to the right or to the left. One goes forward, forgetting where one is. I think this is the most essential element of the Japanese character. In this, I think, Zen is one of the strongest factors allowing the Japanese people to rush forward.

For example, the Japanese hold a sword with both hands, not one. Although I have not researched this question extensively, in countries other than Japan they use only one hand to hold a sword. Further, they use their left hand to hold a shield. That is to say, they use one hand to defend themselves while they use the other hand to strike the enemy. Although my knowledge is limited, this is what I think as I observe the world at large. However, a sword in Japan is held with two hands. There is no attempt to defend oneself. There is only striking down the other. That is to say, one discards the body and plunges toward the other. This is the Japanese people’s way of doing things. And it also happens to be the Zen way of doing things.

I became aware of this from [my experience in] a Zen meditation hall. In a Japanese meditation hall there is something called a waking stick (keisaku). A waking stick is made of wood and is about 121 cm long. It is an implement used to strike someone who is practicing zazen in a situation where their shoulders become stiff from having put too much strength into them. At that time, both hands are used to wield the waking stick.

In China, too, there is a kind of waking stick. Although I don’t know what was used in the past, the waking stick that is used today is approximately 76 cm long and is used for striking with only one hand. However, in Japan we use both hands. Given this, it may be that only at the time the waking stick first arrived in Japan was it held with one hand. Then, after coming to Japan, it became used with two hands.

The meaning of the fact that the waking stick is employed with two hands is that one is able to pour one’s entire strength into its use. That doesn’t mean that it is impossible to pour one’s entire strength into wielding the waking stick with only one hand, but I think that using both hands, rather than one, is better and enables one to more fully put one’s entire strength into the effort. In Europe there is something known as fencing which employs a thin blade using only one hand. In this instance the left hand is simply held high above the shoulder while one thrusts forward with all one’s might. However, the place at which one’s power emerges is the very tip of the blade being held with one hand. In a situation where one holds a sword with both hands, there is no doubt that, in comparison with holding it with one hand, one is better able to exert one’s full strength. While I don’t know what a practitioner of swordsmanship would say about this, seen from the point of view of an outsider like myself, this is how it appears.

Although it is said that [the famous swordsman] Miyamoto Musashi used two swords, I have heard that in an actual swordsmanship match he never used two swords though I don’t know how true that is. Furthermore, I think that in a situation where Musashi used two swords, one of them was simply used for defense.

It was not a question of both swords being used independently by each hand, but a situation in which the movement of one mind expressed itself, depending on the situation, with each of two swords. For that reason it was not a question of thrusting with each one of two swords but of either thrusting with both hands or slicing with both hands at the same time. The truth is that while he appeared to use two swords, I think the reality was that he employed the swords in both hands as if he were grasping a single long sword.

Be that as it may, the character of the Japanese people is to come straight to the point and pour their entire body and mind into the attack. This is the character of the Japanese people and, at the same time, the essence of Zen.

The Meaning of Being Prepared to Die

The Hagakure states that bushidō means to be prepared to die. That is to say, in undertaking any kind of work it is said that one must “die first.” It may be that in such a situation there is something known as a dog’s [i.e., pointless] death. It may be that when it is the right time to die one should simply die in that situation. In any event, what the Hagakure states is that even a dog’s death is all right. That is to say, in undertaking any work one should be prepared to die.

This is the way it is written [in the Hagakure], and seen from a psychological point of view this is, I think, truly the way it ought to be. In human beings there is, in general, something known as the self. The concept of an individual self is not something easily gotten rid of. In Buddhism this is something known as illusion. Illusion is made up of fine threads that are strung together in such a way as to make it impossible to move freely. Although the threads are extremely fine, one is incessantly caught in their grasp. The decision to be prepared to die means the cutting of these threads. To truly be able to do this is not possible simply by deciding to die in the course of working. There is something far deeper than this that must be done.

In this connection there is the following story. In medieval Europe there was a lady who decided to enter a nunnery to engage in religious practice, but her family wasn’t willing to let her go. Although a number of years passed, she had no opportunity to make good her escape. Then, one night a good opportunity came, and she managed to leave home. She intended to go to a monastery and spend the rest of her life in religious practice. Upon leaving home she took some money with her because she felt that without money she wouldn’t be able to buy something to eat along the way.

What can be said in this regard is that her attraction to money was a symbol of just how hard it was for her to overcome attachment to a world she claimed to have cast aside. At that point the lady thought to herself how lamentable it was that in the midst of having discarded the world, her parents and siblings, in order to dedicate herself to God, she was still attached to money. She became worried about the money she had taken, thinking that she would be unable to accomplish anything. Thinking to herself that she had to cast aside the money, she decided to get rid of it. As a result, the story goes, her mood underwent a drastic change, and she acquired a frame of mind in which she was readily able to do what had to be done.

In the past, there was a Buddhist priest by the name of St. Kūya. St. Kūya constantly recited the phrase, Namu Amida-butsu [Hail to Amitābha Buddha], as he walked about. There is a story that at one point someone asked him, “What is the purpose of Buddhist practice?” He replied, “Discard everything!” as he quickly walked past. This “discard” is the main point of Buddhism and also the spirit of Zen.

Discarding a sum of money is the same as discarding one’s life. Now in the case of the Christian woman, money represented the same bond of life and death as it does to an ordinary warrior who fails to become free due to his routine mental state. In the past, a warrior was someone who discarded his life on behalf of his master. It meant that he could discard his life in the midst of battle.

It may well be that discarding one’s life in the midst of battle is relatively easy, for I think it isn’t too difficult for ordinary people to discard their lives when the entire environment calls for it. However, what is difficult is to give up one’s life in peacetime. That is to say, when the world is at peace. It is then that it is difficult to have a frame of mind in which one is prepared to give up everything one has. Yet, someone who is able to do so is completely free, though this mental state is quite difficult to acquire.

In the past they discussed this problem in China, too. A nation would fall, they said, in a situation where warriors, becoming cautious, were reluctant to lose their lives while, at the same time, government officials sought to enrich themselves. Should there be military men who were reluctant to lose their lives they would be of no use whatsoever. Should there be any like that, they ought to stop being military men. When this is applied to government officials, this is not simply a question of their loving money or fame. Rather, I believe it is possible to say that they, too, must try to discard their lives. In the past there was no special class known as government officials, for warriors were both military men and government officials. In peacetime warriors engaged in politics in government offices while in wartime they took up the sword and charged ahead. Military men became political figures, and political figures were originally military men.

In any event, it isn’t easy to acquire the mental state in which one is prepared to die. I think the best shortcut to acquire this frame of mind is none other than Zen, for Zen is the fundamental ideal of religion. It isn’t simply a question of being prepared to die, as Zen is prepared to transcend death. This is called the “unity of life and death” in which living and dying are viewed as one. The fact that these two are one represents Zen’s view of human life and the world.

In the past there was [a Zen priest by the name of] National Teacher Sekizan. A story describes a disciple who asked him, “I and others are imprisoned by life and death and cannot become free. What can we do to realize the unity of life and death?” Sekizan taught him, saying, “You don’t have such trivial things as life and death!”

Rushing Forward Without Hesitation

At present I am in Kamakura where I live within Engakuji temple’s precincts. I would like to discuss Hōjō Tokimune and National Teacher Bukkō who constructed Engakuji temple. Tokimune became regent when he was only eighteen years old and died at the age of thirty-four. His rule of seventeen years began and ended with a foreign policy directed against the Mongols. Were something like this to take place today when transportation is readily available, I think it would be easy to get information about the enemy. However, in the Kamakura period it was almost impossible to get information about either the enemy or their disposition. Still, communication was possible through people who either went to China from Japan or came to Japan from China, so I think there was quite a lot of information available.

That said, in one sense one nevertheless encountered a large unknown. The large unknown was exactly when and under what conditions the enemy would arrive. I think that as far as Tokimune, their opponent, was concerned, it was not sufficient to be just politically or militarily prepared. One is able to fight well only when one knows both the enemy and those at one’s side. Because it was an unknown enemy, it was very difficult to determine the size of the force that would be sufficient to oppose them. Nevertheless, it was a situation in which, moment by moment, the crisis drew nearer. I think the extent of the crisis experienced then cannot be compared with the ordeal we are undergoing today. I would like to imagine the frame of mind that made it possible to surmount the hardships of those times.

At long last, a massive Mongol army invaded on two occasions. In opposing them, Tokimune never once set foot out of Kamakura. The war took place within the confines of [the southern island of] Kyushu. Today we wouldn’t describe such a place as being far away, but rather, close at hand. However, in the Kamakura period, in an age when travel was difficult, it must be said that Kyushu was indeed a distant place. Further, although Tokimune didn’t relocate the Shogunate [military] government, he was still able to gather soldiers together from throughout the country of their own free will.

Tokimune didn’t accomplish this by himself. Instead, it was the nature of Kamakura in those days that made it possible for him, due to his virtue, to unite all the people together in a harmonious whole, not simply through the exercise of his power. I think this was not something he was able to do on his own. True enough, there were Shinto shrines flourishing throughout the country, not to mention [the protection of] various gods and Buddhas. Yet, while it is fine to pray to them, the power of prayer by itself would not serve to defeat the enemy. I think one must have material goods such as tanks to counter tanks in order to accomplish this. When the Mongolian soldiers attacked, merely praying for their death would be insufficient. That is to say, it was necessary to prepare a sufficient military force. It is said there was a divine wind [kamikaze], but the blowing of such a divine wind was recognized only after the fact, not before it occurred. That is to say, it was impossible to depend on a divine wind before it had blown. If, in anticipation of a divine wind, Tokimune had failed to make preparations, it may well be that the Mongol soldiers would have advanced as far as Kyoto at some point.

Although people like myself are not familiar with strategic military terminology, I am sure Tokimune must have had a plan prepared consisting of a first, second and third stage. I’m sure he wouldn’t have done something so reckless as to construct a fortress and then tell everyone to take it easy. If this is true, then he simply didn’t remain in Kamakura unperturbed. Being the type of person he was, there can be no doubt that he must have first thought of the preparations and methods that would allow him to remain calm. It is unthinkable that it could simply be a question of his attitude or daring alone.

Without observing the other side, nothing can be accomplished. Even if there were such a thing as bravery unconcerned about the other side, there must be appropriate methods for the effective utilization of such bravery. If it were possible to pray for the death of the enemy without using appropriate methods, i.e., by means of spirit alone, it may well be that there are enemies who can be killed in this way. But it may also be there are enemies who cannot be killed through the power of prayer. This way [of defeating the enemy] simply can’t be counted on. There must be other effective methods that can be utilized. I believe it is only common sense to think that Tokimune must have possessed such methods. While my knowledge of history is limited, not to mention that I have no knowledge of military strategy, nevertheless, as someone with common sense, what I have said is quite possible when one considers the state of affairs at that time.

The following story has been handed down to us though I don’t know how much of this legend is actually true. Nevertheless, it is clear that even if a legend didn’t actually occur at the time and place claimed, there was a background to asserting that the events in the legend actually happened. If may well be that not all historical facts that have been transmitted down to us are true. But the reason we accept something that didn’t actually happen is because we must have already prepared something within our minds that allows us to accept it as fact. This becomes reflected in the environment and is transmitted to us as fact. And for this reason persons who hear facts like these can immediately believe them.

The significance of the preceding discussion concerns the moment when, having received news that the Mongolian soldiers were on their way, Tokimune approached National Master Bukkō to inform him that a fearful situation confronted him. In response National Master Bukkō immediately said, “Rush forward without hesitation!”

In addition, there is also this exchange between the two. Tokimune asked National Master Bukkō, “When various incidents occur, and I am perplexed by things that happen here, and by things that happen there, what frame of mind should I have in seeking to deal with them?” It is said that National Master Bukkō immediately responded, “Cease discriminating thought!”

Either expression, i.e., “rush forward without hesitation” or “cease discriminating thought,” is fine. Further, whether National Master Bukkō actually said these words or, instead, Tokimune expressed his own belief, is likewise fine. In any event, it is sufficient to imagine that at some point National Master Bukkō and Tokimune had a conversation like this.

These exchanges point to the fact that by the time the Mongol soldiers arrived, Tokimune was already mentally prepared. I think this means there was no need for Tokimune to make a specific visit to National Master Bukkō to show his determination. I imagine that these exchanges, like something out of a drama or novel, were created in order to effectively reveal his frame of mind. This is because Tokimune had already undergone sufficient mental training during the course of his life. This wasn’t a situation in which the matter would be resolved simply by asking something like what I should do now that the Mongols have arrived. The greater the power someone has developed is, the greater its application is to be commended. As we have all already experienced, momentary pretense is of no use.

Leaving aside the question of whether the preceding exchanges actually occurred at a particular point in time, there can be no doubt that Tokimune was wont to use “rush forward without hesitation” and “cease discriminating thought” as the core of his methods for mental training. In one sense it can be said that “rush forward without hesitation” and “cease discriminating thought” are characteristics of the Japanese people. Their implication is that, disregarding birth and death, one should abandon life and rush ahead. It is here, I think, that Zen and the Japanese people’s, especially the warriors,’ basic outlook are in agreement.

The Essence of Things

In China, Zen served, on the one hand, as a kind of philosophy and, on the other hand, as religious belief. Although in China there were quite a few scholars, religious persons and artists who practiced Zen, it appears that it did not become the basis of Chinese life. In particular, one hears almost nothing about military men and warriors who practiced Zen. If we consider Wang Yangming to have been a military man, his main profession was nevertheless that of a scholar or, more specifically, a scholar of Confucianism. However, it is true that he did fight and was very successful. As far as military men who practiced Zen in China, he was, I think, probably the only one to have done so.

However, when Zen came to Japan things were completely different. In Japan warriors have, for the most part, practiced Zen. Especially from the Kamakura period [1185-1333] through the Ashikaga [1337-1573] and Warring States period [1467-1567], it is correct to say that all of them practiced Zen. This is clear when one looks at such famous examples as [warlords] Uesugi Kenshin, Takeda Shingen, and others. And then, with the advent of the Tokugawa period [1603-1868], we find Zen was very popular among famous painters.

I believe one should pay special attention to the fact that Zen became united with the sword. When we look at the inner essence of swordsmanship, or its secret teachings, or its oral transmission, it can be said that all of them added an element of Zen. There is no need to give various examples of this inasmuch as those who have researched this question even slightly would readily agree.
That said, one of the clearest examples can be seen in the relationship between [Zen Master] Takuan and [sword master] Yagyū Tajima no kami. And while not as well known as Yagyū Tajima-no-kami, there is also the relationship between Katō Dewa-no-kami Taikō, Lord of the Iyō Ōzu [region], and Zen Master Bankei. Lord Katō of Ōzu was an expert with a spear. While I don’t know how skilled Zen Master Bankei was with a spear, given that he was a Buddhist priest I think he may not have been all that skilled. Nevertheless Katō Taikō received a secret transmission concerning the spear from Zen Master Bankei.

Whether we are talking about the inner essence of swordsmanship or that of politics, or battle, the most important question for all persons is that of the self. One must begin to discard the individual self. When you have something called a self you are slave to the self. This is because the self is something that, by nature, is born and dies. If one attempts to distance oneself from life and death, one must not have a self.

One must transcend the self. However, this is not a question of discarding or eliminating the self. In order to eliminate the self one must find something that is larger than the self. Human beings are unable to accomplish anything by being passive. On the other hand, when they actively affirm something they are able to act. By nature human beings die through negation and live through affirmation. One mustn’t simply discard life and death but, instead, live on the basis of something larger that life and death. That is to say, one must live on the basis of great affirmation. If it were simply a question of discarding that would be negation, not affirmation.

To be more precise, it is faith that is great affirmation. One must encounter this great affirmation. Depending on the person, this great affirmation can take many forms. Further, I think that it takes on various forms for the peoples of every country. Still further, I think that it takes on various forms depending on the social class of the person in question. Nevertheless, if it is a question of true affirmation, it must consist of digging deeply to the bottom of one’s mind, then more deeply and still more deeply to the point where there is nothing left to dig. It is only then that one can, for the first time, encounter great affirmation.

When this is expressed in a Confucian context it is called sincerity. In the Shinto tradition it can be called being without artifice. Whether it is called sincerity or being without artifice, these are not things that can be acquired in a whimsical manner. Nor are they things that, as ordinary people never tire of saying, can be united together. This great affirmation is something that people must experience for themselves, not bragging about it boisterously and indiscriminately in front of others. This must be thoroughly understood. Rather than rambling on about this great affirmation in front of others, it should be stored in one’s mind and taken out and used as necessary.

A 17th century] scholar by the name of Yamaga Sokō [1622-85] wrote a work entitled Seikyō-yōron [A Summary of Confucian Teachings]. In this work he defines sincerity as meaning “something unavoidable.” Sincerity, then, is something that cannot be avoided. The meaning of “something unavoidable” is that one digs deep, deeper and still deeper into the innermost recesses of the mind. Having reached the culmination of digging deep into the mind, one encounters a moving object. The moving object encountered is “something unavoidable.” That which people never tire of talking about is not “something unavoidable,” but rather something that is nothing more than an aspect of the self. Therefore, it is not a moving object that comes from the innermost depth of the mind. Further, Yamaga Sokō states “something unavoidable” is “something natural.” This “something natural” ought to be seen as the equivalent of “being without artifice.”

Finally, there is this poem. In the Tokugawa era there was a person by the name of Zen Master Shidō Bunan. Among his poems is the following:

Become a dead man while still alive and do so thoroughly.
Then you will be able to live as your heart leads you.35

There is no need for further explanation. I leave this up to my readers to interpret as they wish.

Brian Victoria, Visiting Research Fellow, International Research Center for Japanese Studies, Kyoto. Brian Daizen Victoria holds an M.A. in Buddhist Studies from Sōtō Zen sect-affiliated Komazawa University in Tokyo, and a Ph.D. from the Department of Religious Studies at Temple University. In addition to a 2nd, enlarged edition of Zen At War (Rowman & Littlefield), major writings include Zen War Stories (RoutledgeCurzon); an autobiographical work in Japanese entitled Gaijin de ari, Zen bozu de ari (As a Foreigner, As a Zen Priest); Zen Master Dōgen, coauthored with Prof. Yokoi Yūhō of Aichi-gakuin University (Weatherhill); and a translation of The Zen Life by Sato Koji (Weatherhill). He is currently a Visiting Research Fellow at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies (aka Nichibunken) in Kyoto.

Recommended citation: Brian Daizen Victoria, "Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D.T. Suzuki," The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 30, No. 5. August 5, 2013.

Related articles

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• Brian Victoria, Karma, War and Inequality in Twentieth Century Japan


1 Quoted in Victoria, Zen at War, 2nd ed., p. ix.

2 Ibid., p. x.

3 Quoted in Hockenos, A Church Divided: German Protestants Confront the Nazi Past, p. 76.

4 For examples of Buddhist clerical resistance to Japanese militarism, see Zen at War, especially pp. 66-78. For a more detailed discussion of the nature of so-called “holy war” as found in all of the world’s major religions, see Victoria, “Holy War: Toward a Holistic Understanding,” in the Journal of Religion, Conflict and Peace, Vol. 1, Issue 1, Fall 2007. Available on the Web: here (accessed 24 July 2013).

5 For a sampling of this controversy, including criticisms of my understanding of D.T. Suzuki, see the two articles written by Satō Gemmyō Taira included in the Bibliography section of this paper. They are readily accessible on the Web.

6 The evidence is most readily available in the following two articles: 1) Kemmyō Taira Satō, “D. T. Suzuki and the Question of War.” Translated in collaboration with Thomas Kirchner. The Eastern Buddhist 39/1: 61–120. Available on the web at: ... of-War.pdf ; and 2) Kemmyō Taira Satō, “Brian Victoria and the Question of Scholarship.” The Eastern Buddhist 41/2: 139–166. Available on the web at: this location.

7 Benesch, “Bushido: The Creation of a Martial Ethic in Late Meiji Japan,” p. 245. Available on the Web at: this location.

8 Ibid., p. 3.

9 Ibid., pp. 305-6.

10 Suzuki, “The Zen Sect of Buddhism,” Journal of the Pali Text Society, p. 34.

11 Suzuki, “A Buddhist View of War.” Light of Dharma 4, 1904, pp. 181–82.

12 Suzuki, A Treatise on the New Meaning of Religion (Shin Shūkyō-ron). Quoted in Suzuki Daisetsu Zenshū, vol. 23, p. 140.

13 Shaku, Sermons of a Buddhist Abbot, p. 203. The entire book is available on the Web at The last three chapters are particularly relevant.

14 Suzuki, Shin-Bukkyō-to (New Buddhists) magazine, vol. 13, no. 10, p. 1005. I am grateful to Takahashi Hara of Tokyo University for having brought the Japanese original of this quotation to my attention.

15 For a brief introduction to Suzuki’s contribution to Bushidō no Shinzui, i.e., his article entitled “Zen and Bushidō,” see Victoria, Zen at War, pp. 110-11.

16 Although the Kaikō-sha was disbanded with Japan’s defeat in August 1945, it was reconstituted following the end of the US Occupation of Japan in 1952. The organization’s website, including a Japanese language history of the Kaikō-sha, can be accessed here:

17 “Seishin Bunka no Kiban toshite no Tetsugaku” (The Philosophical Foundation of Spiritual Culture) Kaikō-sha Kiji, June 1941, p. 16.

18 For an introduction to the role that Zen played in the Imperial Army, see Chapter Eight, “The Emergence of Imperial-State Zen and Soldier-Zen,” in Zen at War, pp. 95-129.

19 Suzuki, “Makujiki Kōzen,” published in Kaikō-sha kiji, June 1941, pp. 17-26. This article was anthologized in Suzuki’s book, Isshinjitsu no Sekai, also published in 1941.

20 Suzuki, Zen Buddhism And Its Influence on Japanese Culture, pp. 34-35.

21 Quoted in Victoria, Zen War Stories, p. 72.

22 Suzuki, Zen Buddhism And Its Influence on Japanese Culture, p. 46.

23 Suzuki, Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture, p. 40.

24 Satō, “D. T. Suzuki and the Question of War,” p. 102.

25 Quoted in Victoria, Zen War Stories, p. 124.

26 Sueki, “Daisetsu hihan saikō,” p. 8.

27 Quoted in Zen at War, pp. 151-52. Suzuki’s remarks have long been invoked as proof of his “anti-war” stance, but he was merely warning against fighting a war with a much stronger country, i.e., the U.S. and its allies, that a relatively small country like Japan was bound to lose. The date of these remarks, i.e., September 1941, is also important in that it appears to be the only time Suzuki publicly expressed, if only indirectly, his opposition to an attack on the U.S. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 Suzuki only voiced his opposition in a muted manner in private correspondence. Suzuki’s voice was, of course, not the only one warning against war with the U.S. For example, even Imperial Navy Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku opposed war with the U.S. for the same reasons as Suzuki. Nevertheless, being the professional military man that he was, Yamamoto went on to plan and execute the attack on Pearl Harbor.

28 Quoted in Victoria, Zen War Stories, p. 124.

29 Rosenkranz, Fernost - wohin? Begegnungen mit den Religionen Japans und Chinas im Umbruch der Gegenwart. Heilbronn, Verlag Eugen Salzer 1940. Available on the web in German at: this location.

30 For further exploration of the nationalist elements in Suzuki’s understanding of Zen, see the two following articles by Robert Sharf: 1) “The Zen of Japanese Nationalism.” History of Religions, Vol. 33, No. 1. (Aug., 1993), pp. 1-43. Available on the web at: this site and 2) “Whose Zen? Zen Nationalism Revisited” in Rude Awakenings: Zen the Kyoto School, and the Question of Nationalism, James W. Heisig and John C. Maraldo, eds., pp. 40–51. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. Available on the web at: this site.

31 Yasutani was also connected to both a major Nazi figure resident in Japan and Nazi ideology, particularly anti-Semitism. For details, see Chapter Five, “Zen Master Dōgen Goes To War,” in Victoria, Zen War Stories, especially pp. 88-90. That said, while Yasutani’s Nazi connection is now known, the author is currently preparing an article on Suzuki’s personal and ideological connection to the Nazis.

32 Bachelor, Buddhism without Beliefs, p. 16.

33 Marty, “An Exuberant Adventure: The Academic Study and Teaching of Religion,” p. 14.

34 The phrase, ““Makujiki Kōzen” (驀直向前), i.e. rush forward without hesitation, is, as noted in the text of the article, believed to have been part of a conversation between Hōjō Tokimune and his Chinese Zen Master, National Teacher Bukkō, that took place at the time of the second Mongol invasion of Japan in 1281. These words were an admonition to Tokimune to resolutely face the eminent invasion by rushing forward to engage the enemy without the slightest hesitation. This phrase came to epitomize the proper mental attitude warriors should possess upon going into battle. There are two additional variations of this phrase though both of them express similar meanings. The variations are: 1) 驀直去(maku-jikini-sare) and 2) 驀直前進 (baku-choku-zenshin).

35 Needless to say, this poem lends itself to various interpretations, something Suzuki himself recognized when he stated that he left it up to his readers “to interpret as they wish.” It can be argued, for example, that Bunan was referring to the freedom of action that comes from the state of enlightenment, i.e., when one is no longer shackled by the three ‘poisons’ of Mahāyāna Buddhism, i.e., greed, anger and illusion. That said, the critical question is how Suzuki’s officer readers would have interpreted this poem? It is highly likely they would have understood these words to mean that once they were fully resigned to their own deaths on the battlefield they would be able to fight more effectively in China. I would also like to think the late Kyoko Selden for her assistance in ensuring this poem was translated accurately.


Bachelor, Stephan. Buddhism without Beliefs, London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1998.

Benesch, Oleg. “Bushido: The Creation of a Martial Ethic in Late Meiji Japan.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, 2011, pp. 1-358. Available on the web at: ... sequence=1

Cleary, Thomas. Code of the Samurai. Boston: Tuttle Publishing, 1999.

Hockenos, Matthew. A Church Divided: German Protestants Confront the Nazi Past. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004.

Marty, Martin E. “An Exuberant Adventure: The Academic Study and Teaching of Religion,” Academe, 82, no. 6, 1996, pp. 14-17.

Rosenkranz, Gerhard. Fernost - wohin? Begegnungen mit den Religionen Japans und Chinas im Umbruch der Gegenwart. Heilbronn Verlag Eugen Salzer, 1940. Available on the Web in German: here

Satō, Kemmyō Taira. “Brian Victoria and the Question of Scholarship.” The Eastern Buddhist 41/2: 139–166. Available on the web: here

-----. “D. T. Suzuki and the Question of War.” Translated in collaboration with Thomas Kirchner. The Eastern Buddhist 39/1: 61–120. Available on the web at: ... of-War.pdf

Shaku, Soyen [Sōen]. Sermons of a Buddhist Abbot. In Zen for Americans. Translated by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki. LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1974. The entire book is available on the Web at

Sharf, Robert H. “The Zen of Japanese Nationalism.” History of Religions, Vol. 33, No. 1. (Aug., 1993), pp. 1-43. Available on the web: here.

-----. “Whose Zen? Zen Nationalism Revisited” in Rude Awakenings: Zen the Kyoto School, and the Question of Nationalism, James W. Heisig and John C. Maraldo, eds., pp. 40–51. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. Available on the web: here

Snyder, Gary and Nelson Foster, “The Fog of World War II” in tricycle (Summer 2010). Available on the web at:

Sueki Fumihiko, “Daisetsu hihan saikō,” Matsugaoka bunko kenkyū nenpō 27, 2010.

Suzuki, Daisetsu (also Daisetz, D.T., Teitaro). Shin Shūkyō Ron (A Treatise on the New Meaning of Religion), 1896. In vol. 23, Suzuki Daisetsu Zenshū. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1969, pp. 1-147.

-----. “Makujiki Kōzen” (Rush Forward without Hesitation), June 1941. In vol. 16, Suzuki Daisetsu Zenshū. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2001, pp. 121-135. Originally published in Kaikō-sha kiji, June 1941, pp. 17-26.

-----. “A Buddhist View of War.” Light of Dharma 4, 1904.

-----. “The Zen Sect of Buddhism,” Journal of the Pali Text Society, 1906.

-----. Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture. Kyoto: The Eastern Buddhist Society, Otani Buddhist College, 1938. Later reprinted in the postwar period in multiple, expanded editions by Princeton University Press as Zen and Japanese Culture.

Victoria, Brian. “The ‘Negative Side’ of D. T. Suzuki's Relationship to War.” The Eastern Buddhist 41/2: 97–138. Available on the web at: this location.

-----. Zen at War, 2nd ed., Rowman & Littlefield, Boulder, Colorado, 2006.

-----. Zen War Stories, RoutledgeCurzon, London and New York, 2003.
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Re: Former teacher at Boulder's Shambhala accused of sexuall

Postby admin » Tue Feb 26, 2019 8:52 am

Part 1 of 2

Behind the Veil of Boulder Buddhism: Ed Sanders, The Party
When the Party's Over: An Interview with Allen Ginsberg

by Ed Sanders
Boulder Monthly
March, 1979
The Party: A chronological perspective on a confrontation at a Buddhist Seminary









That fall while Rinpoche was away, after one particularly difficult week, I phoned him to ask again for his help. He was at the 1975 seminary in Snowmass, Colorado, a program that lasted three months, and wouldn't be back for at least another month. The seminary that year in Snowmass ended up being quite difficult in certain respects. Against his better judgment, Rinpoche had allowed the American poet W S. Merwin, who had spent the summer at Naropa, and his girlfriend, Dana, to attend the seminary, although they were extremely new to our community. As the Vajrayana section of the seminary approached, Bill (Merwin) and Dana remained isolated from the rest of the participants, and Rinpoche felt they weren't connecting with him or with what he was trying to teach.

On Halloween things turned ugly. There was a costume party that night, which Bill and Dana tried to duck out of.
From what I heard, the situation got quite extreme. Rinpoche had suggested that rather than using costumes to disguise themselves, people should unmask and expose themselves. He told people that they should literally unmask by taking their clothes off. Everybody got naked. Rinpoche noticed that Bill and Dana weren't there. He insisted that they should come to the party too and sent students to rouse them from their room at the hotel. When they didn't answer the door, the messengers broke in through the balcony. Bill became alarmed and fearful, and he cut one of them with a jagged piece of broken glass. He and Dana were eventually brought down to the ballroom, where they were stripped of their clothing. It was pretty shocking.

A day or two later, Rinpoche told Merwin and Dana, as well as all the other participants, that they could leave the seminary or they could stay. They remained, but after the program ended, they left for good. The story filtered out of the seminary -- in fact, nobody was trying to hide what had happened. Investigating the incident actually became a class project in the poetics department at Naropa Institute a year or two later, and the story made its way into an article in Harper's magazine in 1979. Although I wasn't there when these events transpired, I was with Rinpoche in situations that were probably as extreme as that. If he felt that the elements of a situation were ripe to puncture delusion or self-deception, he never held back -- though I don't expect people to understand or accept this at face value.

-- Dragon Thunder: My Life with Chogyam Trungpa, by Diana J. Mukpo with Carolyn Rose Gimian


I was invited to teach a course at the Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in June and July of 1977. I decided to title the course Investigative Poetry, based on the poetic principles explored in my book of the same name published by City Lights Books.

I prepared a series of lectures around the central themes of Investigative Poetry, namely that poets assume a greater portion of the description of historical events, as in ancient civilizations, utilizing data-collection and investigative techniques of a data retentive era such as ours.

It was my objective to encourage students to write samples of investigative verse, and for the entire group to take on an investigative project on an issue in the Denver-Boulder area. I had thought the group might choose to undertake some bardic sleuthery out at Rocky Flats, or to examine the strike that was then going on at the Coors company, or perhaps to fan out in the direction of Sterling, Colorado, to try to beam some hard Sophoclean light on the cattle mutilations case.

Prior to arrival at Naropa Institute I had never heard of the stripping incident at Snowmass, Colorado. Better to fill one's mind with the Galactic Land-Fill than the gossip of bard-babble. At an early meeting of the Investigative Poetry class, there was a general discussion on what sort of bardic sleuthery to undertake. To my surprise the class decided overwhelmingly to take a look at the circumstances of the Halloween party. Robert Bly had recently read in Boulder, and had delivered an energetic stage rendition of the stripping, which had created quite a stir. Wherever one went on the Boulder literary scene that summer, the matter was dancing on many lips, yet few seemed certain as to what actually had transpired at Snowmass. The National Endowment for the Arts had recently turned down a grant request from the Kerouac School, in part, it was thought, because of gossip about the Merwin-Naone-Trungpa matter spreading in literary circles. The case, as they say, was hot.

It seemed like a matter fit for careful elucidation. I agreed to procede, serving as project coordinator, with "Not to assume facts not in evidence" to be the guiding principle of the investigation. The main ground rules were that everyone participating should prepare detailed question lists, or Q-Lists, prior to interviews, and to try to tape record interviews where possible, and to write detailed reports and transcripts of interviews.

The Investigative Poetry Group was extremely eager to work, and the walls of my apartment at Naropa faculty housing grew fairly filled with large "now charts" tracing in chronological detail what was known about the stripping incident at that time. My apartment became the "Squad Room." The work was ceaseless. Investigators arrived early in the morning, to prepare Q-lists, to work on the now charts, to prepare transcripts of interviews. Sometimes there were five typewriters being used at once in the living room. A couple of times the work lasted till dawn.

The bulk of the 179-page report was finished in less than a month. Only the inspired dedication of the 24 people in the Investigative Poetry Group made it possible. Anyone who has spent time at Naropa will know the distractions -- the rounds of dinners, the readings, the lectures, the lure of the mountains, the parties, the logging of thrill-units.

It would be proper to say that Naropa was less than eager for the report to be written, but on the other hand at no time, then or now, did anyone try to suppress the investigation, or to harass anyone who was preparing it. In addition, the Kerouac School in my opinion is an important and unique institution of poetics in America. It bubbles with creativity; with the exchange of ideas on an elevated plateau. It has brought a vast spectrum of poets to Boulder from many different poetic and metaphysical perspectives. People no doubt will soon, if not already, begin to write PhD theses on the Kerouac School.

On the other hand, the incident at Snowmass was an encroachment that should not be allowed to be repeated. One sure way to prevent such encroachments among sane people is through relentless, ethical investigations such as the one that produced The Party.

Regarding publication of The Party, the Investigative Poetry Group proceded democratically. During the summer of 1977 the group voted to delay any decision on publication for a few months. In October-November of 1978 a vote was conducted by mail, with the result being 14-4 to publish. The full text will be published this year by Poetry, Crime, and Culture Books, Woodstock, New York.

-- Ed Sanders

Anne Waldman suggests Naropa to Merwin, New Year 1975

Anne and Merwin ran into each other in NYC street just before New Year 1975. Anne had met Merwin once or twice before but didn't know him personally very well, though she knew and respected his work.

Anne and Merwin met for a New Year's toast and had intense spiritual discussion -- "Meaning of life, death, pain."

"Merwin was asking me about teachers. Tibetan teachers. So he was interested in some way connecting with a teacher ... I don't think he had a clear idea of what he wanted to connect with, necessarily. We didn't know each other terribly well, but I guess he knew that Michael and I and John Giorno had travelled to India and connected with certain lamas there and he was curious about connecting himself in some way -- and I think it was fear of death, getting older, some kind of quest in his own life. We had a very interesting conversation about Buddhism and my relationship to it. I said I was not going back to India, in fact. I was going out to Naropa that summer, '75, to work and run the Kerouac School, but that it was a Buddhist situation and perhaps he could connect this way. Connect with Chogyam Trungpa. And I think he knew something about Chogyam Trungpa, perhaps read his books, I don't know.

"... I felt genuine warmth and compassion from Merwin in his wanting to come (to Naropa) and study Buddhism... It was Merwin's own decision to come. I merely suggested he come. He was very ripe for a move toward this."

-- Anne Waldman (Santoli) 6/23/77

Merwin at Naropa as a Buddhist student

Summer of '75 Merwin was interested in Trungpa as a teacher, was very adamant about his desire to go to the seminary. It was somewhat out of the ordinary ... people are supposed to apply a long time ahead of time ... there are certain advance requirements. "So it was a favor."

-- David Bolduc (M. McCabe) 6/24/77

Merwin came to Colorado with the idea of studying Buddhism and for the mountains ... had been interested in Buddhism for a long time: sat in meditation long before anyone knew ... had had contact with Trungpa before summer of '75 (lectures, might have met him informally) ... he has a strong belief in book learning and western intellectual study which set him in immediate temperamental opposition to Trungpa's 'crazy wisdom' direct experience ... he also has a strong populist belief in the complete privacy of individuals and of not submitting to external controls (he once turned down a lucrative teaching job because of his refusal to pledge allegiance to N.Y. Constitution) ... thought he could go to the seminary and study Tibetan Buddhism in a scholarly way without committing himself to the dogma or initiation ... thought he could simply live his own life there.

Matthews sees the incident as an inevitable clash of two entirely different ethos ... thinks there was no way to avoid it, though it needn't have taken such a vicious form.

-- Wm. Matthews (Blair) 6/24/ 77

"Merwin was at Naropa on the Path. He wasn't here for the poetry scene, that was the last thing he wanted to get involved with. In fact, he always kept a bit of a distance because he sees himself as a loner (in the literary scene) ... But he was very very generous in terms of the poetry scene because he was here for another ultimate purpose."

-- Anne Waldman (Santoli) 6/23/77

Merwin & Dana Naone

Merwin and Dana had gotten together just prior to Naropa. Newly connected. Like on their honeymoon. Dana is quite a bit younger than Merwin.

-- Anne Waldman (Santoli) 6/23/77

Merwin knew he would be treated special as poet laureate of New Yorker -- guest star of Trungpa and Trungpa's scene ... assured that he wouldn't be "Everyman." Merwin was invited to everything all summer at Naropa.

Merwin had very horny mentality -- liked girls a lot -- considered himself 'dashing.'

During the summer Merwin and Dana were overcompensating physically.

-- John Steinbeck IV (Santoli) 6/ 21/77

Dana was mannerly, from an aristocratic Hawaiian family. She was very happy about being with Bill -- "everything is wonderful" -- they never fought. She missed Hawaii. She and Bill had recently met in Hawaii. Dana was extremely possessive of Bill and jealous of the possibility of him flirting with other women.

-- Simone Lazzeri (Santoli) 7/5/77

Merwin got very seriously into the Buddhist practice -- meditating diligently and studying. Dana also got into it -- Dana is not a frivolous character.

-- Jim Hartz (Santoli) 6/28/77

Merwin teaches at Naropa

"Merwin was here as a student and prospective Buddhist ... and attended poetry classes. Dana was a student in the Visiting Poets Class. Merwin visited and participated out of his own generosity, got paid something but not officially paid like other poets. He told me he wanted to be here as a student rather than Bill Merwin the poet.

"He gave a reading with John Ashbery, two lectures in the Visiting Poets Academy and one special workshop to go over students' works."

Merwin asked Anne how she taught poetry, not believing you can actually teach poetry.

-- Anne Waldman (Santoli) 6/23/77

Merwin & Dana Naone attend the Trungpa ITS at RMDC following Naropa summer

Merwin and Dana went to the ITS (Intensive Training Seminar) taught by Trungpa at RMDC (Rocky Mt. Dharma Center, Livermore, Colorado) after the Naropa summer ended.

-- Anne Waldman (Santoli) 6/23/77

"Merwin and Dana had the nicest house at RMDC ... Before one of the last ITS Trungpa lectures, Merwin and Dana talked with Jeanine Hughes and I about seminary. Jeanine told Bill and Dana about the claustrophobia of being indoors with all those people ... Dana replied, 'But you can always go in your room and lock the door, right?'"

-- Tom Hast (Santoli) 7/5/77

Trungpa invites Merwin to seminary

"I think they [Merwin and Trungpa] had gotten friendly socially. Merwin had gotten very involved with Trungpa's weekly lectures and being a good student -- studying, reading the recommended material, taking notes." Merwin and Dana were sitting regularly.

"... so I really don't know what passed between them (Merwin and Trungpa). I would imagine it was some talk about poetry, some dharma talk, although at the time Merwin was really a beginning student although I think he was really applying himself and felt ready to jump in, and convinced Trungpa of that, you know, that he was ready for seminary. Just by his eagerness, curiosity, energy, attention, brightness, facility, all those things."

-- Anne Waldman (Santoli) 6/23/77

A lot of people said good things to Trungpa about Merwin that summer. Trungpa was seemingly more impressed with Merwin than any other of the poets -- he didn't invite any other of the poets to the seminary. Trungpa is usually skeptical of poets because of the way they work with ego.

-- Tom Hast (Santoli) 7/5/77

"Requirements [seminary] are more in the terms of understanding the three Marks of Existence. So it's not purely a question of how long have you been a member of Vajradhatu, but what kind of understanding you have ... Really, the fundamental basis is the sense of spiritual materialism. (Which is) 'Am I going to get something out of this?' . . . The basic criterion for going to the seminary, really, is understanding that that doesn't work, which is the same thing as understanding egolessness and impermanence."

No one quite knows if Merwin and Dana had that understanding. Rinpoche goes through the applications.

-- Jeremy Hayward (A. Trupp) 6/26/77

"Merwin very much wanted to go to seminary. During the time he was waiting to know he was very anxious, hoping it would work out.

"I don't think he knew what he was getting into (Merwin). And I really think he might have been much better off going to Tassajara and just sitting for a year. He had never done a retreat before he went to the seminary. He had never done a week retreat that I knew of. He was always with his woman, which you kind of put that aside when you go off on an individual retreat and so on. I really don't think he was really ready for the power of the teachings. As a Tantra student I have access to transcripts of that seminary -- it's very powerful. Very very powerful material.

"Trungpa is the one to say who's ready for it ... Right, he accepted Merwin. Well, maybe this is what's supposed to happen. Part of, ah, Merwin's journey."

-- Anne Waldman (Santoli) 6/23/77

On learning of his seminary acceptance, Merwin had to rearrange his plans for going back to France.

At a cliff house dinner party, a couple of days after Merwin's seminary acceptance, Dana's unusual nervousness gave Simone the impression that Dana was curious and fearing the seminary.

-- Simone Lazzeri (Santoli) 7/5/77

"If Dana had not been along, things might have been different for Merwin at the seminary ... she wasn't into anything at all except Bill. She was all excited about going to seminary but had absolutely no idea what was involved." Dana wasn't properly taken into account by Trungpa or Merwin in the seminary invitation.

-- Tom Hast (Santoli) 7/5/77

At the cliff house dinner a couple days after seminary acceptance Merwin said that Trungpa said something to him about giving up private space during the seminary acceptance conversation.

-- Simone Lazzeri (Santoli) 7/5/77

"The only person who is still a private individual in Germany is somebody who is asleep."

-- Robert Ley, from "The Origins of Totalitarianism, by Hannah Arendt

The Vajradhatu Seminary

The Seminary was held for three months, beginning around Saturday, September 1, 1975, and lasting till around Thanksgiving, November 27, 1975. It was held at a rented ski lodge (the Eldorado Lodge) in Snowmass, Colorado, located on Route 82, approximately 14 miles northwest of Aspen.

The layout of the lodge and grounds is important in understanding some of the events transpiring at the Seminary.

The ski lodge was located on a hill about three stone's throws from the meditation hall (a converted bar) which lay down the hill from the lodge. Living quarters, the swimming pool, and the room where the Halloween party was later held, all were located at the lodge.

Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, lived at a separate house during the seminary.

-- Interviews with Alan Marlowe 6/26/77 and Paul Shippee 6/30/77 (Sanders)

According to an interview with Alan Marlowe, couples without children were housed on the top floor, including William Merwin, and Dana Naone: the middle floors by singles: and the basement by people with children.

General Information about the Seminary

Ron Stubbert was the coordinator of the 1975 Seminary. In an interview with Al Santoli on July 6, 1977, he related the following information about it:

- Cost for seminary was $550.00.

- The sponsoring group was Vajradhatu.

- Seminarians came from all over the United States.

- There were 125-130 people in attendance, chosen from around 450-600 applications.

- The seminary involved a great amount of sitting and disciplined study, so that spouses, unless part of the seminary, were discouraged from visiting: although in certain situations outside visitors were allowed.


How were individuals selected for the Seminary?

In an interview with Joshua Zim conducted on June 20, 1977, Zim stated that the final choice of people to attend Seminary was Trungpa, Rinpoche's. The usual qualifications were having previously sat a dathun (30 day sitting period) and taking courses at Naropa or study groups through Karma Dzong. However, the selection process was very subjective on Rinpoche's part, and involved "ripeness" and Rinpoche's "cooking up chemistry" and creating a group process. Zim said persons who were otherwise qualified by study and length of association with Rinpoche might not be selected to attend the seminary because they didn't fit in with the group Rinpoche was creating.

-- Joshua Zim (Al Sobel) 6/20/77

"... Rinpoche's been working with students for six years, seven years now, and all of us are constantly understanding new complexities and new subtleties of what the student-teacher relationship is, which is extremely central to vajrayana Buddhism and those of us who are Buddhists, and just as of the one hundred and thirty-five (135) persons at Seminary, you'd probably get 135 different understandings and emotional reactions as to what happened ... "

-- William Mc Keever (La Haye) 6/27/77

"No one was allowed in the seminary ... where Rinpoche didn't feel he had enough feeling of what was going on."

-- Jack Niland (Santoli) 6/23/77

The Course of Study

At the seminary, approximately a month's time each was devoted to Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana study, with Vajrayana study reserved for the concluding month of the seminary.

The schedule involved two weeks of lectures and classes followed by two weeks "where you'd do nothing but sit."

-- Jack Niland (Santoli) 6/23/77

"The discipline was kept by keeping records publicly posted of how much each person was sitting ... attendance was taken six times a day ... very boot camp, in that sense, that there was no honor system going on here at all."

-- Jack Niland (Santoli) 6/23/77

"It's like joining the army. You know what's going on, and you know what you're gonna get, what's going on ... You had to sit so many times ... pass so many examinations in Hinayana, Mahayana ... very structured."

-- Jack Niland (Santoli) 6/23/77

The Vajradhatu Seminary and perceptions of Merwin on the part of witnesses and friends.

1. Merwin thought he could go to the Seminary and study Tibetan Buddhism in a scholarly way without committing himself to the dogma or initiation ... (He) thought he could simply live his own life there.

-- Interview with William Matthew's (R. Blair) 6/24/77

2. Merwin has a strong belief in book learning, and western intellectual study, which set him in immediate temperamental opposition to Trungpa's 'crazy wisdom' direct experience. (He) also had a strong belief in the complete privacy of individuals, and of not submitting to external controls. He once turned down a lucrative teaching job because of his refusal to pledge allegiance to the N.Y. Constitution.

-- Interview with William Matthews (R. Blair) 6/24/77

Merwin and chanting at the Seminary

Merwin gave off a clean, pure image -- no meat, no bloody chants. He refused to gekkho because he would not recite the violent chants.

-- Interview with Persis McMillen (Santoli) 7/1/77

"... but the kind of vajrayana chants that we were doing from the beginning, vitality chants that have a good deal of very wrathful images in them -- you know, cutting off the heads of people and leaving them to Dharmadhatu ... Tibetan vajrayana art ... based on compassionate anger, where if you can't subdue your ego then you call upon wisdom to cut the aorta of ego . .. but everyone knows by then that the violent images are totally the idea of enlightened anger, vajra anger ... not to totally destroy you, but to only destroy your problem ... And that Merwin, in his questions, was constantly talking about God as a reference point and very peace and lighty, you know. He would do the chants that were very peaceful chants ... but whenever it came to a chant that had anything ... any kind of deity holding a sword in his or her hand ... he would make sort of a big point of not doing it ... putting his chant down and not chanting." [/b]

-- Jack Niland (Santoli) 6/23/77

William Merwin describes seminary, and the violent chants, and a possible Trungpa grudge

Question 3 (whether Trungpa might have borne a grudge because of anything before the party.) Speculation on Trungpa's state of mind, I think, is unlikely to lead very far. Doubly so since much of the information that he had about those studying at the seminary apparently was carried to him by confidants, his guards in particular. But at our one private meeting with him before the party, we had spoken of our objections to the bloodthirsty nature of some of the chants, and more particularly to his increasingly frequent and heavy sneers at other religious and contemplative traditions. We said that the attitude he was expressing toward other traditions was making us less and less open to the idea of taking vows with him. Incidentally, we were only in a limited sense students of Trungpa's. We had read his books and seminary transcripts, listened to tapes, and attended his lectures during the summer, and before seminary I had had one short interview with him. But we were members of no group in his organizations, had taken no vows at all with him, had made no promises to obey him. On the few occasions at which we'd spoken with Trungpa socially, during the summer, and at the one meeting with him at seminary before the party (and even at the one after it) we seemed to be able to speak together directly, relatively openly, and with good feeling; when he referred to the same subjects later, in public, his tone and manner were in sharp contrast with the way he talked with us in private.

-- William S. Merwin, letter to Pope, Pickering, and Trupp 7/20/77

Concerning the so-called Vajra Guards

According to several interviews, the Vajrayana Security Guards had not been formally constituted at the time of the 1975 Seminary. There is some indication (interview with Alan Marlowe on 6/26/77) that events transpiring at the Seminary may have been a factor in the formal organizing of the guards. According to an interview with Persis McMillen (Santoli, 7/1/77) the idea of "guards" at the seminary bothered Bill Merwin and others a lot: that a built-in power structure can appear, on its surface, to be a totalitarian venture.

"People would volunteer ... There would always be a ... a guard is kind of a loaded name ... loaded word. People would volunteer to keep watch over Rinpoche's house, so nobody would break in: so he wouldn't be disturbed by any crazy people around, which there were a few .... Someone ... a snowman at Aspen ... been known to harass in the past ... 1975.

"People volunteered, not specifically for that -- it was more out of devotion, friendliness with Rinpoche, to take some kind of delight in being in his house, letting people in, letting people out, that kind of thing. Also ... when he entertained."

-- Interview with Richard Assally (Faigao) 5/27/77

Merwin and Dana at the Seminary

"If one of them was sick, the other one would stay home. If one of them had kitchen duty, the other one would just do it anyway. So, they would be together ... They were never apart, and when they were together ... they were always entwined in some absurd physical contortion ... it was actually a joke."

-- Interview with Barbara Meier (Faigao) 6/29/77

"The main point was: Seminary is the kind of experience where everything is shaken up. Bill's reaction was to make himself even more solid in terms of his relationship to things. Bill's (goal) was to grow ... to sort of drown himself in this thing ... but he was also holding back. They [he and Dana] had their meals in their room ... Up to the point of the party he was fairly comfortable ... but his participation was not that ... I mean of all people there he was probably the most out of it."

-- Interview with David Bolduc (McCabe) 6/24/77

"Merwin had his very definite lifestyle, which included, for instance (at Zendo-like dinner in shrine room), he would have Dana wait on him ... She would go up and get his food and kind of serve it to him, sort of very, you know, slave-like."

-- Interview with Jack Niland (Santoli) 6/23/77

The Pea Shooters

Allegations had been made that Trungpa Rinpoche had, on occasion, shot people with peas through a pea shooter, during the early parts of the seminary: and that at some point had issued peas, peashooters, and goggles to his guards.

According to an interview with Paul Shippee (Sanders, 6/30/77) on one occasion a guard zapped Alan Marlowe in the eye with a pea, and Marlowe punched the guard out.

The Talk on Discipline

"What happened was that oddly enough Rinpoche thought we were all being too good ... trying too hard, and that was very suspicious."

It was in the middle of Mahayana study, about halfway through the seminary, when there was a meeting called for the lecture hall down the hill from the hotel.

"Absolute total attendance was required ... roll call.... The hotel was emptied. Then we were told that Rinpoche decided to cancel his talk on discipline."

Rinpoche was playing "an enormous practical joke on us."

The guards were outside, with "a huge stockpile of snowballs and peashooters ... " which "bombarded us."

"Everyone had a sack of peas, and it was like blasting your way back into the hotel.... It really got carried away ... squirting fire hoses up and down the hotel. People were shoveling snow into the hotel, as we took over floor by floor.... It was just like being kids .... Well, unfortunately, it got a little serious and people got genuinely pissed off."

-- Jack Niland (Santoli) 6/23/77


The snowball fight, the Toyota packed with snow, and the inidents between Trungpa's guards and the seminarians.

Regarding the night of the snowball fight (Ron Barnstone, one of the guards, objected in interview [Blair, 6/24/77] to calling incident a "snowball fight"). Alan Marlowe said that everybody was required to attend a lecture in the hall (the converted bar) down the hill from the lodge. The lecture was scheduled for 4:30 in the afternoon. Whereas, though, Trungpa is often late for lectures, it became apparent after a wait on this occasion of about one and one-half hours, that he was not going to show up, so people began leaving. When they left the lecture hall, they noted that the hotel up the hill was manned by snowball-hurling guards, on the roof and on the balconies.

-- Alan Marlowe (Sanders) 6/26/77

There were also guards "armed" with pea shooters outside the lecture hall, and apparently they spat dried legumes at the exiting seminarians, through plastic tubes.

-- Interview with Paul Shippee (Sanders) 6/30/77

Sides were quickly drawn. "We moved up the hill. They were throwing snowballs from the roof, and from the balconies," said Alan Marlowe. Marlowe felt that Trungpa wanted them to respond to the attack with maximum efficiency, so he led a small group that attempted to break into Trungpa's room. (Trungpa apparently was in a room on the top floor of the lodge.) Marlowe relates that he managed to get his arm inside Rinpoche's door, but that his cohorts waxed hesitant at that critical moment, and that his arm was thereupon nearly broken.

-- Alan Marlowe (Sanders) 6/26/77

Rinpoche apparently offered hmself upon a balcony as a snowball target. "... Rinpoche was standing up there on the balcony like this general leading his troops. Rinpoche to me was setting himself up as a target, 'cause he stayed on that balcony ... ice balls ... and he let everyone throw snowballs at him ... Rinpoche undermining our tight little concept of discipline ...

-- Jack Niland (Santoli) 6/23/77

Marlowe related that they had Rinpoche trapped on the top floor: he mentioned turning off the elevator buttons, and that the only exits were a couple of staircases. The staircases were being patrolled by people with fire hoses, who had in mind spraying Trungpa and guards with water.

Trungpa finally left the building and managed to get into his car, a Toyota owned by a couple attending the seminary, (Marty and Jane Janowitz [phonetic). Marlowe 6/26/77), one who was his driver, and one who was cooking for him. The Toyota, with Trungpa inside, was spritzed, with the result that water froze all over it. They then rocked the car back and forth, as if to overturn it, but relented, and Trungpa was borne away.

-- Interview with Alan Marlowe (Sanders) 6/26/77

Marlowe said that Merwin was assisting with the fire hoses.

-- Interview with Alan Marlowe (Sanders) 6/26/77

Blocking Rinpoche's car

"... People immediately went and sort of blocked Rinpoche's car and then the guards came and took the cars that were blocking and pushed them into a gully...."

-- Jack Niland (Santoli) 6/23/77

Retributive Plans and Plots

"... In the room, we're all goofing around on the idea of Paris Underground, getting code words, and now and then we'd say, 'oh, he's a spy (for Trungpa)' -- and it was all like this WWII espionage trip: and to see Merwin totally behind this, who was so uptight before, and wouldn't chant the violent chants, was just concerned about replanting flowers and recycling garbage ... He had so many crazy ideas about revenge, and I said, you know, he's not quite the ivory tower poet he pretends to be ..."

One of the ideas Niland recalls Merwin had, was to manufacture nitrous oxide, apparently for the purpose of zapping Trungpa during a lecture. "Merwin," he recalled, "was trying to definitely organize people to go into town to get these chemicals .... I just said, oh forget it, I'm just gonna go downstairs and get drunk ... that's chemical warfare, man ... but he knew how to make laughing gas .... And he was talking about a lot of other very preposterous schemes, most of which I've forgotten -- the only one I can think of was a weather balloon or something."

-- Jack Niland (Santoli) 6/23/77

"... Merwin was in this room ... and he was planning these wild things . .. he said that he knew how to make some kind of laughing gas ... we could go to Denver ... combine certain chemicals to make laughing gas ... and then there was all this talk about really getting back at Rinpoche, going over and trashing out his house and everything...."

-- Jack Niland (Santoli) 6/23/77

The Trash-out of Trungpa's House and the delivery of the pizzas

On the night of the snowball fight, Marlowe was in the group that ordered various deliveries to be made to Trungpa's house. He ordered 300 dollars worth of champagne and expensive alcoholic beverages to be delivered. They also called the fire department, the gas and electric company, and various pizzerias and taxi services, ordering deliveries: the aim being a batch of deliveries and arrivals around the same time.

Marlowe confirmed that while Trungpa was trapped in the hotel, his house was entered, and his clothing was removed, and his liquor. When Trungpa's possessions were finally returned, and his quarters were being straightened, that's when all the pizzas, liquor, taxis, et al., began arriving.

-- Alan Marlowe (Sanders) 6/26/77

Other allegations have been made that Trungpa's automobile was totally filled with snow.

The peashooter/snowball trash-out of Trungpa's house confrontation took place approximately two weeks prior to the Halloween party, which is the subject of this examination. It felt like a couple of weeks (later) ... everything had completely calmed down: everyone had completely forgotten about it -- time went by (chuckle) and we're in the middle of a sitting period (just before Halloween)."

-- Jack Niland (Santoli) 6/23/77

"One day during a lecture someone asked Kalu Rinpoche why lamas aren't like Marpa anymore, beating their disciples, giving them horrendous tasks to fulfill. He said these days the disciples' faith isn't strong enough. They would think that the lama was bad, maybe call the police if the lama beat them. Then he laughed."

-- Darjeeling Journal article by Bryan Miller in LOKA 2.

Concerning "Night Porter"

"Jack (Niland) had seen it in N.Y..... and said, 'oh, we all have to go,' and he organized essentially just through his chatter in the lounge; he created this whole environment where everybody was anxious to go to it."

-- Barbara Meier (Bataan Faigao) 6/29/77

Barbara Meier was asked how many seminarians had attended the movie. She replied, "I would say -- couple of dozen. I don't think Rinpoche went to that. He went and saw "Chinatown.'"

-- The Halloween Party 10/31/75

"The set-up of the Halloween party took us all totally by surprise, because it was the middle of a sitting period. Halloween fell in the middle of a week's sitting, so we just assumed that we weren't going to have a Halloween party. So the word came out that Rinpoche ordered us to have a Halloween party; nobody was particularly into it."

-- Jack Niland (Santoli) 6/23/77

Ron Barnstone was asked whether Rinpoche called the Halloween party. Barnstone responded: "That's just bullshit." Rinpoche did not call the party .... It was a spontaneous Halloween party ... though some people had been preparing costumes ....

-- Ron Barnstone (R. Blair) 6/24/77

Some people went into town to see "Night Porter" on their own accord a few nights before the Halloween party. Some people made jokes about it after the Merwin incident occurred.

-- Jack Niland (Santoli) 6/27/77

"It came out that the end of this sitting period we were going to have Vajrayana (they had gone through Hinayana and Mahayana). So ... Rinpoche ... not only did he command to have a Halloween party, but he also commanded that every one attend and wear a costume. It was very definitely set up as a kind of pre-Vajrayana feast, because the idea of Halloween, with all these bizarre costumes, and putting on masks -- it's kind of like admitting your neurosis -- like, who you come as, Halloween, on our scene, has been ... adopted as our Tantric holiday: because there's so many contradictions in it: the idea of unmasking and putting on masks, and dressing up: it's kind of getting totally samsaric, in other words.

"Vajrayana has a good deal to do with totally connecting with Samsara. So, the word was out, and everyone was quite shocked that we were going to have a party, that Rinpoche announced he was going to attend, that there was going to be very formal -- that Rinpoche had something in mind: that he wanted to have kind of a 'courtlike' atmosphere, and that every(one) had to wear a costume.

"So there was a good deal of problem .. .. because no one could go to town to buy a costume, because we weren't allowed to go to town then, even though a bunch of people snuck off and bought wigs and funny things.

"And the other problem was how can we get ready for it, because we had to sit right up to five o'clock (the evening of the party)."

-- Jack Niland (Santoli) 6/23/77

For another version, Barbara Meier was asked by Bataan Faigao if Rinpoche announced there was to be a party. She replied, "No, there was nothing: there was no announcement. .... All I knew was the year before there'd been a Halloween party. And it was in the middle of Ninthum (sitting) too: it wasn't during the study part at all.... I did know that everybody was going into Aspen to get a costume, or making a costume. Everyone was working on one, everybody knows that everyone was doing it ... I had to clean the shrine room that night, so I arrived late, but I put my costume on first, and then went. And people were doing incredibly elaborate things: building boxes and things. Some people spent a lot of money, and a lot of time, and a lot of energy on their trips."

"It was just some sense of it being a tradition, and that we were totally claustrophobic: we'd been sitting all too long: we'd been all holed up in this place together much too long; we wanted a real blow-out. .. . I remember sitting in the lounge, and it was just like a fashion show: people would walk by around the balcony."

-- Interview with Barbara Meier (Bataan Faigao ) 6/29/77

"Everyone spent a lot of time on costumes. I spent a good deal of the day painting peaceful and wrathful deities (on two people's bodies) with their cocks as tongues."

-- Interview with artist Jack Niland (Santoli) 6/23/77

Merwin's recollections of parties at the seminary and of early events at the Halloween Party.

Questions 4, 5, 6, 8. Concerning the incident itself, Robert's got the sequence wrong -- and the nature of the liquid Trungpa threw in my face.

In the days after the Halloween happenings, we both wrote detailed accounts of what we remembered, and have them here.

We were at the seminary on an odd footing, in the first place. At a social meeting, in Boulder, during the previous summer, we'd said to Trungpa that we would like to continue to study Buddhism in the autumn, at his seminary, which we knew about through Allen and other friends. Trungpa had said that the fall list was already full, but that if openings occurred he'd put us in. Later we were informed that we'd been admitted, but were asked to say nothing about it until seminary itself, because we'd been put in over a long waiting list, at Trungpa's own decision. So we felt that we'd been accorded a privilege -- which came to seem an awkward one. One of the assumptions of the seminary was a much older involvement with Trungpa and his methods, and a far less questioning commitment to them, than we, in fact, had.

I don't know of other public incidents of sexual or other violence, apart from the snowball happening. There'd been two other parties before the one on Halloween -- official parties, anyway. It had become a tradition to have such parties, blow-outs, before the few days off, after a period of some days of sitting practice. We'd left the other two parties early. There were many rumors of sexual activities, all sorts of partner-changing, at the seminary. That, and drinking, were both said to be encouraged as part of the teaching, though I have to say that Trungpa had never personally spoken to us on the subject. Dana never drinks: I drink along with friends I'm happy to be with, but not much. At the parties we danced together and went home together -- real squares. But not unique, there: other couples at the seminary did the same.

The Halloween party had been a topic for some weeks beforehand including doubts as to whether there would be an official party at all or not. Big deal, anyway. There had also been a build-up about the heaviness of the Tantric teachings that were about to descend on us through the medium of Trungpa, and blow all our minds.

I had been in bed for several days before the party with an allergy attack, but got up to go to it, for a while, at least. Semi-dark ski-lodge dining room: a unit of recent boom-resort architecture, by then much the worse for two months of seminary. We danced to records for an hour or so: stayed together despite several attempts, one of them pretty drunk, to separate us. Trungpa arrived around 10:30, looking baleful. Butch haircut. Flanked by guards -- fortunately, because he was very drunk, and they caught him twice, when he fell. He whispered with the guards. Something was said to be brewing: one of the secrets he'd been preparing. A few minutes later a woman student in her sixties was borne in, naked, held high by guards. She let them carry her around the room, then struggled to be let down. Finally she was released. and ran out. Trungpa giggled, did a strip tease, was carried around, in turn. Dressed again.

-- Wm. Merwin, letter to Pope, Trupp, and Pickering, 7/20/77
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