There is a short sentence in the suttas where the Buddha said lay people should not involve themselves in the weapons business, but it seems this is not as serious as the five precepts.

The question is, how much is considered weapons business? For example, is getting involving in the armor business considered weapon business? What about selling weapons designs, technologies, intellectual property, etc., but not selling weapons themselves?

What if someone is only skilled in weapons/war and cannot make a living off of other professions?

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    The first precept against killing is also extended to not allowing or enabling others to kill. The Right Livelihood component of the Noble Eightfold Path says not to work in a job that violates the precepts. I think that's a pretty clear answer. No work in the weapons business or the killing business.
    – user50
    Commented Jun 25, 2014 at 16:21
  • I would argue against your extrapolation of the first precept, unless we are from different traditions, as I know the Mahayana does add more to this first precept. In the Pali there is nothing in the first precept that has to do with anyone ELSE performing an action, you are not responsible for the actions of others. Now to the OP as far as your profession, do your best in life to perform skillful deeds that are beneficial to yourself and others, both in work and in general. If you continue to practice you may find yourself having a desire to learn how to make a living in some other way. Commented Jun 25, 2014 at 17:24
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    continued: Whatever situation you find yourself in life you can work to make things better. As far as the intricacies of what exactly counts as "business in weapons", you will most likely get a wide variety of answers.. but trust your own intuition and you'll have your own answer. Commented Jun 25, 2014 at 17:26

6 Answers 6


First of all, the passage you mention (AN 5.177):

"Monks, a lay follower should not engage in five types of business. Which five? Business in weapons, business in human beings, business in meat, business in intoxicants, and business in poison.

"These are the five types of business that a lay follower should not engage in."


The tika provides a bit of clarity on this:

satthavaṇijjā ti āvudhabhaṇḍaṃ katvā vā kāretvā vā kataṃ vā paṭilabhitvā tassa vikkayo.

"Business in weapons" means, having made instruments used as weapons, or having had them made, or having obtained them already made, the selling of those [instruments].

So, again it appears to be limited to the activities of a merchant. On the other hand, the entire sutta only describes the activities of a merchant (vanijja), so it doesn't actually make allowance for other ways of making money off of weapons manufacture and/or war. It is my guess that this is to be used as a guide on which to judge the morality of more indirect forms of martial employment (similar to manufacturing poison, etc.).

I don't think one should simply draw the line at commerce and say that any other war-based employment is okay. Instead we should ask what is wrong with selling weapons and apply the same principle to other similar activities.

One interesting exemption seems to be related to transportation and care of weapons. The commentary to Dhp 124 tells a story of a woman who cleaned and prepared weapons for her husband to catch and kill animals. She was a sotapanna and the Buddha said she was blameless:

The monks began to discuss the matter, saying, “So Kukkuṭamitta has a wife, and when she was a mere girl she obtained the Fruit of Conversion; yet she married this hunter and by him had seven sons. Furthermore, during all this time, whenever her husband said to her, ‘Bring me my bow, bring me my arrows, bring me my hunting-knife, bring me my net,’ she obeyed him and gave him what he asked for. And her husband, taking what she had given him, went and took life. Is it possible that those who have obtained the Fruit of Conversion take life?” Just then the Teacher approached and asked, “Monks, what is it that you are sitting here now talking about?” When they told him, he said, “Monks, of course those that have obtained the Fruit of Conversion do not take life. Kukkuṭamitta’s wife did what she did because she was actuated by the thought, ‘I will obey the commands of my husband.’ It never occurred to her to think, ‘He will take what I give him and go hence and take life.’ If a man’s hand be free from wounds, even though he take poison into his hand, yet the poison will not harm him. Precisely so, a man who harbors no thoughts of wrong and who commits no evil, may take down bows and other similar objects and present them to another, and yet be guiltless of sin.” So saying, he joined the connection, and preaching the Law, pronounced the following Stanza,

124. If in his hand there be no wound, A man may carry poison in his hand. Poison cannot harm him who is free from wounds. No evil befalls him who does no evil.

I think it's easy to see how this is different from actually helping to create weapons, but it does show that, as always, the mind is most important.

As to your final question, this is never a very good defence; it's like a butcher saying he has to kill because he has no other way to make money. While that might mitigate the evil, it doesn't make it categorically different from any other act of murder.

There is another story in the Jataka (JatA 31) that exemplifies the Buddhist view on this sort of situation. When Magha was reborn as Sakka, king of the angels of the thirty-three, three of his wives were also born in heaven due to their meritorious deeds. His fourth wife was born as a crane, and Sakka admonished her to keep the five precepts, as follows:

But Highborn, having performed no act of merit, was reborn as a crane in a grotto in the forest.

"There's no sign of Highborn," said Sakka to himself; "I wonder where she has been reborn." And as he considered the matter, he discovered her whereabouts. So he paid her a visit, and bringing her back with him to heaven shewed her the delightful city of the Devas, the Hall of Goodness, Thoughtful's Creeper-Grove, and the Tank called Joy. "These three," said Sakka, "have been reborn as my handmaidens by reason of the good works they did; but you, having done no good work, have been reborn in the brute creation. Henceforth keep the Commandments." And having exhorted her thus, and confirmed her in the Five Commandments, he took her back and let her go free. And thenceforth she did keep the Commandments.

A short time afterwards, being curious to know whether she really was able to keep the Commandments, Sakka went and lay down before her in the shape of a fish. Thinking the fish was dead, the crane seized it by the head. The fish wagged its tail. "Why, I do believe it's alive," said the crane, and let the fish go. "Very good, very good," said Sakka; "you will be able to keep the Commandments." And so saying he went away.

Dying as a crane, Highborn was reborn into the family of a potter in Benares. Wondering where she had got to, and at last discovering her whereabouts, Sakka, disguised as an old man, filled a cart with cucumbers of solid gold and sat in the middle of the village, crying, "Buy my cucumbers! buy my cucumbers!" Folk came to him and asked for them. "I only part with them to such as keep the Commandments," said he, "do you keep them?" "We don't know what you mean by your 'Commandments'; sell us the cucumbers." "No; I don't want money for my cucumbers. I give them away,--but only to those that keep the Commandments." "Who is this wag?" said the folk as they turned away. Hearing of this, Highborn thought to herself that the cucumbers must have been brought for her, and accordingly went and asked for some. "Do you keep the Commandments, madam?" said he. "Yes, I do," was the reply. "It was for you alone that I brought these here," said he, and leaving cucumbers, cart and all at her door he departed.

Continuing all her life long to keep the Commandments, Highborn after her death was reborn the daughter of the Asura king Vepacittiya, and for her goodness was rewarded with the gift of great beauty. When she grew up, her father mustered the Asuras together to give his daughter her pick of them for a husband. And Sakka, who had searched and found out her whereabouts, donned the shape of an Asura, and came down, saying to himself, "If Highborn chooses a husband really after her own heart, I shall be he."

Highborn was arrayed and brought forth to the place of assembly, where she was bidden to select a husband after her own heart. Looking round and observing Sakka, she was moved by her love for him in a bygone existence to choose him for her husband. Sakka carried her off to the city of the devas and made her the chief of twenty-five millions of dancing-girls. And when his term of life ended, he passed away to fare according to his deserts.

A true follower of the Buddha would not kill to save their own life.

  • Banthe, so is right livelihood in the kind of work you do or in kind of industry you work for? or both? For instance: A financial advisor for a brewer, liquor producer or a tobacco company, how would you see it?
    – konrad01
    Commented Aug 28, 2014 at 17:44

Under the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, the first precept reads

Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow to cultivate compassion and learn ways to protect the lives of all sentient beings. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life.

The Right Livelihood component of the Noble Eightfold Path says not to work in a job that violates the precepts. I think that's a pretty clear answer. No work in the weapons business or the killing business.


I can state several Suttas and Jatakas which are nonpacifist (Taccha Sukara Jataka, Dipi Jataka).

Buddha clearly also states that farming leads to the death and killing of millions of sentient beings (see Lakkhana Miga Jataka where deer are killed to protect crops), yet I always see them not mentioning the real contradiction.

So the human situation is quite different than a crane's in Kulavaka Jataka. Human societies are more complex. Humans are "the precious birth". Here humans are allowed to develop ANY skill under close watch of the government.

A Buddhist can be a soldier, butcher, farmer as long as he is a representitive of the government. You will not be held karmically liable since you are a mere instrument as long as you do your job honestly and well. If you have corrupt rulers, you have a duty to speak up.

The Vanijja Sutta is not for the average lay person. The Vyagpajja Sutta is addressed directly to lay people and it states lay people should learn to shoot, hmmm, how can I learn to shoot if there's no one to sell me weapons? So Vanijja Sutta is strangely addressed to a monk NOT lay people - this is meant as advice for rulers. You obviously want governements to keep a close eye on these industries. Evidence of this is found in Jatakas such as Varuni Dusaka Jataka where the tavern is under close watch of the governor.

Simply stated, the Buddhist rulers (ideal ruler is Buddhist King Pasenadi who went to war, had slaughterhouses, farming, etc.) are authorized to do whatever it takes for a good functioning government this includes farming, providing blameless fish and meat for the entire population, hiring and training soldiers, funding weapons, being watchful of taverns and bars, etc. rulers will be judged in their skillfulness that these tasks were accomplished and how much human skill they developed. For slaughterhouses, Buddha states several times they should close slaughterhouses on new and full moon days (Mahaummaga Jataka, Mahasutosoma Jataka, Vinaya story of Suppeya who could not find meat since the slaughterhouse of King Passenadi (a good Buddhist King) was closed for the Uposaths. So this is the set up for lay Buddhists.

Monks and nuns can't hurt a fly though. They are our merit producers and we too later can become monks and nuns. So this is how Buddhists lay people and monastics work together.


These questions require deep thought about the wider implications. At first blush armor seems like a good thing, but while it is a defense against weapons it can also make a soldier/weapon stronger and therefore an even more efficient killer.

Of course someone can use a hammer to kill, and I seriously doubt the maker of the hammer is responsible.


Let's take some of the natural forms as an example:

A tree is not a weapon.

Metals are not.

A horse feeds on grass, loves to run and stay within the herd.

The black powder burns when in contact with heat and fire.

The dolphin swims.

A sense arises, an attachment forms, the desire thus forms, the intention / purpose (thought) merges.

A tree can then be chopped down and the wood is attached to the barrel of a rifle.

The metals can be refined and mixed and processed and become the case the holds the gun power in a bullet.

The horse is "trained" / forced to take the soldier to the front, who stabs the enemy.

The black powder can be either used as entertainment - firework - or become the force the drives a bullet in weapons.

The dolphin is attached bombs and is trained to swim towards the bottom of a ship and then the bomb It carries is triggered to explode (because It has been conditioned to do so, so that It will receive food as reward).

So, this is what knowledge between the one we are so used to and the one mentioned in Buddhism:

Knowledge means, as we are so conditioned / taught since birth, to "create" and "invent". By - observing nature and beings.

The knowledge, on the other hand, mentioned in Buddhism, means otherwise:

The knowledge we gain by "un-shelling" ourselves and then being able to see things and beings around the way they are.

Then: through practice and patience, we foster our compassion over time, with which we benefit beings and things without the "self" and by doing so, the compassion, received by the one who benefits from you, can be further shared and spread. A cycle that wheels through compassion, hopefully, indefinitely onward.

Back to someone who is skilled in weapons/war etc:

There is a saying:

"The very instant when one decides to drop the butcher knife, is the instant he can become to be a Buddha"

So it is not that his skills are "bad". It is the "sense" (intention) and creates the cause (weapons and war).

How about applying his "war" skill in learning chess or becoming a farmer, who knows exactly when famine comes and how to prepare before one occurs, so that beings would have enough to eat. And he is so skilled in planning (formation / tactics) that he would be able to foresee weather and move herds to an area where there is enough water and grass to feed on?


How about applying his skills - being safe, being able to know exactly the "tools" he has in his hand how they function and how they might fail in certain situation - to let's say simple house tools, the equipments that can alleviate the hard work of some animals (such as cow farming, etc), etc etc?

As we could see here, all these skills can take another form that benefits others and other beings.

But would one make as much? But as far as cultivating compassion goes, one can "earn" so much that the compassion he invests in other beings and others with his skills would never depreciate - it keeps on and on. It benefits not just himself.

And going back to how much "involved" would he be counted as "not involved":

If this is some thing to think of, I think he knows the answer already. But it is good he does so, because he shows that his does have compassion and he is just standing in a crossroad.

I hope he makes the choice that could turn his marvelous skills into something that benefits beings and others and alleviate their sufferings.


The Boddhisattva vows, which were both a monastic and lay code had a prohibition on keeping weapons:

"10. On Storing Deadly Weapons A disciple of the Buddha should not store weapons such as knives, clubs, bows, arrows, spears, axes or any other weapons, nor may he keep nets, traps or any such devices used in destroying life. (53)

As a disciple of the Buddha, he must not even avenge the death of his parents -- let alone kill sentient beings! (54) He should not store any weapons or devices that can be used to kill sentient beings. If he deliberately does so, he commits a secondary offense."

ref: http://www.ic.sunysb.edu/Clubs/buddhism/bns/bnstext.htm

Other specific Buddhist leaders at time to time have been coopted by their governments to say things in favor of the war of the moment which would sometimes be fought by lay Buddhists. Despite this, it's hard to not say that Buddhism has a huge pacifist streak.

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