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If someone is attacking you to kill you should you defend yourself? Would it be ethical to kill an intruder coming into your home? If not, how did the bushido samauri warriors justify it? We're they wrong?

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    When the Dalai Lama was fleeing Tibet, he did so with a rifle on his shoulder. Just thought I would throw that out there. – Henry F Jul 13 '14 at 19:13
  • Re: Samurai-- How the Japanese (and Chinese?) warrior monks justified their actions is more interesting. The monks took vows, the Samurai didn't. I just checked, the Bushido as a moral code doesn't include non-killing or ahimsa. It would make it a peculiar moral code for warriors if it did. – MatthewMartin Jul 14 '14 at 4:10
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    @John According to his biography, the rifle was not to shoot people, but to disguise himself as a soldier. – ChrisW Feb 9 '15 at 9:29
  • If Buddhist warfare can be justified, there should be no problems with justification of killing in self-defence. – michau Feb 19 '15 at 11:57
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    The Buddha requested this a basic principle, not to harm life. I really do not understand why people who dislike this simple principle are still wanting to call themselves "buddhist". Does it give money? Reputation? Moreover, even if one does not really understand the reason for the radicality of this precept: we should take it as a gift. Because it means, by keeping this principle any buddhist signals you need not have fear when you hear his/her feet in the night, forest, in the war (remember only the war in vietnam as reported by Chan Khong): there are some, who do not want kill you... – Gottfried Helms Oct 17 '15 at 6:45

14 Answers 14

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If someone is attacking you to kill you should you defend yourself? ...

I think yes, you may. Our religion has never stopped us from doing that.

Would it be ethical to kill an intruder coming into your home?

you may stop an intruder forcefully. Our religion has never stopped us from doing that.

But for me, being Buddhist, the answer will not end there. Both (two above lines) questions are based on teaching of Ahimsa (not to injure). If it is so then it is important to know how we interpret this teaching. Following are some of the points we can consider-

  1. Buddhism is a religion of principles and not rules. (yes there are rules as code of conduct, but it is not religion of rules). It teaches you basic principles and you are expected to make the decision on basis of that according to the context.
  2. Buddhism is religion with "Metta" (unconditional love). You even are expected to love your enemy. But you are not prohibited from defending yourself.
  3. Ahimsa in Buddhism is not the same as it is in Jainism.

These are the points in short based on which I said you can physically defend and you are not stopped by Buddhism from doing so. I don't want to say that you should (or even you can) kill. But you may defend. Dr. Ambedkar's discussion on Ahimsa is very enlightening in this regard. You can find it here -The Buddha and His Dhamma, Book 4, Part II, Section 3. It is a good read and the best part is it covers the whole debate in two pages. I also found this article interesting discussing the same point.

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    So, what's the difference between Ahimsa in Jainism & Buddhism? – Gokul NC Nov 24 '15 at 5:06
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    @GokulNC, Though its nice question, I am not answering it here. It will start another discussion. In fact, probably it will be great if you start another discussion with new question. For now I can say only one thing - "In general, the precept against killing living beings in Buddhism centers around intent, whereas, the Jains take it further and avoid all possible killing." This is one of the things which we may say represents the difference. This all is according to my limited understanding. Please correct me if needed! – sangharsh Nov 24 '15 at 9:50
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Yes. Buddhists can and sometimes even should defend themselves and people around them. However, consider the following:

  • If you do it out of anger, you will suffer from the results of this anger. The key is to use violence without any negative feelings but out of active compassion (see the next point)

  • If you are aware that the attacker wants to kill not only you but also 10 of your companions, less harm will be done if you kill him out of compassion towards your companions rather than if the attacker kills 11 people out of anger and ignorance. You can also feel compassion to this attacker - imagine how much would he have to suffer if he indeed commits those crimes. If we can stop him by defending ourselves, we definitely should do it.

  • If you see someone about to commit one of 5 deadly sins - you should definitely stop them as the results of such actions will be serious, immediate and long-lasting.

  • If you are a specialist doctor who can save lots of lives - it is of great benefit that your life is protected. You should defend yourself for the sake of your patients who rely on your expertise.

Those are the just the guidlines for those who took Bodhisattva Vow. In general, one is trying not to think about one's own good, but try to perceive every situation in a wider perspective. One should always ask oneself - which action will benefit the more people for the longest possible time? Compassion and unconditional love to others is the key. Imagine a mother defending her only child - she loves the child and she really doesn't mind spoiling her own Karma - the only thing she wants is the safety and well-being of her beloved child. She will resort to violence if this is the only way to protect the child. Those who took Bodhisattva Vow aspire to develop such attitude towards all the sentient beings.

  • I agree, but the idea of killing to save a life is... Perplexing. Almost as much so as the fact that living things must eat other living things. Poor design, I say. – user2341 Mar 24 '17 at 21:53
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I think there are two question here with different answers

1. Should a Buddhist defend themselves physically

I would argue not. I believe that Buddhist teaches radical pacifism. The first precept explicitly states

I undertake the training rule to abstain from killing.

Which points to non-violence. The Kakacupama Sutta: The Parable of the Saw in the Pali Canon goes further

Monks, even if bandits were to savagely sever you, limb by limb, with a double-handled saw, even then, whoever of you harbors ill will at heart would not be upholding my Teaching. Monks, even in such a situation you should train yourselves thus: 'Neither shall our minds be affected by this, nor for this matter shall we give vent to evil words [...]

So even if you are being rendered limb from limb, one should still not practice violence. In a more modern day setting, I read of Tibetan monks held and tortured by Chinese officials whose greatest concern was that they would lose the capacity for compassion towards their tormentors. The compassion response is still possible even under such extreme circumstances.

2. Can Buddhism be ever used to justify violence

Yes unfortunately it can. To give an example the Tibetan Kalachakra Tantra has got anti-Islamic passages in it which can be used as a justification for violence

The Chakravartin shall come out at the end of the age, from the city the gods fashioned on Mount Kailasa. He shall smite the barbarians in battle with his own four-division army, on the entire surface of the earth.

Also some Japanese Zen Buddhists were supportive of the second world war which is closest to your samurai point. This article gives more detail on this point which I won't copy through here. One quote from Harada Daiun Sogaku is illustrative

[If ordered to] march: tramp, tramp, or shoot: bang, bang. This is the manifestation of the highest Wisdom [of Enlightenment]. The unity of Zen and war of which I speak extends to the farthest reaches of the holy war [now under way]

So just to summarise the answer, Buddhism is vast, so it's unsurprising that some group, determined enough, can dig out something to justify violence. However the overwhelming majority of the texts and practices say precisely the opposite.

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    I think you can try to stop people from sawing your limbs off and still not harbor ill-will towards them. After all, if they saw your limbs off they're committing a terrible crime, so it's in their best interests to try to stop them. – DaaaahWhoosh Jun 21 '16 at 18:53
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In Buddhism the idea is preserving and guarding the mind is more important then preserving the body because the body is viewed as impermanent therefor one should not cling to it. If one take up arms in defense of the body there by killing or harming another being, then the mind becomes impure and one can not reach enlightenment.

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    Mind is also viewed as impermanent. Even more so than the body. But unlike the mind, whatever happens to your body cannot directly affect your future lives. – Sankha Kulathantille Jul 13 '14 at 16:18
  • Yes very true. Well said! – user473 Jul 17 '14 at 0:04
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A Theravada Buddhist monk is forbidden to attack back, i.e., kill in self-defense. If a monk kills a human being for any reason, he is defeated & is no longer a monk. To quote:

Intentionally bringing about the untimely death of a human being, even if it is still a foetus, is [an offence of Defeat.] (Summary Paar. 3; BMC p.78)

The Bhikkhus' Rules

However, a Buddhist layperson can kill in self-defence or to mercifully protect family & society since the training rule for laypeople is about killing with violence rather than killing in self-defence. About killing, the scriptures state:

And how is one made impure... by bodily action? There is the case where a certain person takes life, is a hunter, bloody-handed, devoted to killing & slaying, showing no mercy to living beings.

AN 10.176

The Buddhist scriptures teach: "kamma is intention" therefore the result (vipaka) of an action (kamma) will be determined by the intention.

Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech & intellect.

AN 6.63

For example, most soldiers & people believe WW2 was "the good war" therefore Allied soldiers adversely affected psychologically by their participation in WW2 were probably less than soldiers adversely affected psychologically by WW1, the Vietnam War or the Iraq War because many soldiers eventually realised these 3 wars had little if any moral justification.

This is why government & media propaganda is such an important weapon of war, such as with WW2 or the 9/11 propaganda, which makes many Buddhists, including monks, direct or indirect supporters of the post 9/11 wars, which are actually unrelated to 9/11, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Iran, etc. Anti-Islam propaganda makes most people uncaring towards & ignore these unjustified wars against Islamic societies.

Recently, the media was saturated with stories about a chemical-attack in Syria, which resulted in many people supporting a war against Syria (even though there was no evidence supporting these unlikely & absurd allegations). Thus not only intention but also truth is aspect of kamma & result.

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In ancient China, areas were just plain dangerous to be on account of banditry and so on. This fact even showed up in the Brahma Net Sutra and the Upasaka Precepts.

37th minor precept: When practicing the austerities, the Buddhist disciple should avoid dangerous areas, unstable kingdoms, countries ruled by evil kings, precipitous terrains, remote wildernesses, regions inhabited by bandits, thieves, or lions, tigers, wolves, poisonous snakes, or areas subject to hurricanes, floods and fires. The disciple should avoid all such dangerous areas when practicing the austerities and also when observing the summer retreat. Otherwise, he commits a secondary offense. ref: http://www.purifymind.com/BrahmaNetSutra.htm

So the first part of the rule was to avoid getting into situation that called for defense.

Shoot, I have to unwrite what I just wrote-- as it turns out, the origins of the Shaolin (Chan) monks and Kung Fu are sort of lost to time. We don't really know if Buddhist martial arts came about because a monastery was a big institution and estate that eventually sprouted warrior monks, like ones in Japan did, or if monks needed to defend themselves in a way that was consistent with their values, i.e. unarmed combat and doing as little damage as possible to your enemy. Or maybe the martial arts were a side effect of austere exercises, like standing in horse stance for hours, which created very strong legs and made it literally hard to push monks around.

Anyhow, if one is looking for inspiration for how to defend oneself while remaining consistent with your value system-- then I think Judo and Aikido seem to be the best example of applying the Buddhist ideal of ahimsa to self defense (although I'm not sure that they are explicitly related to Buddhism anymore)

Oh this question has a part 2-- How do lay Buddhist soldiers justify their actions? Well it's easier than the monastic soldiers (they did exist!)-- the monastics took vows, the lay Buddhist soldiers did not**. Lay Buddhist soldiers were more likely practice a devotional Buddhism, where you seek this and after worldly support from celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. In that system, if you are good enough, you are reborn in a Pureland where you don't have to made difficult decisions about if you should let a bandit walk all over you, if you should let the local Shogun draft you into an unfair and unjust battle, or other quandaries. Once one is in a Pure Land, you can practice more conventional morality and reach enlightenment.

Anyhow, even in modern times in things like an informal book club, you quickly learn that often times people are not participating in Buddhism because they want to follow the precepts-- they are there for other reasons, family tradition, for the benefits of meditation, and so on. So there isn't a strong cause to call hypocrisy if they on lay Buddhists who happen to work as Samurai. (Warrior monks is a different story altogether)

** Even when lay followers take the 5 precepts, they aren't expected to follow them with the rigor that monastics are expected to as the rules on sex make clear-- no sex at all for monks, no impropriety for lay followers. So I imagine a solider shouldn't kill in a socially unacceptable manner, while a monk is trying not to kill anything, or at least not be involved in socially unacceptable killing.

  • What do you mean with 'explicitly related to Buddhism anymore'? AFAIK there never was a relationship other than the general influence Buddhism has had on all people in Japan. I must admit that the similarity between several principles in Aikido and Buddhism are striking, but Aikido was founded by Morihei Ueshiba who was actually a follower of Ōmoto-kyō, which originates from Shinto. – THelper Jul 14 '14 at 9:00
  • The link between kung fu and Chan Buddhism is clear. The influence of Buddhism on kung fu is reasonably clear, but my internet search isn't going to prove it for me since the origins and motivation of Kung Fu are in the hazy past. Judo/Akido are from a Buddhist country and seem concerned with not hurting the person you are attacking-- this is a very Buddhist theme, I have no idea if it was a conscious infusion of Buddhist ideas or maybe the originators where just very nice guys. Not really my area of expertise. – MatthewMartin Jul 14 '14 at 12:33
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Questions that appeal to extremes aren't really sensical for Buddhists. The answer to your first question is: it depends. This is because as a Buddhist, you should understand that absolutes aren't tenable and that you should walk the tightrope in the middle beyond extremes.

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Yes. Self-defense is OK.

Protection of arahats (DN 16):

"What have you heard, Ananda: do the Vajjis duly protect and guard the arahats, so that those who have not come to the realm yet might do so, and those who have already come might live there in peace?"

"I have heard, Lord, that they do."

"So long, Ananda, as this is the case, the growth of the Vajjis is to be expected, not their decline." - DN 16

I'm not sure whether Buddha, The Gospel (Paul Carus, 1894) is based on canonical texts:

Simha continued: "I am a soldier, O Blessed One, and am appointed by the king to enforce his laws and to wage his wars. Does the Tathagata who teaches kindness without end and compassion with all sufferers, permit the punishment of the criminal? and further, does the Tathagata declare that it is wrong to go to war for the protection of our homes, our wives, our children, and our property? Does the Tathagata teach the doctrine of a complete self-surrender, so that I should suffer the evil-doer to do what he pleases and yield submissively to him who threatens to take by violence what is my own? Does the Tathagata maintain that all strife, including such warfare as is waged for a righteous cause should be forbidden?"

The Buddha replied: "He who deserves punishment must be punished, and he who is worthy of favor must be favored. Yet at the same time he teaches to do no injury to any living being but to be full of love and kindness. These injunctions are not contradictory, for whosoever must be punished for the crimes which he has committed, suffers his injury not through the ill-will of the judge but on account of his evildoing. His own acts have brought upon him the injury that the executer of the law inflicts. When a magistrate punishes, let him not harbor hatred in his breast, yet a murderer, when put to death, should consider that this is the fruit of his own act. As soon as he will understand that the punishment will purify his soul, he will no longer lament his fate but rejoice at it."

The Blessed One continued: "The Tathagata teaches that all warfare in which man tries to slay his brother is lamentable, but he does not teach that those who go to war in a righteous cause after having exhausted all means to preserve the peace are blameworthy. He must be blamed who is the cause of war. The Tathagata teaches a complete surrender of self, but he does not teach a surrender of anything to those powers that are evil, be they men or gods or the elements of nature. Struggle must be, for all life is a struggle of some kind. But he that struggles should look to it lest he struggle in the interest of self against truth and righteousness. - Buddha, The Gospel 52

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There are Zen stories in which the master will neither kill someone to defend himself (The Gates of Paradise), nor kill someone to defend his home (The Moon Cannot Be Stolen and The Thief Who Became a Disciple).

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I beleive kalama sutta makes it clear that people don't have to follow any thing blindly

It not advised to folllow buddhist percepts blindly ,people have to think what action is better for common good and do it. If killing a terrorist can save 100 people stuck in a particular situation , I think that action is better for common good. ...

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I think the story related to Angulimaan(later known as monk Ahinsak) could clear this doubt.

Buddha did not attacked him,neither defended himself.

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You could physically prevent the attacker from killing you, which would be a compassionate act since if they did kill you it would torment them. If in the act of trying to prevent the catastrophe they were to accidentally die, it would be unpleasant (for everyone) but not unwholesome.

Their karma would be light(attempt to cause harm) and you only accidentally killed them. If, however, someone sees an intruder in their home and as a result becomes frightened. And due to being scared decides to kill the intruder (from malice), the result would be quite terrible for everyone. Since if they are successful, torture ensues for them. And if you are successful, torture ensues for you instead.

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Interesting thread. One person wrote the following:

"In Buddhism the idea is preserving and guarding the mind is more important then preserving the body because the body is viewed as impermanent therefor one should not cling to it. If one take up arms in defense of the body there by killing or harming another being, then the mind becomes impure and one can not reach enlightenment."

I wholeheartedly disagree with statement. First of all, there are thousands of Buddhists that have been to war. The assumption here is that none of them can attain enlightenment or that it is at some distant time. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have practiced Nichiren Buddhism for over 40 years and enlightenment can and is attainable in the here and now.

The second part of the statement says basically that the mind and body are separate. This is also not true. They are inseparable. I see this person may not have a clear understanding of true Buddhism.

On the subject of killing in self defense, I would have the agree with many others. The word I like to use here is "intent". Cause and effect is definitely based on this word. One's thoughts, words, and actions all create cause and their effects on our lives. However, the intent at which time these causes were created definitely impacts the severity, timing, and nature of the effects.

Those are just thoughts from someone that practices the Lotus Sutra. I truly believe the others are provisional. The Buddha spent 42 years of his life writing the sutras, and the last 8 writing just one...the Lotus Sutra. I think it is paramount importance to understand and practice it.

Thank you, everyone!

  • Hello Ken and welcome to the Buddhism Q&A! We are trying to stay away from polemics and prefer to keep this site true to its intended Q&A format. Do you mind if I ask you to please edit your answer (which is very thoughtful nevertheless) to stand on its own? – Andrei Volkov Oct 15 '15 at 20:48
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    The statement that the Buddha spent the last eight years of his life writing the Lotus Sutra is not historically factual. – user4970 Nov 18 '16 at 15:07
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It is clear from the suttas that the Buddha advocated total pacifism for monastics, much as Yeshua did. The relevant passage has already been quoted by a previous respondent. However, this precept is not necessarily applicable to householders. I cannot imagine that the Buddha actually advocated allowing bandits to overrun society, which is what would happen if the First Precept were taken literally and applied universally by householders. The Chinese Shaolin monastics developed the discipline of martial arts in the context of persistent attacks on monastics and the monasteries to use the energy of the attacker to repel them without injuring or killing them. In the context of the First Precept, not to harm or kill others, intention is the essential thing in Buddhism as noted above. An important point is that one's body is a colony of living, sentient beings - i.e., about 37 trillion human cells and an equal number of microbiota (see Wikipedia, Human microbiota). Buddhism does not distinguish between quality of life and demands that all life be respected. Therefore, to actively allow an attacker to injure one's body also violates the First Precept. This is the reason for the prohibition of suicide. It follows from the foregoing that one not only has a right to defend oneself, it is one's duty to do so based on the First Precept. Where the question becomes tricky is what to do if repelling an attacker is not sufficient and one faces actual death or injury if one does not respond in kind. Does one have the right to kill or injure the body of another living being if it is certain that that living being would otherwise kill or injure one's own body? Can one kill or injure another living being without having the will or intention to kill or injure them? I'd love to see a primary canonical text that addresses this specific point, but have not seen such as yet. With respect to a sub-question of the question being asked, it would definitely not be ok to kill or even injure an intruder into one's home based on the foregoing.

Later today I happened to come across the following in Peter Harvey, Introduction to Buddhism: "Asanga's Bodhisattva-bhumi ... says that an (advanced) Bodhisattva may kill a person about to kill many people - so that he saves them and the assailant avoids the evil karma of killing - provided that this is done out of genuine compassion, and with a willingness to suffer the karmic consequences of killing; however, if this is sincere, such consequences will be lighter than normal. He may also lie to save others, and steal the booty of thieves and unjust rulers, so that they are hindered in their evil ways. ... The first precept ... is the resolution not to intentionally kill any human, animals, bird, fish or insect: the word for 'living being' (Pali pana; Skt prana) in the precept literally means a 'breather.' ... Most lay Buddhists have been prepared to break the first precept in self-defence, though... " (pp. 271f).

  • I didn't understand the sentence, "An important point that has not been made ...": why is it important, and why did you include that sentence if the answer? Also, are cells and microbiota considered "sentient?" I thought that plants aren't considered sentient, and guessed that neither are microbes. – ChrisW Nov 18 '16 at 15:55
  • It's important because no one has discussed one's moral obligation to oneself and I included the statement to indicate why I thought my answer contributed something valuable and new to the discussion. The question about sentience versus life did occur to me as I wrote it, but I let it slide because I think Buddhism generally considers all animals to be sentient and only excludes vegetables. This is a worthwhile question too I think but I will not address it further here because that is not the question at hand. – user4970 Nov 18 '16 at 16:09
  • FYI that one sentence (which says that the body is a colony of cells) just seems to me irrelevant, and unconnected to the rest of the sentence. – ChrisW Nov 18 '16 at 16:31
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    Then I'm afraid you have not understand my point, which is that we not only have the right, we have the obligation to defend ourselves, i.e., our body, from harm, and this is why. – user4970 Nov 18 '16 at 16:35
  • I thought that the conclusion ("prevent harm to all sentient beings, meaning anybody including one's own body") would follow from one's body being a sentient being ... the body's also being multi-cellular is modern biology and not at all relevant to the argument? – ChrisW Nov 18 '16 at 16:43

protected by Andrei Volkov Oct 15 '15 at 20:52

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