Should Buddhists Kill In War?

Question: If we are at war, in defending our country, as a Buddhist conscripted soldier, should we kill enemies charging towards us, or just let them overrun us?

Answer: In this situation on defence, it is not about just about Person A (you) versus Person B (enemy); it is about preventing Person B from possibly killing many more soldiers and civilians upon successful offense. In the case that there is no other way to prevent this, Person B has to be ‘taken out’ for the sake of saving many. However, ‘taking out’ does not have to involve killing.

For example, Person B’s foot could be shot to disable him for a while, which renders him ineffective as an attacker. There should be minimal harm with killing as the absolute last resort. An example of this is the case of the Buddha on the Bodhisattva path as a compassionate captain, who killed a mass-murderer to be to save 500.

Related Articles:

The Compassionate Captain’s Skilful Means
Should I Support Weapon Creation?


  • Further to the question…

    (1) In the harsh reality of modern-day wars, many weapons are designed for effective kills, e.g. high calibre bullets, RPGs, artillery… you get the idea. If A is in-charged of one of these, should he fire them off at Bs (many of them maybe), knowing the high kill rate? Killing as the last resort is often the only outcome for poor A once he pull the trigger of the advanced weapons.

    (2a) Suppose A did. Won’t A incur tremendous -ve karma and be reborn in lower realm even if he is trying to prevent B from possibly killing many people. How well will his intention of trying to save his people save him from lower rebirth?

    (2b) Suppose A didn’t (and he probably got killed). It mean A didn’t create any -ve karma of killing, right? And of course he didn’t get +ve ones either since he didn’t try to stop B from killing people. Isn’t this the best option for A?

    (2c) What about not trying to save others (his people)? Will that incur -ve karma? I assume it doesn’t, else everyone will be getting tons of -ve karma when doing nothing while someone somewhere could be saved.

    (3) If all As and Bs think in the same way (both sides ‘see’ it as trying to save their own people, as in many wars), won’t the end result be most of As and Bs have killed and are killed and all get reborn in lower realm due to their -ve karma. Isn’t this the worst situation? A lose-all situation?

    (4) When A is in the midst of a battle, it is very difficult to maintain a pure mindset of thinking of trying to save his people while shooting at Bs. Most likely, A is scared (of getting killed), exhausted, angry (at B maybe), confused (in the chaotic environment) and his last thoughts before death are probably -ve ones. How effective and practical is it then, except for a few very well-trained buddhists, to be like the compassionate captain of the Buddha’s past life? We know ourselves best right? We probably know right away (if asked) if we are able to do that during a war.

    The best solution will probably be (2b) where we can try our best to be mindful, radiate loving-kindness and be harmless (ie. not trying to kill Bs). At least this can avoid lower rebirths and we have the chance to continue our practice life after life, until we have trained ourselves on the Bodhisattva path well enough to respond like the compassionate captain in a similar situation. What do you think?

  • (1) If ‘A’ has to, as a last resort, ‘A’ should fire warning, and thereafter at the least concentrated cluster in unheeded.

    (2a) If ‘A’ did (1) to save many more lives, this effect will be there: https://thedailyenlightenment.com/2011/07/the-compassionate-captains-skilful-means This is a very important case study, in the link.

    (2b) ‘A’ must use his compassion and wisdom best possible to help the most number of people.

    (2c) As in the Bodhisattva captain’s case, for Bodhisattva practice, not saving breaks the Bodhisattva precepts and to that extent creates negative karma.

    (3) For ‘A’ and ‘B’, one side must be more compassionate and wise, unless they are equally cruel and deluded, which we should practise to never be. And may we be more like ‘A’ above, to not create a lose-all situation.

    (4) The Bodhisattva precepts in the Brahma Net Sutra forbids being in the military in the first place. The point of spiritual practice is to train our best now to be ready for even extreme situations, to be ever kinder and wiser, for what else should we do?

    Namo Amituofo

  • (1) Unfortunately, as a soldier, ‘A’ has to obey orders on where to fire, unless he is the commander himself.

    [2a,2b] So it boils down to whether A wants to:
    (2a) act like the compassionate captain – kill Bs, go to lower realm for a short while, born again in upper realm for saving his own people, continue his practice; or
    (2b) don’t kill, don’t save (assuming A is not taking Bodhisattva vows), avoid lower rebirths, continue practice.

    However, as described in (4), it is very difficult to have the same mindset as the compassionate captain when doing (2a). In the past life instance of the Buddha, he was already well accomplished in practice of compassion and wisdom, hence was able to incur minimal -ve karma that brought him down to lower realm for a very short while only. For most of As, he will not be in the best and clear state of mind in the chaotic battlefield. Most likely his lower rebirth will be a super long one.

    Choosing (2b), A can focus on maintaining a wholesome mindset without shooting at Bs, radiating loving kindness to Bs, get killed, avoid lower rebirth, continue practice, until such time when he is as accomplished as the compassionate captain in practice that he can choose (2a) as the course of action.

    We should choose (2a) or (2b) as appropriate to our current level of accomplishment in the path, so as to maximise our opportunity for practice. Lower rebirths, esp the long ones, certainly don’t help in any way.

  • From http://www.sutrasmantras.info/sutra32.html , some Bodhisattva precepts that come to mind…

    Major Precept 1. Killing

    The Buddha said, “Buddha-Sons, one should not kill, incite others to kill, kill by contrivance, or kill by incantation, through any causes, conditions, methods, or karmas,[6] or praise killing or rejoice upon seeing killing. One should not purposely take any sentient being’s life.

    “A Bodhisattva should always invoke the mind of lovingkindness, compassion, and filial dutifulness for all sentient beings, and save and protect them by skillful means. If he instead kills any sentient being with self-will or for gratification, it is a parājika sin.

    Minor Precept 10. Keeping Weaponry

    “Buddha-Sons, one should not keep weapons for fighting, such as knives, clubs, bows and arrows, spears, or axes, or other means for killing sentient beings, such as traps or nets. A Bodhisattva does not even requite the murder of his parents, not to mention the death of other sentient beings. If one keeps weaponry, it is a minor sin.

    Minor Precept 11. Serving as an Enemy Country’s Agent

    The Buddha said, “Buddha-Sons, one should not even serve as an enemy country’s agent to help deploy troops for war, which results in the killing of innumerable sentient beings, much less commit treason against one’s own country. A Bodhisattva should not even circulate among troops. If one purposely serves as an enemy country’s agent, it is a minor sin.

  • I’m confused. Does it mean if we take the Bodhisattva vows, we should not kill the enemies charging towards us, and let them overrun us?
    But you mention in (2c) for Bodhisattva practice, not saving breaks the Bodhisattva precepts and to that extent creates negative karma.

  • The Bodhisattva precepts are about helping as many as we can while harming as few as possible. This is so even in an extreme situation.

    For the case highlighted, letting a person kill you and later many is considered not kind enough. He ought to be prevented from killing anyone. Killing is seldom the only option. As in the article, shooting to injure can be enough.

  • Killing is seldom the only option in other instances like fending off robbers, not in a war in this day and age. Wars are no longer fought with spears and arrows, but with weapons of high lethality, even weapons of mass destruction, unfortunately. Killing may not be the intention when one pull the trigger but is very often the outcome. We need to have some reality check here.

    But I agree that the Bodhisattva precepts are about helping as many as we can while harming as few as possible.

  • Reality check here… War today is ALSO about one bullet with one potential hit at place of choice at times. There are also choices of what smaller or bigger guns and bombs to use, and where to shoot and detonate.

    The idea again is simple – do no harm, and if harm has to be done to prevent more harm, do as little harm as possible.

    We must never imagine we will all be choiceless puppets forced to obey instructions blindly. Why keep painting the worst scenario and insist something terrible will then have to be done? In real life, how many of us will be in these worst-case scenarios? We are thus talking about doing our best despite the worst, to always look for better solutions without resigning too soon.

    In the first place, we must do what we can to prevent war and being in one.

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