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Is Violation of the First Precept with Minimal Karmic Retribution Possible?

by Aik Theng Chong, The Buddhist Channnel, Nov 19, 2017

Singapore -- Myanmar’s most revered Buddhist leader gave a speech, which appeared to suggest that the killing of those who are not Buddhist could be justified on the grounds that they were not complete humans, or indeed humans at all.


Sitagu Sayadaw used the 5th Century CE Sri Lankan chronicle, the Mahavamsa and quote from a notorious passage from the 25th chapter of the Mahavamsa, “The Victory of Dutthagamani” which speaks of an ancient Sri Lankan king who was assured by Buddhist clerics that the countless Hindus he had killed only added up to one and a half lives.

The monk distanced himself from the characters in the story, saying: “I’m not saying that, monks from Sri Lanka said that.” But he then added: “Our soldiers should bear [this story] in mind.”

Fortunately, the majority of the Buddhist in Myanmar are followers of the Theravada tradition and not of the Mahayana tradition. Otherwise, they would have more excuses, ammunitions and justification on the pretext that it is in Buddhist teachings that one can use violence against the minority Rohingya and any others that are deem to be a threat to their survival. Imagine the consequences and the results that would come with it if the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra is one of the major widely read Sutra used in the country and the below quotes are used in isolation on its own to suit the purposes of the moment.

Here are the quotes from the Sutra on the subject of the Icchantika.

Violating the First Precept without Karmic Retribution

Chapter 22 of the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra states: "O good man! The Buddha and Bodhisattva see three categories of killing, which are those of the grades 1) low, 2) medium, and 3) high. Low applies to the class of insects and all kinds of animals, except for the transformation body of the Bodhisattva who may present himself as such.

O good man! The Bodhisattva-mahasattva, through his vows and in certain circumstances, gets born as an animal. This is killing beings of the lowest class. By reason of harming life of the lowest grade, one gains life in the realms of hell, animals or hungry ghosts and suffers from the down most “duhkha” [pain, mental or physical]. Why so? Because these animals have done somewhat of good. Hence, one who harms them receives full karmic returns for his actions. This is killing of the lowest grade. The medium grade of killing concerns killing [beings] from the category of humans up to the class of anagamins. This is middle-grade killing. As a result, one gets born in the realms of hell, animals or hungry ghosts and fully receives the karmic consequences befitting the middle grade of suffering. This is medium-grade killing. Top-rank killing relates to killing one’s father or mother, an arhat, pratyekabudda, or a Bodhisattva of the last established state. This is top-rank killing. In consequence of this, one falls into the greatest Avichi Hell [the most terrible of all the hells] and endures the karmic consequences befitting the highest level of suffering. This is top-grade killing.

O good man! A person who kills an Icchantika does not suffer from the karmic returns due to the killings of the three kinds named above. O good man! All those Brahmins are of the class of the Icchantika. For example, such actions as digging the ground, mowing the grass, felling trees, cutting up corpses, ill-speaking, and lashing do not call forth karmic returns. Killing an icchantika comes within the same category. No karmic results ensue. Why not? Because no Brahmins and no five laws to begin with faith, etc. are involved here [Maybe: no Brahmins are concerned with the "five roots" of faith, vigour, mindfulness, concentration, and Wisdom]. For this reason, killing [of this kind] does not carry one off to hell.

Again in Chapter 40 of the same Sutra it is stated; "O good man! Because the Icchantikas are cut off from the root of good. All beings possess such five roots as faith, etc. But the people of the Icchantika class are eternally cut off from such. Because of this, one may well kill an ant and gain the sin of harming, but the killing of an Icchantika does not [constitute a sin]."

"O World-Honoured One! The icchantika possesses nothing that is good. Is it for this reason that such a person is called an "Icchantika"?

The Buddha said: "It is so, it is so!"

Who are these Icchantikas where taking their lives does not even incur any karmic returns?

[The Buddha] said: A monk, nun, male or female lay disciple may be one. One who having rejected the scriptures with unpleasant speech does not, subsequently, even ask for forgiveness has entered into the path of the Icchantika. Those who have committed the four parajikas and those who have committed the ?ve sins of immediate retribution, who even if they are aware that they have entered into a fearful place do not perceive it as fearful, who do not attach themselves to the side of the true teachings and without making any efforts at all think ‘‘let’s get rid of the true teachings,’’ who proclaim even that very [teaching] is blame-worthy - they too have entered into the path of the Icchantika. Those who claim ‘‘There is no Buddha, there is no teaching, there is no monastic community’’ are also said to have entered the path of the Icchantika.

Chapter 39 of the Mahayan Mahaparinirvana Sutra also describes the Icchantika as follows: "O good man! The Icchantika has six causal relations. He falls into the three unfortunate realms and cannot get out of them. What are the six? They are:

1) His evil mind burns,
2) He does not see the after-life,
3) He takes pleasure in seeking defilement,
4) He walks away from good,
5) Evil actions hinder his way, and
6) He associates with an evil teacher of the Way.

This again possesses five things, by which the person falls into the three unfortunate realms. What are the five? They are:

1) He always says that there can be no karmic results to come about in regard to good or bad actions,
2) He kills a person who has aspired to Bodhi,
3) He takes pleasure in speaking about the evils committed by priests,
4) He says that what is right is not right and what transgresses Dharma is lawful, and
5) He gives ear to Dharma just to pick up what goes against [i.e. to find fault].

Also, there are three things by which the person falls into the three unfortunate realms. What are the three? These are saying that:

1) The Tathagata is non-eternal, and goes away eternally,
2) Wonderful Dharma is non-eternal and changes, and
3) The Sangha Jewel gets destroyed. For this reason, he always sinks into the three unfortunate realms.

The definition of an Icchantika is diverse. It consisted of those who are considered to be spiritual dead such as the skeptics, materialists and the communists. Others who blaspheme the religion and those who do not believe in the Doctrines of the Buddha are also Icchantikas. Basically, this would include all non-Buddhists since the Buddhist teachings of no-self, impermanence, Emptiness, stress and suffering are unique to the religion itself and not found in other Faiths.

The first precept of the Buddhist Faith is - “Do not kill”, with the assumption that Buddhist teaching fundamentally condemns killing. The Parikuppa Sutta listed five acts of deadly sins that will ruin the spiritual cultivation of a person’s present life. They are: One who has killed his/her mother, one who has killed his/her father, one who has killed an arahant, one who with a corrupted mind has caused the blood of a Tathagata to flow, and one who has caused a split in the Sangha. The five grave deeds are also listed in the Mahayana Buddhist literatures as the ‘sins of immediate retribution’; the anantarya karma. These crimes are so heinous that the karmic result will take place immediately with descend into hell after physical death, rather than at some unspecified point in the future as is usual for generic karmic results. One would have notice that four of the five sins involve the taking of lives and acts of violence.

Here we should also note that being put under arrest, being sentence to life imprisonment or even punish with a death sentence that accompany the act of killing are auxiliaries of murder in secular life. The effect of the karmic action of killing will still work itself out eventually.

In Nagarjuna Treatise on the Great Virtue of Wisdom, ten punishments on the act of killing are listed as follows:

1) The mind is always infected by poison from lifetime to lifetime without interruption.

2) Beings abhor [the murderer] and feel no joy in seeing him.

3) [The murderer], always full of evil intentions, contemplates evil things.

4) Beings fear him, as though they saw a snake or a tiger.

5) During sleep his mind is disturbed; when awake, he is not at peace.

6) He always has bad dreams.

7) At the end of his life, he dreads a bad death.

8) He plants the causes and conditions leading to a short life.

9) After the destruction of the body at the end of life, he falls into hell.

10) If he reappears among men, he always has a short life.

Why then are there acts of killing that can be considered so ‘light’ that no karmic retribution would befall a person who committed them?How much of this doctrine which states that the taking of another life without any karmic retribution has in history lend legitimacy to the justification for going to war when the dharma is perceived to be threatened, and it is necessary to fight against such forces of evil threatening the religion? Or as a justification for killing when it comes to the defense of a Buddhist community against enemies from a different faith? Or among Buddhists, disguise as the protector of the true dharma to wage wars against other traditions over issues of ideological supremacy? Or being exploited by monastic leaders who lent their legitimacy to wars that are nothing more than wars of defense or simply for conquest is however, anyone guess.

Although the notion of taking life without the fear of karmic retribution does sound very un-Buddhist in nature, there indeed exists a potential for Buddhist militants to justify the use of force from the quotes in the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana texts. To try and minimize the negative effect of this teaching, the Nichiren Daishonin Buddhists has gone as far as to re-interpret the ‘killing of an Icchantika’ to mean not killing the individual himself but stopping the act of slander and destroying the mind of slender which products it, so that the person can incline toward the good.

As Buddhists, we should guard against any particular bad attempts going too far beyond the underlying Buddhist teaching that non-violence is nearly always preferred to violence, even though the act could be as much a reaction to some outside conditions and circumstances as it is a development of Buddhist doctrine. Violence and acts of killings should always be regarded as an action of last resort.

Acts done out of hatred or anger is morally unacceptable to an act done out of compassion, loving kindness and equanimity. If killing of an Icchantika is meant as an act to accomplish the lesser of two evils, and undertaken with minimal karmic harm and maximizes karmic benefit to sentient beings, and the intent is carried out in a selfless manner that prevent greater harm happening, than the act of taking the life of an Icchantika might be considered as ‘just’ in the Mahayana tradition. But then again, it might not be so for the Theravada, where the doctrine of the Icchantika does not even existed and where the precept - ‘Do not kill’ does not allow for any exceptions whatsoever.

The taking of lives that does not caused karmic retribution may run counter to the concept of Ahimsa that the Buddhist Faith is usually associated with. If one looked at chapter 3 of the Lotus Sutra, it gives a rather detail description of the grave consequences that can befall one who believes in the view of a self; do not have faith and blaspheme its teaching; despise, hate, envy or bear grudges against one who recite, copy, or uphold the sutra.

Maybe the Mahayana Tradition takes a more pragmatic approach when it comes to the protection and preservation of the Buddhist teaching and beliefs. And when the religion is under threat, the preservation of it should takes precedent over many other things.

Is such a situation developing and happening in Myanmar now?


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