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Rules, appropriate actions and karmic consequences
by David Lourie, cartoonist and creator of Dharma The Cat, The Buddhist Channel, Sept 26, 2007
The current cartoon (in Dharma the Cat) is about "Rules," which raises the question of whether the aggressively protesting Buddhist monks in Burma,
whose conduct could be deemed to be "harmful" to some, are acting contrary
to the Buddhist rule (precept) of Right Conduct.
Here are my own thoughts on this.
On the one hand, there are "official" Buddhist guidelines to Right Conduct that prohibit monks from doing any harmful behaviour to other sentient beings, upon penalty of harmful karmic consequences. These guidelines do not allow any exceptions, for whatever special reasons that might prevail, even like the cruel political regime which now rules Burma with an iron fist. The rule of non-attachment also allow for no exceptions -- for example, you must not even remain attached to the goal of enlightenment.
On the other hand, there is the Principle of the Greater Good. My information from the Jataka stories is that in a previous life, the Buddha killed a pirate on board a ship, because the pirate was planning to sink the ship and kill the passengers, and the Buddha's compassion for the man's karmic fate was so great that he was willing to take on the act of killing, and the karmic consequences that go with it, in service of the greater good. And my understanding is that because karma is determined by intention, the Buddha's seemingly aggressively harmful act was actually beneficial, from a karmic point of view, because his intention was pure, so he escaped harmful karmic consequences from harming a sentient being -- and thus demonstrated a valid exception to the "rules."
On the third hand, according to my own limited understanding, the very idea that a sentient being exists and can be harmed is fundamentally contrary to the principle that the existence of a sentient being is an illusory mental formulation based on Wrong View.
So where does all that leave us ordinary illusory sentient beings who are in search of guidelines?
The rules of behaviour for monks were formulated by the Buddha in a highly political context, in which he and his followers were completely dependent upon the generosity of local villagers, so conduct was important not only in a karmic sense for spiritual development, but also in a political sense, to keep the villagers on side for the physical sustenance and survival of the
So it seems to me that the significance of the Burmese monks' conduct must be evaluated separately and independently by two entirely different standards -- the karmic standard, and the Buddhist institutional standard.
The karmic significance of each Burmese monk's conduct depends entirely upon each individual's intention, which would undoubtedly be coloured and flavoured differently in each case by a unique blend of emotional and psychological ingredients, leaving different monks with different "ratings" on the purity of intention scale.
So I think whether the monks' conduct is appropriate in karmic terms is really an issue of individual conscience, not group "rules."
On the other hand (I've lost count), I am proposing this even though their conduct may be deemed not appropriate in terms of Buddhist institutional rules -- ie, what's appropriate in order for them to remain an upstanding member of the Buddhist sangha.