Often one can read other buddhist traditions speaking of killing someone out of compassion to help or save others. I have often wondered how the mental state that can kill, can allegedly be motivated by karuna.
Here is an article by Rupert Gethin on just that subject:
ISSN 1076-9005 - Volume 11 2004
Can Killing a Living Being Ever Be an Act of Compassion? The analysis of the act of killing in the Abhidhamma and Pali Commentaries
By Rupert Gethin, Centre for Buddhist Studies, Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of BristolEXTRACT:
The Intention to Kill: - The Abhidhamma Perspective
The particular detail of the commentarial analyses that I wish to focus on in the present context is the way that “killing a being” is defined not as the actual act of killing itself but as the mental intention or will (cetanā) that prompts the act of killing:
Killing a living being is the intention to kill in one who is aware of a living being as a living being when this occurs through either the door of the body or of speech and produces the exertion that cuts off the life-faculty.
Or, as the Samantapāsādikā puts it, “The intention to kill as a result of which one produces the activity that cuts off [a being’s] life-faculty is called ‘killing a living being’; ‘the one who kills a living being’ should be understood as the person possessing that intention.”19
In both these commentarial passages, in line with the general tendency in Buddhist thought, the emphasis is on an unwholesome action (kamma) as consisting at least in part in the underlying mental intention (cetanā). While the commentaries do not state the intention to kill as a sufficient condition for the course of action that is killing a living being, they do clearly state it as one of the five necessary conditions (sambhāra): a living being, awareness of the living being, a mind that intends to kill, the exertion, and death as a result.
In the present context, what I wish to establish is the Theravāda analysis of the nature of the mind that might produce in someone the intention or will to kill: what kinds of motivation might characterize the mind at the time of killing? In fact, within the general framework of Abhidhamma psychology, the commentarial analysis of the nature of the intention to kill (vadhaka-citta/vadhaka-cetanā) seems clear and unambiguous.
After the initial analysis of the ten akusala kammapathas, the commentarial analysis sets out five ways for defining (vinicchaya) their nature: by way of intrinsic nature (dhamma/sabhāva), grouping (koṭṭhāsa), object (ārammaṇa), feeling (vedanā), and root (mūla). For present purposes, it is the definition by way of feeling and root that is particularly relevant. The definition by way of intrinsic nature reaffirms the point already made, namely that the act of killing is essentially the intention to kill.20 When it comes to the definition of killing a being by way of feeling, it is stated that it “has painful feeling, for even though kings presented with a thief say with a smile, “Go and execute him,” nevertheless the decisive intention (sanniṭṭhāpaka-cetanā) is only associated with painful feeling.”21 As to root, killing a living being has two roots, namely hate and delusion.
This set of definitions keys the kamma-pathas quite precisely into the Abhidhamma system of classes of consciousness. The fact that intention to kill is accompanied by only painful feeling and has as its roots hate and delusion means that it can only be constituted by two of the standard list of eighty-nine classes of consciousness: the two classes of sense-sphere consciousness rooted in hate and accompanied by unhappiness.22 The possibility that the intention to kill might ever be constituted by one or other of the eight classes of sense-sphere consciousness rooted in lack of greed, lack of hate, and lack of ignorance is apparently simply excluded. In other words the intention to kill is understood as exclusively unwholesome, and the possibility that it might ever be something wholesome prompted by thoughts of compassion is not countenanced.
Of course, one might try to argue that wholesome minds are not included here by definition: what is under discussion here are the ten courses of unwholesome action, and if one kills a living being out of compassion it is by definition not an unwholesome course of action and hence not “killing a living being” (pāṇātipāta). But, as we shall see, the way in which the Vinaya does allow for the fact that some rules can be broken with wholesome (kusala) and undetermined (avyākata) consciousness seems to exclude this interpretation. In the Sutta context, the point is that there simply is no wholesome course of action that is killing a living being.
The two older extant commentaries to the Vinaya, the Samantapāsādikā and the Kaṅkhāvitaraṇī, give a set of eight categories by which to analyze each rule of the Pātimokkha.23 These categories concern (1) the nature of the “arising” or “origin” of an offence (samuṭṭhāna); (2) whether it arises from activity (kiriya) or inactivity; (3) whether there needs to be full awareness (saññā) of what one is doing (or not doing) for something to constitute an offence;24 (4) whether the mind (citta) is involved in the offence’s arising or origin; (5) whether an offence constitutes something that is universally a fault (loka-vajja) or whether it is something that is merely a fault by designation (paṇṇatti-vajja) as such in the Vinaya;25 (6) whether an offence concerns an act (kamma) of body, speech, or mind; (7) whether at the time of committing an offence one’s mind is constituted by unwholesome consciousness, or by either wholesome or undetermined consciousness;26 and (8) whether the mind at the time of committing an offence will be associated with unpleasant feeling, pleasant feeling, or neutral feeling.27
The seventh and eighth categories in this list once again key into the Abhidhamma classification of consciousness. The Samantapāsādikā makes this quite explicit:
There are wholesome rules, unwholesome rules and undetermined rules. For just thirty-two classes of consciousness can produce an offence: the eight wholesome sense-sphere consciousnesses, the twelve unwholesome and ten kiriya sense-sphere consciousnesses,28 and the two wholesome and kiriya higher knowledge consciousnesses. A rule which one breaks with wholesome consciousness is [classified as] wholesome, [those which one breaks] with the other kinds are classified accordingly.29
What this makes clear is that for the Samantapāsādikā, while in many circumstances Vinaya rules will be broken, as one might expect, when the mind is constituted by unwholesome consciousness and motivated by some combination of greed, hatred, and delusion, at least certain rules in certain circumstances may be broken when the mind is constituted by wholesome consciousness and motivated by nonattachment, friendliness, and wisdom. Moreover, this being the case, it is explicitly stated that again at least certain rules in certain circumstances may be broken when the mind is constituted by various classes of undetermined or kiriya consciousness. In other words, the Vinaya commentary recognizes that in certain circumstances a purely wholesome (kusala) intention will lead someone to break a Vinaya rule; even arahats in certain circumstance will -- quite rightly and properly in that they are acting from the motivations of nonattachment (alobha), friendliness (adosa), and wisdom (amoha) -- break Vinaya rules. In the course of commenting on the 227 rules of the Pātimokkha the Samantapāsādika and Kaṇkhāvitaraṇī spell out which rules can be broken when the mind is constituted by these different types of consciousness. Commenting on the third pārājika, the Samantapāsādikā states:
As for arising, etc., this rule has three arisings (it arises from body and mind, from speech and mind, and from body, speech and mind); it concerns activity, it is rendered void by [the absence of] full awareness, it is associated with the mind, it concerns a universal fault, it is an act of the body, or an act of speech, it is connected with unwholesome consciousness, and painful feeling. For even when a king seated on his throne enjoying the pleasure of political power responds to the news that a thief has been arrested with a smile, saying, “Go and execute him!,” it should be understood that he does so only with a mind associated with unhappiness. But because this unhappiness is mixed with pleasure and is also not sustained, it is difficult for ordinary people to notice.30
In the case of Pācittiya sixty-one, Samantapāsādikā makes the following comment:
In the context of this rule, “living creature” refers only to animals; whether one kills a small or large creature, there is no variation in the offence, but in the case of a large animal there is more unwholesomeness because of the greater effort [involved]. Perceiving a living creature as such means that even when in the course of cleaning one’s mattress one perceives just a bedbug egg as a living creature and without compassion removes it by crushing it, there is an offence entailing expiation. Therefore by establishing compassion in such circumstances, one who is heedful will fulfil his obligations. The rest should be understood in exactly the same way -- with the [same] arisings, etc. -- as has been stated in the case of killing a human being.31
The fact that the Vinaya commentary does not allow for the possibility that one might break these two Vinaya rules when the mind is constituted by anything other than unwholesome consciousness and associated with anything other than painful feeling makes it clear that it considers only two of the eighty-nine classes of consciousness as relevant to the breaking of these rules: the two sense-sphere consciousnesses rooted in aversion/hate (dosa) and accompanied by unhappiness.32 As we are here dealing with the motivations for breaking a legal rule rather than for an ethical rule, the possibility that wholesome consciousness is not considered as a motivation by definition, as in the case of the unwholesome courses of kamma, seems to be excluded.
The case of the laughing king cited here was also cited in the commentarial analysis of the kamma-patha. Its significance might be interpreted in two slightly different ways: (1) even a king who takes pleasure in ordering the execution of criminals, at the moment he orders the execution does so with unwholesome consciousness motivated by aversion; (2) even a king merely carrying out the duties of government, at the moment he orders the execution of a criminal does so with unwholesome consciousness motivated by aversion.
According to Abhidhamma theory, beings may smile or laugh with any of the thirteen sense-sphere consciousnesses accompanied by happy feeling: four unwholesome, four wholesome, and five kiriya.33 The four unwholesome are rooted in greed (happy feeling never accompanies consciousness rooted in aversion); the four wholesome are rooted in nonattachment and friendliness or nonattachment, friendliness and wisdom, likewise four of the five kiriya; arahats and Buddhas may in addition smile with the unmotivated consciousness that produces smiles. The point the commentary seems to want to make here -- and, as we saw above, in the context of the unwholesome course of kamma that constitutes killing a living being -- is that while unwholesome consciousness rooted in greed and accompanied with happy feeling may arise close to the time of the intention to kill and thus superficially appear to be directly and immediately associated with an act of killing, this is not strictly the case: the actual intention that directly leads to the act of killing is always motivated by some kind of aversion and hence accompanied by unhappy feeling. What is revealed here then is what, in the Abhidhamma view of things, is a fundamental principle of the way in which the mind and intention operate.
The Abhidhamma appears quite uncompromising here: it is a psychological impossibility, a psychological contradiction in terms that one should, when motivated by nonattachment, friendliness (and wisdom), intentionally kill another living being.34 The Abhidhamma and Theravādin exegetical tradition just do not seem to countenance the possibility.35 http://www.buddhistethics.org/11/geth0401.html