When is violent self-defence justified in Buddhist ethics?
Is violent self-defence ever justified according to Buddhist ethics? It can certainly be legal in Western law, but is it ethical as well?
Legal but also ethical?
Europe has a significant population of Buddhists who abide by Buddhist ethical precepts. Because of this, the compatibility between Western law and Buddhist ethics will need to be examined, including the subject of self-defence. We all have a significant chance of encountering a violent situation at some point in our lifetime, so it might be wise to prepare for that possibility. While it will not be possible to cover all of Buddhist ethics, we will look at the ethics of (Indian) Mahayana Buddhism, which is one of the most popular forms of Buddhism in the West.
Dalai Lama: shoot the shooter!
The Dalai Lama was once asked by a high school student how she should respond if someone entered her school with a gun. To everyone’s surprise, he said that “if someone has a gun and is trying to kill you, it would be reasonable to shoot back with your own gun. Not at the head, where a fatal wound might result. But at some other body part, such as a leg.” So here we have the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize saying we should use violence to defend ourselves. As we will see, this is fully in line with the ethics of his tradition.
Before we go into that, let us first look at what Western legal systems say about self-defence. Since the Anglo-American legal system is largely representative of most Western nations, we will use its principles as our guide here.
Self-defence is only one form of ‘private defence’
First, we should clarify that the law treats self-defence as only one form of so-called ‘private defence’, which also includes things like defending another person, defending the property of oneself and others, and defending one’s house against an invader. Self-defence is merely the use of force by an attacked person against their aggressor, in order to protect their own life, body, or liberty. So when is private defence legal?
When is private defence legal?
The law specifies four requirements for private defence:
- The duty to retreat from the site of the event.
- A certain mental element (intent).
‘Necessity’ means that the act must be necessary to accomplish the goal of private defence. The ‘proportionality’ requirement is quite broad. For example, it is usually legal to kill an aggressor who is trying to murder you, which means that one will not face criminal charges for doing so. It is even acceptable in certain cases to use lethal force against an aggressor who is trying to inflict severe bodily harm, such as rape. This is because the attacker is not just harming the person but also the integrity of the social-legal order.
The ‘duty to retreat’ means that one needs to demonstrate to the aggressor a desire and willingness to withdraw from the situation, either verbally or symbolically. And finally, the required ‘mental element’ is that one needs to be aware of the justifying circumstances for one’s use of defensive force, and that one’s explicit purpose must be to defend or protect. Let us now look at how these principles relate to Mahayana Buddhist ethics.
Mahayana Buddhist ethics for laypeople
In the so-called five lay vows, the first vow is against killing or intentionally injuring living beings. However, in the Mahayana tradition, the motivation behind killing or injuring matters. One only breaks this vow if one commits violence with a mind that is afflicted by disturbing mental states (Sanskrit: klesha) like attachment, anger, or delusion. So, if one violently grabs, pulls, or even smacks one’s dog to prevent it from running into a busy road out of compassion, this would not violate this vow.
The ‘bodhisattva’ (awakening hero) vows
For Mahayana practitioners there is also a second set of vows, called the ‘bodhisattva’ (awakening hero) vows. These specify the ethical standards for someone who seeks to altruistically benefit all sentient beings. The most common set is a list of 18 vows. The relevant ones for our discussion here are:
- (3) Not listening to others’ apologies or striking [beating] others.
- (8) Committing any of the five heinous crimes.
Regarding number 3, this only qualifies if one does it with anger in one’s mind. The anger can either be aimed at the person, one’s own suffering, or a situation entailing suffering. Regarding number 8, these five heinous crimes include:
- killing your father,
- killing your mother,
- killing a liberated being (arhat),
- drawing blood from a Buddha, and
- causing a split in the monastic community.
The motivation also needs to be a disturbing mental state. However, one only breaks a bodhisattva vow if one performs the destructive action without any regret, performs it with joy, and would engage in it again in the future. So, if one kills one’s father to prevent him from killing one’s mother, with compassion and reluctance, this would not be unethical according to these vows.
We also know that the secondary bodhisattva vows recommend that practitioners commit destructive actions when altruism calls for it. This can include killing, stealing, lying, divisive and harsh speech, etc. However, these are very rare circumstances in which nothing else will work to prevent much greater suffering from occurring, such as killing a suicide bomber to prevent a massacre.
One of the reasons this is justified in Buddhist ethics is because if one performs these actions with compassion, one can prevent the harmful person from building up huge amounts of negative karma. This karma would cause much more suffering for them in future lives. So, strangely enough, one would be acting in their best interest, from this Buddhist point of view.
In conclusion, we saw that killing someone who is trying to kill you or cause you severe bodily harm is legal if four criteria are met. Mahayana Buddhist ethics broadly agrees that it can be ethical to violently defend oneself or others, as long as one wants to compassionately prevent harm rather than angrily cause harm. However, the violence used must be just enough to prevent the harm from occurring. Both Western law and Buddhist ethics therefore agree with the principle of minimum necessary force.
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 Boaz Sangero, Self-Defence in Criminal Law (Oxford and Portland, Oregon: Hart Publishing, 2006), p. 2.
 Sangero, Self-Defence in Criminal Law, p. 3-4.
 Ibid, p. 168.
 Ibid, p. 199.
 Ibid, p. 228-229 (note 914).
 Peter Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics: Foundations, Values and Issues (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008). Kindle Edition. Locations 1128.
 Root Bodhisattva Vows — Study Buddhism: These were transmitted to the Indian master Atisha in the 10th century, who in turn transmitted them to Tibet. This set is originally found in the Akashagarbha Sutra (Womb of Space Discourse).
 Stephen Jenkins, “On the auspiciousness of compassionate killing,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 33, no. 1-2 (2010/2011): 299-331. 3.