Print Friendly, PDF & Email

A-Bombs, terrorism, and karma

A-Bombs, terrorism, and karma

  • The impact of one’s motivation on the karma of an action
  • Dilemma between motivation and karma
  • Example: Nuclear weapons

We got an email from folks at Tibet Center in Germany with a question. So they say they’ve been discussing the death of Osama bin Laden. The question is:

Is it possible that a very good motivation can lessen or reduce very much the bad karmic consequences of a deed? For example, by executive order of President Harry S. Truman the U.S. dropped two nuclear weapons on the civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945. This act created unimaginable suffering of hundreds and thousands of civilians for a long time. Had Harry Truman acted with a bad motivation out of greed for power and fame and out of hatred then who could imagine his suffering in the hell right now and how long it would last. But he acted out of a good motivation, I suppose. He wanted to stop this war as quickly as possible.He wanted to avoid even more deaths and suffering. Thus his karma is not so bad, is it? Even if he were deluded, that is to say, if the war had stopped in a short time anyway even without his nuclear bombing, his karma is not so bad, is it?

Difficult question, isn’t it? Do any of us know Harry Truman’s motivation? I often hear it said that (by people in America, not by people in Japan) that dropping the bomb was good because it avoided more deaths in the long run. I have no idea if that is true or false. I can’t comment on that. If somebody is thinking that killing hundreds and thousands of people will avoid the death of hundreds and thousands of people, and drop a bomb for that reason, thinking it’s a good motivation, I’m not so sure. You know? I’m not so sure. Because even if one had that kind of “good motivation” to stop the war, clearly it’s favoring one’s own side and seeing the other side—that their lives are less worthwhile than our lives. That certainly isn’t how we would want to think.

And would somebody really drop a bomb with a totally good, compassionate motivation? You’d think there would be some hatred in there. Especially in the middle of a war. Some anger, some hatred. I would assume there would be.

Because there are also lots of other ways to stop wars besides dropping atom bombs.

Also, a person can think they they’re doing something out of a good motivation, like it’s going to stop the death of more people by dropping these bombs and killing these people. But is that really a good motivation, or is it a motivation out of ignorance? Seems to me it’s a motivation out of ignorance. Because there are lots of other ways, like I said, lots of other ways to stop wars. And I think it difficult to really put forth that kind of order with a completely pure motivation.

Now, if somebody were a bodhisattva and said, “I can see, with my psychic powers, that dropping these two nuclear bombs is going to prevent the death of so many millions of people later on, and I am willing to go to the hell realms as a result of creating the negative karma of killing these hundreds and thousands of people, and then did it, then that’s a whole different ballgame, isn’t it? Because a bodhisattva knows the long-term results, they’re willing to experience the suffering. It’s not a “made up” compassionate motivation that we often have.

The question continues:

How important is the part of the motivation for an action in creating karma when the actor could be deluded but nobody knows it for sure if he is deluded or when there are different opinions about the best choice of action?

We can never know anybody else’s motivation. And us knowing somebody else’s motivation isn’t what determines the karmic result of their action. It’s the state of their own mind. Whether anybody else knows the state of their mind or doesn’t, that determines the karmic result of their action. And the motivation is of crucial importance. Of course, there are different factors that can make an action heavier or lighter. Killing somebody quickly versus torturing them for a long time and then killing them. The latter one is going to be much heavier than the former one. Or killing with very strong hatred and anger is a heavier karma than killing with lighter. Or killing more people, or killing repeatedly is going to be heavier than lighter. And killing without any regret is going to be heavier. Okay? So there are different things that can make a karma heavier or not, but the motivation is, itself, is a key factor. And then, of course, the strength of that motivation.

[Question continues:]

How relevant is this to terrorists, when they are deluded but think from their heart that they act rightly because they want to reduce the influence of the power and the greedy?

Like I said before, just because we think we have a good motivation doesn’t mean we actually do. Because, for example, people who do animal sacrifice … Last year they did this huge animal sacrifice in Nepal. Like hundreds of thousands of animals, it was horrible, disgusting. Repulsive. And they couldn’t stop it. But those people who did the animal sacrifice felt that they were doing something very good. They sincerely believe that they were propitiating this certain god, and by offering this god animals it was protecting themselves and their families, and protecting the world from disaster. Does that mean that because they thought that, they had a good motivation?

We commit negativity out of ignorance, anger, and attachment. So it’s not killing just out of anger that’s negative. We can kill out of attachment, like we do if we want to eat meat. We kill out of ignorance, like animal sacrifice. And I think that the views of the terrorists, who are saying you go to heaven for killing the infidels, and we’re going to solve the world’s problems by killing these people … They may think it’s a very good motivation, but I think it’s a motivation by ignorance. And it’s going to be very negative.

And it doesn’t matter which side you’re on. You can be an American and think, “We’ve got to kill those people to make the world safe.” Yes? But it’s the same way of thinking as what the terrorists are thinking. And what’s interesting is we think those people are terrorists and they think we’re terrorists. So will the real terrorist please stand up?

What I’m getting at is I think we have to look beyond these kind of political categories and distance ourselves from what side we happen to be on in this whole thing. And just look at “what is the result of taking life?” And taking life is said to be a naturally negative action, so like even a high bodhisattva who has compassion says, “I’m willing to go to the hell realm, to take life, because in the long run I know it’s going to be more beneficial for more beings.” But is Harry S. Truman, and are the terrorists, willing to go to the hell realm in order to kill the people that they think are harming the world? I don’t think so. So we may say “oh, they’re doing it out of compassion for their own side,” but that’s the whole thing, compassion for one’s own side is most likely attachment to one’s own side, isn’t it?

Audience: The other part of the ignorance piece that I find that I get caught up on is that it’s still, if I take care of something and destroy something outside myself, it’s still that the suffering is caused by the problems outside, having absolutely no understanding that the problem is from inside.

Venerable Thubten Chodron: Okay, so you’re saying, if you were to kill, it’s still assuming the problem is from outside, and destroying the enemy is the resolution to the problem, instead of seeing that “why am I in this situation of conflict and war to start with? It’s because of my own karma. And so I need to purify my own karma.”

But you can see, in these kinds of situations, how they talk about … you know, why it’s called cyclic existence. You create karma, and that karma influences the situations you find yourself in. And then in those situations you again create more karma. So I always pray never to be in situations where I even have to make that kind of decision. Because I don’t want to be in that kind of situation because it’s so very difficult. And the mind is so extremely tricky.

Having said that, then, you know, there are heavier and lighter degrees of committing a karma. And clearly, killing people out of hatred is going to be heavier—in general—than killing them out of some kind of notion of compassion. But it’s still killing, and it’s still negative.

And in some cases somebody may say … Like I’m sure the terrorists feel like they’re being very compassionate. But there’s so much hatred in their minds that they’re not seeing. So often, too, we may feel like we’re being compassionate, but we’re saying that to ourselves because we don’t want to admit our anger and hatred. That’s happened to us, hasn’t it? “Oh I feel so sorry for this person, they’re suffering so much.” But really what’s happening in our mind is, we’re really mad at them, but we don’t want to say we’re mad at them. We don’t want to acknowledge our anger. So we say “Oh I feel sorry for them.” But actually we’re holding ourselves apart with “I’m special, I’m on the good side, they’re really screwed up.”

So these are just my ideas, you know? They say that only a Buddha fully understands karma completely. But these are my ideas.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.