Green Koans Case 44: On Killing

Clark Strand

CASE #44:    On Killing

Gasan instructed his adherents one day: “Those who speak against killing and who desire to spare the lives of all conscious beings are right. It is good to protect even animals and insects. But what about those persons who kill time, what about those who are destroying wealth, and those who destroy political economy? We should not overlook them. Furthermore, what of the one who preaches without enlightenment? He is killing Buddhism.”


Gasan     Gasan Jōseki (1275–1366) was a Japanese Soto Zen master. A disciple of Keizan Jokin, his disciples included the great Rinzai master Bassui Tokushō.

Those who speak against killing     A reference to the first grave precept: Do not kill. “Those who speak against killing” would, therefore, logically include all Buddhists. However, in this case Gasan seems to have been referring to those he believed favored a narrow approach to the precepts.



Often Zen masters are wise. So it’s worth looking at those instances when one falls flat on his face and can’t get up.

Is killing time really the same as killing sentient beings? Is destroying wealth the same as killing a person? Isn’t the importance of political economies so overinflated that we will…well, actually kill living beings to protect them? And killing Buddhism? What kind of Zen master locks the Dharma in a wall safe and hires himself to be the guard?



A simple program
For complicated people…
To become simple!
Are the precepts so unclear
That they need interpreters?


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shikantasean's picture

In response to Bill, I just felt chills and tears well up as I read your last post. I had the same realization when I came to the personal understanding that in order for me live my best Buddhist life I needed to return to my baptismal roots of the Catholic church and "kill" the Buddha that I had become enamoured and indentifed with. Thomas Merton and his circle of teachers, students, and contemporaries has been my bridge.
Sean M

bjobrewer's picture

I always thought:
There is one commandment (precept) Moses (Buddha)
brought down from the mountain (bodhi tree)
that I could never break:
It is inconceivable that I would use a gun or a knife
or anything to kill someone!!!!
Is this the One?? Is this the one that covers killing somebody's joy, enthusiasm, incentive, faith in themselves or faith in others...
killing hope...reputations...etc???
Not with a gun or knife...but with a look, snicker, a comment, or no comment.
To kill with a ball point pen or sharp tongue you can strangle, shootdown, choke or stab. It may take them 37 or 53 years to die. But you have killed them.

ClarkStrand's picture

I understand what you're saying, but these are covered by the other precepts--specifically by 4, 6, 7, 9, and 10. The first precept is purely biological in nature. The tendency to universalize it typically has the purpose of making these other precepts seem as grave and serious as we naturally understand the first one to be. Thus, within the impulse to generalize the first precept itself we find hidden the recognition that it means exactly what it says: Not willfully terminating the lives of other beings. This is a good bit more serious than the other nine, which are meaningless without it; therefore it is placed first in the list.

bjobrewer's picture

I always thought:
There is one commandment (precept) Moses (Buddha)
brought down from the mountain (bodhi tree)
that I could never break:

bjobrewer's picture

I always thought:
There is one commandment (precept) Moses (Buddha)
brought down from the mountain (bodhi tree)
that I could never break:

Bill Alexander's picture

Wonderful story, Clark. I don't want to turn this into a dialogue so will bow out after this brief comment. Re: Kill the Buddha. I have a good friend who is a Methodist minister. A mutual friend of ours, also a Christian, became deeply involved in a very fundamentalist type of church. He became hypnotized, entranced (as do members of 12 step programs, btw - but that's for another time). My minister friend told him that he had to "get rid of Jesus". Our friend didn't get it. But it sank deep into me. On retreat the next weekend, with a wonderful man named James Finley, a contemplative therapist who spent 6 years with Thomas Merton, I recalled the story during a long period of contemplation. I saw it was time to get rid of the Buddha. I did so, very consciously. And at that moment the Buddha drifted from my head, where he had been trapped, to my heart, where he is luminous. Three bows to all. Bill

ClarkStrand's picture

At the risk of posting something longish, here is the German fairy tale version of a koan on the virtues of simplicity when approaching the first precept, courtesy of the Brothers Grimm:


Two kings' sons once went out in search of adventures, and fell into a wild, disorderly way of living, so that they never came home again. The youngest, who was called Simpleton, set out to seek his brothers, but when at length he found them they mocked him for thinking that he with his simplicity could get through the world, when they two could not make their way, and yet were so much cleverer.

They all three travelled away together, and came to an ant-hill. The two elder wanted to destroy it, to see the little ants creeping about in their terror, and carrying their eggs away, but Simpleton said, "Leave the creatures in peace; I will not allow you to disturb them."

Then they went onwards and came to a lake, on which a great number of ducks were swimming. The two brothers wanted to catch a couple and roast them, but Simpleton would not permit it, and said, "Leave the creatures in peace, I will not suffer you to kill them." At length they came to a bee's nest, in which there was so much honey that it ran out of the trunk of the tree where it was. The two wanted to make a fire beneath the tree, and suffocate the bees in order to take away the honey, but Simpleton again stopped them and said, "Leave the creatures in peace, I will not allow you to burn them."

At length the three brothers arrived at a castle where stone horses were standing in the stables, and no human being was to be seen, and they went through all the halls until, quite at the end, they came to a door in which were three locks. In the middle of the door, however, there was a little pane, through which they could see into the room. There they saw a little grey man, who was sitting at a table. They called him, once, twice, but he did not hear; at last they called him for the third time, when he got up, opened the locks, and came out. He said nothing, however, but conducted them to a handsomely-spread table, and when they had eaten and drunk, he took each of them to a bedroom.

Next morning the little grey man came to the eldest, beckoned to him, and conducted him to a stone table, on which were inscribed three tasks, by the performance of which the castle could be delivered from its enchantment. The first was that in the forest, beneath the moss, lay the princess's pearls, a thousand in number, which must be picked up, and if by sunset one single pearl was wanting, he who had looked for them would be turned into stone. The eldest went thither, and sought the whole day, but when it came to an end, he had only found one hundred, and what was written on the table came to pass, and he was changed into stone. Next day, the second brother undertook the adventure; it did not, however, fare much better with him than with the eldest; he did not find more than two hundred pearls, and was changed to stone.

At last the turn came to Simpleton also, who sought in the moss. It was, however, so hard to find the pearls, and he got on so slowly, that he seated himself on a stone, and wept. And while he was thus sitting, the King of the ants whose life he had once saved, came with five thousand ants, and before long the little creatures had got all the pearls together, and laid them in a heap.

The second task, however, was to fetch out of the lake the key of the King's daughter's bed-chamber. When Simpleton came to the lake, the ducks which he had saved, swam up to him, dived down, and brought the key out of the water.

But the third task was the most difficult; from amongst the three sleeping daughters of the King was the youngest and dearest to be sought out. They, however, resembled each other exactly, and were only to be distinguished by their having eaten different sweetmeats before they fell asleep; the eldest a bit of sugar; the second a little syrup; and the youngest a spoonful of honey. Then the Queen of the bees, which Simpleton had protected from the fire, came and tasted the lips of all three, and at last she remained sitting on the mouth which had eaten honey, and thus the King's son recognized the right princess.

Then the enchantment was at an end; everything was released from sleep, and those who had been turned to stone received once more their natural forms. Simpleton married the youngest and sweetest princess, and after her father's death became King, and his two brothers received the two other sisters.

From Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Household Tales, trans. Margaret Hunt (London: George Bell, 1884), 1:269-271.

Bill Alexander's picture

Another verse might be:

It's a simple program
For simple people
Who complicate things!
The precepts ring clear
For those who - Keep It Spiritually Simple!

ClarkStrand's picture

Love it, Bill.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Línjì Yìxuán (9th century China), is famously attributed as saying "If you meet the Buddha, kill him."
IOW, one must destroy preconceptions what the buddha (or a buddha) is. Shunryu Suzuki clarifies that one should "kill the Buddha if (you believe) the Buddha exists somewhere else (outside your own life). Kill the Buddha, because you should resume your own Buddha nature."

Should these men be seen as promoting premeditated murder? Or is there even a transgression here of the first grave precept? Certainly my own "gut reaction", i.e. natural priority, would be to not kill buddha.

ClarkStrand's picture

Gasan was teaching during a time period when, as an expedient, Japanese Zen masters were beginning to cozy up to those in military and political power and therefore seldom championed the causes of ordinary people, who were subjected to high taxes, terrible deprivations, and the implicit and ever-present threat of bodily harm. Though some masters, like Dogen, fled to the mountains to get as far away from such forces as they could.

But there's no need for a history lesson here. I'm sure you know all this already. Besides which, really, the problem is more basic than that. A simple excercise can help us offer a turning word to Gasan to get him back on his feet again.

For those who may be new to Buddhism, the ten precepts are as follows:

1. Not killing
2. Not stealing
3. Not misusing sex
4. Not lying
5. Not abusing intoxicants
6. Not talking about others' errors and faults (i.e., no gossip)
7. Not elevating oneself and blaming others
8. Not being stingy
9. Not being angry
10. Not speaking ill of the Three Treasures

The first five are called "The Five Grave Precepts for All." These are the ones lay people embrace when they take refuge, and therefore apply to all Buddhists, whether they stop there or later go on to become monastics. But it's worth looking at all ten because they offer a full moral spectrum of what, as you rightly point out, was considered "the stuff that impeded awakening."

OK. That's the set-up. Here's the excercise. Look at the list this way:

1. Not speaking ill of the Three Treasures
2. Not being angry
3. Not being stingy
4. Not elevating oneself and blaming others
5. Not talking about others' errors and faults (i.e., no gossip)
6. Not abusing intoxicants
7. Not lying
8. Not misusing sex
9. Not stealing
10. Not killing

Offensive, isn't it? That is because it violates our natural priorities in life--that which we instinctively and intuitively know to be most real and true. And yet we see "Not killing" placed last again and again where issues of money and power are concerned.

I wrote in last week's koan (and probably many times elsewhere in this series) that "Biology, not ideology" is the basic teaching of Zen. This doesn't mean that Zen has no ideology, no literature, no principles, no aesthetic, no social ethos, no prevailing world view, and so forth. It simply means "First things first." If the biological/ecological precept comes first (and the first precept is purely and only that), things will go well for us and awakening is virtually assured, since it basically consists of that. Put last things first (the ideological/institutional precept) and there is no foundation for life at all.

Does this make sense? As suggested by the verse, like the 12 Steps of various recovery programs, the precepts are a simple program for complicated order to make them simple. Or rather, in order to make us simple, I should say, since there's no "them" or "they" here--we're all in the same boat.

Jim Spencer's picture

I think that the precepts can be condensed into, "Try not to do stuff that impedes awakening." My dictionary also defines kill as: "to destroy or neutralize the active qualities of." Am I killing time? Then I am neutralizing the active qualities of time that could be spent in meditation - I am impeding my awakening. If my wealth is in the way of my practice, I should kill my wealth.

No person on this planet has the right to decide that another human life is so valueless that the holder of said life can have it taken away against their will. Extinguishing the life of another human is definitely impeding their awakening.

And killing Buddhism? If I preach the dharma when I don't know what it tastes like, I am destroying the active qualities of Buddhism for anyone that hears my hollow words. There is no mention of a Zen master in the above case doing any preaching, just those without enlightenment.

So how is this green? I don't know that yet.