Kammic effect of breaching a precept

Scholar monk Bhikku Bodi when questioned by Amanthi Peiris,
as noted in a publication entitled RESPONSES, had this to say, to her three questions.

Courtesy : Vesak Lipi

Questions :
I would be grateful to you if you would make clear the kammic effect of breaching a precept (in the three cases below, the first precept which is abstinence from taking life) in order to protect the lives and interests of others.

For instance,
i. Take the case of a man-eating jaguar. This animal is on the loose in a village terrorising the whole region and posing a great menace to the whole community. Is it wrong to kill the jaguar with the intention of saving people from falling prey to it and losing their lives?
ii. A poor farmer has through laborious work reaped a good harvest. A wild boar finds its way into the area and destroys the crops. Is it wrong for this farmer who supports his entire family on the meagre income he gets from his crops to ensnare and kill this destructive animal?
iii. In the case of diseases spread by insects (eg;- Malaria and Dengu fever spread by the mosquito) is it kammically unwholesome to destroy and eradicate the carrier insect?

Responses :
All three questions are really variants on a single principle, and
thus rather than answer your questions individually I will discuss the principle on which they hinge. The underlying question is whether unwholesome kamma is involved in performing an action which violates the moral precepts when the motivation for the action is concern to protect others rather than a wish to cause harm for others or to gratify one’s own desires. The problem is a difficult one, and I myself have given it a lot of thought over the years. Unfortunately, too, these moral dilemmas do not seem to be discussed in the Suttas or in their traditional commentaries. I have always wondered why we do not find a Sutta wherein a farmer comes to the Buddha and presents him with a problem similar to the ones you describe. How much easier our task would then be. As it is, without a fixed canonical precedent for dealing with these problems, we each have to do our own thinking about them and work out our own solution, I can only offer you the solution that seems most -satisfactory to my own mind.

First of all we have to take account of the fact that in the Suttas the Buddha teaches that taking life is an unwholesome kamma and a morally blameable action. It is prohibited by the first moral precept for both monks and lay people, and no cases are mentioned in the texts where the Buddha recognizes circumstances which could excuse the killing of living beings which could after the kammic quality of the action so that it would become wholesome rather than unwholesome or morally commendable rather than blamable. Thus we would have to conclude that though there may be circumstances which might affect the moral gravity of the action, the degree to which it is unwholesome and morally wrong, there are no circumstances which could alter its basic karnmic quality, transforming the act of killing into a morally good and kammically wholesome deed.

Thus an individual who is fully intent on perfecting his Moral purity and seeks to avoid all unwholesome actions would have to abstain from the taking of life under all circumstances (that is, from deliberate taking of life, unintentional taking of life being unavoidable as long as one is alive). If his way or living involved him in situations where the wellbeing of his family and fellow Citizens required that he engage in conduct contrary to the precepts then he would have to reconsider his basic way of life. If he felt himself to be so fully committed to pure moral observance that he could not indulge in any morally questionable deed, or so intent on progressing towards liberation (nibbana) that he does not want to be delayed by moral lapses, then he would have to change his way of life so that be could avoid situations which present him with those morally challenging dilemmas, such as that between breaking a precept or allowing harm to befall his family and neighbours. In the last resort, if all other attempts to change his circumstances failed and yet he could not allow himself to break the precepts, he would have the opportunity to enter upon the life of a monk (or nun), where he would receive all protective support to enable him to avoid violation of the precepts.

However, let us take the case of one who finds himself unable to break away from those situations where morally perplexing choices arise, and yet who cannot allow himself and his family to perish because he wishes to avoid killing destructive animals. Such a person, if he is to safeguard the interests of his family and community, may well find himself in a position where he feels compelled to take life-of animals and insects which threaten his welfare and the welfare of those who look to him for security. Though his action will doubtlessly be a breach of the precepts, a close examination of the principal of kamma will modify the judgement we would tend to pass upon such action. The Buddha teaches that kamma is essentially volition or intention (Chetana) for it is volition that motivates us to act in particular ways and comes to expression through our actions. Because volition constitutes the essence of kamma, the moral quality of action will derive from the moral quality of the volition that motivates the action.

Moreover, any complex action, such as those involved in the situations you describe, involves it whole series of states of mind (citta), each with its own intention and thus the act will involve a complex variety of intentions rather than a single simple intention. In the case of the person who kills a jaguar to protect his village or a boar to safeguard the fields on which his family depends, in the course of executing the killing of the animal different intentions will dominate his mind on different occasions within the same series of thoughts and actions that constitutes the act of killing. On some occasions he will be thinking of killing the animal, and then the unwholesome intention of taking life will be dominant; at other moments he will be thinking of protecting others from harm, and on those occasions the wholesome intention of helping others will be dominant. In so far as the man’s action is a case of taking life, it will be an unwholesome kamma and a breach of the first precept. But insofar as it is motivated by concern for others, there will be occasions when wholesome elements enter into his action and these will significantly modify its ethical quality. Thus his act of killing will be different in essential ways from those acts of killing which are motivated by unmitigated hatred, anger, lust and cruelty.

Any act of killing must, as such, involve some degree admixture with the root defilements – greed, hate and delusion. One who is free from all defilements, an Arahat, is incapable of deliberately taking life; even a Sotapanna, one at the first, stage of enlightenment, cannot knowingly break the first, precept. However, a person bound up with life in the world, burdened with various social and family responsibilities might find himself in those moral predicaments where a mundane good – the protection of family and community – may appear to require of him that he commit an action that is karmically unwholesome and contrary to the moral code inculcated by his religion. In such a case he will have to choose between the two alternatives: in the interest, of his long-range spiritual welfare (which may also be in the interest of the long-range spiritual welfare of his family and neighbours) he can hold fast to the moral precepts and refuse to break them, even though this will lead to his mundane disadvantage; or he can choose to break the precept reluctantly, aware that his action is a “necessary evil” to secure his and his family’s mundane well-being.

If he makes this latter choice, though the act is karmically unwholesome, the degree of unwholesomeness will be modified by the good aspect of his underlying motivation: he performs the action reluctantly, without pleasure and enjoyment, aware that it violates the precepts, and he tries to inflict as little harm as possible, And though the action will to some extent be an obstacle to his spiritual development, it need not be a major obstacle. If he understands his situation honestly, tries to avoid inflicting harm as much as possible, and seeks to counterbalance his deed with wholesome actions, he will be creating conditions which can modify and overcome the hindrance caused by the unwholesomeness action.

This is my own way of resolving the dilemmas you deal with in your questions. You may consider this and decide for yourself whether it sounds tenable.