Difficult ethical question regarding killing

Bhante, thanks a lot for your ideas, they are much appreciated! :anjal: I think you absolutely nailed it in the part about the ethical doubtfullness of Bhagavad Gita. I think I should learn more about Arjuna, somehow I feel that he is an ethically ambiguous figure just as so many other heroes in the ancient epos. Him being anything short of the absolute ethical ideal you cannot claim his anger, selfishness and delusion have not led to this battle on the Kuru field. If that is true, than your logic applies in its entirety.

As for your answers concerning fighting back attackers or animals, this is a more detailed and clearly formulated version of the argument I ultimately presented to the guy, so I can at least rest assured I did my best. As for the antibiotics problem, I think it is more of an ambiguous thing, somewhat similar to saving a child from a tiger, a good thing overall but inevitably generating some negative kamma as a result. The reason for this is that you actually have two intentions when taking antibiotics: the first, more prominent and important one, is to save a human life, the second is still, unfortunately, to kill specific living beings in order to save this person. As soon as you know about antibiotics killing bacteria, there should be some anger involved, however small it may be. To me, it sounds pretty much like a nuclear weapon officer who can at any moment launch huge intercontinental rockets and kill literally millions of people, all of whom will stay for him mere dots on his map. Of course, you can’t compare the scale, and certainly, the positive intention to save a life is great, but it will remain an ethically ambiguous action, however subtle the black hue in that black-and-white palette can be.


It’s interesting that in the Vinaya the line is drawn essentially at visibility. If you can see it, you shouldn’t kill it. The EBTs are well aware of the existence of countless forms of tiny living creatures, but it is held that, for monastic purposes anyway, we can’t be held morally accountable for them.

Like any legal or moral line, this one is dubious when you consider it carefully. What if I look through a microscope? Then I can see the bacteria: does it become wrong to kill them? Maybe you’d argue that artificial aids don’t count. Great, then all I have to do is take off my glasses and have at it!

Ethical principles can never be pushed too far, so we always need to take them lightly. Even the distinction between plant and animal, which is never questioned in the EBTs, is by no means hard and fast. In some ways, it seems as if the Jain idea that sentience pervades everything, even inanimate matter, may have some basis. Perhaps consciousness is not something that is limited to conventionally sentient beings. Still, whether or not we take such ideas seriously, we have to live in a world where imperfect choices must be made.


As far as I know the Buddha never said stones or plants are not sentient. The idea of rudimentary sentience as a propery of all matter is very attractive for me as a big fan of David Chalmers. If you are interested, please check out his papers on the philosophy of mind, they are brilliant.

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Well, I can’t recall an explicit statement to that effect, that’s true; but it does seem to be assumed throughout the suttas. There’s no notion of rebirth as a stone or a tree, something that is fundamental to Jainism. But perhaps there is some wiggle room!

And thanks, I will check out David Chalmers’ work when I get a moment.

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The Buddha mentioned the animals, so we can safely assume you can be reborn as an animal. However, if you think about it, it becomes very difficult to define a ‘rebirth-compatible’ animal when you descend into the more primitive realms of life. Why is amoeba somehow ontologically more privileged than a tree? If we assume that a living being can be reborn as a bacterium, rebirth in the animal realm sounds like a pretty harrowing perspective. Moreover, it makes the Buddha’s words about the extremely high value of a human rebirth sound like a not mere simile but a pretty accurate estimation: how many bacteria are there and how many human beings? This alone makes me extremely grateful for my chance to practice Dhamma. Anyway, I am starting to drift off into unrelated topics. Thanks so much for your help again, bhante! :anjal:


@Vstakan Agree with most everything you said but I don’t think this is accurate:

Human beings are said to be the only form of life capable of awakening so that may be another important consideration.

Beings in realms higher than humans are capable of reaching awakening in that state.


Ah yea, my mistake. Otherwise those attained to noble distinction and reborn in higher realms wouldn’t be able to progress to final nibbāna.

Anyway, it’s a good thing devas didn’t get complicated into these moral scenarios lol.

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i do acknowledge the appendix of “On the whole” but still would like to point out that humans are potentially more harmful than animals thanks to the intellect and many due to their insidiousness are worse than animals, especially the innocuous ones, which lack the ability to cause premeditated deliberate harm and damage and thus are excusable, so if we measure worth of life on the basis of inherent value of a sentient being, certain humans would be in a disadvantage against animals

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A thread on that sort of panpsychism as well as emergentism, etc., and on what sort of orientation to these issues the Dhamma supports… it could be interesting.

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Bhante, if you do not mind, I will put in my final five cents. I was thinking about these question the whole day today and I came to the conclusion that we all made a mistake by conflating two overlapping but by no means identical systems: let us call it ‘ethics’ and ‘virtuousness’. The latter one is easier to define: it corresponds to the kammic law and operates with such notions as ‘skilfulness’ or ‘unskilfulness’ of an action. An unskilful action generates unwholesome kamma, i.e. leads us further from Nibbana, and may be defined as a conscious action involving greed, hate and delusion. This system has attaining Nibbana as its highest goal, and since Nibbana is a square peg in the self-contained Samsara, it may go contrary to our social expectations. The ethical system serves the normal functioning of a society and as such is a product of a given culture and society, and is therefore much more utilitarian.

An action can be unskilful and ethical, e.g. killing someone attacking a child. It can also be skilful but unethical in the modern society, e.g. living your own family the way the Buddha did or not trying to fight oppression in a violent way. In the same vein, it can be ethical and unskilful, e.g. drinking alcohol as long as it doesn’t prevent you from conforming to social norms and expectations. Taking precepts means increased focus on the opposition of wholseome-unwholesome as the guiding principle for your actio culminating in monkhood. A monk should wholly focus on the kammic principle, which is, as we have all seen discussing these questions, a much tougher one in comparison to the ‘worldy’ ethics. A monk will follow the worldly ethics only as long as they do not contradict the Vinaya, e.g. he cannot be drafted as a soldier, even though protecting your country from a violent attacker is an ethical thing to do. Besides, this explains why some Vinaya regulations seem to be so unjust, e.g. when a monk or a nun who is a victim of rape, expresses or even feels consent at any moment during the violent accident: a rape victim doesn’t do anything unethical, but accidental feelings of lust or almost inevitable feelings of anger towards the perpetrators are still unwholesome. This sad truth even exacerbates the rapist’s guilt as he or she does not only commit an unwholesome act themselves but also have other people feeling unwholesome mind states.

All that said, 1) taking antibiotics is ethical but mildly unwholesome;

  1. violently protecting a child or rape victim is ethical but unwholesome;

  2. killing an attacking animal is ethical or not, depending on your circumstances (e.g. killing a tiger attacking an antilope is only debatably ethical, killing a tiger attacking a butterfly is not ethical at all), but is always unwholesome

  3. even though no society can be guided by the kammical principle alone (there will always be violence and injustice, it should be opposed by the society), we should try our best to stick to Dhammic wholesome principles as much as possible. A war may be justified ethically but not dhamically, every person should be aware of it and have a free choice between doing an ethical but wholesome or ethical and unwholesome thing, no ‘social duties’ should be regarded as more important than this right. Not fighting because of cowardice is, on the other hand, both unethical and unwholesome :slight_smile:


Dear fellow seeker,

Krishna in the Bhagavad gita doesn’t merely say killing others is ok. He is trying to teach Arjuna the importance of intention in forming kamma, Just like the Buddha himself taught us that the same action done with different intentions yields different results. Intention is more important than action itself (mind precedes matter). From this light, we can see how it might be OK to kill someone on the battlefield, defending one of your own family members/friends/wife/children etc. and defending your country. Arjuna (as well as the Buddha) were both kshatriyas, and it was their duty to do so. Failing to do so according to Brahmanism is worse than asking enlightened questions regarding the moral consequences of killing.
In the Jatakas (the previous life stories of the Buddha), we find the bodhisatta committing murder on a ship only to protect the other travelers because he sensed through his super-normal power that that person is planning to murder everybody else, so he went and killed him and threw him off the ship, In my country we say “he had him for lunch before he has everyone for dinner.” This is not to say that because of his selfless act he won’t pay for the kamma he committed on that boat, if it was so, it wouldn’t not be selfless or heroic. it is only because he knew he is going to suffer when that kamma ripens, that his action can be said to be heroic & selfless, with only compassion as its’ seed. Accordingly, life will put us in situation where we have to make the choice whether to take on the kamma ourselves, or let others suffer the results of their own kamma. Life will also put us in situations where instead of killing, we offer ourselves to be killed or slaughtered, & Buddha did that many times as the bodhisatta. So what Krishna & Buddha are trying to teach us is that there ain’t no easy way out of some situations life puts us in. Sometimes we have to kill or offer ourselves to be killed for the benefits of all sentient beings. We should always keep in mind the quality of our intentions & volition, and not be so attached to the action itself. This should not give us license to do as we please, what it does is it gives us the choice to commit a certain kamma even though we know we are going to suffer the consequence, for the sake of helping sentient beings.
Another dilemma one faces on the path, should we eat meat or no? should we eat eggs/drink milk or no? and now for the first time I hear someone say should we take antibiotics or no? :slight_smile: I also struggled to come to terms with it, and my own personal opinion is this: If it suffers when u kill it, then don’t do it. According to this way, it is ok to drink milk, eat eggs for even though they have life they are not yet developed enough to suffer. Accordingly if we can prove bacteria suffers, then it would be wrong to take antibiotics. But actually it’s not unimaginable to live the whole life without taking antibiotics. We can abstain from taking medicine altogether and depend on natural treatments, but the thing is whether you like it or not, those bacteria are going to die whether you take antibiotics or not. That is Krishna’s point of view. Like he said to Arjuna those people are already dead, they have been taken up by the Lord of death and wait only for your arrow to send them on to their next destinations. It is also important to mention that having been born a human being there is no escape from committing minor killings (like stepping on creatures we don’t see) and having to kill animals when there is not enough vegetable options (like in Tibet). It naturally comes with our human birth that we commit actions that might or might not become kamma that we later have to repay. So that has to be accepted knowing that even the buddhas and bodhisattas have to close their 3rd eyes before they get to drink water, for they told us long before science did that there are living creatures in the drinking water, and I am sure they meant bacteria, but even they can’t give up drinking, nor should we.

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Hello dhammasamy! Thanks you for your detailed answer!

Why aren’t the monks allowed to kill under very specific circumstances like when trying to save someone’s life? My take on it is that killing always involves anger (pretty strong anger, I would say) and almost always selfishness, greed (because when you are fighting back on the battlefield you are first and foremost trying to ave your own life and not your family or country, just ask most of the veterans out there). Given the strong emotions we have when fighting, it is reasonable to assume your negative kamma will be pretty strong. Of course, you can say that you generate positive kamma as well, but to me the existence of the PTSD is one of the most tangible proves that the kammic law does exist and does not care whether we are fighting for good or for evil.

This is my biggest issue with Brahmanism. Take an ideology that is non-sensical enough, like that of ISIS, teach people their duty is more important than asking questions about killing, and here we go in a lorry in Nice. If you say you should kill only on the battlefield - well, that poor guy certainly was sure he was on the battlefield and all these people were already as good as dead and sent by Allah into the eternal damnation of the Hell. Saying your duty comes before unholesomeness of your action will inevitably lead to lots of innocent victims eventually, that was proven by Crusaders, Communists, Nazis, Islamic fundamentalists, Buddhists in Myanmar, Western countries bombing Asian countries back into the Stone Age or having them plunge into an unending chaos like Lybia… It all ends the same: dead children, dead women, dead men, rivers of blood and tears and the pilot who dropped the bomb or soldier who pulled the trigger trying to numb the pain in their heart with alcohol or drugs. But he DID HIS DUTY! That is the important thing, isn’t it?

It is highly unlikely that the Jatakas are authentic stories of the Buddha’s past lives as you may conclude after reading this thread. They are just as Buddhist as the God of the Old Testament commanding to kill everyone in a certain city is Christian. Just look at some of the ideas in the Jatakas. Making your whole family to slaves just to practice generosity? Sure, that is what the Buddha himself would recommend to any lay supporter… or would he?

Still, you are right that in some situations it may be ethical to kill someone to save other people’s lives. My point is that it will still be unwholesome because the law of kamma doesn’t care what your purpose was. You experience anger, greed or delusion? Boom! Next, please!

Yeah, the purity of your intention can mitigate the negative consequences, like weighing less can mitigate your pain when falling from a high tree - but it will still hurt a lot. Of course, any modern soldier who would refuse to fight not because of his cowardice but for ethical reasons, will mostly likely be tried and executed, but doing so will still be a more wholesome and even, if you want, nobler thing to do so - just as selfless as trying to save other people’s life. In fact, it would be in some respect an attempt to save people’s life no matter how bad they may be.

Anyway, Krishna does not say anything about anger, greed, delusion, he just says: ‘Oh come on, they are already just living corpses, just kill all them bad people. That’s your duty, otherwise people will laugh at you’. What Krishna does in Bhagavad Gita bears peculiar similarity to the rhetorics of the modern Islamic terrorists.

I mean, what is the difference between this and the rhetorics used by the Islamic fundamentalists? That is not to say that people worshipping or revering Krishna are equal to terrorists, that is not true, the overwhelming majority of them are nice and virtuous people, they don’t even think about killing anyone, just like the - admittedly, rather less overwhelming majority - of the Muslims doesn’t support ISIS. But I can see how it might take only a sleight of hand to make the ideas in the Bhagavad Gita to a dangerous, terrorist ideology, and maybe it has already been used in such a way.


the difference is profound, Islamic fundamentalists have political agenda of spreading Islam and subjugating or exterminating all infidels depending on the degree of their infidelity or willingness to submit, to which killing is simply a justified means, whereas Hinduism let alone the Krishna Bhakti movement has no such agenda

Arjuna found himself in a situation where he had to participate in a war, which was a honest face to face battle, and was reluctant to go ahead, he hadn’t sought to engage in a war
So Krishna offers him the best consolation possible in given circumstances where backing off from performance of one’s duty as a kshatriya isn’t permissible, a consolation based on vedantic philosophy

one may force the Bhagavad Gita’s narrative to underly a philosophy of a just war, but not terrorism

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I think you are not quite right. Take this guy I talked to for example. He is a very nice person and most certainly not a terrorist. Then, he tells me: ‘Gandhi’s method of non-violent resistance didn’t work. It was the people who took to the arms who freed India.’ In other words, in his mind fighting against oppression can justify violence. The only thing you have to do to make terrorism out of it is to give a very loose definition of oppression in the Marxist vein: oppression is everything that is contrary to our own ideology. Make fighting against oppression to the sacred duty of every true kshatriya who, if killed, will go to heaven, and just wait for the terrorist attacks to happen. In fact, Hindu terrorism does exist and is a reason for growing concern among many Indian intellectuals. I have very many Hindu neighbours and all of them said the Hindu nationalism (based on different Hindu sources, but Bhagavad Gita is among them) is on the rise and will be a source of more trouble in the future.

You are correct in saying Islamic fundamentalists are ultimately interested in spreading Islam. However, they use different rhetorics (and I had listen to quite a bunch of them for my future master thesis) when they recruit new members and plan terrorist attacks. I think you can already guess what these rhetorics are: fighting against injustice and oppression! This lorry killer in Nice did it not because he wanted to spread Islam to France, he most probably did it because France supports the war against ISIS, i.e. the war against the ‘only true Muslim country’, and all the French people who pay their taxes are supporting oppression and are therefore oppressors. You can’t spread Islam in a non-Muslim country by killing non-Muslims, it is only possible after a fully fledged military conquest. The Islamic terrorists (not the Islamist military formations like Taliban’s standing army in Pakistan and Afghanistan) are instead fighting against the alleged oppression of the Muslims.

in this representation of hypothetical situation in order to arrive at an ideology of justifiable violence based on Bhagavad Gita you make two additional steps not inherent to the original teaching, i’ve marked them with letters

which only exemplifies my earlier statement

it is a case where a teaching isn’t to be blamed for people’s interpretation of it

so in fact what you condemn is not so much the original philosophy of Krishna but one perverted hypothetical version of it, while shifting the blame for it on the unwitting literary source

and that’s the logic Russian authorities were guided by in banning Godhika sutta commentary

as far as nationalism is concerned it’s something people do of their own accord and not what religious texts incite them to, if they need support from authoritative religious text they will make sure to construe one

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That is true. Confirming the Godwin’s law, I should notice that Hitler never mentioned Holocaust directly in Mein Kampf, but it is hardly possible to defend the book on the basis that you have to take additional steps to arrive at the idea of a ‘Final Solution’. Try to do it with the Gospel’s message and ideas of the Nikayas, good luck with that. Any Christian and Buddhist radicalists do not in fact base their ideology on these foundational texts but refer instead to ‘our long history, our sacred tradition’ and later pseudo-historical texts.

Any religion, be it Communism, Buddhism or Krischnaite Hinduism has its bad people who will exploit it to pursue thei evil goals. However, some of them can contain ideas that are more controversial for people of other beliefs, like Godhika Sutta or these verses in Bhagavad Gita. I can easily see how Godhika Sutta may be misused and that is exactly why it needs a commentary that would explicitly condemn a suicide attempt as a stupid and unnecessary, maybe even bad thing to do. In fact, it was indirectly condemned by the Buddha himself who said Ven. Godhika ‘died blamelessly’ because he became an arahant. In otherwords, hadn’t he become one, he would have had to face negative kammic consequences of his act. You, me or any Bhikkhu or Buddhist layperson can easily write this comment any time. Similarly, we can criticize Suttas denigrating women. There will hardly be any Hindu who will condemn Krishna’s words as leading to suffering, so it is our duty to do so. We should not say Bhagavad Gita, Quran, Godhika Sutta, Mein Kampf, Old Testament or any other religious scripture should be banned, we should confuse not people professing these religions with the ideas expressed in these scriptures, but we should honestly evaluate whether these idead can be misused by religious fanatics. ‘Krishna’s’ words can.

Kamma has nothing to do with ethics. It is like the law of gravity. That is why there exist cases where ethical actions lead to terrible kammic results. For example working as a butcher is something perfectly ethical, a normal job just like any other one. The butcher might be a good person trying to find a job, to provide for his family etc. Yet it brings tons of negative kamma.

This is because kamma has nothing to do with ethics. It has to do with tendencies developed. If a person kills animals every day, he develops a certain tendency. He might became a little more cold bloded and not have that little thing that stops one from mutilating other people when conditions for such a thing will arise.

We can easily see how tendencies developed affect us in real life. If one cultivates a tendency for drinking alcohol for a couple of years, his mind will pull in that direction. When conditions will arise (such as a day off from work or a football match) the person will be quick to find an excuse to drink despite wanting to quit.

It is said that it’s not good to speculate about precise workings of kamma. But I think a good way to describe kamma influence in rebirth would be with that certain state one has after been woken up from sleep and trying to sleep again. There is a state that happens rarely, maybe a couple of times a year - when we are waken up from sleep like 2 hours before we should and then try to sleep again. And we neither fall asleep neither are awake, it’s like something in between. And in this state the person will think non-stop about the attachment that has developed in the previous day. If was angry at something the previous day, he will think those hours about that thing. His mind always pulls into the attachment developed in the previous day.

We know that in theravada there is a bardo state that was de-emphasises in the tradition in the struggles of theravada against other schools that believed in a self. This bardo state could have been interpreted to mean a self that gets reborn or the same consciousness that gets reborn. But nevertheless, we do have this bardo state well established in the suttas. So I suppose this bardo state is similar to the half-dreaming/half-awake state described above. The being will be less consciousness than normally, more driven by instincts and past conditioning like an animal and will go in a place dependent on the attachment that it has developed. Maybe this is why it is said that the state of mind at the moment of death is important, but also the whole life and also even kamma from before that could overwrite this newly formed kamma. Probably if we get into that half-sleep/haf-awake state that I described, 1 out of 10 times our mind will be pulled towards something other than what we did in the previous day.

As for kamma of killing ISIS fighters - it is mixed kamma. The intention might be good but still develop bad tendencies. In our life, we are forced to sometimes produce mixed kamma. We can not always produce only good kamma. So what a person should do is try to get in life conditions that do not require him to do too much questionable kamma. But if he is in such a situation, then he should be pragmatic and make the best out of it not produce bad kamma by inaction out of rigidly klinging to rules and vows. Every situation is different and it really depends on the situation, there are no general rules about it other than been pragmatic. In the suttas, there was even a general who was a stream enterer and he continued to be a general.

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Killing bacteria?

The Buddha teaching is Majjahima patipada or middle path. It does not go to such extreme as not killing a living being as small as a bateria that the bare eyes can’t see.

When a monk is ordained he should not intentionally deprive a living
thing of life, even if it is only an ant." (

The key word here is “ant” and “intentionally”.

As for question 2,3,4, use the Buddha teaching “simile of the saw” should help.

"Monks, even if bandits were to savagely sever you, limb by limb, with a double-handled saw, even then, whoever of you harbors ill will at heart would not be upholding my Teaching. Monks, even in such a situation you should train yourselves thus: ‘Neither shall our minds be affected by this, nor for this matter shall we give vent to evil words, but we shall remain full of concern and pity, with a mind of love, and we shall not give in to hatred. On the contrary, we shall live projecting thoughts of universal love to those very persons, making them as well as the whole world the object of our thoughts of universal love — thoughts that have grown great, exalted and measureless. We shall dwell radiating these thoughts which are void of hostility and ill will.’ It is in this way, monks, that you should train yourselves."

MN 21
MN 28

This is an interesting thread with interesting questions and it seems some amazing thinkers answering. My feeling is this, do what is compassionate, do what is loving and do what is good. The question of what is good, has been around for a very very long time.

In this case we are being asked if it is Ok to kill that which is causing great pain, devestation and anguish - is it Ok if this is the lesser of two evils, is it OK if it is apparently our duty as a warrior fighting for what is apparently good. The answers so far are wonderful but I can’t really see anyone questioning the very root assumptions of worldly experience. It seems everyone is agreed that in a secular sense this can all be discussed philosophically but in the practical world an action must be taken and unfortunatley it may be the action of lesser evil. I question that. I believe the reality we experience is a mixture of our beliefs, and our greater truth. If we find ourselves in an arena of war it is because of our inner conflict. So if we find ourselves in war we need to understand what it is in our beliefs that put us there. Our beliefs create our experience to a great extent.

If we find ourselves in war it will be because we no longer know that all are valid equally and do not have to compete for their validity in existance. If we find ourselves in battle it may be due to a dualistic belief system, a prejudicial belief system, a fear based belief system and a belief that potential is in some way limited in this life. Whether we say it is our karma that this is our circumstance, " the moment point" (as Jane Roberts would write) is where we can see our limiting beliefs and change them to harmonise with the unlimited truth of our being, with the truth that we are all a part of each other. Now if we are about to have a spear thrown into our chest we need to act, or if a partner is threatened we must act. Rather than letting it get to that point we need to understand our power to change our circumstance by changing our beliefs. Discussions as this or ancient texts such as the bhagavad gita should help us to start doing this. We are responsible for the situation we are in. Whoever we meet we have scripted in to the play of our experience through our beliefs. If we meet conflict it is due to our inner conflict and our belief we are not able to live as we area in harmony with all that is.

If we kill (though there is no death, there is no slayer and there is no slain) this is our responsibility and if we allow ourselves to be killed this is our responsibility. As there is no death this means really that we intend to slay with such conviction that we immediately reap the pain of that highly developed (or “manifested”) intent. What we do to another we do immediately to ourselves. If we think we have therefor smite the enemy and they are not there anymore all we have done is blinded ourselves to their existance and blinded ourselves to their beauty. We have not actually rid ourselves of the problem, indeed we have created more hardship and pain.

We are able to live in harmony and be well. It is killing to purposefully take antibiotics with the intent to kill bacteria. Bacteria like all that is, is conscious and sentient. If we think we cannot be whole or safe unless we kill we at war constantly. Instead the thing to do would be to find out why we are unwell and heal the spiritual aspect, and the disharmonious belief that has brought the illness. Ilness is just an expression of inner conflict. We do not need to concentrate on killing as this will not heal us nor will it be benefitial anywhere. We need to concentrate on wellness, harmony, love, peace and creative expression of the beauty of our being.

There is no difference between trying to kill bacteria and trying to kill on a battlefield. There is no difference between taking weeds out of your backyard in prejudice to their existance and targeting a group of other humans who you feel to be evil and fighting them. There will not be fullfillment nor answers in this. Most of all it tears at our heart, blanks out our natural compassion and leaves us in a circle of pain and suffering.

No matter what the answer as to whether it is right to kill, it will not be found in whether you get bad karma or not. The answer will be found in realising your love and your loving truth. The loving truth is that all is beauty and all is self, (or God, or whatever name you give it). The only answers come when you are in love with what is felt to be “the other” (even when in truth there is no other than self). It is fully practical to work on beliefs to change your reality so as not to find yourself in war and not to need to then defend yourself or another in a way which is violent in turn.