War and Kamma: Ven. Thanissaro and Ven. Bodhi's essays

Thanissaro Bhikkhu recently posted an essay here: At War with the Dhamma

It appears to be a response to Bhikkhu Bodhi’s recent essay, Buddhism, Nonviolence, and the Moral Quandary of Ukraine - Lions Roar in which he takes a position that the precept against killing may be violated in order to stop and oppose the killing and destruction being caused by violent regimes, using the invasion of Ukraine as an example.
In the essay he especially applies this to Buddhist practitioners who are engaged in a longer path of practice compared to those who are aiming for a shorter, more direct path to liberation.

Ven. Thanissaro, on the other hand, denies that there can ever be a willful violation of this, or any, precept under any circumstances.

Neither Venerable brings up the Buddha’s teachings on bright and dark kamma, and kamma neither bright nor dark, which seems to offer a more complete and practical way of viewing this issue, as in AN4.237
Ven. Sujato has spoken about this (though I’m not sure of there is a specific post), and it seems to make the most sense as a way to meet this challenge from a Dhamma practice standpoint.

But what do people on this forum think?
If you were in Ukraine, particularly as a lay practitioner, would you fight to defend your family and country against people who wanted to take over violently and then run the whole show?
These are actual events and many people, including Buddhist practitioners, are faced with these challenges and choices.
(BTW, I’m not taking or stating a position here to hopefully allow for a more open discussion).


What are the bulleted text blocks in italic? Are they quotes from another writer or hypothetical ideas?

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For those folks who have been following the almost decade long debate between these two venerables on this topic, you might want to know that Bhante Bodhi’s article is

Adapted and updated from a 2014 article by the author in Inquiring Mind.


If helpful, the link to the Bikkhu Bodhi article is here:

The link in the OP is to a podcast discussing Bikkhu Bodhi’s article.

They seem to be paraphrases of arguments Bikkhu Bodhi makes in his article. I would have preferred it was spelled out clearly what the blocks in italics were. As written it is unclear their source.


Thank you!
Appreciate the suggestion.

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Thanks. I’ve incoporated the link into the OP. :pray:

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I think part of what makes this debate so difficult is that it is in reality at least four different debates, each of which is difficult.

  • What is the Buddhist thing to do?
  • What is the right thing to do?
  • Is the right thing to do always the Buddhist thing to do and conversely?
  • Is the least wrong thing to do always the right thing to do, or are there tragic situations where you can only do bad things?

I have no definitive answers to any of these questions.


No. I would leave the country, if I could. The very 1st precept we take on is not to intentionally kill, which is one of the worst acts we can do. What’s the point in having a moral code if you drop it in the most difficult of circumstances? They are supposed to guide you in those situations.


Agree – If there were definitive answers, there probably wouldn’t be ongoing debates between practitioners and Venerables about this. But that was the reason for the post – by discussing and sharing together we may gain some further clarity, perspective, and understanding.

There are many “Buddhist things to do” depending on the form one is practicing. A Mahayana perspective can include ethical choices and actions that are motivated for “the greatest good.” A strict Theravadin perspective, as per Ven. Thanissaro might not.

For me, the four kinds of kamma in AN4.237 point to a useful way of working with this issue, (though not on a micro-level of telling anyone exactly which action to do or not to do in a given situation).
Of course, others may see things differently, and may offer other views and suggestions. :slightly_smiling_face:


Thanks for sharing. :pray:
To be clear, I’m not arguing for anyone to kill or take up arms, but raised the question for responses such as yours and others.

Your position aligns with Ven. Thanissaro. Other Venerables and practitioners have expressed other views.

Indeed. I do think though it doesn’t take much for people to find an excuse to kill things.


One can also look at this situation from a causality or Dependent Arising point of view.

What actions lead to what consequences.

I’d suggest that this is not a static thing, but varies from person to person over time, as well as across circumstances. It also does not occur in a vacuum, but within a context of available choices, and underpinned by sankharas/intention.

I can’t recall the sutta number just now, but there is a sutta I think in SN or AN (I can’t find it just now) where the Buddha is asked a question about whether the same act will have the same consequences for different people - and the answer is - No it won’t…

It is a very complicated situation… For me, I’ve come to the conclusion that compassion is the most important (for others and ourselves)… sometimes there are absolutely no good options ie any choice will result in suffering - part of being in samsara and being subject to conditions. It is also easy to say well - just don’t act in any way - but this also isn’t straight forward, as no action also has consequences and is a ‘choice’.

I find looking at this question from the combined perspective of DA/conditioning, sankharas/intention and kamma (past and future) is very instructive. This is also where understanding non-self really helps reduce the suffering, knowing that one is much less of an independent agent than one may think. Once again compassion is activated.


Thanks for your input and for sharing. :pray:

Agree that every choice is karmic.
I believe the sutta you’re referring to is AN3.100: “In the same way, there is the case where a trifling evil deed done by one individual [the first] takes him to hell; and there is the case where the very same sort of trifling deed done by the other individual is experienced in the here & now, and for the most part barely appears for a moment.”
Notice how the Buddha speaks about a trifling deed.

But in SN42.3, when asked what effects a soldier could expect by killing in battle the Buddha said, "When a warrior strives and struggles in battle, their mind is already low, degraded, and misdirected as they think: ‘May these sentient beings be killed, slaughtered, slain, destroyed, or annihilated!’ His foes kill him and finish him off, and when his body breaks up, after death, he’s reborn in the hell called ‘The Fallen’.

But if you have such a view: ‘Suppose a warrior, while striving and struggling in battle, is killed and finished off by his foes. When his body breaks up, after death, he’s reborn in the company of the gods of the fallen.’ This is your wrong view. An individual with wrong view is reborn in one of two places, I say: hell or the animal realm.”

When he said this, Dustin the warrior chief cried and burst out in tears. "

Still, the question might remain as to the different kammic effects between a person who chooses to attack someone versus the kammic effects when a person is defending themselves and others.

Clearly, the suttas stress the dire consequences of intentional killing. At the same time, the underlying intentions may be mixed – as in taking action to defend those being attacked. Back to AN4.237, as above…


I think the sutta is the next one 3.100 (lump of salt) not 3.99 (Jute) (just a typo :slight_smile: )

This is how it is in the case of a person who does a trivial bad deed, but it lands them in hell. Meanwhile, another person does the same trivial bad deed, but experiences it in the present life, without even a bit left over, not to speak of a lot. …

Mendicants, suppose you say: ‘No matter how this person performs a deed, they experience it the same way.’ This being so, the spiritual life could not be lived, and there’d be no chance of making a complete end of suffering.

Suppose you say: ‘No matter how this person performs a deed, they experience the result as it should be experienced.’ This being so, the spiritual life can be lived, and there is a chance of making a complete end of suffering.”

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Another thing is, what feels right in safety in front of the computer screen might not predict what one actually does in a bad situation.

I really like the idea (e.g. MN 2) of basically just avoiding stuff:

And what are the defilements that should be given up by avoiding? Take a mendicant who, reflecting properly, avoids a wild elephant, a wild horse, a wild ox, a wild dog, a snake, a stump, thorny ground, a pit, a cliff, a swamp, and a sewer. Reflecting properly, they avoid sitting on inappropriate seats, walking in inappropriate neighborhoods, and mixing with bad friends—whatever sensible spiritual companions would believe to be a bad setting.

I think I would just try to avoid warzones, avoid enemy soldiers, etc. avoid having to make an impossible choice :person_shrugging:


Oops! You’re correct and thanks for the correction. :slightly_smiling_face:
I edited the sutta reference in the prior post.

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Agree! Who wouldn’t try to avoid these situations?
But samsara beng what it is…

The issue is how we would meet this kind of challenge from where we are in our Dhamma practice.

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There is a lot to be said for avoiding bad situations. Also people for that matter.

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I think ven. Bodhi is misapplying the two truths doctrine to justify secular ideals than leans towards the western position in relation to the war in Ukraine. Recognizing the complexity of worldly moral dilemmas, he seems to have begun with an absolute of his own: Russia is fully to blame as the invader, then everything else follows from there. What he seems to overlook is that worldly affairs are driven by a vicious cycle of endless justifications where ignorance has no known beginning. Take the Israeli armed forces for example: it is called IDF (Israeli defense forces). Countries go out of their way to label killing their machines as instruments of self defense for a reason. Within that belief system, taking the first military action is not a sure sign of aggression, but could be interpreted as “preemptive”, a noble act of helping the weak (Russian speaking Ukrainians in the East). One could argue that Russia resorted to loving kindness (the Minsk agreement) to no avail. His incessant reference to the Nazis is an old tactic that is used by the Russians, an outcome of a world order (if we can call it such a thing) that is collapsing before our eyes, but he still argues that it could be worth saving through more killing.


Here is a piece of information that appears to undermine Bhikkhu Bodhi’s position

Russian and Ukrainian officials tentatively agreed on a potential peace deal during negotiations back in April 2022, according to a Foreign Affairs article by Fiona Hill and Angela Stent that cited former US officials.

The article reads: “According to multiple former senior US officials we spoke with, in April 2022, Russian and Ukrainian negotiators appeared to have tentatively agreed on the outlines of a negotiated interim settlement.”

The terms of that settlement would have been for Russia to withdraw to the positions it held before launching the invasion on February 24. In exchange, Ukraine would “promise not to seek NATO membership and instead receive security guarantees from a number of countries.”

The tentative deal was the result of in-person peace talks Russian and Ukrainian officials held in Istanbul at the end of March. Virtual talks resumed after the meeting in Istanbul, but the two sides ultimately failed to reach a deal.

A major factor in the failed negotiated settlement was pressure from the West. According to a report from Ukrainska Pravda, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to stop negotiating with Russia when he visited Kyiv on April 9.

According to the report, Johnson told Zelensky that even if Ukraine is ready to sign some agreements on guarantees with Putin, Kyiv’s Western backers are not. The report said that Russia was ready for a meeting between Putin and Zelensky on the potential peace deal, but it became less likely after Johnson’s visit.

Johnson appeared to confirm the Ukrainska Pravda report when he told French President Emmanuel Macron in May that he “urged” Ukraine not to negotiate during his visit to Kyiv. The British leader, who is due to step down in September, visited Kyiv one last time as prime minister in August and again told the Ukrainians not to negotiate with Russia.