The Mafia Precepts


I’m starting to get over my jet lag from my trip to California last week. But I think I lost some money when I changed my cash over from Ohio currency to California dollars and then back again. When the clerk at the LA airport’s Currency Exchange handed my California money over I told him that it looked just like Ohio money. But he assured me the sophisticated natives of the West could tell the difference even if rubes like me from Ohio could not. He was really nice and helpful, so I gave him a big tip in California money, of course!

When I got back home, I received the following question from someone who’d been at my talk at Against The Stream.

I have a question about something you said during your talk. You jokingly mentioned contracts and mafia hit men, but then you said there was a possibility that a hit could be justified. I’m paraphrasing but I understood it to mean that murder can be justified at times and I’m testing my understanding. If that’s what you meant, how does that fall in line with the precepts?

I was just thinking out loud. Often when I give a talk on the precepts I say that pretty much any job you do can be done according to the precepts. I often make a joke after saying that about how perhaps the job of mafia hit man could not.

It occurred to me as I said it this time that perhaps even mafia hit men have a role in society. They kill other mafia guys. And the fewer mafia guys there are, the better. Probably. Or maybe not. Because it was the Japanese mafia, the yakuza, who were among the first to deliver aid to the people hardest hit by last year’s earthquakes in Japan. Governments — especially the Japanese one — move slowly and inefficiently. The yakuza can move quickly.

What I’m getting at is that this karmic stuff is very complex. I think it’s a mistake to imagine we know what’s good in every instance. Sometimes things that appear to be evil really aren’t evil. Sometimes they really are evil.

If someone followed the precepts, it would be nearly impossible to be a mafia hit man, I think. Maybe absolutely impossible. But then I think about military people. I couldn’t do that job myself. But I am very grateful that there still are people who can. Otherwise we’d live in a world of total chaos. I wish that were not the case. And I think some day we won’t need militaries anymore. Though I think it will be far in the future. And in certain cases, like Japan after the earthquakes, organized crime starts to function almost like the military when the military can’t do their jobs. And much like hit men, the job of most people who serve in the military is to be prepared to kill other human beings and often to actually kill them when ordered to do so.

Unlike the military, in which many Buddhists serve, I don’t imagine there are any precept-following mafia hit men. But I also think it’s not a good idea to point at someone else and say, “She has broken the precepts.” Because you don’t know all the details. You might be able to say that in really obvious situations, like when talking about Nazi concentration camp commandants. That one I can’t come up with any justification for at all. If that one is like 99.999% certain (I’d say 100% but I want to allow for circumstances I can’t conceive of*), I’d rate mafia hit man as perhaps 97% certain. Depending on the hit in question. Maybe he’s been called in to rub out a guy who killed a dozen civilians and will certainly do it again unless he’s killed first. There’s a small margin there of uncertainty.

As a Buddhist I don’t view people as discreet entities who exist over time. At each individual moment we are something different from what we were just a moment before. Sometimes a mafia hit man isn’t a mafia hit man. Perhaps he’s a father out swimming with his kids, or a guy mowing his grandmother’s lawn. In moments like these he’s upholding the precepts and should be honored for doing so.

I feel like we should only apply the precepts to our own actions and not to the actions of others. This is extremely important. I can see no good at all coming from pointing out that someone else isn’t upholding our ideas about the precepts.

I know this first hand because I’m often accused of violating the precepts, especially the one that says we should not criticize other Buddhists. But the intention of this precept is to keep the peace within the monastic community. It means I’m not supposed to start talking shit about the guy who sits on the other side of the zendo. It’s not meant to shield people who abuse the good name of Buddhism to put forth dangerous money-making scams.

Accusing me of violating the precepts doesn’t really say anything. It’s an attempt to shame me into shutting up without really addressing the core issue. Instead it might be more effective to tell me why I’m wrong about these guys. But very few have attempted that.

In a wider sense I think that accusing others of violating the precepts is always like that. It’s ineffective and useless. If you think you see that going on, you might instead try to address the matter at hand directly and without resorting to shaming tactics that won’t work anyway.

As for mafia hit men, I generally try to stay out of their way.

* This exception to the rule about concentration camp commandants was pointed out in the comments section by Lubob.

75 Responses

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  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 20, 2012 at 9:49 am | |

    Take that Harry!

  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 20, 2012 at 9:55 am | |

    Its funny how you say youre 97% sure a mafia hitman couldnt do his job following the precepts, but a soldier can. Both just follow orders and kill people, most often without any justification at all. Sure, they usually just kill other hitmen/soldiers (except americans, you seem to like to shoot civilians every now and then just for sport), but is "being an enemy" reason enough to justify killing? Who is this enemy anyway who deserves to die?

    I could see justified violence in defending yourself or others from immediate harm, but that is rarely the case in war where you kill someone because you are ordered to – regardless of who or where they are or what theyre doing, and never in the wars the US has fought since … I dont know, 1800s?

  3. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 20, 2012 at 10:01 am | |

    I am on to your tricks Bunny-boy. You are not going to get a rise out of me this time..

    But I must say that your essay isn't in keeping with my ideas about the precepts and you are totally wrong and inauthentic. Thank you.

  4. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 20, 2012 at 10:03 am | |

    Who is Thich Naht Hanh?

  5. Brad Warner
    Brad Warner March 20, 2012 at 10:07 am | |

    I could see justified violence in defending yourself or others from immediate harm, but that is rarely the case in war where you kill someone because you are ordered to – regardless of who or where they are or what theyre doing, and never in the wars the US has fought since … I dont know, 1800s?

    Like I said, it's a complex thing.

    I would not want to live in a major country that had no military. Nor would I want to live in one that had no police force (who are also often ordered to kill). Such a country would be too chaotic to live in. That's a fact.

    It's also a fact that Buddhism has only ever flourished in nations that had strong militaries. When the Indian military declined, Buddhism in that country was demolished, temples were burned, and monks and nuns were slaughtered.

    Stephen Batchelor wrote a really good piece about this. But I can't find it now. I think it was called something like "Empty Spaces."

    But in searching for it, I found out I'm cited on Answers.com!

  6. jwalker1967
    jwalker1967 March 20, 2012 at 10:23 am | |

    In the words of Gandalf, "Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends."

    In twelve-step groups, calling out someone who isn't abiding by the precepts is called "taking someone else's inventory." I can't do anything about what you're doing, but I can (barely, and with great effort) have at least some effect on my own actions.

    Or, to quote Jesus, "Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?" I love the image of some guy walking around with a huge log poking out of his face, running into doorways and such.

  7. anon #108
    anon #108 March 20, 2012 at 10:24 am | |

    It is now possible to LOOK INSIDE Mike Luetchford's book "Between Heaven and Earth" by going here:

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Between-Heaven-Earth-Nagarjuna-Dogen/dp/0952300257/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid;=1332263886&sr;=8-2

    and clicking "click to LOOK INSIDE".

    As readers may recall from the comment section of Brad's previous blog post, I wrote a review of the book and put it on amazon. It includes some critical comments about Brad and Gudo Nishijima – precept-breaking comments, arguably. But I haven't taken the precepts! I can do what the hell I like – and nothing bad will ever happen :D!!!

  8. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 20, 2012 at 10:26 am | |

    The Answers.com link didn't say anything about you. When searching your name, Brad Warner I got, Who starred in Wild Palms (1993)?

    I think they meant 'Hairy Palms."

  9. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 20, 2012 at 10:41 am | |

    "taking someone else's inventory"

    thanks :)

  10. ryanbaka
    ryanbaka March 20, 2012 at 11:10 am | |

    are hit men even buddhists? why is there a concern about them following a belief they dont even have?

  11. Mumon
    Mumon March 20, 2012 at 11:10 am | |

    Jake Adelstein, has had his problems with Goto Tadamasa, who claims to be a former yakuza.

    As I understand it, one's studying to be a Buddhist priest, the other seems to be.

    I don't think much of yakuza behavior's justifiable via the precepts.

  12. buddy
    buddy March 20, 2012 at 11:12 am | |

    Apparently cities that have cracked down on the mafia have seen a rise in youth gangs to fill the void. These tend to lack the uh 'values' of the old guys, stealing, raping and murdering indiscriminately. I've of some instances where the police have made deals to leave the old guys (Hell's Angels as well as mafia) alone if they get rid of the gangbangers. So yeah, there is a lot of moral ambiguity in these situations.

  13. buddy
    buddy March 20, 2012 at 11:13 am | |

    oops, i've 'heard' of

  14. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 20, 2012 at 11:18 am | |

    For a really good luck at the Yakuza, read Tokyo Vice. Mr.Warner probably knows more about than many, given his time in Japan. But it's an eye-opener for those of us who tend to think of them only as the Japanese Mafia.

  15. Harry
    Harry March 20, 2012 at 11:24 am | |

    Brad: "Instead it might be more effective to tell me why I'm wrong about these guys. But very few have attempted that."

    Hi Brad,

    Well, the pursuit of simple 'rights' and 'wrongs' is often thin gruel in a complex situation, but in regard to your more unsophisticated and inflammatory outbursts (e.g. "Fuck you Genpo Roshi") I think you answer your own question in this blog post:

    "As a Buddhist I don't view people as discreet entities who exist over time. At each individual moment we are something different from what we were just a moment before. Sometimes a mafia hit man isn't a mafia hit man. Perhaps he's a father out swimming with his kids, or a guy mowing his grandmother's lawn. In moments like these he's upholding the precepts and should be honored for doing so."

    When you seek to raise people's heckles with roughly handled 'them and us' type diatribe for whatever reason then sophisticated, contextualised viewpoints like that expressed above are generally trampled on and lost.

    Regards,

    Harry.

  16. Moni
    Moni March 20, 2012 at 11:25 am | |
  17. Max Entropy
    Max Entropy March 20, 2012 at 11:30 am | |

    The Five Classes Of Vows:

    1) Precept

    2) Cept

    3) Postcept

    4) Except

    5) Accept

  18. The flak our hero expected (heroically)
    The flak our hero expected (heroically) March 20, 2012 at 11:43 am | |

    What a surprise! I trotted on down to that amazon 'review' and…

    "I speculate… I speculate… But there is, of course, little value in speculation."

    Jiblet-Mike's little Jiblet's gonna find the value in wincing at what his brittle, legalistic prose reeks of one day.

    Will we get more of those suspect, learned admissions that he's comfortable with his own foibles, clotted attempts to face-save using ironic self-deprecation, tinged with ever-lurking bitchiness? Hey we might even get some wiki-psycho-babble about his personality type, rounded off with a nudge-and-a-wink smiley!

    Aw, go on, what would this comments section be without those good old 'functioning' Buddhists telling it how it is? ;D

  19. Harry
    Harry March 20, 2012 at 12:00 pm | |

    P.s. Can't believe number 1 guy/gal wasted the Dharma Jewel Spot on rubbing my nose in it.

    Yes, I'm hurting now, but as Buddha is my witness, The Treasure Eye Dharma Position will be mine again!

    H.

  20. Indigo
    Indigo March 20, 2012 at 12:05 pm | |

    That sounds about right. The important point is to recognize that each person is on their own path, the path their karma generates. Not one of us can sit in the High Seat and pass judgment on another.

  21. anon #108
    anon #108 March 20, 2012 at 12:24 pm | |

    Jiblet-Mike's little Jiblet's gonna find the value in wincing at what his brittle, legalistic prose reeks of one day.

    Thanks, flak, for your insightful response, one of the ones I'd been expecting but had given almost up on.

    I'm no stranger to wincing at my brittle legalistic prose. But it's the best I can do, and I figure I gotta do something, sometimes.

    Aw, go on, what would this comments section be without those good old 'functioning' Buddhists telling it how it is? ;D

    From one good old 'functioning' Buddhist to another – quite :)

  22. anon #108
    anon #108 March 20, 2012 at 12:37 pm | |

    Flak, you're right about the sentence "But there is, of course, little value in speculation." Very poor. I've just taken it out. Thanks.

  23. James Swanson
    James Swanson March 20, 2012 at 1:53 pm | |

    If there are police and military, doesn't somebody have to decide who dies and who lives? So given that, don't we have a moral responsibility to make those judgements? We certainly can't just leave it to the "experts". So given that the US military is clearly an offensive and not defensive force, I think it is fair to say that joining the US military is immoral. After all, if you join you give up your free will and agree to let politicians tell you to kill for corporate concerns.

    I think the real point is not to condemn the soldier, gangster, policeman, or politician as less than human or not worthy of compassion. That does not let them off the hook for their actions.

    It may be messy but we have a duty to try to understand and to prevent suffering. You can't just stand by and say maybe the gangster is doing a good thing and watch him shoot someone in the face if you could stop him.

  24. Mysterion
    Mysterion March 20, 2012 at 2:23 pm | |

    good post

    the precepts apply only to those who follow – or try to follow – the path.

    likewise, the so-called 'ten commandments' apply to those who follow the cult of Moses.

    in fact, spell 125 from the "The Book of Going Forth by Day" applies to ancient Egyptians and does not apply in these days of modern times.

    given that Japan has three classes of untouchables, they have to do something to make a living. there are worse things than pimping whores and running gambling halls.

    I was born in Reno – a different culture. Aside from federal law, in my youth, only the laws of Nevada applied.

  25. mister itchy
    mister itchy March 20, 2012 at 2:37 pm | |

    One of the precepts actually says not to "speak of the faults of others."

  26. boubi
    boubi March 20, 2012 at 2:41 pm | |

    Mafia killing mafia doesn't clean society of gangsters it just selects tougher gangsters through elimination of the stupider or weaker.

    The yakuza was the first in helping people.

    So what?

    The colombian cocaine overlord Pablo Escobar was the main contributor to social works in Medellin, schools, hospitals and so on. Like a lot of other mafias.

    So what?

    Dictators of the XXth century were among the first to create social security in Europe.

    So what?

    for sure "Sometimes a mafia hit man isn't a mafia hit man. Perhaps he's a father out swimming with his kids, or a guy mowing his grandmother's lawn. In moments like these he's upholding the precepts and should be honored for doing so."

    For sure at other moments he is ALSO a father a son and so on, but so what?

    This guy just murdered someone the day before. It's what somebody called the plainness of evil (sorry for the translation).

    But if we start to talk about karma everything get its own justification. "It's karma the good will bloom and the bad will be purged" and we lost all and every meaning of social responsability.

  27. boubi
    boubi March 20, 2012 at 2:45 pm | |

    It's also a fact that Buddhism has only ever flourished in nations that had strong militaries. When the Indian military declined, Buddhism in that country was demolished, temples were burned, and monks and nuns were slaughtered.

    Fact is that it was the islamic invasions that destroyed the buddhist monastries universities and exterminated the monks and nuns in India.

  28. Harry
    Harry March 20, 2012 at 3:15 pm | |

    "But if we start to talk about karma everything get its own justification. "It's karma the good will bloom and the bad will be purged" and we lost all and every meaning of social responsability."

    On the notion and workings of 'karma': The Buddha didn't teach karma as some sort of universal order. He taught it very much in contrast to that then prevalent view, and so challenged the rather restrictive social implications of it i.e. the caste system (the meachanistic idea of karma as some sort universal balancing agent is still popular among Buddhists however, for whatever reason).

    Karma, as taught by the Buddha, was simply a observable 'law' of human mental volition and its results… the cause and effects of our intentional actions in our own person. Other wider areas of cause and effect, such as natural laws, were explained in later Buddhist theory by other percieved laws.

    From our wiki pal: "The Buddha's theory of karmic action and effect did not encompass all causes (S. hetu) and results (S. vip?ka). Any given action may cause all sorts of results, but the karmic results are only that subset of results which impinges upon the doer of the action as a consequence of both the moral quality of the action and the intention behind the action."

    Of course, the Buddha subscribed to the view that we were affected by karma from previous lives as part of the then world view. Of more practical importance, maybe, he taught a way of freeing ourselves from being irresistably bound to the results in ourselves of our past intentional actions.

    Regards,

    H.

  29. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 20, 2012 at 3:23 pm | |
  30. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 20, 2012 at 3:30 pm | |
  31. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 20, 2012 at 3:35 pm | |
  32. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 20, 2012 at 3:39 pm | |
  33. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 20, 2012 at 3:51 pm | |

    "For if the bulk of the public were really convinced of the illegitimacy of the State, if it were convinced that the State is nothing more nor less than a bandit gang writ large, then the State would soon collapse to take on no more status or breadth of existence than another Mafia gang. Hence the necessity of the States employment of ideologists; and hence the necessity of the States age-old alliance with the Court Intellectuals who weave the apologia for State rule."
    Murray Rothbard

  34. Seagal Rinpoche
    Seagal Rinpoche March 20, 2012 at 5:15 pm | |

    In the dharmic nature of dharmas there are no common people, nor anyone other than common people, no Buddhas nor anyone other than Buddhas.

  35. Yoda Yoda
    Yoda Yoda March 20, 2012 at 5:33 pm | |

    now Sea Gull Rim Shottie quotes "The large sutra on perfect wisdom" (using divisions from the Abhisamay?la?k?ra…)

    Chapter 81, VIII, 5, 25

    I am impressed – as a shoe on the newly vacuumed carpet leaves an impression.

  36. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 20, 2012 at 5:41 pm | |

    Images for last three posts:

    3) Monk hitting bowl and causing purple question mary to appear

    really says…

    What is sound?

    2) Dude in bunny suit wearing leather jacket

    really says…

    What's he wearing under that? Just tidy-whiteys?

    1) Bunch of tatooed guys wearing white thongs

    really says…

    __________________________________
    (fill in your answer)

  37. Harry
    Harry March 20, 2012 at 5:49 pm | |

    'causing purple question mary to appear'.

    I definitely want to start a cult of Purple Question Mary now. It's time we had more coloured religious icons. Ask Madonna (not the one with child).

  38. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 20, 2012 at 7:08 pm | |

    LOL
    Best typo comment eva :)

    Henceforth I will think of her at the end of every sit.

  39. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 20, 2012 at 8:06 pm | |

    Henceforth I will think of her at the end of every shit.

  40. Mysterion
    Mysterion March 20, 2012 at 8:21 pm | |

    Question purple mary?

    I thought Mary was Blue – ultramarine.

    After all, Mary – Aphrodite – is the sea!

  41. lubob
    lubob March 21, 2012 at 5:25 am | |

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  42. lubob
    lubob March 21, 2012 at 5:26 am | |

    Brad wrote:
    You might be able to say that in really obvious situations, like when talking about Nazi concentration camp commandants. That one I can't come up with any justification for at all. If that one is like 99.999% certain (I'd say 100% but I want to allow for circumstances I can't conceive of)

    … and Brad is right. In a small village next the city where I spent my youth lives Erwin Dold, a former Nazi Concentration Camp Commander. He got the job by accident and spent all the years saving as many as he could – obviously putting his own life at risk every day.

    He was the only commander of a Concentration Camp who after the war received a verdict of not being guilty. During the trial former prisoners broke into tears and begged for his live.

    Nevertheless the story was not known until the 80ths as he did not talk about it by himself. He never wrote a book, he does not give talks and there were afaik only few interviews. As often in such cases where an honorable man does something extraordinary his personal statement was something like: "I didn't do anything special. I just did what everyone else had done in my situation."

    Unfortunately there is only information in German. Use Google translate for learning more:
    http://www.swr.de/nicht-alle-waren-moerder/barrierefreie-version/rolf-erwin-redlich/schicksale/erwin-dold.html

  43. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote March 21, 2012 at 7:51 am | |

    Thanks for that, lubob, and thanks Brad, for posting a link.

    Just when I thought I knew right from wrong, and what to do, I'm back at square one. Prickly all over, an underdog visit brings me back to my senses- such as they are. Rice and tea, that would be good.

  44. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote March 21, 2012 at 8:15 am | |

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  45. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote March 21, 2012 at 8:16 am | |

    Something for the horse buffs out there:

    horse back

  46. john e mumbles
    john e mumbles March 21, 2012 at 10:50 am | |

    Impossibly relevant to this post?

    Just read an amazing hit-man spy novel like no other. Laird Hunt's (just reissued in paper by Coffeehouse Press) THE IMPOSSIBLY. Highly rec.*****

    http://www.amazon.com/Impossibly-Laird-Hunt/dp/1566892813

  47. Mysterion
    Mysterion March 21, 2012 at 6:07 pm | |

    Lubob: I take it that a documentary (or a docu-drama) is being filmed in which the character "Erwin Dodd" appears. Perhaps it will arrive on our shores with American English subtitles so that we folks whut read can follow it.

    I know that Hanna Reitsch once said of Germans and WWII:

    "Many Germans feel guilty about the war. But they don't explain the real guilt we share – that we lost."

    Hanna Reitsch is the pilot that was in the right place at the right time to fly Hitler out of Berlin and Germany. For those of you that think Hitler lived out his life in South America, she plays a starring role.

    My dad always thought Hitler retired to Paraguay.

    The Great Escape

    We already knew Grand Pappy Bush and Hitler were close economic allies.

  48. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote March 21, 2012 at 9:03 pm | |

    no we didn't know that, thanks Mysterion.

  49. proulx michel
    proulx michel March 22, 2012 at 4:16 am | |

    Well, Prescott Bush (father of George and grandpa of George Dubiu) was the Nazis banker, and lost his civic rights for a short time after the war.
    But the real inspirator of the Nazis was Henry Ford, who published such rabid antisemitic books that his Board ended up asking him to publish them under a pseudonym because it started to damage their sales. While his German factories never ceased producing lorries for the Wehrmacht, Ford refused to sell aeroplane motors to the British.
    Also, the Wehrmacht never was deprived of C**a-Cola, until the severed links with Atlanta (no more concentrate!) forced C**a-Cola Deutschland to invent a surrogate: Fanta.

  50. Mysterion
    Mysterion March 22, 2012 at 8:30 am | |

    proulx michel said…

    "Well, Prescott Bush"

    Ford,

    and IBM – without tabulating machines from IBM

    and now the right wing again attempts to blame the victims!

    god loves idiots… he created so many.

    ROFLMAO

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