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. Fred
    Fred March 22, 2012 at 9:27 am |

    Yes, and I still don't know it, but

  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 22, 2012 at 9:56 am |

    Just thanks 🙂

  3. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 22, 2012 at 10:29 am |

    Well done Harry

  4. Megan
    Megan March 22, 2012 at 10:46 am |


    keeping tabs on you.

  5. Stalin
    Stalin March 22, 2012 at 11:40 am |

    Who was bad ass enough to compare to before Hitler/Nazis came along, Ghengis Khan? Vlad the Impaler? Pol Pot? no, that was later. uh,

  6. Mysterion
    Mysterion March 22, 2012 at 1:13 pm |

    In Deuteronomy 7:2, the command is given to utterly destroy the Canaanites and to show them no mercy.

    (BTW, it's only Biblical – it never really happened)

    "Following 70 years of intensive excavations in the Land of Israel, archaeologists have found out: The patriarchs' acts are legendary stories, we did not sojourn in Egypt or make an exodus, we did not conquer (Canaan) the land. Neither is there any mention of the empire of David and Solomon. Those who take an interest have known these facts for (many) years, but Israel is a stubborn people and doesn't want to hear about it."

  7. Mysterion
    Mysterion March 22, 2012 at 1:23 pm |

    The Armenian genocide (by the Turks).

    The Armenian Genocide: A Complete History – By Raymond Kévorkian

    We humans have a long and well-respected tradition of genocide. Since tribal times, we have taken pride in utterly decimating that which is not like us – immigrants come to mind. Whether Irish, Italian, Polish, Asian, or Mexican, immigrants have often been the targets of choice in American History.


  8. God
    God March 22, 2012 at 2:30 pm |

    Mysterion! You miss the point entirely! The cults of Jehovah is built on faith, not mere "facts." "Facts" can be manipulated, but faith resides true in the heart of the believer.

  9. Orthodox God
    Orthodox God March 22, 2012 at 2:57 pm |

    And god said, as he was selling a used Edsel to a pregnant hooker on her way to a Nixon convention:

    "trust me."

  10. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 22, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
  11. Jinzang
    Jinzang March 22, 2012 at 7:00 pm |

    More blog whoring.

    I meant to explain what emptiness is in my previous blog post in addition to why it is important. But I ran out of steam. So tonight I try to explain what emptiness is, as far as I understand it.

  12. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 22, 2012 at 7:04 pm |

    "I meant to explain what emptiness is in my previous blog post in addition to why it is important. But I ran out of steam. So tonight I try to explain what emptiness is, as far as I understand it."

    Read it…
    twas a bit wordy:3

  13. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 22, 2012 at 7:18 pm |

    mysterion said, "

    Spoken like a Zen Goebbels.

  14. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 22, 2012 at 8:37 pm |


    I liked your post, thanks.

    Is there a connection between emptiness and impermanence?


  15. Fred
    Fred March 23, 2012 at 4:15 am |

    Jinzang wrote
    "Because the mind which is empty is not separate from the awareness which cognizes itself, it is said that emptiness and luminosity are an inseparable unity, hence the expression luminous emptiness."

    Hence the backward step into the

  16. anon #108
    anon #108 March 23, 2012 at 4:20 am |

    Hi Jinz,

    Why does this:

    Emptiness is misunderstood if it is taken to mean…some positive state achieved during meditation.

    not apply to this:

    …through meditation one can directly perceive the emptiness of mind during meditation. When the mind directly apprehends its own emptiness it transcends all conceptual filters and rests in a singular state that is called luminosity…hence the expression luminous emptiness.

    Regardless, it seems to me that what you're saying is not incompatible with what Mike L says about emptiness (he's certainly not saying that the state in zazen we can describe as 'emptiness' has any inherent existence).

  17. Jinzang
    Jinzang March 23, 2012 at 5:15 am |

    s there a connection between emptiness and impermanence?

    Impermanence is incompatible with inherent existence, because anything which existed inherently, rather than as a result of other phenomena, could not cease, as it would have the cause of its existence inside itself.

    So anything that is impermanent is empty of inherent existence.

  18. Jinzang
    Jinzang March 23, 2012 at 5:21 am |

    Why does this … not apply to this?

    What I was trying say is that emptiness is not some attribute of deep meditation, such as its indescribabilty, purity, or bliss. The mind is always empty of a self and it does not become more empty as we meditate. It's simply that we become aware of what the mind has always been when we meditate.

  19. anon #108
    anon #108 March 23, 2012 at 5:43 am |

    I'm not sure that the mind has always been anything, Jinz…

    But I think we're agreed on this bit: "emptiness is not some attribute of deep meditation, such as its indescribabilty, purity, or bliss"

    In fact we may be agreed on a whole lot. Words are treacherous.

  20. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 24, 2012 at 6:17 pm |

    This emptiness talk is bullshit. You can't explain it. We just don't know anything.

  21. Pigasus
    Pigasus March 26, 2012 at 11:59 am |

    There is a story out there somewhere of a certain Bodhisattva who kills someone on a ship in the middle of the sea in order to save the other people on the ship…why didn't I pay more attention!?

    This story was about the paramitas and it was illustrating how a Bodhisattva renounces everything- even their purity- to save all beings and how we never know what that might look like.

    Brad, great post! Please give us more of this.

    Big bow!

  22. Mysterion
    Mysterion March 26, 2012 at 12:24 pm |

    It's Sea Gull Rimshotie

    as in quickie cookie (a local east asian fast food place that was closed by the board of health after sending a few curious folks to the hospital – really nothing more than moderate food poisoning)

    If you don't get Rimshotie right when you borrow Steve's alter ego, I'm going to have Steve come around with his 7 super powers and put you in a bitch-slapped wrist lock – or maybe just sit on you sofa and crush it into a pile of useless garbage with the sheer weight of his magnetic personality.

    or not.

  23. ghulam sarwar
    ghulam sarwar April 3, 2012 at 11:51 pm |

    thank you for sharing

  24. sameer
    sameer April 3, 2012 at 11:52 pm |

    nice work

Comments are closed.