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.