1. Religion & Spirituality
Barbara O'Brien

The Jataka Tale of the Compassionate Captain

By May 12, 2011

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I found a commentary by Buddhist chaplain Mikel Ryuho Monnett that ties together two recent themes on this blog -- Jataka Tales and the death of Osama bin Laden. I found a slightly different version of the same Jataka Tale by Stephen Jenkins at The Guardian.

This particular Jataka Tale is one I've heard before, but I've been unable to find exactly where in comes from. If anyone knows, do speak up. But here it is --

Once the Buddha was a ship's captain, and he learned that one of the passengers planned to kill the other passengers.  He thought that if he warned the other passengers, they would get angry and kill the homicidal passenger in a fit of rage, and this would create all manner of unfortunate karma for them. So he killed the would-be murderer himself, but he did so without anger.

The point of this is either that the Buddha took the unfortunate karma upon himself to spare his passengers, or that he generated merit by acting with compassion. Versions of the story seem to differ on that point.

Buddhists through the ages have debated whether it's morally acceptable to kill one being to save the lives of many, or whether the dharma requires us to stand aside and let events take their course rather than break the First Precept. My understanding is that Theravada tends to come down on the "hands off" side of the argument, whereas Mahayana takes a more interventionist position.

The tale about the captain might be construed as a permission slip to go about killing "bad" people. However, dividing humanity into "good" and "bad" is an act of vast ignorance. And it should go without saying that if the act is contaminated by the least bit of greed, hate, or ignorance, there will be unfortunate consequences to the do-er.

I see that Stephen Jenkins contributed a chapter to that dreadful Buddhist Warfare book edited by Michael Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer, although I don't remember what he wrote. But he makes a valid point in his Guardian piece that Buddhism on the whole does not take an absolutist position on not killing.

Our intentions, motivations, frame of mind, understanding, etc., combined with specific conditions may present us with a circumstance in which killing is the most compassionate option. The most common circumstance I can think of might be the animal shelter employee who is required to euthanize an animal that is too aggressive to be adopted. The alternative would be to keep the animal confined to a cage for the rest of its life, which is cruel.

May 12, 2011 at 3:27 pm
(1) Paul says:

Hi Barbara.

The story comes from the Upayakausalya Sutra.

May 13, 2011 at 5:01 am
(2) Hein says:

have not read the Upayakausalya Sutra, but it seems to me that (as everything else in life) the Buddhist precepts are relative principles and not absolute principles.

Although good guidelines to follow a skillful way of life the precepts are not burdens that hangs around one’s neck. The Jataka Tale about the Captain killing the homicidal passenger is a good illustration. The same is true of lying – to safe the life of a person it would be skillful to tell a lie about that person’s wherabouts.

Now I was just wondering; would I (a married man) be breaking the third precept if i went over to “comfort” the very lonely lady that is my neighbour? Ok, just joking but is the third precept absolute? Thus; one should never seek relief for your sexual needs outside wedlock and should also not relief the suffering of another’s sexual needs? Have to confess I cannot think of one instance where the third precept can be considered relative for a married person, unless one have the unambiguous consent from your spouse. Perhaps I am thinking to Puritanical?

May 13, 2011 at 10:41 am
(3) Matt says:

I have discussed this before at the temple I attend during our classes as I work in law enforcement and it is with the clear understanding that I be able to take a life if the need arises (no pun intended). My teacher gave me the ambiguous answer I have become accustomed to, which led me to the understanding that the precepts are necessarily an absolute.

As with many things the Buddha taught, you have to ask questions and perform some introspection before fully understanding. My conclusion was that I would be in the same situation as the Buddha was. If I take the life of someone who is attempting to take the life of another, myself included, it is done with the pure mindset that if I don’t stop him/her now, not only will one life be lost, but potentially more. Therefore I accept that I will receive negative potential, but also accept that my inaction would result in the same, possibly more.

I have been told by others though that it is unacceptable because I am only assuming that this person will commit this act. While I believe this view has merit, I have been trained to assess a situation, formulate a plan, and react, all within a second or two, or even less. So I again accept the potential consequences with the knowledge that it was done free of any hate, anger, ignorance, or greed. Like many actions/inactions, I understand it to be a matter of intent.

May 13, 2011 at 12:21 pm
(4) Barbara O'Brien says:

Matt — if by “absolute” you mean that one must never kill in any circumstances, even to save the lives of others, I disagree (that’s what I mean by absolute). Also, while there’s no clear answer about the karmic consequences of killing as an act of self- or other-defense, I think there is generally agreement that the consequences would be far less negative than if you murdered someone because you were angry with him. Yes, intent is very important.

Somewhere in the Pali Vinaya it says that if a monk is attacked he may defend himself, and if it happens the attacker is killed there is no unfortunate karma generated if the monk did not intend to kill him — if the attacker accidentally tripped during the scuffle and fell off a cliff, for example. If the least bit of intention arises in the monk’s mind, of course, that’s another thing. But it’s not an absolutely black and white issue, seems to me.

May 13, 2011 at 3:55 pm
(5) Matt says:

My apologies Barbara. I just read my original post and it was meant to say, “aren’t necessarily an absolute”.

May 13, 2011 at 2:23 pm
(6) faraldo says:

Can we not ask ourselves WHO is making this decision.Who is discussing this?Follow this to the source and listen.
Otherwise we can convince ourselves of anything AND are wasting time discussing these things.
Also wasting energy making up stories to discuss.
Be here now; and forget about all these mind games. Donīt surpress these thoughts, just watch them and donīt give them a home to continue and to dominate our AWARNESS.
Love to you all

May 13, 2011 at 7:33 pm
(7) Passerby Miao Yin says:

By killing the would-be killer, Buddha saved him from committing the act of killing the five hundred passengers and robbing them of their belongings. He also saved the other passengers from potentially killing the would-be killer. In essence, he saved all from going to hell. The killing of the would-be killer actually was done from the perspective of being compassionate to the would-be killer and to all the other passengers. The killer is being compassionate, not necessarily because he is seeing one party as good and the other party as bad.

Like many things in Buddhist teachings, good and evil are relative, and delusional in nature. All truths are relative, in time, space, and cultural differences. Attachment to one’s own perceived truth is the root cause of practically all of our troubles/wars. The killing of Bin Laden was just as delusional as flying jets into World Trade Towers. They both guarantee that these senseless killings will continue.

May 18, 2011 at 1:04 pm
(8) Cord says:

This is why I come here, to learn and share in the experience of others in their awakening. Such is the joy of taking refuge in the sangha (wherever one may find it).

The Buddha in the story was willing to take on any possible consequences of his action of killing the would-be killer rather than place others in the position of having to decide. He spared all concerned from further suffering

The story reminded me that compassion and kindness should be my guide and to be aware of why I am doing what I am doing.

Would that faraldo have shared his experience and wisdom rather than choosing such an absolute and hard position as you did.

Thank you.

May 14, 2011 at 7:53 am
(9) enlighten says:

[Hate-speech; deleted.]

May 14, 2011 at 9:06 am
(10) Mila says:

… um, with respect, the article you’ve linked to is nothing more than misinformed propoganda — doesn’t even come close to being an honest representation of Tibetan Buddhist practices.

May 14, 2011 at 10:37 am
(11) enlighten says:

[Hate-speech; deleted]

May 16, 2011 at 3:33 am
(12) bhiksuni Ratana says:

This jataka does not appear in the Pali collection, and probably also not in the Tibetan extended version. It may belong to the Hindu lore that also has Jataka tales, sometimes shared by the Buddhists, sometimes not.

May 18, 2011 at 11:42 am
(13) Yeshe says:

Morality is strong, but not likely completely black and white. In any case there is cause and effect. If you kill a would-be killer, you may save some lives. Those saved might still have the karma to be killed sometime, and you may fall off the bodhisattva path by having killed while not free from delusion. This would preclude one from helping many others. There are examples of great beings who could liberate a being into a higher realm while killing their body. This is obviously not a common skill. I would generally say that one should avoid killing. But,with morality in relative existence, there is no absolute clear-cut answer. But there is cause and effect.

May 23, 2011 at 8:46 pm
(14) Seth Segall says:

Barbara, it’s my understanding that this story is not contained in the Jataka tales, but occurs in the Upaya-Kausalya Sutra.

February 13, 2014 at 5:33 am
(15) Johann says:

Its always fantastic not only tp see the intentions for such stories but also there source.
How can people spread such stuff with only a slight of kusala intention? One needs to know that the common person, does not request if such is from a trustworthy resource and a common person seeks for justification of his/here desires an disability. That is very sad to see.

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