Can a good intention override non-virtue?

In our dGongs gcig commentaries we find several samples of quotes that are usually offered by those people who hold that a bodhisattva has the power, or permission, to override non-virtue. The most famous quote is perhaps Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara 5.84cd:

The Merciful One through far-sightedness allowed them [i.e. the bodhisattvas]
even [these activities] that are prohibited [for others].

Well known is also Candragomin’s Bodhisattvasamvaravimshaka (D fol. 167v):

Because they possess compassion and out of love,
there is no fault for those with a virtuous mind.

And again Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara 1.35:

Even through a great [misdeed] no evil can arise for the sons of victors,
[instead] virtue increases by itself.

And Phagmodrupa is quoted with these words:

For the great bodhisattvas who perform great beneficial acts for the sake of others and dwell on the [bodhisattvas’] stages and paths, the seven non-virtuous [deeds] of body and speech are permitted, but the Great Sage, the Lord of Dharma, declared that there is never an opportunity and time when wrong views are permitted.

Typical is also the reference to the well known story of the greatly compassionate captain for whom killing was (alledgedly) no fault, the story of king Kanakavarna for whom there was no fault despite his taking of things not given, and the story of the brahmin Jyotis for whom there was no fault despite his breaking of celibacy (some of these stories will be discussed below).

The general understanding is portrayed in the Rin byang ma. Accordingly the beginning bodhisattva engages in the disciplined conduct of the vows in order to abandon the obscuration of karma. This is done, as in the case of the Buddha, for the duration of one immeasurable eon and until the first bodhisattva level (bhumi) is obtained. Then,

after one has gained strength in that, chiefly the gathering of virtuous factors is practised in order to accomplish completely all ways of (A) making offerings to Buddha, the Exalted One, through the disciplined conduct of the bodhisattva’s dharanis, samadhis, supernormal displays, super-perceptions, and ten powers (dbang rnam pa bcu), and (B) in order to accomplish completely all ways of methods of purifying the Buddhafields and of ripening and liberating sentient beings.

This is again done for the duration of one immeasurable eon and until the eighth bodhisattva level is obtained. “Since thereafter the bodhisattva chiefly brings about the benefit of others, the disciplined conduct of benefiting sentient beings is practised” on the three pure bodhisattva levels again for the period of one immeasurable eon. After obtaining the first bodhisattva level, the bodhisattva is, according to this view, “free from the impediment of falling back (log ltung).” From the eighth bodhisattva level upwards the bodhisattva turns into an expert with regard to methods and “guides the trainees through fitting means in accordance with [the trainees’] aspiration on the path.” If he is, however, not able to place the trainee on the path through the pure (i.e. virtuous) means alone,

that bodhisattva, considering the benefit of others, must guide those sentient beings also by way of the seven non-virtuous actions with body and speech, such as killing, and it is said that no faults arise for him.

In contrast to that, Jigten Gönpo states (dGongs gcig 4.6): “The ‘non-virtuous that does not become a fault’ is not permitted.” This vajra-statement is crucial for the understanding of all of Jigten Gönpo’s teachings of Bodhisattva conduct. I think it is, according to him, first of all necessary to differentiate between ‘being a fault’ and ‘being not permitted.’ The Rin byang ma has in this regard the very clear statement that an activity may be permitted to great bodhisattvas, but faults do arise nonetheless. In such a case, a non-virtuous deed is performed by the bodhisattva, such as killing, “through which, however, [sentient beings’] ripening and liberation of mind occur,” yet “even the Buddha is unable to prevent [the arising of] the result of actions such as killing, because that is the nature.” The crucial point is that the bodhisattva must be able to bear the consequences of his deeds, since such conduct

is permitted from the perspective of whether the bodhisattva[’s conduct] deteriorates through the sufferings of the result of that karma, namely the three lower realms, and whether he is able to bear [the suffering of those realms]. Thus faults arise. Ask yourself: “Will I be able to bear [the suffering] or not?” There is no other question than analysing whether one will be overpowered by sufferings such as hunger, thirst, and freezing and whether one’s virtuous Dharma conduct will [as a result] deteriorate. [Such conduct] is permitted to those bodhisattvas who have obtained tolerance with regard to phenomena, who are ready to remain in hell for immeasurable eons for the sake of each single sentient being, but whose virtuous Dharma conduct would [at the same time] not deteriorate the least through these sufferings.

The rDo sher ma summarises: “the bodhisattvas who have obtained ‘endurance’ are able to remain for limitless eons in the hell of unending torment for the sake of every single sentient being. For such [bodhisattvas] it is allowed [to engage in non-virtuous conduct in order to ripen the beings].” And: “if a single benefit of sentient beings arises because [a bodhisattva] bears the ripening for the sake of each sentient being, that is holding others more dear than oneself.” But how is that ‘endurance’ obtained, through which a bodhisattva is able to bear suffering and avoids at the same time the deterioration of the pure conduct? The rDo sher ma states:

The root of not losing the benefit of oneself and others like that is emptiness and compassion. Therefore, if one in this way familiarises oneself with the quintessence of emptiness and compassion, it occurs like that. Having obtained steadfastness with regard to that, even through the negative results of having engaged forcefully [e.g. engaged in killing], it occurs that the ripening and liberation of sentient beings is thereby caused. It is necessary that with regard to that one makes the root of emptiness and compassion stable.

Thus we can indeed speak of a ‘permission’ here, but only when the bodhisattva is able to bear the consequences of the non-virtuous deed that he performs in order to ripen and liberate sentient beings and only when the ensuing sufferings do not destroy the basis of his bodhisattvahood. An example of such an action is the killing of the deceptive merchant by the merciful captain. When the deceptive merchant is about to kill the other 500 merchants, the merciful captain kills him to prevent the ripening of the bad karma of killing 500 people in him. Thereby not only is the deceptive merchant now without that karma, but also no other person has to kill him and to bear the consequences. Yet the merciful captain himself has to bear the suffering of hell for committing a non-virtuous deed, and even when he is later born as the Buddha himself, a final consequence of that karma is that he pierces his foot with an acacia thorn (Skt. khacira).

It should be noted, however, that according to some later commentators not only did the merciful captain not commit a fault, but rather gathered plenty of merit (such an interpretation can be found e.g. in the Bodhisattvabhumi, Wogihara 166-9-12). But Jigten Gönpo does not follow that interpretation. Two things are certain for him in this context. Firstly, that the killing is necessarily a non-virtuous act, even though it is done out of a generally compassionate motivation. Rigdzin Chökyi Dragpa states in the context of dGongs gcig 4.7: “If the great merciful captain, even though [his] motivation at the time of the cause is the benefit of beings, does not cultivate the motivation at the time [of the actual deed, namely] hatred, he cannot stab [with his] weapon.” Secondly it is clear for Jigten Gönpo that such an act must therefore have painful consequences for the bodhisattva. In this he can rely on a sutra from the Ratnakuta sutra collection, namely the Jñanottarabodhisattva-pariprccha-parivarta Mahayanasutra.♦ 1 As the story is told here (fol. 61r), the bodhisattva is well aware that killing the deceptive merchant he “will thereby burn for a hundred thousand eons in the hell of beings and experience the pains of the great hell of beings.”♦ 2 On the other hand, however, and in Jigten Gönpo’s understanding as a seperate unmixed result, the bodhisattva’s stay in samsara will be shortened by a hundred thousand eons through his skill in means and due to his great compassion.♦ 3

The above mentioned interepretation in the Bodhisattvabhumi (which is not accepted by Jigten Gönpo) is somewhat similar to the one that can be found in the Arya Upayakaushalya Mahayanasutra,♦ 4 which otherwise, however, does not seem to have played an important role in the Indian or Tibetan traditions. According to this text, the bodhisattva is again aware of the fact that he will burn in hell,♦ 5 but a bit further down in the text, and in fact somewhat contradictory, the bodhisattva is said to have been backed up by a thousand eon’s experience in skill and compassion and that one should not think that he was obscured even by the least bit of karma. Yet the text continues to say “the Tathagata (who is the one to tell the story) [merely] revealed the workings of the beings’ karma.”♦ 6 It remains unclear, however, what is meant by this last remark. Does the storyteller (the former bodhisattva himself, who is now the Buddha), mean to say that the negative karmic consequences occured, but were merely put on like a “show” for didactic purposes? And if that is the case, did the bodhisattva not suffer from the karma that he accumulated, but which apparently did not obscure him (i.e. caused his bodhisattvahood to deteroriate)? The Buddhist tradition does not agree on an interpretation of these incidents. Apparently the Mahasamghika tradition favours an interpretation according to which all incidents where a skilful means to save sentient beings, whereas the Mulasarvastivadin tradition accepted the existence of bad karma for the Buddha, albeit as mere faint echos of former bad deeds (such as the piercing of the Buddha’s foot with the acacia thorn).♦ 7

However that may be, Upayakaushalyasutra appears to be a ‘developed version’ where the emphasis is on the superiority of the bodhisattva’s skills. It is in any case not the version that Jigten Gönpo bases his interpretation on and the sutra as such does not seem to play any role in India and Tibet (unless perhaps indirectly if it indeed has been the version that led to the Bodhisattvabhumis’ interpretation).

To sum up Jigten Gönpo’s view at this point, a bodhisattva may engage in non-virtuous behaviour to ripen others if he is able to bear all negative consequences and when those consequences do not destroy the basis of his bodhisattvahood. As a separate and unmixed result of the compassionate motivation and of the skilful ripening of sentient beings through such deeds, the bodhisattva’s own stay in samsara will be shortened immensely and he will be able to manifest as a fully awakened Buddha much sooner.

Jigten Gönpo’s view will become even more clear when we compare the merciful captain’s act of murder with other bodhisattvas’ deeds and their consequences mentioned by Jigten Gönpo. The difference between these acts and the merciful captain’s act is that they are “virtuous in the beginning, middle, and end,” and as such they have no negative consequences at all. The rDo sher ma states: “Through a [completely] virtuous mind the three poisons are absent and that, which is motivated by that, is taught to be free from faults.” This is stated here to contrast such completely skilful acts to the killing of the deceptive merchant, for which the merciful captain had to produce a moment of hatred in order to be able to stab the victim with a knife. An example for an act that is completely “virtuous in the beginning, middle, and end” is the king Kanakavarna’s merciful act during a twelve year famine in his kingdom. The rDo sher ma says:

The king Kanakavarna (Tib. rGyal-po gSer-mdog) did not become a thief. Since that king was the lord of all beings high [and low], he appropriated all their wealth. Therefore, having gathered all the wealth, the ones who [previously] had [wealth] were without many gods [afterwards], those who [previously] were without [wealth] were not caused to die from hunger, because [the king] took care of all of them alike, and apart from doing that, he did not gather wealth desiring it for himself. Since he gathered [wealth] only for these peoples’ benefit, it was solely a virtuous motivation, unmixed with the three poisons. Thus it was a faultless skilful conduct.

And our commentary summarises:

If [the motivation] is in that way not mixed with the three poisons, it is virtuous at the beginning, in the middle, and in the end, and the benefit of oneself and others arises in great measures. Since that doesn’t become a fault, it is permitted.

The crucial point of this story is, in Jigten Gönpo’s view, that Kanakavarna only apparently committed an act of thievery, but in reality he did not: foreseeing the twelve-year famine, he acted as a skilful statesman who simply collected a kind of a tax for the benefit of the whole society and didn’t keep anything for himself. Whereas the merciful captain would have to produce hatred in order to be able to stab the victim with the knife, the king did not need to produce desire in order to be able to collect the wealth. He did this purely with a virtuous motivation in the beginning, middle, and end, and thus was without any fault. As a consequence he only experienced the shortening of his stay in samsara, but no negative consequences whatsoever.♦ 8 There are two other examples discussed in our commentaries: The brahmin Jyotis, who gave up celibacy for a girl that was extremely attached to him, and the Rishi Mes-byin, who did not speak the untruth, although it seemed so on the surface. Let it be only stated here that these acts where similarly virtuous in the beginning, middle, and end, and without all selfishness. They had therefore, like the king Kanakavaròa’s deed, only virtuous consequences. As such, these are the true skilful acts of bodhisattvas, because no non-virtue is committed for or results from them.

Thus when Jigten Gönpo states that “the ‘non-virtuous that does not become a fault’ is not permitted,” he means that there is no non-virtue that does not become a fault and hence such a thing (that is inexistent) can also not be permitted. There are certain bodhisattva acts that contain non-virtuous activities and are permitted, but only when they are committed in order to ripen beings and when their painful consequences can be endured by the bodhisattva without damaging the basis of his bodhisattvahood. True skilful bodhisattva acts, however, are virtuous in all respects and therefore have only virtuous results.

1. [Arya Sarvabuddhamaharahasyopayakausalya Jñanottarabodhisattvapariprcchaparivarta Mahayanasutra (D vol. 44, no. 82, fols. 30r1-70v7; P vol. 24, no. 760/38, fols. 4v5-50v6; H vol. 40, fols. 79r6-139v7).]

2. [Fol. 61r: ‘di ltar bdag gis mi ‘di srog dang phral na gzhi des bdag bskal pa ‘bum du sems can dmyal ba chen po rnams su sreg par ‘gyur yang bdag gis sems can dmyal ba chen po’i sdug bsngal myong bar ‘gyur ba.]

3. [thabs la mkhas pa de dang/ snying rje chen po des bskal pa ‘bum du ‘khor ba bsnyil te bor bar gyur to/.]

4. [Arya Upayakaushalya Mahayanasutra (‘Phags pa thabs mkhas pa zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo), P vol. 36, no. 927, fols. 298v3-327r6; D vol. 66, no. 261, 283v2-310r7.]

5. [Fol 304r: gal te bdag gis mi ‘di srog dang dbral te/ de’i phyir bdag sems can dmyal bar skyes kyang bskal pa brgya stong du phyi phyir sems can dmyal ba chen por skyes bar bzod kyi/]

6. [Fol. 304v: rigs kyi bu ngas ni thabs mkhas pa de dang snying rje chen po des bskal pa brgya phrag stong du ‘khor ba la rgyab kyis phyogs par byas so// mi de yang shi ‘phos nas mtho ris kyi ‘jig rten du skyes so// gang tshong pa lnga brgya po grur zhugs pa de dag ni phyis bskal pa bzang po la sangs rgyas lnga brgyar ‘byung ba’o// rigs kyi bu de ji snyam du sems/ gang gis bskal pa brgya phrag stong du thabs mkhas pa’i ye shes kyis ‘khor ba la rgyab kyis phyogs pa’i byang chub sems dpa’ sems dpa’ chen po de la las kyi sgrib pa cung zad kyang yod dam/ rigs kyi bu khyod de ltar ma blta shig/ de bzhin gshegs pa ni sems can gyi las kyi bya ba ston to/]

7. [See for a detailed study Guang Xing (2005) The Concept of the Buddha: Its Evolution from early Buddhism to the trikaya theory, London: Routledge, p. 106 ff.]

8. [See the Kanakavarnasutra, which is part of the larger Divyavadana, Wilson (1856) “On Buddha and Buddhism,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland vol. 16, pp. 229-255, p. 242.]

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