illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
This was a question asked on FB recently. I'm reposting here the answer I gave there. Several answers by others were suggesting that it's OK in Mahāyāna to use "expedient means" and this might go as far as killing. I previously argued here that no, this is not OK: it may happen but this doesn't provide a justification or a jurisprudence for next time. It may happen, but 'accepting' this fact doesn't make it OK.
« A lot of responses here are given supposedly from a Mahāyāna perspective but they're only seemingly so, because they seem extremely biased by a separation between subject/actor, action, and object…
To avoid presuming we're the actor (placing ourselves in a privileged position in the world, of knowing better than others, of being wiser than others, etc.), a Mahāyāna way to enquire into a question like this is to turn the question on its head. So « for example when you see a dying animal that is suffering a lot, is it ok to go against the precept and kill out of compassion to eliminate his suffering ? » would become « for example when [another sentient being —maybe an animal] see[s] [me] suffering a lot, is it ok to go against the precept and kill [me] out of compassion to eliminate [my] suffering ? »
And if you turn the question on its head, suddenly, you might start feeling that it's extremely arrogant (and ignorant) for the 'other' actor to assume they know better than yourself whether you want to live or die… Maybe, you understood the "two arrows" simile; you understood that the Buddha had physical pain (e.g. back pain) at the end of his life and this didn't contradict with his "freedom from suffering", i.e. he didn't let pain dictate his intentions, he didn't let pain bias his perceptions (of other phenomena, of what needed to be done, of available opportunities…), he didn't let pain decide his life for him. 'Physical pain' is not perceived or appropriated as 'dukkha' by the mind free from 'dukkha': it's merely just 'causality unfolding', part of the circumstances, as impersonal/selfless as e.g. the weather… Would it be wise to "take personally" an occurrence of bad weather? OK, so if you're free from pain in that way, if you have realised selflessness enough for that, then the 'other' deciding to kill you ("out of compassion", supposedly to free you from what they judge "unbearable pain") is about to kill a very advanced practitioner, maybe even an arhat… Does this sound right?
You might argue then that the killer would not kill you out of compassion for you, at all, but out of a desire to free themself from the discomfort of seeing you in such a bad shape (because they would appropriate this as dukkha, even though you don't!)… and what they'd label "compassion" is more likely to be a cover for a selfish aversion towards personal discomfort than a compassionate function… It's a major point of ethics in any country allowing euthanasia: one should look deeply and carefully into "is this to relieve the carers?" (and other, less palatable, questions about medical bills, inheritance, etc.) a lot more than rushing into a confirmation bias (easily concluding "of course, it's for the benefit of the killed, of course! I'm so profoundly compassionate, unconditionally, perfectly, of course it's for their benefit!").
Having reached that point, you're ready to go back to enquiring into your own intention when killing an animal suffering…
Do you have a specist bias, where it is assumed that humans should inherently be treated differently from animals (and that it's not that bad if animals die, it's just natural, etc. lots of narratives / views / prejudices)?
And is it really for the animal, or in fact for yourself (because you cannot bear the sight of what you interpret as suffering, and still think the world should comply with your wishes, or with your expectations of how it 'should' be (i.e. painless))? How do you know for sure you're not lying to yourself about your intention? How do you know your intention is so 'pure' that it's magically not an 'aggregate' at that point (e.g. mixing an intention to help with a more arrogant intention of righteously seeing yourself as a helper, of labelling yourself a 'bodhisattva')?
If you can see a 'valid' answer to these questions (in the specific circumstances at hand, not as a general 'rule'), then you're in a position to act mindfully (in that specific situation, without drawing arbitrary conclusions about other 'similar' scenarios, letting go of mental fabrications and pre-conceived answers…). And your act then has a chance of being appropriate for the situation at hand. "Expedient means" cannot be pre-defined right-or-wrong answers, since they're compatible with the "relinquishing of views". »
Some answers were based on the idea that we should let the animal suffer, to let its karma unfold (as) quickly (as possible) and cease (as soon as possible). But this is a classic error I also explained here earlier, but I'll repeat the argument:
« There's always something really, deeply erroneous in believing that people suffering should be let to suffer to purge their karma… because it separates us from the situation.
IF it is true that it's this person's karma that causes suffering, THEN it is also our karma to be in a position to help, to do good deeds, etc. so if we don't help, then we waste our good karma —a karma that was giving us an opportunity to practice generosity (dana), compassion, wisdom, etc. Restraint in such a context is called ill-will, or negligence: waste (of good karma) generates bad karma!
If we go on the basis that the negative karma of the sufferer should unfold freely, why would we assume the positive karma of the potential helper should be hindered?
Do we imagine the Buddha thinking "these ignorant beings suffer due to their karma, I will not teach, because this would shorten their sufferings. Better to let them suffer"?
Moreover, on the basis that the bad karma should and will come to an end, maybe the reason we're here is precisely as what will allow the end of this bad karma that the victim suffers. So, by refusing to interfere, not only we waste our own good karma, but we might also needlessly prolong the suffering of the victim (for no reason except our reluctance to help), even though it was our karmic role to put an end to it!
Therefore, the whole logic of "not intervening when one can help, to let karma unfold to its end (but let's assume, without any reasoning, that I would/should not participate in this end)" definitely seems to go against the teachings on karma. It's one-sided, and it pretends the situation is independent of us being present to it; by separating ourselves from the suffering, we'd be ignorant and fooled by a belief in a self (a self which could exist separate from its context). »
Previous contributions on this include the controversial post (and comment thread) "Helping others to end 'their' suffering?" (koan.mu/gplus/37qwBAbu1Ly).