The Myth of the Killer Bodhisattva
Buddhists Don’t Know What They Believe
There is no single answer to the question, "What do Buddhists believe?" The most cautious response is that Buddhists have many different belief systems, and they do not agree with each other. Indeed, many people who think themselves Buddhists have very vague doctrinal concepts, and get by with a handful of projections that they rarely subject to deep consideration. For example, many recently-minted Western Buddhists would be at a loss to tell you whether their religion forbids them from going to war, or compels them to claim conscientious objector status. No Jehovah's Witness would have this problem -- they know that their tradition has embraced nonviolence at the practical level, and that the right thing when faced with a call to military conscription is to decline to take up arms against "the enemy."
Buddhist Militarism — A Long-Standing Tradition
Buddhists from countries where the religion has existed for hundreds of years would be equally clear on the point -- Buddhists can be soldiers. Buddhists have fought each other with weapons, for the sake of their monastic orders; Buddhists have fought wars on behalf of their nations; Buddhists have fought wars with the adherents of other religions. The Indian Emperor Ashoka (304-232 BCE), who established Buddhism as the state religion of the Mauryan Empire that controlled a vast expanse of the Indian subcontinent, killed all three of his brothers in internecine warfare, and is said to have converted to Buddhism only after having conquered the Kingdom of Kalinga at a cost of 300,000 human lives, an astronomical number of victims in those days of pre-mechanized warfare. Ashoka is also said to have constructed a torture facility in the deceptive form of a beautiful palace that would lure unsuspecting victims, who would then fall under the control of Ashoka's chief torturer, who would subject them to tortures drawn from Buddhist depictions of hell. In some versions of this confused tale, Ashoka is converted to Buddhism when his efforts to torture a Buddhist saint are thwarted by miraculous power.
The Dark Side of Zen
Zen Buddhism was brought to the United States by D.T. Suzuki, an unabashed Japanese nationalist who preached Buddhism as a religion of glorious military death to Japanese soldiers:
“Let us then shuffle off this mortal coil whenever it becomes necessary, and not raise a grunting voice against the fates. . . . Resting in this conviction, Buddhists carry the banner of Dharma over the dead and dying until they gain final victory.”
Japanese Buddhists fanned the flames of nationalism and fascist allegiance to the Emperor as the island nation battled with Russia, conquered Korea and portions of China, and launched itself headlong into the alliance with Hitler's Germany. Furthermore, Japanese Buddhists concealed their war-guilt until 2001, when the Japanese translation of Zen At War by Brian Daizen Victoria, that documented the unholy melding of religious nihilism and nationalist triumphalism, finally broke through the wall of silence, provoking apologies from some of the Rinzai Zen sects who had been culpable in damning the nation's youth to death on the battlefield and at sea, including thousands who were packed off in battered aircraft to annihilate themselves in kamikaze flights.
Anti-Muslim Prejudice in Myanmar & Shambhala
Buddhists in Myanmar at this very moment are pursuing violent campaigns against Muslim people, and being exhorted to racial hatred by robe-wearing bigots who blend violent intentions with Buddhist religious language. When Myanmar's famous Buddhist political leader Aung Suu Kyi was criticized for being complicit in the ethnic cleansing campaign against Muslims, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher who claims to be a reincarnated enlightened being wrote her "a letter of support," in which he derided human rights advocates as agents of neo-colonialist oppression. The Shambhala cult that has colonized the United States worships its own God-King, the "Sakyong Mipham," who is said to be a reincarnation of "Gesar of Ling," a Tibetan warlord who, according to Shambhala "prophecy" will ultimately conquer the Muslims and set up a Buddhist theocracy that will last "20,000 years." Although Shambhaloids are taught that Gesar is a purely Tibetan hero, historical research reveals that "Gesar" is actually identical with "Guandi," the Chinese god of war, whose temples in Tibet were gradually converted to the worship of Gesar as a political move to Tibetanize the cult.
Bridging the Gap Between “Non-Killing” and Militarism
Thus, the dogma of Buddhism and organized killing have mutually supported each other for millennia, with very few efforts to explain the apparent disjunct between the Buddhist embrace of warlike conduct and a doctrine that espouses "non-killing" as a foundational virtue. When pressed for an explanation that might resolve the dissonance between the ideal and the real, the favorite traditional story given out by Buddhists of the Mahayana sect is that of the Killer Bodhisattva, rendered in this form by Chagdud Tulku:
"A Buddhist story tells of a ferry captain whose boat was carrying 500 bodhisattvas in the guise of merchants. A robber on board planned to kill everyone and pirate the ship's cargo. The captain, a bodhisattva himself, saw the man's murderous intention and realized this crime would result in eons of torment for the murderer. In his compassion, the captain was willing to take hellish torment upon himself by killing the man to prevent karmic suffering that would be infinitely greater than the suffering of the murdered victims. The captain's compassion was impartial; his motivation was utterly selfless."
Who was this compassionate killer, this "bodhisattva?" A bodhisattva is a human being who has been transformed into a being of transcendent virtue by mastery of the "Six Paramitas" -- transcendental Generosity, Morality, Patience, Diligence, Meditation, and Wisdom. Discussions of these transcendental virtues have filled many books, from which quotes like these can easily be harvested: "The true practice of the paramitas is to be free from self-attachment and self cherishing. Based on this definition, the Four Noble Truths and the Thirty-Seven Aids to Enlightenment can also be considered paramitas, because they accord with the teachings of non-attachment and no self-cherishing. All Buddhist practices can thus be viewed as paramitas as long as they accord with the above principles."
The Buddha Was a Beggar
To unearth some basic Buddhist practices that can be viewed as paramitas, let's first look at how the Buddha is depicted in the first chapter of the Diamond Sutra:
"One day, at the time for breaking fast, the World-Honoured One enrobed and, carrying his bowl, made his way into the great city of Shravasti to beg for his food. In the midst of the city he begged from door to door according to rule. This done, he returned to his retreat and took his meal. When he had finished, he put away his robe and begging bowl, washed his feet, arranged his seat, and sat down."
What comes across in this depiction is the Buddha's simple humanity. He used a begging bowl to get his food for the day. He did not wait for students to bring him offerings of food. He himself went "from door to door according to rule" to collect whatever people would give him, and when he got his food, he went back to his retreat and ate the food he'd been given. He was, quite simply, a beggar.
A beggar is the humblest of people. A beggar is distinguished from a thief by his lack of aggression. An old Spanish saying humorously describes a thief as "a beggar with a weapon." Most people here in the USA have never begged, and becoming a beggar is considered such a personal tragedy that many of us would prefer to commit suicide before adopting the role. To beg is to lose the last shred of pride. It is the very opposite of "making one's way in the world." It is an attack on commercial activity and a repudiation of the aspirations of the moneyed class. But the Buddha adopted this lifestyle voluntarily, making beggarhood the foundation of all of his virtue. St. Francis, who enjoined his followers to voluntary poverty, followed the same path. And in this, Francis was simply emulating Jesus of Nazareth, who taught his disciples to "make no provision for tomorrow."
The Transformation of the Buddha from Beggar to Monarch
Although Buddhists around the world buy, sell, and bow before images of the Buddha holding a bowl in his lap, they don't think it significant that he's holding this piece of kitchenware as his only possession. Small wonder. This oblivious attitude has been engendered in the faithful by depicting the Buddha wearing silken robes, sitting on a throne, often surrounded by servitors offering him all manner of delights. Which brings us to the second irony of traditional depictions of the Buddha -- his depiction as a spiritual monarch. This is ironic because the Buddha's first act of renunciation was to escape from the palace where his father, the King, had expected him to take over the reins of governance. His father had received a prophecy before the Buddha was born that his son would become either a conqueror of men or an enlightened sage. Since his father preferred that his son be a conqueror of men, he tried to shelter the young prince from the dark side of life, a strategy that failed when the prince learned that all people must suffer sickness, old age and death. Given that even a king would have to suffer and die, the farsighted young prince decided to seek a solution to these universal afflictions, and abandoned the path of worldly rulership.
Thus, although the Buddha's conduct rejected an acquisitive lifestyle, rejected placing oneself above others, and rejected monarchy, his purported followers have taken pains to represent him as a privileged, exalted ruler of the spiritual realm. Rulers, of course, always enforce their edicts by means of coercion. The entire point of having a king is to bring the noncompliant forces into line with the royal will. By turning the Buddha's begging bowl into a meaningless ornament and elevating him to the level of a king, Buddhists open the door to infecting their religion with martial propaganda, like this macho miracle of Tibetan origin:
"At one time, when [the Buddha] was taking part in an archery contest, he declared, 'With the bow of meditative concentration I will fire the arrow of wisdom and kill the tiger of ignorance in living beings.' He then released the arrow and it flew straight through five iron tigers and seven trees before disappearing into the earth! By witnessing demonstrations such as this, thousands of people developed faith in the prince." 
These types of stories turn the original life story of the Buddha on its head. Reimagined in this way, the Buddha is conceived as a preternaturally talented divine being who "took birth" in a royal family because only that elevated position was suitable to his divine personage. This Buddha is ready for a career in the highest levels of society, and his ascension to the role of hierophant is a foregone conclusion. This Buddha goes through the motions of discovering the truth of suffering and its causes, disseminates his wisdom to a noble company, and establishes a doctrine that can provide the heavy timber to build an enduring religion that future kings will be happy to endow with all the worldly riches at their command. The only thing necessary to achieve this transaction is to completely disregard the meaning of the Buddha's teaching.
Karmic Manipulation by the Killer Buddha
With this background, we can return to the story of the Killer Bodhisattva. What's the crux of the Killer Bodhisattva's motivation? Compassion. He wants to save the thief from the terrible karma of killing 500 bodhisattvas "disguised as merchants." Note that the mercantile class has returned to its position of authority. These 500 bodhisattvas are not carrying begging bowls; they're loaded with cash, which is why the thief wants to kill them. If these merchants were ordinary people, not bodhisattvas in disguise, the karma of killing them would not be so grave, and there would be no need for the Killer Bodhisattva to intercede. The robber would just be an ordinary mass-murderer of trivial people, unworthy of particular attention. But since he's targeting the upper-upper-crust of the divine population, the consequences of his action will be mind-bogglingly awful. The Killer Bodhisattva sees what's about to go down, and swallows all of the bad karma -- killing the robber and nipping a karmic cataclysm in the bud. Yes, the Killer Bodhisattva himself will have to suffer in hell for this act of compassion ("the captain was willing to take hellish torment upon himself by killing the man"), but it's like nothing to what the robber would have brought upon himself by killing so many uber-beings.
Agent Dharma Takes Down the Terrorists
What kind of story is this? It's a spy thriller. Agent Dharma, working for the Ministry of All That's Right & Good, gets "actionable information" about a terrorist plot to kill hundreds of people that can only be prevented by an act of justifiable homicide. Even though it's usually a bad thing to kill people, since the terrorists are going to kill hundreds of people, the utilitarian equation is easily satisfied, and Agent Dharma's license to kill will insulate him from any real negative consequences. If you look for deeper moral lessons here, you're a dupe of simplistic notions. If you're ready to be duped, just open another tab on your browser and search for "bodhisattva killing." You will find dozens of pious, scholarly articles providing just the flavor of KoolAid for which you are hankering. If you are looking for really exotic KoolAid, you can find a scholarly discussion of the ultimate ironic twist on Buddhist virtue -- the Tibetan doctrine of "liberation killing," used to justify the killing of an anti-Buddhist king by a monk who assassinates skillfully to "facilitate a better rebirth" for the wayward monarch. In this story, instead of going to hell for committing regicide, the assassin-monk loses his monastic status. Small price to pay for saving the Buddhist doctrine from destruction at the hands of a malevolent king.
What the Killer Bodhisattva Story Misses
Consider the very shallow view of the human mind presented in the story of the Killer Bodhisattva. Here we have a robber whose mind is so poisoned he's ready to kill 500 people to steal their possessions. Now ask yourself if a mind that poisonous is going to be cured of its sickness simply by being prevented from committing his intended crime. No, of course not. If a serial killer engaged in stalking his next victim is arrested for burglary, thus interrupting his plot, he doesn't give up his serial killer career. When he gets out, he finds a new victim, and gets back to work. The poison doesn't disappear simply because the act is interrupted, and it's that mental poison that is the seed of all future bad deeds. Indeed, it's the cause of the very tormented mental condition that, some people say, ripens into a hellish rebirth in the after-death state. But like a spy story that never delves into the reason why the terrorists are so upset they want to kill hundreds of people, and just glorifies the hero for risking all to kill the few to save the many, so the tale of the Killer Bodhisattva celebrates a simplistic notion of karma. "Oh, we stopped the plot! Celebrate with champagne!"
Back to Basic Buddhism
Let us return to the image of the Buddha as a beggar who has given up the opportunity to rule a kingdom in order to discover the cure for the sufferings of sickness, old age and death. Can you imagine such a person getting involved in lethal machinations to reorder events so that certain "karmic consequences" can be avoided? No, of course not. Those types of actions are, precisely, the types of things that a king would do. It's the king's job to keep the peace, and if someone's going to kill even one of his subjects, it's his job to try and prevent that. But the Buddha didn't want that job. He'd seen what it had done for his dad, and he decided it wasn't worth his time. He decided not to be a manipulator of earthly consequences, and focused his attention on problems that no one had solved. Now wouldn't it be nice if his followers could do the same?