What are we to make of wrathful action being one of the Buddha’s great miracles, given the precept not to kill?

A student writes:

In your last full moon newsletter you talked about Chotrul Duchen – the festival celebrating the Buddha’s display of miracles. It’s listed as the 11th of the Buddha’s 12 great deeds. In the story the Buddha agrees to a contest displaying miracles for 15 days. You described how on the eighth day he “pressed his right hand onto his throne and called up Vajrapani in wrathful form who appeared from beneath his throne brandishing a flaming vajra with which he chased away his six heretical opponents and the demons accompanying them, smashing and driving them into the river where they drowned. Then he radiated 84 thousand Buddhas with attendants teaching Dharma.”

How do you explain the Buddha’s action of smashing and drowning his opponents in the light of the precept of not killing? What are we to make of this wrathful action being listed as one of the Buddha’s great miracles?

Lama Shenpen responds:

It’s a good question. So much for Buddhism not being a proselytising religion! This idea of the Buddha’s wrathful or fierce activity that destroys evil and forces that oppose the Dharma runs throughout the tradition and comes up a lot in the Mahayana sutras and even more in the tantras/Vajrayana.

The idea is that the Bodhichitta/Awakened Heart/Enlightened Mind/Buddha Nature is constantly and powerfully protecting beings by destroying negativity.  Stories of  destroying demonic forces reflect this protective principle of mandala guardians.  Yet in the story of Milarepa and the demons we see that the only sure way to defeat demons is to dis-empower them by not getting caught up in the concepts of good and bad, and the need to destroy what is essentially illusory anyway.

So why this story of destroying demons – even killing them by drowning – seems at odds with that.  Yet the same stories accompany the life of Guru Rinpoche. It was considered one of the most important aspects of his life that he destroyed the demons threatening the establishment of Dharma in Tibet- yet again we find he actually binds them to serve the Dharma and himself by oath – he converts them and turns them into Dharma protectors.

This echoes the life of the Buddha where the weapons of Mara are turned into a rain of flowers. He never destroys Mara – he simply relegates him to the mandala periphery where presumably he plays some kind of protective role.

I think it is significant that in the Chotrul Duchen story, Vajrapani unseats the demons and destroys their thrones – like pulling the rug out from under the conceit of ego.  Maybe we are not supposed to think too much about the drowning part of the story other than to think that the demons are destroyed completely – and if we continue to ask about what happened to them maybe we would be told that through the power of the Buddha’s blessing they were reborn as his disciples in future lives and quickly arrived at Buddhahood?

Making any connection at all with the Buddha is thought to be strong connection to the Mandala of Awakening – even if it is to try to harm a Buddha – even what seems like a bad or negative connection – so I am sure for the demons in the story the drowning simply prevented them from doing any more harm there and then and resulted in them purifying bad karma and quickly taking birth where they could progress on the path to Awakening.  Maybe that simply goes without saying, so is not mentioned in the very short account I quoted from the description of the 12 deeds.

Lama Shenpen Hookham

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