The First Precept: Abstain from Killing

This is from a book on the precepts for lay people which was written by Shi Faxun, who has kindly given permission for us to serialise it over the coming weeks.


The Precept

Pāṇātipātā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.
I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking life.
I will respect all living beings.

The pali word pāṇa means “that which breathes.” A living being is one that has breath and has consciousness. Hence it is not only a human being but also includes animals and insects as well, excluding plants as they do not have consciousness. This precept prohibits the killing of living beings. In broader terms, it should also be understood to prohibit injuring, maiming, and torturing a living being.

Conditions Under Which A Violation is Considered to Have Occurred

• Object: The fact and presence of a living being, human or animal
• Knowledge: The knowledge that the being is a living being
• Intention: The intent or resolution to kill
• The Act: The act of killing by appropriate means
• Consequence: A resulting death

Exceptions

• By accident – no intention

The act of killing can take place through action of the body, or speech, such as commanding someone to kill, resulting in the death of a living being. The key factor for the violation of this precept is intention. The mental factor is the propeller while the body only functions as the channel for actualising the intent to kill. A complete act of killing constituting a full violation of the precepts needs to involve the five conditions stated earlier.

Let us first look at the first condition: Object.

There is violation only when a living being is present and one perceives it as a living being.  Here is a straightforward example to illustrate this idea. In a demonstration or riot where mobs are very angry with a political leader, they might burn the photos and/or slash the statue of the political leader. In this case, there is no killing as the rioters only perceive the photo or statue as a living being. Intending to kill one being and killing another by mistake also does not constitute a full transgression.

The second condition, Knowledge, denotes that killing occurs only when the killer is aware that the object of his action is a living being, not a photo or statue. So, if we step on an insect we do not see, the knowledge (awareness) of a living being is not there and hence full violation has not occurred.

The third condition, Intention, ensures that the taking of life is intentional. There is no violation if there is no intent to kill, for example accidentally killing a fly when we try to keep it away.

The fourth condition holds that the action must be directed towards killing and the fifth, that the being (human or animal) dies as a result of this action. Full violation of the precept is not deemed to have happened if there is no resulting death.

Underlying Motivations for Killing

• Greed
• Hatred
• Delusion

An example of killing motivated primarily by greed is killing for material gain, such as hunting; or to gain enjoyment, such as fishing or eating seafood. Killing motivated by hatred is evident in cases of vicious murder – out of strong aversion, cruelty, or jealousy. Killing motivated by delusion can be seen in the case of animal sacrifices in certain religious practices, or in holy wars, where one kills followers of other religious beliefs, and believing that to be a sacred act.

How the Precept is Violated

• Self-committed
• By commanding or instructing
• Rejoicing in the act

The violation could be can done directly by oneself by taking a life, or by commanding someone else to do so verbally or with gestures. A common example of instructing someone else to kill on our behalf is when we order “live” seafood in a restaurant.

Sometimes we may rejoice in the act of killing, for example when we become a slave to our anger or delusion, and rejoice in the murder of someone we do not like. When reading the news that an enemy has been killed, we must be careful not to rejoice in it.

The Intensity / Severity of Violation

• “Spiritual Nobility” of the victim
• Size of animal
• Type of animal

There is a difference between killing a human being and an animal. Killing a human being is certainly a more serious violation than killing an animal. Within the category of humans, it is a more serious violation to kill one’s parent or benefactor, than a stranger. In the case of animals, the severity of violation is said to be proportional to the size of the animal, that is, killing a larger animal is more reprehensible than killing a small animal (such as a tiny insect). Other factors include if the animals are domesticated or wild, and if they have a gentle or vicious temperament. Of all killings, the most culpable is the killing of an arahant/arahantini (a fully liberated being), and of one’s parents.

The Aim/Purpose of the Precept

• To respect life
• To have compassion

The purpose of this precept is to respect all living beings. In doing so, we learn to be kind and compassionate to all living beings and live in harmony with them. By cultivating the precept of not killing, we give all living creatures security and freedom from danger.

Quotes from Scriptures

Giving up killing, we abstain from taking the life of any living being; laying aside stick and sword, modest and merciful, he lives kind and compassionate to all living beings. (DN.1)

There is the case where a disciple of the noble ones, abandoning the taking of life, abstains from taking life. In doing so, he gives freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings. In giving freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings, he gains a share in limitless freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, and freedom from oppression. This is the first gift, the first great gift — original, long-standing, traditional, ancient, unadulterated, unadulterated from the beginning — that is not open to suspicion, will never be open to suspicion, and is unfaulted by knowledgeable contemplatives & priests. (AN 8.39)

The First Mindfulness Training by Thich Nhat Hanh

“Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life.”

Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh has extended the First Precept of not killing humans and animals (sentient beings) to the protection of plants and minerals, which are technically not sentient beings though they are part of nature. The essence of observing this precept is to respect life, cultivate loving kindness and to live in harmony with our ecosystem and environment. In view of the consumerist world we live in, driven often by greed, this mindfulness training can help in our reflection on how we live, and how our actions contribute to harming our environment and the planet.

Frequently Asked Questions About the First Precept

What is the Buddhist perspective on suicide?

Chan Master Sheng Yen: According to the Buddhist teaching of cause and effect, since one has not realised the truth of all phenomena, or is not liberated from life and death, suicide is pointless. When one’s karmic retribution is not exhausted, death by suicide only leads to another cycle of rebirth. This is why Buddhists do not support suicide, and instead, encourage constructive living, using this life to diligently practise good, thus changing the present and the future for the better.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama: Some people commit suicide; they seem to think that there is suffering simply because there is the human life, and that by cutting off the life there will be nothing… But, according to the Buddhist viewpoint, that’s not the case; your consciousness will continue. Even if you take your own life, this life, you will have to take another body that again will be the basis of suffering. If you really want to get rid of all your suffering, all the difficulties you experience in your life, you have to get rid of the fundamental cause (greed, hatred and delusion) that gives rise to the aggregates that are the basis of all suffering. Killing yourself isn’t going to solve your problem.

Ven. K. Sri Dhammananda: Taking one’s own life under any circumstances is morally and spiritually wrong. Taking one’s own life owing to frustration or disappointment only causes greater suffering. Suicide is a cowardly way to end one’s problems of life. A person cannot commit suicide if his mind is pure and tranquil. If one leaves this world with a confused and frustrated mind, it is most unlikely that he would be born again in a better condition. Suicide is an unwholesome or unskillful act since it is encouraged by a mind filled with greed, hatred and delusion. Those who commit suicide have not learnt how to face their problems, how to face the facts of life, and how to use their mind in a proper manner. Such people have not been able to understand the nature of life and worldly conditions.

To keep the precept of not killing, must we be vegetarian?  

There are various opinions among the different Buddhist traditions with regards to this question.  The Buddha, himself, was not a vegetarian.  Traditionally, Theravadin monastics live on alms food; they receive whatever is put into their alms bowl.  In other words, they have no control over their diet.  However, in the Jivaka Sutta (MN 55), it is mentioned that the Buddha only allowed meat to be taken on the condition that it is pure in three aspects – that the monastic:

(1) did not see the animal being killed
(2) did not hear the cry of the animal being killed
(3) did not suspect the animal was killed specifically for the monk/nun

Although these conditions technically apply only to monastics, they are often used as a reasonable guide by devout lay people. The Mahayanists relate these three types of “purified meat” (三淨肉) to the nurturing of compassion. If we see the suffering of the dying animal or the cry of the suffering animal, we should be compassionate towards them and try to relieve their suffering. It is against the principle of compassion if we do not help them, and indeed, even go ahead to consume their meat.

Exceptions have also appeared in Tibetan Buddhism. In Tibet, people traditionally lived as nomads and it was, and probably still is, difficult to grow vegetables in the high altitudes, making it difficult to be vegetarian. Hence, monastics from the Theravadin and Tibetan traditions are generally not vegetarian.

When Buddhism spread to China, the idea of compassion was developed further in the Chinese Mahayanist tradition, and the Bodhisattva vow of not taking meat was strongly emphasised and made compulsory. Chinese Mahayanist monastics are therefore vegetarian, and so are many devotees who have taken the Bodhisattva precepts.

Today, more and more Theravadin monastics are encouraging vegetarianism, and His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama also encourages Tibetan monastics living outside Tibet, and who have control over their diet to be vegetarian.

In my opinion, vegetarianism should be encouraged, but should not be imposed on others.

Are we not contributing to killing by eating meat?  Isn’t the meat in restaurants and supermarkets killed for our consumption?

Let us look at the example of poultry farming. In the old days, chickens were allowed to roam freely and grow in a natural environment. They were only sent for slaughter when naturally fully grown. In other words, the production of meat was not human-controlled but based on the natural growth of the animals.

Today, driven by demand  in capitalist economies, poultry is “produced” in controlled high-tech conditions. Poultry and other animals are now raised in large-scale factory farms, deprived of natural conditions which allow them to move around and seek food freely in a natural environment. They are fed solely by humans and/or machines and kept in cages or pens, just big enough for them to stand in, day and night. Driven by human greed, some poultry farmers, for example, speed up the growth of the chickens to generate more income, causing tremendous pain and suffering to the poultry. By creating artificial days and nights with the use of indoor lighting to make longer days and shorter nights, the animals are misled into eating more often than normal. Under these factory farming conditions, these animals suffer greatly. Some reports say these animals attack each other, pecking out of frustration and wounding their mates, causing each other to bleed and suffer. To prevent them from attacking each other, farmers cut their beaks off, injecting even more pain and suffering to the poor chickens.

During festive seasons, there is massive slaughter of animals to satisfy the sensual pleasures of humans. So, if we look deeply into the buying and consumption of meat, we could be indirectly contributing to the act of killing, because the production of meat today is dependent on demand in the market. Therefore, if we can reduce our meat consumption, it will certainly reduce the demand for meat, and thereby minimising animal slaughter.

If we are truly concerned for the well-being of animals and not wanting to contribute to the cruelty of modern industrial farming, we will naturally develop a kind heart and compassion towards animals. The practice of the First Precept – to abstain from killing – is a celebration of life. We do not support any act of killing, and we can extend it further by teaching others not to. Being mindful of what we eat and what we buy, and making an effort in our diet are ways of preventing killing.

Many Buddhists find that as they develop in their spiritual path, they have a natural tendency to become vegetarian. By doing so, they live up to the Buddha’s teaching on loving kindness. This energy of loving kindness brings feelings of safety, health and joy to them and all sentient beings.

For answers to the following FAQs, please visit this website: http://ethics.buddhist.sg/

• What did the Buddha say about Vegetarianism?

• Is abortion a form of killing? Isn’t it better to end a pregnancy if the couple is not ready?

• How should I deal with an infestation of ants or cockroaches?

• Some detractors say, “You Buddhists are too concerned about ants and bugs.”

• What if we are practicing non-violence and someone breaks into our house and threatens us? What should we do?


Shi Faxun

Shi Faxun

VENERABLE FAXUN graduated from Singapore’s Ngee Ann Polytechnic in 1989 where she was President of the Buddhist Society. She was ordained in Taiwan in 1992 by Venerable Wu Yin of Luminary of Bhikkhuni Sangha and underwent five years o f basic monastic education in the Luminary Buddhist Institute, also in Taiwan. Upon completion of her monastic training, Venerable Faxun returned to Singapore in 1997 and served in the Sagaramudra Buddhist Society, where she conducted adult’s and children’s Dharma classes in English and Mandarin. In 2001, Venerable continued to pursue her education by doing a Bachelor of Arts and Education degree at the University of Western Australia, where she majored in linguistics and Asian studies. While in Australia, she also taught meditation at the Sagaramudra branch in Perth, which she helped to manage. In 2009, she completed her Honours Degree with a thesis entitled The “Other” Path: The Bhikkhuni Quest for Liberation. Since then, Venerable has been teaching at various Buddhist centres in Singapore, Malaysia and Western Australia, and contributing articles to Buddhist magazines.

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