After taking refuge in the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha, and after vowing to live by the three pure precepts — cease from harm, do only good and do good for others — Zen practitioners strive to live by 10 precepts that define thoughts, words and actions that enable us to do only good. The first of these 10 precepts is to abstain from taking life. This includes human and animal life, birds and insects, but does not include plant life. A violation of the first precepts involves five factors. First, there is a living being. Second, there is knowledge that the being is a living being. Third, there is the intention to kill. Fourth, the killing is carried out. Fifth, the being dies.
The Buddha taught that a disciple of the Buddha does not kill, encourage others to kill, praise killing or rejoice at witnessing killing. He or she must not create the causes, conditions or methods of killing, and shall not intentionally kill any living creature. Instead, as a Buddhist, he or she nurtures a mind of compassion, always devising ways to rescue and protect all beings.
This precept expresses the Zen practitioner’s intent to live compassionately and harmlessly. When understood in its broadest context, not killing can also be understood as not harming the body or mind of another. Thus, physical violence and abusive behavior (which includes physical threats, extreme displays of anger and maliciousness) are a kind of “killing”.
Of course, this is a precept that we cannot keep completely. Given the complexity of contemporary life, killing or involvement with killing is unavoidable. Biological, social or political demands conflict with our intention not to take life. Unless we are vegan, we eat food and wear clothes that involve taking the lives of animals. We kill insects and rodents to prevent them from invading our homes or spreading disease.
We kill in subtler ways, as well. A harsh word may instantly kill years of trust. A derisive comment may kill inspiration in another person. We may kill a relationship by taking the other person for granted.
This precept also calls up deep questions about ethics around the issues of abortion, life support and medically assisted suicide. In Zen centre classes, we talk about these issues and try to understand how the precept against killing affects our view of them.
Fortunately, the Buddhist precepts are not commandments. They are more like training wheels. It is said that an enlightened being responds correctly to every situation. Keeping the precepts is a training discipline that helps us to live harmoniously with others while learning to actualize true kindness for all beings. The precept against killing teaches us, in all circumstances, to call up compassion so that we choose to cultivate and encourage life and refrain from killing wherever possible.
Suggested practice: For the next two weeks, notice the places where it is necessary to take life in order to survive and if it isn’t necessary, cultivate and encourage life where you find it.
Kuya Minogue is the resident teacher at Creston’s ZenWords Zen Centre. For more information, she can be reached at 250-428-6500.