I undertake to abstain from killing any living being

The First Precept

On the surface, the first of the five Buddhist precepts seems pretty straight forward. Once you do some digging into the ways that different traditions interpret this precept, as well as spending some time contemplating the broader implications of the precept, things start to get a little more muddy. In the interest of not getting too bogged down in the weeds on some of this, I’m going to focus on the Theravada interpretation, as that’s the tradition that I practice within.

In the Theravada tradition, many people view this as a wider prescription toward non-harming, and often choose to adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet for this reason. Just because you aren’t actually doing the killing, that doesn’t mean you are off the hook for having someone else do it. The precept is focused on not operating out of hatred or aversion in a way that causes harm to any living creature. The first precept was both the one that I began to implement to some degree, and is one that I have had great difficulty in deciding how to approach skillfully.

knife in tree
Photo freely given by Yaroslav Кorshikov on Unsplash

I grew up in West Texas, where brisket is a staple food, and where most of my favorite non-meat foods are covered in melted cheese. One of my longtime favorite leisure and decompression activities is fishing. I have spent many a peaceful day on a lake or river catching fish, which often included killing and eating said fish. As I began my first Buddhist reading, I quickly started to feel conflicted about my choices in these areas. As I began to look at my activities through the lens of whether I was contributing to the suffering of others and myself, I started to make some changes. I adopted a largely vegetarian diet, choosing to occasionally eat fish or meat that I knew was humanely raised. Given my previous diet, this has been a significant change. During the last few months I have continued to think about whether I am satisfied with my current diet, or whether I should be doing more.

Cows
Photo freely given by Robert Bye on Unsplash

My motivations for changing my diet have been varied. The largest factor has definitely been a focus on reducing the suffering of all living beings. Included in my thinking on this issue is the topic of climate change, since that is an issue that will literally contribute to the suffering of nearly all living beings. I have specifically placed an emphasis on avoiding beef and lamb, as these two forms of meat also have the most devastating effect on the environment. That being said, pigs are very intelligent animals, so it would stand to reason that they might have the highest capacity for experiencing suffering. There’s a lot to take into account here.

In looking at this precept, it’s pretty easy for me to rule out killing another human being. I have no murderous tendencies. I also don’t even own a gun for home defense, etc., so even as a self defense, I’m unlikely to take another human life on purpose. That left me having to decide what standard I was going to set for this project. Ultimately, I decided that if I was going to do this, I should really try to find out what making a more extreme interpretation would be like. I have decided to spend the month attempting to adopt a vegan lifestyle.

The english translation of the precept is often ‘killing’ or ’taking life’, but can also be understood to include injuring and torturing. If the point here is to take the perspective that these precepts are to avoid various hinderances to effective practice; given what I know about the suffering that animals endure in dairy situations as well as in meat production, I feel like adopting a position of eliminating as much involvement in suffering as possible would be the most beneficial to my practice. The environmental factors play out across multiple precepts, but I have even taken those into account in this precept, since I feel like these factors are responsible for increasing suffering to all beings, human or animal. If the point of the precepts is to pave the way for effective practice, I want to spend some time really seeking out where my personal lines are. I have no idea where I will land on this precept after the 31 days of the project, but I am looking forward to spending some time working with it.