On Honoring the First Precept to Not Take Life
By Hunter Liguore
I began my exploration of the Buddha’s First Precept, to not take life, with the thought that this would be an easy practice to learn. How hard would it be to stop eating meat and killing bugs in my house? As I grew more attentive to my daily actions, however, I began to see how harshly I walked in the world. Fumbling through the day, I saw how my activities, though unintentional, harmed other creatures due to my sheer carelessness and lack of awareness. As I developed a daily practice, vowing not to take life, I began to see an array of opportunities to not only honor the precept and preserve life, but to deepen my compassion for all sentient beings.
My inspiration for looking closer at my actions came from hearing Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo speak candidly about “living harmlessly in the world.” As Tenzin explains, we each hold ourselves most dear; for that reason, “we shouldn’t harm or cause for harm. Just like we don’t want to be hurt, no one else wants to be hurt. To each animal, its own life is precious.” That goes for insects, fish, and chickens, she adds. “A being truly wise would never even think of harming another. So we’re trying to model ourselves to be like that.”
One shift in my way of thinking came when I stopped to notice several insects floating on top of the water I’d put out for the birds. I thought, at first, it might be extreme to rescue them. Then I became aware that my action of putting out the water created the condition for the insects to drown, and I felt I couldn’t ignore the situation. Especially when I could see several flies fighting for their lives on the surface of the water.
My lack of compassion originated from an unspoken hierarchy that dictated which lives were worth my time to value. The First Precept is to do no harm towards all sentient beings. But I was living from a place where humans were at the top, followed by cats and dogs, horses, polar bears, and cows—obvious beings I didn’t want to hurt. If I saw a dead cat on the side of the road, I got teary-eyed, but if it was a squirrel, I seemed to have no response or didn’t even notice. But somehow, when I started to be more mindful of all life, I let go of “me” at the center and put other sentient beings first.
Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in his book, Peace Is Every Step, to “walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.” That first day of saving bugs became a daily practice, one that has allowed me to check in and be attentive to my “harmful footprint,” and to begin walking mindfully, as if kissing the Earth with my feet. One day, I was impervious to the ripples I’d caused, and the next, I was lifting out a little gnat most would find insignificant. My heart had opened and overflowed with compassion for it.
As Buddhists, we have opportunities to heighten the attention we give to the precept, in order to have a more gentle footprint. “Sometimes, inevitably, we do have to kill, for the greater good of what we regard as a more evolved being,” Tenzin explains. “If [you’re] forced to, don’t do it with rejoicing, but with genuine regret and the firm wish that these beings might be reborn in a higher level of being.”
For instance, her advice for facing an infestation of fleas on a dog is to talk to the fleas and “tell them to go,” earnestly, then give them a chance to vacate, a practice she insists is proven to work.
On my journey to respect all creatures and harm as few as I can, I try to consider my present actions and the conditions they might cause others. Over time, I’ve learned a few tricks to decrease my harmful footprint.
I’ve learned to slow down while driving, in order to give the animal and me time to react. Once I avoided hitting a deer simply by being present and alert while scanning the sides of the highway. Additionally, before departure, I recite a mantra, like Om Mani Padme Om. Tenzin explains that this invokes the Buddha of Compassion. At night, I refrain from using high beams to reduce the number of bugs I kill. Insects, like the white moth, are drawn into the light, so if I use less light, many will avoid the beam and car altogether. When animals have been killed by cars, I sometimes stop and move them to the side, wishing for them to find rebirth in a higher level of being.
IN THE HOUSE
I take measures to seal up the house to prevent critters from getting inside in the first place. I avoid spraying chemicals as a preventative, since poison is an intentional means of killing; it also damages the ecosystem and can end up in groundwater, with endless ripples for all walks of life.
Many insects in the house are easily removed by having a cup and lid in the ready. I’ve grown attentive to birth cycles to know when certain species will hatch. I keep cups in each room and carefully catch and release as needed. House spiders, I’ve learned, maintain a natural habitat in the house; to put them outside will actually lead to their death.
For mice, I place lighted incense in bottles in the attic to simulate a fire; this signals danger to them, causing them to leave. I also ask nicely. Lavender or peppermint oil works as a deterrent, as well.
As a last resort, humane traps are also available, not to mention ultrasound devices that emit a vibration to keep insects and rodents away.
I don’t eat meat, and do my best to avoid products that contain hidden animal products that would entail loss of life for them. For instance, gelatin capsules, used for most vitamins, come from the bones of animals. At restaurants, items like French fries are often cooked in animal fat. Some detergents and fabric softeners, besides being detrimental to the environment, also contain animal products; selecting an eco- or vegetable-derived variety alleviates harm. In some cases, it’s very hard to avoid animal products, so when I shop, I keep an eye open for vegan and cruelty-free packaging, like “bird-friendly” coffees whose manufacturers go to extra lengths to ensure the safety of birds.
Making a commitment each morning to cherish life has also increased my awareness. One option is to recite Thay’s version of the First Precept, Reverence for Life:
Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating the insight of interbeing and 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 support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, or in my way of life. Seeing that harmful actions arise from anger, fear, greed, and intolerance, which in turn come from dualistic and discriminative thinking, I will cultivate openness, non-discrimination, and non-attachment to views in order to transform violence, fanaticism, and dogmatism in myself and in the world.
Decreasing the amount of harm I cause living creatures has allowed me to see my oneness to the whole. Rather than feel greater and more important than some beings, I see sameness. This has carried over to how I view my relationships with people, as well, and how one action can cause harm to those around me. The present moment really does matter, since my present actions create the conditions of the next moment, for me and for the whole. I’ve taken small steps to honor the First Precept, which has helped me and hopefully will continue to guide me in being a better person in the world.
Ms. Hunter Liguore teaches undergraduate and graduate writing in New England, where she is a member of the Hartford Karm Theism Choling and Buddhist Faith Fellowship. A long-time naturalist, she writes about compassionate awareness towards the environment and endangered species. Look for her forthcoming book, Hidden Warrior: Meditations on Sun Tzu’s Art of War.