On Not Killing

The Buddhist path is often characterized as consisting of three components: sila (ethics), samadhi (concentration), and panna (wisdom). The Five Precepts (Panca-Silani) are the foundation of ethics for Buddhist lay practitioners.  Unlike the biblical Ten Commandments, the precepts are not divine edicts, but are intended as training rules.  Buddhists observe them in order to live skillfully and happily in harmony with other beings, to obtain good karma and fortunate rebirth, and to make progress along the path to awakening.

The first and most important precept is the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures:



“Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami.”

It’s the Buddhist version of the biblical Sixth Commandment (”Thou Shalt Not Murder“) and roughly parallels the Hindu/Jain doctrine of ahimsa (non-harming).

At first blush, it seems the easiest precept to follow.  Far easier, say, than never telling an untruth or maintaining complete sobriety.

The more one examines the precept, however, the more problematic it becomes.

What does it mean to refrain from destroying living creatures?

In India, the Jains sweep the ground in front of them so as not to inadvertently kill any insects.  Does the Buddha ask us to do the same?

As it turns out, no.  If we accidentally trample an insect, no bad karma is created.  This is because there was no intention to kill.  In addition (in some traditions) insects are thought to be lower on the sentience scale than large mammals, primates, cetaceans, etc., and killing them has less karmic import.

Intention is the key to karma.  Accidents, in general, do not create bad karma the way intentional acts do.

On the other hand, some accidents are almost predictable.  What if one goes about carelessly and heedlessly and accidentally kills another being?  A drunk driver doesn’t intend harm, but driving while intoxicated raises the odds that harm might occur.  Here in the West we consider that to be vehicular homicide.  Does this kind of unintentional but heedless killing create bad karma according to Buddhist doctrine?

What about the killing of animals for food?

The Buddha did not prescribe vegetarianism.   Buddhist monks are permitted to eat meat, for example, if it is put in their alms bowl by a lay supporter.  They are not permitted, however, to eat an animal that has been killed on their behalf.

As lay Westerners we have an endless variety of protein sources available to us that are not the result of killing animals: dairy products, unfertilized eggs, soy-based products, legumes, etc.  Should we refrain from eating killed animals?

Meat sold in supermarkets has not been killed specifically for our benefit.  There was no particular consumer in mind at the slaughterhouse at the moment the animal was killed. Is it therefore all right to buy meat in the supermarket?  Or is that disingenuous?  After all, if more people declined to buy meat, the law of supply and demand would result in a decrease in animal killing.

In addition to concerns about killing per se, there are also serious ethical concerns about the way animals are raised on modern factory farms.  Who is creating a greater moral offense: the hunter of wild game, or the agribusiness livestock breeder who is raising animals under unnatural circumstances?

Buddhist traditions vary in allowing or discouraging meat eating.  Some Buddhist traditions permit meat eating (e.g., fish in Thailand, yak meat in Tibet) and others discourage it.

And what of harmful pests: bed bugs, fleas, flies, mosquitoes, cockroaches, fire ants, and rodents?  Is one permitted to rid one’s home and neighborhood of them, or must one endure them, even when they are unsanitary or serve as a vector for serious infectious disease?

And what about bacteria and internal parasites?  Is one permitted to use antibiotics?

And what about the autoimmune system? Doesn’t the autoimmune system kill foreign living organisms all the time?

And what about killing in self-defense or to protect one’s family, neighbors or countrymen?

To complicate matters further, Mahayana Buddhism introduces the concept of ”skillful means” (upaya kausalya).  Under certain circumstances one may violate precepts when one’s motivation is wholesome.

Tibetans, for example, venerate Pelgyi Dorje who assassinated King Langdarma almost 1,200 years ago.  Langdarma allegedly suppressed Buddhism and persecuted Buddhist monks, and Pelgyi Dorje killed him to preserve the Dharma for the benefit of all beings and to save Langdarma  from creating even worse karma for himself.

Similarly, in the Upaya-Kausalya Sutra, a virtuous sea captain named Great Compassion (the Buddha in a previous lifetime) is permitted to kill an assassin who plans on killing a cohort of 500 bodhisattvas who are aboard ship.  In doing so, Great Compassion is willing to be reborn in a Hell Realm as a consequence, but his act is morally commendable, and his karma is not as bad as it would have been had his motivation been impure.

I am raising a series of questions and resolving none.

It’s not my intention to cite this-or-that text in this-or-that tradition to support one answer or another.  I refer the interested reader to Peter Harvey’s excellent book [ref] Harvey, P. (2000).  An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [/ref] on the topic if they’re interested in exploring Buddhist ethical doctrine in greater depth.

Instead, I only wish to point out that things are not as easy or straightforward as they might initially seem.  When we vow to refrain from killing living beings, we are being invited into an exploration of how far we are willing to go to put the vow into practice.  Are we willing to allow ourselves to be killed by a tiger, as the Buddha did in a previous life in one of the Jataka Tales, so that her hungry cubs might live?  Are we willing to kill an intruder who is invading our home and threatening our family?  If we lovingly rescue spiders by carefully removing them from our homes, are we as loving with an infestation of cockroaches?  Are we willing to eat fish, but not beef?  Will we join pacifist protests when our country goes to war?  Where will be draw the line in our lives?

There is a famous Quaker anecdote about William Penn.  When Penn first became a Quaker, he still wore his ceremonial dress sword on formal occasions, as was the custom of the time.  He was aware, however, of the moral conflict between Quaker pacifist beliefs and sword-wearing, and asked George Fox for advice.  Fox replied “I advise thee to wear it as long as thou canst.”  When they met again a short time later, Penn no longer had his sword.  When Fox asked where it was, Penn replied “I have taken thy advice; I wore it as long as I could.”

This is what Buddhism asks us to do.  To investigate the circumstances of our lives.  To live with difficult questions and address them as best we can in the moment.  To see how far we can go to refrain from killing in our lives, knowing that the extent to which we are willing to go may change and evolve as we proceed along the path.

Rather than being absolutes, Buddhist training precepts are invitations to explore how our lives change as we take on certain ethical challenges.

As the Buddhist saying goes, ”Ehipassiko:“  Come see for yourself.

29 Replies to “On Not Killing”

  1. Very well written article! Everyone has a slightly different view what it means to kill other beings, be it animal, human, or vegetable. We have to eat something, unless we are a “breathearian”! 🙂 My personal view is that if we do eat meat, raise it, love it, kill it, and give thanks. Kind of an American Indian thing. Factory raised meat and poultry is close to torture of the animals. So I do not buy meat at the store (that much), just breakfast sausage an occasional chicken, and some ground beef. The last time I ate at a fast food place was years ago. Nothing righteous about the way “I” do this. And I do not think there is any righteous approach to this dilemma.
    Thanks for leaving this subject open to the public. If only we could do that with every dilemma!


    1. Nice, since you don’t buy meat at the store that much, those animals that you ate were only that much dead. Go vegan. If you’re not vegan you’re abusing other sentient beings. No excuse for animal abuse.

  2. Very informative and thought-provoking article. I have always found land animal meat repulsive. As I grew up surrounded by farm animals, it was like eating my friends. My parents forced me to eat meat when I was young, but I stopped doing it when I got older. I can tolerate seafood, however, and for many years practiced spearfishing and lobstering for my own consumption. Why this differentiation? I could not explain it except in terms of mammals being higher life forms. But where do we draw the line? Eventually, I became incapable of killing even fish and lobsters. When I speared a fish, I felt I was speared. When I caught a lobster, I heard it cry. I recommend TO CHERISH ALL LIFE: A BUDDHIST CASE FOR BECOMING VEGETARIAN (San Francisco: Harper, 1982; and Rochester: The Zen Center, 1986), by Roshi Phillip Kapleau, who explores these issues in depth.

    1. I can sooo relate to this! I have NEVER eaten, lobster, tasted shrimp, oysters, most of the seafood, except tuna over the years….

      I was a young girl of 8? or so… maybe 9? can’t recall but about that age… when I was on my grandfather’s boat with my father fishing… and as my grandfather caught the fish and put them in the large pail and they were flopping around… it broke my heart… of course I had learned in school for many years… how fish NEED water to breathe! AND THIS WAS PAINFUL for me to watch.

      But what happened next, sealed the deal for me, for a many lifetimes, I hope and pray.

      After the fishing trip, at the end of the dock where they “?” — I saw my grfather, (even when some were still a bit alive) cut out the fishs’ eyes and/or cut off their heads and the blood! OMG!

      Okay, that’s enough for me to be able to say, as the visual is too much! I always have felt that its part of my mission in some way — that’s not TOO radical but in a special “rememberance” that ALL life creatures as you mentioned it… ARE to be honored.

      Though I work strongly on nonjudgement since there are many layers of life and purposes as well, beyond only what the Greatest of All can only truly understand.

      But am working on a children’s book that talks about how some “children of the future” are reading an ancient book of how “Humans?” use to eat animals?
      and the children of this NEW DAY… are completely not only astonished but CANNOT comprehend of this idea and how it could ever have been so… thanks! Sherri Zimmmerman – author of Success After Insanity — http://www.imaginepeaceNOW.com

  3. My thanks to both Chana and Amaury for discussing their personal journeys in navigating the complex issues surrounding the killing and eating of animals.

    Amaury, I think one reason some people find it easier to eat seafood than mammals is not just the issue of mammals being a “higher life form,” but also the closer degree of similarity between humans and the other mammals. Warm-blooded furry animals possess a familiarity and often a “cuteness” factor that fish, reptiles, insects, crustacea, etc. do not. In fact, the greater degree of strangeness or “ickiness” that an animal elicits in the human mind, the easier time humans have in killing it without compunction. Humans often have to work hard to extend their sense of caring and connection to that which seems (initially) “alien” to them.

  4. im a vegetarian since 4 years because i believe that killing animals is the worst cruel thing man can do on earth. no religion, no god has instructed man to kill and eat animals.

    1. Keshini,

      Thank you for your comment. I am emotionally sympathetic to your point of view and welcome your vegetarian practice as a sincere expression of your desire to live compassionately. On the other hand, I’ve found a vegetarian diet is not for me. I was a vegetarian for seven years and believe my diet, heavily based on grains and legumes, helped contribute to the onset of my diabetes. I’ve only begun to effectively control my diabetes since I’ve essentially eliminated carbohydrates (e.g., no rice, bread, fruit, pasta, cereals, starchy vegetables, etc.), which has left me little option but to include a range of animal products in my diet. I might also point out that no god or religion has authorized lions or owls to eat meat, yet they do, and I do not consider them to be cruel. Also, while there is always some degree of cruelty in killing animals for food, I do not think that killing animals is the cruelest things human beings do. Causing animals to live their lives under inhumane conditions such as those that exist on factory farms, for example, is far worse. That’s why I encourage those of us who do opt to eat meat to choose the sources of our meat as carefully as we can given our circumstances.

  5. Thank you for this post. I am sitting at my desk at work killing fungus gnats as my plants are suffering an infestation of them, and I’m feeling pretty guilty about it. I suppose I am helping my plants thrive by killing the bugs, but I feel bad with each one I squash. I guess it is not a question with a clear answer, just as you say. I especially appreciate this paragraph:

    “This is what Buddhism asks us to do. To investigate the circumstances of our lives. To live with difficult questions and address them as best we can in the moment. To see how far we can go to refrain from killing in our lives, knowing that the extent to which we are willing to go may change and evolve as we proceed along the path.”

    Thanks again 🙂

      1. This is interesting because I am right smack in the midst of a so-called “hell” of the world of bedbugs taking over almost my whole life at this moment in time… HORRID!

        There’s no doubt, I have had other lifetimes I KNOW, of hating this very part of earth life… and am choosing to look at this as I knew one day I would need to… as if intuitively, I knew that if I don’t make peace with this world of insects NOW, I will surely continue on with them, until I get it!

        So, I am looking at what the metphyscial meaning may be as well… so I am looking at what the bigger picture is in accordance to what this actual experience has to do with life at THIS moment in time for me, my life… so here is what I am finding on a symbolic/reality connection level…

        #1) bedbugs… – don’t seem to care about anything else then eating…

        #1 – I have had that struggle about “remembering” to eat, its been apart of my condition so extreme… where hospitalized for not eating, creates an imbalance in my mind and body connection to sickness.

        #2.) bedbugs… they take over if you let them… very quickly… invade all of your territory if you dont’ take control of it yourself…

        #2.) I have had difficulties most of my life that others invade my space very quickly and I lose complete control… not even aware of it until its too late… or realize its even an issue! or may be ignoring it, for lack of?. (can’t ignore bedbugs! got that message! loud & clear)

        #3.) bedbugs are hardy and resistant to many things, prone to protecting themselves from harm’s way, for survival.

        #3.) I have had all of these problems of
        NOT BEING these things, most of my life emotionally, ending up in places that I am locked in for so-called mental issues and takes my sheer will for survival in these places and in day to day life at times…

        #4a.) bedbugs attach themselves to places that work for them…

        #4a.) I strongly HAVE THIS ISSUE… attaching myself to many people and places that work for me…

        #4b.) also procreate quickly… laying many eggs as they go

        #4b.) and well? procreate… that’s another matter, always been highly fertile… and if could, would have many many children, if able and if meant for this lifetime. (believe in some lifetime… I may – LOL)…

        #5.) bedbugs just won’t leave

        #5.) I have a BIG issue about leaving any place … anywhere, anytime (though I hide this well)… AND leaving those I am in the presence of…
        I NOW see… that I hate the process of “leaving” (that’s an eye opener! Thanks!)

        (dont’ think its for the same reason as them… but who knows? LOL have to see if there are any bedbug psychics!)…love the psychic world for sure!

        AAAHH maybe that’s it… they seem to be very psychic, that they KNOW when to move around and move fast… that too is an issue I have! (LOL) I move way too fast and do move around alot as if I always have to go somewhere!?

        WOW, what is that all about?!!
        I see there was a huge reason why I was guided to THIS site (as I know there are no accidents)
        Thank you… maybe they will begin to lighten up a little bit… now that I am making some connections….

        AND they also like warm places… hmmm… I do too!… I hate the cold…

        Oh no! NOW I have to make peace with the cold too… really have to go… going buggy!

        All in Buddha time… is what I say now…
        very enlightening… thanks again…

  6. I just wanted to comment that I am of no earthly religion and I feel that humans were not designed (due to moral and physical reasons) to kill other living organisms to consume for food. I truly believe our body makeup was designed to consume only the fruits and vegetables of the plants of the earth to sustain us, yet let every man or women be judge of themselves deriving from each their conscious thought concerning this subject.

    1. Thanks, Keith, for providing your perspective. My own reading of the biological record is that we evolved as omnivores — I don’t believe we were “designed” by any higher power for any particular purpose. We have the choice of what kind of diet we will follow, and we can make that judgment on both moral and dietary concerns. I was a vegetarian for seven years but am not anymore, a decision that has left me both morally queasy and physically healthier. As a diabetic I can only maintain normal blood sugar levels by strictly avoiding almost all fruits (excepting berries and avocados) and carbohydrate-loaded vegetable such as grains and legumes. That leaves me little choice but to obtain at least some of my diet from animal products. I also believe that my seven years eating a high carbohydrate diet based on fruits and vegetables contributed to the onset of my diabetes. On the other hand, I find the practice of factory farming animals to be intolerably inhumane and try — as best I can — to obtain my meat, eggs, and dairy products from farms that treat their animals as ethically as possible. As you say, everyone must make this decision according to their own lights, but we need to be sensitive, thoughtful, and informed about what we are doing.

  7. Hello, I hope you are still following this thread as I’ve a bit of a dilemma. My partner is genuinely arachnaphobic and detests spiders, but has accepted not killing them on the grounds that I remove them. This has worked until today.

    While removing a harvest spider I noticed she was guarding a horde of baby spiders. Naturally I assumed that removing them would result in the loss of many spidery-lives, but my partner was steadfast in her resolve to have them out.

    In the end I decided to try and relocate them, but due to their delicate form none survived being handled. At this point I’m at a loss, and this act was surely karamatically challenging.

    I knew they would be at risk of death and went through with it regardless to limit suffering of another being. At this point, can ones suffering be comparable to another beings? Was this act truly meant well considering I knew they might die? Seems a tough one to consider.

    1. Dear Jack — in Buddhist philosophy, karma is determined primarily by intention rather than by outcome and consequence. In this case, your intention was primarily compassion for your partner rather than hatred of and aversion for spiders. That probably counts for something. I’m more and more convinced that we cannot get through life without killing to some minimal degree — whether plants or animals for food, or bacteria and animals that are part of the vectors for spreading disease, or termites and cockroaches that invade our homes. I know that this is a slippery slope and one must be very careful about such arguments, but things are rarely black or white in our genuine lived lives — they are only black or white in abstract mental systems. Be compassionate towards yourself. Best wishes!

  8. My heart believes in the sacred and beautiful nature of life. I found this article, because I just killed a huge black widow spider I found in my bedding. I kept it all night in a jar, unable to kill it, but finally took it outside and stamped on it. I cried for awhile. I felt it was very wrong, but realized that it was too dangerous to release.

    I am told by pretty much everyone that I am weird. That spiders don’t even know they’re alive. But when I smashed that arachnid with my foot, I felt a disturbance in the force. I saw the perfectly built and beautiful body disintegrate before my eyes, and knew it was my fault.

    I don’t know how to reconcile this.

    1. Michelle, can you find a space where both things are true — that the spider was a living sentient being and that the spider was a potential danger to you or someone else? What to do in this situation isn’t fully clear. We have to sit somehow with both truths and feel our way through to the best decision we can make in the moment. Sometimes we make the right decision, sometimes we screw up, and often we don’t know which is which. All I can suggest is loving-kindness and compassion, both for the dead spider and for your own suffering self as well. Sometimes we cause harm to one being to protect another– we have no other options. The action contains both the merit of saving one being, and the karma of harming another. The best be can do is to hold both realities in a compassionate space and not delude ourselves or convince ourselves of our purity or self-righteousness.

  9. Budhha mentioned that what matters is the intention to kill. We need fruits and vegetables to survive,it is a necessity. However meat is not a must have requirement for our diet, there are many substitutes for meat to obtain protein. It’s the taste of meat that have makes it so addicting. In my option its not fair for an animal to go through so much of torture just because we enjoy the ”taste” of it.
    Therefore, Insects that are killed during the agricultural process should not be considered as a demerit since fruits and vegetables are a necessity and we do not intend to kill the insects.

    1. Hi, Thakshila. I am sympathetic to your argument to some degree. And of course, the Buddha’s main argument concerns the question of intent. But consider my situation. I am a diabetic, which means I have to restrict my carbohydrate intake severely. I cannot eat fruit, grains, cereals, legumes or root vegetables because of their high carbohydrate content without causing significant harm to my body. Meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products are important sources of protein for me. I was a vegetarian for many years before I developed my diabetes, but I cannot be a vegetarian now. The Dalai Lama, I understand, also has a medical condition that requires him to eat some meat. If everyone were to totally stop eating meat, there would be no need for domestic cows, pigs, sheep and chickens, and they would become extinct. Is extinction a preferable fate for these animal species? I think an ethical case can be made that, rather than simply letting all domestic animals become extinct, we instead commit to raising them ethically. Let’s end factory farming and similar unethical practices, return animals to pasture, and treat them with as much care and respect as we can. In the end, all lives end in death, but they can be good lives up until that point. Of course, if you can get all your nutritional needs from a vegetarian diet without harming your health, by all means do so.

      1. Interesting point in respect to the extinction of domestic animals.

        Number of additional points:

        How many species have or are near extinction due to the keeping of domestic animals, wild boar, bison for example.

        How long is the average happy life of a domestic animal kept in good welfare conditions, in relation to their life expectancy in the wild. For example a beef cow is slaughtered in 18 months, where as a bison can live in the wild for 15 years.

      2. From the Joslin Diabetes Center (a Harvard Medical School affiliate):
        Can people with diabetes follow a vegetarian diet?

        Yes. Vegetarian diet tends to be higher in carbohydrate and lower in protein than meat-based diets, so blood glucose levels may be affected. As a result, your healthcare provider may need to change the amount or type of your diabetes medication. Anyone interested in becoming a vegetarian, including people with diabetes, should work with a dietitian to make sure their nutritional needs are met.

        1. I think the Joslin clinic’s advice, while technically correct, is bad advice. Taking more insulin is not a good solution, as increased levels of insulin have their own negative effects. While it may be possible to eat very low carb, keep insulin doses very small and still be vegetarian, that diet would be so incredibly restrictive that I would never advise anyone to try to follow it.

  10. Just a thought. The human body needs vitamin B12 to function normally and we can only get this vitamin from animal products. Some people can survive without vitamin B12 for up to thirty or fourty years without supplements, even so, eventually we will all reach vitamin B12 deficiency sooner or later. I would therefore say that the human body is designed to eat both meat and vegetables to remain healthy levels of all vitamins. Sure, we might be able to get all the vitamin B12 we need through artificial supplements, but whether or not we can get enough of this vitamin without eating meat is not my point. My point is, if we are designed to eat both meat and vegetables, why should we not do so? Are we denying who we truly are as a species by not eating meat? Are we avoiding the killing of other creatures just because it’s an uncomfortable part of life? Is killing an important clue to the question of our existence? And by avoiding the killing, are we failing to realise and experience an important part of life in the process, and the wisdom and lessons behind it? Is it possible that the killing of animals can increase our love for them? Should we love an animal before we take its life, and love it even more after for sustaining our own lives? I’m very thankful for some comments!

    1. Hey Marcus, I don’t know if you’ll ever read this since you wrote 5 months ago. But I felt a little nudged to respond. In the argument about vit. B12 I see a hole. Isn’t it strange that, among the thousands of food-related physiological factors of human health, only ONE points to animal meat being a requirement. From studies of ancient civilizations it seems we have been eating meat for tens of thousands of years. It could be that initially we were NOT designed to require meat but from consuming it for so long we developed that one requirement genetically. Who knows.
      But your comment about missing an important clue regarding our existence by avoiding the killing, I found very insightful. In the book A Course In Miracles it says that we ourselves, as one united single being which we once were and must become again (and actually still are), we ourselves brought this world into being for a specific psychological reason. And we intentionally made it a “kill or be killed” world. I’m not saying we should kill, but there is definitely something there to look at.

    2. There are vegan B-12 supplements. B-12 comes from micro-organisms and animals are not the only sources. The answer to the rest of your questions is, “no.” If “jerk/asshole/dick/cruel” is your definition of what/who we are as a species, then by all means, please do deny. There is no beauty in cruelty. None. What we’re doing is packaging cruelty in pretty white styrofoam packages and marketing it far, far away from the slaughterhouse because it IS INDEED AN (unnecessary) UNCOMFORTABLE part of life. That is not the way to deal with the discomfort, it’s the cop out; the path that requires the least contemplation. How about man up and DON’T BE A DICK. We should love animals and that is the logical reason not to take their lives. Why wouldn’t you kill your children? The idea that killing your beloved children can increase your love for them and that wisdom is the lesson learned by doing so is absurd and dangerous. And think about it: “I love you so much I’M going to kill you for ME and that’s the way for ME to love you the most. MY sustenance from your death is most important and the love I’LL realize afterwards is what makes ME more HUMAN.” If our statements about love are filled with I, ME, MY, I’M, etc… we’ve got the “love” thing all wrong. To demean and devalue another for our own selfish motives is NEVER LOVE. It’s the attempted justification of the ego’s grandiose self-importance (supremacy).

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