The first and foremost way in which we practice right action is by refraining from killing other sentient beings. The results that come from our actions, the ones that create karma (good or bad), are inextricably linked with our intentions.
Confession: Not long ago, I was reading in bed next to my napping partner. We were in a beach house and he wore no shirt. A single mosquito approached his vulnerable back. I hesitated for a second or less and then killed the mosquito. My primary intention at that moment was to protect my partner from being bitten, but a secondary intention was to kill the threatening bug. This is a not uncommon situation for me. My virtue is not perfect, and I’m still investigating my non-virtue. When I feel a compassion for the mosquito that’s stronger than my fears, for myself or others, then I will have made an excellent change.
Ajahn Sumedho, from “Themes for daily practice”:
When our Chithurst monastery first acquired Hammer Pond, there was a man nearby who taught fishing. One time I visited him, and I watched him catch fish. I was very impressed by his expertise. He was standing on the side of the stream, and I was on a little stone bridge. A large fish was on the hook, and it was struggling to get away. The fish was absolutely terrified, and it was trying desperately to get away from the hook. The fisherman was very good. He let the fish go for a while, then pulled it back up until it began to tire. He eventually pulled it up and bashed it on the head.
Later on, a fishing club came several times trying to convince me to give them permission to use the pond. They said, ‘We won’t kill the fish. We are just going to catch them and then we’ll put them back in the pond, because it’s our sport. You know, we don’t really want to eat them or anything; we just catch them and then we let them go again.’ But noting the terror that the fish was feeling, we suddenly realise it’s the same feeling we would have if we suddenly bit on a hook and somebody started pulling us out of the water. We reflect that we would react in very much the same way. Though the fish seems to the fisherman to be a stupid animal that doesn’t have any feelings and doesn’t really count, it is a being that is experiencing the emotion of utmost terror. That fish is absolutely terrified for his life; it’s a natural reaction that all animals feel, including humans.
This story sticks in my mind when I work with aversion to, or fear of, other species of living beings (cockroaches, ants, mosquitoes). I can empathise with people, with fish, pigs, and cows; but my compassion and empathy don’t reach all the way to every sentient being — yet.