I undertake the training rule to refrain from taking life (the first precept)

“I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, live supported by my actions. Whatever actions I do, whether good or evil, to that will I become heir” is to be reflected on often.
-Gotama Buddha (AN V.57 tr. J. Kelly)


The Buddha recommended five specific training rules for the maintenance of an ethical life. If we do our best to follow these guidelines, they produce a beneficial effect on ourselves and others. If we ignore or reject the guidelines, painful feelings follow, especially regret or shame.

The first of the five guidelines or precepts is “I undertake the training rule to refrain from taking life”. Every major religion recommends a similar restraint. There is no escape from the damage done to oneself when one kills or harms another living being. The precept is framed as a training rule, inviting you to undertake an attitude of non-harming towards all living beings. This training relates to your actions, speech, and thinking, and their effects on other beings –all animals, human and otherwise, down to the smallest creatures. To practice with this training, pay attention to what happens when you are successful in maintaining an attitude of non-harming, and also when you are unsuccessful. It is not a commandment, with a specific penalty for breaking it, but a training regimen. It invites you to notice and heed your actions and their results. The opportunity to learn appears in the situation at hand, and upon later reflection.

The training rule is difficult to translate exactly from the original Pali language. The precise meaning could be to refrain from harming, striking, or killing living beings.

The Buddha explains (and we can plainly see) that every living creature loves life and fears death. In this we are all the same — mammals, fish, birds and insects. All flee from a perceived threat. The sensations of fear are common to all.

All tremble at violence;
Life is dear for all.
Seeing other as being like yourself,
Do not kill or cause others to kill.
(Dhp 130, tr. Fronsdal)

What’s happening when you are intending to harm?

What urge or thought must be present for you to intentionally harm another living being? Is it in your mind or your body? What does it feel like? Examine the impulse, apart from the action. Undertaking the first precept brings your attention to this – the origin of the harmful impulse. Whether the intention is pre-meditated or reactive, it feels compulsive, as if there is no choice. Mild annoyance and rage share this quality. They seem to rise up, unbidden. And yet, it is possible to refuse the urge, in the moment after it comes up – if you recognize it. Not so much “free will” as “free won’t”.

Think about when your “striking out” feeling appears. Does it come when someone cuts you off in traffic? When you feel slighted, overlooked, or unfairly treated? When you see a loose dog? A spider? Cockroach? When you feel ill or tired, do you just want everyone to go away? What are the circumstances under which your sphere of concern shrinks down to just your immediate feelings of irritation or anger? When you feel fearful or intimidated? Training with the first precept begins with noticing the arising of the impulse to strike or harm another being, when the impulse arises.

Degrees of harming

Killing an ant by accident is not a failure to keep the precept; intention is a critical factor. If you saw an anthill and stomped all over it, the harming intention would affect both you and the ants negatively. If you drove a car recklessly, and accidentally hurt or killed someone, it would be the result of a poison in your mind (anger or carelessness) and it would cause regret. When the stakes are high, your attention level must also be high. One positive result of training with the first precept is that you can more easily see the potential for harming others in time to protect against it.

Killing a mosquito, even with malicious intent, is not the same as killing a person. Some people believe that the more spiritually developed a person is, the higher the spiritual cost of murdering her. So killing a Buddha, an awakened one, would result in the heaviest penalties in this life and any possible future births. Killing one’s parents is considered a greater offense than killing an unknown person. Killing a human is worse than killing other species. Killing an insect is a lesser offense than killing a mammal. However, all of these actions result from the seed of hatred. Until hatred is finally and thoroughly uprooted from one’s own heart, the first precept offers the best protection against our own unwholesome tendency to strike out.

The training rule can also apply to types of “striking” that are not physical, but verbal. For example, is malicious gossip a form of harming life? Is the mental state that causes one to abuse someone else verbally the same mental state that leads to hitting? How is it different? Is ignoring the suffering of a close relative or friend a type of harming life? Does it generate the same quality of regret? There are degrees to understanding the training rule, and the way you choose to work with it could change over time.

Consequences of harming and of non-harming

In one lesson, the Buddha said:

Here, student, some man or woman kills living beings and is murderous, bloody-handed, given to blows and violence, merciless to living beings. Because of performing and undertaking such action, on the dissolution of the body, after death, he reappears in a state of deprivation, in an unhappy destination, in perdition, even in hell. But if on the dissolution of the body, after death, he does not reappear in a state of deprivation, in an unhappy destination, in perdition, in hell, but instead comes back to the human state, then wherever he is reborn he is short-lived….

But here, student, some man or woman, abandoning the killing of living beings, abstains from killing living beings; with rod and weapon laid aside, gentle and kindly, he abides compassionate to all living beings. Because of performing and undertaking such action, on the dissolution of the body, after death, he reappears in a happy destination, even in the heavenly world. But if on the dissolution of the body, after death, he does not reappear in a happy destination, in the heavenly world, but instead comes back to the human state, then wherever he is reborn he is long-lived… (MN135.5, tr. Bhikkhu Bodhi)

Whether you subscribe to the idea that something of us continues after we die or not, it is worth considering what effects our actions have. Could it be that it really doesn’t matter what we do, for good or ill? Is an abusive partner no worse than a loving one? Is kindness no better than cruelty? Being on the giving or receiving end of hateful behavior engenders unhappiness. Being on the giving or receiving end of loving behavior engenders happiness. Who can deny this? This is the simple truth that the Buddha refers to in the verses quoted above.

Consider the opposite

If you reject this training rule, where does that leave you? Most people would acknowledge that it is better not to hurt anyone, but perhaps they think that this quality doesn’t need to be consciously cultivated. Perhaps it can safely be left to whatever instinctive goodness one possesses. But one’s instinctive goodness is usually in conflict with one’s instinctive selfishness and sense of entitlement. Growing older sometimes brings maturity, but only if we pay attention to what we’re doing and what’s happening around us. Some people just grow older, and understanding fails to develop. This is why adopting guidelines for one’s own behavior is so important. Each precept is a gift that can help to free us from our own damaging impulses. The Buddha offered the precepts to all of us. All we have to do is accept the gift.

The story of Angulimala
Among the Buddha’s teachings is a famous story about killing and stopping killing. At the time of the Buddha, a fierce murderer was on the loose. It was said that he took a finger from each person he had murdered and wore a necklace made out of them. (“Angulimala” means “finger necklace”). The Buddha understood that this person could be taught a different path, and so he arranged an encounter with Angulimala by simply walking nearby. Angulimala saw the Buddha and gave chase, thinking this would be his next victim.
Then the Blessed One [the Buddha] willed a feat of psychic power such that Angulimala, though running with all his might, could not catch up with the Blessed One walking at normal pace. Then the thought occurred to Angulimala: “Isn’t it amazing! Isn’t it astounding! In the past I’ve chased and seized even a swift-running elephant, a swift-running horse, a swift-running chariot, a swift-running deer. But now, even though I’m running with all my might, I can’t catch up with this contemplative walking at normal pace.” So he stopped and called out to the Blessed One, “Stop, contemplative! Stop!”
“I have stopped, Angulimala. You stop.”
[Angulimala was really puzzled by this response. So he questioned the Buddha – what did he mean?]
“I have stopped, Angulimala,
once & for all,
having cast off violence
toward all living beings.
You, though,
are unrestrained toward beings.
That’s how I’ve stopped
and you haven’t.” (end quote)
(from MN86, tr. Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

As with many of the stories in the discourses of the Buddha, Angulimala had a spiritual breakthrough at that moment. He saw his actions and their consequences and immediately regretted them. He resolved to not only stop killing, but asked to become a monk under the Buddha’s guidance and protection. And so it was.

Please don’t try to replicate the Buddha’s actions by standing up to a murderer yourself. The Buddha knew before he confronted Angulimala that he had the power to wake up the brute’s wisdom. Because the Buddha actually had perfected the first precept and all its related practices, his knowledge was secure, and he was able to show Angulimala true compassion.

One lesson that could be taken away from this story is that it’s never too late to change your ways. The only action you can control is the one happening now. Any point can be a turning point. Even without the physical presence of the Buddha, his teachings can exert a powerful force in turning us towards the wholesome.

Is it ever good to kill?

Question: But surely it is good to kill sometimes. To kill disease-spreading insects, for example, or someone who is going to kill you.
Answer: It might be good for you. But what about that thing or that person? They wish to live just as you do. When you decide to kill a disease-spreading insect, your intention is perhaps a mixture of self concern (good) and revulsion (bad). The act will benefit yourself (good) but obviously it will not benefit that creature (bad). So at times it may be necessary to kill but it is never wholly good.
(p.27, Good Question Good Answer by Ven. S. Dhammika, published Buddha Dhamma Mandala Society)

As Venerable Dhammika points out, some situations require one to weigh the multiple consequences of the action being contemplated. Killing disease-spreading insects might well be, on balance, a better course of action than leaving them to breed. It could benefit many sentient beings. One could first consider whether there is an alternative to mass killing, such as removing breeding places near human populations. Even if a mass wipe-out is deemed necessary, the actions should be taken with a clear picture of the compromise, consciously minimizing any hatred of the insects. Whenever one kills a living being, there is a karmic consequence to one’s own equilibrium. When one engages in intentional harm, it’s important to affirm the sadness in the act as well as the wholesomeness of the end result.

The situation of killing or being killed is vanishingly rare, unless one is a soldier on the battlefield. Even there, it’s no secret that to kill another human being is very difficult. There is resistance and revulsion, even from trained soldiers. Few soldiers completely recover from the damage done to their spirits if they are forced to kill in the line of duty. Doesn’t this confirm a deep knowledge that we oughtn’t to be doing it? Personally, I would rather be killed than kill anyone, because of the karmic consequences. I hope none of us ever has to make that choice.

Who’s included in your circle of care?

Within human society, and also within animal groups, it is recognized that kindness and safety are offered within some limit or boundary. At the most basic level, parents protect their children, perhaps motivated by an instinct to perpetuate their own genes. Unknown people (or animals) are often perceived as threats; the roots of xenophobia run deep in us. However, it is becoming more and more difficult to identify only with one’s family, kinship group, or tribe. In the developed world, our circle of acquaintance has expanded. Whenever you or someone you know travels to another country (maybe especially a developing country), your circle expands. It is hard to ignore the plight of people whom you have seen and met. Electronic communications can bring together many people who might otherwise have had no knowledge of each other. The news – radio, newspaper, television and internet — brings the far reaches of the world into our homes.

In this setting, the boundaries of our sphere of concern have tended to move outward. It is becoming easier to feel concern for people we don’t know, but do know about. It takes more effort than it used to to divide the world into “us” and “them”. Ultimately, there is only “us”.

Tough questions

People become vegetarians for all kinds of reasons. Some will argue that to eat anything that has been killed for food is to participate in murder. Others argue that eating plants, fish, and other animals are all part of a natural continuum. As far as we know, the Buddha was not a vegetarian. The only rule he made was for monks and nuns, and that was to the effect that they shouldn’t accept meat if they know that an animal was killed only for them. So if a family was eating meat and shared some of it with a monk or nun, that was acceptable. This principle derives from the precept against killing and also from the need for monks and nuns to accept whatever food is offered to them. It is reasonable to consider the first precept when you think about whether or not to eat meat, but you should probably consider other factors as well.

Another question without a perfect answer is abortion. While having or performing an abortion is certainly a form of harming life, the question never comes without a context. My own opinion is that the cost in human suffering of neglecting or abusing a child for decades is heavier than the cost in human suffering of having an abortion. Certainly, others disagree. I also feel that victims of rape and incest should be offered compassion, and abortions if they wish them. Again, others will disagree. I also feel that this is an intensely personal issue, and one that governments have no right to meddle in. In the end, remember, these are all just opinions. People will think and do what they will. Your opinion is mainly important in guiding your own actions.

A field of safety

Sentient beings have the power of choice. We can create a field of safety for others by considering our actions carefully, and holding in check our harmful impulses.

One place to start might be removing objectionable creatures from your home rather than killing them, whenever possible. The act of capturing and releasing a moth (or gecko, or spider) outside can be an act of love. It can affirm what’s best in you, and give you joy.

Remind yourself of the precept each day, and remember that it is a guide for refining your own actions, not a rule for judging others (as with all five of the precepts). In this way a zone of peace is created wherever you go.

The Buddha pointed out that the only escape from violence in the world is to remove the causes of violence in one’s own heart.

Not by harming living beings
Is one a noble one.
By being harmless to all living beings
Is one called “a noble one.”
— Dhp 270, tr. Fronsdal