Why the Buddhist Precept ‘Abstaining from Taking Life’ Resonates with Me
Commentary by Tracy Simmons
I can still remember coming home from middle school one afternoon to find a note from my mom telling me to prep the whole chicken that was thawing in the kitchen sink. I immediately called her at work. She explained I needed to reach into the cavity and pull out all the parts inside — the gizzard, the heart, the liver and other slimy things.
With tears streaming down my face, I did as I was told.
I wasn’t meant to be a meat eater.
Religion Reporting Taught Me about Vegetarianism
I didn’t know much about vegetarianism though, until I started working as a reporter in New England and began writing about the Hindu community there. They taught me about ahimsa, which is the ancient principle of nonviolence. Naturally, the virtue includes a strong commitment to vegetarianism. It’s a tenet practiced by Jains and Buddhists as well.
To the Hindus I spoke to, the vegetarian diet was a spiritual practice, a way to show compassion toward all beings.
This resonated with me, prompting me to give up meat 13 years ago.
First Buddhist Precept Made My Own Transition into Buddhism Easier
So when I became a Buddhist a few years later, taking the first Buddhist precept was an easy one.
The first Buddhist principle is to abstain from taking life (do no harm).
“Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I undertake to cultivate compassion and learn 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 condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life.”First Buddhist Precept: Reverence for Life
The Buddha taught we should show compassion to all sentient beings, not just humans.
Initially it reminded me of the biblical commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” which tended to focus solely on not killing human beings. Buddhism too, says not to murder, but breaks it down further, explaining that protecting human life is only possible by also protecting anything that lives.
‘Abstaining from Taking Life’ Is All-Encompassing
It’s a teaching on ecology, on protecting the earth.
Buddhism explains that we need non-human elements to survive: plants, minerals, earth, clouds and sun. Therefore, if the environment is destroyed, humans will be too.
Also, we can have an impact on other sentient and non-sentient beings
By actively showing loving-kindness (metta) to all creatures, we can become a positive force that counters malice.
As the editors at Buddho explained, “If you do this, other beings around you do not have to worry anymore. You will become a safe haven, a beacon of peace for all beings, completely non-violent.”
Achieving this starts within.
My Buddhist Practice of Nonviolence Helps Me Be a Better Person
My family used to call me a ‘hot head.’ I was quick to anger and would express it by balling my fists, gritting my teeth, yelling and sometimes even throwing things or punching walls. I can hardly picture that old me anymore.
My spiritual practice has helped me find tranquility.
Even though I’m intentional about taming my anger and practicing nonviolence, I’m realistic in knowing I still take lives. There are dead bugs on my windshield. I feed my dog meat. I kill insects when I till the garden. We cannot be completely nonviolent, but being mindful of moving in that direction, to me, is sacred.
Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “Our real enemy is forgetfulness. If we nourish mindfulness every day and water the seeds of peace in ourselves and those around us, we become alive, and we can help ourselves and others realize peace and compassion.”
So I will pick up the earthworm stuck on the pavement and put it safely in the mud and I will stick with tofu because this practice has truly changed my life for the better, and hopefully has impacted those around me too.
Next up: abstaining from taking what is not given.
“Why I Am a Buddhist” introduces this series by Tracy Simmons.
Tracy Simmons is an award-winning journalist specializing in religion reporting and digital entrepreneurship. In her approximate 20 years on the religion beat, Simmons has tucked a notepad in her pocket and found some of her favorite stories aboard cargo ships in New Jersey, on a police chase in Albuquerque, in dusty Texas church bell towers, on the streets of New York and in tent cities in Haiti. Simmons has worked as a multimedia journalist for newspapers across New Mexico, Texas, Connecticut and Washington. She is the executive director of SpokaneFāVS.com, a digital journalism start-up covering religion news and commentary in Spokane, Washington. She also writes for The Spokesman-Review and national publications. She is a Scholarly Assistant Professor of Journalism at Washington State University.
“Abstaining from taking lives” is in first instance meant for monastics and those Buddhist who take the full set of precepts for non-monastics. In that case it’s about not taking the lives of humans. That is, not doing battle. In the Theravada school of Buddhism, especially among the monastics, not eating meat does not belong to “abstaining from taking lives”. They are free to eat meat and fish, but monastics are forbidden to kill animals. Since they live on food that is given to them, they don’t need to worry about killing animals.
In Himalayan schools of Buddhism and in Japan and Korea monastics have a choice, they may choose to be vegan, but they are free to at least eat fish (Japan and Korea) and meat (Himalayas).
In East-Asian Mahayana Buddhism, i.e. China, monastics are vegans by vow. But here too the non-monastics are free to eat what they want unless they too take vows with regards to a vegan diet.
Conclusion: you as a non-monastic don’t need to feel compelled to be vegetarian or vegan. You have a choice.
Yes, of course I have a choice, but my choice is to follow this precept. I took this precept after conferring to monastics in my own community about it who explained I can follow it if I choose to, but certainly don’t have to. All of my readings by Ven. Chodron and Thich Nhat Hahn conclude that abstaining from taking life, generally, leads to this – though of course not all Buddhists are vegetarian. Following this precept, as I said, has helped me be a better person and be more compassionate to all being around me.