What is the meaning of the precept against killing? What are the boundaries?In principle, the precept against killing applies mainly to human beings; thus, to kill a human being is the most serious evil, while killing animals is a lesser evil. Although all sentient beings are considered equal, only humans commit malicious deeds, or “black acts,” and may thereby fall into the hungry ghost or hell realm; but humans also perform virtuous deeds, or “white acts,” and may thereby ascend to the heavens, transcend the three realms of desire, form, and formlessness, or even ultimately attaining buddhahood.
With a few exceptions, animals know neither good nor evil; they act on instinct and receive their karmic retribution without awareness or intention of good or evil. It is fair to say then, that humans are instruments and vessels of the Dharma and only they can practice and advocate the Dharma. Hence, not killing human beings is fundamental to the no-killing precept. Moreover, the crime of killing a human being must include three conditions: 1) knowing that the victim was a human being, 2) the killing was premeditated, and 3) being the prime cause of death of the victim. Otherwise, it would be considered harmful injury or wrongful death, not murder.
Regardless of age or social status, whether fully or partially formed, and whether conscious or unconscious, as long as the object is certainly human, we should not kill it. Therefore, it is not permissible to abort a fetus, to use euthanasia on oneself or others, or to deliberately terminate someone who is in a vegetative state; these are all considered killing human beings. (For more detailed discussion, refer to my book, Orthodox Chinese Buddhism, and my editorial in Humanity Magazine, Issue No. 36.)
The medical profession advocates organ donation and transplants, such as transferring corneas, kidneys, and other organs, from living or recently dead donors to a living recipient. This is admirable and worthy of encouragement. Of course, if a donor donated their organ before passing on, they would certainly have given consent; and even if the donation occurred after death, it still would have required prior consent. If a deceased person’s organ were harvested without permission, and the deceased still had some lingering attachment to his body, it could generate sadness, distress, hatred, and anger, and might even affect his rightful rebirth, or alter his or her path to the Pure Land.
From the Buddhist perspective, the consciousness of a person who has died from natural causes would still be active for up to twelve hours, and is still capable of some sensation. A person who has just been pronounced clinically dead is not necessarily considered fully passed away in the Buddhist view. However, when a person wills their organs to be donated, it is a selfless act of a bodhisattva. Therefore, if a deceased person had left a will donating their organ(s), it should be permissible to harvest it.
In daily life, to keep our living environment clean and hygienic, we need to deal with cockroaches, flies, ants, mosquitos, and even mice and rats. This dilemma also existed during the time of Buddha. When a bhikshu tried to clean a long neglected lavatory which was infested with insects, they were unsure how to proceed. Buddha instructed him to “drain off the filthy water, clean up the lavatory.” The bhikshu hesitantly replied, “But that will harm insects.” Buddha responded, “The intention is to clean up the lavatory, not for the purpose of harming the insects.” Relieved of his worry, the bhikshu proceeded as the Buddha instructed.for the purpose of harming the insects.” Relieved of his worry, the bhikshu proceeded as the Buddha instructed.
This example says that to maintain a hygienic environment we have to engage in the action of cleaning. Since the purpose and intention is not to harm insects or worms, the act itself is not considered as intending to kill. Of course, we should not employ chemicals to purposefully kill off insects. Instead, we should use sweeping, cleaning, and repellants to prevent insects from infesting our homes. If we keep the living environment clean, tidy and insect-proof, there may still be some insects but not too many.
On a farm it is hard to totally avoid harming insects. Even when not working in the fields, while walking and engaging in various activities, we can inadvertently harm insects. So we should often recite the name of Amitabha Buddha to wish that these ignorant and innocent beings will be reborn into higher realms, or even the Pure Land. This is not violating the precept of not killing. Certainly, trying our best to prevent or reduce harm to insects is compassionate, while harming and killing them knowingly without remorse is a lack of compassion.
As for snakes, aggressive beasts, and venomous creatures, they have been affected by their karmic forces from previous lives. Although they may cause harm to others, their aggression is not premeditated and is without malice; therefore, it is not considered accumulating bad deeds, and they deserve our sympathy and protection.
Nowadays, not only can we prevent wild animals from being harmed, we can further set aside sanctuaries to protect them from extinction. We can also control their populations to prevent calamity to humans and the environment. This will cultivate mercifulness and kindness among human beings, and fulfill our responsibility of preserving the natural ecosystem.
Generally, beginners in Buddhism do not have a clear understanding of the term “sentient beings.” Furthermore, some claim that plants also have consciousness and feelings; that therefore, “no-killing” should also be applied to plants. However, in Buddhism, there are different levels of being alive; plants are beings without feelings or emotions, while many animals do. There are three levels of living beings, the highest being human, which possesses three characteristics: living cells, reflexive nervous systems, and thoughts and memories. Plants are considered the lowest level of living beings, possessing only living cells, without a nervous system or memory. They can respond to conditions to grow or wither, but do not have feelings of suffering and happiness, nor thoughts or memories. That is why they are called “non-sentient beings.” Animals are sentient beings and are between humans and plants. Some higher level animals, such as canines, chimpanzees, horses, and elephants have memories, but they have limited abilities for logical thinking.
The lowest level animals are those with no memories or thoughts, but which have a nervous system; hence, they can feel pain and are fearful of danger and death. Consequently, even ants and insects intuitively know to avoid and escape from danger and harm, but not so with plants. Hence, the precept of not killing applies to animals, but not to plants.
Because of the belief that primitive spirits and ghosts sought shelter among trees and woods, out of compassion and to avoid offending them, the Buddha asked his monastics not to cut down trees or grass. This was to protect the habitat of the ghosts and spirits, not because there was a precept against cutting down trees and grass.
From a biological standpoint, microorganisms, such as germs and bacteria, are distinct from the animal and plant kingdoms. They do not possess nervous systems, thoughts or memories, and do not belong to the realm of sentient beings. They are more like plants that can move around; in that sense, destroying these microorganisms is not considered killing.
Regarding aquatic organisms, besides germs and bacteria, there are some higher levels of biological species. Although these species do not have nervous systems, they can be considered to be animals. During the time of Buddha, monastics needed to filter water to pick out the bigger and visible organisms, and ignore the tiny ones. This was compassionate, because they felt compelled to save something that was moving and visible to their naked eyes. If they could not tell whether something was sentient or non-sentient, they could just let it be.
The main reason for advocating non-killing is the compassionate belief that all sentient beings are equal, and endowed with the right and freedom to exist. We human beings are afraid of being harmed and afraid of death; all sentient beings have those feelings. Despite differences of kind and hierarchy, all sentient beings want to live; in that respect, there are no differences between the rich and the poor, the high and the low. If everyone embraces this spirit of equality and compassion, we would have a harmonious, peaceful and collaborative world, where people live together without prejudice, with mutual respect and love; there would be no one suffering from willful harm by others.
The sutras say that killing leads to karmic retribution, and that one repays killing others with one’s own life. There is also the saying, “take half of a pound, return eight ounces.” Karmic retribution is clearly described in the sutras; yet we should not be guided only by the fear of karmic retribution. There is certainly karmic retribution; however, it is not absolutely unchangeable. The important point is to cultivate a merciful and kind spirit, a compassionate mind, and the bodhisattva spirit to transform the world.