“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.”
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.