Precept 1: I Vow Not to Kill, But to Cherish All Life

In preparation for receiving the precepts next week, I’ve been writing about what each precept means to me. This is the second post in series of six about the Five Grave Precepts. You might want to read the introductory post if you haven’t already.

“I will be mindful and reverential with all life, I will not be violent nor will I kill.”

All life is sacred, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential. Taking any life is a violation of this precept. Yet, no creature can survive without taking life. We step on unnoticed insects while we walk, or we inadvertently kill earth worms while we’re tilling our soil. We kill a squirrel with our car because we are unable to stop safely in time. A gopher is killed by a tractor as vegetable crops are worked. Sometimes we euthanize a pet because we don’t have the resources to provide for its care, or we make the tough call that further treatment would not contribute to quality of life.

Recognizing that I can’t possibly uphold this precept perfectly, I instead do my best to affirm life and reduce suffering to the greatest extent possible. I ask myself, “Will what I’m about to do/say affirm life? Or will it increase suffering?” When possible, I refrain from making judgments about what suffering is okay and what suffering is not okay. I’m not sure how quantify suffering in order to make these comparisons.

One way of affirming life and reducing suffering is to refrain from the consumption of animal products for food. This includes meat, dairy, honey and other items that use animal products in their production. I do not require these substances in my diet in order to be healthy, so I choose to forgo the loss of life and suffering that is inherent to using animals as commodities. This also includes refraining from using any products that are the result of animal exploitation, whenever possible. (Read more about my veganism.)

An extension of this is that I do my best to live in harmony with the creatures around me. I try to be mindful that the space I occupy is shared with other creatures and that I am not specifically entitled to that space. Rather than kill the spider that’s taken up residence in my tomato plants, I carefully move him or simply work around him. This has actually been a particularly difficult aspect of the first precept for me. I’m terrified of spiders. But I haven’t intentionally killed one since I started working with the precepts nearly a year and a half ago. Instead, I acknowledge and honor the deep fear that I feel and make a mindful decision to carefully escort the spider out of the house anyway (or from wherever it needs to be moved). In some cases I let the spider stay where it is and try to appreciate what it contributes to the environment (e.g. eats pests).

Upholding this precept also means that I refrain from violent thoughts. It’s a violation of the first precept just to think, “oh, I’m going to kill him,” or “oh, I’d like to wring that person’s neck” even if those thoughts don’t directly precipitate violent action. For me, violent thoughts typically originate from anger or fear. Rather than allowing this anger or fear to give rise to violent thought or action, I work towards finding and understand its source. When working with the first precept in this regard, I always think of the Litany Against Fear from Frank Herbert’s Dune:

I must not fear
To see its path.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass
Over me and through me.
And when it has gone past
I will turn the inner eye
Where the fear has gone
There will be nothing.
Only I will remain….

Refraining from violence also means that I avoid violent, harmful speech. I do my best to exercise Right Speech when communicating with others. This includes avoiding criticism, complaining and gossip. I try to make my speech compassionate and kind. When speaking with people about difficult topics, I attempt to focus more on what we have in common than on what separates us.