Good news and bad news. The bad news first: No, you do not have special dispensation from the Buddha to murder those obnoxious little rodent and insect pests that are somehow capable of terrorizing beings thousands of times their size, when all they want is a little food, water, and a place to get cozy up with their mates.
The good news is that with a little extra effort, you can rid yourself of these unwelcome guests (ants, mice, cockroaches, fleas, ticks, etc) and feel the karmic joy of living in the light of the dharma!
“Dharma” means truth and the teachings, and it is also the word for nature itself. The Venerable Narada Mahathera tells us that as nature is the manifestation of truth, and of the teachings, we should cultivate kindness and compassion for all, trying not to kill or cause injury to any living creature, even the tiniest creature that crawls at our feet, and bites them.
Of course precepts, or guidelines for following the dharma, are training principles, and Buddhists undertake to observe them to the best of their abilities. At times certain conditions may not allow us to rigidly adhere to the precepts and no one can live through life without ever breaking them. It is at such times that we must use our common sense and human intelligence to make the best decisions.
Related: Five Precepts of Buddhism Explained
In Buddhism there is a long held and integral tradition of caring for animals and all living creatures. They are regarded in Buddhist thought as sentient beings, different than humans in their intellectual ability but no less capable of feeling suffering, fearing death, and craving life. Vasubandhu, a 4th century Indian scholar-monk and one of the most prominent figures in Buddhist history, said that it is deluded to kill even poisonous pests, and Asoka, the Buddhist King of India, posted edicts that included a prohibition on the killing of vermin of all kinds.
At the time of the Buddha, rules were made against monks wandering about in the rainy season in part due to the damage done to so many creatures rising to the surface of wet soil for a drink. The same applied to the cutting of trees that were seen as essential to the lives of many animals large and small (known as “breathers”). Asoka planted shade trees, medicinal herbs and wayside wells for both humans and animals. This culture of non-harming, and recognition of the right to life enjoyed by all sentient beings contributes to what makes a monastery or Buddhist temple feel so safe and welcoming to all.
Robert Thurman tells of the great India scholar-monk Asanga from the 5th century CE who had been meditating in a cave for 12 years, unsuccessfully, in order to gain a vision of the Bodhisattva Maitreya, the future Buddha and the embodiment of loving kindness. One day he saw a stray dog afflicted with maggot infested sores. Fearing that pulling the maggots off the dog would harm them, he expended great effort to coax them off the sore and onto his warm and moist tongue where they could feed on his own flesh. At this point, both the dog and the maggots disappeared, and a full and splendorous image of Maitreya appeared where the dog had once been.
Meanwhile, just by walking in the forest or breathing the air, we are taking the life of many small creatures. We inadvertently kill hundreds of insects on a nighttime car ride. We wipe out thousands of bacteria, also sentient beings, daily when we shower and brush our teeth and disinfect our homes. Generally, there has been a strong element of practicality in Buddhism relative to the extent people are expected to go to avoid any and all killing.
This is one way that the Middle Path distinguished itself from Jainism, where the most devoted of followers would shun clothing, wear masks to filter out airborne creatures, and sweep their path before letting their feet touch the ground. The Buddhist approach to ahimsa, or non-harming, in the realm of small animals and microorganisms, was to exercise all reasonable measures to avoid needless or avoidable killing—recognizing that these creatures too want to eat and avoid harm. In fact, humans are not apart from the world of microorganisms, and are made up of many smaller beings living on us and within us.
Nevertheless, as Buddhist scholar Brian Peter Harvey explains, to kill or harm another being, whether it is a rat or a cockroach or a horse, is to ignore the fragility and aspiration for happiness that one has in common with it. This violates the dharma of interdependence, and compassion. The Buddha made no distinction between the sizes of the victim (cow or ant) or between intentions in killing (self-defense or hunting for pleasure). However, Buddhism focuses heavily on intention, so that all acts of killing are not necessarily equally blameworthy. However, its stronger emphasis on compassion insures that not harming other beings is always praiseworthy.
The Dalai Lama was once asked about swatting mosquitoes. He chuckled and said that if his mood is good, he will often just let the creature have a little blood. If another one comes, his patience might become stretched a little thin and he would blow the offending creature off his arm. If yet a third mosquito comes, His Holiness said he is likely to give it a careful little shove off his arm.
Most of the time, the creatures we call pests are attracted to our homes because of food scraps, leftovers, and a lack of cleanliness. So, technically, these small animals have been invited into our homes.
The three basic factors of a Buddhist approach to pests are to prevent, repel, and remove.
First of all, because it is quick, harmless, and vouched for by many Buddhists, one should start the campaign to oust the unwanted critters by standing in their presence and chanting to directly to them, as follows:
May all living beings be well, happy and peaceful.
May no harm come to you.
May no difficulties come to you.
May no problems come to you.
May you always meet with success.
May you have patience, courage, understanding, and determination to meet and overcome inevitable difficulties, problems, and failures in life.
May you also have the wisdom to know that you should leave here immediately, and if not, steps will be taken to remove you.
The next day, or at the end of the same day, take these steps respectively:
If you have an ant infestation, use your vacuum to quickly get rid of the invaders, and then immediately empty the vacuum bag in the outdoor compost pile or at some distance from your house.
Do not use ant bait, or poison sprays like Raid that continue in the toxic waste stream from their point of manufacture to their ultimate destination in landfills or via runoff or sewage into our waterways and oceans.
It is important to quickly erase the scent trail that the ants have laid down. First, wash with soapy water and then use a citrus-based repellent, or spray countertops and affected areas with a mixture of juiced lemon, tea tree oil, grapefruit seed extract, and a little mint tea.
The key to ant control is cleanliness: wipe up food spills immediately, wipe down food preparation surfaces with soapy water, remove garbage frequently, clean food debris out of sinks, rinse well any dirty dishes left in the sink, and sweep and mop floors regularly.
Store the food most attractive to ants (honey, sugar, sweet liqueurs, cough syrup, etc.) in the fridge or in jars with rubber gaskets and lids that close with a metal clamp, or zip-lock bags. Unless the lid of a screw-top jar has a rubber seal, ants will follow the threads right into the jar. A few layers of waxed paper (not plastic wrap) between the jar and the lid, if screwed down tightly, will work well as a barrier. Transfer other foods, such as cookies, cereals, crackers, etc in paper boxes, to containers with tight-fitting lids or zip locks; and keep butter in the fridge. Paper and cardboard boxes are not ant-proof.
Feed your pet only what it will eat immediately, and then wash the bowl frequently. If you need to have food on hand available to your pets, put the bowl inside of a larger soup bowl and create a shallow water moat around the bowl.
Keep kitchen scraps in a tightly sealed plastic or metal container. Throw non-recyclable food containers (plastic ice cream cartons, meat wrapping paper, etc.) in an outside trashcan. Wash glass, tin, and aluminum food containers thoroughly before tossing them into an indoor recycling bin.
Use hot soapy water to wipe down kitchen and appliance surfaces where sticky hands or food spills may have left some residue: kitchen counters, floors, cabinet doors and handles, fridge handle, stove knobs, sides of toaster, blender, etc. Immediately mop up food spills and sweep up food crumbs.
Keep ants off the kitchen counters by spraying surfaces with 50:50 solution of vinegar and water. You can go all the way applying small amounts of cayenne pepper and cinnamon at entry points of large infestations. Scented talcum powder, red chili powder, as well as ground black pepper are reputed to be major inhibitors as well.
Seal as many entry points as possible: weather-strip doors and use caulking to fill gaps in window and door frames and around baseboards, pipes, sinks, toilets, and electrical outlets. Prune trees and shrubs away from exterior walls, to prevent ants using them as a bridge into the house.
Try to cultivate a good relationship with the Daddy-Long-Legs spiders. They are intelligent and make their webs along the ant entry points, usually near the front door and the bathroom window. Let the spiders do their job.
Cockroaches are among the hardiest insects on the planet. Some species are capable of remaining active for a month without food and are able to survive on limited resources like the glue from the back of postage stamps. Some can go without air for 45 minutes. In one experiment, cockroaches were able to recover from being submerged underwater for half an hour.
If you have cockroaches, then you, or your immediate neighbors, are keeping an unclean household. Cockroaches leave chemical trails in their feces and emit airborne pheromones for swarming and mating. Other cockroaches will follow these trails to discover sources of food and water, and also discover where other cockroaches are hiding. Cockroaches are mainly nocturnal and will run away when exposed to light.
Cockroaches hate the smell of bay leaves. Smash up some bay leaves in a bowl and sprinkle them in the corners of your home where you have seen the cockroaches. It is helpful to do this is the kitchen and in the corners of the kitchen cabinets.
An inexpensive roach trap can easily be made from a deep smooth-walled jar with some roach food inside, placed with the top of the jar touching a wall or with sticks leading up to the top, so that the roaches can reach the opening. Once inside, they cannot climb back out. A bit of Vaseline can be smeared on the inside of the jar to enhance slipperiness. You can then take the jars to a remote location and set the cockroaches free.
Fleas come to you via your pets. Put a small plate greased with vaseline under a nightlight. The fleas will be attracted to the light, jump into the plate and get stuck by the vaseline. You have to remove the plates every one to two days– take them outside and sprinkle dirt on the plate so that they will eventually have enough traction to climb out of the plate to freedom. Put a plate in each room that has fleas.
Sprinkle your pet with cornstarch or baking soda. Let it sit, and then brush it off outside. Feeding your pet garlic will help repel fleas, but garlic is toxic to some breeds in small quantities and all breeds in larger quantities; consult with your veterinarian before giving your pet any garlic. If approved by your veterinarian, add chopped raw garlic, and garlic oil, or powder to your pet food in the quantities your vet prescribed. Launder the dog or cat beds in the house on a weekly basis. Put half a teaspoon cider vinegar in your cat’s water dish for three days.
It can take 3 to 6 weeks for flea eggs to hatch. Once you have taken care of fleas on your pets, thoroughly clean your home environment of any fleas and flea eggs. If there is a serous outbreak, your pet may be unwell, or poorly nourished. You may need to give your pet internal medicine that repels the fleas.
Along the central coast of California where I live, you either have cats or rats. Get a cat or two, if possible. Females tend to be better mousers or rat-eaters. They can live in the garage at night, and have free run of your yard in the daytime. If they are semi-feral, all the better. Lure them into the garage at night with just a little food, and they will be slightly hungry most of the time, and eager to search for rodents. It is not realistic to expect that your content well-fed house-cat is going to suddenly become a mouse hunter.
If you have mice, use Humane No-Kill Mousetraps, available on the web, and at veganessentials.com. My favorite is the Catchmaster Repeater Humane Mouse Trap which is also easily available on the web. Check them frequently, and using gloves, dispose of the mice as far from the house as conveniently possible. If electronic mouse repellers that use ultrasonic noises were effective, mice would be rare.
A mouse will eat almost anything, but they prefer cereal grains, seeds, or sweet material. They require very little water, obtaining most of their water needs from their food. They multiply rapidly and are most easily detectable by their rod shaped droppings (feces) –about 1/8-1/4 inches long. Mice may contaminate your food supply with their feces and urine.
House mice or rats gnaw through electrical wiring, causing fires and failure of freezers, clothes dryers and other appliances. Rodents can carry a wide variety of diseases transmissible to humans. A very real problem with the infestation of mice is the Hantavirus and Salmonella. Always wear intact rubber or plastic gloves when removing rodents and when cleaning or disinfecting items contaminated by rodents.
For those with serious or frequent infestations, invest in a UV Rodent Tracker, an industrial grade professional UV LED light. This UV light is able to detect the presence of urine, making rodent inspection easier and more efficient.
Close all openings through which they can enter a structure, and seal cracks and openings in building foundations and openings for water pipes, vents and utilities. Prevent mice from chewing or pulling out patching compounds by making sure patching materials are smooth on the surface. Be sure doors, windows and screens fit tightly. All food that is stored, processed or used should be made mouse-proof. (See section on ants).
With a little work, and easy maintenance following, you can be rodent-free indefinitely.
Ticks had a PR problem with humans long before the big news about Lyme disease. They want our blood and their bites are enduringly painful. This is one of the most challenging pests to contend with, as the desire to make ticks an exception to the “Do Not Kill” precept can be understandably strong. Getting them off of yourself and your pets is hard enough, and then what do you do with them? Their fluids are toxic to humans.
The good news is there is a safe way to dispose of ticks without killing them—or risking their return. After you have removed the tick from its host, using magic tape only, tape the tick(s) to a sheet of paper, and toss the paper into the compost. Ticks, as our luck would have it, can live without motion or nourishment for weeks. By the time the tick has spent a few nights in the compost heap, the paper and tape decompose just enough to free the animal.
Bugs on Plants (aphids. etc)
As a preventative, add peppermint essential oil mixed with a little water in a mister bottle and spray directly on your plants. On sight of aphids or other plant bearing bugs, wash the foliage with insect soap, and then maintain by spraying the peppermint solution regularly. The greatest guarantee, aside from cleanliness, may be metta meditation. Learn the lines and then you can substitute yourself and your loved ones and gradually larger groups until the entire circle of life is included. I don’t know anyone who practices metta who has a pest problem.
For further compassionate solutions, contact the Bio-Integral Resource Center (BIRC).
Correction (3/21/2019): A previous version of this article advised feeding pets limited quantities garlic to repel fleas; the article has been updated to reflect garlic’s toxicity to pets in certain circumstances, and recommend consulting with a veterinarian.
[This story was originally published in 2011]
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.