“Habitat Group for a Shooting Gallery, 1943” © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/Licensed by Vaga, New York, NY

Lately, i have had to ask: Can I take refuge in the Buddha and still remain true to my role as a conservationist? In Pali, the first precept for laypeople reads “Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami,” which translates as “I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.” While this may be the ideal, in reality the difficulties associated with a strict adherence to the first precept within a modern ecological context have caused some writers, including the Buddhist practitioner and poet Gary Snyder, to alter the first precept to mean “cause no unnecessary harm.” Perhaps this reinterpretation of the language has occurred in part because, if taken literally, the precept would interfere with the application of basic underlying concepts of ecological management, and ultimately with the development of a true environmentally engaged, or “green,” Buddhism.

Buddhist ethics seem clear insofar as the taking of human life is concerned; the Buddha’s assessment of the immorality of homicide, as well as suicide and euthanasia, is relatively unambiguous. Things get a bit more complicated, however, when it comes to beings other than humans.

This is the first winter in the high desert of eastern Oregon that I’ve made an effort to provide food and water for the birds in my backyard. I’m compelled to do so out of curiosity and admiration for the native stalwarts who stick out the winter here, forsaking the long journey to warmer climes south. By remaining, they avoid the risky trip made by hundreds of migratory bird species, which I would imagine has never been easy but has become increasingly dangerous, as less and less habitat remains to sustain them in the U.S. and in the tropical forests of the Americas. There is a trade-off, however: by remaining here, birds must contend with the perils of the cold season, where the nighttime temperatures regularly dip into the single digits and where March snow squalls can freeze solid the unwary. Living closest to the edge are the mountain chickadees, whose life flame burns so brightly that they can lose 10 percent of their body weight overnight, and who face certain death if a high-calorie meal is not forthcoming every twenty-four hours. And yet they stay here, living by their sharp little wits, consuming everything from last year’s dried elderberries to road-killed deer. They are my companions through the freezing, bleak, short days of winter, and in this spirit of camaraderie, I purchased several hundred pounds of black oil sunflower, millet, and niger thistle seed before the first heavy frost of October.

By November, the feeder is attracting a consistent crowd of hungry visitors. I shouldn’t be surprised to find that my efforts accommodate all manner of appetites, and not just for seed. A few weeks after the banquet starts in earnest, I encounter a goshawk, a formidable predator of smaller birds, holding down a struggling, bloodied mourning dove in the dun-colored grass near the feeding area. Goshawks are normally dwellers of the highlands, but this one, faced with a particularly cold mountain winter and tempted with easy pickings near town, has come slumming down into the lowlands. We are both equally startled at our unexpected encounter, and the goshawk abruptly releases its hold on her prey before flying off. I contemplate the torn body of the dove, which has now ceased its struggle with death, interrupted by my intrusion in its transmogrification into goshawk flesh.

While I am troubled by the possibility that my provision of seed has done little more than concentrate, fatten, and perhaps render complacent the local passerine birds, offering an unnatural largesse to the local raptors, things become even more complicated when a new set of visitors arrives: starlings. Natives of Europe, starlings were brought to the U.S. in 1890 by a man named Eugene Scheiffelin, who headed up an organization called the American Acclimatization Society. For some inexplicable reason, Scheiffelin’s group was obsessed with introducing every bird mentioned by Shakespeare, no matter how fleeting the reference. Somewhere in Henry IV there is the line “Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but ‘Mortimer.’” Because of Scheiffelin’s release of between eighty and one hundred starlings in New York’s Central Park, the native biota of the Lower 48 has had to contend ever since with a bird that has been likened unfavorably by conservationists to a Norway rat with feathers. Out here in the high desert, the starlings behave like fat tourists, in the harsh months of winter venturing only where they are assured warm quarters and abundant food. In the spring and summer months, they fan out into the surrounding countryside, invading nesting boxes and tree cavities used by the declining Western bluebird and eating the eggs and young of other birds. After the starlings, I notice a large number of European house sparrows, which also outcompete the cavity-nesting native species for breeding space. Then my neighbor’s semiferal cats begin hanging around the feeders. These latter creatures are but a few of the estimated 63 million domestic cats and 30 million feral cats in the U.S. that kill approximately 200 million birds each year.

What is going on in my yard represents one of the most poorly publicized ecological crises facing us today: the introduction and spread of nonnative invasive species. For instance, the 30 thousand nonindigenous, human-introduced invasives that have become established in the United States are responsible for more than 40 percent of the plants and animals presently listed as threatened or endangered here.

To illustrate the dire consequences of this phenomenon on the native biota, we can consider Hawai’i, which is losing its native species faster than anywhere else in the United States. The native birds of the islands are being rendered extinct through a process involving pigs (first brought to the islands by Polynesian settlers hundreds of years ago), whose ceaseless rooting creates puddles of standing water that aid mosquitoes (brought by people in the 1800s), which in turn carry avian malaria, a disease that came with Asian brown myna birds (brought by humans to Hawai’i in the early twentieth century). As the pigs migrate higher in search of new feeding grounds, they facilitate the spread of the malaria upward to the last vestigial populations of the island’s steadily declining number of wild bird species, which since 1893 have been reduced from sixty-eight to thirty-seven, with seventeen of the remaining species officially listed as endangered.

The situation in Hawai’i also illustrates a common misconception concerning the perceived synonymy between animal welfare concerns and those relating to ecology, which are routinely lumped together artificially under the rubric of “environmentalism.” Efforts on the part of the state of Hawaii, federal land managers, and the Nature Conservancy to trap and kill pigs, and so preserve native biota, have been hampered by years of squabbling with animal rights activists (who regularly follow trappers to pull up snares and other traps) and native Hawaiians who consider pig hunting to be an activity of traditional significance.

Buddhism is often seen as fundamentally “green” in orientation. But if “green” is taken to mean managing for biological diversity and ecological stability, then there is an apparent conflict with the first precept, which proscribes the killing of other beings. Ecological management forces upon us a choice between competing claims to existence, choices which few people like to make, but which present a serious conundrum for practicing Buddhists. Like most biologists, I will freely admit to assigning greater value to the native, the rare, and the endemic when there is a competing claim to existence with an introduced organism. As in Hawaii, there are cases where the correctness of the end is clear to me as a biologist, while the means are troubling to me as a Buddhist: the nonnative will be removed, a polite way of saying killed, in order to protect the native.

While many of the ideas expressed in Buddhist texts resonate with ecological truths—the concept of pratitya samutpada, dependent co-arising, is but one example—there are unavoidable contradictions in Buddhism’s “green” and pro-animal welfare reputation. Among these is the fact that a majority of the world’s Buddhists eat meat, in apparent violation of the first precept. In some parts of the Buddhist world, the rationale for human carnivory is obvious. On the Tibetan plateau, an area where one of the great flowerings of Buddhism has taken place, there exists a stark, clear choice between a strict following of the first precept and having people starve or freeze to death were they not to consume animals or utilize their products. But the acceptance of meat eating within other Buddhist cultures, particularly those in more hospitable environments, is more difficult to justify.

“Untitled (Aviary), 1948” © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/Licensed by Vaga, New York, NY

There are, of course, compelling reasons to cease eating meat, from the standpoint of human health as well as for the maintenance of ecological integrity. This is especially the case when the animals consumed are raised in the enormously polluting context of factory farm operations, which also happen to be immensely cruel in their treatment of animals. So why, then, does Buddhism sanction the eating of flesh? Perhaps by examining the scriptural basis for carnivory, we can gain clarity in the similarly complicated issue of invasive species and possible conflicts with the first precept.


In the pali canon (Mahavagga 6.31-2), the Buddha offers a definitive pronouncement on meat consumption, at a feast presented to him by a newly converted military leader. He makes the distinction between two kinds of meat: “meat destined for a specific person’s consumption” (uddissakatamasa), which was forbidden for monks to consume, and “already existing meat” or “meat at hand” (pavattamasa), which was perfectly fine to consume. Meat in this latter category was available to consume without serious karmic consequence if three conditions were met: (1) the monk to whom it was offered did not see the animal killed; (2) it was not killed expressly for him; and (3) even if it was killed for him, he did not “suspect” or have evidence to this effect. Some have tried to suggest that by using the term pavattamasa, the Buddha had in mind meat from animals killed accidentally or by nonhuman predators, or those that had died of old age. This contention is refuted by references in the Pali Canon to people procuring and preparing meat or broth for sick monks, and more to the point, by the Buddha’s direct rejection of a suggestion made by Devadatta (a cousin of the Buddha and one of his early disciples) that vegetarianism be compulsory and incorporated into the Vinaya, the ordained sangha’s ethical code.

How do we account for this contradiction between the first precept and the allowance of meat eating, which one can argue creates demand for flesh, which leads to the suffering of more animals? I’m engaging in a bit of speculation here, but the Buddha, being intensely observant of all that went on around him, probably realized that while compassion toward all beings is to be encouraged, the taking of life is nonetheless an inescapable feature of samsaric existence. He was undoubtedly aware of ideas espoused by the Jains, a coeval Indian religious sect who took very seriously the idea of nonharming – to the point where to this day many of them sweep the ground before them as they walk, and cover their mouths so as not to harm any living creature. Some Jain holy men wander naked for fear of harming any insect, even a louse, which might be crushed between their skin and clothes. Jains also eschew the practice of agriculture because it involves the taking of untold millions of lives, be they the creatures of the soil destroyed during plowing, the millions of rats and other rodents killed to protect grain, or in a modern context, the billions of “pests” killed either through “organic” means or with human-synthesized pesticides. A few highly disciplined Jain ascetics have even gone so far as to starve themselves to death rather than harm another creature. Clearly, such a life was excessively difficult and inconsistent with the Middle Way. Perhaps the Buddha’s three rules on meat eating reflect an attempt to come to terms with the difficult situation in which we find ourselves, the conundrum of living in a deeply samsaric world. The only way out of such a fix is the attainment of nirvana, which in turn leads to an escape from the realities of life (and rebirth) in a complex biological system, one that does not lend itself to the creation of tidy moralistic frameworks.

In the wake of this untidiness are many questions. Is it realistic to assume that following the three rules on meat eating absolves us of the sequelae of our actions, should we choose to indulge? If the answer is no, the logical inconsistencies between the acceptance of meat consumption and the upholding of the first precept are obvious, particularly in the context of modern industrial factory farming. By continuing to eat meat, the consumer of animal flesh creates demand, setting in motion a sequence of causes and effects that leads to the perpetuation of unnecessary suffering. To continue with this practice, knowing from where it comes and the chain of events that brought it to us, is to engage in a behavior that is morally questionable and ecologically maladaptive. While a vegetarian diet certainly does not absolve one from responsibility for the creation of suffering, I reject the idea that meat simply lands on our plates free of karmic consequence.

We should also be mindful that a whole range of our daily activities involves some form of killing. For instance, when we empty a flower vase full of old green water, we end the lives of thousands or even millions of beings. When we destroy a hornet’s nest, or put out borax to control cockroaches, we take the lives of animals that in some cultures are candidates for moral consideration on equal footing with mammals. In Tibet, for example, it’s believed that all sentient beings (including insects, arachnids, and other invertebrates) are on a path toward eventual enlightenment.

In some cases, even to remain passive is to cause harm. Every decision we make, even a decision to do nothing, contains a consequence. So how do we choose what is to live, and what is to die? Does failing to control the spread of invasive species – which leads to the suffering and extinction of other species – also negatively affect our karma? What is worse, taking life, or, by doing nothing, allowing the extinctions of entire species to occur?

To be sure, Buddhism’s reputation as a “green” religion is not entirely unwarranted. Greed, grasping, and delusion, on both the individual and societal levels, are all central to our current environmental problems, and are well explained and remedied through Buddhist psychology and practice. But the popular notion that we may somehow extract from Buddhism a blueprint for an ecologically sustainable world is, at best, an oversimplification. For Buddhism to truly become “green,” we must somehow reconcile the first precept with relatively recent understandings of specific, overarching threats to the biosphere, to “all beings.” In this context, we should consider the possible karmic repercussions of allowing suffering to occur because of our carelessness in transporting invasive organisms and permitting their proliferation. A delicate and difficult set of decisions, certainly, but ones that we are going to have to make.

So if we have to make such choices, how are we to do this and not throw out the first precept altogether? If we have to transgress the precept, we should only do so after a great deal of hard consideration, and if life is to be taken, we must only do so with full acknowledgment of our responsibility, with care and compassion.

Often we have to come to an accommodation between the competing claims inside ourselves. It is spring now, and after agonizing over the decision for several weeks, I’ve gone ahead and put sparrow traps in the bluebird boxes, ahead of nesting time. The male goldfinches, having survived the winter, are now sporting their brilliant yellow summer plumage, and are visiting the thistle seed feeder. Our blue heeler mutt is shedding her winter undercoat, and the purple finches building their nests nearby eagerly collect what I comb out. The proteins that make up what is to become the comfortable lining of their abodes arise in part from what I feed the dog: food containing the unwanted offal of cattle that, in all probability, suffered and died in the unspeakable conditions of the feedlot and slaughterhouse. Everything we touch, everything we think about and produce, ends up swept into the current, flowing downstream toward an uncertain causal stage, on a course back to us.

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