To refrain from killing is the first Buddhist precept. The Theravada tradition of Southeast Asia interprets this precept in terms that parallel a Western sense of morality: there is a clear-cut distinction between killing and not killing in which the existence of a breathing, moving being either comes to its end—or doesn’t. In this view, there is a killer, a separate entity that is killed, and the activity of killing. Compassion is expressed by not harming others, and many followers honor this precept by choosing a vegetarian diet.
In Zen and other Mahayana traditions in East Asia, there is a tendency to translate this precept into the more unfamiliar concept of non-killing. This view emphasizes a nondualistic reality in which there is no killer and no killed. From the Mahayana perspective, all apparent separations are illusions. The meaning of “life” in these traditions
extends beyond biological definition; maintaining a non-dual consciousness supports life, and not maintaining such awareness is considered a form of killing. For example, the spiritual goal of the practice is the complete extinction of craving—which Mahayana sees as killing, as does Zen. Zen Master Bodhidharma defines killing as “nursing a view of extinction,” which means, in part, defining spiritual practice in terms of the elimination or eradication of some aspect of life perceived as negative. If this is killing, then nirvana itself (usually defined as extinction) is killing. The Mahayana Lotus Sutra makes this point by saying that the nirvana of extinction is not the “true nirvana.” The” sword of compassion” in Mahayana teachings is used to cut through the illusion of separation, of self and other, of this or that. Compassion may be understood to be the functioning of an interconnected, interdependent reality.
Vajrayana Buddhism incorporates both Theravada and Mahayana views. The practice of the precepts begins with those rules and regulations of daily conduct that were systematized after the death of Shakyamuni Buddha and unfolds as a mindful response to an ever-changing present. In Vajrayana, as spiritual practice matures, there is less dependency on codified ethics and more on personal guidance from an authentic teacher.
The advent of Buddhism in the United States—1950 to the early 1970s—was dominated by Japanese Zen. In Japan, precept study (largely comprised of koans on the precepts) is introduced at the end of training—a strategy designed to prevent students from blindly embracing rules and regulations. According to Zen adepts, adherence to rules of ethics without some uncovering of Buddha nature (the universal consciousness that knows no duality) produces false piety and jeopardizes what they consider true moral action—action born not of rules but of non-dualistic consciousness. This gave rise to a misconception about Buddhist practice in the early days of Buddhism in America—namely, that Buddhists were unconcerned with ethics. Today many American Zen teachers choose not to wait until the end of training to initiate a modified, more discursive form of precept study that uses rational discussion (rather than koans) to explore the precepts. All American Buddhists—no matter which tradition they adhere to—face the challenge of adapting the moral guidelines Shakyamuni created twenty-five hundred years ago to modern life. The following extracts offer a sampling of teachings from the various Buddhist vehicles.
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