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.


The Buddha outlined five areas of basic morality that lead to a conscious life. These training precepts are given to all students who wish to follow the path of mindfulness. They are not given as absolute commandments; rather, they are practical guidelines to help us live in a more harmonious way and develop peace and power of mind. . . . The first precept is to refrain from killing. It means honoring all life, not acting out of hatred or aversion in such a way as to cause harm to any living creature . . . . Even though it sounds obvious, we still manage to forget it. There was a cartoon in The New Yorker magazine some years ago during the hunting season. One deer turns to the other and says, “Why don’t they thin their own goddamn herds?”

Excerpted from Seeking the Heart of Wisdom: The Path of Insight Meditation by Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield. Shambhala Publications: Boston, 1987.

Goddess Gave Names to All the Animals. Mayumi Oda.
Goddess Gave Names to All the Animals. Mayumi Oda.


With respect to the unprofitable course of action known as killing living things, (a) abandoning is virtue; (b) abstention is virtue; (c) volition is virtue; (d) restraint is virtue; and (e) non-transgression is virtue. . . . And here there is no state called abandoning other than the non-arising of the killing of living things. But the abandoning of a given unprofitable state upholds a given profitable state in the sense of providing a foundation for it, and concentrates it by preventing wavering, so it is called “virtue” (sila) in the sense of composing (silana), reckoned as upholding and concentrating. . .

Excerpted from fourth-century Theravada scholar Bhadantacariya Buddhaghosa’s The Path of Purification, Volume One. Shambhala Publications: Boston, 1976.


Life is non-killing. The seed of Buddha grows continuously. Maintain the wisdomlife of Buddha and do not kill life.

Excerpted from Instructions on the Precepts by Dogen Kigen (1200-1253 C.E.),  Japanese Zen Master of the Soto School.

The ten dharma worlds are the body and mind. In the sphere of the everlasting dharma,
Not nursing a view of extinction
Is called the precept of refraining from killing.

Bodhidarma (470-543 C.E.), First Zen Patriarch of China.

From the Jataka reliefs at Borobudur, Java. Courtesy of Tamara Wasserman Hill.
From the Jataka reliefs at Borobudur, Java. Courtesy of Tamara Wasserman Hill.


From the intrinsic standpoint—one of body, of Buddha-nature—non-killing means that there is nothing being born and nothing dying. The very notions of “birth” and “death” are extra. Life does not divide up into things to be killed or not killed; it is just this one body, constantly changing. From the subjective standpoint, there are two criteria involved: one is compassion and the other is a radically relative and completely intuitive sense of “rightness.” Compassion in the context of non-killing would mean encouraging or nurturing life. . . . “Rightness” is defined in terms of four aspects of judgement: time, place, the people involved, and the quantity or extent. . . . Whereas the literal perspective sees this precept in absolute terms of either killing or not-killing, maintaining both the literal and the subjective standpoints requires the compromise of minimizing the destruction of life. . . . The powerful irony at the heart of Zen practice is that the strongest way to follow this precept of non-killing is by killing the self! If we can kill—that is, truly forget—the self, we are at that very moment the infinite life of the Buddha, and are this nurturing and fostering life in the fullest, most genuine manner possible.”

Excerpted from a dharma talk by Bernard Glassman, abbot of the Zen Community of New York.


Although one is powerless to act for the best when bound by fear, agitation, and so forth, still, on an occasion of charity (dana), the overlooking of conventional morality (sila) is advised.

Excerpted from Entering the Path of Enlightenment: The Bodhicaryyavatara of the Buddhist Poet Santideva. Translated by Marion Matics, Macmillan Company: London, 1970.

There is no moral precept that a bodhisattva fails to practice and observe. However, circumstances can arise in which it is better to commit certain normally non-virtuous actions than it is to bind ourselves to a specific moral code. Of course, it takes wisdom to determine when it is appropriate to relax our moral discipline and when it is better to be strict. If we keep our bodhicitta motivation in mind, however, we shall find it much easier to make the correct discriminations. Our basic consideration should be: “What is more beneficial for others? What is the best way of dealing with the situation so that they receive the most good?” [Here] is [a] traditional example used to explain how a bodhisattva can even commit murder if this is beneficial to others. In a previous life, Shakyamuni Buddha was an oarsman and one day he was ferrying 500 merchants across the sea. With his powers of clairvoyance he realized that one of the merchants was planning to kill all the others. He thought to himself, “If he follows out his plan he will not only cause 499 people to lose their lives but will also create the cause for being reborn in the lower realms.” The oarsman realized that if he killed the would-be assassin he could prevent all 500 people from being harmed. Therefore, with the motivation of great compassion, he killed the merchant. As a result of this selfless action, the oarsman purified much negative karma accumulated through many eons and also collected limitless merit. This story illustrates the range of a bodhisattva’s actions, but most of us are not able to practice like this at the moment. We should be aware of our level of attainment and understand our limitations for, as the saying goes, if a jackal tries to jump where a tiger leaps he will only break his neck!

Excerpted from Meaningful to Behold: View, Meditation and Action in Mahayana Buddhism by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. Wisdom Publications: Cumbria, England, 1980.


All Buddhist accept the five precepts (panca-sila) as their basic ethical guidelines. Using these as a handle, we know how to deal with many of the real issues of our day. The first precept is “I vow to abstain from taking life.” We promise not to destroy, cause to be destroyed, or sanction the destruction of any living being. Through accepting this precept, we recognize our relationship to all life and realize that harming any living creature harms oneself. The Buddha said, “Identifying ourselves with others, we can never slay or cause to slay.”

This precept applies to all creatures, irrespective of size. We do not sacrifice living beings for worship, convenience, or food. Instead, we try to sacrifice our own selfish motives. Mahayana Buddhists may, however, commit acts that harm themselves if, in doing so, they genuinely help other living beings. The Vietnamese monks who burned themselves, for example, felt that their acts would help bring about the end of the Vietnam War. According to the Theravada Buddhist tradition, purity is essential for wisdom and compassion to be possible, and serious Theravadins do not condone killing at all. For Theravada monks, to cut trees or cultivate land is killing. However, most of us have to compromise. Alan Watts once said that he chose to be a vegetarian because cows cry louder than cabbages. Mahayana monks can generally be vegetarians, since they are permitted to till their own land. Theravada monks depend entirely on lay supporters for food, so they must eat whatever is offered to them, including meat. But if they suspect that an animal has been killed specifically for them, they cannot eat it.

Killing animals and eating meat may be appropriate for a simple agrarian society or village life, but once complicated marketing comes into existence, one has to reexamine the first Buddhist precept carefully. In industrial society, meat is treated as just another product. Is the mass production of meat respectful of the lives of animals? If people in meat-eating countries could discourage the breeding of animals for consumption, it would not only be compassionate toward the animals, but also toward the humans living in poverty who need grains to survive.

Buddhists must also be aware that there is enough food in the world now to feed us all adequately. Hunger is caused only by unequal economic and power structures that do not allow food to end up where it is needed, even when those who are in need are the food producers. And we must look at the sales of arms and challenge these structures, which are responsible for murder. Killing permeates our modern way of life—wars, racial conflicts, breeding animals to serve human markets, and using harmful insecticides. How can we resist this and help create a non-violent society? How can the first precept and its ennobling virtues be used to shape a politically just and merciful world? I do not attempt to answer these questions. I just want to raise them for us to contemplate.

Excerpted from Seeds of Peace: A Buddhist Vision for Renewing Society by Sulak Sivaraksa. Parallax Press, Berkeley, California, 1992.

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