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The First Precept (Harmlessness/Not Killing)

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  • The First Precept (Harmlessness/Not Killing)

    I find this precept very, very hard. I work on an almost daily basis with challenges to it.

    I hear other people who think that refraining from intoxicants is the only precept they don't keep, but really, do we really refrain from killing? At the gross level I understand not to kill another human and I trust I will always avoid that.

    What about other things though - how do we refrain from killing mice when they invade our kitchens? Or ants when they cover our path ways and invade our homes? Or termites when they are found eating away at the timbers in our house? (This is an Australian talking - it may not be so bad in Europe!)

    I try always to remove and return "creatures" to the garden with loving-kindness, or not to trample on them when they are on the footpath - but it isn't always so simple.

    Let's get together and list all the ways we can manage to refrain from killing, whether it is that you know of special mice traps or wonderful ways to encourage ants to walk elsewhere!

    Let me give you one example and then please tell me what you think are the best ways to deal with this specific situation, and other similar situations.

    My specific problem this week was with kangaroo ticks. Kangaroos have little "beetle like" creatures on them called ticks. They latch onto the body of the kangaroo and suck its blood. They also like to do this to humans, for a yummy feast. They cause itchy swellings which last a long time (like weeks not days). Usually if people get one and try to remove it they kill it in the removal process.

    Some of the ticks are tiny - pepper ticks - and are no bigger than a small grain of sand. If you have one in our body what would you do? Leave it there? Send it metta? Remove it and kill it? Remove it without killing it (how?).

    I have seen one of the Anagarikas at Bodhinyana leave a larger tick in her shoulder and she sent it loving kindness, but I don't know how long this went on for.

    This weekend I had 21 pepper ticks lodged in me. Now tell me to refrain from killing is easy?! What would you have done?

    Metta to all creatures - even tiny biting ones!

  • #2
    Not sure about the ticks, but I have discovered an effective way to harmlessly remove large numbers of ants from your home or pathway. Simply drag a towel gently across the surface and the ants cling to it. Then you can shake them off.


    • #3
      Yes, this precept was also the most difficult for me to keep in my lay life.

      One winter my house became infested by mice (strictly speaking, I wasn't following the 5 precepts then, but I was trying to be good). First I tried using non-lethal traps. Eventually I got frustrated and murdered the mice with mouse-traps.

      The next time my house became infested by mice, I decided to live with them. The mice trained me to be very diligent and tidy, they taught my to close cupboard doors properly and to put food in sealed containers. They taught me to get rid of everything I didn't need, so they'd have less places to hide. In the end I learned how to give metta to the little buggers, I was sleeping on a mat by that point, and if they wanted to run over me at night I just let them without rousing a mind of hatred. The mice got used to me, and I got used to them.

      As for ticks - I've not had a big problem with them. At Bodhinyana, a big one got on me. I gently tried to remove it, but failed, and let it have it's meal. It hung on for about 3 days, getting fatter and fatter, before falling off.

      At Santi I get a lot of leeches. While you can remove them without harming them, I don't have the heart to interrupt their meal, so I let them drink their full.

      The itches are a pain, it is true. But I generally feel that unpleasant bodily sensation is trifling compared with willfully causing harm to other beings.

      With that said, the way rules-lawering works, if your intent is only to remove a being, and you are trying to do it without killing it, and it dies in spite of your efforts to not kill it, then, strictly speaking, even though you knew it might die, you haven't fallen into offense. It might be kinder to not go anywhere near potentially lethal action, but it's not an offense to do so if your intention isn't to kill.


      • #4
        I would be very careful with ticks as they can transmit a number of diseases.If an animal like a tick,leech etc was on me I would remove and let it live.The best thing would be to use prevention i.e repellent,cover up or avoidance.I know that cucumber slices will keep cockroaches away and have been told cayenne pepper is good for getting rid of ants.


        • #5
          As for ants in the house. In the monastery kitchen, ants are the creatures most likely to be ruthlessly murdered by careless people. While in an earlier post I mentioned intention, if someones intention is only to clean the bench, and a whole lot of ants get crushed to death by the sponge, then "there's no offense because there's no intention to kill"? - well, maybe. But earlier I said a mitigating intention is the intention to try and keep the animals alive if possible, which in this case doesn't apply because the ants are simply being ignored and no effort is made to increase their chances of survival. If nothing else it's very negligent.
          (When you're totally unaware of a beings presence, like when some ants climb into the kettle during the night then get boiled alive in the morning, then there's no offense)

          Ants are a problem though - especially avoiding killing them while doing necessary chores. General cleanliness and diligence is a big help.
          When the ants are on a surface which needs to be cleaned, they will generally disperse if you breathe on them. They are also tough enough to survive being blown away by breath. They can be gently swept up by a paper towel and blown or shaken off it. They can also be (gently) swept up with a dry mop (dust mop), and the mop can then be put aside for the ants to disperse from it.

          The best way to keep ants out of honey/sugar, seems to be to give them a bowl of honey/sugar from which they can take as much as they like. Ants can't use honey/sugar to make new ants - they need protein for that, so once they have taken some sugar, they'll go hunting protein - insects and pollen - and leave the honey/sugar alone. Also because you are deliberately sharing your honey/sugar with tens of thousands of living beings, your good kamma is massively multiplied.


          • #6
            For mice, I have found this method to be quite effective: I put a bit of bird seed and water in the bottom of a tallish indoor trash bin. Somehow, the mice can always find a way in, but they can never manage to climb back out (Be sure to check the bin daily or they will run out of food and start eating each other). The mice can abide comfortably in the bin and enjoy a snack while you walk or drive them to their new home - perhaps a remote location well away from your home, shed, garden, or wherever they were previously taking residence.


            • #7
              I hope that this post doesn’t sound confrontational or selfish … I am just trying to realize this precept in a way that fells genuine to my lived experience. Apologies in advance if I offend.

              Regarding critters that bite, sting, suck blood, etc: In Buddhism, we wish for all beings to be happy and well. I am a being, and when something is sucking my blood I am not happy (and mostly likely not well as parasites tend to spread diseases). True, I may experience a certain type of happiness in the generous act of providing a meal to a hungry critter, and stories of monks covered with mosquitoes are not difficult to come across in Buddhist circles, but is this form of self sacrifice not a conceit? And what about Ajahn Brahm’s story of the head monk who, when confronted by bandits, chooses to save himself as well has his monks? Or what about the Suttas which discourage ascetic practices? The Suttas wish for all breathing things to come to no harm, come to no evil, meet good fortune, etc. Is there any place in the Suttas that specifically mention parasites or sacrificing the welfare of one being for another? You my offer a meal to a hungry mosquito … what about a hungry bear?

              Here is how I deal with mosquitoes, ticks, etc. Please tell me if I am wrong. First, I resist the impulse to immediately swat at any itch or sting on my body. If, after examining the body, I find a creature attached to it, I remove it as carefully as possible and send it on its way. If the creature should die in the process of removal (as sometimes happens with ticks), I may experience remorse, but I remind myself that my intent was not to harm any being, but to relieve one (myself) from suffering. Driving to hear a dhamma talk, my car is likely to hit a few bugs, but it was never my intention to kill, it just happened. In being relocated, the tick experiences dukkha. In being eaten, I experience dukkha. How do you weigh the two? Should I value one being over another ? All beings over myself (a particularly thorny issue when you consider the doctrines of Anatta and dependent arising)? Surely there is a difference between harming a life form and inconveniencing it?

              Maybe I need to work on developing my empathy, because I agree that this precept is sometimes difficult to keep.


              • #8
                I have considered this precept often. I used to "hurt" people almost daily in a previous line of work, but I took no joy in it that I can remember. I do remember having the choice to shoot someone once or run away. I ran away and got help. Having been in many many situations where it was a choice to cause great bodily harm to another or receive it myself, I always chose to do the infliction. Eventually, long before coming to the Path, I decided to get out of this line of work for just these reasons. I didn't want to hurt anybody anymore. I didn't enjoy it in the least. After much contemplation I see that it does come down to intention like Blake says. Yet intention doesn't arise only in the moment of whether or not to injure or kill. It comes well before that in making choices (karma?) that keeps one out of the situation in which the choice to hurt or kill comes from. I quit my job/career as a choice to keep from having to hurt or kill. There was a long discussion in the old forums about the martial arts and whether or not to learn. To learn would be karma in the direction of inflicting harm. Though I have learned many ways to nearly harmlessly subdue most people and dogs, it's still the opposite direction of peace and harmlessness. So to make a long story short, prevention (mindful, right action?) is the key. There will always be some casualties. It is impossible to tromp through samsara without killing or injuring someone along the way. when I say someone I mean all living beings. I look at all of them as somebody as it helps me to maintain the respect necessary to carry out the first precept as closely as is feasible.
                So trying to avoid areas and activities where these crawlies get on you is one way. If that's not possible, someone mentioned prevention as well, i.e. covering up, repellants and the like. As for pests in the house; the ants who seem to like my desk so much have become friends and aren't a bother anymore. Occasionally I shoo one off of my arm or computer screen, carefully. They are pretty tough as was said by others. I have killed black widow spiders out of compassion and care for my mother who is nearly 70 and could be killed by one easily. The thought arose that maybe i was doing the spider a favor as it may be reborn as a human or cat next time, with a more comfortable life and closer to a chance to realize nirvana. There's that sticky point. In killing an unenlightened creature, are we doing them a favor in terms of giving them a chance at a birth in which they can learn the dhamma? More confusion. Just some thoughts. Sorry as usual for the long reply.

                Jerrod : )


                • #9
                  PS I do remember something in the suttas somewhere about refraining from harming anything larger than a flea. Does anyone know where that may have been written?



                  • #10
                    My understanding is that the precept says we should avoid killing.The buddha spoke about the middle way in rural India to many people who were farmers.Killing animals to survive would have been a necessity.I avoid killing at all possible times.But if it is unavoidable say a spider in the wrong place that cant be removed without placing someone at risk,I dont get to stressed out about it.As Jerrod points out we are in samsara so things are not perfect.


                    • #11
                      Thanks for all these suggestions - I hadn't heard the one about the towel before with the ants Guy, I will give it a go. I certainly agree that prevention is the first important step.

                      For example, we have been very diligent following ant trails to find out where they are coming from in the house and then filling in the holes through which they were entering, this has certainly reduced the problem and helped us enormously in keeping the precept. We also take care not to leave a sticky plate waiting to go in the dishwasher e.g. if I have just eaten a mango I rinse the dish rather than leaving it to attract ants, (although at the same time we don't want to waste water - we are in a drought).

                      Ben, I agree with you that this is in fact a very complex precept. It can seem black and white initially but once you go down into real life examples it throws up many practical problems.

                      I think the wording of the precept is to "try to refrain from killing" and this is where it is different from a commandment "thou shalt not kill", so thanks for all the input about our intention Blake, very helpful. I take my hat off to you letting mice run over you, I can't imagine a level of practice when I will ever get there, but who knows I do work on trying to refrain on a daily basis.


                      • #12
                        Regarding ticks... I work outdoors. Ive made a tick be gone spray that I spray on myself before i put my work clothes on. Not the most attractive smell to wear but since ive been using it I havent had a tick on me. I guess im not iristably yummy to them anymore! Now for the spray... Essential oils of: Cedarwood, Eucalyptus, Sandalwood, Lavender oil, teetree. (Forgive my spelling). I mix equal measures of all oils together in a bottle, then put 40ml of the oil mix into a spray bottle, add 40 ml of Glycerine and 1 Lt of water. The oil may settle at the top but gently agitate to mix when needed. The Glycerine helps to make the oils water soluable and will wash off your body with soap. Never spray onto your face! IT TASTES DISGUSTING! To get ticks off when I havent used the spray... I squeeze the skin either side of the tick head and pull the body out gently with tweezers. Seems to work ok most of the time. Metta!


                        • #13
                          Originally posted by Jerrod Lopes View Post
                          I have killed black widow spiders out of compassion and care for my mother who is nearly 70 and could be killed by one easily. The thought arose that maybe i was doing the spider a favor as it may be reborn as a human or cat next time, with a more comfortable life and closer to a chance to realize nirvana. There's that sticky point. In killing an unenlightened creature, are we doing them a favor in terms of giving them a chance at a birth in which they can learn the dhamma?
                          Unlikely. A human birth is extremely rare and difficult to attain. Beings, for the most part, go and stay down.
                          In my mind, showing kindness to an animal, causing it to rouse a mind of gratitude towards human beings, is more likely to result in a good birth for that animal, than doing harm to an animal, which would cause it to rouse a mind of resentment towards human beings (this also being a sure ticket to even worse states of birth).

                          However an animal birth is simply a raw deal. There's no real way to either help or hinder an animal. But good kamma done to an animal is still good kamma, and bad kamma done to an animal is still bad kamma, so it's not a hard choice.

                          Another reflection I have on this topic.
                          Generally, acts of cruelty and ill-will towards creatures, are those acts which stick in my mind. A 'failure' to perform an act of cruelty or ill-will does not stick in my mind. And the 'flavor' of a memory of doing harm to biting insects, is different to the flavor of a memory of not doing harm to biting insects (just letting them bite).
                          The memory of the pain, typically fades much more quickly than the memory of my intentions.
                          For example, if I recall back to a time when I decided to feed the mosquitoes, then I remember my feeling of kindliness to them, but not the pain.


                          • #14
                            Originally posted by Blake Walsh View Post
                            The memory of the pain, typically fades much more quickly than the memory of my intentions.
                            Well said, thanks for sharing your reflection.


                            • #15
                              Originally posted by Guy Craft View Post
                              Well said, thanks for sharing your reflection.
                              I agree. I certainly feel so much better when I have taken the trouble to save an ant than when I have squashed one. I managed to capture a large sergeant ant that had got in the house yesterday and release it outside (even though they produce bad allergic reactions) and it was sweet.



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