“The Precepts in Everyday Life: Not Killing” by Lorna Simons

Dharma wisdom from Bright Way Zen Sangha members and friends, enjoy!

The Precepts in Everyday Life: Precept No. 1: Not Killing
by Lorna Simons

First, a little introduction. I decided to prepare myself to take the precepts this year, and one thought that occurred to me is that any ethical guideline can stay pretty abstract and “in my head.” In a sanzen with Domyo, I presented the thought of coming up with specific actions for each precept to guide my practice, and she thought that might prove useful to my fellow zendo members. 

So in beginning to think about “Not Killing,” a particular dilemma came immediately to mind. The house where I live is also home to many, many ants, most of them very tiny. If we leave an empty tin of cat food on the counter, it is soon swarming. In that case, I truly feel there is nothing to do but rinse the can out in the sink, condemning them to watery death in the garbage disposal – there is just no way I can see to politely invite them to go away. And that leads to the dilemma. As a Buddhist, I have a strong preference for not killing insects, and always have a glass and piece of paper around for capturing them and escorting them outside. But for ants, who live a communal life, that is actually a death sentence, because they cannot live separate from the nest. So if I want to abide by “Not Killing,” it seems I am called upon to leave them alone in their travels on the counters and floor. 

In my readings, “killing” is also interpreted as “making separate that which is not” (Dharma Rain Precept Talks, 2012), or “not harming the body or psyche of another” (San Francisco Zen Center, from their website article on the precepts). This appears to include rejecting others in various ways and also rejecting undesirable parts of ourselves. If I examine my habits in this regard, I see two possible areas for action.

  1. Trying to reduce reflexive rejection of things others say that I disagree with or think are incorrect. For me, this should also include not reflexively correcting those same statements. Perhaps, often, building relationship trumps being “right” if it’s not a matter of importance, safety, etc. And the other kicker is that the other person often doesn’t “need” or want the information, won’t like being treated as wrong, and won’t take in the information. 
  2. Becoming more mindful of what I reject or hate in myself, and becoming more moderate in how I define or think about those things. A good example is my late-night Netflix sessions. I tend to severely chastise myself and feel guilty and weak-willed and just “bad.” And yet, within limits (not every night, maybe once a week or so?) they actually do no lasting harm and aren’t worth the self-blame I load on myself for them.

So here’s my modest (I hope) “Action Plan” for Precept No. 1:

  1. Leave the ants alone unless they are in overwhelming numbers or they are walking on my body. And truly feel compassion when I do cause their deaths – they are tiny, but they are beings, sentient to some degree, and deserving of life.
  2. Think carefully before I disagree with or correct people. Consider whether it’s really needed and how it might affect the relationship.
  3. Be more moderate in how I describe/define “bad behaviors” of my own – that is also a “relationship issue,” I guess.