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A Clean Kill?

A very good comment was made to the entry Where Can A Baby Get a Birth Certificate and Hunting License in the Same Year? that I would like to respond to here. The reader asked about killing:

"...I grew up in a food hunting family, was taught to always use the right gun for the game (the "clean kill" mentioned, so the animal does not suffer). I am myself a Buddhist, but one of the problems, and perhaps you can help me with this, that I have always had is with the no killing. What about the Native Americans or others who would have starved to death had they not hunted? Even in this modern day, there are people who must hunt and kill in order to survive. Can they then not follow the Buddha's teaching? And as for mercy and suffering, a well placed shot, with the right caliber from an experienced hunter can bring instant death to the animal... far more merciful than being torn apart while still alive by a mountain lion. I certainly mean no disrespect, but I do hope you can shed some light on this issue as it has been a problem for me. Thank you!

The question is about the first precept in Buddhism "Do not kill." While there are different precepts in Buddhism (fundamental precepts, eight precepts, bodhisattva precepts, monk precepts, and nun precepts), the first ones a Buddhist takes are the five fundamental precepts. The first of the five is "do not kill." The remaining four are no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no lying, and no intoxicants.

The Buddhist precept of not killing means not to kill any living being, not just other humans. Why include all beings? Because every being has the potential to become a Buddha and the true nature of every being is Buddha-nature. So if we kill a living being, we are killing a future Buddha, cutting the lifeline of a future Buddha.

Thus, the Buddha told us to respect all life and not to kill any being. He didn't say to just respect and not kill those life forms that look like us. He said do not kill any being. Thus, very simply, I, as one living being, do not have the right to kill another living being just because I can and I am hungry. As the Buddha told us, all beings struggle to live, wish to live. Threaten an animal with harm and you'll see it take flight if possible or fight back if cornered.

It wants to live.

Also, the Buddha spoke of the law of cause and effect, which extends throughout all our lives from time without beginning. Every one of our thoughts, words, and deeds is a karma that will have a result. And the result from killing is to be killed.

But it's more complicated than a karmic tit-for-tat as it were. As an animal dies, it feels anger and pain and grief. Even if only for a second before it dies. (And I question how often in the real world, that death is actually clean and instantaneous.) What the hunter fails to see, due to the agitated state of the mind, is the pain caused as the Alaya consciousness that streams throughout all one’s lifetimes struggles to leave that now suddenly dead physical body.

Under ideal conditions of not being touched or disturbed even by a breeze this is a very difficult process. Imagine how much more difficult it must be when your body is being hauled onto a truck or dragged along the ground.

In humans, it takes hours for the consciousness to go through the complicated process of completely withdrawing from the physical body and to stop feeling pain due to the separation from that body. Even though the consciousness of animals is generally able to leave more quickly due to less attachment, the memory of that terrible pain—and thus anger—is stored in that being’s consciousness. And the wish for revenge grows.

The next time these two meet, the desire for revenge will bring retaliation more terrible than the preceding killing. Thus, individual killings eventually lead to revenge sought against a family to community feuds to regional conflicts to wars between countries. And then to world wars. Knowing the true consequences of the act of killing, we will do everything possible to not kill any living being.

Regarding Native Americans; there was a choice to eat meat. I may be wrong, but to the best of my knowledge, there was no physical reason they had to eat meat. Some evolved a lifestyle of hunters, while other people evolved a lifestyle of gathering and then farming. These are choices. Also, I don’t believe those who ate meat knew of cause and effect. So they made choices as best they could and as condiions allowed.

Others, like Eskimos, live under conditions where their options are extremely limited. They make the best choices they can. And they, like us, undergo the consequences of those choices. But those consequences are tempered by the options available to them.

Finally, from a very practical basis, it is simply not necessary to eat meat. Many cultures and religious practitioners are vegetarian. The oldest of the major religions is Hinduism, going back several thousand years. Hinduism shows us that humans can live very healthy lives as vegetarians. Chinese Buddhists are also vegetarian and have been so for over a thousand years. (That said, I understand there can be very real individual problems when people who have eaten meat for decades try to go purely vegetarian. But these are exceptions and I’m not speaking of them here.)

But the vast majority of us who live in a world where we have computers and the internet, grocery stores and gardens, access to knowledge about different cultures and teachings can make different choices based on what we now know.

And one of our major choices is to follow what others have done or to let go of attachments to our ideas of what is justifiable and choose instead to respect all beings.


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Reader Comments (13)

Please see this excellent article "Native Americans and Vegetarianism"
which challenges the stereotype of American Indian as hunter.

I believe there is a great deal of romanticism, mostly perpetuated by the New Age movement, about American Indians, which is primarily a marketing gimmick catering to escapist tendencies. While American Indian cultures no doubt possessed great wisdom in many ways, the foolish idea is sold to us that they were spiritually enlightened beings who had perfect societies, who could do no wrong and who should be emulated. I heard an interview with a prominent native American Indian woman recently who said that she and other native Americans cringe at the falsity of such myths.
March 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLinda
Linda, thank you for your comment. There does seem to be a tendency to romanticize indigenous peoples' practices and beliefs, and not only of those in the America.
March 29, 2009 | Registered CommenterVenerable Wuling
Ven Wuling - yes, I agree. The philosopher, Ken Wilber, refers to this as the "retro-romantic movement", which is basically about a belief that ultimate happiness can be found by regressing to the world view and cultural practices of a former idyllic time and society. The problem is that when one historically examines any of these cultures, one finds that, far from being ideal, they were rife with injustices such as sexism, racism, slavery and war, and this is true whether they were patriarchal or matriarchal. His point is that happiness is not to be found in regression to some fantasy ideal but in pursuing a genuine path of spiritual practice to realize a level of truth that transcends all times, places and cultures, and yet is the ground of them all.

By the way, I didn't mean to suggest that the person who asked the question above was indulging in idealization or romanticism about American Indians and their hunting, but I have known other people who used the fact that American Indians hunted as a justification for hunting. Clearly, a lot of people see hunting as somehow romantic in itself.

As a vegan I have sometimes been asked "What if you were starving, and the only way you could survive was to kill an animal?" The questioner obviously imagines that they have finally cornered me into admitting that I would eat meat. My response is that I would hope that I would refrain from killing and eating meat even in such a situation - firstly, because to do so is based on a delusional belief that my life is more important than that of another being, and secondly, on the awareness that such an act might save my own life for now, but I would be sure to be killed in the future as a karmic reaction, so nothing would be gained. Better to just accept the karma of starvation now than create possibly even worse karma.

There is also the obvious and most basic "reason" which is that I would hope that simple compassion would prevent me from causing pain and grief to another being even if my life was at stake. I'm not sure if I've reached that degree of compassion, and wouldn't know unless it was tested, but that would be my ideal.
March 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLinda
Veneral Wuling,

Thank you very much for your answer. It brought to light some things that, admittedly, I guess I just didn't want to see. I haven't hunted in years, but being raised in a food hunting family I have, for lack of a better word, "blinded" myself to things that I saw as simply a way of living. We did not hunt for sport, it was for food. In fact, there was a very strict rule of "don't kill it if you don't plan to eat it". Also, as for the instantaneous death of the animals in the real world, I know there are people out there that do make bad shots, use the wrong caliber or for whatever other reasons cause the animals to suffer terribly before death. But that was another rule we had, "if you can't do it with one shot, don't do it at all"... in other words, instantaneous (I won't go into the target area here as it is irrelevant, but it does work) . But you have made me see differently on that aspect as well. It is the causing of death itself.

Again, thank you very much! You have helped me understand something that I have struggled with for several years. I probably cannot change my family's view, but mine has changed and I can try to help my children see this as well, then they will have a better balanced view of things because they are, as I was, around a lot of food hunters. Thank you again!
March 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRon

I'm very glad to have been of some help. The important thing is that you have changed your view and can now help your children to understand better. Very simply, every being has a right to live.
March 30, 2009 | Registered CommenterVenerable Wuling
I think we will all be tested on the food issue soon. The unemployment in my area has meant more crime. People are being followed home from grocery stores and attacked. The city dweller is not familiar with living/hunting off the land so they are turning to human prey.

On the flip side, I was overjoyed to see a packed house on Saturday for a composting seminar. The request for gardening advice has been greatly increased. I am hopeful we will see a return to the "Victory Garden" concept and many new generations will once again learn how to grow their own food.

The statements and actions of the G20 will have broad global effects. I pray they find the wisdom to govern responsibly.
March 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSue K

I'm really sorry to hear about the rise in crime. But delighted that people are learning about composting. Those of you who are master gardeners are going to be providing some much needed help to the rest of us!
March 30, 2009 | Registered CommenterVenerable Wuling
Thank you for this post and the comments.

Knowing that all life comes from death, and all death comes from life, how does one draw the line? It seems to me that our cells, our entire body, were once part of something that has died, whether it was a dinosaur, a rice plant, or a deer. We cannot live without death. Death is life. Why is animal killing not 'ok' but plant killing for eating -- and plant, animal, insect and microbial killing by agriculture 'ok'?

Sometimes I wonder if we need to make peace with ourselves as killers. Our cars, planes, hydroelectric power, windmills (not to mention oil rigs), even our footsteps are killing. Just look at a well-worn forest path: little life there. But again, where, how, do we draw the line?

I ask this in all respect, for it is a great and serious ethical question to me, especially as a budding Buddhist. Many thanks.
June 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterShannon

That's a very good question.

Yes, we are still killing when we eat plants. But plants and animals have different levels of self-awareness. Animals like pigs and cows have a higher level of consciousness and thus are much more aware of life, and death. Plants have a much lower degree of consciousness. So while we do not end, we do lessen the harm by being vegetarian.

For insects, ideally we eat organic food whenever possible. No harmful insecticides. So although insects, worms, etc. are killed by our digging we minimize our harm by not using poisons. Also, before we dig, we ask all the beings to please go deep in the soil and to move away from where we are working so we do not harm them.

Basically, we recognize that with our every action there is the potential to kill. So we do everything with more awareness. This includes watching the ground as we walk so we do not step on any living beings. We drive more slowly to give animals a chance to get out of our way. We use only what we need to sustain our simple lives and no more.

And at the end of our daily practice, we dedicate the goodness from it to all beings so they may end suffering and attain lasting happiness, break through delusion and attain awakening.

So for matters in our everyday world and for those beyond, we do our very best in everything we do to lessen the harm we do.

June 28, 2009 | Registered CommenterVenerable Wuling
The Buddhist people don't believe in killing animals but you should always remember that plants are also living things.
October 7, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterergo baby carrier
Dear ergo baby carrier,

Thank you for bringing up a point that people sometimes raise. I'll take the opportunity to give the long answer. :-)

Yes, plants are living beings too. However, they do not have the levels of consciousness and awareness nor the nervous system that animals have. And it takes a lot more grass (corn on factory farms) to make a steak than it does to feed a human.

The reality is that all animals in the cycle of rebirth have three choices: 1) eat animals, 2) eat plants, 3) don’t eat.

Our very existence causes suffering to other beings, be the other being an animal or a plant. As vegetarians and vegans—Buddhist or otherwise—we do the best we can given the options we have. We try to cause the least suffering by eating plants and by eating only what we need to in order to stay healthy and by not wasting any food.

Making this choice is not always easy. The new vegetarian/vegan needs to re-educate him- or herself. This includes reading labels on every food item they are considering. New recipes have to be found and some old favorites abandoned. Family members or friends may not agree with the person’s wish to become vegetarian/vegan. Family members or friends may feel uncomfortable, or even threatened. They may keep challenging or arguing with the vegetarian/vegan, about their decision. Eating away from home can be difficult when food choices for vegetarians, not to mention vegans, are limited and sometimes non-existent.

Considering that many vegetarians/vegans encounter all the above obstacles (I had the good fortune to have the support of family and friends so did not run up against every obstacle), I’d say their efforts and commitment are admirable and worthy of support.

People who choose to be vegetarian or vegan are trying to cause the least harm and suffering they can in an imperfect situation.

It's not that they don't know that plants are also living beings. It’s just that option #3 above is not really a good option.
October 8, 2010 | Registered CommenterVenerable Wuling
I am very new to Buddhism and have hit a conflict with this topic. I am also a hunter. Not a trophy hunter (EVER), but a game management hunter living in Germany. I'm trying to reconcile 'Kill no living being' with the certain knowledge that I have gained. If there were no game management hunters our cultured landscape would look radically different in a matter of a few years than it does now.

We humans have created this landscape, and we humans now have a responsibility to manage it. Just leaving it is not an option, and hasn't been since we as a race became farmers. I think it totally irresponsible for any of us to say we must not ever hunt.

Please let me give an example for just one type of creature here in Germany.

Wild Boar. Zuwachs (or population growth) of these animals is 150% per year. We have at present a population of 600,000. If we stopped the management of these animals today, next year there would be 900,000 more. That's 1.5 million. Do you see where this is going? Just as a reference point. After 10 years there would be 65 million. A total nightmare for absolutely everyone, even vegans and vegetarians.

This population growth holds true for every animal (thought the increase varies).

It is too easy to follow everything through to its word. Oft times we must compromise.
March 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPaul

I understand what you're saying. Notwithstanding, the law of karma explains that everything we do will have a consequence. The vast majority of those consequences are "grey" with white at one end of a line and black at the other. Where our actions fall are affected by our intentions.

Killing likewise has white, black, and a lot of grey areas in between. Am I killing out of anger? Or for another reason? This will impact where I fall in that large grey area. But regardless, the consequence of killing is being killed. While I appreciate your comment, I would be failing in my responsibility if I said what you were doing was okay.

Understanding that there will be a consequence for everything we do, we need to do the best we can in our decisions of how to act. Also, dedicating the merits from our Buddhist practice to those we harm is always recommended.

Venerable Wuling
March 18, 2015 | Registered CommenterVenerable Wuling

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