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Ahimsa

Yesterday we briefly mentioned the Buddhist tendency to be peaceful and nonviolent. This idea has come up many times in the past, but we’ve never really looked into it too deeply. The Sanskrit term for this idea is ahimsa, which literally translates to “the avoidance of violence,” but generally is stated in English as “Do no harm.” The idea and the word pre-date Buddhism going way back in Hinduism.

Ahimsa is primarily a term from Hinduism, and is better known to Buddhists as the First Precept: “I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking life.”

Some groups do go to great lengths to avoid killing anything, even insects. Followers of Jainism (not a sect of Buddhism, but a whole other religion if you haven’t heard of it), go out of their way so as not to hurt even small insects and other minuscule animals and make considerable efforts not to injure plants in everyday life as far as possible. For Buddhists, the ideas of ahimsa preclude going to war or murder, and although hotly debated, are the center of the argument for vegetarianism. Are there limits? Practically yes. In our modern lives, it’s hard to avoid killing insects. Vegetarianism is not required for most Buddhists. Sometimes war is forced upon us.

Do you apply the first precept consciously in your life? I suspect few of us have ever killed a person, but do you actually use this precept consciously in your day-to-day life? How? I’d like yo hear your experiences!

14 comments to Ahimsa

  • Chris

    Since I have started studying Budhism about a year ago, I have been more consciese (sp?) of my actions with regard to Ahimsa. I have changed my diet and eating habits a little, but have not completely made the leap to becoming a vegetarian. I have however hesitated at the initial reaction to stomp on every bug I see crossing my path and remove them from the home rather then kill them. I have realized that secular western society naturally tends to kill ‘pests’ with little thought and that that mentallity was ingrained in me. I felt silly at first catching a spider and releasing it in the yard but then realized it didn’t hurt anything either. Later, I had a bad ant infestation in my kitchen and had to use chemicals to get rid of them. It simply was not possible to catch them all and release them as they were even in the walls. So where does one draw the line? I concluded that it was my responsability to prevent them from being attracted into my kitchen in the first place, but this is not always possible as humans continue to crowd ecosystems.

    Chris

  • Elkmo

    I feel that although the situation may be rare when the need to choose whether or not to kill another is rare, this concept can still be applied in choosing whether to be abusive ( spiritually, physically,, etc.)

  • Denise

    I am a practicing Buddhist and am vegan. I also avoid killing bugs whenever possible.

    My teacher (Thich Nhat Hanh)wrote a letter to our community urging us to stop using dairy and eggs (our tradition already urges vegetarianism) both for compassionate and environmental reasons. That was enough to push me over the edge to veganism. It has been wonderful for me.

  • susanerl

    Even before I became Buddhist, I tried not to kill insects, and gave up red meat. I’ve always rescued animals and have tried “talking” to ants to get them out of my kitchen (it seems to work!). And since I’ve become Buddhist, I’m now a “day-to-day” vegetarian, in that it’s been hard for me to declare that I’m forever giving up meat, fish and poultry, so I try to make it a daily choice. I decided that would help me not to punish myself if I fell of the wagon, so to speak. And that seems to be working – no meat, poultry or fish whatsoever for about a year now. I think the point is, if one is aware that eating a hamburger or a chicken nugget is contributing to the taking of a life, perhaps there will be less tendency to eat more than one hamburger at a time, and more moderation in our eating habits. And that’s much healthier whether or not you’re vegetarian or Buddhist. For me, it’s about awareness of the uniqueness of every life, even ants and mites and creepy crawly things… they all have an importance and a place in this world. Ahimsa, to me, is about respecting that place.

  • Sabrina

    I think this also applies to violence in thought. I try to thank the food as I prepare it (not a blessing per se, just a gratitude and acknowledgement of life given). I am mostly vegetarian, but not because of this rule (after all, plants are living also).

  • Kurtison

    Ahimsa in my day to day life, is regarding all life with understanding and respect. When I go throughout my day, I try to be “the watcher”, and observe thought and action against other life forms (of all kinds) to see if there is suffering being caused by me in any way. I then take necessary actions in order to stop, and furthermore prevent further suffering. Something very important that hasn’t been mentioned yet, is the effects caused to the self when one causes suffering to another. Being the source of suffering, causes more suffering within.

    When being compassionate, their is a residual compassion and respect for the self that also occurs.

  • Jami

    Ahimsa is a noble idea. Jainism’s values are profound and it is perhaps not a coincidence that Buddha was raised in a part of India (or Nepal) where the Jain tradition was deep.

    Vegetarianism follows, logically, from ahimsa; veganism more so. What, however, does a Jain do if he has scabies? This point applies more so to war, a vicious fact of life-and history.

    This question has never really been addressed. Buddha befriended Kings who were involved in war. He did not, according to an earlier post, condemn or support war. Is it not possible that to avoid war is to cause more suffering? On balance, those who allow a brutal dictator to maintain power are, in reality, allowing him to kill more people. Therefore, they appear to be contributing to more suffering.

    The same may apply to those who, following the ahimsa ideal to the letter, allow scabies or rodents to spread, on the assumption that to kill them is to cause suffering.

    Such rationalisation has utilitarian aspects and obviously impacts on those who argue that their veganism is contributing to less suffering.

  • Grey

    Hi all..

    I try to recognize Ahimsa in a lot of ways. Upon first learning and taking some courses about Buddhism, I was taught by a monk how to catch bugs in a cup and slide a card under it to catch them and then set them free outside. Since then, I haven’t (intentionally) killed any living thing. I am sure it is impossible to stop killing bugs altogether, if one mows a lawn or drives a car for instance, but I feel that making a conscious effort feels good for me. I have also resorted to a vegetarian diet, not eating any living thing with a face, no fish or meat. I am not vegan, but being lactose intolerant I eat very little dairy. Hunting and fishing are out of the question, and I do my best to teach others these things as well. Aside from eating habits and taking lives of animals and bugs, there are a lot of other ways that I see Ahimsa can be considered in daily life. I try to remember right speech, right actions, and right thoughts, in regards to Ahimsa as well. These things, while not necessarily physically harmful, can be harmful indeed. I am far from where I’d like to be in these aspects, but stopping and thinking about what one is doing, or recognizing when one says or does something they know isn’t in accordance with Buddhist ways is a huge step in my opinion. Every day I hope to be a better person than I was the day before….and of course…I constantly pray for patience.

    Peace,
    Grey

  • G

    How does this issue apply to self-defense against rape or murder or defending family members, the elderly, children, or the otherwise defenseless against such acts?

  • G;

    Self-defense is allowed when there is no other choice. It’s best to use as little force and violence as possible in those situations, but you are allowed to defend yourself. There is an old story about Buddha (in one of his previous lives) killing one man to save a hundred.

  • Sting'ra

    The words of Kurtison above struck me as ones I might have written….and it leads my thoughts to how Buddhism as helped me in my relationships, particularily the relationship I have with my life-partner. It can be so very easy to fall into predictable patterns of ‘reaction’ when dealing with a spouse/loved one/partner that can be very harmfull. I now find that I too ‘watch’ the conversation as it happens and think more about my reactions. It falls under compassion I guess. But it sure does make living with a loved one much more pleasnt. Minor fights/misunderstandings can be so easy to avoid if one just pays more attention.

  • Pete

    For me I feel that mostly this precept is branded into our general morality early on in life with the right upringing, but that doesn’t mean that killing isnt an issue in society obviously.
    Although I might not need to use this precept daily (excluding food consumption, I do eat meat) I think I have a duty as a compassionate individual to say and do things that will make people understand the importance and enjoys of life. Other situations require me to share my views or suggestions in order to benefit eliminating greed, corruption, bigotry, violence, materialism.
    I know that hopefully I might not need to kill in my lifetime, but with all the injustice we see in the world today, countless wars and corruption based on materialism and ignorance – there is a duty that needs to be fulfilled.
    One of the biggest issues we are facing today is the sustainability of human life on our planet.

  • David

    I’m not a vegetarian but I always try to eat meat which has been well looked after and responsibly killed and respectfully treated after death. I also used to live in a remote part of the country on a farm and at times was quite poor so i have also killed rabbits and pigeons in order to eat and although I had little choice the pain of this stays with me even today. While writing this I can clearly recall how the act of killing made me feel and how sad and distressed I was after it. That said since becoming a Buddhist over 15 years ago I have made a conscious effort to refrain from harming anything. Like some of the comments above I do not kill spiders, or flies or anything else and make every effort avoid causing harm or letting harm exist and I rescue injured animals whenever the need arises.

    I have to say it gets interesting at work sometimes when there’s a wasp in the office and most people want to kill it and I am trying to shepherd it out of the window while trying to calm all those who are convinced the wasps sole purpose in life is to sting them 🙂

  • Gemma

    I commend you all in your efforts to refrain from harm but I a still puzzled that most of you continue to eat meat and other animal products which are obtained from the infliction of severe suffering on animals and the planet. I know that in some societies it is very difficult to obtain enough calories on a plant based diet due to poor crop yields but in the comparatively rich west I don’t see how this is justified with respect to Ahimsa?