The First Precept: To Kill or Not to Kill

This article first appeared in Tricycle Magazine, Winter 2003.

When asked whether euthanasia was ever appropriate, one Tibetan teacher laughed gently and said, “You aren’t serious, are you? That would be killing.”

Another Tibetan teacher, when asked the same question, replied, “This is very tricky. Suppose you are sitting in your living room and you hear a screech of brakes. You go outside and you see that your dog has been hit by a car. His body is broken and he is obviously in great pain and is going to die. You go into your house, get a gun, and shoot him. What’s wrong with that? But if you hesitate for a moment and think about how you don’t want to take care of your injured pet, everything changes.”

The first precept in the Buddhist monastic and lay ordinations is not to take life. The commitment is specifically not to kill a human being, but the principle is usually applied to all sentient life. At the same time, the fundamental intention of Buddhism is to end suffering. If two highly regarded teachers can have different views on the question of euthanasia, what are you to do when faced with the decision to kill or not to kill?

A three-step practice from Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche provides a guide:

  • See clearly
  • Know what is
  • Act without hesitation

See clearly

Cultivate a gesture with compassion. Because compassion puts you directly in touch with suffering, it penetrates the blinders of accepted values in a culture, a tradition, a nation, or a family. With the eyes of compassion, you cannot ignore the destructive effect suffering has on others.

Know what is

Eliminate the distortions caused by projections and conditioning. Open to the pain inherent in the situation whenever the question of killing arises. Open to all the complexities of the situation and know what is.

Act without hesitation

Rely on that knowing and act. Don’t let thinking confuse you. Serve what is true, not what is convenient. Act without hesitation and accept the results of your action.

Killing motivated by self-preservation, by trying to satisfy emotional needs, or by trying to be somebody is immoral. These motivations are based on a sense of being separate from what is. We perceive a threat to a boundary we have established and the most basic reaction to such a threat is to destroy its source. For example, you kill your injured dog because you feel threatened by the need to care for it.

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