By Daniel Scharpenburg
Q. I know there is a Buddhist precept that I shouldn’t kill living beings. I want to follow that precept, but I am concerned because I have an ant infestation in my home. What should I do?
A. Good question. You probably won’t be satisfied with my answer.
I’ll unpack it a little.
The Five Precepts are a list of Buddhist teachings that are designed to help us live the ethical life. These are a list of vows that Buddhists typically have the opportunity to take after they’ve taken refuge vows to officially become Buddhist.
I’m of the point of view that we don’t need someone to tell us not to steal or lie or kill or commit rape.
I think we know that already. But, the Buddha felt the need to tell his followers these five precepts so we will talk about the first one.
Buddhism has a system in place where you can take some vows and then take some more later and then take some more later. The one we are talking about now is the first of the list of vows called The Five Precepts.
“I undertake the training rule to abstain from killing.”
This is based on life affirming principles. Respecting life is a good idea and a big aspect of our training is morality. By following this precept we develop kindness and compassion. If we can see the suffering of others as our own, then we grow as individuals and transform ourselves.
The Brahajala (Brahma Net) Sutra explains the first precept this way:
“A disciple of the Buddha shall not himself kill, encourage others to kill, kill by expedient means, praise killing, rejoice at witnessing killing, or kill through incantation or deviant mantras. He must not create the causes, conditions, methods, or karma of killing, and shall not intentionally kill any living creature.
“As a Buddha’s disciple, he ought to nurture a mind of compassion and filial piety, always devising expedient means to rescue and protect all beings. If instead, he fails to restrain himself and kills sentient beings without mercy, he commits a major offense.”
So, all of that being said, does this apply to insects?
Yes. Bugs are alive. We should try not to kill them.
But, there is one thing we have to recognize. In the west we tend to think of the Buddhist guides to moral life in terms of western religion.
What do I mean by that?
They aren’t commandments. They don’t come from a celestial being telling us to conform to a certain way of living. Buddhist teachers created these instructions to help us on the path. We are undertaking training in morality, not because we have to, but because we know that training in morality is something that helps us in our journey to Awakening. Because when we train in morality, becoming Enlightened is easier.
So, with that in mind, do what you have to do. They are invading your house. It’s not unreasonable to kill them when you’re trying to take care of your home.
But, try your best not to. I’m sure that’s not much help because you’ve probably tried simple things like making sure there’s no food attracting them.
If you can avoid breaking a precept, do it. But if you can’t, then don’t. Do what you have to in order to take care of your home.
The fact that you are agonizing over this shows that your training in morality is working.
When you’re done, you can reflect on how transitory life is.
Maybe that will help.
Editor: Dana Gornall