A couple of weeks ago, at our Wednesday Sangha Evening, we studied the first of the Ten Great Precepts: do not kill. At first reading this precept appears very obvious and straightforward, but only a little contemplation of it quickly reveals that it is impossible to keep it absolutely. For example, all living things need to consume other living things if they are to survive. Even if we are vegetarian, insects and small mammals are killed in the harvesting of crops, and plants themselves are living things.
Yet it is essential that we make every effort to avoid killing and to cultivate a compassionate heart. The Sanskrit word pratimoksha, which is translated as precept, literally means that which liberates. By trying our best to keep this precept we can become aware of even the slightest impulse to kill, or to do harm, and we see that this urge arises from the delusion that we are separate from other living things and can therefore be threatened by them. We need to sit still with the impulse to kill, without judgement and without running away. When we truly face our own pain and do not strike out at others, the mind of compassion arises and we are freed from the desire to harm.
Great Master Dogen says, in the Kyojukaimon:
No life can be cut off; the Life of Buddha is increasing; continue the Life of Buddha; do not kill Buddha.