This is part five of a 12-part series on how to skillfully train in the Eight Mahayana Precepts. The 15th of every month is Precepts Day, when Kadampa practitioners around the world typically take and observe the Precepts.
The first precept is to abandon killing. Geshe-la explains the object of killing is any other being from the smallest insect to a Buddha. In the chapter on karma in Joyful Path, four factors must be present for the action to be complete. First, for our intention, we must have the correct identification of the person we intend to kill. We also need a determination to kill the person we have correctly identified. Killing by accident is not a complete action, though this doesn’t mean there are not negative consequences of accidental killing. Our mind must also be influenced by delusion, specifically anger, attachment, or ignorance. It is possible to kill out of compassion to save the lives of others, but this requires great wisdom and courage. Killing out of compassion is not a downfall since compassion is not a delusion. The action also requires preparation, namely we prepare the means to engage in the action. This includes having others do the action for us or engaging in the action as a group. Finally, it requires the completion – the action must be completed, the person actually is killed and dies before we do.
The reality is we are killing all of the time. Every time we scratch our arm, we are no doubt killing thousands of tiny bacteria or microbes. Even if we do not eat meat, we are indirectly killing thousands of insects who died in the rice paddies or to the pesticides sprayed on our food. Samsara is a slaughterhouse, and everything we do essentially kills. This doesn’t mean we are doomed and it also doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bother trying to not kill because it is unavoidable. What it means is we need to do our best to lead as low impact of a life as we can. We should work gradually to kill less and less while working within our capacity and the karmic conditions we find ourselves in.
There are also many forms of negative actions that are adjacent to kill it that we should also try avoiding. For example, rejoicing in negative actions is karmically similar to engaging in those actions ourselves. Virtually every day on the news there are reports of people being killed in some form of military conflict. The United States, for example, has been at war nonstop for essentially the last 25 years. Our soldiers are killing people on an almost daily basis and the news is typically reported as a success story of having killed some “terrorists” or some other perceived enemy. These reports are designed to generate a mind of rejoicing in such killing. While this is not us killing ourselves, when we rejoice in such activities, we create karma similar to killing others.
There are also many subtle forms of killing that we may not even be aware of nor our role in perpetuating the systems that engage in such killing. Social scientists have coined the term structural violence to refer to societal structures that function to shorten the lives of particular groups of people. For example, due to structural racism in the United states, people of color tend to have worse access to health care, higher rates of poverty, lower rates of education, suffer from higher rates of crime, and so forth all of which contribute to shortened life spans compared to most white people. One study estimates that 8,000,000 African Americans are missing compared to what should be if structural racism did not exist. These are the victims of a form of unintentional slow-motion genocide.
Once we are aware that such structures exist and inflict violence, even if a subtle form of violence, against certain populations and then we do nothing to correct for it or we even seek to rationalize away such effects by denying it is occurring or it is justified based upon some arbitrary criteria, then we are participating in or enabling a subtle form of killing. We may even be voting for such policies. Even simply benefiting from such structures and not using our surplus privilege associated with being at the top of such structures to dismantle them, is a form of perpetuating them. These things would not be a violation of our Mahayana precepts per se, but they do move in a direction similar to the action of killing. As Mahayana practitioners, we should be striving to move in the direction of not killing. And we should cast the net wide to avoid even subtle forms.