- Observing the First Precept
- Prof. Palihawadana
I think I was asked to take part in this discussion because I am a
vegetarian and a Buddhist as well. If that is so, the impression probably was that I am a
vegetarian because I am Buddhist and that in my opinion I have to be vegetarian in order
to observe the first precept. Well, I must say that this is not why I am vegetarian.
So I must provide you with a little bit of autobiographical material..
I never became vegetarian. My mothers brother was a vegetarian - that was
more than 70 years ago. My mother loved him deeply and would do anything to please him. So
when he suggested to her that it would be a good thing if she brought up her children to
be vegetarian, she wholeheartedly agreed.
I was born severely underweight and my mother used to say that visitors
who came to see the new infant nearly always wondered how he could survive: he was so
tiny. And it seems I habitually refused take my mothers milk. I vividly remember
that as a child I was awfully thin. In those days when there were no antibiotics and
standards of hygiene were poor, young ones were often susceptible to all kinds of
infection. I was no exception. In my childhood I suffered from measles, chicken pox,
typhoid and malaria. Nevertheless my parents at no time tried to make me eat fish or meat:
the family stuck to the decision through thick and thin.
Years later, when I left my village and came to Kotte to stay with my
vegetarian uncle, he put me to school at Ananda Sastralaya, which was then under the
Principalship of Dr Adikaram. As you all know Dr Adikaram was a staunch vegetarian and
there prevailed at the school a positively pro-vegetarian atmosphere. I was quite at home
in this atmosphere and never bothered to think about the question why I was a vegetarian.
I only knew that my uncle had given up eating fish and meat because of Venerable Narada,
who at that time was preaching the virtues of vegetarianism in the country.
It was only after I entered the university that I had often to answer
questions about my diet and also suffer some taunts - but really not many. Most of my
friends respected my way of life which by now I had consciously chosen not to alter. I
never thought that it was in order to conform to the first precept I must be vegetarian. I
must say that through all those years, I hardly ever tried to convert any one else to my
own way of living. When I married, my wife was not vegetarian and I didnt bother
about it. The important thing is that she didnt mind my being vegetarian either. In
a very largely non-vegetarian world, I co-existed with others happily. I even co-existed
happily with a non-vegetarian partner. But we had a definite agreement that no meat would
ever be brought to our home.
In 1982, after I had been 56 years a vegetarian, Dr Adikaram formed the
Sri Lanka Vegetarian Society and asked me to be one of its Patrons, the other being
himself. Till then I had been a vegetarian first due to sheer upbringing and later due to
a gut feeling that I had: that it was not right, it was not fair, to participate in the
process of killing animals to feed ourselves. By my own life experience I knew it was also
not necessary, - though at that time we did not have the scientific support to
vegetarianism that exists today. In fact I stuck to vegetarianism in spite of the
information that we were given at that time - namely that there were serious health
hazards in the vegetarian diet. I used to try to obviate those so-called hazards by taking
Marmite, yeast tablets and considerable amounts of milk.
During all those years, I studied several languages one of which was
Pali. As Pali was the language of Theravada Buddhism, that led me to an indirect study of
Buddhist religious texts. Many of the canonical texts of Buddhism resonated with my
conscience and they were also intellectually satisfying ; and so gradually I began to give
deep attention to what I read in those texts. I learned Pali first under Dr Adikaram whose
unorthodox handling of Buddhist texts and subjects appealed to me greatly.
One of the things that struck me profoundly was that what the Buddha
offered was not a religion of routine and habit, but one which, in spite of its
extraordinary mix of simplicity and complexity, could also to a very great extent be
tested on the anvil of reason. The other thing that struck me with equal force was the
indubitably ethical nature of the way of life that the Buddha commended. The universal
attraction of a text like the Dhammapada - which is really a good mirror of the simplicity
and the complexity of Buddhism- lies largely in the fact that it teaches a way of life
that appeals to the deepest ethical sentiments of the human species. And I would say that
the ethics that one comes across in such texts as the Dhammapada rests infinitely more on
human compassion and a feeling for justice and fairness than on any precepts.
Let me illustrate this by an example. We have all read the famous
stanza which says that we should understand others by our own reactions : we would then
not kill nor cause others to kill (attanam upamam katva, na haneyya na ghataye). There is
no precept here. Rather, the Buddha here points out the result of empathy: what happens
when one has sensitivity. The statement is a distillation of humane experience. It may be
due to civilisation, or it may be the result of a distinctive trait of human psychology;
whatever it is, the fact is that unless you are hardened by a villainous environment, you
shrink from inflicting on others what you yourself do not wish to suffer. And, after all,
is this not the basis of all justice? Is this not why we insist on fair play?
The Buddha continues to appeal to this aspect of human nature when, for
example he says that all beings are frightened by weapons that inflict pain, that every
one tries to escape from death. (sabbe tasanti dandassa, sabbe bhayanti maccuno). Why does
he say every one? Does he not appeal to the conscience of his audience when he says
this? Dont think that you are the only one who wishes to avoid pain and death. Every
one does. And as we learn from what he says about compassion, every one does not mean
human beings only. The universal kindness that the Buddha commends is quite clearly based
on his own deep realisation of the fact that all beings are capable of suffering and any
sensitive person is prone by such realisation to do what he or she can to eliminate or
minimise such suffering. The point then is not whether we are mechanically going to obey a
rule, but whether we can be sensitive, whether we can have that osmotic quality of the
heart through which the pains and sufferings of others can seep into our own hearts.
Sensitivity means that their pains and sufferings are also our own. If we can be sensitive
in that way, it is not important whether we recite a precept or not. We will instinctively
and of necessity desist from what the precept tries to teach us to avoid.
Why then did the Buddha teach a code of conduct which we recognise as
the five precepts? In his own words the world is full of all kinds of persons. Some have
more dust on their eyes than others do. It would be fair to say that he tried
to rub out some of that dust, though he knew that the full elimination of it can only be
by the persons concerned. Evidently, he did this with great passion and infinite hard
work. The precepts perhaps should be seen as his anguished appeal to the conscience of
human beings to lead an ethical life. In their utter simplicity, they represent almost all
that is needed for a society to groom itself to a life of compassion and orderliness.
And now let us consider what are the implications of the first of these
precepts. Actually the Buddha has not left any grey area where we have to grope in the
dark as to what these implications are - what he had in mind when he called on us to take
upon ourselves the discipline (sikkha) of refraining from killing. In the Dhammika
Sutta in particular- but everywhere in spirit - he says that not to kill means three
things: You do not do it yourself; you do not get others to do it; and you do not
encourage, condone or applaud, you do not aid and abet, when others do it. (panam na hane
na ca ghatyeyya/ na canujanna hanatam paresam). What more does one need to prove that one
cannot observe this precept as long as one buys the flesh of animals slain for our
consumption? What encouragement does the meat industry need from us? Except that we buy
what they kill - and allow them to reap the profits they get from our purchases?
There are people who say that the first precept is negatively
formulated . And that this is intentionally done - to allow us room to eat animals that
are killed by others. Such people conveniently forget the positive corollary of the
negatively worded precept. Buddhism does not stop at teaching us not to kill. It also
insists that we protect and cherish all life. This is the teaching of loving kindness.
Sabbe satta bhavantu sukhitatta: May all beings be happy. Everybody says - at least all
Buddhists do- that Buddhism is a practical religion. If this practicality means that we
can eat animals, then we have to admit that in insisting on happiness for all beings, it
is at the same time being severely unpractical.
Actually Buddhism is practical. But the practicality lies elsewhere. It
does not ask us to attempt the impossible. Like tying a cloth over your nose lest you
breathe in any invisible creatures. Like refusing to walk lest you trample on tiny
creatures that abound everywhere. We do what we can. We do the utmost that we can. That is
It is true that the Buddha did not lay down a rule for monks to be
vegetarian. That was because they at that time depended on alms given by others, many of
whom were not the Buddhas followers. And also it was not his style to be a spiritual
autocrat. But then, he laid down that right livelihood of lay people excludes the sale of
flesh. What does that mean? It means that if a community is totally Buddhist there cannot
be any trade in animal products in that community. Is that not sufficient as an argument
for Buddhist vegetarianism, if one needs an argument?
There is one other point that I wish to draw your attention to. As I
said earlier, we are not just being led by an arid wish to follow a rule, or even by a
wish to gather merit for ourselves, when we consciously make the decision not to have
anything to do with what killers of animals offer to us. We make that decision realising
what is actually happening in the brutal world in which we are fated to live. In this
world there are such things as animal farms. These are a hideous outgrowth of modern
industry. They follow all of the horrendous evil that goes with the basic dictum of modern
industry - the greatest profit at the least cost. From that flows the most unconscionable
features of the modern animal farm: the techniques of "intensive confinement",
denial of free movement and all other traces of a natural life to animals so confined -
which includes removal of the young from contact with the mother, keeping them in total
darkness for long periods of time, filthy and overcrowded living conditions, over-feeding,
under-feeding, cutting their beaks and tails, utterly merciless modes of transportation
and the final brutal act of the inevitable torturous slaughter. Especially the slaughter
of large animals - cattle, pigs, goats, sheep - is not a job quickly done, like snapping
on a mosquito. It is an abominable long drawn-out process that offends the moral
conscience of all sensitive human beings. Slow murder. Halal. Torture at its worst
(Please don't take me amiss. I do not mean that we have to snap upon
mosquitoes. Or that killing smaller animals is all right. This is just an example to
highlight the greater brutality of the slaughter of large animals.)
The modern animal farm is unlike anything that was known in the world
in which the Buddha lived. Had he lived in the twentieth century, I can scarcely doubt
that he would have made the first precept slightly more explicit and recommended
vegetarianism to his followers.
The Buddha, had he lived in the world today would have certainly
grasped the tremendous ecological / environmental hazards to which the planet is exposed
by the life styles that are now gaining universal currency. In this context we cannot fail
to be struck by the fact that meat eating is one of the prime reasons for a great deal of
damage to the environment of planet earth. Not many people realise that 33% of the
worlds total harvest of grain (and 70% of the massive US harvest) goes to feed
livestock of the animal farms of the world. (This does not include the free ranging cattle
and goats and other animals in the peasant economies of the world). It is said that the
entire human population could be adequately fed with just one quarter of the corn, soya
etc. that are now being used to feed livestock destined to the slaughter-house. And that
means that three quarters of the massive acreage devoted to cultivating this
livestock-feed can be diverted to forestry. That alone will reverse much of the
environmental degradation that the planet is currently going through, with all that it
costs to the quality of life of every species of its living beings. Awareness of this fact
is a compelling factor for millions of sensitive people of all faiths to renounce meat
eating and take to vegetarianism and veganism.
The modern vegetarian movement, which is vigorous and vitally active in
many parts of the world, is firmly anchored in an ethical foundation which takes into
account the right of animals to life and freedom - and kindly treatment at our hands- as
well as the duty of us all to protect the planets environment: so that all forms of
life will flourish as they did before the onset of the disastrous life styles that are
currently fashionable. If the Buddha were alive, he would have certainly been one of the
prime advocates of such an ethical way of life.
And as I see it, this is what the first precept is all about: an
ethical way of life that stands for the welfare and protection of all living beings upon
this fragile planet that is our common home.