A friend recently asked my opinion about the morality of killing ants in her kitchen. This is what I wrote her in reply:
I have learned over time to trust the Buddhist ethical precepts as a foundation for spiritual evolution. I trust the tradition when it says that killing creates bad karma, and that bad karma interferes with happiness, clarity, and the potential transcendence. I also find it instructive that all mature religions/world religions advise against unprovoked killing. I think that, the more conscious we are, the more realize the beauty and preciousness of all life.
When I was in college I was confronted and inspired by the example of Jain monks. They’re the ones who wear masks, so that they won’t accidentally inhale and kill little buggies, and who use a broom to sweep in front of themselves as they walk, for a similar bug-preserving reason. I though, wow, that’s hardcore; is that the example I need to eventually live up to?
Many years ago, I squashed a wasp during an especially deep and emotional therapy group ceremony/session/rebirthing/sumpin-or-other, while I was in a deep and raw state. That act ate at me for days. I have wondered since then if I would feel bugs death as much if my psyche was that open all the time.
I read somewhere once that during the Meiji Restoration in the late 1860s, as the daimyos attempted to Westernize Japan in an attempt to economically and militarily catch up with Europe, they enacted a massive (and successful) program to get the nation to eat beef. They were going against strong forces of inertia, however, because the Japanese apparently were so influenced by Buddhist teachings that they were almost totally vegetarian-eating.
One need not have had a dog or cat as a pet to feel and see that mammals suffer when injured or killed as we do. And it doesn’t take too much imagination to thinking that birds, fish, and insects do too. It is understandable for sensitive people who wish to minimize suffering to pledge themselves to be vegetarians, and to otherwise not harm animals.
But I have also thought about how in the Bagavad Gita Krishna tells Arjuna of the moral rightness of killing his kinsmen in battle, because life and death are all part of the same divine dance, and Arjuna’s path as “a warrior who kills” is his dharma – his role to play in the unfolding drama of life.
The current Dalai Lama apparently said that if someone is trying to kill you, and you have a gun in your hand, it is perfectly moral to kill them first – it’s a horrible thing to do, but sometimes preserving life requires taking life, such is the imperfection of this world. And he, like many of the Tibetans lamas and monks under him, eat meat.
No animal can escape from killing other living creatures so as to eat and live each day, even if the other creatures are plants. And, on the simplest level, our bodies kill, what, millions of bacteria and viruses each second. There is a way, I think, in which just existing in time and space is a zero sum game – to maintain our own lives we must and do end countless other lives.
Some of how that practically plays out for me –
As someone following the Buddha way, I also was a vegetarian for years. I am not now. I started eating meat again at a time when I was weight lifting and wanted more protein in my diet,. Since I started eating animal flesh again, however, I do not throw it away if I buy it or it is served to me – if it is edible, I eat it. I figure that, if an animal died for my sins, it is my place to honor its sacrifice by successfully ingesting it.
These days, I will squash silverfish in the bathroom, moths if they are anywhere near my sweaters, mosquitoes on my arm, and spiders if they look menacing. Before I kill them, however, I say a little prayer, though, where I wish them liberation in their rebirth, or wherever they are going. And sometimes I will capture a spider or moth that’s inside and carry it outside.
I don’t want ants in my house. But I think that I would feel bad if I killed them with a spray, or with massive stomping – that feels wrong. What I do is buy those poisons that they carry back to their queen and that make her infertile. So, after a few days or weeks, no more ants, but none of them got killed either.