So why don’t we say, “I will not kill” like most other Buddhists? Does this mean we should all be vegetarians? What about mosquitos and mice?
This is both less like a commandment than ‘I will not kill’ and at the same time much more difficult to follow. This statement makes it clear that we’re not sinning if we do hurt other beings - there’s nothing for us to confess, not to mention no one to confess to. Yet we’re making a commitment to a much more radical path than simply avoiding killing.
Let’s face it, for most of us that’s a pretty easy precept to follow. The majority of us will never be in a situation where we are required to kill, whether to defend ourselves or other, obtain food or for any other reason. We’re committing to not just avoid killing but to take on the positive action of training in life affirming action. We’re committing to not just letting other beings live but to assisting them in living better lives.
So what about eating meat? That’s a thorny issue for Buddhists and it was interesting to read in Stephen Batchelor’s new book “After Buddhism” that this controversy dates back to when the Buddha was still alive. In the Vinaya we’re told of a group of monks led by Devadatta who break away from the Buddha because among other reasons - we would say today - he wasn’t being Buddhist enough. He was allowing monks to eat meat if it was given to them. His own last meal was pork. The rule that the Buddha instituted was that a monk may only eat meat when “it is not seen, not heard and not suspected” that the animal had been killed specifically for the monk; but they could and did eat meat. Basically it is up to you whether the discipline of vegetarianism is right for you or not, but it is not up to you to judge how others interpret this precept in terms of their own diet.
While it may seem that we have on “out” in terms of pest with the phrase “in all possible circumstances”, we really don’t. What we have is an obligation to evaluate the moment and see if it is possible for us to deal with it without hurting sentient beings. There’s a quote attributed online to Confucius (though I doubt it’s actually his), “It is only when you see a mosquito landing on your testicles that you realize that there is always a way to solve problems without using violence.” This is the way we should approach each interaction with sentient beings - if it were us, would we want violence used to solve it?
Beyond these issues what we’re really committing to in the first precept is life affirming action. This is more than just a positive restatement of the negative injunction, “do not kill”. It is a commitment not just to letting other being live but to working to enhance their lives. It directs us toward the Bodhisattva Vow where we vow to strive for the liberation of all beings. We are not to just let things be, be to enhance the world for the life of all beings.