Author Topic: The First Precept  (Read 1127 times)

Offline Kevin

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The First Precept
« on: July 30, 2015, 11:56:56 am »
My understanding of the first precept of Buddhism is to abstain from killing. However, I have read some variations on this precept that have described abstaining from killing sentient beings. I see the precept as a means of attempting to improve the quality of life for all beings, the health and sustainability of ecosystems, and seeing the inter-being of things. But is there anything in Buddhism that draws a definitive line for us between what is acceptable practice, or is it an issue that has ethical gradations that are open to interpretation and practice on different levels? For example, if ants were to start entering my home and I put out a poison to kill those ants that are in my house, have I "violated" the precept or are ants not considered to have sentience? What about when I mow my lawn and kill the dandelions that have started growing there? We probably would not see the dandelions as being sentient, but they are a vital part to the survival of bees and other insects. 

I have read that the precepts are not to be considered in the same light as commandments or rules, which suggest that this precept is to be practiced at various levels of insight and ability. Is this an accurate assessment of how we should view the precepts?

Offline Dharmakara

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Re: The First Precept
« Reply #1 on: July 31, 2015, 06:05:47 am »
My understanding of the first precept of Buddhism is to abstain from killing. However, I have read some variations on this precept that have described abstaining from killing sentient beings. I see the precept as a means of attempting to improve the quality of life for all beings, the health and sustainability of ecosystems, and seeing the inter-being of things.

The variations of this precept are linguistic in nature, but the context of the precept remains one and the same --- when it comes to the definition of  senti


But is there anything in Buddhism that draws a definitive line for us between what is acceptable practice, or is it an issue that has ethical gradations that are open to interpretation and practice on different levels?

I would have to say that both are applicable and should be taken into account when it comes to Buddhist practice


For example, if ants were to start entering my home and I put out a poison to kill those ants that are in my house, have I "violated" the precept or are ants not considered to have sentience?

As you mentioned in your post, precepts are not considered in the same light as commandments:

Definitive Line -- ants are sentient, so it would be considered as a violation of the precept

Ethical Issue -- whether precautions taken on your part, such as not attracting the ants in the first place



What about when I mow my lawn and kill the dandelions that have started growing there? We probably would not see the dandelions as being sentient, but they are a vital part to the survival of bees and other insects. 

This would be an example of the difference between the written letter of the precept and the spirit in which it was given.

Offline Kevin

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Re: The First Precept
« Reply #2 on: July 31, 2015, 07:42:49 am »
Thank you for your reply, Dharmakara. Just so that I have a clearer understanding, are you saying that our intentions to uphold the spirit of the precept to the best of our ability is what is most important?

Offline Ron-the-Elder

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Re: The First Precept
« Reply #3 on: July 31, 2015, 08:05:55 am »
Hi, Kevin.

I have read the first precept written variously as "Cause no harm to sentient beings, and the real difficult one is, "Cause no harm to living beings."...which would include plants.  Then there is the precept:  "Take not that which is not freely given."...meant to prevent stealing or theft.  The problem with these two are that if we do this to the letter of the precept we would have nothing to eat, unless we eat only life forms, which died of natural causes, or which were killed by accident (road kill for example), such as do scavengers.

In any event, it is the intention to promote harmonious or right coexistence with other life-forms on our planet.  Suggest you just reflect upon your actions before taking them and choose intentional courses of action which promote harmony.
What Makes an Elder? :
A head of gray hairs doesn't mean one's an elder. Advanced in years, one's called an old fool.
But one in whom there is truth, restraint, rectitude, gentleness,self-control, he's called an elder, his impurities disgorged, enlightened.
-Dhammpada, 19, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

Offline Kevin

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Re: The First Precept
« Reply #4 on: July 31, 2015, 12:05:37 pm »
That is a good approach, and probably the best that we can hope to do. I was raised in a religion that believed in the letter of the law, so I was curious as to how the Buddhist community interprets the precepts and finds ethical justification for following their interpretations. Thank you very much for your response.

Offline Dharmakara

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Re: The First Precept
« Reply #5 on: July 31, 2015, 02:22:26 pm »
I have read the first precept written variously as "Cause no harm to sentient beings, and the real difficult one is, "Cause no harm to living beings."...which would include plants.

The inclusion of plants as "sentient beings" is still problematic in several ways, first and foremost would be the issue of self-awareness, whether plants "respond" or "react" --- unfortunately, for every study supporting one position, there is another study that comes along and disproves it, so the line between science and pseudo-science is not only being blurred, but in some instances the line has become non-existent.

It's also kind of hard to ignore the fact that the subject itself has been hijacked by special interest groups on both sides.


I was raised in a religion that believed in the letter of the law, so I was curious as to how the Buddhist community interprets the precepts and finds ethical justification for following their interpretations.

In and of itself, this is would be a complex topic in any discussion, but it might suffice to say that the Buddhist community is no different than any other religious tradition, where ethical justification is more or less a by-product of the group dynamic within in a social context.

Offline Ron-the-Elder

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Re: The First Precept
« Reply #6 on: July 31, 2015, 11:45:39 pm »
Quote
DK:  "The inclusion of plants as "sentient beings" is still problematic .."


Don't want to sidetrack the thread here, but the second version of The First Precept, which I was quoting does not even mention the word sentience, but simply states that we should cause no harm to "living" beings.

As for the sentience of plants (another topic), biological research regarding plants has discovered many sentient capabilities of plants including chemical sensibility as plants migrate towards nutrition in both soil and water, photo sensibility as plants move towards sunlight; contact sensibility as some plants move away from touch (Mimosas), others evolved to trap and kill prey (Venus Fly Traps and Pitcher Plants); and even communicate emergency alerts to other plants of the same and other species such as during fires and predation.   

This is not new information as Darwin wrote a book entitled, The Power of Movement in Plants  in which he reports his observations in this regard:

Quote
Content[edit]
The book is divided into the following chapters, each of which describes types of movements based on Darwin's specific experiments and their results.
Chapter 1: The Circumnutating Movements of Seedling Plants
Chapter 2: General Considerations of the Movements and Growth of Seedling Plants
Chapter 3: Sensitiveness of the Apex of the Radicle to Contact and to other Irritants
Chapter 4: The Circumnutating Movements of the several parts of Mature Plants
Chapter 5: Modified Circumnutation: Climbing Plants; Epinastic and Hyponastic Movements
Chapter 6: Modified Circumnutation: Sleep or Nyctitropic Movements, Their Use: Sleep of Cotyledons
Chapter 7: Modified Circumnutation: Nyctitropic or Sleep Movements of Leaves
Chapter 8: Modified Circumnutation: Movements excited by Light
Chapter 9: Sensitiveness of Plants to Light: its transmitted effects
Chapter 10: Modified Circumnutation: Movements excited by Gravitation
Chapter 11: Localised Sensitiveness to Gravitation, and its Transmitted Effects
Chapter 12: Summary and Concluding Remarks


The following link discusses many areas of study with regard to plant neurophysiology, some findings of which are quite remarkable and may have caused humans in the era of Buddha to change their minds as to the sentience, and even sapience of many plants:

http://www.springer.com/us/book/9783540284758

Quote
Life Sciences Plant Sciences
© 2006
Communication in Plants
Neuronal Aspects of Plant Life

Editors: Baluška, František, Mancuso, Stefano, Volkmann, Dieter (Eds.)
About this book
Reviews
Plant neurobiology is a newly emerging field of plant sciences. It covers signalling and communication at all levels of biological organization – from molecules up to ecological communities. In this book, plants are presented as intelligent and social organisms with complex forms of communication and information processing.

Authors from diverse backgrounds such as molecular and cellular biology, electrophysiology, as well as ecology treat the most important aspects of plant communication, including the plant immune system, abilities of plants to recognize self, signal transduction, receptors, plant neurotransmitters and plant neurophysiology. Further, plants are able to recognize the identity of herbivores and organize the defence responses accordingly. The similarities in animal and plant neuronal/immune systems are discussed too. All these hidden aspects of plant life and behaviour will stimulate further intense investigations in order to understand the communicative plants in their whole complexity.
« Last Edit: July 31, 2015, 11:56:08 pm by Ron-the-Elder »
What Makes an Elder? :
A head of gray hairs doesn't mean one's an elder. Advanced in years, one's called an old fool.
But one in whom there is truth, restraint, rectitude, gentleness,self-control, he's called an elder, his impurities disgorged, enlightened.
-Dhammpada, 19, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

Offline Dharmakara

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Re: The First Precept
« Reply #7 on: August 01, 2015, 05:19:42 am »
Quote
DK:  "The inclusion of plants as "sentient beings" is still problematic .."

Don't want to sidetrack the thread here, but the second version of The First Precept, which I was quoting does not even mention the word sentience, but simply states that we should cause no harm to "living" beings.

As I originally stated, the variations of this precept are linguistic in nature, but the context of the precept remains one and the same --- it didn't matter whether the particular quote used the word "sentient" or "living".

Sentient beings is a technical term within Buddhism, broadly denoting beings with consciousness, sentience, or in some contexts life itself --- in other words, the First Precept (in context) was never intended nor implied the inclusion of bacterium, protist, fungus, or plant life --- that would be a hallmark of Jainism, not Buddhism.

Offline Ron-the-Elder

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Re: The First Precept
« Reply #8 on: August 01, 2015, 07:21:17 am »
Quote
DK:  "Sentient beings is a technical term within Buddhism, broadly denoting beings with consciousness, sentience, or in some contexts life itself --- in other words, the First Precept (in context) was never intended nor implied the inclusion of bacterium, protist, fungus, or plant life --- that would be a hallmark of Jainism, not Buddhism."


Yes.  I have often seen this perspective asserted in threads relating to the side-track regarding sentience, however, I have never seen any such discussion  in the suttas, which define the technicalities to which you reference.  The best I have read in The Monastic Rules (Vinaya Rules for Monks) relates to how and why bhikkhus were required to remain stationary during the rainy seasons, and advised by Buddha to avoid stepping on the crops planted by farmers so as to not cause them harm by damaging what they were raising for the support of their families.  This rule was clearly for the protection of the farmer's interests rather than that of the plants.  Vegans seem to lean on this citation a great deal, when arguing the merits of veganism vs. the harm caused by eating meat.

source:  http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/vin/

Another perspective as to the protection of plants written in the suttas was Buddha's prohibition against damaging trees, because they were "homes of devas", which had more to do with harming the devas by making them homeless, than it had to do with protecting the plants themselves.  Therefore, it could be falsely concluded that even Buddha himself was not aware of the wide range of sentience displayed by plants, which  seems odd and curious for a truly enlightened being as we would understand the nature and capabilities of one today in this scientific era.

source:  http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/vin/

But, the fact that Buddha never spoke in this regard is not in fact condemning  as to his enlightenment, because Buddha stated in The Simsapa Sutta that he did not teach us all of that of which he, a Buddha, was aware, but only taught us how to end our suffering.  This he deemed apparently a large enough task for most of us to handle in our life-times. :buddha2:

source:  http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.031.than.html

Dearest friend in The Dhamma, if you are aware of other examples and/or definitions written in The Suttas / Sutras as taught by Buddha, as you indicated, or even those of his enlightened followers of the time he walked the Earth, I would very much appreciate a reference to them.  Otherwise, I remain ignorant.

Thanks, as always for your assistance, Bhante'
« Last Edit: August 01, 2015, 07:43:47 am by Ron-the-Elder »
What Makes an Elder? :
A head of gray hairs doesn't mean one's an elder. Advanced in years, one's called an old fool.
But one in whom there is truth, restraint, rectitude, gentleness,self-control, he's called an elder, his impurities disgorged, enlightened.
-Dhammpada, 19, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

Offline Dharmakara

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Re: The First Precept
« Reply #9 on: August 01, 2015, 02:27:18 pm »
Apparently we can't help ourselves when it comes to taking this thread off-track  :teehee:

This thread was not about whether plants are sentient, but specifically what the First Precept was in reference to --- there is no evidence it was ever intended to include plants, not within the suttas and not within the early life of Sangha.

With that said, I started a new thread in regard to Plant Sentience, where it begins with your post above in its entirety --- that way neither of us will take this thread further off-topic:

http://www.freesangha.com/forums/buddhism-and-science/plant-sentience/

Offline coco

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Re: The First Precept
« Reply #10 on: August 15, 2015, 06:06:00 am »
Spirit of the law vs. letter of the law....

Kevin's statement about the religion he was raised in points to a rigidity that simply cannot hold water, as I'm sure he acknowledges.

So I think an important behavior is to pay attention to what we are doing, aligning our actions with the wisdom we are trying to follow. 

 


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