Nonkilling in Buddhism

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Buddhist monk selling prayer flags in a temple.
  • This Course is based mainly on A.T. Ariyaratne's (Founding President of Sri Lanka’s Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement) paper Nonkilling in Buddhism prepared for the First Global Nonkilling Leadership Forum, Mu Ryang Sa Buddhist Temple, Honolulu, Hawai‛i, November 1-4, 2007. The Course is part of the Program on Nonkilling Spiritual Traditions at the School of Nonkilling Studies.


Every Buddhist has to take Refuge in Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha and also undertake to observe Five Precepts. The Five precepts are: to observe non-killing, non-stealing, non-sexual misconduct, non-false speech, and non-consumption of intoxicants. This is the minimum level of moral conduct that a Buddhist vows to follow in his or her daily conduct. The Five Precepts are not imposed by an outside god or the Buddha himself. It is a pledge that all practicing Buddhists make to themselves and repeat everyday as the day starts and on all auspicious occasions. For example we say: “I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from destroying the life of living beings.” Similarly the other precepts are undertaken.

Thus the most fundamental principle in Buddha’s teachings is respect and protection of all sentient life. Non-killing and not giving any support or encouragement to taking away life is the foremost self-discipline that should be cultivated in practice of Buddhism. According to our ancient chronicles there had been times in our Sri Lankan history when “Non-Killing Societies” existed under pious and righteous kings. Even the killing of fish, land animals and birds was prohibited by law. In those times agriculture flourished, national peace prevailed, people’s basic needs were satisfied and arts and crafts, tanks and irrigation systems, architecture and literature, and massive stupas were built and we were known as a Dharmadweepa (Land of Righteousness) and Dhanyagara (Land of Agricultural Prosperity).

Unfortunately, disunity among the ruling class, South Indian invasions, invasions by the Western imperial powers and finally British colonization changed the course of history of our land and people. Sri Lanka became independent in 1948 but the ancient values, nonviolent methodologies, social political and economic structures were weakened. In their place Western values, methodologies and structures were imposed on the people. The ideal of a non-killing society became a utopian dream in the minds of people who believed in nonviolence. And killing became an acceptable norm. Two Suttas could be mentioned, two discourses delivered by Buddha to his disciples.

Karaniyametta Sutta: In this Sutta, Buddha admonishes us to spread loving kindness to all living beings. For example, “Whatsoever draws breath, or has existence—the quaking or the steadfast, Enfolding all—the long, the huge, the mid-sized, the short, the lean, the big… Those visible and those invisible, those dwelling afar, those seeking birth — may all beings have happy minds.” This is the extent to which the positive expression of non-killing, mainly loving kindness, was advocated by the Buddha.

In another discourse the Buddha advocated how to practice meditation on loving kindness. For example, he beseeched us to cultivate loving kindness in this way: “May I be free from enmity, disease, and grief, and may I live always happily! As I am, so also may teachers, preceptors, parents, intimate, indifferent, and inimical beings, be free from enmity, disease, and grief, and may they live happily! May they be released from suffer-ing. May they not be deprived of their fortune, duly acquired!”

Even in modern times, these Suttas are chanted in Buddhist village temples and Buddhist homes. Most Buddhists practice meditation on loving kindness at the end of their daily religious observances.

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