THE FIRST PRECEPT: REVERENCE FOR LIFE
by Thich Nhat Hanh
"Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I undertake to
cultivate compassion and learn ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants,
and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to
condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life."
Life is precious. It is everywhere, inside us and all around us; it has so many
The First Precept is born from the awareness that lives everywhere are being destroyed.
We see the suffering caused by the destruction of life, and we undertake to cultivate
compassion and use it as a source of energy for the protection of people, animals,
plants, and minerals. The First Precept is a precept of compassion, karuna --
the ability to remove suffering and transform it. When we see suffering, compassion
is born in us.
It is important for us to stay in touch with the suffering of the world. We need
to nourish that awareness through many means -- sounds, images, direct contact,
visits, and so on -- in order to keep compassion alive in us. But we must be careful
not to take in too much. Any remedy must be taken in the proper dosage. We need
to stay in touch with suffering only to the extent that we will not forget, so
that compassion will flow within us and be a source of energy for our actions.
If we use anger at injustice as the source for our energy, we may do something
harmful, something that we will later regret. According to Buddhism, compassion
is the only source of energy that is useful and safe. With compassion, your energy
is born from insight; it is not blind energy.
We humans are made entirely of non-human elements, such as plants, minerals, earth,
clouds, and sunshine. For our practice to be deep and true, we must include the
ecosystem. If the environment is destroyed, humans will be destroyed, too. Protecting
human life is not possible without also protecting the lives of animals, plants,
and minerals. The Diamond Sutra teaches us that it is impossible to distinguish
between sentient and non-sentient beings. This is one of many ancient Buddhist
texts that teach deep ecology. Every Buddhist practitioner should be a protector
of the environment. Minerals have their own lives, too. In Buddhist monasteries,
we chant, "Both sentient and non- sentient beings will realize full enlightenment."
The First Precept is the practice of protecting all lives, including the lives
"I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone
any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life."
We cannot support any act of killing; no killing can be justified. But not to
kill is not enough. We must also learn ways to prevent others from killing. We
cannot say, "I am not responsible. They did it. My hands are clean."
If you were in Germany during the time of the Nazis, you could not say, "They
did it. I did not." If, during the Gulf War, you did not say or do anything
to try to stop the killing, you were not practicing this precept. Even if what
you said or did failed to stop the war, what is important is that you tried, using
your insight and compassion.
It is not just by not killing with your body that you observe the First Precept.
If in your thinking you allow the killing to go on, you also break this precept.
We must be determined not to condone killing, even in our minds. According to
the Buddha, the mind is the base of all actions. It is most dangerous to kill
in the mind. When you believe, for example, that yours is the only way for humankind
and that everyone who follows another way is your enemy, millions of people could
be killed because of that idea.
Thinking is at the base of everything. It is important for us to put an eye of
awareness into each of our thoughts. Without a correct understanding of a situation
or a person, our thoughts can be misleading and create confusion, despair, anger,
or hatred. Our most important task is to develop correct insight. If we see deeply
into the nature of interbeing, that all things "inter-are," we will
stop blaming, arguing, and killing, and we will become friends with everyone.
To practice nonviolence, we must first of all learn ways to deal peacefully with
ourselves. If we create true harmony within ourselves, we will know how to deal
with family, friends, and associates.
When we protest against a war, for example, we may assume that we are a peaceful
person, a representative of peace, but this might not be true. If we look deeply,
we will observe that the roots of war are in the unmindful ways we have been living.
We have not sown enough seeds of peace and understanding in ourselves and others,
therefore we are co-responsible: "Because I have been like this, they are
like that." A more holistic approach is the way of "interbeing":
"This is like this, because that is like that." This is the way of understanding
and love. With this insight, we can see clearly and help our government see clearly.
Then we can go to a demonstration and say, "This war is unjust, destructive,
and not worthy of our great nation." This is far more effective than angrily
condemning others. Anger always accelerates the damage.
All of us, even pacifists, have pain inside. We feel angry and frustrated, and
we need to find someone willing to listen to us who is capable of understanding
our suffering. In Buddhist iconography, there is a bodhisattva named Avalokitesvara
who has one thousand arms and one thousand hands, and has an eye in the palm of
each hand. One thousand hands represent action, and the eye in each hand represents
understanding. When you understand a situation or a person, any action you do
will help and will not cause more suffering. When you have an eye in your hand,
you will know how to practice true nonviolence.
To practice nonviolence, first of all we have to practice it within ourselves.
In each of us, there is a certain amount of violence and a certain amount of nonviolence.
Depending on our state of being, our response to things will be more or less nonviolent.
Even if we take pride in being vegetarian, for example, we have to acknowledge
that the water in which we boil our vegetables contains many tiny microorganisms.
We cannot be completely nonviolent, but by being vegetarian, we are going in the
direction of nonviolence. If we want to head north, we can use the North Star
to guide us, but it is impossible to arrive at the North Star. Our effort is only
to proceed in that direction.
Anyone can practice some nonviolence, even army generals. They may, for example,
conduct their operations in ways that avoid killing innocent people. To help soldiers
move in the nonviolent direction, we have to be in touch with them. If we divide
reality into two camps -- the violent and the nonviolent -- and stand in one camp
while attacking the other, the world will never have peace. We will always blame
and condemn those we feel are responsible for wars and social injustice, without
recognizing the degree of violence in ourselves. We must work on ourselves and
also work with those we condemn if we want to have a real impact.
It never helps to draw a line and dismiss some people as enemies, even those who
act violently. We have to approach them with love in our hearts and do our best
to help them move in a direction of nonviolence. If we work for peace out of anger,
we will never succeed. Peace is not an end. It can never come about through non-peaceful
Most important is to become nonviolence, so that when a situation presents itself,
we will not create more suffering. To practice nonviolence, we need gentleness,
loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity directed to our bodies, our feelings,
and other people. With mindfulness -- the practice of peace -- we can begin by
working to transform the wars in ourselves. There are techniques for doing this.
Conscious breathing is one. Every time we feel upset, we can stop what we are
doing, refrain from saying anything, and breathe in and out several times, aware
of each in-breath and each out-breath. If we are still upset, we can go for walking
meditation, mindful of each slow step and each breath we take. By cultivating
peace within, we bring about peace in society. It depends on us. To practice peace
in ourselves is to minimize the numbers of wars between this and that feeling,
or this and that perception, and we can then have real peace with others as well,
including the members of our own family.
I am often asked, "What if you are practicing nonviolence and someone breaks
into your house and tries to kidnap your daughter or kill your husband? What should
you do? Should you still act in a nonviolent way?" The answer depends on
your state of being. If you are prepared, you may react calmly and intelligently,
in the most nonviolent way possible. But to be ready to react with intelligence
and nonviolence, you have to train yourself in advance. It may take ten years,
or longer. If you wait until the time of crisis to ask the question, it will be
too late. A this-or-that kind of answer would be superficial. At that crucial
moment, even if you know that nonviolence is better than violence, if your understanding
is only intellectual and not in your whole being, you will not act nonviolently.
The fear and anger in you will prevent you from acting in the most nonviolent
We have to look deeply every day to practice this precept well. Every time we
buy or consume something, we may be condoning some form of killing.
While practicing the protection of humans, animals, plants, and minerals, we know
that we are protecting ourselves. We feel in permanent and loving touch with all
species on Earth. We are protected by the mindfulness and the loving kindness
of the Buddha and many generations of Sanghas who also practice this precept.
This energy of loving kindness brings us the feeling of safety, health, and joy,
and this becomes real the moment we make the decision to receive and practice
the First Precept.
Feeling compassion is not enough. We have to learn to express it. That is why
love must go together with understanding. Understanding and insight show us how
Our real enemy is forgetfulness. If we nourish mindfulness every day and water
the seeds of peace in ourselves and those around us, we become alive, and we can
help ourselves and others realize peace and compassion.
Life is so precious, yet in our daily lives we are usually carried away by our
forgetfulness, anger, and worries, lost in the past, unable to touch life in the
present moment. When we are truly alive, everything we do or touch is a miracle.
To practice mindfulness is to return to life in the present moment. The practice
of the First Precept is a celebration of reverence for life. When we appreciate
and honor the beauty of life, we will do everything in our power to protect all
THICH NHAT HANH is a Zen Buddhist monk, peace activist, scholar, and poet.
He is the founder of the Van Hanh Buddhist University in Saigon, has taught
at Columbia University and the Sorbonne, and now lives in southern France, where
he gardens, works to help those in need, and travels internationally teaching
"the art of mindful living." Martin Luther King, Jr., nominated him
for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967, saying, "I do not personally know of
anyone more worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize than this gentle monk from Vietnam."