Knowing that living beings (such as insects) will directly be killed as a result of your actions?

The factors needed for the first precept to be broken are:

(1) a living being; (2) the perception of the living being as such; (3) the thought or volition of killing; (4) the appropriate effort; and (5) the actual death of the being as a result of the action.

Of which all five factors must be fulfilled for it to be considered breaking the precept (although, it is important to note that this is apart and independent from kamma, as even attempting to kill, or even thinking one has killed when it is not the case, can have detrimental kammic effects—even if it is not breaking the precept).

However, when someone is in a conundrum similar to situtations like these:

  • A farmer about to harvest his crop—all the while knowing that his machinery will kill hundreds of small rodents and possibly thousands of insects.
  • Someone living in a rural area where there is no electricity, whom, during the cold winters, must use wood for heating—all the while knowing many worms and insects, in the bark or in the wood itself, will be burnt alive as a result of the wood being added to the fire or used to start one.
  • Driving a vehicle—all the while knowing hundreds of insects will hit the windows or car and die, as well as that rodents and vertebrates will be squashed by the tires.

How can one make sense of these kinds of situations? Also, would these situations result in breaking the first precept?

What I’m trying to investigate is the following:

  1. Regarding the precepts (and even the Vinaya), what differentiates perception of a living being, compared to knowing without a doubt that there are living beings—although while not perceiving them at that moment—of whom will be killed as a result of your actions?

  2. Having perceived the living beings in the past—such as a farmer having seen that insects and rodents live in the field year-round—does this not fulfull the factor of perception? Is the mind not classed as one of the 6 senses?

  3. Does knowing that a certain action will result in the death of a living being, in a way, directly and to a small degree, not involve an intention of killing?

  4. How should one approach similar situations, fully knowing that your actions will result in the death of living beings, such as with having to heat with firewood, driving, or things of this nature?

NOTE: Read this post for a condensed/shortened version.


Greetings Samseva.
Great Question! and I look forward to hearing the replies.

I’ve spent a lot of time on these questions as well. Especially since I engaged in farming activity. Over time my distress at being the cause of the deaths or suffering of other living beings grew to such an extent that I couldn’t do it anymore. So I changed how I lived and have no more pressures re decisions relating to farming, Still - Just last week I had to stop mowing the lawn around the house half way through, as I noticed a frog and various insects in the grass. The same goes for driving, digging in the garden and many other things. Don’t know how I’m going to deal with this in an ongoing way…

I hope you find a way through for yourself :slightly_smiling_face:


Does knowing it is likely to happen that bugs will hit the windshield while driving differ from driving your car looking for bugs to squash? I think it does.


As I understand it, your intention when driving/mowing/making a fire isn’t to go and kill any animals. Your intention is to get from point A to point B/maintain the property to avoid fire danger/ keep warm.

When driving if you see a bird or animal on the road you slow down or stop to let it cross. This is driving with the intention not to kill living beings. When making a fire, you can do your best to shake all the critters out of your fire wood. When mowing/slashing you can check for nest and animal homes before you mow. This is using reasonable diligence to do what you need to do. Otherwise we would be like the Jains and always walking along with a broom in front of us sweeping.


I get that one can’t walk around with a broom trying to avoid stepping on ants, as well as the intention being not to kill. It’s just that there are situations when—even though there is no direct intention of killing—if you are indirectly killing 150 insects per hour (on the highway) for example, due to driving a car; I think it is normal to reconsider your actions—in a direct way, you are responsible for their death, no?

I’ve always thought (maybe misguidedly) that that was why the Vinaya prohibited certain activites - in order to protect monastics from unbeneficial activities.

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My initial post might be a bit too extrapolated. Basically, I’m trying to find answers to, as well as being interested in others’ thoughts on:

  • Does committing an act knowing that it will kill hundreds/thousands of living beings result in breaking the first precept? If not, how is it not?

  • What effect does knowing that an action will entail the death of many living beings have on the mind and regarding kamma (kamma-vipāka)?

  • To what extent does perception cover action—such as knowing that there are living beings who will die from your action, but without having directly perceived them? And most importantly, with intention, while the initial intention might not be to kill, if one knows that it will result in killing (in significant numbers), is this not an intention in itself?

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First of all I want to say that your answer does make sense to me.
However, one thing that seems related to it, is the question of whether the life of human beings is more valuable than those of animals according to Buddhism.
I read the transcript of a talk by Ajahn Jayasaro (that I think he gave at Santacittarama), in which he said there’s no reason why a human life should be considered more valuable than that of any (other) animal.
But if this is the case, then it would appear that one could make the case for taking as much care in avoiding the death of animals as we do in our society in avoiding killing humans. Thus in this context the behaviour of the Jains would make sense after all, since we are all as careful as them (or at least should be) when it comes to avoiding harming human beings.
Just wondering what other people’s thoughts are on this.

The first thing to be clear about is for my life to exist other animals have to die unfortunately. It’s unavoidable. The only solution I can see is to take ourselves out of this samsaric cycle of killing animals, eating them and being killed by them. If we attain Nibbana our lives won’t have to depend on the lives (or deaths) of others.

Being compassionate is of course an aspect of the path. But unfortunately to be so compassionate that we want to do what is practically impossible is an act of ego, or poor judgment. To want to be completely free from all kinds of killing will invariably lead to more suffering as it is an impossible goal. Also perhaps at a subconscious level thinking I can only be a good compassionate person if I am free from all killing including unintentional killing, is a unreachable standard one would set for oneself which should be abandoned if one is compassionate towards oneself as otherwise one will always see themselves as immoral.

With metta


For me the problematic issues are in the ‘grey’ areas between necessity to kill and comvenience. eg driving. Is driving a necessity? Mostly no but sometimes yes. Personally I feel that the ‘convenience’ aspect is not a good enough reason. I always think back to Ajahn Brahms example of “Ajahn mosquito” while he was training in Thailand. While it was very very inconvenient to put up with, it yielded substantial gains along the path.

I completely agree that it is an impossible goal to be free of all killing, including unintentional killing. But again it is a question of degree and necessity. It may involve some aspects of ego, but then again it may just be about compassion and absence of ego, and questioning some cultural norms. An argument about risk and prevention of harm to oneself often arises. Here I’m just questioning the degree of risk - what is acceptable. No risk? Some risk? Probable harm? All of these things will determine how one chooses to act.

As you point out compassion towards one self is as important as it is toward all beings, but it’s the exact balance in our everyday lives and decisions that is the work in progress :slight_smile:

@Mat thank you for you reply :slight_smile:


Seems to me that value of the life may not be the issue, but kamma generated from the killing of different beings. There isn’t necessarily a implied “higher” value on one life vs another, just differing kammic implications. For example, the Buddha singled out killing of parents or an arahant as being particularly unwholesome kamma.


Great point. What would determine the kammic implications? In the case of killing one’s parents there’s of course for example the question of the lack of gratitude for those who raised you, but in the more general case of beings (human and non-human) who are not your relatives (at least in this life :wink: ) what would be the parameters determining the kammic consequences?
(The question of killing an arahant seems to me also complicated by the fact that the killer won’t probably know that they are killing an arahant, since monks don’t generally speak of their attainments.)
Anyway all this talk of killing feels weird… but I find the questions interesting.

I have had the exact same experience while mowing. And I will not drive at night simply because there are more animals that I can’t see in the way (not advocating, just my experience.) I literally get sick to my stomach and experience great anxiety from these situations.

As far as the first precept, to me, it has not been broken unless you are actually trying to kill (intention.) However, it still “feels” really bad! Not sure what the skillful resolution of the issue is though. As has been said here, it is virtually, if not absolutely, impossible to never inadvertently kill.


While it is true that deaths inadvertently do happen as a result of one being alive, it makes no sense to use this as a basis to justify killing or recklessness in regards to killing. The deductive reasoning that ‘because killing animals/insects is inevitable, such as animals we have to kill for food, we should not worry about it as much’ is wrong—including the premises, since we don’t have to kill and eat animals (it’s a choice).

Most importantly, although you can’t avoid unintentionally killing some living beings during your life, reducing it to a bare minimum is very much possible.


Very true! Those (especially the bolded parts) are important aspects regarding the issue. Thank you, Mara. :slight_smile:

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I agree that the idea of ‘harm minimisation’ is essential in these matters. I was thinking of the bigger picture when we aren’t following a vegetarian lifestyle- either in this life or the next and if we are born as a carnivorous animal we will not have a choice. It comes back to escaping the cycle of life and death being the most benevolent single act you can do to stop deaths.

However if we are to look at it from another angle and ask the question- what degree of non-violence is the bare minimum what would you say? It is perhaps more important to get to Nibbana quicker by making the path easier, and not harder by bringing in requirements that are good to have, but may become something of an obstacle to the vast numbers of people who are not vegetarians. Eventually not attaining nibbana but continuing a non-killing, non-harming lifestyle would still cause the deaths of more animals, otherwise.

I think the minimum is not intentionally killing any living animal (not plant), which include eukaryotes. Incidentally bacteria seems to be neither sufficiently differentiated to be plant or animals, and the vinaya rule for not throwing excess food etc into rivers and ponds seem to be in response to cultural beliefs leading to a complaint.

There are other elements like not harming animals, not getting others to kill (or harm) animals, not causing emotional harm or hurt to animals etc which should be followed whenever possible, but I believe they shouldn’t be seen as the core of the Right action in the Noble eightfold path. You could argue running a petrol engine is killing the planet- it isn’t necessary to stop using a petrol car to attain Nibbana though. I use a hybrid car but I can’t say its part of the N8FP, as good for the environment as it is.

with metta

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I think it would have to be the specific reason for the action - to destroy or kill. The mind states or mental habits that you are creating or reinforcing is i think the main factor. If you are driving to the store to buy something as your reason - that is a very different mental state then say going for a drive so you can see how many fire flies you can get smashed and glowing on your windshield.

What effect does knowing that an action will entail the death of many living beings have on the mind and regarding kamma (kamma-vipāka)?

Knowing that your action will have this sort of impact seems positive in that you are mindful and reflective of the impact of your actions - so this is a skilful quality that you are reinforcing.

To what extent does perception cover action—such as knowing that there are living beings who will die from your action, but without having directly perceived them? And most importantly, with intention, while the initial intention might not be to kill, if one knows that it will result in killing (in significant numbers), is this not an intention in itself?

I don’t think so. Again, I think it is about the mind state and reason for your action. If there is no hatred or purposeful intention to cause harm then I think there is no problem. Surely Buddha knew that every one of his monks going on alms rounds were going to smash some bugs - its just the way things are.

For me, the salt thing - the sutta (AN 3.99) where buddha talks about the difference between a spoon of salt in a cup of water vs a spoon of salt in the river ganges is a way to look at this: there is no way to entirely avoid the salt (killing creatures) but there are lots of ways we can increase the amount of water (cultivating skillful habits and practices).


Dear friends,

A satisfactory answer to this question (that of the limits and conditions of animal harm) require us to have a clear view on another question, that of the meaning, value, & purpose of life in itself or in general. Hence the matter in truth is more complex than having emotional preferences about it, involving necessarily a cosmological understanding.

The debate regarding this concern is age-long between Jainism and Buddhism – we are informed in much detail about it from both Jain texts and EBT. I encourage you to read about it since the discussion here shows inclinations to both Buddhist vs. Jain positions, yet there are few explanations as to “why” this or that position is correct!

This is reminiscent of the debates which used to take place 2500 years ago in ancient India. Only, the matter was so seriously important then than it is now; where Jainism is mostly unknown and Buddhism, taken for granted (though then it was newly emerging and struggling with both Brahmanic and Jain socially established practices and views).

I mean to say that, not only are there answers to your concerns in both doctrines, but also these answers stem directly from fundamental and very significant differences between them, which in turn directly effects one’s understanding, practice and progress along the path … (which path?!).

I believe that one must be careful before applying a certain practice thinking that it comes from Buddha while in fact it comes from Mahavira, and in opposition to Buddha; even if just to check whether one might possibly be more interested in Jainism than Buddhism! And this is coming from someone -a rare case it seems- who was once Jain before becoming Buddhist! :mask:


Regarding the killing of humans we can look to the vinaya for more information from an EBT perspective.

A monastic is not a monastic anymore if they have the intention to kill.

‘If a monk intentionally kills a human being or seeks an instrument of death for him, he too is expelled and not in communion.’”
Parajika 3

A lesser offence is intentionally depriving a living being of life.
Pācitiya 61
Making use of water containing living beings.
Pācitiya 62

I believe PC62 allows for straining

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I would be very grateful if you can share a link to this transcript. Meanwhile I certainly disagree with this view, nor do I find it compatible with Dhamma. Though the text does not mention this topic specifically, nevertheless it is apparent that this was among the most important points of disagreement between Buddhism and Jainism. In other words, this is certainly a Jain view, but very unlikely a Buddhist one.