The First Precept and its Environmental Significance
by Prof. Oliver Abeynayake
Professor Oliver Abeynayake obtained his B.A. degree with First Class Honours from the Vidyalankara University of Sri Lanka and his Ph.D. degree from the University of Lancaster, England. He was formerly the Head of the Department of Pali and Buddhist Studies at the University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka. Presently, he is the Director of Research at the Buddhist and Pali University of Sri Lanka
This research article presented to International Dhamma Meeting for the Preservation of the Natural Environment & Buddhological Perspective. (Seoul: Korea Buddhist College, 1993), pp.137-148.

Buddhism categorically advocates refraining from taking of life. There are specific injunctions on both laity and clergy in regard to this in the Pali canon. The lay followers are requested to refrain from destruction of life (pana).[1] It is interesting to look into the meaning of the word pana in this context since it is definitely deeper and wider than what one normally thinks. The injunctions on clergy on taking of life throw light in arriving at the expected meaning of the word pana here.
As reported in the numerous suttas, the earliest instruction to the members of the Samgha regarding taking of life was: A monk holds aloof from the destruction of life. He has laid the cudgel and the sword aside, and ashamed of roughness, and full of mercy, he dwells compassionate and kind to all creatures that have life (panatipata pativirato hoti nihitadando nihitasattho lajji dayapanno sabbapanabhutahitanukampi viharati).[2] During the period when this instruction was valid, neither the code of disciplinary rules nor the distinction between the novices and the fully ordained monks was known. With the development of the distinction between the novices and the fully ordained monks and the introduction of the disciplinary rules, the injunction on taking of life underwent a remarkable change. The precept, "I refrain from taking of life", had been declared valid for the novices as in the case of the lay followers.[3] In the case of the fully ordained monks, a number of rules were promulgated in this regard. If an ordained monk takes the life of a human knowingly and intentionally there is the most serious penalty called parajika, the expulsion from the order.[4] If he takes the life of an animal, there is a less severe penalty called pacittiya (expiation) under which he can remain in the Order after confessing his guilt.[5] This reveals that the word pana in the original injunction means both human and animal life. In the case of a fully ordained monk, there appears to be a distinction between taking of life of humans and taking of life of animals. Such a concession is not granted for the novices or for the lay followers. The distinction in the case of a fully ordained monk clarifies the position that he can maintain in the Order after the offence. By spirit, however, there is no distinction since the word pana in the original injunction recognizes the equality of human and animal life.
At the early stage of the Buddha's career before the disciplinary rules were enacted and before the division of samanera and upasampanna came into existence, the monks were requested to hold themselves aloof from destroying seeds and plants (bijagamabhutagamasamarambha pativirato hoti).[6] With the new developments in the Order, a rule of expiation was declared valid for the fully ordained monks who destroy the vegetable growth (bhutagamapatabyataya pacittiyam).[7] The reason given for validating this rule is that the trees have life according to the belief of the people (jivasannino hi manussa rukkhasmim ).[8] By enacting this rule, the Buddha paid due consideration to the agitation that these recluses, sons of Sakyas, are harming life that is one faculties (ekindriyam samana sakyaputtiya jivam vihethenti). According to this, plants are one faculties living beings.
Even though they do not fall into the category of pana, they were considered a category of jiva. Since both pana and jiva have something to do with life, the same offence of expiation fixed for taking of animal life was fixed for destroying plants too. Therefore, in the case of a fully ordained monk, a third form of life, in addition to human life and animal life, is spoken of. That is the plant life. Plant life is harmed not only by any one who fells a tree or destroys vegetation but also by any one who tramples crops and grasses and who digs the soil.[9] The question now is whether there is any indication in early Buddhism of forbidding the damage and destruction of plant life applicable to the lay Buddhists as in the case of fully ordained monks.
Three words, that is pana, bhuta and satta, are utilized in the Pali canon to indicate living beings. A well-known example which carries all the three designations is the Metta sutta of the suttanipata.[10] In the Metta sutta, the living beings are classified into five categories, each category embracing all that have life. The classification of the Metta sutta is as follows:
1) tasa-thavara.
2) digha(long)-mahanta(large)-majjhima(medium)-rassaka(short)-anuka(minute)-thula(fat).
3) dittha(that can be seen)-addittha(that cannot be seen).
4) dura(which live far)-avidura(which live near).
5) bhuta(born)-sambhavesi(seeking birth).[11]
It should be repeated here that it is erroneous to think that these terms represent various groups of a single category. It is not that all categories together make the whole. Each category itself is the whole. As shown above, there are three forms of life on earth as human, animal and plant in the context of destroying life. These three forms of life can be divided either into tasa-thavara, or into digha-mahanta-majjhima-rassaka-anuka-thula, or into digha-addhittha, or into dura-avidura, or into bhuta-sambhavesi. The respective principles envisaged in the second, third, fourth and fifth categories are size, sight proximity and time. This needs further elaboration. According to size, the living beings can be designated as long, large, medium, short, minute or fat. They again together fall either into the group that can be seen or into the group that can not be seen. Some beings may fall into the group that cannot be seen because they are either out of sight or because, by nature, they cannot be seen. According to the principle of proximity, the humans, animals and plants that live close to us are called avidura while those who live far away are designated dura. There is no fixed demarcation between dura and avidura. Avidura can be the home, village, town, country, continent, even perhaps the whole planet earth. Dura gets its meaning in relation to the meaning which is applied to avidura in any particular context. As mentioned before, the principle that can be applied to the fourth category is time. Both past and present are bhuta, while the future is sambhavesi. In other words, the beings that existed and that are existing are bhuta. The living beings that will come into existence are sambhavesi.
The Pali words in the first category, tasa-thavara, were left unrendered into English because there seems to have been an uncertainty of their meaning. The word tasa has two meanings, trembling or frightened and moving or running.[12] The Commentary on the Metta sutta in the Paramatthajotika has taken the word tasa metaphorically. According to the Paramatthajotika, tasa are the people who are in fear and trembling as distinguished from a thavara, a self-possessed and firm being.[13] In other words, thavara is an Arahant. The Commentary on the Samyutta Nikaya once interprets the term tasa-thavara as satanhanittanhesu.[14] The meaning suggested for tasa here is sinners and for thavara is saints. On the basis of the Commentarial interpretation, the tradition believes that tasa are the sentient beings and the thavara are the Arahants. This traditional interpretation seems to be unwarranted for a number of reasons. Firstly, it tends to take pana, bhuta and satta as only human beings. It jeopardizes the balance maintained in the original sutta passage by excluding the animal and plant life. Secondly, it destroys the validity of tasa-thavara as a classification of life which is valid everywhere for ever. Thirdly, the traditional interpretation seems to be meaningless in the contexts where the term tasa-thavara is utilized in the Pali suttas. A few examples are quoted below: The Vasettha sutta remarks, "Whosoever, after refraining from hurting living creatures, both tasa and thavara, does not kill or cause to be killed, him I call a Brahmin."[15] It is obvious that the word bhuta in this stanza is not used to represent the non-arahants (tasa) and arahants (thavara), but to represent all living creatures that can be grouped into two as tasa and thavara. The phrase nikkhittadando tasathavaresu is found in the Brahmadeva sutta of the Samyutta Nikaya.[16] Brahma Sahampati has uttered this in praising the venerable Brahmadeva, an arahant. The meaning obviously implied here is "renouncing all force towards all living beings (coming under tasa and thavara)". Surely, Brahmadeva did not become an Arahant by renouncing force only towards Arahants and non-Arahnats without any concern for other living creatures. When the pupils of brahmin Lohicca were uproarious and noisy after coming up to his forest hut, the Venerable Kaccana said in the midst of his advice to them: "Those who are overwhelmingly wrathful and exceedingly violent fail among tasathavara."[17] Here the term tasathavara means not the Arahants and non-Arahants, but all the living beings. The Samyutta Nikaya again speaks of a noble disciple (ariyasavaka) who is delighted in the thought that he does not oppress tasa or thavara.[18] There is no doubt that the ariyasavaka is delighted here not because he does not oppress human beings either in the category of Arahants or in the category of non-Arahants but because he does not harm any form of life. According to the same Nikaya, one of the four paths to be one with the Devas is to be blessed with the virtues dear to the nobles. One of the virtues so followed naturally by the ariyasavaka is: "I do not harm any tasa or thavara whosoever."[19] In this statement tasa-thavara means all living creatures since the noble disciple suffuses loving kindness without any discrimination. The advice in the Khaggavisana sutta of the Suttanipata is to wander alone like a rhinoceros having laid aside the rod against tasa and thavara and not hurting any of them.[20] This advice is meaningful only when it conveys the meaning that all forms of life, whether it be human, animal or plant, should be unhurt. That is in fact the true nature of the muni who is vividly described in the Khaggavisana sutta.
The tasa-thavara division is the widely used and most prominent categorization of life in the Pali canon. It is therefore reasonable to suppose that it covers all forms of life. Justice is not done when it is confined to a small segment of life. The living beings that can be grouped into tasa and thavara are manifold. The Vasettha sutta of the Suttanipata is of paramount significance here. There the Buddha answered Vasettha: "I shall explain to you in proper order and in accordance with fact the different kinds of living things, since there are divers species."
"If you look at trees and grass, although they may not be conscious of it, there are lots of different kinds and species. They are of divergent species."
"Then there are insects, large ones like moths and small ones like ants. With these creatures too, you can see that they are of different kinds and species."
"And in four-footed animals, whatever the size, you can see that they are of different kinds and species."
"Now look at the creatures that crawl on their bellies, the reptiles and the snakes - you can see that they are of different kinds and species."
"Look at the fish and aquatic life - look at the birds and the breeds that fly - you can see that they are of different kinds and species."
"There is not among men different kinds and species in the manner that they are found among other species."[21]
According to this quotation, the major species (jati) of living beings (pana) that the Buddha recognized are trees and grass (tinarukkha), insects (kita), four-footed animals (catupada), reptiles (padudara), fish (maccha) and birds (pakkhi). The fact that there are sub-species of these living beings is also well accepted in the Vasettha sutta. The supremacy of man among all the living creatures is implied in the sutta on account of the fact that he is given as the last major species. Most significantly, all three forms of life, human, animal and plant, are explicitly considered as pana in the Vasettha sutta. The point which is to be stressed here is that the plants like humans and animals have life according to Buddhism. Of course, the implication in the Vasettha sutta is that the plant life is not as advanced as that of humans and animals. It appears that the Vasettha sutta gives the major species in the ascending order.
It is now obvious that the tasa-thavara division should necessarily include all forms of life since it is a classification of pana according to the Metta sutta and since the pana is classified into three major levels, that is plants, animals and humans, in the Vasettha sutta. Therefore, the traditional interpretation of tasa-thavara loses its credibility. In the English translations of canonical texts published by the Pali Text Society in London, tasa-thavara is rendered as "feeble" or "weak" and "strong".[22] This appears to be unsatisfactory because the distinction and demarcation between feeble and strong are highly ambiguous. The meanings of these terms are so relative that one would face enormous difficulties in classifying humans, animals and plants into two categories, feeble and strong. The most satisfactory rendering which has so far been suggested for tasa-thavara seems to have been "movable and unmovable beings" found in the Pali-English Dictionary published by the Pali Text Society in London.[23] On this basis, the beings or life can be classified into two categories, moving and non-moving. Tasa signifies the moving beings or life while thavara signifies the non-moving beings or life. Broadly speaking, two forms of life, that is human and animal, can be grouped under tasa and the third form of life, plant, under thavara. If there are animals that are static and not moving, they too come under not tasa but thavara. This shows that tasa-thavara is a classification of the same nature of other classifications given in the Metta sutta. It takes all beings, all forms of life, into its fold. The principle behind the classification of tasa-thavara is motion. Therefore, the most appropriate translation of tasa would be moving and thavara would be stationary. In the light of this interpretation, p a, by definition, is not only human and animal life but also plant life.
Let us now turn to a very important reference in the Dhammika sutta of the Suttanipata. There the Buddha explains the rules of conduct for a householder, according to which, he becomes a good disciple. The Buddha further states that if there be monk-duty to be performed, such duty cannot be fulfilled by the layman who possesses household property. The first and the foremost rule of conduct enacted on this occasion for the householder is: "Let him not destroy life nor cause others to destroy life and, also, not approve of others' killing. Let him refrain from oppressing all living beings in the world, whether moving (tasa) or stationary (thavara)."[24] Obviously, this is no different from the first precept of not taking of life prescribed in Buddhism for the householders. In other words, it is the canonical definition of not taking of life in the layman's case. According to this definition, one who observes the first precept is obliged not only to refrain from harming and killing human beings and animals but also to refrain from damaging and oppressing plant life. According to early Buddhism, looking after vegetation therefore is not only the monk's but also the layman's concern. Being aware of the practical difficulties, the Buddha did not prescribe separate precepts for laymen covering the destruction of vegetation. The allowance made for lay people in this regard in Buddhism needs no comment. The rigid and strict rules enacted for the householders in Jainism against the destruction of vegetation have no bearing in Buddhism at all. It does not, however, mean that lay Buddhists can behave according to their own free will as far as the destruction of plant life is concerned. The Dhammika sutta certainly imposes a limitation in this regard on the lay Buddhists. The futile and unnecessary destruction of vegetation which is intentionally done falls within the scope of taking of life in the layman's case according to the Dhammika sutta. [The end]
1. Digha Nikaya (=D), ed. T. W. Rhys Davids and J. E. Carpenter, 3 Volumes, London: PTS, 1890-1911, ?, 181.
2. D.?.63.
3. Vinaya Pitaka (=V), ed. H. Oldernberg, 5 Volumes, London: PTS, 1879-1883,?.83.
4. V.?.68ff.
5. V.?.124.
6. D.?.64.
7. V.?.34.
8. V.?.156; V.?.34.
9. V.?.137-138; V.?.296.
10. Suttanipata (=Sn), ed. D. Anderson and H. Smith, London: PTS, 1913, pp.25-26.
11. Ibid.
12. Pali-English Dictionary, T. W. Rhys Davids and W. Stede, Luzac and Company, London, Reprinted 1965, p.298.
13. Khuddakapatha and Its Commentary, ed. Helmer Smith, London: PTS, 1915, p.245.
14. Saratthappakasini, ?, ed. F. L. Woodward, London: PTS, 1932, p.398.
15. Nidhaya dandam bhutesu tasesu thavaresu ca/ yo na hanti na ghateti tamaham brumi brahmanam - Sn. p.120.
16. Samyutta Nikaya (=S), ed. L. Feer, 5 Volumes, London: PTS, 1884-1904,?.14.
17. Kodhabhibhuta puthu attadanda/ Virajjamana tasathavaresu - S.?.117.
18. Apannakataya mayham soham na kinci vyabadhemi tasam va thavaram va ubhayamettha kataggo - S.?.351.
19. Abhyapajja parame kvaham etarahi deva sunami na kho panaham kinci vyabhademi tasam va thavaram va. S.?.393.
20. Sabbesu Bhutesu nidhaya dandam Avihethayam annataram pi tesam. - Sn. p.6.
21. Sn. pp.117-118.
22. See the translations in "Kindred Sayings" of the quoted examples in foot-notes 16-19 above.
23. Pali-English Dictionary, PTS, p.245.
24. Panam na hane na ca ghatayeyya/ Na canujanna hantam paresam/ Sabbesu bhutesu nidhaya dandam/ Ye thavara ye tasa santi like. - Sn. p.121.

Updated: January 4, 2001
Copyright 2001 The Research Institute for Pali Literature