Cultivating Compassion

by Thich Nhat Hanh

Precepts in Buddhism and commandments in Judaism and Christianity are important jewels that we need to study and practice. They provide guidelines that can help us transform our suffering. Looking deeply at these precepts and commandments, we can learn the art of living in beauty. The Five Wonderful precepts of Buddhism—reverence for life, generosity, responsible sexual behavior, speaking and listening deeply, and ingesting only wholesome substances—can contribute greatly to the happiness of the family and society. I have recently rephrased them to address the problems of our times:

  1. Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow 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.

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 vow to cultivate compassion and use it as a source of energy for the protection of people, animals, plants, and minerals. No act of killing can be justified. And not to kill is not enough. We must also learn ways to prevent others from killing. We cannot condone any act of killing, even in our minds. According to the Buddha, the mind is the base of all actions. When you believe, for example, that yours is the only way for humankind, millions of people might be killed because of that idea. 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.

To practice nonviolence, first of all we must learn to deal peacefully with ourselves. In us, there is a certain amount of violence and a certain amount of nonviolence. Depending on the state of our being, our response to things will be more or less nonviolent. With mindfulness—the practice of peace—we can begin by working to transform the wars in ourselves. Conscious breathing helps us do this. But no one can practice this precept perfectly. We should not be too proud about being a vegetarian, for example. We must acknowledge that the water in which we boil our vegetables contains many tiny microorganisms, not to mention the vegetables themselves. But even if we cannot be completely nonviolent, by being vegetarians, 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. If we create true harmony within ourselves, we will know how to deal with family, friends, and society.

Life is so precious, yet in our daily lives we are usually carried away be our forgetfulness, anger, and worries. The practice of the First Precept is a celebration of reverence for life. When we appreciate and honor the beauty of life, we will make every effort to dwell deeply in the present moment and protect all life.

From Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh, introduction by Elaine Pagels