“One should not kill a living being, nor cause it to be killed, nor should one incite another to kill“
– Sutta Nipata 2.396
Not taking the life of any sentient being is the first of the five precepts in Buddhism. Buddhism doesn’t know any strict rules or commandments, but it does provide its followers with a basic ethical code, broken down into five rules that buddhists try to follow as good as possible. Next to refraining from taking a life, a buddhist will try to refrain from taking what is not given, does not expose him or herself to sexual misconduct (adultery, disloyalty, sexual acts with children or animals, rape etcetera), tries to always speak well (no gossiping or foul language) and does not intoxicate the mind with drinks and drugs leading to carelesness. When I decided I wanted to be a buddhist I ran into one serious problem: I have been raised in a family of outdoorsmen and hunters. How would I ever be able to be a buddhist when I was trained to take the lives of animals?
My father is an avid hunter and my grandfather from my mother’s side of the family was his mentor. I never had the pleasure of really getting to know my grandfather, as he commited suicide when I was very young due to a long and painful physical illness. Luckily my parents made sure I inherited his love of nature, of all animals and plants. I’ve spent the largest part of my life out in the woods and in the fields, looking at animals and enjoying the great outdoors. I have also been out hunting and stalking on many occasions. That doesn’t mean that I disrespect life or that I love to kill.
Growing up as a hunter has given me a greater sense of my place in the world, it has provided me with a deep respect for ecosystems and the animals living in them. I have always had pets and since February of 2015, I have been working at the animal ambulance in order to help sick, wounded and dying animals. I love animals.
As a scientist (I am a conflict-archaeologist) I know that hunting is a necessity. Hunters-gatherer societies literally lived off the land, they were in balance with nature more than we are today. Ever since Homo sapiens became sedentary and started living in farming villages in the Neolithic period (around 6500 BC in Europe), selective hunting became a necessity to keep the animal population healthy. One of my univeristy professors, Prof. dr. Louwe Kooijmans gave some excellent classes about ecology and selective hunting. As an applied biologist my girlfriend also understands the importance of hunting.
Just like the native american tribes, I have come to see the animals as a kind of brothers and sisters during my life and I always felt sad when I was hunting and an animal was killed. Somewhere deep inside my mind the seed of compassion was growing. As I grew older I dreamt of obtaining my own hunting license some day, but I was not sure if I was still prepared to kill animals. I was struggling with this idea in my head when I wanted to step onto the Noble Eightfold Path. Eventually I decided to visit the local Buddhist Temple. There I learned that I could be a buddhist and a hunter, as long as my intention was not to kill, but to contribute to nature while being extremely thankful toward the animal’s offering. The monk who answered my question also assured me that my feelings of compassion would naturally guide me. I started pondering and kept thinking about how to combine hunting and being a buddhist though.
It was not untill I was sitting in a closed treestand with my father and a friend of ours on a late evening that I started to understand. We were peering through our binoculars and a rifle scope at a small meadow in the area of the German Eifel area, where we are part of a wildlife conservation unit. I was enjoying the last song of the birds when two roe-deer walked onto the meadow. They stood there, just eating and not knowing we were there watching them.
My father never liked to hunt roe-deer and my mother has always believed that spotting a roe-deer was a message from her father. I could not understand how we should kill something with such a strong association to my grandfather. A feeling of deep compassion then came over me as I watched one of the roe deer carelessly scratching its chin with a hoof. One pull of the trigger and its life would end then and there on the meadow. So I whispered to my father’s friend that the lighting and distance were not correct for a clean shot and I convinced him not to shoot. From that moment onward I vowed never to kill an animal again, unless it is self defense or in order to end its physical suffering when it is severly wounded.
I know that my father hunts because he loves nature and the animals in his area of responsibilities. They always hunt according tot he hunting laws there and me and my father can help to enforce those laws. Furthermore, there is an unwritten hunting law, unwritten ethical rules that true hunters embody. An animal shoulf be killed quick and clean, without pain or distress. It should have an honest chance to get away in the field and it may never be trapped.
I also eat meat and I believe properly hunted meat is honest meat. It is never my intention to kill an animal, but whenever animals are killed for consumption I believe that we must be thankful to them, honouring their sacrifice by using all that they give us. Meat, bones, skin, nothing should be wasted.When eating meat, you should be both mindful and thankful for what the animal has given you. Still, I know that selective hunting is needed to prevent inbreeding and to maintain a healthy ecosystem and I often tag along tot he hunting grounds. There I help cutting grass, moving lumber, clearing hiking trails, placing new herbs and saltlicks for the animals, hanging nesting-boxes, maintaining tree stands. That way I can enjoy the outdoor life without having to kill animals.
I’m still a hunter at heart, so now I play a digital hunting simulation called ‘the hunter’ on my PC. Sometimes I even feel compassion for those digital animals and I still hunt them ethically correct. But then again I should not forget that they are not animals, but merely representations of animals, clumps of animated pixels on a screen. I think it’s better that way for me personally.
Finally, Buddhism believes in reincarnation and teaches us that all living beings around you can be or may have been your mother in a previous or next incarnation or life.The very animal you shoot may have been your friend in a previous life. Wether you believe in reincarnation or not, it is true that every beings fate can once become your fate as well.
Am I a bad Buddhist because I eat meat? I believe not. I am still an outdoorsman, I still contribute to a healthy environment for myself and all beings living in it. I only refrain from taking life, as the five precepts teach me and as I have learned, compassion has grown in my heart naturally by being out there in the woods all my life.