Living Beings and Living Things are Different Life Forms
Not all living things are the same. There is a difference between living beings and living things. This is a Buddhist perspective.
In the Buddhist perspective, a living being is defined as possessing a body and a mind. The body has 5 sensory faculties, namely, eye, ear, nose, tongue and form. However, the sensitivity of these 5 faculties differs in different species, with some having only rudimentary form or even missing one or a number of these physical faculties.
The Pali term for “mind” is “mano”. In fact “mano” is interpreted in various forms depending on the context. It can also mean consciousness, subconscious, the intellect, thoughts, emotions, feelings, the heart, and those subtle awareness that is within us. Similar to “body”, this “mano” or consciousness varies in intensity in different species. Humans have the highest level of conscious awareness. The rest down to the smallest creatures may only exist with a latent nuance of consciousness which we call “instinct”. From this interpretation, we can safely consider all forms of visible moveable living physical objects as living beings possessing both body and mind. To identify these beings a step further, we refer to them as sentient beings.
What then is a living thing? In this context, a living thing is one that is alive, moving or stationery, but bereft of the 5 faculties and consciousness. Trees and other species in the plant kingdom are good examples. Those minute and microscopic living organisms are living things. Germs and bacteria are living organism or living things, bereft of consciousness. What about viruses? According to some bacteriologists, viruses are not even living things.
Why This Distinction Between Living Beings and Living Things?
For Buddhists, this distinction is very important. In a living being, there is this consciousness, the continuous stream of life-force or energy that survives life after life. This continuous stream of lifeforce is the kammic (subconscious) energy that takes on life after life. These are the sentient beings like us. So, we avoid killing them. Living things and living organisms do not possess this life stream of consciousness and therefor there is no moral issue like bad action on killing them.
There are lots of controversies regarding the concept of killing. Certain group considers any form of killing living things as bad or unwholesome. They consider killing of anything that is alive is killing. This is actually very logical in worldly sense. Others are confused over the consequences of killing of anything that is alive.
With this understanding, Buddhists are very clear especially in medical sciences and spiritual interpretation. Destroying microscopic organisms is not the same as killing of sentient beings. The act is the same, that is “killing”. But the moral consequences are very different. With this understanding of the two different types of life, Buddhists can differentiate the difference and conduct their lives wholesomely, in relation to the act of killing.
How Can Buddhists Reconcile the Act of Killing Destructive Living Beings?
The world is surrounded by good and bad considerations. It is the very nature of this world to be such. That was why the Buddha led us to SEE the real nature of this world. Once we realize this truth, we will gradually come to terms with this contradiction, the dichotomy of good and bad. The Buddha referred to this phenomenon as "Dukkha"..."very difficult to bear". It is always this Dukkha that we have to live and contend with. If you watch the National Geographic program, you will see this Dukkha overpowering our lives. Every moment, when a life lives, another life has to be sacrificed. This is great Dukkha. But we are blind to this fact. We ignorantly think that we can live without others dying for us.
One very important faculty that we must utilize is our "wisdom". The wisdom to see the bigger picture; to realize the greater good of performing certain unwholesome acts; to come to terms with this Dukkha of the world.
If everyone refused to kill even a termite, then who is going to do the "dirty jobs", so to say. Who is going to defend the country? Who is going to keep law and order in the streets? Who is going to get rid of the pests that may affect our health? These are all very urgent and realistic questions. Those who are in this category may take consolation that they are doing it for the greater good of the society and nation. However, at the same time they could strive to lead a dignified, noble and harmless life as best they could. They still can follow and practise the teachings of the Buddha to the best of their ability.
The realities of this world and this existence are such that there are always this unsatisfactoriness and imperfections where many a time we are confronted with, without much choice. As for taking life, we must also consider factors like its life-span, its usefulness, its harmfulness to others and the circumstances. If the living being has a very short life-span, is not useful to society, and causes harm to others, then there is some consolation and mitigation if one kills it. However, we must bear in mind that the act of killing for whatever reason is an unwholesome act. We have to use our wisdom, common sense and intellectual judgement to draw the line. It is up to the individual to set his "standard" of practice.