Breaching the Buddhist First Precept – Denying water to Animals at Mattala Airport is morally indefensible and defiles Sri Lanka’s national image
Posted on April 18th, 2013

Shenali Waduge

“Oh! Great King, the birds of the air and the beasts have an equal right to live and move about in any part of this land as thou.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  The land belongs to the peoples and all other beings and thou art only the guardian of it.”

This call based on fundamental Buddhist tenets of love and compassion for all living beings, was made by Arahant Mahinda to King Devanampiyatissa in their very first encounter over 2300 years ago, and effectively put a stop to the deer hunt of the King at the base of the Mihintale Rock.

It had a dramatic impact and together with other Buddhist moral injunctions helped formulate the ethical foundations of public policy and governance strenuously followed by all Sinhala Buddhist kings who ruled Sri Lanka.

Buddhist Influence

Buddhist influence helped create a benevolent state in Sri Lanka that accepted state responsibility for the welfare of both man and animal.

The BuddhaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s discourse in the Cakkavatti ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬…” Sihanada Sutta (Digha Nikaya of the Sutta Pitaka) where the Buddha spelt out the duties of an ideal ruler and declared:

ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…- The Cakkavatti King (Righteous King) will give protection, shelter and ward both to the different classes of human beings, and also to birds and beastsƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚,

had resonance throughout our history for over a period of 2000 years from the time of King Devanampiyatissa to the last king of the Kingdom of Kandy, which was ceded to the British in 1815.

The social and legal history of Sri Lanka provides innumerable examples of the Buddhist attitude to animal life. Our former Kings established some of the worlds’ first wild life sanctuaries.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  Five of the kings governed the country under the ‘Maghata’ rule, which banned completely the killing of any animal in the kingdom.

King Silakala (524 – 537 AD) decreed the ‘preservation of life for all creatures’ throughout the Island[1]. King Kassappa IV (898 -914 AD) granted safety to all creatures on land and water and in doing so observed in all respects the conduct of the ancient kings.[2] Virtuous Kings moved by compassion for animals distributed ‘young corn full of milky juice’ to cattle, and rice to the crows and other birds.[3] King Mahinda IV made arrangements for the distribution of rice cakes to apes, wild boar, gazelle and dogs.[4] King Parakramabahu I had commanded that safety of life be extended to all creatures without exception living on dry land and in the water on the four uposatha days in every month.[5]

Several Kings established Animal Hospitals and one King, namely Buddhadasa (341 AD) became a reputed medical and veterinary surgeon.

The people, influenced by the principle of ‘Ahimsa’ generally kept away from occupations that required the killing of animals to earn a living- e.g. hunting, fishing and the slaughter of animals for food.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  Those who resorted to these activities were usually relegated to the margins of the society and treated as outcastes.

Today, we do not have Kings or Monarchs any more but it is largely the votes of the Sinhala Buddhists (70% of Sri LankaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s population) that bring Governments to power or over throw them at elections.

However current rulers must take the cue and observe in all respects the conduct of the ancient kings, who were in the main virtuous Kings moved by compassion for animals.

Buddhist First Precept

ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-Abstain from taking lifeƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ is the first precept of Buddhism ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyamiƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚. Pana refers to any living being that has breath or consciousness which includes people and all animal life. Atipata means ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-striking downƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ referring to killing, injuring or torturing.

The violation of the first precept involves 5 factors ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬…” the living being, the knowledge of the living being, the volition thought of killing, the killing itself and the death of the living being. In the context of the current scenario what needs to be understood is that the violation of the precept arises in the mind with the recognition of a living being and the willful thought of killing that being. A killing that is premeditated is a graver offense than an impulsive killing.

Decision to close water holes around Mattala Airport

Let us place this in context of the decision to close the water holes at Mattala by the civil aviation authorities on the grounds that the birds and other wildlife species pose a threat to aircrafts.

The decision to have a second international airport in Sri Lanka is a worthy one but the feasibility tests that would have been conducted should have covered the facts that

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚§ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  The proposed International Airport was to be in the heart of an already existing bird sanctuary.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚§ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  That birds and animals were already living in the areas and it was their natural habitat with grass, weeds and seeds naturally available to them.

When the civil aviation authority says that they have come up with an ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-eco-friendly action planƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ since the opening of the airport it sadly means that not a single person involved in the planning phase of the airport cared to consider what would happen to the wildlife, flora and fauna?

How morally correct is it for our society to close the water holes in and around the Mattala Airport to prevent birds and other wildlife species from moving about in areas that have been their natural habitats for over thousands of years?

How morally correct is it for the civil aviation authorities to remove sources of fodder such as grass, weeds and seeds that attract birds and animals as well as the cruelty of lighting flares and crackers to scare these birds and animals away just before arrival and departure of an aircraft?. Were these not taken into consideration when planning or were things planned in Colombo totally oblivious to the ground realities and the large scale harm that would invariably befall on the animals?

When the civil aviation heads says that denying water and food to the birds and animals is the ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-only way to preventƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ them from interrupting aviation traffic is he and his staff knowingly violating the BuddhaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s first precept and does he and staff think they are absolved of the sin being committed by saying that the option to close water holes is better than the plans to shoot down the birds since it was neither environmentally friendly and ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-not the right thing to doƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚. Is the right thing to do then to deny birds and animals water and food paving the way for a slow agonizing death of these animals through starvation?

We are about to witness a vast tragedy take place because of the shortsightedness and the lack of moral consideration at the planning stage for the wildlife and birds that constitute part and parcel of Sri LankaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s ecosystem. Can authorities turn a blind eye to watch these innocent and defenseless animals and birds die one by one precipitated by our own inhumane conduct, when we have a bird sanctuary that in itself is a tourist attraction.

This is just another example illustrating how decisions taken in haste by planners without looking into greater details and the vital interests of animals living in their ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”traditional habitatsƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ and drawing up contingency plans before the damage is caused, is what Sri Lanka lacks in.

Given the colossal expense incurred to set up the airport, the tragedy that confronts us it to knowingly watch as authorities kill every bird and animal living in their natural habitat which has now been usurped by man in a manner totally contrary to basic Buddhist principles and fundamental notion of reverence for life. ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ 

It takes away and diminishes our Buddhist identity which has always upheld the moral and ethical premise that ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”Life is dear to all, so therefore do not killƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ and over centuries had laid the foundation for Sri LankaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s Buddhist civilization.

The present generation of Buddhists is under a great moral obligation to protect animals and take steps to ensure that our current rulers follow the unique examples set by our ancient but nevertheless virtuous kings in caring for the welfare of animals.

Shenali Waduge


[1] Culavamsa, 41.30

[2] Culavamsa, 52.15

[3] Culavamsa, 48.147; 49.36

[4] Culavamsa 54.32

[5] Culavamsa 74. 20-21 (for further details on protection afforded to animals under pre-colonial kings, refer ‘The Legal Heritage of Sri Lanka’ by Dr. A.R.B. Amerasinghe, Colombo: Sarvodaya: 1999, pp.130-133)


20 Responses to “Breaching the Buddhist First Precept – Denying water to Animals at Mattala Airport is morally indefensible and defiles Sri Lanka’s national image”

  1. David Appuhami Says:

    This time you are completely wrong and producing a misconception of Buddhist teaching.
    Buddha said, “cetanaham bhikkhave kammam vadami” -Volition (cetana or the intention ) O monks, is what I call kamma (action)
    These birds can kill innocent air passengers, and as long as the airport authority’s intention is for a wholesome act of saving lives of innocent air passengers, it is perfectly ok to remove the breeding grounds for birds. Birds can migrate way from the airport and to a location where water holes are in abundance.
    By the way, this is a very common problem in every airports, whether it is in London Heathrow, in Newyork JF Kenney or in Moscow Sherimethivo the problem is identical, but solution can be even very harsh.

  2. Lorenzo Says:

    I disagree madam.

    The airport MUST function. Otherwise it is a HUGE loss to the country. The decision has been made and investments have been made.

    These animals must be provided with an alternative water sources. KEEPING THEM AWAY from the airport is best for both humans and birds. NOT ALLOWING them water is the MOST PEACEFUL and low cost way of doing it.

    Sometimes we have to think of HUMANS IN PRIORITY to other living beings. It may be against teachings but that’s how it works.

  3. Eusense Says:

    Are you trying to take Sri Lanka back to stone age? Instead, why don’t you first write forcing all Buddhists to stop eating meat and then enforce it on all citizens based on Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country.

  4. Universal Citizen Says:

    Importance and consideration to the first precept should be inbuilt to the decision making process in SL.
    With cost of living sky-rocketing an increase in the breach of the precepts are expected. Suicides, murder, theft, rape, etc, etc,..
    All precepts should be given due consideration in all economic activity. I am sure it is not the case in SL with most of the government tops being the major breaches of these precepts.
    Whether it is the Central bank report or any government department performance report the actions / in-actions influence on the Precepts should be tabled.

  5. shenali Says:

    Let me reclarify

    There is nothing wrong in having an airport… the issue was that it was to be in the heart of an already existing bird sanctuary – which had been their habitate for years… it was also where other animals and elephants had their habitat as well.

    When planning for an airport the officials should have far before putting up the construction diverted the water holes elsewhere and ensured there was sufficient food for the animals in an alternate place away from the air traffic.

    We cannot accept that they realized birds and elephants were around only after the planes started flying in and out…. this simply shows complete lack of concern for the animals/birds at the planning stage.

    Moreover – as damage control removing grass etc and closing water holes without informing that they are making alternate water available simply means they are going to knowingly kills them… this is totally uncalled for.

    True Heathrow and other airports have issues with migratory birds – but in this case we have set the airport in the heart of a bird sanctuary… this is the difference.

  6. David Appuhami Says:

    Sri Lanka is a truly Ornithologist’s paradise. There are 427 recorded species birds of which 250 are resident and 23 are most common in the country.

    The large irrigation tanks in the southern Sri Lanka attract numerous varieties of duck, while larger aquatic birds such as stork, heron, egret, spoonbill, pelican, and ibis can easily be seen in the in the south, especially at Wirawila, Kalametiya and BUNDALA NATIONAL PARK.

    Kalametiya bird sanctuary is located halfway between Tangalle and Hambantota.

    The Weerawila bird sanctuary is located east of the Weerawila tank at least 10 air km way from the air port and Bundala bird sanctuary is located on the coastal part east of Hambantota 16 air km away from the airport.

    Since endemic birds are every where in Sri Lanka , these most common species and the migratory species arrive in Sri Lanka can easily disturb the air traffic in and out of Mattala air port.

    That does not mean that experts have selected wrong location for the airport, it is just because we are in the Ornithologist’s paradise. So, There is no harm in taking necessary action to move them away from the flight path.

  7. Wickrama Says:

    ” ….closing water holes without informing that they are making alternate water available simply means they are going to knowingly kills them…..”

    “INFORMING” who? The birds ??
    Don’t be ridiculous. What about not “informing” the birds that planes are coming lest they get killed ?

    Animals don’t die just because they are forced to move away from their habitats, -they are well adapted in finding new habitats- otherwise many other activities of humans – tilling land for cultivation thereby destroying natural habitats as well as killing insects, worms in the soil, using pesticides, building new roads, other major constructions like reservoirs, hydroelectric projects etc, etc would also tantamount to breach of the first precept !

    No doubt we are causing lots of hardships to the animals, but that is as far as it goes. Only other way is to restrict the growth of our own human population of the Earth which is already at unbearably high levels causing problems in almost all fields, Education, Employment, Housing, Transport, Food, Water, Health, Morality, Law & Order…. the list go on and on !!

  8. Fran Diaz Says:

    How very true to say : Over crowded world. SEVEN BILLION people and growing ….. Birth control & Family Planning a must from all sectors of society.

    Re the Airport : Perhaps it may have been a good idea to have mentioned the large bird population and measures to be taken to ensure safe air passage to the planes in the Feasibility Report, and publish it for the general public to see ?

    Coming out of a 30 yr war with terrorists does not lend well to careful planning in Development. Fast Track development may not bring all the desired results.

    People still have complaints even about the Victoria Dam completed in 1985 (JRJ times).

  9. Kosala777 Says:

    Shenali is right. We can’t ignore our wildlife

  10. Kosala777 Says:

    Fran, Gamini Dissanyake boasted of selling electricity to India. Today we produce only 15% – 20% of hydro electricity. He and his family became very rich

  11. Kosala777 Says:

    Wickrama, I see your point – only humans should reap benefits of the planet, let’s kill the wildlife – this is not Buddhism

  12. hela patriot Says:

    shenali is right. Killing the birds will only result in the change in biodiversity. People living in that area could now be threatened by new diseases.

  13. Fran Diaz Says:

    This is not an topic to approach via religion. All religions discourage killing, except only for food in some cases. All religions were formed thousands of years ago when there was no such issue OVER POPULATION BY HUMAN BEINGS. It seems to be Man vs Animals in a lot of places on earth. Since Sri Lanka is a small island with about 21 Million people, it is fast becoming Man vs animals too here.

    * Actually, State & Religion (any religion) ought to be kept apart.

    * Tourism demands travel by air, for convenience.

    At Mattala airport surrounds no one is KILLING animals. Only DISCOURAGING them to come to the surrounds as the birds will cause air accidents. ALL airports anywhere discourage birds from the surrounding areas to stop collisions with airplanes as an airplane will crash, possibly killing all on board. Birds especially will migrate to more safe areas very fast. Sri Lanka is host to many migratory birds that fly in and out on a seasonal basis. It will surprise people how quickly birds find other water sources and nest in those areas.

    Covering up water holes in the surrounds of Mattala airport is a good idea. It goes without saying that it is far better than having air crashes killing people ! The alternative is to ABANDON the airport which seems absurd.


    Kosala 777: I was referring to the subtle damage to the environment all along the Mahaweli, and displacement of people from the Victoria Dam project. Though I referred to it, I am not well informed enough to pass any judgment on the matter.

  14. Fran Diaz Says:

    read as ” This is not a topic ….”

  15. Voice123 Says:

    Alternative habitats should have been attended to at the planning stage. Indeed ecologists sometimes prescribe that a series of interlinked wildlife reserves be created so animals can migrate across the country without having to encounter humans. There should be strict penalties to prevent humans interfering with animals on their reserves. The problem in Sri Lanka is not so much human population pressures. More pressing problems are respect for law and order, confidence in the integrity of officials and politicians, prevention of encroachment, squatting, poaching etc. And last but not least, the terrorist diaspora’s insane obsession with destroying Sri Lanka’s reputation, economy, people and culture and also its ecology.

  16. Marco Says:

    It’s commendable Shenali highlights the infringement of natural wild life for the sake of “development” although i find it rather amusing she brings the religious connotations of breaching Buddhist precepts.
    Perhaps. the author ought to find out and research the Casinos and drinking dens within “stones throw” from temples and who runs them in the context of breaching Buddhist precepts.

    MRIA is like the “giant fish pond” in Hambantota ill thought out (remember the deep water rock?) without the feasibility and the infrastructure in place to service such port/terminal facilities.
    MRIA is a fabulous structure and was most impressed by the facilities available.
    UL the only airline flying to MRIA lands 6 times a week with no more than 12-20 passenger turnaround a flight. FlyDubai commences its schedule to MRIA (what were the incentives granted to FD?) in May to cater for the Housemaids.
    The Male passengers on UL will eventually give MRIA the wide berth.
    The cultural triangle tourist will and have equally given MRIA the wide berth due to the short stays (7-10 days)and tour companies have not been briefed/sold on itinerary changes to stop overs at MRIA.

    Lets wait and see shall we?

  17. Fran Diaz Says:

    Voice 123,

    Corridors for animals is a fine idea. Hope the Wild Life Authorities are working on it or will pick up the idea and go for it.


    Each country should have populations in keeping with their resources. Sri Lanka has to protect the coastline for a long time to come as illegal migration attempts are likely to continue, especially from Tamil Nadu and other smaller countries around Lanka. Most of SE Asia is overcrowded and Lankans ought to be aware of that. They are likely to come to Lanka to create wars over their personal grievances at heavy cost to the local population.

  18. Lorenzo Says:

    We have some good news.

    Govt is clearing 4,000 ha land in Mulaitivu to give to farmers. 250 ha coming from a forest.

    IF these lands go to Sinhalese, I say, well done. Clear ANY forest and give them land in the north. The benefit is FAR GREATER than the cost.

  19. NeelaMahaYoda Says:

    Dear Shenali
    I wonder what you will do if you get head lice??. Would you encompass them with loving kindness or use an appropriate shampoo???

  20. Fran Diaz Says:

    Last but not least, we would lie to thank Shenali for her well researched and thought provoking articles.

    In this instance, the positive outcome would be that Policy makers & Planners ought to keep the public informed about aspects
    re the environmental impact from the Mattala airport. If the public had prior information such matters would not cause a stir.

    It was also up to the Media of Lanka to explore the environmental impact from the airport construction. Does this article also expose our Media as immature re Development & Planning ? May our Policy makers and Planners ought to make more indepth studies of projects and release relevant information to the Media. I don’t know the proper procedures, but we hope that some good comes out of all this exchange of information.

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