During my college humanities class, I learned some things about Buddhism, which I had not had exposure to before. My teacher would sometimes tell us stories about field trips he would take with the class to a local Buddhist temple. In one such story, he said that he asked the cute Buddhist that worked at the temple if Buddhists were allowed to use antibacterial soap.

From his story, she apparently didn't find that very funny, but he was left without an answer.

I understand that Buddhist's are not allowed to kill. Does this include microscopic living organisms that would be alive on your hands? In other words, what is the answer to his question, "Can Buddhists use anti-bacterial soap?"

  • 2
    How such questions are getting up voted is beyond me. Please note that common sense comes first, then Buddhism. Buddhism is not a religion. They are guidelines telling you what to do to reach Nirvana or atleast lead a good life. In fact Buddhism has a lot of common sense in it.
    – esh
    Commented Apr 10, 2016 at 3:10
  • @BlackFlam3 So you think that this is a bad question? Downvote it then, that's the point of the button. I don't think it is, that's why I've asked. I read answers on here that said a lion creates bad karma for itself when it kills to survive, I don't understand how we, with such intellect and understanding, would not be creating bad karma in this way then. That's why I'm asking, to achieve this understanding.
    – giraffesyo
    Commented Apr 10, 2016 at 3:57
  • Do you know the sect of the temple in question? Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 2:47
  • @MatthewMartin The temple website states they teach in a nonsectarian format.
    – giraffesyo
    Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 2:53
  • oh, very helpful. I'll update my answser. Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 3:07

5 Answers 5


In Mahayana, the key distinction is sentient beings vs non-sentient beings. So plants and bacteria would be non-sentient beings and there would not be a violation of the first precept. And eating bacteria wouldn't be a violation of the 3rd minor precept. I'd note that in the linked translation, the 1st precept also is qualified by "sentient beings".

It is also worth nothing that Buddhism is not a homogeneous thing with homogeneous followers, so over time people and Buddhists have learned more about science and had to react to it. Sometimes this means ancient science got incorporated into the religion, such as beliefs/theories about the biological mechanisms of reproduction, or theories about circulation in the body. As a modern Buddhist, I'd dispense with the ancient, incorrect science and think about what ancient Buddhist would have said about biology if they were better informed with modern science. (And I'm not talking about science vs religion here, I'm talking about, what if ancient thinkers knew about bacteria and the cognitive capacities of bacteria) I think they would deem bacteria insentient and incapable of suffering.

I don't know why the lady at the temple didn't like the question. If it was a Mahayana temple, reasonable chance they felt they were being mocked for following a silly rule. The person asking the question was a half step away from asking "To what extremes would you go to practice your silly religion?" or another common subtext when the topic is nitpicky rules "Gee, you must think you're so much better than us people who use anti-bacterial soap"

If this was a Shin temple, strict following precepts is a waste of time, only faith in the power of Amida will show results. In that case, the lady was just annoyed that the guy did the equivalent of going to a Christian Church and asking what Christians have against eating pork and why Christians wear Burkas and why they worship cows.

UPDATE. This is an American/Vietnamese temple, which appears to be a mix of immigrant and non-immigrant Buddhism, crossing Zen, Vajrayana, Mahayana, but mostly Mahayana. In this context, bringing up bacterial soap means you want to either agree with someone about vegetarianism or fight with them about it. So if you aren't confrontational, you don't fight with them about it. The stats on vegetarianism among American Buddhists is dodgy, but is ballpark of ~25% which is ten times higher than the general population (give me a specific sect and that can be adjusted higher or down to nearly 0-- non-Japanese East Asian Buddhism is pro-vegetarian, the rest are anti-vegetarian). By the way, if this whole question is about vegetarianism, refer to the pre-existing questions & answers.

Speaking of pre-existing answers, this question about the status of bacteria has been asked before.


There istance a monk with psychic ability looked into the water and saw there were microbes and asked the Buddha if drinking will harm them. Buddha said don't look and drink.

One intention of Buddhist morality is the stabilize the mind so it is free from remorse and so it can develop concentration and wisdom.

So if you use antibacterial soap without much thought there are microbs and intention of killing microbes then there will be not issue.

  • Is there a citation where I can read more about this?
    – giraffesyo
    Commented Apr 10, 2016 at 22:07
  • 4
    I think a citation is required most learned friend Suminda. This 'don't look and drink' sounds suspicious. Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 6:21
  • This is was taught when I was in school. I cannot remember if it was part of a text books but was in the context of using the strainer and Jain practices. Though Mind in Buddhist Psychology - Unchecked by Sangharakshita has something in the spirit of what I said it is not as blunt as do not look and drink. More detail perhaps look at Vinaya rules regarding to the use of the strainer. Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 6:43

The bodhisattva precepts forbid the killing of "sentient beings". Bacteria is not sentient so I see no problem with using antibacterial soap. It is also rather difficult to avoid killing bacteria through daily living. So, it would be extreme, if not impossible, to try to kill all bacteria around you.


I understand that Buddhist's are not allowed to kill.

This is a general misunderstanding, or lack of correct understanding in this Buddhist notion. It contains at least two aspects: a) due to compassion, killing should be forsaken which is against compassion. b) killing will produce bad effect, it won't solve the problem, for a harmful action won't produce good result, as a poisonous tree can't produce eatable fruit.


Can a Buddhist use antibacterial soap?

It's not really the big deal, or the main issue. The issue is antibacterial soap won't help in eliminating contamination, or benefit health (consider notion b). because the bacterial will evolve and become anti-antibacterial, we see this in medical reports. Likely antibacterial soap is also a marketing gimmick too, like toothpaste for man, toothpaste for woman, for kids, baby girls... etc.

If one wants to be healthy and not infected, it's not to use antibacterial soap, it's to build up one's physical strength, health condition, becomes immune to any disease or infections. During the Black Death, many died, but some survive, why? During SARS, a patch died, but some were immune instead some even carriers of the virus, why? Buddha has the answer but it would be too off (too advance?) for modern men they can only label it: superstitions.


O once saw a forum saying that you can't kill anything or it's bad karma. But what if you do it with good intentions and afterwards clear the karma you gained. E.g. A mantra for removing bad karma?

  • This doesn't seem to be an answer, is it? Is it an answer ("Can a Buddhist use antibacterial soap?") ... or, is it a question ("What if you do it with good intentions and afterwards clear the karma with mantra for removing bad karma?")?
    – ChrisW
    Commented Aug 23, 2017 at 2:38

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