non harming

In the dimension of primary meaning all sounds are the sounds of the Buddha and all talk illuminates his teaching.  This is the vast and fathomless Dharmakaya.  It inspires us at each moment but nobody lives there, just as nobody lives exclusively in the worlds of harmony or individuality.

from The Practice of Perfection by Roshi Robert Aitken

At the end of most retreats, participants are offered an opportunity to commit to the path taught by the Buddha in a ceremony called “taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.”   Along with the Three Refuges they also commit to the Five Precepts of not killing, not stealing, not engaging in sexual misconduct, not lying and not consuming intoxicants.

Thich Nhat Hanh offers the Five Precepts as Five Mindfulness Trainings and the phrasing is instructive.  Each Mindfulness Training begins with an acknowledgment that I am aware there is suffering, that the suffering has a cause, and that I am willing to take action to diminish the suffering by transforming its cause.  The First Mindfulness Training is reprinted below from the Plum Village site (these are the revised version which has caused a bit of stir):

Reverence For Life

Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating the insight of interbeing and compassion and learning 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 support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, or in my way of life. Seeing that harmful actions arise from anger, fear, greed, and intolerance, which in turn come from dualistic and discriminative thinking, I will cultivate openness, non-discrimination, and non-attachment to views in order to transform violence, fanaticism, and dogmatism in myself and in the world.

There’s usually some objection, if not a full out panic, around the First and Fifth Precepts.  The push-back to the First Precept is often in the resistance to not eating meat, killing mosquitoes and harming others physically.  The Fifth Precept which addresses the use of alcohol gets its fair share of concerned protest related to the complications of socializing with friends and family.  I try to take the view that expressing these concerns strengthens our practice because we are aspiring to be fully engaged in the reality of our lives.

In a light-hearted way, non-harming or ahimsa is a constant practice living in a farmhouse shared over the years with a number of dogs, cats, and mice.  Not to mention the insects: mosquitoes, house flies, the vicious infestations of Asian Lady Beetles and earwigs!  And of course, all beings come with droppings.  I can handle the various poops of the larger beasts but mice and the health consequences of their droppings challenge my aspiration to achieve ahimsa.  For all our discussions, we have yet to agree on trapping them mostly because live traps make no sense in our situation.  Given the mice come in from the great outdoors, all we’d be doing is creating a shuttle bus route so they can go home to invite back their friends from far and wide.  “Look, guys, it’s no big deal.  Every couple of days, this little space capsule transports you back home for a visit!  How cool is that!”

There are various ahimsic solutions: stuffing cupboards with sheets of fabric softener, strong herbs, even (though I refuse to try this) clumps of cat pee-soaked kitty litter.  (Apparently the smell of cat pee tells the mice there are large predators in the house.  Right.  Blind mice could see the size of my cats!)  My solution, limited by time and energy, is to dive into the pantry and shelves, armed with bleach, soap and a strong scrubbing brush.  Until I figure out how to line the pantry and cupboards with sheets of tin so the little critters can stay out, it will have to do.  The reward is an opportunity to be happily fanatic about organizing my pots and pans (by size) and the tin and dry goods (by category though not alphabetically – yet).  And it keeps me away from the Devil Drink!

Who knew keeping the precepts could be so much fun!

Thank you for practicing,


PS:  There is a deeper issue around the First Precept of Ahimsa and Right Livelihood which I hope to dig into in another post.

6 thoughts on “non harming

  1. Now that I have your fine instruction, I’m going to place clumps of cat litter around our entire neighborhood, in an effort to drive away the rats. The only alternative, so far, is for Graham, the studly cat, to capture ’em, toy with ’em, and then finally eat ’em up – leaving the heads on the front porch. Unsightly and definitely in violation of the precepts. But, then, do cats have precepts

    My relationship to the Noble Truths has changed – at least in theory – over the years. Like you, I have traditionally understood the truths as “I am aware there is suffering, that the suffering has a cause,” etc.

    In recent years, this way of framing the truths has seemed a little too dis-embodied and abstract. So now I tend to frame them as, “I experience suffering; I create the suffering I experience,” etc. – with the usual qualifications about attaching to the “I” in this formulation.

    It’s my way of trying to “stay on the hook” – in the same way that I keep Graham on the hook for the suffering he inflicts on the neighborhood rat crew.

    • Methinks there’s a book to be written, Barry. The Nine Great Vows of Feline Bodhisattvas.

      Thank you for your instructions on taking on the precepts. I often think that the simple act of making a vow is sufficient but I am beginning to learn that we have ways to eel-wriggle (thank you, Dosho Port) out of them. Just chant “form is emptiness” for a quick pass off the hook!

      The push-back I envision for your fully engaged version is that it brings our responsibility into full focus, doesn’t it? It places ME with all my capacity for love and hate smack in the driver’s seat. How would it sound:

      I am aware of the destruction of life I cause and therefore I take on the willingness to cultivate compassion and learn how to protect all beings from damage and death.

      There was a fascinating article sent out by the Charter for Compassion about our individual unwillingness to help in situations of mass suffering (but willingness in situations of singular distress). It might mean that the vow has to be even more finely ground to penetrate our thick shells.

      • Most of the time, the last thing I want (really) is full-on responsibility. But that’s the direction of practice – toward responsibility.

        Interesting article on helping in “situations of mass suffering.” A friend and I have been talking about the “moral hazard” of the Red Cross’s text messaging campaign for Haiti. I argued that it made giving too easy, but that was before the campaign had raised over $25,000,000 in donations, $10 at a time. At that point, I shut up. F*ck moral hazard – that’s a lot of money that can be used to ease suffering.

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