I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking life (doing harm) –The First Precept of Buddhism
I was raised in a Christian home. Like many people, I understood that the Bible’s commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” applied to human beings. There was never any talk of not killing squirrels, deer, rats, mice, or insects. I’ll never forget the very first (and last) time my father, during my childhood, went squirrel hunting with a huntsman neighbor. My father brought home two squirrels that he’d shot, skinned, and cleaned all by himself. He was so proud! Nonetheless, my mother wasn’t having any of that! She refused to either accept, cook, or allow the squirrel carcasses to remain in “[her] home.” I, myself, was appalled that he could have expected us to eat anything “so cute,” but didn’t really think much more about it. We were not vegetarians, and as Guyanese people, we ate a great deal of rice with curried chicken, goat, and a beloved beef/goat dish known as pepper pot, among other things.
By the time I graduated from high school, I’d left the church (I was raised Lutheran); returned to Jesus as an apostolic Pentecostal “holy roller” for a short time, and then, due to mine and my father’s involvement in the martial arts, become extremely interested in Eastern philosophies. By the time I graduated from my university undergraduate program, I’d come to terms with the meat-eating experience and transitioned from vegetarian to vocal-veganism, though that would later change after someone pointed out that my love of leather didn’t quite square with veganism. Additionally, I’ve had some very rough times, financially, when my only choice was not between various types of meals, but rather between being able to eat or not. It is not uncommon, when trapped in the social services system, to be ridiculed (and refused) for asking for an extra bag of potatoes instead of that hunk of mystery meat you’d rather not eat, anyway. It’s a real case of “beggars can’t be choosers”… Nevertheless, since one can choose, it is definitely worth taking the 1:19 that it takes to visit this hell documenting the “legitimate” slaughter of animals for the benefit of meat eaters. Warning: It makes Dante’s version look like a trip to Disney Land. When we eat meat, we are complicit in the unimaginable suffering it causes our fellow ‘travelers’ on this planet…
Fast-forwarding to 2015, last summer I flew from New York to California to spend two weeks as a guest in a Theravada Buddhist monastery with a group of Bhikkhunis (female monks). I should mention, here, that in the Theravada lineage, meat-eating, with certain restrictions, is allowed, but it is a subject of much contention with serious repercussions if not mindfully and compassionately approached… I’d had to fill out an application to arrange the visit, and part of that had been informing them of what service I could be while visiting. I volunteered to drive, clean, and cook (so long as I had a really-detailed cook book). Upon arriving and settling in, I learned that my duties would be, primarily in the kitchen. Much to my delight, I discovered a sink full of dishes upon entering the kitchen, as lunch had just been served. Without being asked, I walked to the sink, picked up the sponge and discovered, to my horror, a dense colony of ants streaming beneath it. The only reason I did not shriek in horror was because I am so polite. So, though it took me a few moments more to pick my jaw up off of the floor (I’m more polite than I am “smooth”), I quietly dropped the sponge back into place, took a deep breath, and tried to figure out how best to calmly ask for some “Ants-Be-The-Hell-Gone” spray. But before I could ask, my guide informed me that the ants were there because of the obligation to observe the first precept. Truly, that had never occurred to me. I’d simply thought the good Sisters, who don’t do kitchen work, just didn’t have any good “help.”
Of course, they had no bug spray, bleach, or any other of the many treasured and beloved toxic concoctions upon which so many of us rely. We had to make due with “natural” cleansers. So, I had no choice but to get with the program. One of the other visitors to the monastery had come up with a rather ingenious method of handling the ants. She would take a sheet of paper towel, dampen it, and then gently “drag” it over the ants. With the ants, uninjured, but sticking to the paper towel, she would carefully transport them to the lowest rung of a plastic rack on the patio which was also used to dry laundry. As the paper towel dried in the wind, the ants could easily disengage from it, make their way to the ground, and crawl away (i.e., back into the kitchen).
Again, much to my great discomfort, the thin, but comfortable air mattress on the floor of my bedroom (which was just off the kitchen) was, occasionally visited by ants, as well. I could literally feel them crawling across my body, but once I discovered they didn’t bite, I relaxed and simply learned to be especially gentle if I had an “itch.” I learned to think of the ants as my co-pilots in life… And truly, the only reason I did not lose my mind was because I had already begun to practice some consideration for insect forms of life several years prior to arriving at that California monastery. Many years of trapping and transporting spiders “back to where they belong” had not only cured me of my fear of spiders, but even brought me to be able to appreciate their beauty. So, now that I’ve become enlightened, instead of jumping on my tractor and driving through my home trying to mow them down, I simply exclaim, “Namaste!” and run like hell…
Learning to live with the ants at the monastery was a life-changing experience for me. Even though I’d learned to catch spiders in jars, without harming them, and take them back outside, and would never have willingly harmed a dog, cat, squirrel, or deer, on my first day at the monastery I would have thought nothing of drenching the counter with Raid or tightly scooping up all the ants in a piece of wet paper towel. Until then, I had not realized that the Buddha did not differentiate between human and animal lives when those “animals” were, well, “only ants,” or perhaps cockroaches, or other creatures not as cute as lady bugs… Ants were, to me, merely pests, and the products of an unclean environment, not sentient beings who could show up for any number of reasons. And of course, it’s so much easier to see that dogs or horses have feelings, and love their offspring than it is to see the same thing in ants… The point, here is that, we tend to sympathize, more, with those who either look like us, or act like us; so, there is some moral danger in thinking that “difference” justifies indifference…
All sentient beings fear being harmed, love life, and want to be happy. I also discovered that those who value and revere the life of an ant are probably much more likely to respect it in a human being. If all human life was viewed as sacred, we could not have had Black Americans lynched for sport; Jews gassed, incinerated, and subject to outrageous medical experimentation during WWII; the Imperial Japanese Army’s prostituting of Korean girls and women, also during World War II, or the Rwandan genocide. In each case, these people were considered less than human, if only for convenience’s sake. It is always necessary to, first, distance ourselves from those we seek to demean, i.e., relegate them to the level of “lower than an animal,” or insect…
Each of the five precepts (the ones that must be observed by all non-monastic Buddhists), are fraught with subtleties we may yet to have considered or acknowledged. It is also important to acknowledge that they are not “commandments.” For us, they are not non-negotiables dictated by a stern, or loving, God who will subject us to an eternity in hell for not following them. It is always our intent that determines the “right” or “wrong” of what we do, and we are accountable to an immutable law of nature that neither cares about us personally, nor hears our appeals for mercy or special dispensations when we’d rather not deal with the results our actions always ignite – karma.
Prior to my monastery visit and after getting up close and personal with more ants than I’d ever dealt with (in any merciful way), I’d occasionally wondered why it was even necessary to utter the first precept, because like many people, I have never taken a human life (though, unlike the Buddha, I am as yet unable to account for any of my actions in past lives). Thus, in former kitchen experiences, if “cleanliness (truly) is next to godliness,” then I’d felt justified in doing whatever I had to do to keep my kitchen pest-free. Consequently, in this regard, alone, I might formerly have been considered one of the greatest transgressors of insect repellent, mosquito squashing, and spider bombing. The fact that I truly believed that certain gradations of life (insect versus human) justified such killings certainly lessens my culpability in the past, but now that I’ve received and processed new information, in both the intellectual and experiential senses, my future actions are subject to that new knowledge.
Two years ago, while living in a different city, my building experienced a “rodent infestation.” According to the exterminator, there were mice living within the insulation in our walls. The building was situated near a large vacant lot that was overgrown with bushes and weeds – a haven for everything from mice to much larger “rodents.” In an effort to hasten this case of rodent resolution, I bought a set of “sticky” rodent traps. These flat, “wall-less” traps, garnished with a little peanut butter or some other delicacy, can incapacitate even the smartest of rodents, who, by being careless, can place a foot too close to the sticky surface. This happened one night, with a trap I’d placed just a few feet from the bed. I’d awakened to the sound of what sounded like “tiny shrieking.” As the window was open, I’d imagined the sound must have been outside, but then, I thought of the trap, got up, and turned on the light. A tiny mouse had wondered out into the open during the night, gotten stuck, and in its struggle to escape, had ended up with the left side of its face, and part of its body stuck to the trap. It was truly one of the most heart-wrenching sights I’d ever seen, even though I was supposed to be happy that the product worked.
I was, essentially, paralyzed by the sight and wondered if it were possible to free the mouse. Having experienced getting the skin of my own hand stuck to the trap while setting it up, I could tell, just by looking, that if I tried to free the mouse, I would end up with only one half of its body in my hand. The other half of its body, with its thin, delicate skin, was never, ever going anywhere else. Being too scared to touch the trap, as the mouse was struggling, mightily, and had continued to shriek, I went, miserably, back to bed. A couple hours later, as morning arrived, I ran next door to enlist a neighbor’s help in simply picking up and disposing of the trap. The mouse was still thrashing and screaming those two hours later… Deciding to leave extermination to the professionals, I disposed of the rest of my sticky traps.
We’re treading on very thin ground when we look at one living being and decide that its life is not as valuable, or sacred, as ours, or another’s. We unthinkingly do this with animals and insects, everyday; and some human beings even do it with other human beings. Thus, the first precept, to do no harm, is not as simple to observe as we might expect, nor as difficult to transgress. In the words of the Buddha:
All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill. —The Dhammapada
The Buddha never said, “But one caveat — this applies only to people, especially those who look like us, or act the way we do, but not to animals, insects, reptiles, or fish”…
I’ve named this, “Makes Dante’s Hell Look Like DisneyLand” because I don’t read Arabic…