Killing and the Practice of Compassion

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Dear Still Water Friends,

This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will recite together the five mindfulness trainings and focus our discussion on the first training, the practice of compassion.

In its original form given by the Buddha to his lay disciples it read simply:

I undertake the training to refrain from destroying living creatures (Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami).

Thich Nhat Hanh expanded the original wording to bring awareness to the indirect ways our thoughts, words, and behaviors contribute to the destruction of life and the environment:

Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating 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 condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life.

The trainings are given as guidance for practitioners who would like to live a mindful life. To me, it makes sense that gratuitous killing, whether it is of insects or neighbors, is incompatible with a spiritual life. Gratuitous killing presumes an extreme form of self-centeredness: my life, my pleasures, my whims, have more importance than your life, or than the life of the planet. Each time I kill and ignore the suffering I cause, I deaden my capacity to feel connected with the flow of life.

And the opposite is also true. Each time I am aware of the suffering my actions might cause and I refrain, my capacity to feel integrated into the web of life grows.

And yet, the human condition is such that absolute non-killing is not possible. To some degree we all kill. Even if I am a strict vegetarian, the carrot dies when I pull it from the ground. Microorganisms die when I boil a potato. Animals and plants suffer because of the production and transport of my soy burger. And few of us are strict vegetarians. Thich Nhat Hanh often compares the first mindfulness training to the North Star. If gives us a direction in which to go, but we don’t set off with the intention of arriving there:

As a human being you have to walk, you have to eat, you have to drink, and that is why you cannot be perfectly nonviolent. But the important thing is that you try to be as nonviolent as possible, and you cultivate compassion, so that each day you become more and more compassionate, each day you become more and more nonviolent, and that is an art. (From a Dharma Talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh on July 20, 1998, in Plum Village, France.)

Perhaps the real challenge of this training is learning how to refrain from killing needlessly, and also, learning to accept that sometimes in killing or in using force, we serve life, just as the the eagle in killing its prey serves life.

In the excerpt below Jan Willis remembers a conversation she had with the Dalai Lama about using force to stop a policeman or a soldier from hurting others. His answer was: if you can wish him well, and pray for his future happy rebirth, then of course, you stop him from harming the others. You stop him by any means necessary.

You are invited to join us this Thursday. In our discussion we’ll share about learning to refrain from killing, and also about learning to accept that the use of force or killing sometimes serves life. I hope you can be with us.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner
Senior Teacher

Patience and Clarity
by Janice Dean Willis from Dreaming Me.

His Holiness wanted to know everything about recent demonstrations and unrest. We talked for some time about the shootings at Kent State. He made it clear that he wanted to know how we, as students, saw what was happening and why. He listened with eyes set firmly upon us and with a kindness and compassionate understanding that made our own words flow smoothly.

I was supposed to be following the same path that helped the Dalai Lama become as kind and great as he is, so I asked, “Given that we have taken bodhisattva vows, Your Holiness, what are we to do if, once back in the States, we find ourselves in a position where we too are facing policemen or National Guardsmen who want to shoot us?” . . . His Holiness became intensely reflective. Then with deliberate and attentive clarity, he advised us as follows:

“You have now entered upon the Mahayana path. That is very “good. Very good, indeed. The Mahayanist, the bodhisattva, as you know, works for the benefit of beings. He or she wishes to aid beings wherever they are in need. You should know that your first duty, now that you are on this path, is to practice patience. You are meditating to gain clarity. You must have clarity in order to act appropriately. With patience and with clarity you know with certainty whether you can or cannot help in a given situation. If, after looking at the situation with clarity, you determine that you cannot help, then it is better not to worry. Worry accomplishes nothing. But if you are clear and you can help, then you will know what to do and how to do it. So, patience and clarity are essential.”

“Yes, Your Holiness,” my impatience made me push, “but what if you think you have looked at all the alternatives—with clarity—and you find that your only course of action is to be on that line along with others, facing those policemen or those guardsmen, then what?”

“Again,” he said, “patience is most important. But if you are certain that there is no other alternative, if you are clear and certain about this, then what you must do is this: First, you must think lovingly and with compassion about the policeman. If you think or call him a pig, then you must let him shoot you! But if you can wish him well, and pray for his future happy rebirth, then of course, you stop him from harming the others. You stop him by any means necessary.” We were relieved and amazed.

He continued, “When I came out of Tibet, many Khampas with guns accompanied me. They were concerned about me. They wanted my safety. I could not say to them, ‘You are wrong to have guns.’ Many monks too in Tibet took up guns to fight the Chinese. But when they came here, I made them monks again. You should not believe that the Mahayana asks you to think of beings’ welfare only in some future time. You should try as much as possible to help in the here and now. Still, patience and clarity are most important, most important.”