December 2014: Everyday Precept Practice

The First Grave Precept: Non-killing

For the month of December 2014, we focus on the First Grave Precept: Non-Killing. This is expressed in the Zen Peacemaker Tenets as follows:

I will recognize that I am not separate from all that is. This is the practice of Non-killing. I will not lead a harmful life, nor encourage others to do so. I will live in harmony with all life and the environment that sustains it.

There are different ways to look at this precept. All are important and part of a balanced view. We should always be willing to change our views or change the way we practice this precept as we gain more knowledge and understanding. Practice of the precepts is always fluid and flexible. If we get stuck on any one viewpoint, no matter how good this view might seem, we separate ourselves from the flow of life, and create the self/other dichotomy.

In the Pali canon, we find very clear, specific directives regarding the precept of refraining from life:

From the Brahmajala Sutta (Digha Nikaya – Long Discourses of the Buddha, Maurice Walshe, trans.):

Abandoning the taking of life, the ascetic Gotama dwells refraining from taking life, without stick or sword, scrupulous, compassionate, trembling for the welfare of all living beings.

Noble Eightfold Path

Right Intention includes “Harmlessness” guided by compassion (karuna). We are asked to consider that all beings want to be free from suffering, all experience pain, fear, sorrow, and other forms of dukkha. Practicing right intention can help us counteract aggressive, violent, cruel thoughts.

This aspect of the precept non-killing involves literally avoiding taking life or causing other harm whenever possible. We do not have to look very far into our lives to see how this is applicable. I think the more information we have about what actually goes on in the food industry, for example, especially relating to how animals are raised and slaughtered for consumption, the more clearly we are able to make a decision about whether we will eat meat, consume dairy products, etc. For example, when I first learned about the method of veal production that involved confining calves to small plastic boxes for their entire lives and actually saw this in practice, I decided not to eat veal because I did not want this procedure carried out on my behalf. Learning more about slaughter techniques, I decided not to eat meat at all.

People come to different conclusions about how to carry out their understanding of this precept, though, and it is important for us to avoid becoming judgmental about others. How can we be informative, respectful and nonjudgmental in these challenging but essential conversations? We should also avoid becoming rigid and fixed in our viewpoints, no matter how passionately we may believe. We can have beliefs and yet remain open to new information that may come to us and cause us to modify our thoughts or actions.

Kyojukaimon – Dogen Zenji's Teaching on the Precepts

In refraining from taking life you allow the Buddha seed to grow and thereby inherit the Buddha's wisdom. Do not destroy life.

Mountains and Rivers Order

Affirm life. Do not kill.

Another key perspective in this and all precepts is considering what words, deeds and intentions best uphold a foster a mind of compassion and reverence. By refraining from unnecessarily taking the life of other living things, we affirm that all life is valuable and worthy of respect. We recognize the interdependence of all life. Even though certain species of life may seem insignificant to us, these animals are very important for the life cycle of other animals and plants, which are important for the life cycle of others and so on – so that ultimately disregarding the well being of any one species disregards the well being of all. During our month of focusing on this precept, it is wise to consider how much our life is supported by all other life and how we can harmoniously help support that life as well. There is a multitude of information available on websites, books and by following the examples of other on how we can support life through conservation, advocacy, awareness of personal habits and information exchange.

It is inevitable that others will suffer as a result of our striving for continued life and well being. We acknowledged that in the Gatha of Atonement which we chanted during the Day of Reflection. However, by becoming more aware and conscious of these things, we can appreciate the contribution others make to our well being and in some small and some large ways, we can change our behavior and even the way we speak and think to minimize the harm to others. This precept asks us to consciously bring these things to mind and examine our role in the harming or caring for the earth and all of its inhabitants. When I became aware of the fact that the average vegetable sold in US supermarkets has travelled over 1500 miles to get there, for example, I understood the importance of buying locally and seasonally as much as possible as I had not before. So far, the Wisconsin climate has not proved able to support local coffee growing, but I have found sources of local organic tofu, and of course, cheese in abundance. The Zen Center was a member of a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) until last year, when we started our own organic vegetable garden. Locally buying has among its many advantages that it significantly decreases the fossil fuels expended to bring produce to the store and thus directly benefits all who live on the planet.

Bodhidharma One-Mind Precept

Self Nature is Inconceivably Wondrous
In the everlasting Dharma
Not giving rise to the notion of extinction
Is called the precept of refraining from taking life.

At first, it might seem difficult to understand the expression “Not giving rise to the notion of extinction” in Bodhidharma's One Mind Precept. The positively-stated expression in the Zen Peacemaker tenets “recognizing that I am not separate from all that is” is really stating the same thing. Focusing on our individual life as though it were separate from other lives makes us short-sighted and unaware of the consequences of our actions, speech and thoughts to others. Truly recognizing that all life, including our “own” is connected and that regardless of what our beliefs are, what we do, say or think affects all other life – actually animate and inanimate.

As many have observed, living in an era of the internet, cell phones, satellite dishes and the ability to travel anywhere in the world relatively rapidly, we have the opportunity to be much more aware of the impact of our actions globally. We must make a conscious attempt to act in accord with this in our everyday lives through our choices.

There is such a plethora of information that it is easy to become overwhelmed. In particular, we see that so many topics need addressing, we literally don't know where to begin. I like the words of composer John Cage, although said in a different context, very applicable here: “Begin anywhere.” For example, wanting to support young people in finding their way in the world, we could say “Well, their attitudes really begin in early childhood, so actually, I should focus on babies and toddlers.” But one of the best ways to support babies and toddlers in their healthy development is to support their parents and caregivers. And how did they develop their attitudes and capabililties as parents? From their upbringing. So now we are back to supporting young people again.

So yes, everything is interconnected, and that is why we can begin anywhere. So we should see what is in front of us, and begin there, today. Our actions ripple out to help all others.

Precept 12 of Engaged Buddhism - Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh

Do not kill. Do not let others kill. Find whatever means possible to protect life and prevent war.

Both the Zen Peacemaker tenets and Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh's precepts of engaged Buddhism emphasize our responsibility not to encourage or even allow others to engage in harming and unnecessarily killing. This is a very active stance. It is evident that silence or not acting once we have become aware of what is going on becomes a violation of this precept. The precept is really getting at the fact that if anyone is killing, being violent, aggressive, then we are killing, being violent and aggressive. Our inaction is not neutral – it is in fact contributing to the violence. But how do we respectfully and effectively influence the actions of others without creating more separation, more reactiveness and ultimately violence? The famous words in the Dhammapada state:

Hostilities aren't stilled through hostility, regardless. Hostilities are stilled through non-hostility: this, an unending truth.

This is the way of nonviolence. Does the situation arise that violence becomes necessary? What are alternatives and how do we put them into practice? These are complex questions that deserve our careful meticulous consideration and thoughtfulness. It is too easy to have unexamined, knee jerk reactions to these issues. Spending a month with this precept is exactly about examining these unconscious beliefs and practices.

Finally, “realizing that we are not separate from all that is” includes recognizing that people in all their diversity are not only to be tolerated, but respected and regarded as essential. Can we see that inclusion is not just tolerating the presence, but seeing that their presence is crucial? Without all of the pieces, the puzzle cannot be solved. It appears incomplete (which is another way of understanding the word “dukkha”). Many people think that my job, working with people with severe and profound disabilities must be depressing. Nothing could be farther from the truth for me. I find that the clients I work with have taught me and other employees things we might not have learned any other way. These individuals, often without verbal speech or even much voluntary movement are extraordinary people whose lives, so different from mine, are as clear, true, and inspirational as can be. There are days when I really need their genuine, comforting presence, as they need mine.

Right now, as we all know, there is much discussion of the widespread racial (and ethnic and gender) injustice and inequality that is prevalent in our country and the world. Events such as those that took place in Ferguson, MO and New York city have unfortunately been going on in many forms and places for generations and yet the public outcry and concern seems to be reaching a critical mass, a wave of such despair that actually brings hope for change. I really hope this is true. I hope that the pain and outrageous injustice suffered by people of color, indigenous people, targeted ethnicities to name a few is eventually transformed into real dialogue, atonement and healing. That these issues of great divisiveness, selfishness and willful disregard eventually lead us to a place of much greater recognition of not only the unavoidableness of our connectedness, but the crucial value of our diversity itself. We should also spend this month of focus on the precept of non killing to examine our own hidden pockets of excluding and judging others on the basis of their diversity or differentness from us. I have personally undertaken to educate myself more about racial injustice and cultural competency. The Buddha's statement that “All things have the same merit and virtue of the Tathagatha Buddha,” illustrates that our circle is indeed infinitely large and includes absolutely everyone.

“Our liberation is completely entwined with everyone else's liberation. Everybody needs to be in the room for all of us to wake up together. It's not about helping anybody. It's about us waking up together.” - Greg Snyder, Brooklyn Zen Center

Summing up, these comments are only the most rudimentary remarks on this very rich, thought-provoking precept. In taking on the Month of Every Day Precept Practice, we should vow to reflect on aspects of the precept Non-killing every day and allow its wisdom to permeate our thoughts, actions and speech in yet undiscovered ways. Thank you for undertaking this practice.

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