Saturday, February 18, 2012

Killing (in the name of)

'I vow not to kill' is the first of the ten precepts, and it looks like an easy one to fulfil.  I haven't killed anyone, at least not knowingly or deliberately, at this point in my young life, and I can't imagine doing so in the future, although times change.  Since I moved to California I've gradually become a vegetarian: first I stopped cooking meat at home, then I stopped buying it when I was out, and finally I began to tell people I was a vegetarian and to refuse meat when it was offered to me.  Admittedly, I did it only partly for ethical reasons, and partly because doing without meat is cheaper and healthier.  And admittedly, the ethical reasons which did figure in my decision - the grotesqueness of factory farming, the unnecessary suffering caused to intelligent beings like pigs - didn't center on an aversion to killing animals for food.  Still, it's reassuring to realize that I don't regularly incentivize the unnecessary slaughter of animals.

Although I still eat fish, mainly because they're good for you and a fine source of protein, but also because I like to think that I agree with Kurt Cobain: it's okay to eat fish, because they don't have any feelings.  And I eat plants, but they're not sentient, so they don't count, right?  I'm on shakier ground when it comes to pacificism, that other great Californian fad that you might think is part and parcel of the Buddhist way.  The problem is, I still remember reading as a teenager George Orwell's denunciation of the pacificism of the intellectuals of his time, and even though I'm Mr. Propter and Aldous Huxley was among the most prominent of the 1930s peaceniks, it always struck me that Orwell had the better of that particular argument.  In particular, it seemed that the pacifists had a hard time saying what action they would take against fascist aggression, or how inaction would be in any way acceptable in the face of the Axis powers.

Part of this is bred in the bone.  I was born into an army family and raised mostly on army camps across Canada and Europe.  My father spent most of his career training and developing tanks, making sure that they could drive over knife-edges of sand and ultimately that they would be good at killing lots of people quickly.  My brother has spent a lot of time in Iraq and Afghanistan, and though the ostensible end in view was bringing democracy and stability to troubled lands the means employed doubtless sometimes involved killing people.  If there are always going to be Nazis and Taliban in the world, someone will have to stand up to them; and if they refuse to back down, standing up to them may ultimately mean killing them.  My teacher David Weinstein told me his first Tibetan teacher admitted that if there was a terrorist threatening to hijack an airplane he was on, he would consider compassionately hitting him on the head with a hammer.

David came to our Wind in Grass sangha the other night and announced he would give a talk.  He told us about a lady who had mice in her house.  She wanted to kill them but she was a Buddhist so decided not to.  Instead she caught them, except she eventually became convinced there was really only one mouse, a fact she confirmed by painting one of his nails crimson and letting him go - sure enough, the next mouse she caught had had the same manicure.  This was like the old story of the student who saw a spider drop down in front of his face every time he meditated.  He brought a knife to his meditation and the spider only got bigger; eventually his teacher told him to bring a brush instead, and to paint an X on the spider's belly as soon as he saw it.  He did that and the spider went away.  That evening, much relieved, he took his clothes off to have a bath and found a big X painted on his own tummy.

The talk went down well.  The three or four newcomers who had turned up that night were taking the first sips of their tea as he started by declaring that he'd been thinking a lot recently about killing.  Ashley came in just as he'd finished telling us about the mice and the spiders and explaining that we had mice and spiders in our brains.  I asked David whether you could build channels and obstacles for the mice, jumps and wheels they could run in.  Michael said it felt like the mice came from outside of the house and David told him to paint them and look at his belly.  David told us there were no cats and that, as a Zen teacher, he was of course the mental equivalent of a cat.  When Ashley drove me home that night, she expressed some confusion about the discusssion period, the cats and mice and spiders and Michael's belly.  I told her the stories and that cleared things up, or not.

Not killing in the Pacific Zen school seems to mean primarily not killing your thoughts, your temptations, your spontaneity.  The obvious objection to that recommendation is that sometimes we have to kill our spontaneity in order to stay alive or to avoid doing somethig awful.  The rejoinder is that we don't actually have to kill the evil mind-mice or slice up the spiders of temptation with smuggled knives; actually, trying to kill the beasties only makes them stronger.  Instead it's better to mark them with a brush and some ink or nail-polish.  And that helps you see that there's only one mouse that might as well become your pet, and that there's actually no spider at all, there's only your hairy belly that you can live with, since after all you've lived with it all your life.  You see the anger and the lust come and go, and imagining you can kill either doesn't help you become kind or strong.

Hence the story about the master and the official out walking when a rabbit saw them and ran away.  The official asked the Zen master, 'Why would a rabbit run away from you?'  The master replied, 'Because he knows I like to kill'.  Humans eat rabbits and rabbits eat lettuce and bears eat humans though lettuce doesn't: there's no way out of the chain of suffering and enjoying and maybe it's better not to pretend that there is.  You're certainly not going to impress the official if you pretend you're never hungry and end up chasing after the rabbit.  I like to hate and desire and be self-regarding and self-loathing, but it's only when I try to eradicate and annihilate and deracinate those mice, throwing nails at them and bowling balls and napalm, that they grow fangs and shells and develop cloaking devices.  But it's hard to stop doing it - you see, I like to kill.  And I'm sure I'll keep doing it.  I vow not to kill. 


  1. This courtesy of Pete:

    It appears that fish do feel pain, but this may not be sufficient to disprove Kurt Cobain's dictum about them not having any feelings. You might say that fish are not sentient (they don't have a neo-cortex), so that it's alright to kill them for food. But I admit it's hard to say why sentience whould be more important than pain, unless you take consciousness to be a central good around which ethical concerns should revolve. Which maybe I do.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. i'm confused about the whole buddhist attitude to killing and suffering. in the case of the extreme examples you mention (such as fascism, war and highjacking) i can see the difficulties and the sense in the 'compassionate hammer' and how it revolves around the idea of a greater good.

    but for the more personal terms of the rabbit, bear, lettuce, human chain - surely the way out is not to kill / eat the rabbit or the bear? (i'm sure some people eat bear). saying it's a cycle that i'm trapped in, and so therefore might as well do anyway, is a perfectly acceptable stance but seems strange in relation to buddhism. couldn't this argument be applied to any other 'vice' or morally questionable activity, thereby allowing you do to what you wish while also being absolved of the consequences.

    with regards to buddhism and the eating of animals, from what i understand, some of the key ideas about buddhism are not taking life and practicing makes sense when people had to rely on eating animals as a necessity in order to survive. but is this still the case in the west? and is eating meat three times a day the same as eating meat just once a week?

    maybe kurt cobain shouldn't have felt so bad about eating beef (though, to be honest, i don't think it was his main concern).

    'i eat cow, i'm not proud'- mr moustcahe

    1. I think that a lot of the confusion comes from there being several strands of ethical thought within Buddhism, and from my experience of American Zen being of a peculiar sort. So I think that basically for Theravada (orthodox) Buddhists, desire is to be avoided at all costs. For Mahayana (weird) Buddhists, like Vajrayana and Zen people, there's no use avoiding it so we might as well embrace it, or at least not repress it. For American Zen people, I think the temptation is very strong to interpret the precepts in the most liberal way possible so that you don't have to stop drinking or being promiscuous. This may or not be a good thing but lately I'm inclined to think that it's not healthy, since eventually you start thinking you can come up with your own interpreation of lying and stealing as well.