I have been pondering the First Precept.
I listen to Reverend Kusala a lot – an American Buddhist monk who does a lot of public speaking and records his talks for podcasts, he is a gentle man with a quirky sense of humour and I find him to be very human, down-to-earth and to make a lot of sense. (For anyone interested, his podcasts can be downloaded for free from iTunes, or you can find him here.) Whilst I potter about the kitchen, or hang the laundry, my day is invariably improved and my equilibrium restored for a word or two from him.
Most recently, I have been listening to a series of talks he gave at Loyola Marymount University entitled “The Buddhist Eightfold Path – A Way To Happiness…”. In these talks, as in others I have heard, he talks about the Five Precepts: do not kill, do not steal, do not indulge in sexual misconduct, do not make false speech and do not take intoxicants. Needless to say, the last of these precepts is the stickiest territory for most – myself included – but that’s a story for another day.
It is the First Precept I am thinking about today: Do Not Kill.
Reverend Kusala has a charming way of presenting this precept: he urges people to start big. Tongue firmly in his cheek, he suggests we commit to an attempt to get through the week without killing another person. That, naturally, made me smile. It isn’t a challenge I myself would find especially difficult and I suspect pretty much everyone I know is with me on that. Then, he recommends, we move down the food chain a notch and try to survive a week without killing any lions, tigers or bears. Not a problem: in rural Norfolk I’m not likely to encounter anything much bigger than a hare or a pheasant on my daily ramblings. It is after this, though, that things get trickier: we get down to the insects. Personally, I cannot kill spiders anyway. I always catch them in a jar and release them as far from the house as possible, in the hope that they’ll lose their way ‘home’. But what about the mosquitoes? And the ants? Or – and here I confess to shuddering violently – the slugs that make their way nightly into my kitchen? I have always killed them with salt whenever I have encountered them unawares. I have never enjoyed it, but the thought of them leaving that trail over the kitchen surfaces on which I prepare food for my family makes me feel quite ill. I once found a trail on the cooker hotplate! *Ugh* So what do I do? The jury is out for now as I fervently hope not to find one while I figure it out.
Mosquitoes, he suggests, should find one hunkering further down under the bed covers, buying mosquito nets, or attempting to capture it and set it free outside. Or maybe eeven making a gift of your blood in the spirit of generosity (providing you’re not in a malaria-ridden community) and ‘suffer’ the itch which is after all, he says, just a bodily sensation by another name. We label the sensations ‘pleasure’, ‘pain’, ‘itch’ etc and, I guess, it is up to us how we react to them. The ideal, from a Buddhist point of view, is with equanimity, but that is far easier to practise when you are not in constant pain. From an astrological point of view, of course, you’d be looking at the area of the body that the pain is localised, how that corresponds to your own Nativity, and trying to fix the emotional issue that brought it to bear in the first place. That too, however, is probably a subject for another day…
Reverend Kusala does address the issue of hygiene and accept that it is far easier to release one ant outside than a thousand and that, worst case, we may find ourselves killing them by ‘necessity’. It is, like everything else, for each of us to decide but should not be a cause for pleasure or satisfaction if we do ‘have’ to.
Personally, I’ll release whatever I can to live another day.