In the Triratna Buddhist tradition, which I joined in 2008, we recite the first precept as follows:
I undertake the training principle of not harming living beings, [Negative form]
With deeds of loving kindness I purify my body. [Positive Form]
When I first heard the five precepts, this one felt like a ‘no brainer’. I had been a vegetarian for years and remember secretly patting myself on the back and thinking “1 down, 4 to go”.
Now, 7 years on, I no longer have the view that I’ve ‘attained’ this precept in any real way.
I feel like the first precept is the Buddhist version of the Golden Rule, in that it ultimately covers all the other precepts.
One should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated. [Negative Form]
One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself. [Positive Form]
If I follow the golden rule, and don’t harm myself or others, aren’t I really following all the other precepts? Non-Killing/Non-Harming seems to incorporate not stealing, right speech, right sexual conduct, not taking intoxicants. Concerned with my actions as an individual and wanting to practice the precepts, I simply try to take care in my everyday life.
In reading chapter Six of Reb Anderson’s Being Upright, The Teaching of the Two Truths, I was interested to learn about the conventional truth aspect and ultimate truth aspect of the Bodhisattva precepts. Anderson points out, when we can move beyond the conventional, we can practice the precepts not as something external we impose on ourselves and create anxiety around, but as natural expressions of our understanding of life.
Reflecting on these two aspects, it seems that I focus mainly on the foundational conventional truth level and haven’t really explored or moved towards the “ultimate truth” aspect as yet.
I reflect on how I kill in the area of consumption. The skincare and cosmetics I currently use are not cruelty-free. There are other items in our home that are not environment- or animal-friendly. I’ve simply been purchasing the cheapest or most convenient brands, without consideration of impact. I am starting to make changes in this area now. Clothing is another area I have considered, but haven’t made any changes as yet. I buy from big box stores where the labels say “Made in China/India/Vietnam”. I don’t know the conditions the workers have, or if they are paid fairly. Price is my main driver. The savings I enjoy may actually be paid by other people across the planet. People whose birth just happened to be less fortunate than mine. Does this give me the right to exploit them? Am I not killing their health, their life expectancy, their happiness by feeding my desire for cheap clothing? And perhaps is this too simple a view? What if that sweatshop work is actually a better choice than the alternative? Low pay and exploitative conditions vs. no pay and starvation? What is the ‘right’ thing here?
“A bodhisattva sometimes finds it necessary to break a precept in the conventional sense in order to fulfill the compassionate purpose of his or her life”.
This is another idea in Anderson’s book that stood out to me as I have some guilt and anxiety around my daily medications. They are tested on animals. I sometimes agonize over this. I see that I am not separate from any other being. We are all suffering together and there is no formula for ‘doing the right thing’ I can follow here. I take these medicines to keep myself disease free and healthy so that I may work and contribute my time and resources to causes that help people and animals. I’m not a bodhisattva, but I take comfort knowing that as humans, there are times we may choose to break a precept because we believe there is a ‘greater good’ to be attained.
Another area of killing I’ve reflected on this month is around virtual relationships. Since moving to NYC, I use Facebook to stay in contact with friends and family. I notice that since these relationships have transferred from the physical realm to the mental realm, my anxiety and tendency towards negative thoughts has increased. I miss these people, and it seems like they’ve carried on with life just fine without me. Who knew that they didn’t need me to live full and happy lives?! My poor ego is wounded. Instead of just reaching out, being vulnerable and saying “I miss you guys, let’s make time to talk”, I indulge in provocative posts and comments designed to solicit attention, even negative attention. This pattern of seeking attention and validation, even if negative, is an old one rooted in childhood. In Getting Unstuck, Pema Chodron speaks of shenpa, the “hook” or “urge” to indulge in unskillful habits. I feel myself turning towards this shenpa, going to poison for comfort. Am I not killing these relationships by engaging in behaviour that is essentially unkind, both to myself and to them?
When I moved to the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I met two homeless men in my neighbourhood, and there are rich lessons for me in these relationships. In my eagerness to “help them”, I have been challenged to reflect on what “helping them” really means. For example, I agreed to call the hospital for some info for AR. When I got it, I was so eager to tell him that I walked up to him sitting in his wheelchair and just blurted it out. I failed to notice that he had, in fact, been asleep. Instead of the grateful reception I was anticipating, he berated me for waking him up. I went through such a range of emotions. I walked away feeling guilty and embarrassed at my lack of mindfulness. Great lesson! Just because AR lives on the streets, doesn’t mean he deserves less common courtesy. It may not be convenient for me to come back another time, but shouldn’t I have noticed he was sleeping and thought maybe he needs sleep right now more than the info I’m so keen to give him? I need to look, notice and be mindful when approaching someone. Gauge whether they are ready to receive me. And if I make a mistake, be humble, apologize and keep on trying.