The First Precept: Not to Kill
2:41PM May 25, 2022
Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede
This is May 22 2022, and with the Buddha's birthday coming up this coming weekend and the little Jukai ceremony we're having the previous night that's Friday evening to cap off temple night, what we call temple night, I thought I should pick up some things about the precepts. That's what that's the Japanese word; Jukai means taking the precepts ceremony, or receiving the precepts. The big one we have, the annual one, is on Thanksgiving weekend. But then we also have this other one and for people who want to receive a rakusu, this one is will do the trick, as a requirement to prerequisite for receiving a rakusu is to go through Jukai. Even the somewhat abbreviated one, this is Friday. So about the about the place of morality in Zen. It's not our focus. Morality is not our focus in Zen practice. There are so many considerations regarding morality. And there are so many different systems of morality in the world. The Zen mission, the Zen mandate is to see the nature of mind that is the nature of what of what all morality all systems of morality, arise out of the mind. That is the our nature, our true nature. So that's, that's our, our emphasis, our focus in Zen is seeing into the nature of the mind that underlies all systems of morality. But at the same time, to uphold the precepts is is important in seeing into the nature of the mind it helps. There, there is this triad of what what in Buddhism are called the three essentials. There aren't many things in Zen that you need to memorize, but this would not hurt you to know the three essentials, because they're essentials. The three are morality. The Sanskrit word is Sila, S-i-l-a, morality, meditation, and wisdom. Meditation and wisdom are very much upheld and nourished, through the living a life in which we are not causing unnecessary harm any more than we do all the time. In other words, to minimize the harm we cause to others and to ourselves. Contrary wise, if we are violating the precepts, if we are taking life, unnecessarily, if we are taking what is not given, that's the second precept, misusing sexuality, lying, abusing alcohol or drugs, then we are creating harm to others and to ourselves, ourselves at least, we're creating harm and, and that can be an impediment in terms of the other two essentials are, our sitting let's just keep it simple, our sitting. Well, no sitting and moving. That's really what Zen is. It's the sitting part the moving part, that is keeping the mind free of obstructive thoughts. Breaking the precepts always has the possibility of impeding our meditation, as well as our our growing wisdom and, and eventually awakening to one degree or another. In Zen, we say that the precepts are the foundation of practice.
And what's what's wonderful about the precepts ceremony is doing it with others, allowed. It's one thing to think about the precepts. And that really doesn't embody that much. But when we voice them, when we get our body involved the tongue, the larynx, the lungs, when we get all that involved, and especially embedded with others in the Sangha in a place like the, the Buddha Hall, second floor, then it can really can really, sink can get the precepts into us in a way that not doing that wouldn't.
Really, practice Zen practice is ultimately about liberation and not causing harm. The Buddha famously said, I teach but two things suffering and the end of suffering. The first is the first of the Four Noble Truths, suffering, that suffering is pervasive in life. We can't escape pain, at least. And so his whole, the Buddha's whole mission, his whole Dharma, was to relieve suffering unnecessary suffering. The sort of the cornerstone of Buddhist morality is, in a way, the cornerstone of Buddhism itself is the law of causation. That everything is cause and effect. And, and we have a word for that on a moral level, which is karma. Karma is a very complex and deep, deep principle in Buddhism, as it is in Hinduism, I guess. And I'm going to be using it rather freely now. Just as a kind of shorthand, is what when we are creating karma, and when we're not, you know, we speak loosely about good karma and bad karma. But going back to original Buddhism, there wasn't really in talk about good karma. They just talk about karma, either we're creating karma that keeps us the wheel of samsara, the wheel of life and death, revolving and revolving through suffering. Either we're creating karma or we're not. And so these precepts, each in its own way, is addressing how we can avoid creating karma for ourselves and others. How we can I like to think of it very simply as it how can we how we can refrain from hurting people. Just that, let's just call it that. How could we not hurt people any more than we do just inadvertently?
advertised in Sangha email that I'd be dressing especially the first precept this morning, because there are three events recently that have brought the first precept right into the front of our minds. There was eight days ago, there was the buffalo massacre. There's the likely overturning of Roe, Roe versus Wade in the a much, much reduced accessibility to abortion and that is likely to happen. And, and then a little further back, there was the self immolation of the man in Denver. So I'd like to take these first, starting with the buffalo massacre. This is the easiest and most obvious, glaring, horrible appalling violation of the First precept. And I really don't need to say much other than that it didn't come out of nowhere. In the first precept not to kill, but to cherish all life, like all the precepts, we can see it you can interpret it very strictly or very loosely, if we if we interpret it strictly and look at it, say from a Mahayana point of view, then there are bent we could say that, to have any complicity in the taking of life is a violation of the First precept any complicity. So, what brought this deranged young man to do what he did in Buffalo? Well, the ease the low hanging fruit answer is the easy availability of firearms and social media. This double edged sword that can do so much to bring us together and so much to divide us. Aside from whatever organic damage there may be in this young man's brain, or who knows, terrible abuse as, as a child on social media, he was able to carve out a way of having his sick ideas, racist ideas, inflamed. And especially by this, this loathsome Tucker Carlson, who seems to his whole mission now seems to provoke fear and hate as widely as possible. It is so, so disheartening that, according to what I've heard, he's the most most watched broadcaster there is on television. So this is the this is the container out of which this this murderer went about his deranged behavior is having an inflamed by social media and having those firearms available. know they're there, they will have to determine I suppose, I haven't been following it that closely as far as the prosecution of him, they'll have to determine whether he's legally competent to stand trial. Whatever, whatever the legal decision is, whatever the legal definition is, we surely we can agree that someone who does something like this is insane, is mentally disturbed.
But the law doesn't work that way. So there has to be determination about that. And this, this gives us the chance to with someone in such a clear cut case of of violence and murderous violence, gives us a chance to see if we can avoid hating him simply hating him back, returning the hate that he was so consumed by. And by that I mean, can we recognize that that there has to have been terrible suffering behind his murderous impulse, premeditated and there has to be suffering? And of course, fear. It's not it's not denying that he, what he did is as hateful but well, it helps to, to believe in the true nature of someone like that. It's a little hard if you just have to believe it a lot better to have confirmed it through awakening to this essential nature that we all have in common. But in any case, if we can Do not further exacerbate the hate in this world by just leaving it at at hating him. Can we get underneath that and, and remind ourselves that again, there's something something very sick about such a person. Now there is the buffalo massacre and then abortion This is one of many ways to, to grapple with the first precept. And I'm just going to wait in here and and and since this is there's a lot more argumentation about abortion in the world. I'm going to first layout the fact that this is just my I'm what I'm going to try to do is just explore both sides. Just look look at it. And I would never, never claim to know I really don't. What is right, in quotes what's right and what's wrong. That right and wrong is really not the primary concern of those of us practicing Zen it's it's what causes suffering and what doesn't, is different. It's different. In the Abrahamic religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, right and wrong are so central, but not in Buddhism. And there is a difference. We don't have to really focus on right and wrong and bad terminology and so much as what causes pain, what causes several creates karma and what doesn't. And it's, it's often ambiguous. It revolves around I've done did some work on this last night. And recently, mostly it revolves around the notion of personhood, when, when what is personhood? When does it begin? There's so much out there, I can't claim to have exhaustive, really be any kind of expert on what the two sides are. But according to one of the podcasts that I listened to, they're basically two viewpoints. One is the species view about personhood. And this is the conception, it begins at conception.
But in in response to that, we can say that, when you look very closely, according to one, one, expert, it's it's very hard to pin down when conception is seemingly, we would think it's pretty simple. But But what this person said, quite convincingly is it's a process. It can't be broken down into discrete minut incremental stages. It's a process in which by the way, people who really have looked deeply into death that death is the same death is a process. It's very hard Roshi Kapleau in his books, and I don't know many Zen teachers who went as deeply and thoroughly into death and dying as Roshi Kapleau did in his books. But he also says scientists can't quite pin down when death actually is. But back to back to birth. Does a is a single cell zygote. Part is that a person
there's the the argument about for for making an absolute out of you know, we unfortunately the phrase pro life has wormed its way into common discourse. I don't like that. You know, it would be wonderful if people who were so passionate about non abortion stopping blocking abortion if they were are as passionate about life after birth, life for adults or children. So I'm going to understand using pro life, which was the concoction of some Republican media consultant, I think, Edward Lance or something like that, where he decided that this is the good way to change the debate CALL IT pro life, let's call it anti choice
here too to it with abortion. A precise definition may be required legally. I mean, that's true. But, but morally, it's different. There's someone said, I can't remember, the law often permits what morality does not.
Back to the species view is that conception is the beginning of life. And that there's this this argument for life potentiality. That is, we can't kill an embryo we can't have more even early, early early abortion, because we're depriving the future value of the being. On the other side, they would say that, that would suggest that that killing an embryo is worse than killing a 70 year old.
Because the 70 year old has a lot less future ahead of him, head of me. Even when I have even less than a 70 year old. There are the people who have these arguments. These debates also talk about intuitive judgments. Instead of instead of doing thought experiments, the way logicians do philosophers do, what about just our gut feeling? So as an example would would, who would choose to if we had a choice of saving five embryos, or a child who would choose the five, saving the five embryos over the life of a child? These are, these are compelling arguments to me. Maybe they aren't to others.
And then there's the there's, aside from the species view, of personhood, and so forth, there's the capabilities view of that there is a what defines a person is a cluster of characteristics or traits, such as, for example, self awareness, language ability, emotive spectrum, even the form or what they call the casing of a human. So it's not there's no single feature, but a number of them together a cluster of characteristics that define personhood. Pretty Pretty in precisely to it to to be sure. There is this idea of the paradox of the heap, a gap like a pile, the paradox of the heap and this how it goes, okay. When what kind of characteristics how many of them constitute personhood? So the analogy is sand. So what went when if you're piling sand in a pile, at what point does it become a heap? So is that 100,000 grains of sand 10,000 A million. If you say a million, well, is it not 999,999? I like the word heap in this non Buddhist context, because that's one of the translations of Skanda Skanda for those of you who know the, the project paramita begins Bodhisattva compassion from the depths of prajna wisdom, saw the emptiness of all five skandhas the five skandhas in our chanting version, the five skandhas out of the form or the casing of a person, feeling, thought, choice and consciousness, these five together together is what, what it means to be a person.
And awakening reveals that these five even together are fundamentally empty, and empty of any self substance, any, any enduring substance. But that emptiness reality is something that we really can't fairly get into when talking about morality, because morality is in the realm of, of the relative the realm of differentiation of choice and of and of causality, so we'll leave out the emptiness which is leaving out half of reality, by the way want to try to be fair to those of you who feel so terribly strongly are so terribly strongly opposed to abortion? And, by the way, I think it's better than not try to parse it out into how many weeks? At what point it's okay or not, okay? It's hard to sympathize with the view that that even in case of rape and incest, that you shouldn't be allowed to have an abortion
but I'm going to turn now to Roshi capitalist book Zen merging of east and west where he tackles this matter of abortion.
He, he, he brings forth the actual example of of a woman in the Sangha that that time late seven days who had considered having an abortion and had talked to him at some length about it, and ended up deciding against it. And some, some time maybe months, months after the she gave birth he received from her this letter. Yes, our child is quite a fellow, how grateful we are that he chose us as his parents. More than one person has remarked, he's the happiest baby I've ever seen. Perhaps some more noteworthy, she says is his wonderful responsiveness and alertness and adaptability. How can we ever thank you Roshi for the advice you gave us so many moons ago when our child was just a speck inside me that we once toyed with the idea of abortion is now unbelievable in all caps her emphasis a bad dream
so how can we let me just say the epilogue to that is that for a later pregnancy she did decide to have an abortion
Zen you read everywhere in the in the textbooks it's a teaching beyond dogma and I hope I'm I mean reinforcing that with his teisho that there is you can't say what's right or wrong for other people and that's why I'm I am obviously pro choice is because there's there's an argument against that to what what are what are we drawing from to make this choice of abortion to abort or not to abort? How much wisdom is going into that choice? How much conditioning how much ignorance is going into that choice? So it's hardly airtight argument but I I was true of other first precept issues of its morality is so complicated, there are so many contingencies, so many things to consider. It's not certainly we can agree, I hope that we can judge anyone else who makes a sincere, a sincere, deep consideration of something like abortion and makes whatever decision she makes.
Here's another Buddhist consideration with respect to abortion, that is the the interdependence of different factors, different variables, the interdependence of that, that life, the embryo or the fetus, and the mother and the father and the siblings.
How can we
ignore the effect of the of the pregnancy on the mother
there was a legal brief recently signed by 154 economists who agreed that overturning roe would harm women economically through through loss of education, and loss of labor force participation. They call this the feminization of poverty there are also studies that show that without access to abortion, women showed declining levels of happiness, including including fewer and less satisfying long term committed relationships with partners.
Think that's all the time we have for the abortion issue is just enough time to completely muddy the waters. And now I want to move on to the the other the third topic of self immolation.
a man from Colorado I think went to the went to Washington and on the steps of the Supreme Court. He set himself on fire. His name was when Bruce the body raged in flames for 60 seconds before it was extinguished by the police. And he remained still sitting upright on the plaza with his legs stretched in front of him. Just giving some detail here. You remain silent. Now is self immolation, suicide. Many people would say it is a form of suicide. I don't know. This I find is the these three things than buffalo massacre and abortion and self immolation. I think the self immolation is honestly the heart hardest for me to get a clear read on here, here are the extenuating factors that would suggest it's not mere suicide. That that he did it, he said, to as a protest a spectacular, dramatic physical protest, of climate change the inaction, inaction on climate change. It's a way he said and his friends said, a way to draw attention to the world. And in that I see desperate interest in the well being of the planet I have to be so careful here. If someone without that motivation or even with it, someone for any motivation, did self self emulated, then I will feel partly responsible. But I have to honestly say I think there's it's it's, it elevates it to something more than suicide when when it's a cry of desperation like that. Remember the monks there was more than one but one in Vietnam more than there was one in particular photo of him in flames reached across the world. And I think it's fair to say that it was instrumental in galvanizing the anti war movement. Now in that case, it was a Buddhist monk dedicated to relieve suffering. Remember the Buddha's words suffering in the end of suffering we can suppose it was anyway that that's that's what was behind it
so that's a factor to the extent that it is done for that out of that motive. Compassion was that the motive of this Bruce when recently was there also some mental illness involved? He had had a catastrophic auto accident earlier in his life that at least for a while, cause some brain damage. But then he had gone on become pretty function pretty well become a photo journalist. It's a little I'm a little skeptical that it was mental illness could we could we elevate that his the man on the Supreme Court can we elevate his self immolation to skillful means was it was it a way of self as form of self sacrifice in order for the for the greater good?
That, that those Vietnamese monks in their in their set, self immolation also was quite controversial in this country. I heard from a Zen teacher in Minnesota that when they were trying to get permission to build a country retreat center, there was a hearing in the local town where they were in this rural meeting where one of the locals stood up and said all I know is that I don't want people sitting on street corners setting themselves on fire. That was his association with Buddhism.
Read the article I read from the New York Times said that he was if not a Buddhist if he wasn't self didn't self identify as a Buddhist he was sympathetic to Buddhism. It's still am not clear about where he stood there
but we know that identifying with any religion doesn't mean that you're you're upholding the the tenets the highest ideals of that religion, in what you do. We know this terrible disgrace of the
many 1000s of people in Myanmar formerly Burma, who went on this rampage of genocide against the Rohingya minority. And I was in Burma a long time ago and I teen 79 I learned that 99% of Burmese considered themselves Buddhists.
But that is not Buddhism trying to exterminate someone about another religion. It's appalling at the time in 1979 it was so heartening to see see the so many people come out even on a Saturday night to the this Shwedagon Pagoda this this world famous pagoda, where people would come up and and circumambulate on the pagoda seemed there was quite a bit of dating going on there to young men and young women I knew each other and having a quite a nice time. I'm not sure how many of them really got the spirit of reverence there at that temple
Winston Churchill is reported to have said, going to church doesn't make you a Christian, any more than standing in a garage makes you a car
so but it's still a terrible, terrible, terrible statement that so many in Myanmar who would even just consider themselves Buddhists would do such a thing. I remember Roshi for years and introductory workshop saying, there's never been a war fought in the name of Buddhism. And I always thought, Yeah, but look at that. Look at what happened in Sri Lanka. Were one of those long, long, long civil war where one side identified as Buddhists. I think it's fair to say that there have been far, far fewer wars in the name of Buddhism and the name of Christianity or the other of some other religions. But yeah, it's not. It's not it's not it's beyond isms. It's how to the degree that we live up to the teachings of the Buddha, the Dharma.
We can, we can see, I think many of us can see self immolation, we can or can we respect it? I respect it. If it's if it's done as this cry of this pleading for the world to wake up and do something about climate change. I can't it's hard for me to feel critical of that, Bruce, when for what he did, and it's also hard for me to endorse it. It's thorny and had great effect in Vietnam. Well, so it seems though, probably those who would argue that it didn't. I think of a little insects like, well, like ants and bees, where they're so reflexively willing to sacrifice themselves. For the sake of the group, the collective ants forming a little bridge across a puddle of water, something knowing you just dying so that the other ants can walk over their backs. Similar things with bees, stinging. At threat, someone they perceive as a threat, just reflexively that's reflex. We are not, we're not insects, we have cognition, we have self awareness, we have ways of grappling with these ethical issues.
Suicide to Roshi Kapleau used to be very critical of, of people who commit suicide without without discarding that entirely. I've grown to be more sympathetic than just saying air all suicide comes out of ego, self centered pneus.
I think he would have agreed with Lao Tzu the the founder of Taoism, from ancient China who said one with outward courage dares to die, one with inner courage dares to live But how can any of us who have not reached that depth of depression and despair? How can we judge others who reached their limit and see that as the only way out think it's widely agreed that behind suicide is anger, hatred. I would not be one to get terribly filled with pity for people who commit suicide. I can be sympathetic, but But recognize that well, what people in mental health say is often if not always, it's only look suicide is an act of murder. We haven't we call it suicide. We don't call it murder, but it's taking life. That's that's a violation of the First precept but this is complicated stuff, I remember.
Here's a story for when I heard from John Sheldon and he was an early sesshin monitor here. He was the first first or second of our staff members to go to train in Japan, he went to BU coca G. And while he was there, he was maybe 23 years old or something. While he was there in the temple, he saw a centipede or at least that's what he thought we would call it a centipede and he went about very very responsively went about looking for a cup or a drinking glass with a piece of cardboard you know that tricky? You just managed to get the insect up on the with the help of the drinking inverted drinking glass and you get it trapped on the cardboard with a drinking glass over it. And then you get it out of the out of the house and toss it into the weeds while he was just about to do that with his drinking glass and and cardboard when Tongan Roshi came rushing over. Now, let me just insert that the the, according to what I heard, this kind of centipede is poisonous. Okay, that changes that a little bit. Tongue and Roshi came running over he brought he knocked John Sheldon out of a way. He went up on the art went up to the altar, got the kill psycho the stick, he came back, he gave the three refuges he recited them aloud three refuges. And then
I would have escorted that little centipede out of there. I was in when I was with Roshi Kapleau are living, they're working on his books, there was a we would see our share of scorpions waltzing across the living room floor. And there was one that came across that one of the first ones and I knelt down and I looked up at him he was reading and I said, Should I kill it or not? And he was ready for that question. He very in a very, I remember very serene way, he said, Well, depends on your state of mind. If you can kill that Scorpion without any ill will any malevolence, then you're not creating karma by doing it. But if you can't, dot dot, dot, dot, and so I wasn't convinced that I could, there would be no malevolence in my heart as I kill the scorpion. So I did what then became our practice, I'd got the drinking glass and the cardboard out and, and easily was able to get the scorpion on and escorted out to the weeds. So much from the Mahayana point of view, from a Zen point of view, so much depends on the mind state of the person. If, if, if a woman and maybe in consultation with the father feels that they, for all things considered, they should do the abortion then to to before doing so, to have a little ritual of, of expressing sorrow or repentance can make all the difference. In terms of being able to get past whatever karma may be created by taking the life of that fetus or embryo All right. Our time is up, we'll stop and recite the four vows.