NOT KILLING: A Consideration of Zen’s First Grave Precept

NOT KILLING: A Consideration of Zen’s First Grave Precept April 1, 2023

A Consideration of Zen’s First Grave Precept

James Ishmael Ford

Death and with it, killing is a great conundrum. Half of the conundrum of life and death. The fact of it. And how we engage it. Even, actually, how we think about it. One of the axioms of our Zen way is that everything, including our inner states have consequences. So, going for the hard thing, going toward the heart of the matter, what about death and especially our relationship with killing?

I recall back in 2011. And how in response to the killing of Osama bin Ladin, I shared an observation on social media about our radical interdependence. And with that a small consideration of the ongoing sadness of our human condition.

I prefaced it with an observation that bin Ladin was a bad man. And that I experienced a lifting of my heart at hearing of his death. I used the word “glad.” Some people objected to these two things. Calling someone bad. First. And being glad someone was killed. Most. One commentator suggested my offence was so grave I should no longer teach the Buddhadharma.

I’ve thought about those things. Before that incidence. And since. And in other situations involving killing. And with it, my personal relationship, whether by action, or by my emotional involvement. It all counts. In one sense or another.

There have been no times in our human history without the organized killing of human beings happening somewhere. In our moment it’s nearly impossible to not be aware of the industrial scale killing going on in that hot spot where Ukraine and Russia touch. A year ago and small change, a Russian army of conquest crossed a shared border, and instantly met with fierce resistance. Today, right now, there many square miles of dirt and ruin stained deep with blood. And with more blood pouring, every day. Another killing field.

I could go on. Litanies of death are easy to compose. War. Murder. Executions, you know state sanctioned killing. There is some endless human propensity for violence. And with that, a question: what it might mean? If meaning is to be found. There are very good arguments there is no meaning.

Although I’ve found Buddhism, the Mahayana, the great way, and specifically Zen shows a way through, where we discover our actions and ideas matter in a way somewhat larger than the words meaning and meaninglessness can encompass. Here we enter a world of mystery, which we can partially know, but mostly we can only experience.

The Heart Sutra sings of this mystery, of how what is, is captured in the words “form” and “empty,” and what they can point to in our lived lives. Gerry Shishin Wick, a Zen teacher I admire, offered in an exchange, “that sometimes, our perception of reality appears to be absolute. Everything is unified. And sometimes our perception is focused on the diversity or relative. Then if we ask, ‘what is the true nature of reality,’ a definitive answer eludes us.” Form becomes diversity or relative. And empty becomes the absolute. Lots of good words. And. Yes. Waxing philosophical, a bit. But also, in them, a pointing. And, in that pointing, an invitation.

Definitive answers elude. But instead, something presents. And, in that elusive place, the specifics of that diversity, of that relative, invite us into a relationship with the absolute. The empty in traditional Mahayana Buddhism. And. Well, Of the things of the relative world that point most directly into the absolute, well, here we meet death.

And it is here we find the precept of not killing.

My understanding is that the Jewish and Christian commandment to not kill is a very nuanced thing. Depending on which list you refer, it’s the fifth or sixth commandment of the ten best known ones. Which are in turn generally considered the most important of some six hundred twenty-three commandments found in the Hebrew Scriptures.

The most common interpretation of this particular commandment, what is fair to call the normative position of theologians, is that we are not to commit murder. That is, not to commit an unlawful killing of another person. Some do take it to be a more comprehensive call; a few even see a call to pacifism within it. But this more comprehensive understanding of the commandment is something of a minority report.

This is not so for the Buddhist precept about killing, our first “grave precept,” is unambiguous. And I certainly hope you notice, therefore, of course, ultimately impossible.

In Buddhism, in the great web of relationships, everything has a place. Or, maybe, better, a moment. And with that all living things, specifically, in the temporariness, are cherished. In the Buddhist traditions, sentient beings, that is the totality of living, conscious beings, are bound up together in the way of our liberation. In some traditions of Buddhism, say Zen, finding something insentient is actually pretty hard. On our Zen way even rocks and quarks have a side that can be called sentient.

And with that the precept of not killing is an unmodified, not nuanced statement. Do not kill—anything, ever. For some, don’t even think about it. And, never, ever rejoice. Otherwise, you might not be worthy to teach the dharma. As a for instance.

And. Even in prescientific ages it was pretty obvious that walking and breathing involve at least the possibility of killing. Few missed this. And as time advanced and we began to understand the wealth of life that disappears with each step, with each breath, its impossibility loomed ever larger. But even from the beginning, as one faces the necessities of eating, well, the problems in this precept just pile one upon another.

So, any literal understanding is going to be of limited use.

Back when I was minister of the First Unitarian Church in Providence, Rhode Island, there were several deaths that weave around my memory and are impossible to unravel from how I live in the world. Two were suicides. One was a student at Brown, someone who had, it would seem, everything, and a world with few boundaries before her. But clouded by wounds, well. It only took a moment. Although I witnessed how that moment would unravel in other lives for years.

And another, where I had and continue to have deeply mixed feelings. In addition to the circumstances that led him to climb over a barrier and jump off a parking structure, the hurt and guilt and confusion of those left behind remains a terrible thing. As a leader in the church community, he was often disruptive, and always self-centering. And. I didn’t like him.

And. He suffered from horrible, debilitating, chronic pain. It was all so bad he couldn’t work, and what assistance our society offered was right at the edge of never being enough. Also, as a problematic person, he was always on somebody’s bad list. Then, when he ended up being tagged as “drug seeking,” and his pain prescriptions were cut, well, that barrier, that parking structure, and that jump. Me, I felt guilt for not liking him. And wondered and wonder if there was something I could have done to help. But didn’t because he was troublesome.

Killing. There are always consequences to our actions, and killing self or other seems to leave in its wake more powerful disconnections than most things we do. So, what about suicide? What about war? What about euthanasia? What about capital punishment? What about abortion?

What about eating anything, but particularly eating meat? Worthy questions all: each investigates life and death, and each speaks also of unique situations, and each raises questions that cannot with any integrity be conflated into the others. And none, that I can see, lends itself to a simple “you can’t do this under any circumstances” or “don’t worry about it.” There is something of a tragic cast to our lives. And in killing it’s all brought to the fore.

For me, back to 2011. First, the bad man thing. There is some hope among many of us that we are not who we are. That buried deep within us there is some pure place untouched by the world. So, things may happen. We may do things. But they do not define us.

In my experience no one has such a place. We are a complex mix of many things. So, normally one action, a dozen, don’t define us. That line “we are not the worst thing we have done” is true. Mostly. Too many things combine to make us into the people we are, to be casually reductive. The karmic mess of life is gigantic. No doubt the US, Europe, and our political actions, all had a hand in setting bin Ladin on his course of action. But ultimately, he is responsible. He ordered those planes to be captured and turned into missiles And, he is what he did. As we all are. We can do things so horrific that they become the lead aspect of who we are. As I said on that social media post, no pass.

I made a passing reference to the famous Zen koan, Baizhaing’s Fox, which turns on the observation that the awakened person is at one with the law of cause and effect. Or doesn’t evade cause and effect. The nuances are several. The subtlety and complexity of its pointing makes this one of the abiding koans of my heart…

Which leads to the statement about being glad Osama bin Ladin was killed.

At the time this was an admission, not an exultation. It grieves me that my first reaction was being glad another person had died. And at the time at least one commentator suggested that he does not allow himself such feelings. I suggest it might be wiser to feel what one feels, and then deal with it. Even if a consequence is guilt.

There’s an old line, it appears in our precepts ceremony, “not giving rise to the thought of killing is called the Precept of Not Killing.” This does not mean suppressing thoughts or denying feelings. It points to how we do not separate ourselves from all that is, including killing. And we do not cling to the ideas. It’s spiritual practice as a dance, sometimes we lead, sometimes we follow, sometimes we sit it out. It involves learning when to hold, and when to let go.

I feel these questions of navigating the deep waters of life and death and our hand in life and death are where we see that tragedy and hope most obviously. And so, I find the call in this precept is to engage. Engage. To not look away, diminish, or minimize.

The heart of the matter, of our own lives, and the lives of those around us, those we care for, and those we hate, or who hate us, is where we find life and death meeting. This is the meeting. Just life. Just death. Just life-and-death—one thing. Just this moment, filled with loss and gain, despair and hope.

Prepared or not, we’re called in each moment to make decisions that are in fact about life and death. Every moment is that important. As I sit with this precept, I don’t actually find that it is about the world being red in tooth and claw. Rather, it is about how we are all joined together in the great rhythm of life and death, the great circle itself. And my place within it all.

At the same time we are also gifted with awareness of what is happening—or at least a large enough portion of what is happening—and hence are culpable. We are responsible in a way no other creature I’m aware of is. We have eaten of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, and we have become as gods. And that godlike quality is responsibility. I find this precept a call to meet the world and our actions in it with relentless honesty—and a certain gentleness.

We are one body, you and I, in all our separateness. Both and. The mysterious manifestation of the real. For good and for ill we’re tied up together, woven out of each other. Osama bin Laden is part of us, part of me, part of you. Even as each of us, as we are, is responsible.

And, all the feelings and thoughts we have, are part of the deal too…

If we hope to take any action that shifts the karma, it would be wise to start by looking into our own hearts and owning what it is we feel and think. That’s just as much us, you and me, as will be the action taken…

As Leonard Cohen observed about that crack in everything. Notice the cracks. Notice the light. Feel the dark that defines the light.

Be present. Hold as you need.

And when the time calls, let go.

The precept of Not Killing.

Thank you.

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