A Zen student of many years standing and originally a student of Daiyu Myokyo zenji.
Dhammapada Verse 131
Verses from the Dhammapada
The Buddhist precept not to kill may seem self explanitory, but we may be breaking this rule by the way we treat our inner space.
He who injures or kills another who longs for happiness will not find it for himself.
This verse points to the precept ‘To refrain from destroying life.’ The precepts are not commandments to keep in our heads. They describe the selfless action of the Buddha nature. All thoughts including the precepts need to be emptied out before the Buddha nature is revealed.
In the Zen tradition there is a story about a student who tried very hard to keep all the precepts. One evening as he was walking he trod on something that felt soft. It made a squishing sound. Immediately he thought he had squashed a little egg bearing frog. Full of remorse and fear he believed he had broken the precept which forbids the taking of life. That night the student was disturbed by a vivid nightmare. He dreamed he was visited by hundreds of frogs. They demanded his life for the little frog he’d destroyed. The next day he returned to the path he had taken the evening before. He reached the spot where the incident had happened and discovered that he hadn’t trodden on a frog after all. It was an egg plant.
The student had been confused. He didn’t actually know what he had destroyed. He only woke up to the truth when he saw the squashed eggplant. The story is teaching us that in order not to destroy life it is necessary to be awake in each moment. However, like the student we are usually asleep in the dream of ‘me’ and ‘my concerns’. We make up stories about situations which create fear.
In the primeval forest fear protected our ancestors’ genes. It safeguarded the future of the human race. For example, when a poisonous snake suddenly reared its head, fear ensured that we either took flight or fought for our lives.
In our present environment we rarely confront such danger. However, fear and anxiety drive our response to what ‘I’ judge as a ‘danger to me’, or what doesn’t suit ‘me’. Through self-centredness we cause harm. If we perceive a person or situation as a ‘poisonous snake.’ we often run away. We don’t actually commit murder but we may attempt to ‘destroy’ whatever it is that ‘I’ don’t like. Sometimes through such action we become a kill-joy.
A few years ago, there was the opportunity to join a gentle ballet class for the elderly. The class is designed to correct posture and improve mobility. Many participants hadn’t danced before but never the less enjoy the classes. At the end of one lesson our teacher announced she was putting on a show at the local theatre. She wanted as many students as possible (ranging from four to eighty years old), to join in. Immediately a resounding “No!” welled up inside. I imagined us, all shapes and sizes, dancing in front of an audience and cringed. A far cry from the beauty and grace of Prima Ballerina Darcy Bussell! I was rejecting the proposal on aesthetic grounds but these were actually making deep stage fright.
A few weeks later, watching the performance, I realised what a wonderful training opportunity had been missed. Our teacher had choreographed a very gentle dance for her elderly students. It was both moving and uplifting. The heart yearned to be part of it. If the stage fright had been met, the heart would have opened. The response to the request to join in would have been ‘Yes!’ There was a further lesson to learn. Soon after the performance, Darcy Bussell appeared on TV joyfully dancing with an elderly gentleman suffering from Parkinson’s disease.
So, we actually attempt to ‘kill’ fear and all the emotions we are ashamed of. We deny them the opportunity to be transformed into the warmth and clarity of the Buddha nature. We also cause harm by ruthlessly pursuing what ‘I’ want. We even have phrases, ‘go for the kill’ or ‘the killer instinct’, to describe this.
One morning at a pedestrian crossing, the red light showed. There was no traffic coming. Some people started to rush across before the light changed to green. I was in a hurry. The temptation to join them was resisted as I became aware of some young children ready to follow. The consequences of their ignoring the lights in the future could be fatal.
In the same way, to protect all during the COVID pandemic, we remain alert. In this awareness the possibility of passing the virus to the vulnerable is minimised.
When we ruthlessly pursue what ‘I’ want we become careless. We are blind to the needs of everyone and everything around us. When we give ourselves wholeheartedly to whatever emotion or situation arises, then the care and compassion of the Buddha nature opens. In Blake’s words:
‘Love seeketh not itself to please
Nor for itself hath any care
But for another gives its ease
And builds a Heaven in Hell’s despair.’
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