Living Harmlessly in the World by Hunter Liguore
Living Harmlessly in the World:
On Honoring the Buddha’s First Precept to Not Take Life
By Hunter Liguore
When it came to the Buddha’s First Precept, to not take life, I thought for sure this would be an easy practice to learn. How hard would it be to stop eating meat and killing bugs in my house? As I grew more attentive to my daily actions, however, I began to see how harshly I walked in the world. Fumbling through the day, I saw how my actions, though unintentional, harmed other creatures, due to my shear carelessness and lack of awareness. Over time, as I developed a daily practice, vowing not to take life, I began to see an array of opportunities to not only honor the precept and preserve life, but to deepen my compassion for all sentient beings.
My inspiration, for looking closer at my actions, came from hearing Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo speak so candidly about “living harmlessly in the world.” As Tenzin explains, we each hold ourselves most dear; for that reason, “We shouldn’t harm or cause for harm. Just like we don’t want to be hurt, no one else wants to be hurt. To each animal, its own life is precious.” That goes for insects, fish, chickens, she adds. “A being truly wise would never even think of harming another. So we’re trying to model ourselves to be like that.”
One shift in my way of thinking came when I stopped to notice several insects floating on top of the water I’d put out for the birds. I thought, at first, it might be extreme to rescue them, but once I became aware that my action, of putting out the water, created the condition for the insects to drown, I felt I couldn’t ignore it. Especially, when I could see several flies fighting for their lives on the surface of the water.
My once lack-of-compassion originated from an unspoken hierarchy that dictated which lives were worth my time to value. The First Precept is to do no harm towards all sentient beings. But for me, I was living from a place where humans were at the top, followed by cats and dogs, horses, polar bears, cows; obvious beings I didn’t want to hurt. If I saw a dead cat on the side of the road, I got teary-eyed, but if it was a squirrel, I seemed to have no response or didn’t even notice. But somehow, when I started to be more mindful of all life, I let go of ‘me’ at the center, and put other sentient beings first.
That first day of saving bugs, has became a daily, afternoon practice, one that has allowed me to check in and be attentive to my ‘harmful footprint.’ One day, I was impervious to the ripples I’d caused, and the next, I was lifting out a little gnat most would find insignificant. My heart had opened and overflowed with compassion for it.
As human beings sharing this Earth, there are opportunities to heighten the level with which we approach the precept in order to have a more gentle footprint. “Sometimes, inevitably, we do have to kill, for the greater good of what we regard as a more evolved being,” Tenzin explains. “If we’re forced to, don’t do it with rejoicing, but with genuine regret, and the firm wish that these beings might be reborn in a higher level of being.”
Her advice, when facing an infestation of fleas on a dog, for instance, is to talk to the fleas and “tell them to go,” earnestly, and then give them a chance to vacate, a practice she insists is proven to work.
On my journey to respect all creatures, and harm as few as I can, I try to consider my present actions and the condition it will cause others. Over time, I’ve learned a few tricks to decrease my harmful footprint:
To avoid killing wildlife while driving, I’ve learned to slow down, in order to give the animal and myself time to react. I practice mindfulness meditation while driving: once I avoided hitting a deer, simply by being present and alert, while scanning the sides of the highway. At night, I refrain from using high-beams, to reduce the amount of bugs I kill. Insects, like the white moth, are drawn into the light, so by using less light, many will avoid the beam and car altogether.
Insects in the house are easily removed by having a cup and lid in the ready. I’ve grown attentive to birth cycles to know when certain species will hatch, and keep cups in each room, and kindly catch and release as needed. (Humane bug catchers are available). House spiders, I’ve learned, maintain a natural habitat in the house, so to put them outside, will actually lead to its death. For mice, I light incense in bottles and place in the attic, to simulate a fire, which signals ‘danger’ to them, causing them to leave; I also ask nicely. Lavender or peppermint oil put out also works as a deterrent. As a last resort, humane traps are also available, not to mention, ultrasound devises that emit a vibration to keep insects and rodents away. I take measures to seal up the house to prevent critters from getting inside in the first place. I avoid spraying chemicals as a preventative, since poison is an intentional means of killing; it also damages the ecosystem and can end up in groundwater, with endless ripples for all walks of life.
In addition to not eating meat, I do my best to also avoid products that contain hidden animal products that would entail loss of life for them. For instance, gelatin capsules, used for most vitamins, comes from the bones of animals. At restaurants, items like French fries are often cooked in animal fat. Some detergents and fabric softeners, besides being harmful to the environment, also contain animal products; selecting an eco or vegetable derived product, alleviates harm. Even wine and tattoos are now available vegan! Shoes were a very easy item to purchase vegan, as well. In some cases, it may be hard to avoid animal products, so when I shop, I keep an eye open for vegan and cruelty-free packaging, like ‘bird or shade-friendly’ coffees that go to extra lengths to ensure safety to birds.
Decreasing the amount of harm I cause living creatures has allowed me to see my oneness to the whole. Rather than feel greater and more important than some beings, I see sameness. This has carried over to viewing my relationship with people, as well, and how one action can cause harm to those around me. Equally, the present moment really does matter, since my present actions do create the conditions of the next moment, for me, and for the whole. I’ve taken small steps to honor the First Precept, which has helped me, and hopefully will continue to guide me in being a better person in the world.
Hunter Liguore teaches social justice writing in the MFA program at Lesley University. An award-winning author, her work has appeared in over a hundred and fifty publications, internationally. Her eco-novella, L'ultimo Polare Orso, has been published in Italy, 2018. For more publications, visit: hunterliguore.org
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