Ahimsa Non-harming in Buddhism
Welcome everyone. So good to be back. Our New Year's service was quite wonderful. We had so many guests and generous donations of food and offering of song, drumming and deep thoughts on compassion. We are so very grateful to all who participated. About 175 people packed this hondo! All faiths all kinds of drums. It really felt like a joyful expression of Indra’s sparkling web.
Todays talk is on non-harming. The Buddha called this Ahimsa.
What did the Buddha mean when he taught Ahimsa?
Usually I try to avoid using the ancient words for Buddhist concepts. I try to bring things into the 21st century. But today maybe we’ll try thinking about the word Ahimsa and its deeper meaning. In sanskrit a-himsa means not+himsa. Himsa = Harm injury or violence. The Sanskrit root hims, meaning to strike. We begin with the idea of non-injury. In some ways it literally means not hitting. It doesn't contain an sense of the victim of violence in it. Even acting out violently against a tree or a flower pot or a wall is included in actions to be avoided.
There is profound spiritual damage done by violence - it inflicts deep karmic scars on the perpetrator. The word Harm in english is rooted in “degradation, insult, pain, grief and sorrow”. Ahimsa, is a Buddhist teaching of non-violence toward all living beings. Ahimsa encourages compassion for all life, human and non-human. It also acknowledges the “degradation, insult, pain, grief and sorrow” that happens to the perpetrator as well as the victim. We cannot harm another without being spiritually harmed ourselves.
In the time of the Buddha grand animal sacrifices were common. He saw this destruction in the name of religion as an obscene abomination. In many sutras he systematically criticises these large scale sacrifices and advocates for harmlessness.
But his teaching against harm has deeper aspects. Many times in his discourses the Buddha speaks of four kinds of people – those who (1) harm themselves, (2) harm others, (3) harm both self and others and (4) who do not harm anyone.
We have all met people who fall in these categories. The first group may inflict harm because of self loathing or as some kind of misguided attempt to purify themselves. The second group are those that externalize their rage and lack the ability to see the interconnectedness of all beings. The third group includes those who damage themselves and others. Most of us fall in this category. Because of ignorance and misunderstanding of the law of karma we lash out like a bull in a china shop - without care for the harm we do. The Buddha counsels us against being part of these three groups because it causes lasting damage. The last group, who do no harm to themselves or others, he admires. They are those who follow a way of compassion like the Buddha himself taught create a habit of non-harming.
Many important people who were not Buddhists have considered this idea of Ahimsa as a high virtue - everyone from Gandhi to Tolstoy.
The Mahatma explained…
"Ahimsa means not to injure any creature by thought, word or deed, not even to the supposed advantage of this creature."
"[Ahimsa] is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man."
"Truth is my religion and Ahimsa is the only way of its realisation."
Thomas Edison thought that Ahimsa "leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages." And Leo Tolstoy who said “Violence produces only something resembling justice, but it distances people from the possibility of living justly, without violence.”
The idea of “living justly, without violence” that is Ahimsa - and that is what we seek to cultivate.
Buddha taught that our thoughts manifest in our speech; Our speech manifests in our actions; Our actions develop into habits; And habits hardens into our character. The easy place to effect this chain is to watch our thoughts and with care, and let them generate from love and concern for all beings.
If we hold thoughts of harm - or harm-full thoughts - If harmful thoughts exist within me, then pathways leading to harmful words, deeds, and habits also exist, and it’s a very slippery slope. As we learned in the Buddha’s Brain thoughts and experiences literally transform the brain on a neurological level. Patterning and considering harmless thoughts create new pathways or strengthen existing ones for kindness in our brains. For people who think that chanting and mantras are for the pink-tofu-mumbo-jumbo Hippy-dippy crowd - think again - and again - and again. It can create a good habit. Chanting and mantra are effective tools of mind to pattern wholesome actions and habits of mind. They transform our thoughts, speech, actions, and ultimately the world. Meditation on Ahimsa, as Gandhi said is the “greatest force at the disposal of mankind.”
The Ahimsa meditation that we often share to exclude harmful and violent thoughts is the Metta practice. The Loving Kindness practice...
May all beings be peaceful.
May all beings be happy.
May all beings be well.
May all beings be safe.
May all beings be free from suffering
We say “May All beings.”
That includes yourself, your dear ones, strangers on the street, the worm in the apple, and the trees along Plumas street.
“Happy” and “well” and “safe”.
These most basic, inalienable rights of all beings, we too often wish only for those in the human realm.
If all beings everywhere are happy and safe, then violence and harm would not exist - there would be no place, no reason to exist.
Opportunities for Ahimsa are subtle and ever present. Ahimsa can be as easy as sharing a ride to work instead of going alone. Ahimsa is looking in the mirror and thinking “you’re lookin good today”. Ahimsa is as easy as remembering that all beings everywhere have the right to be happy and safe from harm. Cultivating Ahimsa requires mindfulness. Ahimsa grows into reality when we start to think that way.
How can we live in the most non-harming way possible. How do we keep the idea of the middle way in harmony with non-harming.
All sentient beings and even celestial bodies live the same way - by causing harm to others. We lean on them for food, shelter, and energy of life. Everyday beings are bumping into other beings, smashing them, killing them, eating them, drinking them, wearing and using them, walking and lying on them, destroying their homes. There is no real boundary to this karmic responsibility - Shinran called it the crushing weight of evil karma - it radiates through every jewel in the interdependent fabric of Indra's net. We are not advocating being perfect. We are teaching mindfulness and harm a little bit less -ness.
The Sakyamuni Buddha was a most compassionate person - but he wore a robe [made from cotton], ate from a bowl [made from a tree] , and unintentionally crushed the life out of many grasses, flowers, and insects as he walked from place to place and sat and taught the Dharma from his many lotus seats. He asked that animals not be killed on his behalf but ate meat when it was served at a lay person's home out of graciousness to the host. Through his awareness and compassion, he took responsibility for these costs and redeemed them.
We can do the same. We use our precious human life to acknowledge and repay the kindness and the sacrifice of all beings who have willingly or unwillingly surrendered their lives so that we may live. The Buddha is encouraging us to Harm Less.
I was a vegetarian for many years. When I first came into a first awareness of the frightful suffering of our meat animals, being a vegetarian made sense. [I came upon the slaughter of a lamb in a meat-market in Sri Lanka.] Over time though I resumed eating meat - out of compassion for family and friends - I take my responsibility for the suffering of beings that feed me, this arouses a compassionate heart and loving mind every time I receive their gifts..
When we say - Itadakimasu before eating - it is out of respect for all living things. Before the meal, itadakimasu is said as a thanks to the plants and animals that gave their lives for the meal we’re about to eat. It also gives thanks all those involved, from the rancher/farmer to the one who prepared of the meal. We mitigate in some way the harm done by acknowledging and accepting this harming aspect of our being.
Indras web of interconnections makes us careful and sensitive to avoid harm, but it’s closeness also makes this harming inevitable. What can we do? If harming is a natural part of living and we are living out the results of countless actions in the past. If we remember that our actions are infinitely reflected in Indra’s web we can gain a measure of control from that awareness.
The Buddha shows us that through mindfulness we can always moderate our thoughts, speech and actions. When we think on something we don’t like, we can curb any harmful thoughts that arise. If we don’t like someone, we can de-energize the pathway of hurtful thoughts. When we speak we can avoid harsh judgements and attribute kind motives even to those we oppose. We can use words that lessen the hold of harming - remove the habit of harming. Even in our actions we can calm and moderate our movements and avoid abrupt and harmful actions. This habituates us to Ahimsa.
Lets try a thought exercise together - Remember ahimsa is the removal of harm and violence from our mind and body. Here are two ways we can challenge ourselves to remove that violence and be loving kindness.
Ahimsa in the mind: it begins here.
The mind is our the most powerful tool. Everything begins here. If we plant a seed of negativity, of self-harm, that seed can grow. Soon we look in the mirror and critique ourselves, and rather than celebrating our the gifts. We cut ourselves down for not being the good looking, smart, super fit, or whatever story you’re mind is telling. So for today, observe your thoughts. Recognize that thoughts lead to actions, and in order to remove violence in our everyday life, we have to remove it from starting point - the mind. Plant the thought “You are beautiful, you are whole as you are and perfectly imperfect”. Accept that. Be with that. Just say to yourself now - “I’m ok, just as I am”
This will Harm less.
Ahimsa and the body: we are what we eat.
The body is amazing. This machine allows us to move around this world, to breathe and live - we accomplish amazing things. To nourish and love our body fully, we can remove aspects of violence from our way of living, which includes our food. In today’s world we’ve removed ourselves from the food that we eat. The principle of ahimsa challenges that trend; we should know and understand what we are eating and where it comes from and be grateful. For one day try to eat a vegetarian diet. Try to appreciate the harm done to food animals and just not be part of that for a day. Celebrate the sacredness that is life and plant a seed of non-harming.
This will Harm less.
We can live a life of Ahimsa if we cultivate its causes. The story of Indra’s web helps us to see others as parts of ourselves,. If we do this we will not harm them. But often we become annoyed with friends and coworkers. We should not let people annoy us because of our reactions - they may be harmful - Annoyance in its extreme form can lead to the impulse toward harm - at first thorough thought, then by speech, and then by action. Some more advice from the Buddha from the Aga tapati vinaya Sutta…
"...there are these five ways of removing annoyance, by which annoyance can be entirely removed by a bhikkhu when it arises in him. What are the five?
Loving-kindness can be maintained in being towards a person with whom you are annoyed: this is how annoyance with him can be removed.
Compassion can be maintained in being towards a person with whom you are annoyed; this too is how annoyance with him can be removed.
Onlooking equanimity can be maintained in being towards a person with whom you are annoyed; this too is how annoyance with him can be removed.
The forgetting and ignoring of a person with whom you are annoyed can be practiced; this too is how annoyance with him can be removed.
Ownership of deeds in a person with whom you are annoyed can be concentrated upon thus: 'This good person is owner of his deeds, heir to his deeds, his deeds are the womb from which he is born, his deeds are his kin for whom he is responsible, his deeds are his refuge, he is heir to his deeds, be they good or bad.' This too is how annoyance with him can be removed.
These are the five ways of removing annoyance, by which annoyance can be entirely removed in a bhikkhu when it arises in him."
- [AN V.161 Aghatapativinaya Sutta]
And what of this Buddha here ? Amida Buddha - The vows of Amida Buddha are clear. We are OK Just as we are. Harmfulness and all. This is not because Amida condones violence, but it is because the violent are most in need to acceptance and support - more than anyone. This is the ultimate resolution of the puzzle of harming - how to pursue the ideal of Ahimsa. We contemplate this ideal, we accept our limitations and are grateful for the deep compassion of the universe that is there for us just the same.
When Shinran’s teacher Honen was young, his father Tokikuni was killed in front of Honen. Young Honen told his father that he would take revenge, Tokikuni last words were,
"If you take revenge on Akashi , his children will take revenge on you later. There is no way to cease anger and hatred from generation to generation. I want you to learn the Buddha-Dharma and find a way to overcome such a cycle of revenge."
Ordained at the age of 15, Honen studied and practiced various paths of Buddhism for almost thirty years in order to find the answer to overcoming anger and hatred in ordinary people. Then, when he encountered the writing of Zendo, the Chinese Pure Land master, he found the answer is the path of Nembutsu to liberate us equally. We take refuge in the infinite Wisdom and Compassion of the Universe.
The Nembutsu is the path where all sentient beings can experience the Buddha's infinte Wisdom and Compassion, particularly those who have suffered from what we call the “blind passions” of anger, hatred, greed, and ignorance.
It is this wisdom which makes us aware of suffering and pain arising from our harmful actions. It is this compassion which embraces the anger and hatred and transforms them into virtues. The essence of the Nembutsu teaching in Pure Land Buddhism is deeply rooted in the idea of Ahimsa. Practicing the Nembutsu path means practicing ahimsa. Shinran Shonin made this with for peace in our world...
“Those who feel uncertain should say the Nembutsu aspiring first for the birth of their own understanding - the Buddha Land. Those who feel that their own birth is completely settled should, mindful of the Buddha’s benevolence, say the Nembutsu in gratitude with the wish, “May there be peace in the world, and may the Buddha’s teaching spread!”
Opportunities for Ahimsa is subtle and ever present. Ahimsa can be as easy as sharing a ride to work instead of going alone. Ahimsa is looking in the mirror and thinking “you’re looking good today”. Ahimsa is as easy as remembering that all beings everywhere have the right to be happy and free. Cultivating Ahimsa requires mindfulness. Ahimsa grows into reality when we start to think that way. We can harm less. That is good for the world and good for us.
Please repeat after me the Metta practice...
May you be happy;
May you be free from harm:
May you receive boundless compassion;
And may peace and harmony fill your heart
- Namu Amida Butsu Namu Amida Butsu Namu Amida Butsu -
The Story of Indra’s Net -
Far, far away, in the abode of the great god Indra, king of heaven, hangs a wondrous vast net, much like a spider's web in intricacy and loveliness. It stretches out indefinitely in all directions. At each node, or crossing point, of the net hangs a single glittering jewel. Since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. The sparkling jewels hang there, suspended in and supported by the net, glittering like stars, dazzling to behold.
Close your eyes, now, and imagine what this magnificent jeweled net looks like, spread across the vast expanse of space. Now, keep your eyes closed and move in close to one jewel in the net. Look closely, and you will see that the polished surface of the gem reflects all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number, just as two mirrors placed opposite each other reflect an image ad infinitum. Each jewel reflected in this gem you are gazing into also reflects all the other jewels, so that the process of reflection is itself infinite.
Now open your eyes, and know that you are a sparkling jewel in Indra's Net, as is every person around you. Every jewel is connected with all the other jewels in the net; every person is intimately connected with all the other persons in the universe. Each has an independent place within the net and we all reflect and influence each other. A change in one jewel—or person—produces a change, however slight, in every other. Realize, too, that the infinite reflections speak to the illusory nature of appearances. Appearances are not, in fact, reality, but only a reflection; the true nature of a thing is not to be captured in its appearance. However powerful that appearance might be, it is yet only a reflection of what is real.In addition, whatever you do to one jewel affects the entire net, as well as yourself. You cannot damage one strand of a spider web without injuring the entire web, and you cannot damage one strand of the web that is the universe without injuring all others in it, whether that injury is known or unknown to them. This can work for good or ill because, of course, just as destructive acts affect the entire net, so do loving, constructive, compassionate acts affect the entire net. A single helpful act—even a simple act of kindness—will send positive ripples across the infinite net, touching every jewel, every sentient being in existence.
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