This week’s morsel comes from James Ishmael Ford’s If You're Lucky, Your Heart Will Break. Using vignettes and anecdotes from his own life—as well as quotations drawn from sources as varied as the Bible, Yiddish aphorisms, and stand-up comedy—Zen teacher and Unitarian Universalist minister James Ishmael Ford shares the gifts won over his lifetime of full-hearted engagement with the Zen path. In this selection, he looks at the tenant, found in nearly every religion, of “Not Killing.”
Recognizing that I am not separate from all that is, I take up the way of Not Killing. Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the realm of everlasting Dharma, not giving rise to the idea of killing is called the Precept of Not Killing. The Buddha’s seed grows in accordance with not taking life. Transmit the life of Buddha’s wisdom and do not kill.
—Boundless Way Zen precepts ceremony
My understanding is that the Jewish and Christian commandment to not kill is a very nuanced thing. Depending on which list you prefer, it is 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 is that we are not to murder, i.e., 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 larger view appears to be a minority report.
This is not so for the Buddhist precept about killing, which is unambiguous, and therefore, of course, ultimately impossible. In Buddhism everything has a place, and all living things are cherished; the precept is an unmodified, not nuanced statement: do not kill—anything, ever. 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, a literal understanding is going to be of limited use. As I write these words the church community to which I belong has experienced a suicide. In addition to the circumstances that led someone to climb over a barrier and jump off a parking structure, the hurt and guilt and confusion of those left behind has been a terrible thing. And I assure you I’m not separate from those feelings. 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 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 most obviously.
And so I think the call in this precept is to 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. And 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.
And 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. But we are also gifted with awareness of what is happening—or at least a large 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.
To read more from If You're Lucky, Your Heart Will Break, click here.