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Ask A Buddhist: Do Buddhists harm things?

Ask A Buddhist: Do Buddhists harm things?


Sarah Conover has been a Buddhist practitioner for nearly three decades. She’s ready to answer your questions about the faith. What do you want to ask a Buddhist?  Fill out the form below or submit your question online.

Hello, my question today is mostly for my sister, but it is something that has been a big problem in the past and is quickly becoming one again. My sister has always been spiritual. The problem with this is that she refuses to kill cockroaches or have them taken care of by someone else. Because of this, the last building she lived in became completely infested. These insects were everywhere including the oven and refrigerator. Unfortunately she brought the problem with her when she moved into her new building and it is history repeating. The roaches are starting to get a foothold there too. Any advice that could help her? I cannot live with her anymore and I don’t want to see her lose her apartment because of the cockroaches. Thank you for your time in reading this! 

House-Ad_SPO_Ask-a-Buddhist_0521131Dear reader, a more thorough and perhaps impractical response to the question about Buddhism and non-harming, ahimsa, can be found in this previous entry.  However, since the writing of that piece, a few practical anecdotes and observations come to mind relevant to the cockroach dilemma. The stories involve monastics of several Buddhist traditions because to intentionally harm a creature is a confessable sin for a nun and monk. More importantly, to look at monastics and the ways they deal with insects is really to examine a life scaffolded by sila, the Buddhist word for virtue.

Buddhism stands only as a three-legged stool: sila, ethical behavior; samatha, or concentration; and panna, or wisdom. All the steps of the Eight Fold Path, the Buddha’s map for the ending of suffering, are grouped into these three categories. They aren’t separate from one another — each factor conditions the other, each is dependent on all. For instance, without sila, neither wisdom nor concentration can develop — our mind will be too disturbed. Until very recently, the West’s popularization of mindfulness (in the concentration category), has often ignored the ethical aspects of it.

It turns out sila, in whatever guise it takes, is not a passive affair, but one that requires continual effort. Consider some of the simple efforts at sila in our own lives — recycling, driving less and walking more, reaching out to a friend in need. They take time. Monastics live by 227 or so rules (depending on the denomination), each requiring mindful attention. Naturally, the pace of life must decelerate. So many directives to keep in mind everyday may sound like an intolerable burden, but I’ve heard monks and nuns say they’ve grown to love their purifying effect.

So, back to bugs.

The relevant teaching of the Buddha, the Metta Sutta, or the Sutta on Loving-kindness, is one of his most beloved, memorized by monastics and lay people alike. One verse in particular stands out:

Even as a mother protects with her life

Her child, her only child,

So with a boundless heart

Should one cherish all living beings,

Radiating kindness over the whole world:

Spreading upward to the skies

And downward to the depths,

Outwards and unbounded,

Freed from hatred and ill will.

(Translation Abhayagiri Monastic Foundation)

The challenge of monastics and pests cohabitating harmoniously seems to be an ever-evolving, inventive arena of creative work-arounds, a negotiation to draw firm boundaries between the bug domain and the human domain with harm to neither. Most of us lay folks believe we have more important things to pursue with our time aside from ahimsa towards all creatures (this, right away begs the question if there is a more central concern in life and seems to be the reason I like hanging around monastics as well as veterinarians). Most of us would be quite challenged to work with our insect cohabitants over the long haul. The Buddha’s dictum of patient perseverance seems to be the key principle in deterring, barricading, persuading and re-focusing batches of bugs. There’s nothing passive about it.

At nearby Sravasti Abbey they’ve made some grand efforts at patient perseverance wrangling various insect sorties. For several years Ven. Semke battled ants for the use of an old retreat cabin. “We tried all the potions: field chalk, black and red pepper, cinnamon oil, cedar wood, garlic, catnip, essential oils, and turning the cabin into a smokehouse for 10 days. Nothing really stopped them from moving their brood into the cabin. They won the war for sure.” The Abbey also has a small Kenmore Magic Blue with variable suction speeds on it that works with yellow jackets. Another contraption deployed there and at other monasteries in the US is an Insectfanger from Germany that captures the critters in order to liberate them in another location. Lastly, Ven. Semke added, “Always say a mantra while doing this, wishing them well and happy lives.”

The forest monasteries of Thailand, where humans have plunked themselves in the midst of jungles, require constant defensive maneuvers. Passivity is most definitely not an option. For instance, every kuti, the tiny hut assigned to each monk, stands on stilts, and every stilt stands in a small moat so that the crawling and climbing can’t (in theory) advance farther. But just today, while visiting my son’s monastery, a line of ants had breached a stilt moat by a “leaf bridge” (as the monks call it). That was an easy fix, but one, with the constant jungle leaf-fall, that requires daily vigilance. The kutis also have screens, clearly a necessary preventive in the daily contest between contemplation and vexations that would tempt a monastic to do the unthinkable.

A month or so ago, my son’s kuti saw a nighttime assault of five different kinds of ants. He awoke to army ants eating the rubber off of his brand-new sandals. This, after another brigade completely consumed his cheap flip-flops. He spent the next week figuring out a number of strategies of barriers and blockades to steer them elsewhere. Of course the monks are aware that these negotiations will repeat in the very near future. Like the next day.

Thus far, until you asked your question dear reader, I’ve never thought to take this issue very seriously. I’ve never cultivated the patience as Ace Hardware is only a few blocks from home. But what if we (you and I) truly cherished the lives of each and every fellow creature like the exemplars above? The recently discovered fact that the human body is 80 percent microorganisms — that we are more bug cells than human cells and that these bugs are integral to our immune system — makes the issue come very close to home indeed. When I remember to stop my hands’ urge to swat a mosquito, often something extraordinary happens in the pausing, some deep appreciation for life’s inter-being (Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh’s term), and an awareness of the conceit that my life is more important than another’s. What a gift in return for a meager moment of restraint!

I heard a wonderful Buddhist teacher the other day, Heather Sundheim, who begins her meditation retreats with participants taking the basic five precepts of Buddhism for the duration of the retreat. She prefaces the recitation of each precept with her own saying: Because we are so deeply interconnected. Here’s the very first one of the five Buddhist precepts: Because we are so deeply interconnected, I undertake the precept to refrain from taking the life of any living creature.

Dear reader, I’m sure there are some non-toxic ideas for repellents on line, but it’s possible your sister (if indeed she wants to get rid of the cockroaches and it’s not just your idea) may have to purchase the ahimsa Insectfanger and prevail one cockroach at a time. And she may have to use the ultimate defense, tirelessly deployed by monastics: keep things very, very clean.


Sarah Conover

About Sarah Conover

Sarah Conover is a writer and teacher who, despite a fierce wanderlust, calls Spokane home. She has an MFA in poetry, and is the author of seven books on world wisdom traditions and spirituality. She and husband Doug Robnett are parents of two remarkable children long-ago nicknamed: “Swaminathan and the Material Girl.” Conover, getting old now, has enjoyed multiple careers. The best one yet is the latest: teaching creative writing, a course called “Making it Matter," to the eldering through Spokane Community College ACT 2 program. She hosted the Ask a BuddhistFāVS column for several years.

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