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Today we're very pleased to share with you a guest post from longtime friend and contributing editor of Tricycle, Allan Badiner. In addition to being a frequent contributor to Tricycle, Allan maintains his own blog at the web magazine Reality Sandwich and is also a member of the faculty at the California Institute of Integral Studies. He lives on the central California coast, where he has had his own challenges with living amidst pests and remaining true to the first precept.
Kill that Impulse! Compassionate Solutions For Your Favorite Pest
By Allan Badiner
Good news and bad news. The bad news first: No, you do not have special dispensation from the Buddha to murder those obnoxious little rodent and insect pests that are somehow capable of terrorizing beings thousands of times their size, when all they want is a little food, water and a place to get cozy up with their mates.
The good news is that with a little extra effort, you can rid yourself of these unwelcome guests (ants, mice, cockroaches, fleas, ticks, etc) and feel the karmic joy of living in the light of the Dharma!
"Dharma" means truth and the teachings, and it is also the word for nature itself. The Ven. Narada Mahathera tells us that as nature is the manifestation of truth, and of the teachings, we should cultivate kindness and compassion for all, trying not to kill or cause injury to any living creature, even the tiniest creature that crawls at our feet, and bites them.
Of course precepts, or guidelines for following the Dharma, are training principles, and Buddhists undertake to observe them to the best of their abilities. At times certain conditions may not allow us to rigidly adhere to the precepts and no one can live through life without ever breaking them. It is at such times that we must use our common sense and human intelligence to make the best decisions.
In Buddhism there is a long held and integral tradition of caring for animals and all living creatures. They are regarded in Buddhist thought as sentient beings, different than humans in their intellectual ability but no less capable of feeling suffering, fearing death, and craving life. Vasubandhu, a 4th century Indian scholar-monk and one of the most prominent figures in Buddhist history, said that it is deluded to kill even poisonous pests, and Asoka, the Buddhist King of India, posted edicts that included a prohibition on the killing of vermin of all kinds.
At the time of the Buddha, rules were made against monks wandering about in the rainy season in part due to the damage done to so many creatures rising to the surface of wet soil for a drink. The same applied to the cutting of trees that were seen as essential to the lives of many animals large and small (known as "breathers"). Asoka planted shade trees, medicinal herbs and wayside wells for both humans and animals. This culture of non-harming, and recognition of the right to life enjoyed by all sentient beings contributes to what makes a monastery or Buddhist Temple feel so safe and welcoming to all.
Robert Thurman tells of the great India scholar-monk Asanga from the 5th century CE who at that point, had been meditating in a cave for 12 years, unsuccessfully, in order to gain a vision of the Bodhisattva Maitreya, the future Buddha and the embodiment of loving kindness. One day he saw a stray dog afflicted with maggot infested sores. Fearing that pulling the maggots off the dog would harm them, he expended great effort to coax them off the sore and onto his warm and moist tongue where they could feed on his own flesh. At this point, both the dog and the maggots disappeared, and a full and splendorous image of Maitreya appeared where the dog had once been.
Meanwhile, just by walking in the forest or breathing the air, we are taking the life of many small creatures. We inadvertently kill hundreds of insects on a nighttime car ride. We wipe out thousands of bacteria, also sentient beings, daily when we shower and brush our teeth and disinfect our homes. Generally, there has been a strong element of practicality in Buddhism relative to the extent people are expected to go to avoid any and all killing.
This is one way that the Middle Path distinguished itself from Jainism, where the most devoted of followers would shun clothing, wear masks to filter out airborne creatures, and sweep their path before letting their feet touch the ground. The Buddhist approach to ahimsa, or non-harming, in the realm of small animals and microorganisms, was to exercise all reasonable measures to avoid needless or avoidable killing--recognizing that these creatures too want to eat and avoid harm. In fact, humans are not apart from the world of microorganisms, and are made up of many smaller beings living on us and within us.
Nevertheless, as Buddhist scholar Brian Peter Harvey explains, to kill or harm another being, whether it is a rat or a cockroach or a horse, is to ignore the fragility and aspiration for happiness that one has in common with it. This violates the Dharma of interdependence, and compassion. The Buddha made no distinction between the sizes of the victim (cow or ant) or between intentions in killing (self-defense or hunting for pleasure). However, Buddhism focuses heavily on intention, so that all acts of killing are not necessarily equally blameworthy. However, its stronger emphasis on compassion insures that not harming other beings is always praiseworthy.
The Dalai Lama was once asked about swatting mosquitoes. He chuckled and said that if his mood is good, he will often just let the creature have a little blood. If another one comes, his patience might become stretched a little thin and he would blow the offending creature off his arm. If yet a third mosquito comes, His Holiness said he is likely to give it a careful little shove off his arm.
Most of the time, the creatures we call pests are attracted to our homes because of food scraps, leftovers and a lack of cleanliness. So, technically, these small animals have been invited into our homes.
The three basic factors of a Buddhist approach to pests are to prevent, repel, and remove.