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Buddhists/Zen application of harmlessness in my life


Dear Joe,
I have been mediating daily since August 2012 and started reading books by Cheri Huber (a Soto Zen Buddhist author) early this year, and the quality of my inner life has improved tremendously since then, learning to accept everything as it is and believing in the Buddha Nature of all living things. I have reached a point where I feel uncomfortable about eating meat. However, I have been playing the Chinese violin (the Erhu, 二胡) since April 2012, an instrument made partly of snake skin, and I am also a beginner figure skater who first skated 10 years ago, a sport where the boots worn are made of leather. Zen Buddhism, as I understand from reading Cheri Huber, really speaks to my heart. Rearing a dog and hamster now and many hamsters in the past with family members saying that my pets’ legs resemble chicken thighs, as well has doing Metta medition (which I learnt from books on mindfulness) has got me thinking about becoming vegetarian. But if I become vegetarian and still play the Erhu and wear leather boots – aren’t I still encouraging the killing of animals? I am told that the snake skins of Erhus are obtained by killing snakes and harvesting their skin, that skin that has moulted is not used. I am aware that there are Erhus made from synthetic skin, but the sound quality is not as good. I intend to take Erhu playing seriously and would eventually still have to use high-end Erhus made with real snake skin.
So far I have been telling myself as long I don’t harm humans, I am practicing harmlessness and so eating meat is ok. But something feels off about excluding other beings. What are your thoughts, or what is the Zen perspective on this? Also, is it extreme to consider killing bacteria (so we shouldn't take antibiotics and shouldn't bathe or brush our teeth), insects and plants as harming other life forms? Where do we draw the line on which life forms to kill and which not to? Is it compassionate to myself if I give up these two activities, yet is it compassionate to kill these higher animals?  I spent more than a decade each before finding a music instrument and sport which really suit my natural talents and life circumstances, so is it really a case of giving them up to practise harmlessness, or is there are way to love all life an still pursue these two interests? Would posting my questions to other experts in Buddhism on Allexperts (to have more information sources) be disruptive in some way or have any negative repercussions?
If possible, please suggest material for further reading.
Thank you for your time and may you be well and happy.
Yours Sincerely,

baby toad
baby toad  
Hello Jane,
 Thank you for the thought out and well reasoned question. I think that deep inquiry is a great path to awakening.   I would like to give you a short concise answer but this topic really demands more time.  I apologize for the length of this response.  Also, I too, play erhu, though not my main instrument. There is a line that goes regarding gut strings for classical guitars, “Cat gut strings are created for a great love of music and an equal hate of cats”.  It’s a musicians joke.  Cat gut strings are really lamb gut, no more appealing though. My harp was both nylon and gut.  Most professional harpers (Irish term) prefer the gut, I don’t.  They might sound better but they tend to look rather gut like as they age so I use just nylon on the middle registers. It is just my preference.

Forgive me but ‘accepting everything as it is’ really is not the Buddhist ideal though I know you can read that a thousand places.  That means that you accept the suffering of children, war, violence and injustice. It is a simplistic view that is often taught.  There is no reason to be human and to make choices in total acceptance, no reason to create, to heal or to learn.  The ideal of Buddhism is to ‘see things as they are’, that is to see true reality unfettered by the ego consciousness of the self.  Free from our own view of the world we see things in perspective and can act accordingly with compassion and not selfishness.  From this standpoint we can fully engage in doing what is best.

 One of the steps in the Eightfold Path is correct thinking.  It is said that the historical Buddha once proclaimed, “I try to teach people to think”.  Unfortunately I have found that most people do not really think about their beliefs and want to blindly follow authority.  My teachers gladly accepted challenges and drove me into deep insight by their relentless challenges to me. It has been my experience that when I try to apply intelligence and serious inquiry that many teachers get very upset by this.  It is the nature of Zen to challenge the teacher and the student.  By this process we come to realize the true problems of our own human consciousness.  It is not something we believe because we are taught it but something that is actualized within our consciousness.  It then becomes our personal problem that we seek to answer.  From here the best progress is made.  When the arrow is in you then you really want a solution.

Now you have begun to see the problem with asking questions because it leads to dilemmas. I have had vast experience with this situation and I’d like to share with you some of my experiences.  About two decades ago a Buddhist monk was teaching in my area from a Soto school. I was invited to her sermons but did not attend, however, the Sangha met at a dear friend’s house.  My friend would record the sermons and play them for me.  At the end of each meeting the monk would recite a prayer and one of the lines from it was, “we pray for the happiness of the lion and the happiness of the lamb”.  I asked my friend to ask the monk this question, “what if the happiness of the lion is to eat the lamb, then what?”   He did so and the monk got quite angry and said, “You do not question someone who is above you in learning” and then proceeded to leave the premise and refused to teach my friend after that ejecting him from the Sangha.  This monk was from one of the major US monasteries.  Why didn’t she think of the contradiction in what she taught?  Why don’t most people who follow a religion?  I think that there are those that seek refuge in Buddhism and those who seek an answer.  When you need an answer you don’t care about belief you care about results.

Over and over I’ve seen situations like this arise when questioning teachers.  Often the answer is to do something absurd, as is seen in the Zen tradition, and then pass it off.  These are legitimate questions and clapping your hands or putting your shoe on your head doesn’t answer it nor does it lead to an answer.  I saw an interview with the Dali Lama.  He was asked, “What do you do if a mosquito bites you?”  He had several answers from shooing it away to the extreme of flicking it off but never killing it.  The interviewer accepted this answer.  I would have asked something else: ” Suppose the mosquito carried malaria or West Nile virus, you could have stopped it from spreading this disease to children, why didn’t you? Where is your compassion for human suffering?”  One of my family members was crippled by West Nile virus and lost an illustrious career due to its bite, it’s real.  Disease is spread every year by mosquitoes and there are international organizations that strive to eradicate the diseases they spread.  Should we show compassion and not try to do this?  Is it compassionate to let others suffer from disease that we could prevent?  If the entire world followed this idea of Buddhism would we do nothing to end disease?  Simplistic answers don’t work here.  How does the idea of harmlessness apply here?  Protecting who or what from harm?

There is the Buddhist idea of causing no ‘intentional harm’, that is, do not cause needless suffering.  If you observe nature everything is eating everything else; is nature wrong or evil? Ants actually farm aphids for their use, it’s amazing.  A cat does not try to harm a mouse; it is not trying to torture it for its own sadistic pleasure.  Most animals kill quickly and efficiently. Animals live by their nature, do what is best for their survival and do not exceed their nature.  Humans are broken from nature, their nature, and have no idea how to get back to it.  We make up rules as to what it means to live by our own nature because we have lost our instincts. Our fall from nature is also our rise from nature.  We can now see if from within and without.  We see that nature has a balance yet we don’t apply that to our place in nature.  Rising from nature we think that nature doesn’t apply to us when it does in full.  That karma is now seen in the world’s weather.

I had a friend who was a Buddhist who decided his dog should become vegetarian.  In effect, he decided that the dog’s nature was wrong according to the Buddhist precepts he follower. He then fed his dog what HE thought was best by Buddhist ideals.  He was not seeing the dog’s nature but what he thought it should be.  After a few weeks the dog started losing its fur and became weak and sick.  He took it to the vet and when the vet realized what was happening chastised him for not feeding him meat.  In good consciousness he did not want to do this but in reality he had to.  This is where the idea of correct thinking shines forth and not belief in an ideal.

I love nature and always have.  I put in a pond years ago and it was soon inhabited by frogs.  I loved it and their nighttime serenades.  Over the weeks it grew less and less.  I discovered that my cats were eating my frogs.  I was upset, angry and disappointed. I drew the frogs here by building the pond but to my cats I had put in a McDonald’s just for them.  Do I punish the cats for following their nature?  I ended up putting a large fence around my pond.  Not quite what I wanted to see but it worked best for the situation.  The cats were not wrong and I was not wrong.  Nature was doing what nature does; however, there is an imbalance here between predator and prey.  We have a huge abundance of deer because their natural predators were wiped out by us.  Now there is an imbalance between the deer population and the food resources.  Where their numbers were kept in check by nature they are now exploding.  Now the deer have reached a point where they starve due to the lack of natural resources for their numbers.  This is not just a suburban issue but in the wild too; the wolves and coyotes are gone so their numbers grow.  What is the compassionate thing to do here?  As you see, it’s very complicated and not absolved by some religious platitude.

There are tiny toads that inhabit my yard for a few days each year as they immerge from my pond.  Once while walking to my garden I realized I was in the midst of them.  I froze because I didn’t want to tread on them.  They are extremely small, a little bigger than a grain of rice.  As I stood there it occurred to me how chauvinistic I has being.  I can not ever walk across my yard without killing hundreds of creatures that I am not attached to but the toads made me wary.  I wanted to cause no intentional harm to the toads. I did not accept complacency on this topic, I chose to spare them.  In every day life I can’t do this with my garden.  I can’t walk to it without killing creatures nor can I grow it without protecting my plants from the various pests that destroy the crops.  Over the years I would spend hundreds of hours to get just a few tomatoes because I did not want to use natural pesticides to kill the invaders.  The pests ate well and I did not.  Why would I choose on behalf of the pests?  Putting a bug zapper in your yard is insane indiscriminate killing of all bugs, protecting specific plants from specific pests is survival.  Do vegetarians realize how many billions of creatures die in the raising of their organic foods?  For many years I lost my entire garden to deer and groundhogs though I have a high fence. All of my months of work gone overnight as they indiscriminately eat everything in my garden leaving nothing for me.  Where is their compassion and sense of balance?  What to do to stop them.  And here someone draws the line on what is acceptable and non acceptable killing.

Here the Buddhist idea of compassion to ‘all sentient beings’ arises.  What does sentient being mean?  Generally it means a being that is conscious and feels.  This allows one to kill and eat the unconscious because they don’t feel it.   What does it mean to be conscious?  Well, here’s the rub.  All life is conscious.  Plants clearly are conscious because they react to stimuli and seek what is best for their growing.  They head towards the sun and even warn each other of changes in the environment.  There is a study that was released recently that showed that some plants communicate by emitting low frequency waves from their roots.  How cool is that?  Here’s an article:   So is it compassionate to kill these creatures even if we don’t hear them yelling?

So now you see how complex your question is and the simple answers that many want to give are just specious.  We as humans make arbitrary decisions based on our beliefs and desires. Some try to pass them down as Canon.  Their life style is good and yours is not as prescribed by writings XYZ of the whatever sect.  I am not being dismissive here; it is a genuine attempt by many to do right.  The problem is that what is right is far from obvious when we view it from our broken nature.  Now for my personal view on the matter.

Do no intentional harm.  It is clear that animals are raised in horrific conditions for food.  Knowing this creates the responsibility of not accepting these practices and thus not eating those creatures that are raised under these conditions.   Free range chickens, responsibly caught wild fish and farm raised fish along with all responsible means of ranching and food culture is what works for me.  In nature we would be hunting and killing for food and clothing the same way a tiger or a hawk does.  Since that world is now gone we can do our best to maintain a balance in the lives of the creatures we use.  Like I said, ants farm aphids, are they wrong to do so?  They are not causing intentional harm.
Snakes are used for a purpose, not intentional harm.  You can hope they are killed humanely but I don’t know the answer here.

As far as asking others these questions: absolutely do so.  Anyone who only wants you to hear their viewpoint is afraid of contradiction.  You will probably get several different answers to your query many using a quote from some scripture that was written long after the historical Budda’s death.  Be discriminate, use your intelligence and challenge your answers.  There is no bad karma, vibe or any other such nonsense in doing so.  The historical Buddha took several paths in coming to awakening.
Feel free to discuss this further.  Take care and good luck to you!


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Joe McSorley


I can answer questions dealing with Taoist philosophy and Zen and not the historicity and religion of Buddhism and its different schools. I studied under Dr. Richard DeMartino and Masao Abe of the Kyoto School of Zen.

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