Star and I traveled to Lotus Heart Zen Center in Oneida recently to learn about Ahimsa - it literally means ‘no harm.’ There is this big initiative on non-violence going on called Campaign Nonviolence and many organizations are involved. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “our goal is to create a beloved community. This will require a qualitative charge in our souls, as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”
This sounds impossible at first, but as we become more and more aware of our own thoughts and actions, we are able to make small changes in our lives that will eventually lead to (hopefully) the qualitative and quantitative changes King is talking about to create a beloved community.
Ven. Do'an Prajna, our teacher, was saying the that in Buddhist tradition ahimsa is the highest goal, even before love, because, as we all know, love can be harmful. Even if we have the best intentions, but are not grounded in this ideal of doing no harm to anyone, even love can hurt. We all know that from experience.
Violence can be emotional, verbal, physical, institutional, cultural and exists in the very structure of society. We have all experienced violence and we have all been perpetrators of violence. Sometimes we are not aware of what we are doing, an innocent action on our part can cause harm to others, to ourselves, and to the earth. If we think of the clothing industry for example we know that much of the clothing we wear comes from countries where there are no labor laws, where people are mistreated and underpaid, yet we keep buying clothing. I guess it would be embarrassing if we stopped wearing clothes and cold too in our climate, but as we practice ahimsa we are invited to be more aware of what our choices mean.
Do’an was saying that some very devout Jainists don’t even wear clothing. They sweep the path in front of them so they don’t inadvertently walk on something living and hardly eat at all. That is of course the extreme. We realize that we all cause harm in some way or another, we can’t live on earth without causing harm. Even vegans who eat plants are killing the vegetables.
Susan Simard from a British Columbian University, has been studying forests for many years. In a TED talk Simard talks about the relationship of trees in a forest, and there is communication of a sort going on through the micro-rhizzi in the root system. (You can read one of her recent interviews on NPR:http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=509350471)
All living things are interconnected, so the harm we cause to another we are causing to ourselves as well. Do’an told a great story of being at a meeting where someone noticed that a bee was stuck between the window panes, one person rose and began working to free the bee. In a few minutes the whole gathering was working on freeing the bee. That might be construed by some as a waste of time. But in reality the small things we do make a difference in changing the quality of our souls, as Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out. Doing harm to another starts with a thought. Most of our actions start with a thought. When we realize that violence starts with a thought, then we can catch that thought and change it or remind ourselves that this thought can cause harm, and move on to other things. Paul said it so well in Philippians 4:8-9 “From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you.”
As we become more aware of our thoughts and actions, here is a list of what we can do from the Campaign for Nonviolence:
- Educate yourself on the explicit and implicit forms of violence in society. Learn to recognize how violent solutions, while they may obtain desired objectives in the short term, inevitably do more harm than good over the long run.
- Focus on forms of entertainment that promote a culture of peace rather than a culture of violence.
- Get training in active nonviolence
- Attend rallies and events in support of a culture of peace.
- Support organizations working to create a culture of peace.
- Seek employment in jobs that support a culture of peace rather than a culture of violence.
- Don’t be afraid to challenge those who promote a culture of violence.
- Strive to foster a culture of peace in your own life. Honor, courage, commitment, nonviolence, generosity.
We can only do our best, try to do the least amount of harm to each other, ourselves, our neighbors, our planet, and to walk gently through the land to know that what we do to another we do to ourselves.
At the end of our lecture on Ahimsa, Do’an gave us each a thread, a blue string to tie around each other’s wrists to remind us to do no harm. He said wear it until it falls off by itself, then you will have learned to practice ahimsa, or I would say to be more aware of when our actions are causing harm and to consider changing. It is hard work to build a culture of peace but it starts in our minds and in our hearts.