Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Wish to do no harm

(5.11) The killing of fish and other creatures
Has not been eradicated anywhere,
For completing the perfection of moral discipline is said to be
Attaining a mind that has abandoned non-virtue.

I used to work in academia, and as a Professor it is easy to map out ideal solutions to problems and take righteous stands.  When I came into government, one of the first things my boss told me was, “all decisions of governance involve trade-offs.  All we can do is the least bad thing possible.”  For as long as we remain in samsara, we cannot avoid harming others.  Our mere existence in this world inflicts untold harm on those around us.  For example, walking outside kills insects and scratching our arm kills tiny living beings on our skin.  If we check, every single decision we face in samsara is one of not choosing between “good” and “bad” rather our choices are always between “bad” and “even worse.”

We might mistakenly think, “perhaps I should avoid any and all responsibility, because then I won’t have to make such choices.”  But if we assume no responsibility we have no means of helping anybody.  Not helping those we could otherwise help if we had assumed responsibility is also hurting them.  We might then think, “perhaps it is best to die because then we will do no harm.”  But when we die we are reborn somewhere else in samsara inflicting different harm.  Realizing this, we may become despondent thinking it is impossible for us to practice moral discipline because no matter what we do we will inflict harm on others.  Seeing it is impossible to fulfill our moral discipline we then give up trying.  But this is completely wrong.

Just as we should not let the fact that we are not able to give everything to everybody diminish in any way our wish to do so, so too we should not let the fact that we are unable to “do no harm” diminish in any way our wish to abandon all non-virtue.  Yes, we can’t at present “do no harm,” but we can still wish to do none.  This wish will then naturally drive us to find a way to fulfill that wish.  The only way is to get out of samsara and become a Buddha.

It is very important if we are to observe moral discipline and experience good results that we train in developing a heartfelt mental intention/desire to abandon all faults.  Geshe-la has said that when training in moral discipline our intention must be a sincere intention.  We want to abandon our faults, not we want to continue engaging in them, but think we shouldn’t.  There is a huge difference between these two.  If in our heart we still wish to engage in non-virtue, but stop ourselves because we think we “shouldn’t” then all we will do is repress our non-virtuous desires, where they will grow like a cancer until eventually they overwhelm us.  Instead, we need to get to the point where we don’t want to engage in non-virtue because we see doing so only makes things worse.

We must feel it’s harming ourselves to go against our moral discipline.  It is like banging our head against the wall and creating the causes for our own suffering.  We naturally don’t want to do this, so we naturally want to change our behavior.   If we have this kind of wisdom, seeing how our faults harm us, then eventually we will achieve a mind that actually strongly wishes to abandon non-virtue.  From this, all of our actions of body, speech, and mind will become pure.  Moral discipline is not just looking like we’re behaving ourselves, but we are behaving ourselves.  And we are doing so because we want to.

Geshe-la says our vows and commitments are like an inner spiritual guide that always gives us good advice.  My parents were divorced and I didn’t see my father much as I was growing up, but his constant lectures and advice sunk in.  Even now, when I am confronted with some situation, I find myself internally debating with him about what to do.  Sometimes I don’t want to follow his advice, but I still hear him in the back of my mind telling me what I should and shouldn’t be doing.  And even if I don’t want to admit it at the time, he is usually right.  Of course, all of this conversation is just taking place in my own head and he knows nothing about our constant “talks.”  In the same way, the Spiritual Guide is like our internal father who explains to us what is to be attained and what is to be abandoned.  His advice is born from the wisdom knowing what is best for us, not some external set of rules we must obey for fear of some externally imposed punishment if we do not.  While my father of this life may sometimes be wrong, my spiritual father is always right.  It is only my ignorant rebellion against his advice that convinces me otherwise.  We need to learn to activate his voice within our mind, allow ourselves to hear his advice and take the time to reflect on the reasons why he is right.  He will never lead us astray.  His wisdom is born from compassion.

6 thoughts on “Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Wish to do no harm

  1. Dear Kadampa Ryan, thank you always for your wonderful posts. In this article you talk about the difference between “bad” and “even worse” in terms of samsaric damage control. What, then, is your stance on veganism? Is being a vegetarian Buddhist not enough? Is the only “moral” dietary choice for a Buddhist a vegan one? If not, what is the justification in light of what you write about here?

    • First, we must understand that all moral discipline is a personal thing we adopt ourselves based upon our own contemplation. It is never something imposed externally. This is important for a very simple reason. Imagine we said the only moral choice is veganism. Then there would be plenty of people who first encounter the Dharma, read this, and then conclude, “well, I can’t do that, so I guess I can’t be a Buddhist.” Then they go away and practice nothing. If instead, we say it is up to each person to make their own decisions and we don’t judge anybody for the decisions they make, then those people come into the Dharma, begin practicing, realize it is a good thing for them, and then perhaps one day later they become vegetarian or even vegan. The “bad” in this context would be they eat meat but practice Dharma, the “even worse” would be they go away, still eat meat, and don’t practice Dharma.

      Second, it all depends upon context and capacity. I will share my own story here. Before I found the Dharma, I ate only meat – well, I ate fries too! Then after practicing for a little while I decided to become vegetarian and remained one for about 7 years. The problem was I was a very bad vegetarian, not in the sense of I ate meat but in the sense of I pretty much ate only pasta. I just wasn’t healthy and I got sick all the time. I tried to eat better, but I simply didn’t have the capacity to do so and deal with everything else going on in my life. Eventually, I reached the point where I said my not eating meat was harming my precious human life, with which I was trying to become a Buddha (trying!). So the choice I felt I faced was keep not eating meat, but harm my precious human life or start eating meat again. I know in the absolute this is a false choice, but it was the choice I faced. So I started eating meat again. I know one day I will need to return to being vegetarian. I want to for moral reasons, but I am just not there yet. I could beat myself up over this, or I could accept where I am at and keep trying my best to do the best I can.

      No moral question is ever easy, but we should always do the least harmful/most beneficial thing we are capable of doing given our wish and capacity at any given point in time.

  2. Dear Kadampa Ryan, thank you so much for taking the time to write such a considered response. I have found it very helpful. One of my closest friends has recently become a vegan, which has made me think deeply about this important issue. He would argue that veganism is analogous to the “bad,” but vegetarianism is “even worse.” The reason being tha dairy/eggs are equally as cruel as meat. I find your key points of understanding that dietary choices need to depend on (1) our own contemplation and (2) context and capacity to be very helpful. Perhaps one day you could write a full blog post about veganism and Buddhism. Thank you once again for all your wonderful posts, they are always so inspiring. I hope you will continue sharing your insights for a long time to come.

    • The debate on should Buddhists eat meat is as old as time.

      Buddha said eat meat, AND he also said do not eat meat.

      Many see contradiction and want to know where he said this amongst the 84,000 teachings, the 4 classes of Tantra and 3 sets of teachings: set of moral discipline, set of discourses and set of wisdom.

      The most powerful point is DONT MISS THE POINT.

      As we travel the vast path, the main point is to collect merit that is the cause of our enlightened form body. Spontaneous Great Bliss is like the final catalyst.

      As we travel the profound path, we create causes of our enlightened Truth Body. Example and meaning Clear Light are the rocket fuel for this aim.

      Common and uncommon attainments that help us are gained by travelling the inner paths of Sutra and Tantra.

      An important thing to think about is that all of us have endless seeds on our mental continuum where we have killed others. Vegan and vegetarians. In life after life we’ve killed and eaten animals. Refraining from eating meat does not purify these seeds. Getting on our moral highground about not eating meat equally does not make a person more compassionate, pure or cease them from creating more harm. The karma left continues to amplify over time. Thats what Buddha said.
      Ultimately, It all depends on our MOTIVATION.

      The focus on the small/intermediate scope of Lamtim is generating renunciation and purifying karma. Everything at this point is used to think, “i was born into bondage and suffer, i will die, i must purify else I’ll have to do it all again, i go for refuge etc” at this stage when eating meat or not, we use our practice to train in renunciation that helps this realisation most.

      We then eat meat or not using the great scope generating Bodhichitta.

      In Tantra, we eat meat, or not in a profound and powerful way. We purify everything and make special offerings which form part of our daily actions. These incredible teachings were given to the Great powerful Naropa by Vajrayogini.

      If you eat meat and practice Dharma. Great.
      If you dont eat meat and practice Dharma. Great.
      If you eat meat and dont practice Dharma, contemplate renunciation.
      If you dont eat meat and dont practice Dharma, contemplate renunciation.

      Vegetarians, vegans, Meat eaters, Dharma practitioners all go to hell if they dont practice Dharma according to their capacity.

  3. Dear James, thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and wisdom. I, personally, find your insights very helpful.

    Since non-Buddhists struggle with the idea of negative karma, cyclic existence (particularly the unseen lower realms), and even enlightenment itself, it may be difficult for non-Buddhist vegans to understand what you have explained. They may say something to the effect of:
    “If your goal is to cease suffering, why would you be complicit in contributing to it further?”
    “…And if you have a chance to reduce others’ suffering, even temporarily, then why wouldn’t you?”
    “…Otherwise isn’t it hypocritical to pray for world peace and then turn around and consume tortured and murdered living beings, along with their stolen secretions?”

    From what you have outlined, then, it seems to be a matter of developing faith in Buddha’s teachings.

    One thing is for sure, though (at least for me), and that is as follows. We all have choice in what we believe to be most beneficial, and it’s up to us to make the best choices we can within our capacity. It’s a very personal issue, a matter of the heart.

    May we all come to develop the wisdom and compassion needed to help as many living beings as we can while minimising the damage.

  4. Hi Matt

    Good speaking with you.

    This is where skillful means comes into play.

    I’ve been caught a few times with “my daughter died of cancer and you say they caused it” etc or “he left his wife and kids, thats so selfish, why would he do that?” talking about when Buddha was a prince. Or talking to people about how a a Bodhisattva can lie and kill for the sake of many. Not easy to appreciate or understand which is why Buddha taught different things to people of differing capacities.

    Our job is to try and transform ordinary daily appearance the best we can into the New Kadampa Bodhisattvas way of life.

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