During the Axial Age in India, yogis began to cultivate methods to achieve self-transcendence and enlightenment. One of the principles they developed toward this end, ahimsa, would become foundational to Indian thought. The word means “non-harming;” these ancient truth-seekers understood that the first step toward transcending the limited self (with all its “me-first” demands) was to commit to causing no harm to any sentient being. That included the practitioner himself, other persons, and also animals—any being that was sentient and able to feel pain. The idea was that, since all livings beings naturally seek happiness and avoid suffering, to cause suffering in another being was antithetical to the spiritual quest. As a result, these yogis were usually vegetarians. They also believed that certain occupations (such as soldier, executioner, or butcher) were out of the question for the serious spiritual seeker. The taking of life—including the life of an animal—was considered the ultimate offense against the ahimsa principle.
Postmodern spiritual seekers have rediscovered and reinterpreted this concept. We understand that harm can be done simply through thought, attitude, and word. Realizing that careless and cavalier comments about the taking of life put us at cross-purposes with the enlightenment we seek, we cannot afford to be dismissive about such topics as warfare, torture, and the destruction of species. Even if we no longer share the ancients’ view that an animal we meet in the street might be the reincarnation of a loved one, we must not condone any form of animal cruelty. Simply by failing to be mindful about barbaric practices, we can tacitly and unwittingly give them our approval. If we are serious about cultivating ahimsa, we will be mindful of those who profit from the misery of war, and adjust our purchasing and voting habits accordingly. Those of us who are omnivores will cultivate awareness of how the animals that make up our diets are treated. Are they cramped together in unnatural, terrifying conditions, or allowed to roam freely? As Thich Nhat Hahn teaches, if we consume animals that have been treated inhumanely, we consume their terror and pain. Everything we take into our bodies affects our mind, our whole being. Mindfulness is definitely required.
When my country sank deep in the abyss of its post-911 madness, I was shocked and horrified to hear perfectly respectable, civilized adults debating the finer points of torture. Astonishingly, some of those individuals had the title “Reverend” in front of their names. After my government cynically used the completely understandable anger and outrage of the populace as a launching pad for wars of opportunity, I found it very difficult not to respond with the energy of anger. It took a long time, and a great deal of meditation, to learn to resist with the energy of love. I was helped by the Buddha’s simple prescription in the Dhammapada: “Hatred does not cease by hatred; by love alone does it cease.” As my country enters its 12th year of unceasing warfare, it is more important than ever that this idea penetrate the consciousness of as many people as possible.
A deep commitment to ahimsa enables us to respond to unenlightened attitudes and behavior without malice. If we respond without such a commitment, we will simply add fuel to the fire. I’m reminded of a video I saw once of a peace demonstrator banging a counter-demonstrator over the head with his “Make Love, Not War” sign! Without the energy of mindfulness, any one of us can easily fall into such embarrassing, self-defeating traps.
Radical self-transformation is indeed possible through the practice of ahimsa. It starts with a non-harming attitude toward oneself, and then radiates outward. Mindfulness is the key; yoga and meditation are the tools.
Copyright © 2012 by William K. Ferro. All rights reserved