Sunday, August 12, 2007

Treatise on the Killing of Bugs

I have decided to stop killing bugs.

This may not seem like such an earth-shattering decision in the scheme of life, but I believe it’s vitally important.

For a long time now, I have read and heard Buddhist philosophical ideas about the sanctity of all life. My favorite Buddhist writer, Thich Nhat Hanh, routinely talks about vowing to protect all forms of life, from humans to animals to plants to minerals. As I’ve read these things and heard these things, I’ve always been a little bit skeptical. Obviously most of us can understand the importance of protecting the sanctity of human life, but animal life? Plant life? Mineral life?

Some time back, I was doing some walking meditation, and I had sort of a “break-through” (for lack of a better word). I was meditating on the idea of killing bugs. Why do we kill bugs? Understandably, if we find a black widow or some other poisonous bug in our house, we want to get the danger away from us. But what makes us step on a bug on the sidewalk, or squash a spider on the porch? Why, when we find a bug in the house, do we kill it, instead of just taking it outside? Why do we swat flies and spray bug spray at wasps? Are these insects really presenting a threat to us?

Killing bugs, of course, is a favorite past time of kids. It seems to be a way for them to dominate something else, the same way that they perhaps feel dominated by their parents, teachers, and older children.

I wonder if our propensity for killing bugs isn’t related to that need to dominate? I run my foot through an ant hill so the ants can’t later crawl into my house and get in my food. I squash a spider on the sidewalk because then it can’t come into my house and threaten me. I spray a wasp in my garage because then it can’t sneak up on me and sting me.

And yet, isn’t this the same mindset that causes the Stalins, Hitlers, and Pol Pots of the world to stamp out the potential danger they see in a certain race, culture, or political group?

Of course I’m not suggesting that someone’s propensity to step on spiders every time they see one is equal to the Nazis exterminating the European Jews. What I am suggesting, however, is that the prime motivation is the same. Kill now what may threaten us later.

Some may think, as I used to, that this is overblown and overdramatic. “I refuse to believe that stepping on a bug, putting a garden hoe through a snake, or chopping down a tree has anything to do with wars, genocide, and violence in general.”

And yet when I had that break-through, it suddenly dawned on me. The reason it matters is because if we can’t respect even the smallest of life, how can we ever respect each other? And, more importantly, if we can learn to respect and hold sanctified all forms of life, even the tiny spider on the sidewalk, then how much more can we learn to respect and hold sanctified human life?

If all human beings learned to respect even the smallest of life forms, could things like playground bullying, barroom brawls, violent crime, wars, and genocide ever happen?

I understand now why the Buddhists teach nonviolence not just to other humans, but to all forms of life, plants, and minerals. We must learn to cultivate nonviolence toward all living things, and water the seeds of love, compassion, and understanding within ourselves, if we ever hope to end things like violent crime and war.

Is this a Utopian dream? Maybe so. But as a lifelong Christian, who is now studying and practicing Buddhist philosophy and incorporating it into my Christian practice, I recognize that in the Western world, we have used our Christian understanding of reality to justify not working toward Utopian ideas. This is a fallen world, we say. We can only lean on God and hope for a better life in heaven, we say. And we use these concepts to justify continuing patterns of violence, hatred, and prejudice. Before we put a criminal to death, we send in a priest to pray for his immortal soul. This makes us feel better, because we may be ending his life on earth, but we’re arranging for his eternal life. What we’re really doing, however, is justifying violence and murder. We do the same thing when we send soldiers off to war to die bloody, violent deaths. “Well, at least, if he was a Christian, he will be rewarded in paradise.” This helps us justify the slaughter of thousands of young people. All of our ideas about the depravity of the world are mitigated – and, thereby, ignored – by looking toward a perfect, Utopian afterlife. It relieves us of any responsibility to work toward peace, love, compassion, and nonviolence. It convinces us that those things are unattainable in this life, and that we must wait until after death for such Utopian dreams.

I believe Jesus called us to have life now and to have it more abundantly. I believe Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God as a present reality, not a future, post-life hope. Jesus, therefore, called us to the same path of consuming love, compassion, and mindfulness that the Buddha called us to. The language and imagery is different, but the basic gist of the teaching is the same. Love wastefully. Live life fully in each and every moment. Respect life in all its myriad forms. Be everything that you can be. Buddhists call it watering the seeds of love, compassion, and nonviolence. Christians call it having life and having it more abundantly.

Looking toward a Utopian afterlife is not an excuse to ignore efforts for Utopia now. It is our responsibility to work toward heaven on earth, the kingdom of God, Nirvana, or half a dozen other terms that stand for consuming love, compassion, and nonviolence.

So I am not going to step on bugs anymore. I am going to respect all forms of life, even the lowliest forms of life, because if I can learn to do that, how much more can I respect fellow human beings?


Anonymous said...

No more weed pulling.

Elissa said...

I don't step on bugs. I have about three moths in my kitchen right now, and I don't kill them. I don't kill spiders unless they are big and scary. I do kill flies though. I admit that I hate flies. But every time I do it, I think, "What am I? God? To be swooping in on this unsuspecting fly?"

Christians do justify loss of life in war by saying that the person will have a better life in heaven. But they don't seem to understand that the other side believes the same damn thing....

Scott said...

Weed pulling makes for an interesting conundrum, because despite teaching about the sanctity of all human, animal, plant, and mineral life, Thich Nhat Hanh frequently talks about his love of gardening. I wonder how he would reconcile weeding his garden with this Buddhist philosophy.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe I actually created a intellectual conflict within you. Usually, you dismiss my retorts like swatting a fly. bad.

Scott said...

Hahaha. I love you Mike, even if you are completely deluded about the meaning of Jesus's life :)

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