Ethics 4: Not Harming


This text is a collage. It’s partly my words, the others arrive via a talk given by Michael Stone as part of an online Precepts Course at Centre of Gravity in 2011. This course looked at the five yamas (from the first limb of Yoga) and took them up as precepts: ahimsa (not harming), satya (honesty), asteya (not stealing), brahmacharya (wise use of sexual energy), aparigraha (generosity).

The yamas are cumulative, they stack up like collectible cups and often run in order. The first and most important one is called ahimsa. It comes out of a recognition that “I” am not separate from everything around me. The rest of the yamas are a riff on this idea, variations on a theme. For instance the second yama, honesty (satya), doesn’t mean simply blurting out whatever is front and centre at every moment. What ugly trousers. Does your hatred for him always make you sound like that? My friend Jared started doing this for a while and we had to lock him in a mirrored room with a tape recorder for his own good. Honesty feels like a warm drink in the rain when it’s tempered with ahimsa: not harming.

Perhaps I forgot to write down the phone message that came in for you. Or at the jumbo Jagermeister party, when the ex-wife of your best friend put her hand around your waist and said, “We never really got to know each other, did we?” you didn’t step away from the sinking feeling. “Killing” doesn’t mean putting a gun to someone’s head, it arrives in all the small ways we do violence to one another.


The most usual adult interface is through language. Personally I prefer kid’s parties where I can smear myself with sugary treats and roll around on the wall to wall, but in the company of adults I am asked to release my life through my mouth, as if the most important part of my experience, the snowcap of every personal mountain, were only words. Confession, conversation, testimonial, distraction, laundry list. Inside the prison house of language, one of the most important gifts we can give to someone else, is our attention. We can use our overly developed language skills not to hold forth, to label and classify our world, but to open up to someone else’s experience. I think this has a lot to do with the practice of ahimsa. Can you listen all the way down to the end of what someone is saying, without letting your own thoughts intrude? Except for the conversation I have with my nattering superego familiar, every conversation ends. It breaks off, it signs off, you hold each other and kiss goodnight. These turning points, these moments of opening and closing, where the doors of language admit or refuse the listener, are places where the practice of non-violence is so important.

The practice of non-violence invites you to enter into paradox, because killing is inevitable. Every conversation comes to an end, and is it too much to say that there is a kind of killing involved whenever it does? OK, OK, perhaps not every time, it’s true, but I remember getting the email from Rosemarie saying that she was breaking up with me and I couldn’t help thinking that this is why email was invented, so that she could pull the trigger without ever having to see the corpse. I remember a moment that happened perhaps a thousand years ago when humans were still trying to create fire by rubbing tree genitals together my friend Laura was showing me this new app called email. Email? You mean letters written on a computer? No one writes letters anymore, I assured her, it will never catch on. A prophet in my own time. She had been seeing this guy from Brooklyn named Silver (“Don’t even ask,” she told me, holding up one of her infinite fingers, when I raised my eyebrows at the name), and because of their faraway too closeness, Laura and Silver had been emailing a lot. At the end of one of his mails he made some snippy little comment about her hair, and then she responded by a jab at the way he ate, and by the end of the day they had broken up. “You see,” I assured her, stunned at our capacity to build machines that terminate relationships, “email will never last, the code is designed to blow itself up.”


Can you feel the cut that ends every conversation, and grant attention to it, make it glow with the full heat of your ahimsa? Even the most casual chit chat threads may be a prelude to some deeper moment of questioning or revelation. Abruptly changing the subject, or turning the conversation back to my experience, to what I want, to the way your words mirror what’s happening in my life… this might also be causing unintended harm.

Ahimsa comes from the root “him” meaning “to harm.” Committing to this precept means having the intention not to cause harm. You might be able to hear in this statement the assumption that failure is inevitable. Our culture isn’t perfect yet, so even if our intentions are fine we might still cause harm. As every parent knows, we can’t control the consequences of our actions, or the way they are received, but we can control our intentions.

In response to ahimsa the Jains only eat fruit once it’s fallen from the tree. The picking, the taking and grabbing – all that seems too much for them. But even this watch and wait practice has been criticized as being violent because the fruit is invariably bruised from its fall, and some of the crop grows overripe and rotten. How do we practice ahimsa with an apple tree? The practice of non-violence is not a set of rules, but a vigil carried on in the present moment. The practice of non-violence invites you to enter into paradox, because killing is inevitable. If you need to have certain foods that involve killing, and don’t eat them because of ahimsa thereby causing harm to yourself, you may be crossing ahimsa. When people speak without being heard, this may also be considered a kind of killing. The layers of question marks that the Jains have brought to their fruit trees adds depth and creativity to practice. They remind us that water that is too clean has no fish.


Soen Roshi writes, “All beings are flowers, blooming in a blooming universe.” Patanjali says it in a different way. She says that when you are grounded in non-violence, you create the conditions for others to let go of their hostility. You create an atmosphere, a vibe, an invitation. The yamas are not a set of commandments that sit on top of your life in judgment. Instead, by understanding and embodying non-duality, you become non-killing.

This practice of coming back to the already unified breath and body is so important. Sometimes we can get caught up in the idea that you have to do the heavy lifting of unification, you have to bring these two worlds together, the body and breath, as opposed to noticing in stillness how the breath, mind and body are already together. The way this is described in traditional metaphor is that if you take your favourite Ikea glass tumbler down to the river and scoop out some water it will look cloudy. Especially if it’s a muddy river, which is often the case this time of year. But if you left the glass there for a few minutes, you’d notice how gravity pulls everything suspended in the water down to the bottom, allowing you to see that the nature of water is translucent and transparent.

When you’re looking at muddy water, you’re seeing different elements coming together, that we might name aggregates. Those of you who like to externalize your inner monologue, so that you can share the hectoring list-maker and self punisher with your friends, might remark under your breath, “Oh, that’s muddy water.” And when we look into the mind we might say, “Oh, that’s a busy mind.” But the nature of the mind is transparent. It’s what we call awareness, which is not a thing. You can’t scroll towards awareness in the phonebook, you can’t drop by for a visit, and you can’t find the mind on a map. In sitting practice there’s often an identification with what’s being stirred up, and that identification obscures our natural ease, the natural unity of mind and body and heart. It’s from that feeling of unity that we move through the world. This is a practice of non-violence. To see things clearly is a practice of non-harming.


Most of our harming comes out of seeing things in a distorted way through greed, hatred or delusion. The word hatred is so strong. Sometimes during the day when I use the word hatred, I don’t think twice about it. But after sitting for so long even the clock falls asleep, when mind and body are more quiet than the static between channels, and you think about the term hate, it can feel like someone has put sugar on your sugar candy. If you sit in silence for a day and then turn on the news you can feel the overheated engagements rushing into the wound of silence. In the Buddha’s time war was always at his back. When he was born, his city was surrounded by tribal conflicts. When he traveled he saw war everywhere, and even when he was dying and trying to return home, to the place of his birth, he described seeing war. It’s easy to idealize ancient India as some peaceful, spiritual place. Other cultures are so convenient for our idealizations.

A hundred years after the Buddha’s death there was a fearsome king in India, Ashoka the Great. In order to gain the throne he murdered one of his brothers. He waged war relentlessly, and extended his empire across present day Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. The state of Kalinga was particularly resistant, and after an initial defeat, he dispatched the largest army in Indian history and they plundered and destroyed the entire state. Village after village was erased, as if they had never existed. And these mass killings were not carried out via airmailed explosives delivery, there were no large industrialists bidding to create biological weapons that they could rain down on faraway and never met populations. Killings were done up close and personal, soldiers entered people’s houses and hacked them to death, or close enough to death so that time would do the rest – men, women and children. At the end of the massacres the king fell asleep, and when he woke up early the next morning he was in a state of complete agitation and restlessness and became angry. He went into the town in order to look into the eyes of the corpses, and the almost-corpses who were praying for death to come quickly, and then he looked into the eyes of the families who had been wounded and he asked, “What have I done?” He looked into the eyes of his own soldiers who appeared as something less than human and asked, “What have we done?”

Awakening often begins with a sense of atonement. When King Ashoka looks into the eyes of these people he sees the consequence of his actions, and in doing so he sees himself. And he asks, “What have I done?” He became a Buddhist, and spread the practice of vegetarianism. He broke the centuries-long tradition of divine rulership, and instituted a new practice, wherein the ruler gained their legitimacy from the Buddhist sangha. He stopped killing people, and dedicated himself to peace. In doing so, he became a great inspiration to Ghandi, amongst others.


Many clinicians working with patients who appear underwater, glowing silver, with small fins sprouted between their shoulder blades so that they can swim the same circles of reliable misery, attest that a turning point can arrive when the patient stops their relentless circling movement and asks, “What have I done?” This question signals some easing or falling away of the division between yourself and your actions. Usually you don’t have to look too far down the road to see where you’ve caused harm. It occurs whenever you objectify any aspect of your experience. For instance, whenever you say to yourself, “This person is unbearable, I have to get away from them as soon as possible. Those ugly pronouns and poor fashion sense, I hope it’s not rubbing off on me.” Or: “This feeling in my body is awful, I must eliminate it.” Our ashoka energies operate even in the subtlest aspects of the mind and body. And of course they also flower in our families and communities.

I think sometimes you do need to use sitting practice to get away from it all. Sometimes the all is so overwhelming because you don’t necessarily have the skill to meet what’s going on in your life with equanimity and kindness and compassion. Or even with basic human empathy. Sometimes the basic humming back and forthness with others is shut down because we’re so caught up in our own reactivity by being overly busy. So I think it’s ok once in a while for meditation to be a place where we can get away from it all, if “it all” refers to that kind of stress. But then over time we also come to see that meditation is no retreat from our life, as we come to sit on to our cushion we’re actually participating in a more sensitive way in our lives. Because we’re opening to the reality of our body, what’s going on in our emotional body, in our community, in our heart and mind. I think of sitting as a political act because it’s contributing something to our culture and our potential to act out what’s unconscious in our culture and our communities.

On the cushion we really learn to take care of our potential for greed, violence, ill will and confusion. That’s why I really like to quiz people about what’s going on in their meditation practice, to see if it’s just a shell, if they’re trying to hide away, to shut off, or if they’re really using their practice to open up. And through opening up they become more and more engaged with what’s really going on. That’s why I don’t like to use the term letting go, I like to use the term engaged, to be fully engaged with what’s going on. When the Buddha suggested that the core of the self is interdependent – is dependently originating, is the natural world, is the political and social world – what he was pointing to was a fully engaged practice, a practice and a way of life that is totally engaged in our society, our economy, our political life. If the self is socially constructed, then the self is by definition political. And there’s nothing you can do to escape that interdependence, it’s all you are. Practice is always political. What could be more political than sitting down and being quiet in a culture obsessed by distraction and entertainment and stress? Wendell Barry says the most radical thing a person can do is to stay at home.

I don’t want to be idealistic and suggest that simply sitting on a cushion will benefit others. I think you take what you embody in your sitting practice – an increased ability to be patient, equanimous, less reactive – and then over time I hope people in their sitting practice also have breakthroughs where they really see that they’re not what they think they are. I don’t think a lot of people have those kind of breakthroughs. They have breakthroughs into mystical experiences, where they feel a connection with everything. But how to break through even that, and to really see the inner working of things in a very deep way, this is what we call insight or wisdom. It’s not just seeing that something’s changing, but to see the whole phenomena of the dharma of change. The Buddha said that there are basic laws that are verifiable, traces that life leaves that you cannot ignore, and the first one is dukkha. He said we construct suffering over and over for ourselves, that it’s an inevitable accompaniment. The second truth is about impermanence, that everything is changing, and the third truth is that nothing belongs to me and mine. These basic laws and understandings are an invitation to act, they are tasks to be performed. They invite us to break through the rhetorical safety zones and role playing and see that what really obstructs us is ourselves. And that the whole natural world is this body and this mind. During practice something unshakeable happens that really changes us. But that still needs to be worked on. You can be realized and have delusion. I don’t think what I’m calling a breakthrough gets rid of your delusions, no way, but it certainly goes deep into the prehistoric geology of who we are. It goes down to the tectonic plates that make up our character and tells us something.


This is what the dharma has to offer the progressive left. Politically, there are so many movements that have replaced one bunch of thugs with another bunch of thugs. We see this all over the world. We see social movements where there’s been revolution but the revolution has not taken place at an inner level of the people who have led the revolution. I think this is one of the things that Buddhism can offer the progressive left who have similar ideals. And the left can offer Buddhism an engaged political practice and a platform on which they can take their insights and put them to work. We have to work together because Asian Buddhism does not have a good track record of being socially engaged. And western society has an incredible track record of bringing about social justice and making change happen. But a poor track record of replacing old regimes with new ones that are imaginative and based on kindness and nonviolence. They both have to work together.

In the Buddha’s time the caste system laid people out in very specific, mostly disadvantaged ways, so he spoke about the individual in a kind of heroic fashion. He said that an individual has to practice to move beyond the confines of his or her history and society, but perhaps now we need exactly the opposite. David Loy talks about this in creative ways. Today the social fabric has fallen apart and there’s so much focus on the individual, maybe we need to read Buddhism backwards and emphasize the social, interdependent and engaged piece. When the Buddha said that the self is empty and interdependent he was also planting the seed for the most profound form of socially engaged religious practice that I’ve ever come across where your inner transformation is not separate from a social transformation. They can’t happen separately, or it’s a fragmented path. That’s the political piece.

How can we notice in our own minds and bodies the capacity for greed, hatred and delusion? That’s a profound form of social action, isn’t it? Sitting still and learning how to work with your greed, your own hatred and delusion, and vowing not to take the life of other sentient beings. How can we notice our capacity for non-killing if we can’t notice where we’re already causing harm? The word karma in Sanskrit means action and its consequences. What kinds of actions are we going to take? Befriending others, you help them decide what kinds of actions they are going to take. Everybody arrives at a moment that is a little too steep, when the alarm clock promises only more of the same kind of pain, and they start to fall apart. How can we be present with them as they go through loss or pain? The insights that come out of these difficult places – how do we put those into action? These transformations are at the very heart of how cultures change and become attuned to one another. The ability to listen to your friends and family comes with a responsibility for you to know your own grooves, your own capacity for hatred and delusion. The etymology of the word delusion means “to be caught in again.” Delusion: it never happens for the first time. It’s deja delusion all over again.

My friend Joan is already past 40 and a lifelong bulimic, skinny and glamorous and sickly and matter-of-factly describing what it’s like to heave ho into one of those public portapotties when there isn’t a toilet handy. She doesn’t want to hear about changing, never mind, if she didn’t put her fingers down her throat she would have to be moored on the dock because no house would be big enough to hold her. She would lay one big flabby thigh down on the sidewalk and the whole road system would tilt up and the cars would slide off. Breathing life into the distorted body image she carries around and throwing up once a day have become part of her landscape, another lost cause. I think this happens with all of us, there is a certain place in our body that we think is fixed or stuck or lost in space. Marooned on a planet that we have no way of contacting. “Oh, no matter how much I tried, I could never really… touch my toes. Or see past my belly.” These moments of our body become lost causes. The bitter drunkards who appear like sunshine before the first bottle takes hold and then swoon into a duet of accusation and despair. It happens every day. They’ll never change, it’s hopeless. They are another lost cause, along with too many politicians to mention. But in this practice, the teachings remind us that there are no lost causes. There can’t be, because the way we practice non-killing is by become non-killing. Being peace.

How do you embody non-killing? Perhaps it means noticing when your eyes get hard. Instead of opening to the grand opera unfolding at each street corner my eyes narrow to a spot. Where is my unhappiness? I know it must be here somewhere. When do our eyes get hard, when do we lose sense of the open field and begin to contract our gaze around a fixed point? As if there was a me over here and a world out there, and then following from that outlook, the natural enough presumption that the world out there has been designed so that I can experience it. Let me pose the question again: when do our eyes get hard? My eyes get hard whenever I see Shannon who would like nothing more than to sit me down and explain again why every part of me should be hunted down and scorched to cinders. It’s her stump speech, the lecture she just can’t help repeating to herself. And occasionally to me, her best friends, her distant and Facebooked friends, strangers on a train, foreign visitors, small animals and dignitaries. The whole menagerie in other words. You are the very worst of all, she will tell them, and then wonder aloud why we can’t get back together again. That’s when my eyes get hard. There’s a relationship between what people think is impossible to change and atonement and shame. The first thing that comes up for me when I contemplate non-killing is how much damage I’ve caused in the past. And I don’t have to look far in the past, just drift back over the past week and there it is again. Being non-aggression. How do you become non-aggression?


Don Marquis likes to say, “Ours is a world of people who don’t know what they want and are willing to go through hell to get it.” How often have I become a hell for other people as they busily tried to turn me into a perfect son, the helpful roommate, the dedicated father, the lover so fine they would just have to brush your forehead with the tips of their over extended fingers and you would release into a multiphonic orgasmic symphony. As we cast the play of our own lives, it seems there are so many roles that need to be filled. The bad boss, the overbearing partner, the needy parent. Yes, it turns out that there is a hell after all, and it is right here, all around us. Hell begins whenever we look outside for something that we need. Whenever we think that our cure, our salvation and truth lies outside of us, we are laying down the first red hot bricks of our own customized hell house. It’s a place most of us like to share with others, and we like to give it the name of family or love or the mcjob that we can’t help sucking on because we’re behind on the payments.

Let’s take a moment to admire the perverse genius of capital. Imagine a system where the more you have, the more you want. And everybody wants. It’s the irresistible momentum, the hamster wheel samskara that I don’t ever want to leave. I fill up my shelves, my house, the pockets of my jeans, my mouth, even though I know that wanting breeds more wanting. The most dedicated record collectors, the ones who have filled up every room in the house with records so they have to sleep standing up, they’re the ones who want records the most. They are the ones who can name exactly what they’re missing, intimate with their own lack and emptiness. If only I had two houses filled with records. Or a city where every surface, every sidewalk and table top, were made of vinyl.


There’s a relationship between wanting and aggression and competitiveness. Putting someone up to put yourself down. Or putting someone down to put yourself up. Or putting some aspect of your past down, to bring today’s lukewarm soup of a morning up. When I was a child my father’s boss liked to have him kneel beneath his drafting table all day because he said it helped inspire him. At home my father would punish my brother’s ass to make himself feel better, and my brother would pick on me so that he could re-inflate. Call it an equilibrium of despair. Checks and balances, an eco-system of unhappiness. Let’s overgeneralize and say that blame and projection and not owning our inability to deal with these habit energies elicit the same habit energies in the other. At the very least we might agree that they create an atmosphere that is not conducive to peace.

We could summarize this practice not only as non-aggression, but as a way to deepen our capacity to respond to what’s happening at any given moment. You are your own personal UN peace keeping force, but also the kind smile at the beginning of the day, the friendly wave, the easy feeling between you and your best friend. When you can feel the pain that’s happening in your knee without running off into prapanca, with the conceptual proliferation that pain might inspire, and see that all of that proliferation and the unnecessary thoughts aren’t built into the pain itself, then you’re working on a profound level. If we can learn how to change our response, then we can embody non-violence in that moment, and all you have to do is realize it for that moment. You only have to quit smoking for one day, and then you know you can do it for two. All you have to do is practice one moment at a time, to lay the foundation for something lasting. Every moment is the cornerstone, the founding fathers and mothers, the beginning.


Here is a riff on the same song from Zenkei Blanche Hartman, the first women to lead the San Francisco Zen Centre. She describes a moment from her past (Do we own our past? Is it really like real estate? Was that really me doing those things? Or simply another version of the self form?) where she and her comrades are busy building the revolution one rally at a time. And what she insists on, in this recounting, is that this revolution leaves nothing out, just as practice tries to gather up all of our unwanted selves, our difficult behaviours. The revolution Hartman describes is a way of plunging into not-knowing, and touching everything. And in turn being touched by everything.

“Perhaps my first experience of the kind one might call enlightenment was during the 1968 strike at San Francisco State University. This was before I had encountered Buddhism. After some violence on the first day of the strike, a civil rights leader invited people from the community to interpose themselves between police and students to prevent further violence. So I went out to the campus. At one point a phalanx of riot squad policemen headed toward the students. Billy clubs were out and beginning to swing. I found myself stepping forward and ducking under the hands of the people in front of me. There I was, face-to-face with a policeman in full riot gear. We made eye contact. At that moment, I had an experience of identity with this riot squad policeman, who until that time had epitomized everything I thought I was against.

In that moment facing the policeman, there was no thought – just the experience itself and a kind of expansive boundary-less feeling that included everything. I had never read anything that would have prepared me for that experience, such as “self and other are not two.” I knew nothing of Buddhism. But I simply had an experience: this is how things are. That’s a way to see enlightenment. It’s like being in a dark room and flipping on a light. Even when you turn it off again, you remember the layout of the room.”

UnknownPolice Brutality at Demonstration in Memphis March 1968