Announcement

Collapse
No announcement yet.

Doubts about the finer points of the precepts - especially 1st

Collapse
X
  • Filter
  • Time
  • Show
Clear All
new posts

  • Doubts about the finer points of the precepts - especially 1st

    Venerable Ajahn,

    The sîlas are a fascinating set of precepts as they may look like no-brainers to the casual observer, but only show their various niceties if you really start taking them seriously. For a relatively long time, I have been able to observe the five precepts successfully, but there are times when I don't really know how to apply them to certain situations, particularly to modern concepts.

    For example, I have until lately always refrained from drinking even average non-alcoholic beer because I felt the minimal amount of alcohol still left in virtually every brand was against the precepts, but actually, it doesn't make any difference because this tiny, natural percentage (usually 0.2-0.3%) is also contained in lemonades, juices, and bread. By that logic, I would have to give up all these things as well, but neither do I feel a glass of orange juice clouds the mind nor do I consume the alcohol intentionally because it is only a necessary (and, in practice, negligible) by-product.

    Now, as for my question. I've been reading up a bit on secular humanist/atheist literature and two things in particular have made me wonder how they relate to the first precept. The first one is the controversial practice of euthanasia, not in the case of humans, but concerning animals. As far as humans go, you can always say that their desire for assisted suicide might be misguided, but at least in Europe, it's standard practice for pet owners to let the doctor put their beloved pet out of its misery if it is in severe pain and has no chance of recovery. Of course, the rule against taking lives is there for a reason, but wouldn't it simply be cruel to let your dog suffer continuously if even the vet has lost all hope – maybe even hypocritical, considering the ideal of supreme loving-kindness for all beings?

    And the other thing is about embryos and the beginning of (conscious) life. Many religious people oppose both abortion and stem cell research and equate these practices with murder, although knowledgeable scientists say, as far as I know, that while life may start early on for the embryo, it still lacks a nervous system that makes it capable of experiencing pain up until a certain point. And stem cell research is said to be able to literally save lives, but the only problem is that it basically requires the killing of embryonic stem cells, though at a stage where it could not possibly feel any pain or is particularly conscious. Again, the precepts would probably say no to this and even though I'm at least in principle opposed to abortion because it seems to me like shrugging off one's responsibilities, I can't help but imagine what the Tathâgata might have to say to this if such practices had been available in his day. After all, there are circumstances that would make an abortion seem tolerable, like when the mother's life is threatened, and stem cell research, as said, boasts the ability to find cures for many diseases – and the sîlas' main purpose is, I feel, to avoid suffering.

    So, do the precepts, in particular the first, contain any "fine print", as it were, any exceptions? How far should the rule of abstention from taking lives go, what would and would not be permissible under it? What about the abovementioned examples?

    I'm looking forward to your answer.

    With metta,
    Dennis

  • Ed Rock
    replied
    Thank you Ajahn for another very clear answer.

    Metta, anagarika eddie

    Leave a comment:


  • Ajahn Brahmali
    replied
    Dear Eugene,

    I would tend to agree with you that bacteria probably can't experience suffering. But it is difficult to know the exact level of development beyond which organisms are conscious and therefore able to experience suffering. As long as we don't know, we need to be careful with making absolute judgments.

    One of the standard descriptions of bad kamma in the suttas defines it as intentional actions that lead to suffering for oneself, for others, or for both (e.g. AN3:17). So, yes, intention is crucial, but so is the fact that the intention is directed at a being capable of experiencing suffering. For example, if your car won't start and you take out your frustration by kicking one of the tyres, you don't make much bad kamma. However, if you take out the same frustration by yelling at someone, then the kamma you are making is much more serious.

    The first of the five precepts uses the word pāṇa, which is equivalent to "animal". Both words derived from words meaning "breath". So it is really all "breathing beings" that are included in the first precept.

    With metta.

    Leave a comment:


  • Ajahn Brahmali
    replied
    Dear Ed,

    There is a fair bit of evidence in the suttas (see below) for an intermediate state (antarabhava). In other words, it seems many, perhaps most, beings exist in a kind of limbo (probably as spirits) before their kamma fully kicks in to determine their rebirth. This gives them plenty of time to find a suitable womb, if that's where their kamma is taking them. Moreover, the idea of an intermediate state seems amply supported by anecdotal evidence in connection with Near Death Experiences and the like. The existence of an intermediate state may perhaps be reconciled with the Abihdhamma view if one regards the intermediate state as a separate rebirth.

    Here is some evidence of an intermediate state from the suttas:

    (1) SN44:9/SN IV 400 - "When, Vaccha, a being has laid down this body but has not yet been reborn in another body, I declare that it is fueled by craving" (see Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation of the Samyutta Nikaya)

    (2) SN35:87/SN IV 59,14 - "There is neither here nor beyond nor in between the two." (This passage is also found at MN III 266,9 and Ud 8,11.)
    "Here" (idha) regularly means "this world" and "beyond" (huraṃ) refers to the next world, i.e. the world of rebirth.

    (3) AN4:131/AN II 134,25 - "What kind of person has abandoned the lower fetters and the fetters for obtaining rebirth, but not the fetters for obtaining existence? The one who attains final nibbāna in the interval."

    (4) SN46:3/SN V 69-70 - Here anāgāmīs are classified into five types, one of which is the one who attains "nibbāna in the interval". Ven. Bodhi explains the significance of this in his endnote 65 (again, see his Samyutta translation).

    With metta.

    Leave a comment:


  • Eugene Lubarsky
    replied
    Dear Ajahn Brahmali,

    If plants are definitely not included due to being unable to experience suffering, doesn't that mean that bacteria are not included too? They seem to have even less capacities than plants do.

    I can see that personal intentions are the key, but it's still useful to understand how concepts around killing are presented in Buddhist sources, especially since people often make arguments based on their readings of them. So I was also wondering about where the requirement of consciousness & capacity to suffer is mentioned. Are translations of the precepts supposed to say "sentient beings" instead of "living beings"?


    With metta,
    Eugene

    Leave a comment:


  • Ed Rock
    replied
    Dear Ajahn Brahmali,

    According to the Abhidhamma, if I am interpreting it correctly, rebirth consciousness occurs almost simultaneously after death consciousness within a thought moment or two. So, if conception is considered to be the exact moment of egg meeting sperm, is that conception considered the exact moment of consciousness transferal? Or can rebirth consciousness be delayed in entering a fetus perhaps waiting for an opportune moment? It seems that the timing of rebirth into a womb would necessarily have to be extremely precise if consciousness transferal and conception happen at the same time! So precise that it would be a mathematical impossibility unless many universes would be involved. Or does rebirth consciousness somehow synch with nervous system development which might offer some leeway, timing wise? What’s your take on this?

    Thank you.

    Metta, anagarika eddie

    Leave a comment:


  • Ajahn Brahmali
    replied
    Dear Meher,

    Killing or damaging plants is not included in the first precept. In Buddhism plants are not normally considered to be conscious and they are thus not able to experience suffering.

    With metta.

    Leave a comment:


  • Stuart Corner
    replied
    Originally posted by Chris Forsyth View Post
    ... This would fit with a Tibetan teachings which says that sentient beings are all beings that have mind, and mind is found in all beings that breathe. I think this would cut out all bacteria, virus, and plants. ...
    Hi Chris, I think that you might like the Wiki article on Chemotaxis ... not only can some bacteria:

    "direct their motion to find favorable locations with high concentrations of attractants (usually food) and avoid repellents (usually poisons)",

    but also

    "... [This regulation] allows the bacterium to 'remember' chemical concentrations from the recent past, a few seconds, and compare them to those it is currently experiencing, thus 'know' whether it is traveling up or down a gradient"

    Stuart
    xxx

    Leave a comment:


  • Ajahn Brahmali
    replied
    Dear Chris,

    I think this would cut out all bacteria, virus, and plants.
    But even bacteria breath in the sense that they consume oxygen when they metabolize. I don't think any absolute boundary exists. And are these creatures conscious? Perhaps not, but I would suggest this requires further investigation.

    One wonders about beings in other realms, like petas, devas etc (Do they breathe. can they feel a blow?)
    Beings in other realms can certainly suffer physically, to the extent that they have physical bodies.

    With metta.

    Leave a comment:


  • Ajahn Brahmali
    replied
    Dear Bo,

    For the life of me, I cannot see how one can 'grade' lifeforms in the loose anthropomorphic manner implied. So the life of carrot is worth less than that of a cockroach, the life of lizard less than that of a monkey, the life of a lay person less than that of a stream enterer? etc To me this just seems to ultimately point in the direction of the dark shadows of humanity, the areas of racism, justifiable genocide and the like.
    Try to look at it from a psychological point of view: swatting a mosquito and killing a human being, how does each one of these affect us? For most people (leaving out the Breiviks of the world) swatting a mosquito has very little psychological impact. Killing a human, on the other hand, usually has enormous psychological consequences. Think of the high prevalence of psychological problems in soldiers returning from wars. Think of the remorse that often will not go away. Even the thought of killing a human is extremely unpleasant. Imagine killing a really good person (especially out of greed or anger), someone full of compassion and kindness. To me it seems quite clear that there is a hierarchy in psychological trauma that depends on the nature of the being harmed, and thus there must be a gradation in the kamma that results from killing.

    This in no way justifies genocide and the like. Genocide, in particular, is usually based ion the idea that the inherent superiority one group allows it to eliminate another. In Buddhism, although we might accept that there are different degrees of moral rectitude, this can never be used to justify killing or mistreating. On the contrary, if one really is moral, this is shown precisely through one's treatment of others. I don't think the Buddhist teachings are the problem, but perhaps easy and folksy interpretations can be.

    Is there even such a framework in Buddhism? One that attempts to grade with any degree of precision ...
    Yes, the suttas do contain such a framework (see e.g. MN142), although it is clearly more of a general guideline than a "precise" system. Since other factors such as the nature of the intention are very important, one needs to be cautious when using this system in deciding kammic consequences.

    I'm aware of the 32 planes of existence, but these strike me as quite arcane and incomprehensive, based in a view of the universe in ancient India...
    I think there is a lot truth to what you say here. We tend to get reborn according to our desires (assuming we have the kamma to support us). Our modern desires are clearly somewhat different from those of ancient India.

    Buddhist value of life is all widely measured on the cute & cuddly scale...
    Again, I think you are at least partially right. Killing an animal that is not cute and cuddly is clearly as bad as killing one that is, since both suffer equally. At the same time cute and cuddly animals are usually the non-dangerous ones, and thus their slaughter is usually difficult to justify. A dangerous animal, by contrast, might be killed in self-defence or to save someone else, in which case the kamma moves into the grey area. These are complex issues and in the end the answer is to know one's own mind. What is driving you to act? What is your motivation? And what is the psychological impact on yourself?

    With metta.

    Leave a comment:


  • Ajahn Brahmali
    replied
    Dear Michael,

    Again, focusing on intention resolves much of the issue. If one is seriously concerned about the environment and one kills to help avoid a catastrophe, then the ethical implications of killing are not so serious. This is a case of killing where the intention is neither white nor black but both (to use the idiom of the suttas), and the result of the kamma is neither one nor the other but both. That is, the intention is mixed.

    But, of course, one needs to be careful. Is it really going to solve the problem to kill these animals? It seems to me that in both New Zealand and Australia there are so many pests and that it is unachievable to actually exterminate them. Basically the killing will have to go on indefinitely. If the problem cannot really be solved, then perhaps it is better to allow nature to find a new natural balance. This might mean that some species will become extinct. But does that really matter so much? Species have been going extinct throughout history; this is just part of how nature works. In any case, my point is not to judge this matter one way or the other, but simply to point out that one needs to think about these things carefully and make sure one has really good reason before one breaks the first precept.

    With metta.

    Leave a comment:


  • Chris Forsyth
    replied
    Hello Ajahn, Dennis, Bo, all,

    My understanding is that I think it is essential to have a definition of exactly what a sentient being is within Buddhism.

    Someone said that sentient beings are those who are capable of experiencing suffering (Dukkha), that if a being seeks to avoid a blow, it is sentient. So a kangaroo seeking to get out of the spotlight of a night shooter, is seeking to avoid suffering (pain of being wounded/killed). The snails on the paths at my workplace seeking to (very slowly) avoid the shoes of the passers-by are seeking to avoid suffering (pain of being squashed). The fear they feel is also suffering. This would fit with a Tibetan teachings which says that sentient beings are all beings that have mind, and mind is found in all beings that breathe. I think this would cut out all bacteria, virus, and plants. One wonders about beings in other realms, like petas, devas etc (Do they breathe. can they feel a blow?)

    In "An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics" Peter Harvey (p151) 'sentience, the ability to experience and to suffer, and the related ability, in this or a future life, to transcend suffering by attaining enlightenment'
    and
    'The flux of consciousness from a previous being is a necessary condition for the arising and development in the womb of a body (rupa) endowed with mental abilities which amount to sentience (nama): feeling, identification, volition, sensory stimulation and attention (S.II.3-4)'

    with metta
    Chris

    Leave a comment:


  • Bo Schafers
    replied
    Originally posted by Ajahn Brahmali View Post
    To sum up, the following consideration are important in deciding the ethical implications in killing:
    (1) The nature of the intention of the person who does the killing;
    (2) Whether the being killed has consciousness;
    (3) The nature of the being that is killed.
    Dear Ajahn,

    Consideration #3 is the one I have great difficulty with. For the life of me, I cannot see how one can 'grade' lifeforms in the loose anthropomorphic manner implied. So the life of carrot is worth less than that of a cockroach, the life of lizard less than that of a monkey, the life of a lay person less than that of a stream enterer? etc To me this just seems to ultimately point in the direction of the dark shadows of humanity, the areas of racism, justifiable genocide and the like.

    Is there even such a framework in Buddhism? One that attempts to grade with any degree of precision (perhaps in the way 19th century race-based biologists did)? I'm aware of the 32 planes of existence, but these strike me as quite arcane and incomprehensive, based in a view of the universe in ancient India...

    Having looked at this for a while it appears there isn't a framework. Buddhist value of life is all widely measured on the cute & cuddly scale. A grading 'by the heart', a mechanism which is highly inaccurate, subjective and often quite delusional (Anders Brevik's heart told him to do it). In the heart scale superficial appearances and emotions play a role rather than fact and reality: does the organism have 8 legs (bad) instead of 2 (good), does it have a poisonous defence mechanism (bad), does it have soft fur (good), big mammalian eyes (good), perhaps a face that appears to 'smile' (good). Is the nun pretty, gentle and feminine in manner (high value) or plain and gruff (low value) and so on.

    I know these are likely tough comments to answer, and while I'm enthusiastic about the gist of Buddhism in general, I say more power to the countless slaughtered corn cobs gracing our supermarket shelves, the armies plain ducks and shiny black scorpions out there. Are they really lower than us?

    Leave a comment:


  • Dennis Moelck
    replied
    Most of this is quite congruent with what I believed and it's good to have someone more knowledgeable verify these thoughts. You made a good point about the exact intention behind killing one's pets, too. So yes, thank you very much!

    With metta,
    Dennis

    Leave a comment:


  • Michael Rodgers
    replied
    The more common issue I struggle with, particularly in New Zealand, is the killing of "pests" such as possums (that destroy our trees) and rats (that have wiped out much of our native bird life). These are definitely conscious animals and killing them to stop them destroying other wildlife or even just trees, seems highly problematic to me. On the other hand seeing the destruction of so much of the natural world because of humans introduction of these animals is hard to take. Still not sure what the answer is.

    Leave a comment:

Working...
X

Debug Information