Sunday, January 10, 2010

Killing and Buddhist Teachings

Toward the end of our Sunday service this morning, a young man - maybe about 20 years - old said "I have a question." He proceeded to tell the community he was in a treatment program, living in a house with others doing treatment - for what exactly, I don't know, but I can imagine some kind of substance abuse. He then spoke about walking past a sticky trap every morning and seeing a mouse squirming in it. He said "Every day I saw the mouse alive, I was happy. Then the other morning, I saw that the mouse was dead and I thought, what's the best thing to do, kill the mouse or let it starve to death?"

He has little control over the outer circumstances. He is a guest in the house, trying to get his life back together, and the people who run the house are doing their best to make it a decent place to be. I personally despise sticky traps for the same reason this young man explained - mice stuck in them, squirming until they die. Horrid.

When I lived in my mother's house as an adult, we had a problem with mice, despite having a trio of cats living with us. She has a big, old house in need of repairs: a perfect mouse haven. The cats were fed well enough, so they usually ignored the mice. Occasionally, one of them would chase after a mouse and use it as as toy, but mostly, it was up to us, which for me meant a steady flow of unloading live traps.

I've come to believe that because I rarely took the mice far enough away, I was often catching and releasing the same mouse over and over again. It's pretty damn funny when I think about it. And yet, I also remember taking a few of them outside during the middle of the winter. I remember in particular releasing a pair of mice into a snowbank and watching one of them scamper up a bare tree in the middle of February. How many of these little guys froze to death? Was all that effort just avoiding the inevitable?

Like the young man this morning, I found it a terrible quandary - especially as someone who vowed to liberate all beings and to not kill. Although I view the precepts and vows in a more complex way than simply black and white rules, it's still hard to know for sure what to do with issues like mice who have landed inside your home.

Environmentalists and nature lovers often talk about being one with the earth, and Buddhists love to talk about interdependence. And yet, how often does this talk simply remain in some romanticized place? When a mouse enters your house, how often do bodhisattva vows, interdependence, or your love of the earth enter into your reaction?

Those who know me are often surprised at how far I go at times to allow little lives to continue. I'm frequently found catching flies, bees, and other insects and releasing them outside, just to give one example. And yet, in the middle of the winter, it's kind of a lost cause to do so. Sometimes, I let whatever it is keep crawling around my apartment, but sometimes even I take the karmic hit and kill the bug.

Let me go a little further. I err on the side of life, and yet am pro-choice when it comes to abortion. I've never been able to see a place for a black and white, all or nothing approach to such a complicated issue as bringing a baby into the world, or not. Anyone who leans too hard to either side (I have a friend who likes to speak only half jokingly that sterilization isn't a bad idea for some people) is suspect in my opinion. I think you have to leave the door ajar, even if only a tiny bit. In my case, I've come to see that a few of those mice - like the one that was sickly thin from eating wall insulation - had little left to their lives no matter what I did. Most likely, I still would do what I did - let them go. However, when I think of the young man speaking of the mouse on the sticky trap, slowly starving and probably riddled with fear, I can't help but think maybe my response would be different.


Theresa said...

I struggle a lot with this issue. I wrote, and then erased a long comment about specific parts of this struggle, but suffice to say that I'm pro-choice too, but also collect and release bugs and critters who get in my house. It occurs to me that part of my struggle is to come to some conclusion so I can feel comfortable and not think about it any more. Maybe accepting the discomfort of ambiguity would be more skillful than trying to erase the ambiguity itself.

Thanks for posting about this.

Matthew Simonsen said...

Nathan, thanks for this post. And Theresa, thanks for your comment. I agree that trying to eradicate ambiguity and be forever comfortable with a completely defined "map" for moral decisions is a great big problem. And I REALLY, REALLY want to escape ambiguity and be "sure" of what to do, most of the time. (And I want a guarantee that what I'm about to do will be the right thing, BEFORE I'm willing to invest in actually DOING it.) I think this is the source of a lot of my own judgmentalism (wanting to be right, and prove you're wrong, otherwise, if you're right, maybe I'M wrong. Horror!). This desire to escape ambiguity is probably one of the main sources of wars, I suspect. (We could go to WAR over not killing one mouse, and end up killing thousands of other lives in the name of the mouse's right to live!)

Thanks for exploring all this together.

Peace. (And yes, Nathan, this IS Matt Simonsen leaving this comment. Hi!)

Nathan said...

Nice to see you on here Matt :)