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“Stop!” yelled Angulimala as he raised his sword to the Buddha.
“I have stopped long ago, it is you who have not yet stopped,” replied the Buddha.
Angulimala was a murderer. He was killing people because that’s what he thought he needed to do to attain liberation from suffering. He was doing the exact opposite of what he needed to do.
We think we are so different from Angulimala. But are we? As we humans continue down the path of ecological destruction, how are we any different? We, too, think, like Angulimala, that what we are doing will get us to where we want to be, even if species go extinct in the process.
Like Angulimala, it’s not immediately obvious to humans that there is a problem with our activity. Angulimala blamed his problems on the Buddha. If Buddha would only stop, then Angulimala could get what he wanted. Buddha turned around Angulimala and had him reflect on himself when he said, “I have stopped long ago, it is you who have not stopped.” The Buddha was referring to the practice of ahimsa, of non-harming. Buddha had stopped harming others. Angulimala was not aware of the harm he was doing until he met the Buddha.
Unlike the time of the Buddha, our problems today have reached epic proportions. It’s no longer helpful to simply look at our own personal actions. We must begin to consider how our actions as a human community effect the larger biosphere. What we need is called a “Global Ethic,” one that affirms the dignity not just of humans, but also of animals. We need an ethic that understands our complex relationship with plants, and microorganisms, and that their welfare affects humanity’s welfare.
The Buddhist precepts are a concrete expression of spiritual practice, and spiritual life. Practice of the precepts helps to ground an otherwise ephemeral way of thinking about or being in the world. In other words, it’s not enough to simply penetrate into the emptiness of all dharmas through meditative absorption. Our perception of emptiness needs to include the welfare of other beings. How do we do that?
Following a set of ethical guidelines that are based in religious practices and beliefs is a primary way that healing of social and ecological ills takes place. Consider, for example, the role that the Biblical injunction to “turn the other cheek” played during the Civil Rights Movement, or the role of the Hindu principles of Ahimsa (non-violence), and Aparigraha (Truthfulness), as Gandhi helped pave the way to Indian independence from British rule. Or in Thailand, for example, Buddhist monks placing the Buddha robe around trees to demonstrate to logging companies that those trees are sacred, that they are Buddha.
Precepts can provide a supportive system in which to live out our personal vision for what we want to contribute to this world before we die. Precepts also guide whole communities of people to act for the welfare of the planet, rather than simply for human self-interest.
The advantage of a global ethic that is grounded in or connected to a specific religion like Zen Buddhism is that, for many people, religious identity and practices is what motivates people to act with a greater degree of passion and compassion. The Earth Charter is secular in orientation. While many of us may be able to get behind the ideas within it, there is an absence of the religious symbols and mythology that facilitate the will of an individual or community to act.
Two of my mentors, John Grim and Mary Evelyn Tucker, write,
The rational appeal to justice, to enlightened self-interest, or even to the well-being of future generations does not alone seem to have had a significant effect or traction. Religious sensibilities, symbol systems, and ethical concerns are also needed in all their diversity.
(Grim and Tucker. Ecology and Religion, Island Press, 2014, p.20)
In other words, religions like Zen Buddhism, provide a plethora of resources that can inspire our imagination, give us hope for the future, and help us to stand in our own integrity in the present moment. Buddhism has stories like the above, of Angulimala, that infiltrate our imagination and help us to take more seriously the ethical basis of practice. There are rituals that revolve around receiving and reciting the precepts as a community, that can help us to reflect on how we might improve ourselves collectively and as individuals.
As we face so many difficulties as a global community, we are in need of embracing a global ethic. The global ethic found in the Five Mindfulness Trainings are a beacon that can help us navigate through these uncertain waters.