One of the most delightful and challenging aspects of buddhism are the vows or intentions that I’ve taken on in my studies. The learning is deep and rich. In January, I took a set of five vows known as ‘the precepts’, and of course, one of them is a vow that I will not take a life.
This is a perplexing vow, and like all of the precepts, it’s really designed to make me sit in the question of “what is taking a life?” Can I swat mosquitos? Can I eat meat? What about plucking fresh vegetables from the ground? Obviously, we have to take plant life to nourish ourselves. Perhaps we can eat eggs, or drink milk, or eat fish. Perhaps even chicken, or beef. Everyone I know that has buddhist beliefs has worked with these choices, even if they didn’t take vows.
So begins the story of today. More than a year ago, Nancy and her caregiver found a baby rattlesnake on our driveway, and asked me to kill it. (My house is on the edge of open space, on a steep hillside with lots of rocks and places for critters to nest.) I thought about it for a while, and realized that our pets, our friends, and Nancy herself — who gardened a lot on this hillside — were at risk. So I reluctantly took a shovel, and killed the creature. It’s bothered me ever since, although I feel like I made the right choice.
This morning, I walked out to the car to drive to work, and found a 16-inch rattlesnake next to the car, on the curb side. It was still, and had a few rattles on it’s tail, perhaps two years old. Big enough to be deadly to a child or a pet. I sat in the car for a few minutes, trying to decide whether I should kill it or not. I contemplated many facts and points of view, risk to neighbors and to myself, then finally decided to leave the creature alone and drive to work.
I’ve been thinking about this decision all day, in the way I’m inclined to think. Was this right action? It troubled me. I probably burned a thousand calories considering positive and negative consequences, imagining the worst that could happen, afraid that a passing hiker or dog walker or dog could be hurt.
And then I got home tonight, right about sunset…and saw the snake was still there, in the same spot. It’s actually dead, perhaps run over by a car or bicycle, left at the edge of the street. So I cautiously pick it up with a long-handled tool, and throw it away, consigning the body to Marin Sanitary Service with a small blessing.
This is a good and subtle learning. On one level, I chose well — I got to have my cake and eat it too, so to speak. I chose to let the snake live, and got to find out that it was not a threat after all, it was already dead. On another level, I worried and thought about something today to no avail, it was a complete waste of energy, as there was actually no danger. I can even go self-critical, and wonder how I missed the fact that the snake was already dead. Or perhaps it wasn’t, I arrived just after the event that injured it, or someone else saw it and killed it.
But I mostly notice this as another perfect moment. I made a choice that felt wobbly to me, sat with my fear all day of all the things that could go wrong, then the universe reaffirmed my decision. If I had taken a shovel to kill the snake, I might never have known. So I burned a thousand calories for nothing. I need more faith. Buddhism teaches “non-dualism”, how there really is no separation between our awareness and the events and objects of our experience. What if I could just have faith in my vow, decide not to take the life of this creature, and trust that my decision was right action? Devote the thousand calories of worry in a more fruitful direction? Hmm?