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I am a 60 something Californian, former world traveler of the back packing variety, a Buddhist, a writer, photographer, and teacher.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

"Do no harm"


A week different from other weeks. My landlord announced a month ago that we were to undergo fumigation – and launched a sense of heart deep upset that has lasted, as well as a to do list that has had me staggering, coming as it did in the same week that all my teaching assignments kicked in. 

         I guess many people have undergone this, and come out no worse for wear – and I have to admit passing many wrapped and toxic dwellings and feeling selfish gratitude that it was not I who had to live there when the wraps and the poison were striped away. Now I do, and, despite aching muscles from the dozens of trips up and down my stairs to remove food and plants and complaining cats from harm’s way as we went to play at being refugees on my mother’s couch for three nights, my own poisoned apartment is clear again, and things have finally settled back to normal.

And yet not normal. I have washed all the dishes, hauled up the plants, settled my relieved cats back into their familiar life of outdoor freedom and indoor sloth. But my friends, the spiders are gone, their webs trailing on the broom strands as I sweep them sorrowfully away. And presumably the unseen thousands of termites, the target of the assault, are also gone, corpses turning to insect dust in the galleries of their wooden cities beneath my feet.

I know only a very few, even among my friends, would share this odd sense of grief I feel – that harm was done all around me, terrible suffering inflicted on a massive scale, that I could not stop. Who worries about the pain of insects? They torture each other all day anyway right? Gnawing away in the jungle of life. I’ve seen the nature programs. And with all the miseries among us human beings, golden children of the food chain, who has time to think of these tiniest sentient beings?

And yet they are sentient. I remember the day I became aware of this when I took the 24-hour Buddhist vow to refrain from killing for the first time. It was an awkward, mysterious thing to take a real vow, to rise before dawn and set out oranges and flowers. Sit yawning on a cushion, and then dutifully kneel and try to repeat the inscrutably chanted Tibetan phrases a lama spoke, glancing at the translation on the alternate page between pauses. For twenty-four hours I was not to take what was not given, not eat more after 12 noon, not speak falsely, or cause division, or sit (inspiring self-pride) on a high seat. I would dress simply and flirt with no one, even the very handsome fellow across the aisle. And above all, I would not kill. Would make a real effort to notice all life around me, large and small, and harm none. A nun for a day.

When the morning sessions were done, I retreated to the porch of the cabin that was my little territory in the world that week (in a campground at Lake Arrowhead above LA). I sat alone, breathing the warm pine scented air of mountain summertime, feeling already a pinch of incipient hunger – probably from knowing I could not eat more that day. I concentrated instead on the minutiae of this world around me, the amazing number of small creatures alive and vibrant in the scrabble of woodland between cabins. And took notice at last of the smallest of them all, the ants.

Once noticed, I saw them everywhere, industriously hunting and gathering for their kin. Shiny black abdomens, querying antennae. And eyes. Eyes that took in the finger I laid experimentally in their path. The ant who first encountered it paused. Considered. He went back, and then forward again, feeling his way around the wall of pink flesh, wary. Time slowed. And offered a revelation.  This ant SAW me. Not only did I hold the image of the ant in my mind’s eye, he held me, some semblance of me – whether by smell or sight, in his. He worried, he evaded, he found his way around. If I were to harass him further, he would speed up, react in fear, run away. If I were to hurt him…

The world shifted for me in that moment. A little.

I do not know what death from Vikane gas feels like. But I took a whiff of the ammonia I set out in a bowl at the entry where the little skunk who has been living under our apartment makes his way to find shelter from this El Nino winter. The whiff brought a lash of vomitous pain, a shock to my whole system, quickly ended as I took the bowl from my nose and breathed out. I hoped the skunk would knock the bowl over as he entered or left, and then find the smell so noxious, he would not return. And later, I found that the fumigators used a similar technique, sending tear gas through the whole dwelling, to flush out small animals and prevent inconvenient corpses before the tarps came down. A measure of compassion, whatever the motive.

But what of the others, the spiders and termites and baby mice and who knows what others who could not escape so quickly. Imagine holding your own face to the bowl, not through one horrendous breath of ammonia, but on and on, through a thousand more, burning all over with choking pain and blind panic, until you were dead.  We don’t like to think of such things in our safe, sanitized human world. Yet this is the least of what we do to maintain it.

“If you can help others, help them,” the Dalai Lama said simply in a teaching I attended later. “If you cannot help, at least do no harm.” Not an easy prescription, as I learned, making my way gingerly around ants for the rest of my day of vows. Not a practical or easy thing, for apartment managers protecting investments, or hungry people who need protein, or barefoot people needing shoes. Once noticed in fact, the whole fabric of our comfortable living depends on the suffering and dying of millions of unseen others –most, though not all, insects.  What a thought. And even with that effort not to harm, it is impossible  to avoid participating entirely if we are to remain alive. Yet if we would be awake, if we would be wise, and someday be better than we are now, I think we must at least allow ourselves to know it. Step over that line of ants on the path when we see it. And try at least, to know and protect the sentient others of this world wherever and as much as we possibly can.   

Just a thought dear readers. 


2 comments:

  1. Thoughtful piece, as always. I'm sorry you and your fellow inhabitants had to go through this. I'm trying to recall the novel I read a couple years ago that was written from the perspective of ants. It was French, I believe, and very strange--but a window into a different way of thinking.
    Must send you a longer email. Soon.

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  2. How's the view from there these days, my friend? I noticed your comment on Laurel's bird lady drawing. Complex times here.

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