Ahimsa – non-violence, non-harming (yama – Patanjali II.30 and II.35)

Ahimsa, at first glance seems an easy ask – it doesn’t seem too difficult to commit to not harming others.  However, closer scrutiny makes it seem like an impossible goal.  Breathing, eating, moving, living in general, would seem to cause some harm to other beings.  Bugs on the windscreen, food on our plates, the exploitation of workers to provide me with a cheap t-shirt (not to mention the ecological harm caused by the pesticides and irrigation used to grow the cotton to make the shirt!).  The web of impacts seems to ripple out from almost all aspects of life.  Even an organic, vegetarian, fair trade diet involves the death of numberless soil organisms, not to mention the harm associated with the activities of the oil industry that supplies the diesel to drive the tractors and then transport this ethically shiny produce to the supermarket and then our plates.

Blimey – it would be easy to get despondent.  It is tempting to simply adopt a stance of ‘I’ll do my best and that will have to do’.  However, I wonder whether such a strategy might trip me up when we get to another of the yamas, namely Satya (truthfulness).

But if I accept that being alive inevitably causes a web of harm, how can I relate to Ahimsa?

Two perspectives emerged this month that seem to me to point towards a grounded and honest way of relating to the practice and state of non-harming.

Firstly, I can relate to ahimsa as an ‘intention’ rather than as a ‘standard’ with a pass or fail level.  The most honest expression of this intention would seem to be ‘to be mindful of the harm caused by my actions and/or omissions and to attempt to minimise harm wherever possible’.  For this to be a viable intention we must include ‘harm to self’.  The consequence of such a commitment would seem to include a heightened awareness of the interdependence of all beings, of the whole ‘web of life’ of which I am part.

This brings us to the second perspective, which is that, looked at from the viewpoint of the web of life, many of my ‘self-centred’ definitions of harm look rather different.  This is a difficult perspective to express succinctly because we all have such strongly fixed notions of ‘I’ and ‘other’.  Consider a man eating a chicken who has eaten many thousands of insects and soil creatures during its happy free range life.  From our normal perspective, man is harming chicken who has harmed lots of little critters.  However, from the ecological perspective all this chain represents is the movement of energy through a living system.  Movement incidentally that helps keep the whole system dynamic and vibrant and very much alive.  From this point of view the idea of harm seems much less clear cut.

In trying to find a way to bring these two perspectives together, I wonder whether a more useful interpretation of ahimsa might be ‘the intention to reduce suffering’.  This is a slightly more active version than Bouanchard’s translation of Ahimsa as ‘respect for life’.

A meal time homage shared at the Upaya Zen Centre sums up for me the attitude of acknowledgement, intention and gratitude contained in this shifted approach to Ahimsa:

Earth, water, fire, air and space combine to make this food.

Numberless beings gave their lives and labours that we may eat. 

May we be nourished that we may nourish life.

This stance emphasises active engagement to reduce suffering rather than simply avoiding harm.  This perhaps is where I.35 points us ‘being firmly grounded in non-violence creates an atmosphere in which others can let go of their hostility’ (translation Chip Hartranft).

This may also provide a clear connection to Metta, which is one of the four ‘sublime abodes’ in Buddhism and which also appear in Patajali’s sutras (I.33) as antidotes to the disturbance of consciousness.

Metta (love or loving kindness)

A student once asked a Zen teacher ‘what is love?’.  He answered simply ‘if someone is thirsty, give them something to drink’.

Love is a word that has wide and highly varied meanings in our language.  This is perhaps why many translators prefer to use ‘loving kindness’ or ‘friendliness’ in relation to metta (or maitri in the sanskrit of Patanjali’s Sutras).  Love is a word wrapped tight in layers of social convention, emotional trading and personal security.  But even with all of this potential for confusion, most of us (thank goodness) have some kind of sense of what love is.  When we peel away all the social context and convention perhaps, as the Zen teacher was pointing to, love is no less (and nothing more) than seeing and treating someone or something else as if they were a part of oneself.  With such a view love carries no sense of exchange or the need for any kind of reciprocation.

Such a view of love does not exclude the possibility of different flavours – familial, romantic, divine, even celebrity adoration.  It simply means that all of these flavours of love share the same base ingredients in the form of clarity, openness and inclusiveness without conditions.  It is simply the social context and expression that provides the particular flavour.  In all honesty, however, when I look at my own use of the term love and listen to others around me, I often encounter unspoken ‘sub-texts’.

I love you…

  • … as long as you visit every Thursday
  • … as long as you love me too
  • … as long as you agree with me
  • … as long as you grant my wishes
  • … as long as you continue to score goals

All loaded with conditions and expectation.  This is perhaps what makes Metta something special, both as a state of being and as a practice to cultivate.  And Ahimsa perhaps is the obvious starting point.  The sense of connection and interdependence discussed in relation to non-harming perhaps begin the process of dissolution of the ‘I’ and ‘other’ boundaries, making acting from a place of ‘us’ that is ‘in metta’ the most natural way of being.