Back to the original plan — B. Alan Wallace’s four elements for a meaningful life begin with ethical behavior. It’s my contention that a little bit of training, using the advice the Buddha left behind for us, can really develop this aspect of our lives, and bring happiness along as a by-product.
“I undertake the training rule to refrain from taking life” is the first of the five training guidelines that the Buddha frequently recommended to everyone. It can be a very serious undertaking (or not). When I first learned of this precept, I thought, “No problem. I don’t kill anyone or anything (except for certain small insects, inside my home)”, and didn’t give it another thought. Later, though, after hearing respected teachers talk about different ways to practice with this precept, I had to go back and have another look.
First, the word in Pali is not exactly “kill” nor is it exactly “harm”. From trusted scholar Andrew Olendzki, I accept the definition as “to raise a stick against”, not as a limitation to the meaning, but as a beginning point. If we have hostility towards a person or other creature, the intention to harm comes up with it.
In the Buddha’s view, action and intention are inextricably bound together. So just having a murderous thought can generate negative kamma; it confirms and deepens our (mental) tendency towards harming others. You can feel it in your body; muscles tense, the breath becomes shallow, the face might go pink, the hands might clench. Only by recognizing and releasing this energy (with mindfulness) is the pattern reversed, and the intention or tendency towards non-harming is confirmed and deepened.
There are so many ways that we harm each other, but probably the most common and unnoticed way is with our words. For me, most often it’s harsh speech that expresses my unwholesome tendencies. It’s a way (I recognize) of getting attention or being funny, or of warning someone not to waste my time. Sometimes no one is hurt, but I can’t count the times that I carelessly wounded a friend or acquaintance with rough words or a sarcastic tone of voice. Now I can usually see it happen, at least in retrospect, but it’s an ongoing training.
So task number one is to try to discern the ways in which you are most likely to harm others. Think broadly – at work? while driving? talking with friends or family? Then there are the subtle ways we hurt each other: breaking promises, neglect, etc. If you’re really stumped, ask someone close to you if they can help you identify any ways in which you might be harming other beings.