do no harm

Listen to this spiritual talk. You may download, but please do not repost.


There’s been a lot of violence in the news lately, most recently the mass shootings in Atlanta and Boulder. These events are painful to witness and experience for everyone, but especially for people of a religious or spiritual bent. It’s natural to wonder where all this violence originates. Or is it so natural?

Those whose religious traditions profess the notion of an all-loving, all-powerful, all-encompassing deity must be particularly at a loss to answer these questions. “Why is all this violence occurring?” “How can God let all this pain and suffering happen?” Age-old questions.

The notion of suffering brings us to Buddhism, upon which our Zen tradition is based. The Buddha’s exposition of the basic truths of existence says a lot about suffering, starting with the First Noble Truth: “Life is suffering.” Well, that’s a bummer! But, there is an end to suffering (the Third Noble Truth). Whew! And there is a path to ending suffering (the Fourth Noble Truth). Thank goodness!

Plus, pain and suffering are two different things: pain is a sensation, and suffering is an attitude. Oh, puh-leez!!

Okay. So, this offering is not about suffering in the Buddhist or Judeo-Christian or any religious sense. That’s too big a subject for any little ten-minute talk I could give. And actually, such a talk might raise more questions than it could answer. But just bear with me here.

What comes up often for me is the whole question of living “in the moment,” and how being in just that moment allows or precludes the possibility of my doing violence – of anyone doing violence – to anyone else. And indeed, why should it? How does the principle of “Do no harm” accord with living one moment at a time?

If there’s just this moment, how do we judge any individual act to be harmful or beneficial? Harmful or beneficial compared to what? if there’s just this one moment in which we’re living. Doesn’t being “in the moment” give us license to do whatever we want? Lie, cheat, steal, or kill? I don’t for a moment believe that it does, but I’m damned if I can explain why!

All religions have a set of principles and rules that enjoins their adherents to avoid doing violence. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, we have Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. Thou shalt not covet anything that is thy neighbor’s. And so on. In Buddhism, the Precepts offer similar injunctions: Refrain from taking what is not freely given; that is, stealing. Refrain from wrong speech; that is, lying or gossiping. Various humanist philosophies throughout the ages have offered similar injunctions.

So, with all these rules and principles undergirding our behavior, why do we have all this violence and discord, which has also been present throughout the ages? That’s very stupid question, isn’t it? The Devil made us do it! But let’s not go there. Dangerous ground.

Maybe it all boils down to this: goodness and love are just in our bones. That is surely a simplistic way of looking at things, but maybe it’s so. Yes, we can say that goodness and love are in our nature, but so is violence. Events demonstrate that truth, every day in our world, in horrible ways. But still …

There must be something in our nature – in our essential nature, our Original Face before our parents were born – that guides us away from doing violence to one another, that tells us these acts against ourselves and our fellow beings are not in keeping with the Way.

If all our religions and philosophies promote peace and goodwill and love for our fellow beings, there must be some ground in which these principles are inherent, in which “Do no harm” is the basis of all existence. Or at least lies within all existence. And if this is so, then we can recognize that those who perpetrate violence have simply lost sight of this basic fact of our human nature.

We don’t decry the behavior of a wild animal that kills other animals for food. Or a sea creature that does the same. Or a parasite that invades a plant or other being to sustain its own life. Those creatures live in a state of grace; they are behaving naturally, according to their essential nature. But we humans have the blessing (and the curse) of being able to contemplate our nature – our better nature, shall we say – and to act in keeping with or in contradiction to it. We have the choice.

We here have chosen the path of meditation as a way of keeping our hearts at the forefront of our being, as humans. We have chosen to live in accordance with our better nature, however that nature has revealed itself to us.

I know this may seem unrealistic and idealistic. But in the end, we can choose. Let’s choose love.