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Friday, March 01, 2002

Ahimsa: Non-Harming

Interestingly, both the words Yama and Niyama are defined as "restraint" in Georg Feurstein's The Shambhala Encyclopedia of Yoga. The root, yam, means "to control, restrain, discipline" and is the same root we find in samyama and pranayama. An early teacher of mine pointed out that the nature of the Yamas (non-harming, truthfulness, non-stealing, chastity and greedlessness) are indeed more of the nature of "controls" on our behavior, specifically in regards to our social relations, while the Niyamas (purity, contentment, self-discipliine, study and surrender) are more in the nature of "observances" related to intra-personal behavior. With this in mind, Feurstein asks us to ponder whether we are even justified in mentioning the Yamas and Niyamas together all the time. What exactly are the differences?

Taken together, the Yamas represent mahavrata -- the "great vow." We are exhorted to practice the Yamas in "body, speech and mind." I suggest this week that the first of the Yamas, which is also the first of the Buddha's Precepts, Ahimsa, is the heart of Yoga. To undertake, to cultivate, and to practice "non-harm" in body, speech and mind is truly an awesome (awe inspiring) practice.

The first thing we notice in undertaking this practice is that it is impossible to fulfill. Life subsists on harming. We cannot live without taking life! When I boiled my morning tea this morning, I was responsible for the destruction of countless microbial beings in the water. The grain, the nuts and seeds, as well as the Tempeh Bacon I consumed were alive at one time. Obviously, if I didn't eat out of some mis-guided understanding of "non-harm," I would eventually become the victim of atma-himsa, "self-harm."

So what to do? I don't know. I'm still learning. But I do know that through taking the vow of non-harm, I have grown in awareness of my interbeing with all life, and thus my reverence for ALL LIFE has indeed grown. When I am mindful as I boil my water, and eat my breakfast, my meal becomes a sacred act of communion. And I have learned to eat lower on the food chain.

When I practice asana, I have learned that I can indeed challenge myself and my perceived limitations, while honoring my real physical limitations and not push into harm. And while doing so, let go of any self-judgements or criticisms. All this is part of my practice of non-harm. And when I sit in meditation, if my mind is active that day, I just notice the thoughts and let them go. At the first sign of irritation or frustration with the restless mind, I practice non-harm by letting go of such harmful patterns of thinking. Practicing this way, I have found that such thoughts arise much less frequently, not just in meditation, but throughout the day. This too is a fruit of practicing non-harm.

The Buddha encouraged his students to continually revitalize the teachings to match changes in society and culture, as long as the teachings stayed "true" to their essence. Thich Nhat Hanh has, in collaboration with his students, offered a contemporary wording of the First Precept, which he calls "The First Wonderful Mindfulness Training":

"Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals.
I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life."

With the understanding that to do this is strictly impossible, how do we practice this training? For myself, first I would have to say that we can look deeply into all we think, say and do in order to see what the consequences are. Notice the first phrase begins, "Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life." So first we need to practice awareness in order to see that this is not theory or some abstract concept. We must first recognize suffering as suffering, before we can hope to do something about it. This is the practice of the "First Noble Truth" of the Buddha.

Seeing suffering, our response is to cultivate compassion, and by looking at life, we can learn from life how best to protect life. Again, there is no set, generic rule-book answer. We learn from life, from our lived experience, and thus stay open to what life itself has to teach us.

From the Yajur Veda:
"May all beings look upon me with the eyes of a friend.
May I do likewise.
May we all look upon each other with the eyes of a friend."

From the teachings of the Buddha:
"May all beings have happiness and its cause.
May all beings be free from suffering and its cause.
May all beings never be separated from the happiness that is beyond all suffering.
May all beings dwell in eqanimity, unaffected by attraction to dear ones and aversion to others."

Perhaps some of you would like to join me this week in devoting our practice to this training? We can undertake for the next week to purposefully bring no harm to any living creature, in thought, word or deed. We can give especial attention to any living beings in our life (people, animals, plants, minerals) whom we ignore, and see if we can cultivate a sense of care and reverence for them.

Remember, you can join Karuna List and share your thoughts, insights and questions with like-minded beings.

And may all beings benefit from the fruit of our practice.

.: posted by Poep Sa Frank Jude 2:09 PM

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