Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Karma of the Animals

If I can make you give me pleasure, even if it hurts you, why not?

Oppressor and oppressed. A relationship as old as the human race: cannibals and their prey, slave traders and their captives, invaders and the vanquished, lords and serfs, rapists and their victims.

Some are easy to recognize and revile. Others, I think because they are closer to home, are harder to see and more uncomfortable to face: domineering husbands and subservient wives, bullies and victims in the schoolyard and in the workplace, and one of my pet peeves: humans and other animal species.

Oppressors have a sense of entitlement. In some cases, we hardly notice it, but in others it's a cleverly constructed rationalization. I think what is uncomfortable is the disconnect between head and heart. Head says it's OK. Heart knows it's not.

In the latest post over at her terrific blog The Jizo Chronicles, Maia Duerr, a recently ordained Buddhist chaplain (congratulations, Maia!) quoted from her thesis. Introducing the concept of "Protest Chaplains", she refers to Fleet Maull, the founder of the Prison Dharma Network:

Maull observed that we are dealing with an accumulated toxic level of internalized shame and violence that is perpetuated when we violate our own integrity, and any time war and oppression take root in a culture and system.

I think the head/heart disconnect is the violation of our own integrity that Maull is referring to. Although I had intended this post just to be about our presumption of entitlement to oppress other species, it keeps coming back to the violence we do to ourselves in the process. Toxic shame, mostly buried beneath our awareness, I suspect, poisons us and the fruits of our actions in ways beyond imagining.

Mostly, by habit or by design, we don't give it a second thought.

The most damaging phrase in any language is "It has always been done that way".

- Rear Admiral Dr. Grace Hopper (1906 - 1992) Mathematician, First woman Admiral in the US Navy.

Here is one small example.  How much honey do we put in our tea, on our food, or in our cooking? How much effort went into producing that honey? I don't mean by the people putting it into jars. Here are some facts. A worker bee produces only about 1/12 teaspoon of honey in her entire life. To produce one pound of honey, bees have to visit approximately two million flowers and fly 55,000 miles - more than two trips around the world. The bees make it and we take it. Because it's tasty ... and because we can.

Some commercial honey thieves suppliers keep the hives alive over the winter by feeding the bees sugar. Others simply kill them and buy new bees in the spring.

This from the Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists:

Colonies should be killed during non-flying conditions, such as in cool weather or in the early morning or late evening. Calcium cyanide should be used according to the label directions: 12.5 - 25 g (1-2 tablespoons) of calcium cyanide are sprinkled on a paper plate or sheet of cardboard and slipped into the hive entrance. Once the chemical is applied, entrances are blocked and the hives kicked or jarred to stir up the bees.

And then there is bullfighting. Did you know that proponents sometimes justify it as a culturally important tradition and a fully developed art form on par with painting, dancing and music? About 10,000 bulls endure this ordeal every year. Many horses, blindfolded during the “fight” to keep them from avoiding the enraged bulls, are also gored and killed by the bulls.

And on, and on. Rodeos. Greyhound racing. Silk production. Wool production. We take and take, just because we want to and because we can.

What about the karma part? That's easy - I don't know. If you mean something other than cause and effect, I honestly don't have a clue what you're talking about. Just be kind - really, what else matters?

The animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren; they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.

- Henry Beston, naturalist and author (1888-1968)

Do you get frustrated sometimes by our glacially slow progress and by the seemingly overwhelming resistance to change? I do.

But just because we can't do everything is not a reason not to do anything.

PS - when you're shopping for cosmetics or detergents, don't forget to look for these symbols.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Universal Soldier

Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards every one.
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

A repeat of the 25 year reunion concert of Peter, Paul and Mary. Tears came.

Memories returned of a Remembrance Day morning at the Cenotaph. A group of us had spent the previous chilly night in a silent vigil protesting the Vietnam war. When the veterans arrived, we quietly made way for them. Some were indignant, reminding us that they had fought for our right to protest. We assured them of our respect, and that our only goal was to end the war.

Ten years later, heart glowing, I watched the television in wonder. The last troops were leaving! It was silly, but I couldn't help feeling we had won the war on war.

As years passed, it seemed the only reminders of the war were movies like Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter and Platoon. The interminable Russian war in Afghanistan and the brief war in the Falklands somehow didn't shake my feeling that war was really on the way out. Until January, 1991.

Once again I was glued to the television. Stealth bombers. Scud missiles. Patriot missiles. The Iraqi night sky lit up by deadly fireworks. The dream of the peace movement lay in tatters.

The statistics are appalling. There were over 58,000 (American) military deaths in the Vietnam war (26 deaths per day). Arguably, it was an improvement over the 405,000 deaths in World War II (416 deaths per day), down from 625,000 deaths in the American Civil War (599 deaths per day). These numbers don't include military deaths of other countries or civilian casualties. Recently it was reported that every 80 minutes, a veteran takes his or her own life.

Contemplating these things, I can't help feeling an immense sadness. I wonder if we will ever acquire such awareness of our universal nature that we will no longer experience grief over such suffering and death. I used to think so.

In my early years, in pursuit of all things yogic, I read the Bhagavad Gita, a conversation between Arjuna and Krishna about Arjuna’s anguish over going into battle.

I do not see any good in killing my own kinsmen in battle, nor can I, my dear Krishna, covet victory, nor kingdom, nor pleasure … O Krishna! Though they may kill me, why should I wish to kill them?

Lord Krishna spoke the following words to desolate Arjuna, who was overwhelmed with compassion, eyes brimming with tears.

You are mourning for what is not worthy of grief yet speak as if a man of wisdom. Wise men bewail neither for the living nor for the dead … In the unreal there is no subsistence and in the real there is no end … Know that the abstract entity that pervades the whole body is indestructible as no one is able to cause destruction of that unceasing and eternal soul. The bodies with this unceasing, immeasurable and eternal soul decay. Therefore, fight, O Arjuna.

This doesn’t resonate with me anymore. It feels like mindfully eating meat or hiding in oneness, maintaining that suffering is an illusion.

Coincidentally, I read these words today over at James Ford Roshi's blog Monkey Mind:

I’m sick to heart that every week, week after week I have to read that list of young men and women, who wearing uniforms of our nation have died in or because of combat. I’m sick to heart knowing those names stand for many, many more, combatants and civilians who’ve died unnamed to us in this decade of war.

Will we ever cease to be ‘overwhelmed by compassion, eyes brimming with tears’?

I hope not.

French people bid troops of the French Army goodbye as they leave metropolitan France at Marseille harbour, 1941 

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Lifeless or Just Leafless?

Slogging through a stretch of writer's block, it seems I'm bogged down in a quagmire of mental molasses, vainly hoping that monkey mind will pull me out.

Like that will ever happen.

Standing in the morass, weighed down by a bagful of ideas, it still seems inanely logical that if I think hard enough, I'll come up with the perfect post and be able to play the Get Out Of Bog Free card. If I could only dream up a profound subject and add just the right amount of righteous self-deprecation and a dash of humour, surely I could transform what would otherwise be drivel into a blogosphere classic.

Makes me think of the guy who said that in retirement he was going to take up chemistry and develop a process for converting expensive single malt whiskey into urine...

As my harshest critic, let me assure you that I have no intention of doing any such thing. At least, not on purpose. I'm going to patiently wait until, like a sculptor gazing at a block of stone, I see my next post beckoning to be liberated.

But while I'm waiting, there is one thing I just wanted to mention.

As the husband of a propagator of rescue plants, I'm no stranger to the angst of deciding whether a wretched creature that has lost all its leaves is going to make it or not.

More often than not (especially with my wife's touch) after exactly the right amount of time, leaf buds appear. By their own nature and in their own time, plants bud, wounds heal, broken hearts mend and writer's block dissolves.

Oh and just one other thing. When I lapse into judgmental mode, I often use the opening bud analogy to excuse all sorts of perceived deficiencies in others - you know, evolutionary felonies like promoting the death penalty and slavery, and all manner of misdemeanours ranging from smoking and needing to display wealth to being lazy in practice and judging others.

It's not that the analogy doesn't have merit - undeniably there are degrees of awareness, maturity and development. The image of a bud emphasizes the potential for growth. It puts an unspoken "yet" at the end of sentences like "S/He doesn't realize the value of self-forgiveness."

My problem is forgetting that I'm looking at a mirror. Your tightly closed bud is my tightly closed bud. After all, we are the same tree, aren't we? We will flower when the time is right.

Break open a cherry tree and there are no flowers,
But the spring breeze brings forth myriad blossoms.

- Ikkyu Sojun

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