Now that autumn is underway here in western Montana, the local birds are taking full advantage of our bustling mountain ash tree in our front yard, which is chock full of bright, orange, and apparently delicious, berries. While the tree produces berries each year, similar to fruit trees it has an every other year cycle of having a much greater bounty than the year prior. So every other year we have to contend with the challenge of birds running into our large picture window on the front of our house. As I understand it, not only are the berries a hot commodity to birds soon taking flight down south but with the turning of the weather the berries also start fermenting, causing the birds to become slightly intoxicated. Hence, their judgement gets impaired and the window they once avoided skillfully the rest of the year suddenly looks to them like something they could fly through.
One such disastrous thud of a bird happened this morning, prompting me to finally put up the only thing I’ve tried that really works to keep them at bay from our window: an exterior curtain. I’ve tried a few other things over the years: cutting out pictures and taping them to the window, shutting the interior curtain, but to no avail. I thought the little robin that hit so hard this morning wasn’t going to make it. But after a little while of sitting beside him, shielding him from one of my approaching house cats, he made his way to his feet, then hopped up on my front steps, started making chirping calls, and then flew up into the tree. It’s hard to say if he’ll continue to heal or not, but sometimes they do simply get stunned after their impact and then appear to recover.
The first mindfulness training, in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, is Reverence for Life (see pic I’ve crafted together below). There are many ways to interpret, practice, and grow with these trainings, of which we have two sets: the Five and the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. In my experience, and personal opinion, the sentence: “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,” causes some confusion. What does it mean to kill? My desk side Webster’s dictionary defines kill as follows: to deprive of life; to put an end to; also defeat; use up; to mark for omission. Commonly brought up is whether it’s then acceptable, in relation to this training, to euthanize our dying pets. A similar question was posed in the current edition (September 2016) of Lion’s Roar magazine (formally Shambhala Sun), in a section marked Advice for Difficult Times:
Question: “…When, if ever, is it okay to put your pet down, and how do you work with it when the time comes?”
Answer (given by James Ishmael Ford, author and guiding teacher of Boundless Way Zen): “…I feel that when we take on the responsibility of loving and caring for an animal companion, it is for a lifetime. And I hope that as Buddhists we’re also conscious of the precept not to kill. However, neither commitment means that the end must be a time of unnecessary suffering..”
In short: euthanizing our pets can be the most compassionate thing we can do for them. The first mindfulness training also says: “I am committed to cultivating the insight of interbeing and compassion…” There are many complexities that can arise in relationship with this training: whether to become a vegetarian or a vegan, our individual stance on abortion, how we feel about hunting, how we feel about war and having loved ones in the military. The list goes on. Most things are not black and white, which is why all of the mindfulness trainings are written in such a way that we are left to decipher their intent for ourselves. While there are some guiding words and some inferences we may be able to make, how we practice with the trainings is up to us. We must be willing to come into close relationship with each one and look deeply into ourselves, so that we may be able to use our mindfulness to help concentrate our inherent intuition in order to gain insight into how to become a skillful practitioner. We must practice in such a way that we don’t become overly bound to words or ideology but are able to use our own levels of discernment in a wise and intelligent way.
For instance, I personally don’t believe that the First Mindfulness Training is telling me that it wasn’t acceptable for me to have had the two abortions I’ve had. I continue to stand firm and confident, and I trust that my root tradition loves and supports me, in having made those decisions. I also don’t feel this training is telling me that I need to convince my husband and stepson, or anyone else, to give up meat or that I should throw some kind of fit if my husband or other loved ones wanted to go hunting or fishing – or that I should try to stand in the way if I had a friend that wanted to join the military or own a gun.
I think it’s very important that this training ends by saying: “I will cultivate openness, non-discrimination, and non-attachment to views in order to transform violence, fanaticism, and dogmatism in myself and in the world.” My own guttural translation of this sentence would go something like this: Stop trying to change others. Work on your own side of the fence.
Sometimes practicing with this training is as easy as putting up an exterior curtain to help protect the neighborhood birds from crashing into your window, and other times it requires deep thought, and perhaps the courage to embrace a difficult decision. You don’t need to pretend to sit peacefully in an ant infested house thinking you’d be some kind of bad practitioner if you tried eradicating them. It’s important that we use this training to help us become more skillful and understanding, and not as something to uselessly bash ourselves and others over the head with. May we use our abilities of wise discernment and unfold these trainings with a diligent effort to act from a place of love and connection.